Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 1 Oct 03 11:27
Joining us in Inkwell today is writer and private chef Eric Gower. His latest book, "The Breakaway Japanese Kitchen," was published in October 2003 by Kodansha International, and features his unique interpretations of modern Japanese cuisine. He writes regularly on food, cooking, and restaurants for a variety of US and Japanese publications. He went to Japan in 1988 after graduating with a degree in Oriental Languages (Japanese) from the University of California, Berkeley, and stayed for 15 years. Eric is also the author of "Eric's Kitchen," his first collection of recipes (in Japanese). He has edited and/or ghostwritten seven books by Japanese authors on international economics. He's now finishing up the text for a visual encyclopedia of Japanese food, to be published by Kodansha International next year. Eric lives and works in San Francisco.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 1 Oct 03 11:28
Leading the conversation with Eric are Ed Ward and Frako Loden. Ed claims to have learned to cook from his mother. Panicked at having to give up half his dining-hall privileges after moving out of his college dorm, he did what any good son would do and called her up to beg for some easy recipes. "You can read, can't you?" she inquired in her inimitable fashion. "Well, then, you can cook." And she slammed the phone down. That night, he went to visit some friends, and while they were making a beer run, he picked up The Complete Oriental Cookbook, an odd paperback he found in the kitchen. He's still cooking a version of the first thing he ever made, a supposedly Burmese recipe from that book. Since then, he has expanded his repertoire into Italian, Indian, Cajun, Chinese, and French food, among others. In the 1980s, he taught Cajun cooking, which he learned mostly from various Cajun musicians, at the University of Texas' adult education program. Ed lives in Berlin, where he rarely cooks German food. He's also not an improviser, so Eric Gower's approach to cooking fascinates him. Frako says she sealed her doom as a "useless" cook the day the rebellious adolescent turned her nose up at her Japanese mother's admonition to "watch and learn" the laborious process of making sushi at home. Since that fateful day she has been trying to catch up with the cuisine that is her heritage and bane. According to Mom she's a lost cause. Born in Tokyo and brought to her father's home state of Texas at the age of 6, Frako (rhymes with "taco") lives on both sides of the Pacific in a state of permanent frustration. Having spent most of the 1990s in Tokyo again, she's familiar with recent Japanese food traditions, attitudes and fads. In Eric Gower she recognizes a fellow traveler who loves the Japanese way but would like to make a few, maybe outlandish, suggestions. A resident of Berkeley, Frako teaches film studies in the Ethnic Studies/Women's Studies programs at California State University Hayward and writes film reviews for SF Weekly and East Bay Express. She helps program the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival and does projects on Japanese cinema at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. She cooks Japanese to relieve tension in the small of her back.
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Wed 1 Oct 03 12:07
Welcome, Eric, Ed, and Frako!
mother of my eyelid (frako) Wed 1 Oct 03 12:37
Thanks, Cyn. By the way, tonight I'm cooking Eric's Rice Vinegar Chicken Breasts on page 74 for the second time. There's never a problem with taste, but this time I'm going to make it look as good as it does in the book.
Eric Gower (gower) Wed 1 Oct 03 16:13
Thank you Cynthia! I'm finally back from Humboldt, where the forest fires on the outskirts of Garberville were a major source of concern for everyone. But the fires didn't stop us from cooking some good hippiechow: a huge platter of Dover sole, pan-fried in toasted-then-ground cumin, coriander, and fenugreek seeds in oil, a good ol' hippie salad (all the usual suspects, though fresh from the garden, and the uberhippie dressing, tahini and tofu! There was actually hemp beer there too, but I stuck with the Chimay I brought along. Glad to be hear with Ed and Frako. Frako, those breasts have to watched carefully to get that exact shade of brown you're looking for . . . don't walk away! You gotta patiently watch those sugars from the maple syrup carmelize.....
mother of my eyelid (frako) Wed 1 Oct 03 18:37
You know, in order to do what you say I have to be down on my knees with my ear plastered to the dirty kitchen FLOOR . . . since my cheapo oven's broiler was obviously an afterthought.
mother of my eyelid (frako) Wed 1 Oct 03 21:23
And yet, oh man, it came out perfect tonight. Rice Vinegar Chicken Breasts on page 74. While they were still a little frozen, I deboned the half- breasts and pounded them flat. (They dried out under the broiler last time because they were of uneven thicknesses and I wanted to make sure they cooked through.) I let them set there on the board to thaw completely, then I marinated them briefly in the soy sauce and maple syrup before broiling. This time I left the skins on--that makes them taste better AND look prettier. I put the half-breasts on a mound of mashed potatoes just slightly bigger than the chicken, and I spooned the shallot-thyme-vinegar reduction over it all. Created a pretty little sauce outline around the potatoes. I'd forgotten to put any salt or pepper on the meat but Joe said it just didn't matter--he loved it. Luscious. I served it with a roasted beet/walnut/goat cheese/frisee salad.
