Sunday, December 25, 2011

Why we didn't have Chinese food for Christmas

Christmas dinner for Jews is Chinese food -- old New York custom. Right? We thought we would finally join in this tradition, which we've never observed in our past.

Well, not tonight. The one Chinese restaurant that we thought was open seemed to have left the phone off the hook, so we figured they were over-taxed with Christmas customers. They have a few service issues anyway, so we definitely didn't want to drive over to see what was wrong with them. We stayed home, lit the Hanukkah candles, and had tuna melts and champagne. Good combination! Elaine and Lenny, in the photo above, are ready to eat.

Earlier, we took a walk in the park and watched "Midnight in Paris" on streaming video. Great way to enjoy the holiday. Great movie, too. From the walk, Lenny's photos:

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Latke Dinner

Our latke dinner included latkes, leg of lamb, and lemon layer cake. I made the cake from scratch instead of from a mix this time. In the photo: Elaine and Larry, here to enjoy the holiday.

Also to celebrate, we saw the movie "Hugo" with Ben Kingsley and Sasha Baron-Cohen this afternoon. It was great. How could I not love a movie about wind-up toys?

The cake:

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


I just read Bread: A Global History by William Rubel and "Barms and Leavens -- Medieval to Modern," an article about bakers' yeast, brewers' yeast, and sourdough starters, by Laura Mason, in the collection titled Over a Red-Hot Stove: Essays in Early Cooking Technology edited by Ivan Day. Here's a photo of these two books sandwiching a few other books about bread:

Rubel's first chapter presents the prehistoric origins of bread. He writes: "Long before the Neolithic Revolution, when the hunters and gatherers in the Fertile Crescent made the cultural shift to farming and raising large animals..., the peoples in the region were harvesting and eating grains from vast fields of wild barley and wheat." He sets the earliest date for some type of bread-making in this region at 22,500 years ago, explaining that both wheat and barley, when winnowed, ground, and perhaps roughly sifted, could be used for a dough that would form "an aerated crumb, not a dense mass of starch." Archaeology identifies grindstones and traces of hearth fires that confirm this early bread-making. One major theme of his work is that early examples of bread were not necessarily primitive or crude: early people had and used tools and ingenuity to make bread that was tasty by modern standards, and moreover, was often visually creative in its decorative uses.

Both Rubel and Mason explore at length the chemistry of bread-making. Mason's concentration is on the historic use of various substances to raise dough, mainly in England, and on the flavors and varieties of bread that resulted from the choices of housewives, noble kitchens, or professional bakers. The early bakers depended on either yeast -- which came from brewing beer or ale -- or on sourdough starter -- which resulted from exposing dough to ambient yeasts and bacteria. Both types of leavening resulted in a variety of flavors; only in the last 200 years or so has yeast exclusively intended for baking bread been prepared, preserved, and sold. Chemical baking powder is very recent, and is barely mentioned in either source.

Rubel discusses the same choices in a number of historical and modern contexts, exploring not only the taste and chemistry, but also the social and cultural associations of various types of bread. He makes a case that the past 40 years or so have been a time of very rapid change in bread consumption and in worldwide changes in taste in bread, and especially in the globalization of some types of bread with the possible decline of some local products.

Some tastes come and go, for example in some eras bread made from yeast has been highly prized, while in other eras, including the present, a higher value has been placed on sourdough. Also, some bakers cultivate practices that make sourdough bread more sour or less sour -- the famous Poilane bread (described in one of my books depicted) is much less sour than the well-known San Francisco sourdough breads. Mason interestingly pointed out that sourdough, relying more on bacteria, facilitates baking with non-wheat flour such as rye, while yeast creates less of a rise in rye or other grains.

My previous favorite bread history was H.E.Jacob's Six Thousand Years of Bread. The two more recent works are much more scientific, and more based in analytic archaeology than in Jacob's more mystical views of bread, though his descriptions are very fascinating. All these books have a large and interesting amount of information and historic detail -- the subject seems almost inexhaustible.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


We used 10 pounds of potatoes, and two electric griddles, and made latkes for 10 people.

The Belly of Paris

I just read Zola's The Belly of Paris in a new translation by Mark Kurlansky. It's the topic for the next meeting of the culinary history book club I belong to.

