Monthly Archives: March 2011

Stop and Ask Yourself, Can I Do More To Aid Those Suffering In Japan?

On Friday March 11th, I was woken early by the beep of my blackberry. My younger sister was texting me, asking if I had seen the news; Japan had been hit by a massive earthquake and several coastal towns had been destroyed by tsunami that followed. Japan had been our home as children, and we still had close friends living throughout the country. Congested phone lines made it impossible to call anyone so I began frantically reaching out via email and Facebook to friends in Japan, as well as Japanese friends here in the States. One of my first emails went out to the sous chef at the restaurant where I have just completed a nine-month externship. Like so many others he replied that he hadn’t been able talk to his family yet, but remained hopeful that they were safe.

Over the next few days, I became ravenous for any information related to Japan. The ping from TweetDeck rang out constantly as the magnitude of the situation began to unfold. I kept one window on my computer constantly open to Facebook, where status updates revealed the whereabouts of friends, and provided up-to-the-minute news of events occurring in Tokyo, Chiba, Fukushima, Sendai, and elsewhere.

News footage of the tsunami hitting the Tohoku region was heartbreaking. The landscape was all so familiar—a patchwork of rectangular rice paddies punctuated by farmhouses with sloped roofs. Rows of black plastic sheets housing new seedlings. Tiny vehicles driving down the narrow roads between farms. It’s impossible to find words to describe what I felt physically and emotionally as I watched that wall of water bulldoze over the land, dragging houses, boats and cars several miles inland.

When I was eight years old my family lived just a couple blocks away from the ocean in Oarai, Ibaraki prefecture. My brothers and I spent countless afternoons collecting sand dollars and rescuing starfish that had washed up with the tide. It had only been my home for a year, but seeing images of the tsunami waves swirling off the coast and then the destruction of the Oarai port was nonetheless gut wrenching to watch.

Other feelings began to set in after the initial shock wore off. Guilt for being comfortable and safe while so many others were suffering. Frustration for not being able to help.  And finally depression. Feeling that what I do doesn’t make much of a difference in the world. People always say, “Do what you love”. Well, I love food. So I cook, develop recipes and write about food. I don’t save lives or alter the world in any great way. Most of the time I love it, but when a disaster like this happens it’s hard not to question my life choices.

Judging my daily contribution to the world may have offered a harsh reality check, but it also lent clarity. Thankfully, I believe I have found a use for my particular skills.

On April 10th I’m putting on a fundraiser for Second Harvest Japan, an organization that is on the ground offering real, tangible assistance to those who have been hit hardest. I may not be able to hand out food and water in the stricken areas of Japan, but I can help those who are.

Upon deciding to hold this fundraiser, I reached out to the same sous chef, this time asking if he was interested in helping me cater the event. He responded quickly and enthusiastically, following up a couple days later to let me know that six other cooks from our kitchen and around the city had volunteered their services as well. Chef called later that day to offer his help and to tell me that he would be hosting a large fundraiser at the restaurant.

I’ve come to realize that chefs are some of the most generous responders to crises. Restaurants host fundraisers, donate gift certificates for charity auctions and set aside a percentage of diner’s tabs for relief efforts. When a disaster strikes cooks reach out to each other, looking for ways to contribute what they can.

Often, what they can contribute is simply their ability to give food to others. NHK World ran a story about a ramen shop owner who lost his home in the tsunami. At night he stays in a shelter, but during the day he opens his small ramen shop and serves bowls of noodles to whomever he can. For many staying in shelters, where a typical meal consists of two cold rice balls, this ramen is the only hot meal available to them.

Tens of thousands of people have lost everything in the earthquake and tsunami. There is an urgent need for medical care, especially for Japan’s many elderly who, along with children, have been particularly affected by this disaster. Just yesterday, Kyodo news reported that 320,000 people are staying at 2,100 makeshift shelters in 16 prefectures throughout Japan. It appears that some shelters are still without water, electricity and have very little food. But forget the figures and stats for a brief moment, close your eyes and picture those shelters… Terrified mothers trying to remain brave for their children, elderly who have just lost everything staunchly focused on the current day, because thinking about their future is beyond daunting. Almost everyone has lost a family member or close friend, with poor communication between the hardest hit areas all they can do is wait with fleeting hope that their loved ones are safe.