Eric Gower (gower) Wed 1 Oct 03 23:55
That's one of those pretty great meals you can make in 15 minutes, just by having some frozen chicken breasts and a few other staples around . . . it's really a classic French recipe, but given small Japanese touches like soy sauce instead of salt and brown rice vinegar instead of wine vinegar. It's an old standby.
Berliner (captward) Thu 2 Oct 03 10:38
Aha! You guys started without me! Unlike Frako, I've been unable to cook one thing out of the book because of living in "world city" Berlin, where few if any Japanese ingredients are available. I didn't think it would be so hard, but there's exactly one Japanese grocery store and the guy almost died laughing when I asked for shiso. "They grow it in Holland," he said, "but they don't send any over here." A subsequent query at the largest importer of Oriental vegetables confirmed this. I'm hoping to cook some of the stuff, though, when the organic stores get some oranges in. You can't use the zest on the supermarket stuff because it's sprayed with something awful. Anyway, my focus on this whole book is largely zeroing in on the idea of tradition and how it changes, because if I'm not mistaken, with the exception of the adoption of some Japanese *ideas* by the early French cuisine minceur (aka "nouvelle cuisine") chefs early on, nothing like this has ever been done before. Am I right? Were there other attempts, in or out of Japan, to mix Japanese ingredients and Western ones in a cuisine informed by the techniques and tastes of both traditions?
Eric Gower (gower) Thu 2 Oct 03 11:12
I thought it was the Germans who are protesting the loudest over pesticides/spraying. NO ORANGES???? Jesus. Btw, you don't NEED shiso. It's just a funny mint. You can use unfunny mints that won't do the same job, but they'll be fine in a different way! That's actually one thing I hope we talk about in here--substitution is what it's all about, for me anyway. It's at the very heart of coming up with great new recipes. I guess I tend to get bored pretty easily with making things the same way, so I'm always dicking with recipes. I think the book is unique, and fulfills a badly neglected need (to make tasty Japan-inspired food at home without undue duress, expense, and time), but Nobu has been stretching Japanese boundaries for quite a while now, to pretty great success. But his really is a kind of haute cuisine, and he needs large staffs and full-on operations to pull it off. This book is aimed at the lone home cook, forlornly looking through her cupboard for something palatable and relatively easy to make. I would love to get into tradition and untradition here. Japanese food should be -- needs to be -- brought out in the world in forms OTHER than what it has so far, which is traditional. We somehow have this crazy idea that untraditional = unauthentic = mishmash.
Berliner (captward) Thu 2 Oct 03 11:28
Exactly. It can be done very badly, like the big hip "Asian Fusion" restaurant here, Pan Asia, where their idea of "fusion" is a steamed Vietnamese spring roll (itself an avant-garde concept here) with a blob of ... Miracle Whip! But national cuisines can be horribly inflexible. We're lucky being Americans, because the country is so big and so many immigrant traditions flowed into it that what "everybody" eats over here, nobody eats over there. The Japanese are an excellent example of this: for years and years, Japanese businessmen wouldn't go to any non-Japanese restaurant anywhere in the world. They *might* go for a steak. But they preferred Japanese food. Japanese restaurants outside of Japan tended to be very expensive because of expense accounts, and non-Japanese rarely went there. But then, that's another issue: *within* a country, it can be horribly difficult to find even the slightest traces of another cuisine. I've been mulling over moving to France, but one thing that keeps me back is that it'd be hard to find ingredients for some of the stuff I love to eat. Italian stuff, for instance, a mainstay of my diet. When did the Japanese diet (small "d," please) begin to change?