What a masterpiece! The perceived conflict between thin people (who crave social justice) and fat people (mainly the small shopkeepers of the area) is presented vividly. The descriptions of the sights and smells of the market combine perfectly with the pettiness of the characters and their escalating quarrels. The market itself is the central image, along with the streets all around. The map above (from here) shows all the little streets that he mentions.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Does this look good to eat?

The plastic food in restaurant windows really didn't look all that good to me. But it was useful since I can't read Japanese. I did not eat at this restaurant, which I think was a chain.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Food is not Magical

Haruki Murakami's new book 1Q84 conforms to his normal genre: magical realism. It's also very long: 925 pages, described as a doorstop in one review. In an earlier version of our real world, a book this huge would have been completely impractical as airplane reading -- but I bought the Kindle version. In fact, I couldn't finish it in a 13 hour flight from Japan, but now I have finished.

1Q84 is enjoyable, but I think it could really have been shorter. Before I left for Japan, I reread Murakami's much earlier novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, as preparation. I think I like it better, though it's less suspenseful. The magic in it is more spontaneous, the sense of unreality develops more effectively and maybe more naturally if that makes sense.

One thing I've noticed: magical realism has to be anchored in some sort of realistic world, and in Murakami, one area that stays real is food. While sampling or observing the many and remarkable types of restaurant food in Tokyo last week (Japanese-French banquet food, authentic sushi and other fish, tempura, noodles, rice bowls, kaiseki lunch, Edo hotpot, Wagyu beef, street vendors' offerings, small cakes and pastries in tea shops, and more) I wondered what Japanese people cook and eat at home. Murakami's descriptions of food are probably a reliable indication, even in the midst of the unreality of the plots of these novels.

Here's a sample of how Tengo, one of the two main characters, makes a meal for himself, after having shopped for the ingredients. He opens a beer, preps some "leathery edamame pods," and puts them on to boil. Then he daydreams about Aomame, the other main character, whom the magical side of things has destined as his own.
"Tengo chopped a lot of ginger to a fine consistency. Then he sliced some celery and mushrooms into nice-sized pieces. The Chinese parsley, too, he chopped up finely. He peeled the shrimp and washed them at the sink. Spreading a paper towel, he laid the shrimp out in neat rows, like troops in formation. When the edamame were finished boiling, he drained them in a colander and left them to cool. Next he warmed a large frying pan and dribbled some sesame oil and spread it over the bottom. He slowly fried the chopped ginger over a low flame." (p. 255)
It's almost like a recipe. As the ginger is cooking, he continues to think about Aomame whom, at this point, he hasn't seen in 20 years, since they were both 10 years old.
"He put the sliced celery and mushrooms into the frying pan. Turning the gas flame up to high and lightly jogging the pan, he carefully stirred the contants with a bamboo spatula, adding a sprinkle of salt and pepper. ...."
The cooking and daydreaming continue. "When the stir-fried shrimp and vegetables were ready, Tengo transferred the food from the frying pan to a large platter along with the edamame. He took a fresh beer from the refrigerator, sat at the kitchen table, and, still lost in thought, proceeded to eat the steaming food." After eating half, he puts the rest away in the refrigerator.

In contrast, in an earlier scene, Aomame was served an elegant meal prepared by a professional chef at the home of a rich woman: "boiled white asparagus, salade Nicoise, a crabmeat omelet, and rolls and butter" -- showing, I guess, the evident value of French food to the Japanese that I also observed. (p. 233) In her own home cooking, she prefers fruits and vegetables, as she's a fitness instructor with highly-developed standards for her own health and healthy eating.

Other characters mention eating packaged food, ready-to-microwave dishes, or packaged puddings, while Tengo cooks other elaborate dinners for himself as well as for a guest. He makes rice in a rice-cooker to go with sun-dried mackerel, tofu, daikon radish, pickled turnip slices, and pickled plums. Sometimes the foods mentioned are even less recognizable to the non-Japanese reader.
"Cooking was not a chore for Tengo. He always used it as a time to think -- about everyday problems, about math problems, about his writing, or about metaphysical propositions."
In an inn where he stays, Tengo is served the same breakfast every day "dried horse mackerel and fried eggs, a quartered tomato, seasoned dried seaweed, miso soup with shijimi clams, and rice."

During the course of the story, Tengo checks what is the number-one best selling book. It was a diet book entitled Eat as Much as You want of the Food You Love and Still Lose Weight. Tengo thinks: "What a great title. The whole book could be blank inside and it would still sell."

