How To Eat Plain White Rice

If you’ve been guilty of this, you’ve probably been told not to pour soy sauce on your rice if you visit Japan (yes, it’s bush league). But that doesn’t mean the Japanese eat their rice plain and without flavor. No, the trick is to take a mouthful of salty grilled fish, tangy deep fried pork or whatever tasty dish you have in front of you, then eat your bland white rice. If you think about it, you wouldn’t want your rice to be salty or spicy too, if you’re eating it with another dish.

But what happens if you don’t have enough dishes to eat with your rice? Or if you’re still hungry and all you have left is a bowl of rice? You do what the Japanese do—you look in your refrigerator or cupboard and find the dozens of ways to accompany your rice so that it isn’t so plain anymore. You do not pour soy sauce on it!

So stock up on some of these condiments—you can find them at most Asian grocery stores, so no excuses:

TsukemonoOh, if you’re not familiar with the amazing world of Japanese tsukemono (literally “pickled things”), you’re in for a treat. So many kinds, so many tastes, so good with rice! Just writing this is making my mouth water. I can’t get into every single kind here, but here’s a list of the most popular types in case you see them at the store. They’re named by the pickling agent that is used to make them:

Shiozuke (salt)

Nukazuke (rice bran)

Kasuzuke (sake)

Shoyuzuke (soy sauce)

Suzuke (vinegar)

Misozuke (miso)

You’ll find a variety of vegetables used to make tsukemono in all its forms, like cucumbers, eggplants, Chinese cabbage, daikon radish, carrots, turnip greens, ginger, scallions, etc. At Japanese restaurants, they’re usually served in their own little dish off to the side. Don’t ignore it next time—try it with some rice; it’s very addicting.

A lot of families pickle their own at home, which is very easy to do these days. All you need is a large earthenware pot, a heavy stone or concrete block, and a cool storage area or backyard to bury it underground. Just kidding! My grandmother used to do it that way, but you can just buy a spring-loaded pickling press and do it on your kitchen counter. These specialized Japanese kitchen gadgets an be found at most Asian markets.

FurikakeAffectionately known as “rice sprinkles”, the best part of this dry seasoning is that unlike tsukemono, you don’t have to refrigerate it and it has a good shelf life. They come in packets or jars, in multi-colored, multi-flavored varities, and it can be used as a topping on rice, vegetables or fish. Depending on the ingredients used inside the mix, furikake can taste like fish, eggs, sour plum, seaweed, spicy wasabi, or even teriyaki. This is a great way to eat leftover rice or as seasoning on bento rice (makes it look good too). My favorite way of using furikake is to mix it in hot rice and to roll it into rice balls (onigiri).

If you go looking for furikake, be sure to see what kind of ingredients are in it, so you’ll know whether it’s going to make your rice salty, sweet or sour. The seaweed,shrimp and egg varieties tend to be milder and have a slight sweet/aromatic flavor. Most of them fall into the salty range and many are quite deep with umami when sprinkled on hot white rice. If they have bits of dried plum bits (umeboshi) you can taste the tangy sourness mixed in. And if you’re not good with spicy, make sure it doesn’t contain wasabi or kimchi flakes—but if you like spicy, I think they really dress up your rice!

Here’s a handy chart put out by Asian Food Grocer, an online supplier. You can also find furikake at most Asian supermarkets.

Nori

The type of seaweed (nori) than you see on sushi doesn’t have any flavor added to its already rich umami, but there are flavored kinds (ajitsuke nori) that you can eat with white rice that are excellent during meals. You may have seen them as a common add-on at a typical Japanese style breakfast. They’re usually seasoned with a teriyaki tasting sweetness, and come in narrow sheets—packed in cellophane packaging to preserve crispness. If you want to eat this with your rice properly, practice your chopstick skills, because you’re supposed to wrap the sheet around a mouthful of rice like a small sushi roll and pop it into your mouth.I prefer tsukudani nori, which is more of a paste made with seaweed and strongly flavored with soy sauce. It’s not the most appetizing of looks for seaweed, but trust me, on hot white rice it’s so good! But use carefully because it is salty. And kids love it—I would slather this on my rice.