Eric Gower (gower) Thu 2 Oct 03 16:14
Yeah, and San Francisco is almost ridiculously flexible regarding the blending of cuisines. We stand at the far end of one map or another. In that sense it's almost the perfect "Breakaway" city. It's really quite a sad sight to see little packs of Japanese businessmen and women walking around SF's Japantown, looking confused at the shabbiness of the joint, yet relieved to see something they think they understand. The last time I flew from Narita to SF, I sat next to a guy who had devoted, he proudly told me, an entire suitcase to instant ramen, to be consumed in America, because he wasn't quite sure there would be anything there for him to eat. A writer from the Nikkei (sort of Japan's Wall Street Journal)recently contacted me about a story she was writing on Japanese food abroad. We had a long and interesting chat. The main thrust of the article she wound up writing was something like, "look eastward, ho! There's big bux abroad for Japanese chefs who get creative, who don't offer the usual suspects. Here's the 'business chance' you've all been waiting for!" (I have it, in Japanese, if anyone cares enough to read it/get it translated). The whole economic angle is interesting to me; if businessmen can be convinced to be entrepreneurial and start some nontraditional Japanese restaurants, then that's what drives a movement. Follow the money, she seemed to be saying. So it would be businesspeople leading the trend toward Breakaway food, not foodies who demand it. Japan's diet began to change significantly during the Allied Occupation, I would say. Processed food became increasingly important (and, alas, desirable). We've already got a whole string of different fodder topics!
Berliner (captward) Fri 3 Oct 03 04:45
Japanese cuisine is also unique. Nobody else in the world uses some of their ingredients, whereas there are always areas of transition in other cuisines, where you see Indian concepts leaching into Southeast Asia, and, on the other hand, Afghani and Persian influences on food in parts of India. But Japan -- who else uses miso? Mochi? Umeboshi? Is it because it's an island group?
Eric Gower (gower) Fri 3 Oct 03 09:18
Well, there's a little overlap in Korean food (nori, miso--a darker kind--, soy sauce, fondness for seafood and root veggies, rice worship, etc. They might have a Korean umeboshi. The seas most definitely played a role, but so did Japan's self-enforced isolation from 1600 to 1867--no one (save a few Dutch scholared sequestered off down in Kyushu)could enter or leave Japan. There's no question the food is unique; it's the whole package, the visuals, the pottery, the emphasis on raw or barely cooked . . . One of the more common questions you hear in Japan is What shall we eat? Japanese or nonJapanese? (and the answer is almost always "Japanese!") Food is a form of identity everywhere, but man, it's taken to unseen (to me) levels over there . . . .
mother of my eyelid (frako) Fri 3 Oct 03 09:21
If you want to cook something from Eric's book and have the following already, you're more than halfway there: fresh ginger/tarragon/thyme/garlic/orange/lemon/shallots maple syrup/orange marmalade/apricot jam/soy sauce/rice vinegar/miso/sake Last night I fixed the Orange Tarragon Cauliflower Simmered in Sake (page 101), and it was terrific but just a touch too intense. I should have used the whole cauliflower--I tossed 1/3 of it because I thought the flavors would drown in too much white stuff. But the calculations were correct: use the whole cauliflower if you're going to use the juice and zest of one whole orange. The crunch of the cauliflower (don't let it simmer to death--if you wait for all the liquid to disappear you might) and the addition of tarragon, which puts the taste of the cauliflower in a whole different light, are novel and pleasing. I love how you don't add the orange and tarragon until the very end and both are still bitingly conspicuous on the tongue.
mother of my eyelid (frako) Fri 3 Oct 03 09:27
Japanese housewives have new recipes thrown at them all the time, but they are never at the level of innovation of Eric's. Just flipping through an Orange Page cookbook, for example, you rarely see an unexpected ingredient-- everything conforms to precedent. Oh, here's one--a gyuu-shabu sarada (shabu shabu beef-style salad) calls for a Korean-style miso called kochujan. So maybe Korean cuisine has been introduced into traditional Japanese household cooking (and I'm sure Korean-Japanese have been cooking like this for generations).
Berliner (captward) Fri 3 Oct 03 10:01
To what extent are foreign cuisines succeeding in Japan, anyway? When I was there, I saw lots of French and Italian restaurants in Tokyo, but very few in Kyoto, even, which, being as food-centric a city as it is, surprised me (or maybe I just didn't see them). I'm told the ones in Tokyo are quite good, quite authentic, and I was *almost* tempted into a branch of what's apparently a famous bakery chain from Frankfurt, but stuck with my Eat-Japanese program instead. Besides things like hamburgers, though, are foreign foods making inroads in Japan? Or, another way of saying it, how hard is it for you to get decent olive oil or maple syrup over there?
