Thursday, December 31, 2009

SushiFest - Part IV: A Matter of Convenience

After the surprising upset that 7-Eleven enjoyed during my Char Siu Bao Challenge, I thought we should take a closer look at the unseeming little convenience store.  Actually, I do like taking mainland visitors to 7-Eleven.   The mere fact that they have char siu bao to begin with, is a prime indicator that the 7-Elevens in Hawaii are not anything like their somewhat ghetto counterparts on the mainland.  In fact, from what I understand, our 7-Elevens are run much more like the 7-Elevens in Japan than the ones on the mainland.   This would explain the surprisingly high quality Japanese (and local) convenience store snacks you can easily find at 7-Eleven, including our iconic spam musubi.

Spam Musubi from 7-Eleven
When visitors come from the mainland, I love taking them to 7-Eleven, just to unhinge their notion of what a convenience store can be.   Ours are clean, well stocked, and not the magnet for muggings and robberies that the ones on the mainland are.   Instead of ancient hot dogs that have been rotating on their warmers for and inestimable amount of time, the products we have are usually made fresh that day, with a timestamp to prove it.   Sure there are familiar favorites, like Slurpees.   But there is a wide variety of dim sum, musubi's, sushi, and crack seed.   The best part of course is being able to get any of these items, at any time of the day.   When hanging out with my friend Erich in college, we would often make 1AM Jones Soda runs, frequently in remote parts of the island, just to enjoy our availability to do so.  

Admittedly, I love a Slurpee as much as the next guy.  In fact, when I was little, I generally liked Slurpees better than Icees.   As great, as a strawberry / coke mixed icee was, the air to liquid ratio in an icee always yielded a product that was just a little too insubstantive for my taste.   By that reasoning, I always preferred the slushies over at the Jolly Roger in Kahala (where Kahala Zippy's is now), to either Slurpees or Icees, especially the grape slush floats.   Mixing the vanilla ice cream with purple slushie created a beautifully thick lavendar drink that was as creamy as it was icy, and the blending of those textures was always so provocotive to me.  However, since Jolly Roger closed many years ago, the Slurpee is a worthwhile replacement.   Indeed, the there have existed many more flavors of Slurpee than any of the others, including lychee, pina colada, and banana.  

Okinawan Sweet Potato Manapua from 7-Eleven
What makes our 7-Elevens so interesting however, is not the Slurpee that can be found anywhere, but the plethora of local food they serve.   I've discussed how a spam and egg musubi make a terrific breakfast on the run.  Their redondo's hot dog musubi and lup cheong manapua are far more local representations of the hot dog than a Big Bite.   In fact, in addition to the basic manapua, which was surprisingly well received by the manapua taste testers at my mom's office, they've got a wide assortment of manapua fillings.  My wife is particularly fond of the somewhat elusive, Okinawan sweet potoato manapua, with it's sweet, creamy, purple filling that has just the perfect smooth texture.   But the one local snack item that 7-eleven does particularly well, is their sushi hand rolls.

Sushi from 7-Eleven
Surprisingly, I like the sushi hand rolls at 7-Eleven better than just about any temaki sushi, at even the most exclusive sushi restaurants.   Just what makes them so good?   It's the rather ingenious way of wrapping the rice and the nori separately while it is sitting in their refrigerated display.   Like the McDLT, which was famous for keeping the "hot side hot and the cold side cold", keeping the rice and nori separate insures that the nori stays crispy.  Let's face it, from the moment the sushi chef touches the nori to the rice, it begins to get soggy.  It depreciates even faster than a brand new car.   But this is brilliantly minimized by the sushi wrapping system at 7-Eleven.

Unwrapping Sushi from 7-Eleven
To open a sushi from 7-Eleven, you first break the seal on the side.  Then unroll the nori, exposing the rice which is wrapped in the inner cellophane.  Then, you peel back the inner cellophane to expose the nori envelope.  Finally, you roll the rice yourself into the waiting nori, and lift it off of the outer cellophane.  Whoever designed this system was a packaging genius.  The very first bite into the handroll, as your teeth puncture the nori and sink into the rice below, is almost like having your friend hold up a sheet of paper while you punch holes through it with your fingers.  It yields the most incredibly satisfying crunch, that no other sushi has anywhere.  The only thing I have to worry about is my cats, who are adore the nori even more than I do.  From the moment I break the seal on the outer cellophane, they appear out of nowhere and instantly shove their faces into mine, hoping for a bite.