UmeboshiAnd of course, the classic way to eat white rice is a patriotic one for the Japanese. The mighty sour plum, known as umeboshi, is what decorates the center of a bed of plain rice when you make the traditional “Hi-no-maru Bento”. The traditional hinomaru is named after the Japanese national flag because it resembles it—a red dot on a field of white. Many years ago I remember seeing a comedy on Japanese TV, in which a penniless bachelor would make his umeboshi last by only having one piece for his dinner. He would hang it by a string in front of him and stare at it until the sourness of it made his mouth pucker so he could eat his rice and imagine the flavor. After his meal, he untied the umeboshi and put it away for next time! LOL!

Seriously though, umeboshi is very popular in Japan because they’re also thought to have health properties as a digestive aid, as a prevention against nausea and hangovers, and to help combat fatigue. So good on a bowl of rice, or stuff one into a rice ball (but watch out for the pit)!

And if you get desperate and there’s nothing in the house…Take an egg out of the refrigerator, beat it until scrambled, and add a generous amount of soy sauce to it. Pour the raw egg mixture over very hot rice and stir it up until the egg half cooks or gets frothy. Or drop the egg on the rice first, and pour the soy sauce over it before mixing. This is called Tamago Kake Gohan (egg on rice) and was my father’s favorite way to end his dinners. Don’t let the raw egg scare you—this is good stuff! And it’s the only way you get to pour soy sauce on your rice…

 

photo credits: Tsukemono by Japan-Guide.com, Hinomaru Bento by PamandJapan, Furikake Chart by Asian Food Grocer, Wrapping Nori by Gigazine, Tamago Kake Gohan by JP Info, and all other images by Bert Tanimoto.

Boiling Water is a Science

If you’re one of those people who are ashamed to admit that you’re “such a bad cook, you can’t even boil water,” you shouldn’t feel so bad. Boiling water is more complicated than you may think. First of all, did you know there are 4 degrees of boiling water that are commonly found in recipes—SIMMER, SLOW BOIL, FULL BOIL and ROLLING BOIL. And let me preface that by saying the differences are kinda minute, so they may very well blend into each other. On the other hand, Chinese tea aficionados have an additional stage and have 5 degrees of boiling—all the better to be more precise, when you’re fussy about brewing your tea.

Boiling is boiling, you say? Ah, not so fast, grasshopper! The longer you boil, the hotter the water—the hotter the water, the more your food cooks, and the more it cooks, the more it changes; in texture, in flavor, and even in chemical makeup. This explains why controlling the boil is critical in cooking, and why recipes are specific to what kind of boiling water should be used. When it comes to tea, the leaves are delicate. Water that is too hot will scorch it, and you won’t be getting the full, true flavor of the tea. So if you’re a true tea drinker, either master the Chinese way of boiling water, or get a water boiler like the kind Zojirushi makes, and you’ll never have to worry. More on that later…

The Simmer

As in a “simmering feud”, at this stage, tiny bubbles have formed at the bottom of your pot, but they aren’t really large enough yet to rise to the top and break the surface of the water. Temperature is roughly 140°F to 170°F at this point, which makes it ideal for gently poaching meats, fish and eggs—keeping them tender and delicately preventing any harsh movement that could cause them to break apart in the pot.

The Slow Boil

AKA the “lazy boil”, the water agitation is kept to a minimum and bubbles are rising and popping but kind of in isolated areas on the surface. The temperature is roughly 170°F to 195°F, usually the range used to make soup stock or slow-cooking stews. When meats are added to the stock, the lower temperature keeps the proteins from emulsifying into the liquid, keeping the stock clear—the created scum simply settles to the bottom of the pot.

The Full Boil

Now we’re at close to the boiling point, which is 195°F to 212°F; smaller bubbles are breaking over the surface everywhere and there’s all kinds of constant action. This kind of boil is best used for reducing sauces, which is a controlled way of evaporating the liquid in an open pot in order to thicken and intensify the flavor. The steam is also good for cooking tender vegetables in a basket placed above the boiling water.