Eric Gower (gower) Fri 3 Oct 03 11:06
Part of what drove me to experiment so much was that very Orange Page (a food magazine) approach of BARELY changing one minor thing and calling it a "new" recipe. It's pretty astonishing how many cooking-related publications there are in Japan, and how much interest there is in something that almost never changes! (I guess that tells you something about how into Japanese food Japanese really are; and there IS a great deal of variety.) NonJapanese cuisines in Japan are of course thriving. Tokyo, as Ed said, excels, and everywhere else sort of wanes. Some of the most innovative, and delicious, Italian food I've ever had is at Massa's, in Ebisu, where Iron Chef Kobe presides. He brings this fantastic Japanese sense of color, proportion, and texture to Italian and Japanese ingredients. Shopping for nonJapanese stuff has gotten much better in recent years, too. You can easily find good and inexpensive olive oils, vinegars, fresh herbs, wines . . . . places like Seijo Ishii, which offers those things and plenty more, are booming. What Japan really needs is a farmers' market scene. Some enterprising young Japanese Alice Waters would quickly see fame and fortune if a bunch of local markets cropped up around stations, all stressing organic and quasi-locally produced stuff. There's a small one in Kamakura that's not too bad, though 95 percent of the growers are only growing the tried-and-true, vanilla veggies; nothing even mildly exotic, except for one dude, who grew lovely radicchio, unusual squashes, kohlrabi, etc. No one had a clue on what to do with any of it--I would fill up two gigantic bags everytime I saw him there.
Berliner (captward) Fri 3 Oct 03 11:53
I went to the "Morning Market" in Takayama, and it was a pretty wide selection of stuff, although, being in the sticks, it didn't offer anything too far off the map. What did shock me, though, was the huge market in Kyoto with nothing but Japanese stuff. Mind you, I was there as much to educate myself about this as anything, but in retrospect it seems odd. My curiosity here about non-Japanese food in Japan stems from living in Germany, where Italian food has become sort of the official second cuisine. But this breaks down on a strictly generational level: the election between Kohl and Schroeder was called "the battle between the Black Forest and Tuscany," because Schroeder (as was demonstrated this year, when Berlusconi insulted Germany and he cancelled his vacation) holidays in northern Italy (although not Tuscany...probably too many Germans there). People of Kohl's generation and political persuasion would *never* consider going to a place where their language isn't spoken, their beer's not drunk, and their food's not available. On the other hand, finding a good Italian restaurant in Germany isn't hard -- not in major urban centers -- and younger people, say 50 and under, are quite knowledgeable about Italian food and wine. Yet there aren't that many Italians living here in relationship to the easy access we have to their ingredients and restaurants. Is there a similar phenomenon in Japan?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 3 Oct 03 12:35
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Eric Gower (gower) Fri 3 Oct 03 12:44
Yeah that big Kyoto market scene is really something. It's fascinating on a lot of levels; not only is there are near-total absence of nonJapanese food, it sort of aims at having some of the most esoteric Japanese stuff you'll find anywhere in Japan. Kyoto cuisine has got to be among the world's top-three snobbiest cuisines, if not hold the top spot outright. High-end Kyoto eating establishments are constantly attempting to "out wa" one another (i.e., compete to see who can offer the most quintessentially Japanese meal, usually at the highest price). Big-roller Japanese businessmen LOVE to spend outlandish sums of money at these places. Japanese ryokan love to serve elaborate, super-wa meals, too. It's your chance to revert to your quintessentially Japanese identity, surrounded by scalding natural baths, amid some of Japan's best natural scenery, drinking sake and high-grade green tea and eating super-wa food. People don't expect breakaway anything in such an environment, so no one would dream of trying. It's a kind of meld-back-into-the-fold eating experience, not one that breaks away. And let me say that these places tend to be fantastic--no breakaway needed! Where breakaway is needed is in home kitchens. Like in Germany, there's clearly something generational going on in Japan, too. It's just a fact that older people tend to like what the eaten their entire lives, fair enough. There's a clear relationship between age and willingness to try the untried. I'm trying to imagine Prime Minister Koizumi's flock descending on Tuscany for a vacation of fine dining and fun. They would be acutely uncomfortable in a matter of minutes, and almost certainly head to the first Japanese place they could find!