Sushi from 7-Eleven
The rice is also nothing like what you'd expect from a convenience store sushi.   Sitting in a refrigeration unit all day, you'd expect the rice to get cold and hard.   But somehow, the units are at exactly the right temperature, that while the rice is chilled, it never gets hard.  It is still perfectly soft rice (softer than some room temperature rice at other sushi restaurants I know of), with just a subtle hint of the sushi vinegar (not nearly as overpoweringly sour as other sushi restaurants I know of).   With good rice and good nori, the sushi is just superb.

Sushi from 7-Eleven
7-Eleven also has a great variety hand rolls to choose from.  My favorite is their classic tuna salad with cucumber.   I would rather have this than any tuna sandwich any day.   They also have a nice salmon salad and a crab & avocado California roll that comprise their core line-up.   However, in addition to their regular triumvirate, I have seen flavors like shoyu tuna, spicy tuna, konbu, kalbi, bbq chicken, wasabi tuna, and many other special, transient offerings.

Ito En Oi Ocha Green Tea from 7-Eleven
Of course to wash down all of this sushi, a Slurpee just wouldn't do.   But again, 7-Eleven offers up an appropriate accompaniment.  They have a wide assortment of the yummy drinks from Ito En.  The different local fruit flavors of Ito En's Aloha Maid, like guava and passion orange, are classic island favorites.   You wouldn't even want to drink a Starbucks's Frappuccino bottle after tasting Ito En's Royal Mills Iced Cappuccino.  There's not even a comparison, the Iced Capps knock the Frapps completely out of the ballpark.   But to accompany the yummy sushi, it's got to be Ito En's Oi Ocha green tea.   Although, it's available at 7-Eleven, I have to buy their green tea by the caseload from Costco.  It has such a nice, perfectly balanced roasted tea flavor that is just so refreshing and easy to drink when chilled, I go through it like water.

Sushi from 7-Eleven
7-Elevens in Hawaii really are a unexpected find when it comes to local food.   What you'd think is a matter of convenience, really becomes a matter of local pride.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A Big Fish Story

Being surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, it's no wonder that fishing and seafood is a big part of our culture.   Even if you aren't a big angler, you probably enjoy a good fresh catch.  For many decades, one of the most popular shows on TV was "Let's Go Fishing".    Not only did good ol Hari Kojima catch the fish, but he also taught you the best ways to prepare it as well.   To this day, I can still hear the catchy "Let's Go Fishing" tune in my head, and I can fondly remember Hari standing behind his guest chefs with his hands folded behind his back, blinking almost unnaturally frequently.  As Hari (and the show) got older, Ben Wong took over the reigns, and it was renamed "LGF" and later "Hawaii Goes Fishing", but the show was never the same.  It's long lived popularity though, was a testament to how much we love fish in Hawaii.

There are a few exceptions of course.  My Po Po, for example, just couldn't stand the smell of fish.  To her, fish was just too sang (a Chinese word that means overly "fishy" smellling, something fresh fish should never be).  She would have to cook it practically every night for my Goong Goong, but she never ate it herself.   Once when she was was a little girl, she caught a nasty cold.   Naturally, her father (my Tai Goong), went and spent a good amount of money and made her some fish jook.  She told him that she couldn't eat it, and he called her ungrateful.  So she tried to eat it, and wound up throwing it all up anyway.  So my Po Po pretty much avoided fish all her life.  But she is one of the few exceptions to the rule around here.