The Rolling Boil

At the max temperature of 212°F, the water cannot get any hotter than this. Large bubbles are violently breaking over the surface and you’re in full agitation mode—so many bubbles that you can no longer cause any kind of break in the action by stirring. But because the heat is highest and constant now, the rolling boil is perfect for blanching vegetables or cooking pasta.

With blanching, vegetables like asparagus or broccoli are scalded for a couple of minutes, then quickly removed and dropped into ice water. The sudden temp change shocks and stops the cooking process—preserving the color, flavor and texture. It also cleanses the surface of dirt and organisms, and helps to slow the loss of vitamins.

Boiling pasta at this temperature has a couple of benefits. Al dente pasta usually requires a precise cooking time. Since the water is already at its highest, any drop in temperature when you put the pasta in, is minimal and won’t affect the cooking time—so you can be accurate. Plus the extreme agitation helps to keep the pasta from sticking together.

Tea Temp Talk

My Zojirushi Water Boiler has 4 temp settings that allow me to choose the best hot water for my tea. We drink a lot of Japanese tea around my house, so having one of these has become indispensable. To be honest, I’m probably not as critical about my water temperature as I could be, but the kids need it to be hot enough for the occasional cup of instant noodles—and you don’t need to be picky about that. I use it for instant oatmeal sometimes too.

It’s interesting to hear how some older generation Chinese measured their boiling water by describing the bubbles and the water with colorful phrases. From simmer to boil, the bubbles grow from “Shrimp Eyes” to “Crab Eyes” to “Fish Eyes”. Then the action in the water starts to look like a “Rope of Pearls”, until finally the churning and swirling is like a “Raging Torrent”. So there you go—5 degrees of boiling water. I love those descriptions!

If you want to get more precise with your hot water and brewing your tea, you can read about it here on the Zojirushi site.

 

 

credits: Chinese tea brewing knowledge by Golden Moon Tea blog
“Boiling water” by Ervins Strauhmanis is licensed under cc by 2.0
all other images by Bert Tanimoto

 

 

Ho’olaule’a


Pronounced exactly the way it’s spelled, just don’t get confused by the apostrophes (they’re meant to help). Ho-oh-la-oo-lay-ah is a Hawaiian festival that celebrates the culture, the dance, and its food. If you ever want to feel like a kama’aina (local native), go out to a ho’olaule’a and stuff yourself with da kine ono grindz. Luckily for me, there’s a pretty large festival near my area that’s been going strong for 39 years! Our family would participate in this festival awhile back, when my daughter used to dance the hula on stage at this event. She doesn’t anymore, but recently we decided to go to the park to check it out again. Perfect for a hot summer day!


Like most festivals, the longest lines are the ones at the food booths—and local food is “da bess kine”. Manapua (stuffed bread dumplings), teriyaki, shave ice, Kalua Pork (shredded roast pork), spam musubi, and more! And what kind of fair would it be without meat on a stick? At the Hawaiian kine fair, it’s Korean Kalbi (short ribs) on a stick. We sat on the grass and ate our plate lunches while we watched the dancers perform on stage.

This is a 2-day weekend festival that takes place in the city of Gardena, California; today being the second day, it wasn’t as busy as the first—but still a good crowd came out to watch the festivities. Many halaus (hula dance studios) come from all over to perform here, so it’s a pretty big deal for all us expatriates living on the mainland.

Everyone’s favorite is always the fast moving Tahitian dance, which gets the crowd going with its hyper drum beat and shaking grass skirts. But the beauty of the much slower Hawaiian hula is that the graceful movements of the dance transcends age, and can make anyone look like poetry in motion. Dancers visually tell stories with the movement of their hands as they sweep across the stage, set to the lyrical, falsetto vocals of the music. I mean, talk about stress relief—just watch hula for an hour and chill, man!