Berliner (captward) Fri 3 Oct 03 13:05
Which would be awful. What does the generational change run to? And has there been any Japanese reaction to your book, which came out well before it came out over here, over there?
David Adam Edelstein (davadam) Fri 3 Oct 03 13:51
Hi, all... great discussion! The thing I find most interesting about the generational differences is the effect a changed diet is having on people. Now that there's more meat in the diet, for example, the old ideas about height are going away. The last time I was in Tokyo I saw plenty of kids who matched my 188cm. (Which raises a non-food related question: Are they smacking their heads on doorways like I do when I'm there?) Of course, it being Japan, the western influences are integrated in odd ways -- like a weirdo Japanese vision of what a pizza looks like, with corn and squid. Which is a nice thing about Eric's book -- it manages to be much more Japanese in its use of ingredients and prep methods. I'd also like to make a tangential observation about the book: under the guise of a book of recipes, Eric has sneakily written a book training people in different techniques that they can then use to improvise by themselves.
Eric Gower (gower) Fri 3 Oct 03 15:05
Thanks David--that's the best compliment I could possibly receive, in that it's exactly what I set out to do--show some simple techniques, around which you can then improvise with whatever happens to be laying around. People always ask me: how in the world did I come up with the tofu/figs/pickled ginger/olive oil recipe? Simple! That's what was laying there one day, and there was nothing else to eat! But that particular recipe is pretty illustrative of my whole approach, I think: take something delicious (homemade or high-grade tofu), and somehow add brightness to it. That usually means something acidic (vinegar or citrus), usually something sweet (typically fruit, sometimes maple syrup), often something pungent (pickled ginger, fresh herbs) and something savory. It's that whole balance that does it. The finished thing, whatever it is, has at least a few layers of simplicity (I was gonna say complexity, but I don't think this food is all that complex) and it's that intermingling of those things that delights my tastebuds. Olive oil often comes into the equation, as does good salt and good, freshly cracked black pepper. All those things happen to heighten the experience of drinking a glass of wine, too, so I often keep that in mind as well as I'm deciding what bottle to crack for the evening meal. But all those inputs are pretty open: you can use whatever pungency, sweetness, savory you want. It's almost ALL about improvisation, in a way. It's a fun, spontaneous, and playful way to appoach cooking dinner. It's almost impossible to go wrong, or very wrong, when you like the taste and look and feel of your individual ingredients. I think three-quarters of the battle to becoming a good cook is getting to know, REALLY know, what it is about food and taste that turns you on. Japanese reaction to the book: I don't really know, since I haven't been there in a while, but the reviews have been pretty good. Recall that only the English edition is for sale in Japan right now; Kodansha is slated to come out with a Japanese version (to be titled, "Eric-san no shin wa-shoku") sometime next year. I'll know the real reaction a lot better when it's actually available in Japanese.
mother of my eyelid (frako) Fri 3 Oct 03 16:44
Yeah, most Japanese women I know won't use a cookbook in English unless their comprehension is proven by overseas use. They also won't trust measurements unless they're in Japanese--Japanese "teaspoons" and "tablespoons" and "cups" are different from those in the US, just slightly. A "teaspoon" is "small spoon" and "tablespoon" is "big spoon." I've never compared the measurements.
beneath the blue suburban skies (aud) Fri 3 Oct 03 18:18
hey, all! first off, let me say that this is one of the most gorgeous cookbooks I've ever owned - I love "food porn" as I jokingly call it - the photographs are all exquisite. and I was going to say exactly what <davadam> did - that I love the techniques and ideas as well as all of the actual recipes. yesterday, I adapted the Spicy Pot Roast recipe for the crock-pot and it came ut fabulous. I didn't brown the roast, just oiled a bit and sprinkled with kosher salt, cracked pepper and chipotle powder (a bit less than I would've liked, but I have to cook for a 12-year old who is not quite into hot spices yet); orange juice (OK, I cheated, I used Tropicana) and soysauce. When I got home, while the meat was cooling for slicing, I strained the juices and reduced by about a half, then thickened it a little with cornstarch & water, then put it all back together with orange segments. It was excellent, and both husband and son want this put in regular rotation. I've been dying to try the scallops with ruby grapefruit, only I haven't seen any ruby grapefruits around here. Soon, hopefully.
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