Everyone in Hawaii has to have at least one good fishing story right?   So, here's mine.  I love seafood, but I never learned how to fish while I was growing up.  So one day, when she was home on vacation, my sister-in-law decided to take us deep sea fishing.  Not knowing much about fishing myself, I imagined us gently rocking in the middle of some calm deep blue waters, lazily lounging with our hats over our eyes waiting for a fish to bite.   Yeah, that's not what happened at all.   Deep sea fishing basically involves high speed trolling with almost roller coaster like up and down motion.   From the moment I left the pier, I was throwing up into a bucket, and spent pretty much the duration of the trip flat on my back, moaning for it to end.   My wife on the other hand, found her sea legs after a little while and was up and about on deck waiting to snag a fish.  In fact, she successfully reeled in 2 1/2 fish!   Now this is where you scratch your head and ask, "how do you catch a half a fish??"  Shouldn't fish necessarily be caught in whole number increments?  Well, as she was pulling the fish in, a big shark came up and bit off the lower half of the fish, leaving her to reel in the upper half of the fish.  I've got friends who love fishing (one in particular has even caught a 500 lb. marlin).  But none of them can make the claim that they've caught 2 1/2 fish.   So although it's really my wife's catch, I was along for the adventure, and am happy to bask in her fishing glory.

For those of us, who love fish, but really can't stomach trying to catch one ourselves (literally), where do we go to get the best fish on island?    Well, Tamashiro Market is of course the de facto place for any kind of seafood here.   Even Hari Kojima himself, was originally a fish cutter with Tamashiro.  For a while, Tamashiro would even cook them up for you, offering some fresh fish lunch plates.   Unfortunately, the window of opportunity to buy one was very short, and I've never gotten to taste them myself.   I have mentioned how well the fish is prepared at Kaka'ako Kitchen, but as those dishes are salmon and catfish, they don't really reflect what's in our local waters.   The ahi katsu at Sugoi is just plain awesome, but being covered in brown gravy makes you kind of lose sight of the fish itself.   The biggest filets of the freshest ahi and freshest mahi mahi on island can be found at Ray's Cafe.   My only complaint with Ray's is that, although the fish quality and fresheness is just supreme and you can taste the flavors of the fish itself, it's not quite seasoned enough with any other flavors.  For the freshest, best prepared fish in town, that is also seasoned well to bring out the fish flavor, you need to look for a specialist.  Basically the shop that serves fish and little else.   The one that immediately comes to mind is Nico's at Pier 38.

Nico's has all the visible indicators of a great fish place.   For one thing, it's located right on Pier 38, overlooking the water.   The close proximity to the water gives it not only wonderful ambiance, but the feeling of authenticity when it comes to fish.   Adding to that authenticity is the fact that they share a building with Pop Fishing & Marine, a major commercial fishing outfitter.  It gives you the distinct impression that the major fishermen, get their supplies from Pop, head out to sea to catch the fish, and bring it right back to Nico's to be served.  Finally, the lunchtime crowd around Nico's is always so packed, that they have to give you those little vibrating pagers to let you know when your food is ready.  All of which leads to high expectations about the food.

Furikake Crusted Seared Ahi from Nico's at Pier 38
The food at Nico's is just superb.  For one thing, they are one of the few plate lunch places, like Kaka'ako Kitchen, where I actually prefer getting the green salad rather than a mac salad.  It is partly due to their zesty lemon miso dressing, but it's primarily because you get a nice serving of Waimanalo greens, and not some dinky iceberg lettuce.   But the star attraction of course is the fish.   The classic furikake crusted, seared ahi is definitely my favorite dish there.  The fish is as local, fresh, and high quality as Ray's, and it is as well prepared as Kaka'ako Kitchen's.   I really can't give it any higher praise than that.  The ahi is just perfectly seared, not overcooked like in some places which makes it dry and tough, and almost like canned tuna.  This is still moist and tender, with a very generous coating of furikake.   Add to that a wonderfully creamy, garlic aioli, that really compliments the flavor of the fish.  My only complaint would be that the portions you get don't compare at all to Ray's (notice how you only get 1 scoop of rice and not 2).   But it's worth it for one of the most perfect fish lunches on island.