The news of the disaster in Japan affected everyone differently. For those of us who grew up there, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. To see a country that you love and call home so damaged is painful. There is no doubt that in time Japan will heal and emerge stronger and more beautiful than ever. But today they need our help. Take a moment to look at the skills and resources you possess and see if there isn’t more you can do to aid the relief efforts. Let’s do everything that we can to ensure that those suffering in Japan get medical treatment, blankets, fuel, water and hopefully many more hot meals.

Check out these links (one, two and three) to see how others are using their skills to aid in the relief effort.

The Culinary Stylings of Will, the Boy Wonder

On my first day in the restaurant kitchen I noticed this kid working to my right, shoulders turned in, absentmindedly rocking back and forth, completely engrossed in prepping the crate of artichokes on his station. The sleeves of his ill-fitting chef’s whites were rolled up exposing a patchwork of scars and blisters up and down his forearms. Being a nervous neophyte I was on the hunt for others like me to commiserate with and, judging from his baby face, he looked like a promising candidate. However, when I asked for his story he replied in a weathered and jaded tone, “I’ve been in the industry for 6 years”. I went back to my work seriously concerned about the child labor laws in this country.

For my first four months I did prep in the mornings with Will. Here’s a summary of what I learned about him:

He’s fast—very fast.

He hoards pots, lexan containers, delis and third pans but will generously hand them over if you ask him nice enough. Ask for his help and 95% of the time he’ll smile and say, “the world is your oyster, I’m just here to shuck it”.

He has the worst ADD I’ve ever encountered but possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of food and restaurants. He doesn’t know whether Australia is a country in the Pacific or in Europe, but he can rattle off Melbourne’s top 5 chefs, the names of their restaurants and at least three dishes currently on their menus.

He is constantly conducting gastronomic experiments, but gets particularly excited about the ones that include Jagermeister or meat glue.

The walk-in is his domain, and his favorite word is “consolidate”. Use an item but fail to transfer the rest into a smaller container and you’re bound to get a speech on the virtues of consolidation.

He probably utters the statement, “that’s what she said” 30 times a day. The number increased drastically when I started and inadvertently offered countless opportunities for its use. (Yes ladies, he’s single).

I’m not going to lie, there were moments during those long prep hours together, in which I would fantasize about going back to my old life of covering routine Senate hearings and dry foreign policy discussions. However, somewhere between putting away 20 crates of produce and shucking 30 pounds of peas side by side, the little guy grew on me. If it weren’t for Will, I would’ve ended up in the shit a whole lot more than I did. He saved my ass on many occasions.

At the end of the month, Will is traveling to Spain, Britain, Australia and Denmark for a year of staging at some of the best restaurants in the world. So, last Monday night a group of cooks and friends from around DC gathered for a 14-course meal prepared by the Boy Wonder himself (aided by the very talented Yama and Alex)—a last feast before he embarks on his culinary adventure. Words could not do the experience justice, so I’ve kept them to a simple description of each dish.

Will and all his quirks will be terribly missed. I feel a touch of envy for the restaurants that will encounter this enthusiastic and talented kid. I’m slightly terrified for them as well. But most of all I’m curious how long it will take him to learn how to say, “that’s what she said” in Spanish.

Fried potatoes, crème fraiche, sorrel juice, caviar and dill

Oyster and potato dauphinoise, pernod and caviar

Braised abalone on a bed of watercress and pear, with a truffle pernod sauce. Topped with crispy chicken skin.

Green apple granite, uni and crispy shiso

Yama’s dish: Lobster gelée, sea urchin sabayon, pickled muscat grape, radish and cucumber. Topped with scallop tuilles.

Foie gras poached in meade and seared. Buckwheat honey gastrique, feuilles de brick.

Alex’s dish: Roasted pork tenderloin, buttered turnip puree, fennel braised in orange and vanilla, orange vanilla cream and maple walnut crumbs.