At the booths you can buy almost anything that has to do with island culture. Pictured here are (from upper left clockwise) Uli Uli, the feathered gourd rattles used in dancing, and Poi Balls, the string tethered balls also used by dancers as they skillfully whip them around like yo-yos. The giant Gourds are rapped and pounded in rhythm to Hawaiian chants, and you can also see Plumeria stalks—another popular item that people buy to start their own trees at home. Handcrafted jewelry is always in demand—the rings are a traditional Hawaiian design, while plumeria shaped earrings never seem to go out of style. Hawaiian print lunch bags are one of my favorites—I always get a new one every year because I bring my own bento to work and it’s way better than a brown paper bag.

Most of the decorative garlands, wreaths, necklaces, hair ornaments, and ankle & wrist bracelets that you see on the dancers are made by hand with natural materials like flowers and leaves, as was crafted by the ancient Hawaiians. Here’s an award-winning lei designer displaying her skill. Aren’t the flowers beautiful?

That’s my tour of a little bit of Hawaii on the mainland, for a day. If you get hungry for local food, try your hand at all the recipes available everywhere online—they’re really not that complicated. Zojirushi also has a few on their recipe page that are traditional favorites. Jump to their Loco Moco, Spam Musubi and Butter Mochi pages and let me know how you like them!

 

All photos by Bert Tanimoto
Recipe photos by Zojirushi

NYC My Way

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to New York on business. Actually I’ve been going there for the past several years on a regular basis, but this time I decided to pay attention to the details–to this amazing city that never sleeps. Anybody who has lived here probably says there’s no other city like it in the world, but I lived in Tokyo as a younger man, and I think there are as many similarities as there are differences–if that makes any sense. It’s the similarities that I see that allows me to imagine what it would be like to live in New York; maybe not quite as fast as Tokyo, but equally as intense and alive with millions of stories being told at the same time.

I’m not gonna lie–I go to New York to eat. I always go to visit my favorite restaurant, the Yakitori Totto on 55th near Broadway. Their kushiyaki (skewers) is better than anything I’ve ever had in L.A., and to me it gets close to Tokyo. Of course, in Tokyo even the street food stands are impressive. But this gets close, like I said, so Yakitori Totto gets my props.

Some highlights:
Asparagus Bacon (top left) is exactly what it says, tender asparagus wrapped in bacon–the combination is wonderful.
Tsukune (top right) is ground chicken basted with a teriyaki sauce, usually served in meatball shapes, but at Totto they do it in one piece.
Kalbi (bottom left) is Korean style short ribs, which I had with salt instead of the traditional marinade. Excellent choice with the way it brought out the real taste of the beef.
Shishito (center) is a Japanese green pepper, mildly sharp when delicately grilled. This one is served with a dab of miso paste, which gives it quite the flavor blast.
Negi-Pon (bottom right) is a creative concoction of pork pieces topped with scallions and flavored with ponzu sauce, a tangy soy sauce thinned with citrus juice.

By the way, if this gets you craving…I’ll bet you didn’t know Zojirushi has their own recipes for kushiyaki. You should check them out:
Tsukune
Miso Chicken
Stuffed Potato Mushroom

Takin’ it to the streets…
One thing you do in New York is walk a lot–it’s not really a lot, but coming from Los Angeles where you almost never walk, it seems like a lot. And on ground level, you notice a lot.

There are street vendors everywhere, sharing the sidewalk with pedestrians–selling produce, cellphone cases and baseball caps. Why not? It’s easier to pick up a bunch of bananas on the streets when you’re walking home, than it is to find a supermarket.

Here’s a typical traffic scene with a bunch of school buses getting ready to leave, right?

Wrong! These buses are not moving–they’re parked! This street is (I’m guessing) a temporary parking lot for these buses. I stood at this corner waiting to cross for a full minute, before I realized there weren’t any drivers inside the buses. Then it took me another 15 seconds to figure out why they were just stopped there. I guess you find parking where you can in mid-town Manhattan.

I love finding street signs that show the personality of the city. They’re usually worth a double-take.