Nothing compares to the satisfaction of hauling in your own fish, but if you're in a pinch for lunch and are craving fish, Nico's is the place to go.   Just tasting the fish there, gives you the feeling of being out on the water, a perfect escape in the middle of a long work day.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Stuffed to the Gills

As my Christmas gift to you, I thought I'd throw up my "recipe" for the Chinese style lup cheong stuffing that I concocted.  Technically, this is a dressing and not a stuffing, because it never actually gets "stuffed" inside of the turkey.   However, if you call it a "dressing", people immediately think of salad dressing, and thanks to Stove Top the word "stuffing" has become standard nomenclature.   It's a pretty simple recipe, which was good, seeing as how my Christmas day was busy enough, and I needed something easy enough to put together between opening presents and visiting relatives.  

Stuffed Duck from Golden Duck Restaurant
The classic approach to Chinese stuffing is seen in Cantonese stuffed duck.   The stuffing consists of barley, minced mushrooms, ginkgo nuts, and occasionally some water chestnut.   It's a very earthy mixture.   The only thing is that I don't really care for barley.  I adore the duck that surrounds the stuffing, it is perhaps the most tender duck preparation of them all.  And the skin.  The skin is just melt in your mouth to die for.  The most buttery, outrageously soft skin anywhere.  But I just don't care for the stuffing inside of that duck, mainly because I just don't like the texture of barley.   So I came up with my own recipe for Chinese stuffing based on an entirely different Chinese flavor set, lup cheong (or Chinese smoked sausage) and hau yau choi sum (oyster sauce choi sum). 

So here is what you'll need:
    Ingredients for my Chinese Style Lup Cheong Stuffing
  • 1 package of lup cheong (or Chinese smoked sausage) - Don't buy the brand from Costco, it tastes funny
  • 2 bundles of fresh choi sum - It may seem a lot, but remember vegetables shrink a lot when you cook them
  • 1 bag of unseasoned bread crumbs or stuffing mix
  • 1 can of sliced ma tai (or water chestnuts)
  • some doong gu (black shiitake mushrooms)
  • some ha mai (the little dried shrimp)
  • some hau yau (oyster sauce)
  • some shoyu
  • and 1 can of chicken broth
Here's the prep:

Soak the dried doong gu in water.    You pretty much always have to do this when cooking with doong gu, in order to rehydrate them.   The water itself is pretty useful too, as it will contain all the flavor of the mushrooms.

Slice up the lup cheong into little 1/2 finger digit pieces.   If you want your stuffing chunkier you can make them a little larger.

Slice up the choi sum in the same lengths as the lup cheong.  

Here's what you do:

First fry up the lup cheong.   Ideally, you want to use a non-stick pot, because then you can just toss them in without any additional oil.   The oil from the lup cheong itself will come out, and you can use that to saute the rest of your ingredients.  You don't need to use really high heat either, around 75% heat will do.  Now, you really want to pay attention here.   Because it was Christmas and I was so rushed, and I wanted to take pictures to put up here, I wasn't watching the pot like I should have been.   You need to keep stirring this dish, otherwise things start to burn.  So my lup cheong got a little charred.   It wasn't so much that you could taste the burn, but it was more black than I wanted it to be   You really just want a nice dark red color, just as it begins to char.

When the lup cheong is ready.  Turn the heat down to about 50%.   You can throw in your ha mai and your waterchestnuts.  Drain off most of the water, and you can throw in your mushrooms as well.   Pour in the shoyu and oyster sauce to taste.   Be careful when putting in that oyster sauce.   It's very strong stuff, and if you put too much of it in, your stuffing will come out pretty salty.  Stir this around for a few moments to let it saute together.

After a few moments of cohesion, toss in all of your choi sum.   The 2 bundles is going to seem like an awful lot, and will probably fill the pot to the brim.    But keep in mind that vegetables seriously shrink when you cook them.   So just stir everything around for a while, and very soon your vegetables will be on par with everything else.

Now turn down the heat again to about 30% and cover the mixture with your chicken broth.   1 can ought to be enough to just cover all of the ingredients.   If it isn't you can add more, but remember, if you add too much your stuffing will be too soggy.  