Tataki baby leeks and pickled leeks with smoked bonito dashi sauce enriched with bone marrow. Topped with watercress and pork cracklings.

Cauliflower that was dipped in oyster liquor, wrapped in konbu, salt crusted and baked. Blanketed by speck and served with oyster, sea beans and nasturtium caper sauce.

Seared scallops, mustard seed, lardo, three kinds of cabbage and potatoes with scallop infused cream. Purple cabbage and cumin sauce (served tableside).

Squab stuffed with black sausage, on a bed of sheeted beets. Black garlic puree. Beet and liquorice sauce.

Beef tenderloin cooked in a seaweed and salt crust. Potato and oyster mousse, tempura sea beans.

Beets, ash goat cheese and olive crumbs.

Oreo cake, mascarpone, sphere of frozen white chocolate filled with Oreo mousse. Served with Oreo bavarois (not pictured, sorry).

Pork buns, Fried & Steamed: Xiao Rou Bao

A favorite night market snack, xiao rou bao have a filling that is similar to gyoza or jiaozi, your common Chinese and Japanese dumplings, but instead of a thin wrapper these are encased and cooked inside an airy dough. Street vendors steam them in large pans and finish them by crisping up the bottoms. Buns filled with just vegetables, typically cabbage, called tsai (vegetable) bao (bun) are easy to find and equally delicious.

The literal translation of xiao rou bao is small meat bun. In Taiwan it’s pretty much a given that the filling will be pork. I’ve beautified the English name here because I didn’t think a recipe suggesting mystery meat would be particularly enticing to my Western readers.

Fingers crossed one day a mad scientist will invent a time travel machine, but until then I’ve found that the best way to relive cherished memories is through flavors. This is my attempt to transport myself to a bustling night market in Taiwan.

Whether you’re making this dish after a recent trip to Taiwan or creating a new food memory these soft bundles of goodness are sure to extract squeals of delight from you and the lucky friends you share them with. The recipe below makes 10 buns.

2 tsp. sugar
¼ ounce (1 packet) dry yeast
½ cup warm water
1 cup flour
½ tsp. baking powder
pinch of salt
1 tsp. oil

Pork Filling:
1 cup cabbage, minced
2 large shiitake caps, finely diced
1 scallion, finely sliced
½ inch piece of ginger, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
½ pound, (well marbled), ground pork
1 tsp. soy sauce
1 tsp. oyster sauce
1 tsp. rice wine/Chinese cooking wine
1 tsp. sesame oil
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. white pepper

  • Dissolve sugar and yeast in ½ cup warm water. While the yeast is proofing (sitting and activating) mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Pour the wet mixture into the dry one, add oil and mix until smooth. Knead very lightly and briefly in bowl. Cover and let dough rise for 40 minutes.

  • While dough is rising mix all the pork filling ingredients together in a bowl.

  • Once the dough has finished rising turn it out onto a floured surface. Knead lightly and divide into 10 equal sized balls. If you’re gadget crazy and have a scale they should be approximately .80 oz. each. If you don’t, simply make each one a little larger than a ping pong ball. Press into small thin rounds. Fill each with a tablespoon of the pork filling. Seal by pinching dough together at the top.

  • Heat a skillet and one tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Add pork buns. Brown the bottom of the buns for 15-20 seconds. Add 1½ cups water, cover. Steam buns until all the water evaporates, about 10-15 minutes. Once water has evaporated and the buns have double in size remove the lid. Finish by browning the tops of the pork buns.
  • Serve with soy sauce and chili oil or sriracha

I Dream of Scooters and Street Food.

(I’ve been wanting to write a piece on Taiwan since my memorable trip last March but work and responsibilities took precedence… until now! If you grew up in Taiwan I hope this makes you homesick, in the best sort of way. And if you’ve never been to the island maybe this will entice you to give it a place on your “must visit” list.)

I bend down to inspect a vacant spot on the concrete steps in front of a brightly lit store with a blue and green neon sign that reads “Family Mart”. Seeing no excessive fluid or grime, I lay claim to the prime real estate and turn my attention to my recently acquired loot.