That statistic about pedestrian deaths has got to be true. New Yorkers do not bother to wait for the “WALK” signal at the crosswalk. As soon as there’s a gap in the car traffic, even in the middle of a green light, New Yorkers start across the street. I’m sure the only ones that wait patiently for the light to change are tourists. I mean, we’re not as fearless as the natives.

Ever since 9/11, the FDNY are the most heroic fire fighters in America. You’ve gotta love their way with words though–they truly have their own language that only they understand. I’d never heard of a “Siamese Connection”, but now I know it’s a twin-fitting water source for the fire department. And being a professional writer, I’m pretty sure there’s no such word as “sprinklered”. But hey, it’s the FDNY–I’ll give them a break.

OK, back to food! Here’s another thing about walking the city–you don’t need Yelp to find good places to eat. You can stumble across them by serendipity and be pleasantly surprised. This place caught my attention from across the street because of the name, Meatball Obsession. How am I supposed to pass that up?

This is my kind of place–quite literally a “hole-in-the-wall”, where the kitchen was behind the order window, inside the building. It’s a meatball in a cup; 2 of them for $9 with pasta at the bottom, your choice of toppings and cheese, then filled to the brim with tangy tomatoey marinara sauce. Mine has  mozzarella pearls, grated parmesan, sauteed mushrooms and fresh basil. With a stick of focaccia dipping bread, this was a fantastic deal! After I ordered, I was asked, “take out or walking?” So I naturally chose to eat and walk, like any normal New Yorker would. It was delicious!

On my last night, I did what I always do when I’m in New York. I took a walk through the city a bit—It’s always more fun at nighttime, especially Times Square, which is kinda like a circus like Venice Beach is for Angelenos.

Saw Doc Brown and his DeLorean…


NYPD on horseback. So cool!


Evening pick-up ping pong match at Bryant Park. Nice!

But at the end of the day, it was still a relief to be back in L.A.

 

photo credits: All photos by Bert Tanimoto

 

What I Like About June


June 2nd is National Donut Day!
I’ve already admitted to a weakness for donuts. And I live in L.A., where there are at least 680 donut shops in L.A. County alone—200 more than New York City and three times more than Chicago’s biggest county. That’s a lot of temptation! But mind you, I don’t go for the national franchises like Winchell’s or Dunkin’ Donuts or Krispy Kreme. Nor do I think it’s worth buying the “gourmet donuts” that overcharge for lemon poppyseed and maple bacon bits. I like to support the Mom&Pop places with the pink boxes. They’ve been outlasting their trendy competition for years with just plain glazed twists and old-fashioneds.

The pink boxes have their own story. It’s apparently regional and an L.A. thing, but you definitely know what’s inside when someone brings a box to work. Cambodian refugees started it all when they came to SoCal in the 70s and a few entrepreneurs got into the donut business. Originally, donut boxes were made of smooth coated white cardboard, but when the main box supplier passed away, a cheaper alternative became more popular among the Cambodian community. The pink boxes meant less cost, plus the color was better for their cultural beliefs anyway—white is associated with mourning, while red is the color of good fortune. Pink isn’t exactly red, but it’s a lot closer than white! You can’t argue with the longevity of the pink donut box, oil stains and all.

Here’s a couple of Zojirushi recipes to help celebrate National Donut Day:
Gluten Guilt Free Donuts
Donuts Baked Not Fried


June 10th is National Iced Tea Day!
I prefer iced tea over iced coffee, I think. I’d rather have my coffee hot. The problem with ordering iced tea at restaurants though, is that they never have simple syrup around to sweeten your tea. You have to dump granulated sugar in it and clink noisily as you try in vain to dissolve all of it in your glass. I’ve never understood this, since simple syrup is common everywhere in Japan. Of all the varieties of fruity teas, milk teas and lemony teas that you can get today, the version I like best is what I drank for the first time while I was living in Japan.