Finally, add about half the bag of stuffing mix.   That should be just about the right ratio of breadding to stuff.   If it seems too salty for you, you can always add more bread, but if it seems to bland, there really isn't any way to take the extra breadding out.   So add it in small increments until the ratio looks right.  Keep mixing until you've got a nice stuffing consistency.   Then turn the heat down to about 10%, and cover and let it simmer for a few moments.   This makes everything meld together into a cohesive mixture.

Congratulations, you've just made Chinese Lup Cheong Stuffing!

Cooking is fun isn't it?   My mom said told me she is often surprised that in Chinese families, it is the men who are the better cooks.   That's because Chinese men really like to eat, so they have a passion for cooking and creating something that tastes good.  It is a passion that I want to instill into my boys.   That's pretty much how it panned out at Christmas, when I helped my first son make his first tuna macaroni salad.  He entusiastically gobbled down his own creation with pride and joy.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Mele Kalikimaka

The Chistmas holiday is always jam packed for us.   It really begins on Christmas Eve.  Other children can't wait for Christmas morning to rush down to the Christmas tree and tear into their presents.  But when I was really little, my parents would let me wait up until midnight on Christmas Eve, and then open all of my presents.   This was a holdover from my dad's childhood, because when he was little and times were tougher his parents worked at their business, Goo Laundry, every single day of the year, Christmas included.   So he would have to open his presents at night rather than in the morning.  As a result, I never really had to wait for Santa, because on the stroke of midnight, I would have my presents in hand already.  Christmas Day was then spent, first at my mom's side for lunch with more presents, and then at dinner with my dad's side and more presents still.   It was a really hectic schedule, and as I grew older, we eventually conslidated everything to Christmas night (which meant that we now opened presents later than everyone else who did Christmas morning).  When I got married, things changed again, and when I had kids things changed yet again.   I think it's something that every young couple in Hawaii faces, simply because whereas on the mainland going home to family means travelling to different cities, in Hawaii its a matter of a 15 minute drive and you've got to juggle both sides of your family.

My Strawberry Sugar Free Jello Christmas Cookies
This year, Christmas Eve was thankfully quite peaceful.  After an early dinner with my wife's family at Golden Duck, and checking on Santa's status via NORAD, we were able to tuck our kids in to bed and have a quiet night for just the two of us.  We turned off all the lights except for the Christmas lights and settle in to snuggle and wait for Santa.  But in waiting for Santa, it dawned on me that we didn't have any cookies for him (or ourselves).   In years past, I would really enjoy the ready to bake sugar free cookies from Pillsbury, but recently I haven't been able to find them in any of the stores.  I'm not even sure that Pillsbury still makes the sugar free ones.  So I had to settle for a sugar free recipe from the Internet.  Unfortunately, while I may be a pretty decent cook, baking is a complete mystery to me.   It may be because cooking to me is all about improvisation and artistic interpretation, whereas baking requires rigid adherence to a set recipe.   My wife is a far better baker than I am, and my feeble attempt at baking cookings was both laughable and nigh unedible.  They had a bizarre doughy center, that resembled sticky mochi within stale bread.  My wife likened them to something Dr. Seuss would've cooked up.   But at least they smelled good, filling the house with a comforting strawberry baking smell.   So we had cookies and some sugar free hot chocolate.  We put on a little fireside music from Hapa.   And we settled in under the Christmas tree to open our presents to each other.   It was so very romantic.   Let me tell you, a lit Christmas tree on Christmas Eve is so much better than mistletoe (which is usually infested with nargles anyway).  

Christmas day was another story.   For me, the stroke of midnight on Christmas Eve meant tearing into my presents, but in my wife's childhood it meant attending Midnight Mass.   Since the advent of our children however, Christmas morning mass has been much easier.  So we all got up (way too early for me), to head off to church like good little sheep.  Then we went over to her parents house to open presents there.   Following which, we had lunch at Tsukiji Fish Market (which was packed to the brim with people).  Then we came home and let our kids open our own presents to them.   After which, I just crashed for an hour or so (which was bad because my wife really need the sleep even more than I did).   Only to wake up just in time to cook our dishes for dinner, before heading up to my parents house for Christmas dinner and opening even more presents.   It's a frankly a little exhausting, a little overhwelming, and by the end you're running on nothing but pure adrenaline.  But then again, it's Christmas, and if your biggest problem is how to cram in time with all the people that love you, you're in pretty good shape.  In the end, you're left with nothing but a a feeling of joy, love, and happiness.