A small plastic bag holds three xiao rou bao, soft white buns stuffed and steamed with juicy pork and smothered in a spicy chili sauce. A paper sleeve cradles a chicken filet the size of a Dan Brown novel. The succulent meat has been pounded out, bathed in salty brine, breaded and fried until shatteringly crisp. A generous dusting of a secret spice blend blankets the golden exterior. Hints of garlic, chili and white pepper waft towards me. Slices of bell fruit, the love child of a watermelon and spool of cotton candy, stare up at me through the thin plastic container holding them. Their dark pink skin and white interior glisten under the neon lights.

Many years ago I lived a couple of train stops away from this epicurean heaven known as the Shilin Night Market. This is my first trip back since I left the island of Taiwan ten years ago. I savor the moment and take in the action around me.

A few feet to my right, a young couple hurries out of the way as a sputtering scooter hops the curb onto the sidewalk. The driver squeezes into a tight space between two other scooters and flips down the kickstand. His bike is the latest to be added to the expanding row, parked alongside each other like a precarious game of dominoes (surprisingly, and perhaps a little disappointingly, a scooter domino tumble rarely occurs).

Vendor stalls are packed into what, during the day, is an open space in front of a movie theater and continue as far as the eye can see along the main road, their lights disappearing down the adjoining alleyways. The chatter from dueling megaphones can be heard over the traffic. Two fast talking vendors are advertising competing sales on ladies undergarments. A mannequin bust wearing a garish blue top with black bows anchoring the straps swings from a pole suspended over one of the display cases. Ladies, young and old, are crowded around both stalls handing over pink bills in exchange for thickly padded bras.

Think of an item you want to buy, I guarantee that someone sells it at this massive nightly street market. Jewelry, toys, watches, movie posters, cell phones, clothes, shoes, they’re all here. An entire section of the maze is devoted to the latest Taiwanese craze, puppies small enough to fit into the palm of your hand and kittens still attached to their mother’s teat.

The real draw of the Shilin Night Market is not its questionable pet purveyance, but its food. The market is the equivalent of an opium den for adventurous eaters and its vendors, iniquitous pleasure pushers. You can get lost for hours in the intoxicating aromas and flavors.

Colorful mounds of tropical fruit wait to be washed and sliced for hungry customers. Dozens of stalls sell variations of the popular drink jen ju nai cha, sweetened black tea with milk and tapioca balls. Vats of hot oil fry small baskets of fish balls, sweet potatoes, and seafood tossed with fragrant garlic and sweet basil.

Little restaurants along the streets serve hotpot and teppanyaki. Unlike the showy, sub-par, and overpriced Benihana version, the spread here reflects the atmosphere—fresh, vibrant and blissfully unrefined. In adjacent shops giant slabs of frozen milk lay on metal wheels fitted with blades. The white sheets, falling like powdery snow, are piled high on plates and covered with multiple toppings. My favorite? Strawberry puree on one side, passion fruit on the other.

The streets of Shilin would delight even the most daring gourmand. Grilled chicken anus, little rubbery brown triangles stacked four to a skewer, tantalize passersby. Fiery red chilies stand out in a sea of black, inch long, stewed sea snails. Braised chicken feet appear to be crawling out of their display trays. The extremities are a gelatinous treat for those who don’t mind rolling tiny toe bones around on their tongue. Venture toward the outskirts of the maze, and you may pick up the faint odor of open sewer. The rank fumes trigger an unnatural curiosity and you begin to sniff uncontrollably, your mind dancing back and forth between several possibilities, each less appealing than the last. Open sewer? Decomposing flesh? Some kind of gory combination? Then you spot the offending stall where all looks innocent enough, chunks of tofu bubbling in a sea of oil. This is the Taiwanese treat chou dofu, stinky tofu. Bean curd fermented in a ripe vegetable and shrimp brine. No doubt it’s popular for good reason, but I can’t vouch for that. In all the years I lived there I was never able to get within two feet of the repugnant treat.

