A taste of Japan—and hope

January 27, 2012



Above, on the bamboo leaf, from left to right, cucumber, crab sushi, kuromame (black soy beans), kazunoko (herring roe), lotus root, and grilled white fish with sea urchin. Off the leaf, from left to right, chicken masukaze (also spelled matsukaze, a kind of meatloaf made with chicken) and sesame tofu with salmon roe and wasabi.
 

Nearly one year ago, on a Friday afternoon at 2:46 p.m. local time, the east coast of Japan was hit with the most powerful earthquake known in their history. The tsunami and nuclear accidents followed. Nearly one year later, the country and the immediately affected areas continue to recover.

Tourism has dropped in the months since the earthquake.  That's hardly surprising, but what may be surprising is that we—American tourists—are returning to Japan more quickly than anyone else. Not tourists from neighboring Asia, but us, from halfway around the world.

What hasn't abated, however, are fears about food.
 

(Above, seared scallop, tuna, flounder sashimi, and a carrot carved like an origami butterfly.)

There are reports of hope in the recovery, however.

The Wall Street Journal showed the story of a baker struggling to make his family's signature traditional sweets again. He lost not only his shop—with 80% of the town's businesses—but also the recipes, handed down from his grandfather, perfected over three generations—all saved on computers washed away.

He'd considered giving up.

"But he was scolded by local customers and people who came from all over Japan expecting to eat his famous ganzuki and yubeshi. 'Because of this disaster, I came to realize how much people in this area loved our sweets,' he said afterward. 'I have an obligation to start my business as soon as possible.'"`

Ganzuki is a steamed cake and yubeshi a sticky rice cake.

Above, tempura with shrimp, white fish, green bean, and eringi (also known as king oyster mushroom). Mrs. Okamura showed us how to lightly dip tempura into the tentsuyu (soy, mirin, and ponzu dipping sauce—with grated daikon to taste), then dip into the citrus salt.


Last week, the Consul General of Japan in Chicago, Yoshifumi Okamura, and his wife, Kaoriko Okamura, invited one of my producers, Andrew Gill, and me to a kaiseki lunch at their official residence in Evanston.


 

Above, in the bowl to the left, mushi zushi (steamed sushi) with kinshi tamago (julienned egg threads), eel, shrimp, and dried shiitake. In the bowl to the right, miso soup with dried scallops, mitsuba leaves (also known as Japanese wild parsley), and ginger.
 

Kaiseki is the traditional multi-course meal showcasing the skill of the chef in culinary technique and artistic presentation. Consul General Okamura—who introduced himself as Yoshi—and his wife both lived in France.

They shared stories about road-tripping through the countryside, just the two of them, and after a long day of driving, just happening to find one of the best dinners of their lives.
 

Above, green tea cake with strawberry and blueberry.

Mrs. Okamura and their chef, Yuji Hiyashi, were very interested to learn about the winter Evanston Farmers Market, not far from the Official Residence, which she noted was once owned by one of the White Sox owners, Arthur Allyn.


 

Above, green tea.


Above, Consul General Okamura and Chef Hayashi.
 

Above, Consul General Okamura, Sakae Mizukami (Special Advisor for Public Relations to the Consulate General of Japan at Chicago—and an architect), Mrs. Okamura, Chef Hayashi, and me.

 

After lunch, the Consul General invited the chef out to meet with us, so we moved to the sitting room to discuss everything from Japanese food history, the current state of food affairs, the chef's favorite sushi in Chicago (Mizu), to sushi at Walgreen's.

When I described the Crunchy Roll, via Dennis Lee at Serious Eats, as "a California roll covered in...sweet chile mayo, unagi barbecue sauce, corn flakes, and the same fried onions you put on green bean casserole," I was afraid I'd strained diplomtic relations.

 

Before we left, we visited the kitchen where Chef Hayashi showed us his knives, including the one he's holding, which cost $2,000. When I asked what he uses it for he said, "Nothing. It's too expensive. Someday when I open a restaurant I'll have it on display."

The government of Japan has invited me to take a food tour of the country next week, including the earthquake affected coast.

I'll post to the blog all next week from Japan.