Our Christmas Feast 2009
Christmas dinner in my family, is essentially Thanksgiving dinner, Part II.  Like Thanksgiving, each of us cooks something to bring to the table.   In order to try to not repeat ourselves, we attempt to bring something a little more seasonal to the table.  It's usually winds up being all kapakine, but at least it gives us a big variety of styles and given the expertise in the kitchen my family has, it's always scrumptious.

My Mom's Turkey
In the past, my mom has made honey glazed hams or some beautiful crown roasts to differentiate Christmas from Thanksgiving.   But since my sister moved to the mainland, and hasn't been home for Thanksgiving, we've been having turkey again at Christmas, just so she has a chance to enjoy it as well.   None of us ever complain about it, because my mom's turkey is simply the best in the world.   While other turkeys can easily get dry and tough, my mom's is always supremely succulent and flavorful.   And of course, it gives me a second chance to enjoy my precious turkey tail.  Besides, as Mel Torme sang "A turkey and some mistletoe help to make the season bright."

My Mom's Christmas Bun Wreath
To add a more Christmasy element to her contributions, my mom also baked a festive Christmas wreath of buns.  They were nice and herby, and as visually appealing as they were tasty.  

My Chinese Style Lup Cheong Stuffing
Since I knew my mom was making turkey, I decided to make stuffing, but not just any stuffing.  I decided to give it a local spin, and make a Chinese style, lup cheong stuffing.   For one thing, I figured that the red and green of the lup cheong and the choi sum would make it a little bit more visually festive than the usual Thanksgiving-esque earthtones of regular stuffing.  Besides that, you gotta cook to your audience, and naturally my family really enjoyed the Chinese flavors.  For me, the contrast of the strong Chinese flavors like lup cheong, ha mai, and hau yau (oyster sauce), against the traditional Americana of the turkey and mashed potatoes, is in minature what our lifestyle is all about.

My Sister's Chiles en Nogada
My sister, being home from the mainland, brought to the table some new (and frankly quite foreign) flavors with her Chiles en Nogada, a Puebla dish that she learned from the SF Gate.  Like me, she chose the dish because of the green and red colors of the chiles and the pomegranate seeds (which really were strikingly beautiful).  However, unlike mine which was filled with familiar comforting flavors, hers was an excursion into some vastly unfamiliar territory.   The pork tenderloin was quite tasty with a Mexican spiced crema sauce to it.  Like how you usually see pork chops served with applesauce, her cubes of pork were offset by cubes of Korean pear.  But whereas the Korean pear is sweet familiar flavor, the pomegranate seeds on top are certianly not.   All of which were kicked up with the spiciness of the chiles.   It was my first time ever trying fresh pomegranate seeds, whose bright red colors are so vividly alluring.  They are sweet, but with a bit of a bitterness to them as well, and I frankly don't care for the hard seeds within.   In fact, whereas in my dish everything kind of softens and converges in texture, hers was a complete rocky road of pork cubes, pear cubes, and hard little pomegranate seeds.  It was tasty and brilliantly executed, but at the same time underscored the different person she's become and a reminder of how we've grown apart since she's been gone.   It's something I try very hard to get used to, and I really try to get to know the person she is now, but it isn't always easy.

My Wife's Cauliflower Medley Casserole
While my sister and I are quite different the way we were when we were kids, my wife and I seem to grow more like each other over time, the way that all married couples take on each other's traits.  This Christmas, she walked in to Foodland, not having any idea what to cook, and just looked around to listen to the food for inspiriation.   For someone who rigidly sticks to the recipes, this was something that just put a smile on my face.   What she saw, were all different colors of cauliflower; orange, purple, green brocoflower, and the original white.   So it dawned on her to make a classic casserole out of all of these different colored cauliflowers.  It was at once beautiful, tasty, and inspired.   Of course the whole day, she was worried that it would be a lame dish, after all it was "only cauliflower".  But as I expected, everyone loved it.   My uncle even said that he could discern the slightly different flavors of each different color (some being more bitter than others).  I'm not sure if this was a trick of the mind or not, but it was creamy, cheesy, and delicious.