Adventurous eater or not, on any given night the streets of Shilin prepare some of the best food you’ll taste in your life. After being away for ten years I had expected time and modernity to alter this night market, but there she stood like a stunning woman who never ages. Every scent, stall, and twisting alleyway from my memory was there. A pudgy old man, who 10 years ago made the best xiao rou bao in the market, was still carefully tending to the contents of his steaming cast-iron pans. Memories long forgotten flooded back when I bit into those savory little buns. Suddenly, I was a mischievous teenager again, full of ridiculous ideas and dreams sitting on a grubby step in the vibrant city of Taipei.

Can You Stand for 12 Hours? Set Records in the 10-meter Dash? You’re Hired!

I remember cracking up a couple years ago when my news bureau received a resume from a hopeful candidate proudly declaring one of his special skills to be, “the ability to operate for long stretches of time with little to no sleep”. Why would someone include that as a skill when applying for a corporate job? Is there a job out there where a statement like that would be the ticket to the top of the resume pile?

Well, I think I may have found it. The job? New cook. In addition to positively responding to sleep deprivation, I would recommend that candidates who list parkour and training for the Ironman race as their favorite pass-times should immediately be handed a cutting board and toque.

I realize that in most cases it is wrong to hire or not hire someone based on physical attributes. However, I would argue that requiring some level of physical fitness might be the responsible thing to do in the case of high-volume top-of-the-line restaurants (oh, and while we’re on the topic—US domestic airlines, requiring that your flight attendants bums be able to comfortably fit through the aisle might be the kind thing to do… for your passengers).

Let me just say I believe this rule should only apply to kitchen neophytes. A cook who’s been in restaurants for a while who has added a couple extra rolls to their mid-section while perfecting their mayonnaise-making technique has enough skill and knowledge to carry them through a rough service. Newbies, we have yet to earn that pass. Here’s why.

New cooks get put on prep. We’re the ones putting away pounds of produce, boiling quarts of stock, and blanching big pots of vegetables—all activities requiring muscle. Being new to the game, we are also less organized. That means more trips to the walk-in, dish station, freezer and pantry. Whether that trip is 20 feet from your station or down a flight of stairs doesn’t really matter. During a 12-hour shift it all starts to add up.

I’ve always considered myself in-shape. While my whopping 110 pounds is normal in Asia, it tends to fall into the “anorexic” category in the eyes of many in the US. So I frequent the gym to maintain muscle mass. This way I can avoid women in the supermarket asking me about eating disorders, and extolling the benefits of food (as they load the 20th box of Lean Cuisine into their cart). I’ve found that while “skinny” encourages critical comments and looks, “sporty” earns me the right to remain blissfully ignored by nosey strangers.

Unfortunately, my typical gym routine did little to prepare me for the rigors of kitchen life. Within the first 3 months I was sporting a heavily defined six pack and veins on my arms that would’ve brought a sigh of relief from any nervous needle-holding student nurse. I had lost 8 pounds, and tweaked the right side of my back from incorrectly distributing my weight while standing for hours on end. It wasn’t long before a typical evening activity became propping my legs against the wall to relieve my swollen feet and early signs of varicose veins while ravenously sucking down a 1000-calorie milkshake.

Getting accustomed to standing, bending, carrying and running for long hours takes some time. Therefore I argue, why not give yourself a head start? Think about it, if you’re in decent shape, your fit little self will be able to dash off to the walk-in or pantry and return in a flash when a cook runs out of something during the Saturday dinner rush. This will no doubt increase your kitchen value (remember being a newbie your value is pretty low—on par with the citrus juicer, convenient but everyone knows how to get along without it).

Another benefit? Being fit decreases your chances of getting sick. For a young cook the only way to earn a free-of-scorn sick day is to prove that even a defibrillator wasn’t enough to raise your ailing self. Fever? Flu? Hit by a car? Can you remember how to plate that salad and grill shrimp correctly? Then get back on the line.

So, to all the young cooks out there waiting for your externship or stage to begin, I suggest you sharpen your knives, perfect your brunoise skills, & then do several sets of suicide drills, pull-ups &  hurdle jumping. Sure it’s hard, but once you get in that kitchen it’ll prove far more valuable than any “technique” you’ll learn sitting on your butt watching the Food Network.