It’s called Brandy Tea and it’s so easy to make I do it at home sometimes when I’m craving it on a hot summer day. You simply brew some strong black tea (Lipton tea bags are fine) and sweeten it as you prefer. If you do this when it’s hot, it saves you a lot of clinking. I like mine pretty sweet because you have to compensate for the ice to be added later. Then pour it over a glass full of ice and stir to chill. The final amazing ingredient is just a small amount of cognac or brandy, maybe just a teaspoon for a tall glass of tea. Don’t worry, there’s not enough alcohol to make it a boozy drink—it just blends perfectly with the sugary, robust tea and adds a completely different dimension to an ordinary iced tea. The best way to drink iced tea, IMHO.

Here’s a couple of Zojirushi recipes to help celebrate National Iced Tea Day:
Iced Black Tea
Iced Green Tea (Sencha)

June 18th is Father’s Day! (yay!)
The day when us Dads finally get our due, even if it’s only one day a year. No, I’m not complaining. It’s great being a Dad and I love the attention, but I’m not the type to need things because I already have everything I could want. I’ll have to start dropping hints soon so my family can spend wisely on me.

Take me out to dinner? Nah—breakfast or lunch is fine at our local Hawaiian place. Corned Beef Hash & Eggs for breakfast or Loco Moco for lunch; I wouldn’t complain about either. To be honest, what I really like is my wife’s homemade Spam Musubi. We always have good quality rice in the house, a very good cooker (Zojirushi of course), and good quality nori sheets. She always slices the Spam in generous thicknesses and she uses a secret sauce to flavor it (I think it’s from a bottle, but she won’t tell me what kind). Keep fresh in plastic wrap and I’m good for Sunday and the day after for my lunch at work, LOL!

Gifts? Maybe they can get me a set of Legos so I can build the AT-AT Walker and recreate the Battle of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back. Did I ever reveal that I was a Star Wars and a Lego nerd at the same time? Here’s the carbonite freezing chamber from that movie. Enlarge to see the detail!
Princess Leia (to Han just before he gets dropped into the carbonite): “I love you.”
Han: “I know.”
That’s just classic!!

Here’s a couple of Zojirushi recipes to help celebrate Father’s Day:
Loco Moco
Spam Musubi

June 20th is National Ice Cream Soda Day!
To certain people that even care, there apparently is a difference between an “ice cream soda” and a “float”. I guess the old-fashioned ice cream sodas were made with seltzer water, ice cream and a flavored syrup of one kind or another. The classic ones were mixed with chocolate syrup. A float is the same thing except with pre-flavored soda like Coke, root beer or orange soda. Personally, my favorite kind of ice cream soda is the Japanese “Melon Cream Soda” that’s difficult to get here. This is the classic (in Japan) green drink that I would always ask for when I was a kid. It’s easier to make your own than trying to find one at a Japanese restaurant here—get some green Melon Soda at a Japanese market, drop in a scoop of vanilla and you’ll see why some of us never outgrow it!

June 21st is the Summer Solstice!
The first day of summer and the longest day of the year! Living in the hot, humid days of summer in Tokyo, I used to hate summer—twice a day showers, loss of appetite, having my glasses fog up everytime I stepped into an air-conditioned building, dreading that my next train wasn’t air-conditioned, etc. But SoCal summers are the best time of year for me now! I can’t help but appreciate the longer daylight, and we don’t get humidity! I don’t miss summers in Japan. Shown below is a farmer couple taking a break from the heat after working the sugar cane fields of Okinawa.

So if June 21st is the longest day of the year (for the Northern Hemisphere), when we get the most direct sunlight, why isn’t it necessarily the hottest day, too? Because earth’s oceans take longer to absorb and release heat than the air or even land. Even though we’re getting maximum sun in June, the oceans and the land are still relatively cool from recent spring temperatures. Gradually though, the effects of the sun catches up and all that heat starts to release into the atmosphere—which is why the hottest summer temperatures start to take effect in late July or August. So logical!

What do you like about June?

Photo credits: Melon Soda by Japan Centre; Ice Tea by Przemyslaw Idzkiewicz (creative commons); Farmers by Tech Sgt. Rey Ramon, U.S. Air Force; and Bert Tanimoto