My suspicion has been that the Japanese choice of home-cooked foods differs substantially from the American diet, and these various scenes from the real side of magical realism seem to support that thought. I think Tengo was made special by the fact that he is a man who lives alone but cooks elaborately, but that his choice of food was suggested to be roughly normal. In any case, the level of realistic detail about food is an interesting inclusion among the magical events of 1Q84.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Wagyu Beef !

For dinner we found a Wagyu beef restaurant not far from the guest house where we are staying. The extremely marbled and tender beef is sliced thin so that you can quickly grill each piece on an in-table wood fire. The kitchen (shown above) also prepares a number of dishes from other parts of the cow, as well as salads and other things we couldn't figure out. No one spoke English, but we did work out how to get a very nice meal.

Sushi Chef

We sat at the sushi bar in a tiny restaurant while this chef made us sushi -- he bought this amazing piece of tuna at the Tsukuji market this morning.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Street Food

In the temple grounds at Asakusa we passed a number of food stalls, with many varied types of food that people could eat as they walked. Later, on our way from the Ueno subway station to our guest house, we passed another row of such stalls near the temple in Ueno Park. The food ranged from completely recognizable -- like bananas dipped in brightly colored candy or skewered meat -- to slightly mysterious -- like pancakes or egg mixtures filled with vegetables or funnel cakes on a stick -- to exotic -- like octopus.

Lunch at Asakusa

After a water-taxi ride on the Sumida River we arrived at Asakusa, a huge shopping district surrounding a temple and pagoda. It was time for lunch, so we selected a very traditional looking restaurant named Tatsumiya specializing in Edo Hot Pot. Unlike our experience at yesterday's traditional restaurant, we were given a table in the area where one sits on chairs rather than on tatami mats. We ordered one hot pot and one eel over rice. Every bite was very delicious!

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Traditional Japanese

In Ueno Park we found a traditional Japanese restaurant named Insho-tei (or Innsyoutei). we ate there this afternoon, after viewing the special exhibit of Kamakura Buddhist art and other exhibits at the National Tokyo Museum nearby. We enjoyed a variety of mysterious small bites of food, miso soup, rice with beans, and small cups of non-sweet custards, served in a woven basket in a tatami-mat room (meaning we sat on the floor to eat). Although we had no idea what most of them were, we liked them very much.

Also in the park: a shrine to the early Edo shogun.

From the museum's Asian collections: a 12th-13th century Ganesha statue from Cambodia.

We had dinner in a small Yakitori restaurant near the guest house on the University of Tokyo campus where we are staying. It was delicious!

Friday, December 02, 2011

Japanese Food!

For lunch today, I had a bowl of ramen noodles, as described on the sign above (click on it to enlarge). At the counter in the noodle shop I happened to sit next to a Buddhist monk named Malcolm, whose father is the hereditary head of a nearby Buddhist temple. His American mother went to the University of Michigan, which is why he spoke perfect English and thus was fortuitously available to help me figure out the system (involving purchase of a ticket from a vending machine to pay the cook behind the counter).

We had dinner at a wonderful place, which our hosts identified as a "drinking" place, so we made toasts in beer and saki along with an amazing and fabulous selection of sashimi, sushi, edamame, and other interesting dishes such as sea grapes (a kind of seaweed with tiny spherical air sacs that crunch when you bite them); tofu salad with an almost-sweet, very smooth tofu; and an egg dish that is also slightly sweet.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Conference Banquet

This is Japan, where the luxury food for a really high quality banquet is French. In fact, we have been her 2 days without having any Japanese food! The first night was a smaller dinner, at an Italian restaurant. Many of the details of this banquet showed how the Japanese have adapted French food to their style and taste; some of the hot buffet items were even more influenced than the appetizer buffet above.

Len was invited to give a short speech and a toast to the physicist in whose honor the conference is held.

Tea Bowls

Several collections of tea ceremony items appear in the Tokyo National Museum which I visited this morning. Tea ceremony items are also depicted on other works such as on one sword hilt in the room of swords and sword accessories. The first bowl above is so famous that it has a name: "Hashihime" -- it is Mino ware, and dates from the 16th or 17th century. The second tea bowl is Takatori ware from the 17th century.

Above: a 17th century Oribe square tea plate glazed in two different ways.