My Aunty's Mashed Potatoes with Potato Skins
My aunty of course made her awesome traditional mashed potatoes.   This time, she opted for a little bit of cream of mushroom in it just to give it an even more creamy texture and just the hint of mushroom flavor.  It was just a little so as not to overpower the awesome potatoey goodness of real potatoes.  This time, she also decided to remove the potato skins instead of mixing them in as I usually request.  But she baked them separately, giving them a fantastic crispiness, akin to that of stomping on dried leaves.  They were a fantastic contrast in texture and color as garnish, with even more potatoey goodness to add.

My Aunty's Stuffed Mushrooms
Aunty also decided to thow in a few stuffed mushrooms.   With mushrooms and potatoes, she was basically catering to my wife with her favorite foods.   The mushrooms were plump and mouthwateringly juicy, and a perfect little side dish.

My Son's Tuna Macaroni Salad
Finally, to indoctrinate our traditions into my son, as well as to pass on my passion for cooking (and to keep him busy while I was trying to cook my dish), we again tried to bring him into the kitchen for his own contribution.   Of course, being only 4 years old, we were limited as to what would be safe for him, keep his attention, and not overstretch his abilities.   So I thought back to my own beginnings as a cook, and pulledout a Hawaiian classic, macaroni salad.  As it basically just involves a lot of mixing, it was perfect for him.   He just sat there mixing, while I helped him throw in some macaroni, mayonnaise, tuna, peas, a touch of pepper and a little relish.  The result was a dish that he could proudly call his own, and that the family could gush over in front of him.   He actually enjoyed eating it as much as he did making it, having 3 big servings, before rushing off to tear into his presents. 

My Uncle's Okinawan Sweet Potato Pie
To top it all off, my uncle, made a fantastic Okinawan sweet potato pie.   Somehow the texture of the purple Okinawan sweet potato was a little better to me than the regular (orange) sweet potato pie he made for Thanksgiving.   The consistency was a little firmer and a little more even, while the filling he made for Thanksgiving was slightly on the mushy side for my taste.  Besides the even texture, the purple of the Okinawan sweet potato is always such a beautiful, striking color to me.  It was the perfect way to top of the evening, after opening all of those presents and putting some exhausted babies to sleep.

Christmas may be plain exhausting and a little unduly stressful, but it also means family, and food, and a literal feast for every single one of your senses.   It always fills me with an inescapable sense of magic and wonder and excitement that I thoroughly enjoy sharing with my boys and the rest of my family.

Friday, December 25, 2009

SushiFest - Part III : Trust Me

My sister came home for Christmas, and this year we decided to treat ourselves to a very special dinner, to spend some brother/sister quality time together.   I have read many, many sources saying that simply the best sushi on the island, is at Sushi Sasabune.  Period.   In fact, people just won't take you for a serious sushi afficionado unless you've been there.  But I've also heard that it was extremely pricey.   As it is the true sushi.  The gourmet sushi.  The sushi equivalent of buying the highest grade beluga caviar (at several hundreds of dollars an ounce, vs. the kind of caviar you can get from $15/jar at Foodland).   So it is one of those, once in a lifetime experiences, that you simply must try.  As a serious foodie, my sister is pretty much the only person I know who would appreciate and enjoy this level of sushi as much as myself.   So this year, we finally decided to give it a try, and I was very, very, excited about going.

I have heard many things about Sushi Sasabune.  For one thing, I've heard that the sushi chefs there are ridiculously strict about how to eat their sushi.   Sushi must not be cut in half (Cutting the sushi in half, is like cutting a boat in half.  The boat will sink.)  Each piece must be eaten in one bite.   Sushi should not be dipped in shoyu, unless allowed to do so by the chef.   Dipping the sushi from the rice side, is a no no (as the rice will absorb too much of the shoyu and fall apart).   Dipping the fish side only is difficult.   The proper technique is to use the pickled ginger to dip in the shoyu and brush it over the sushi.  Even when I called, the host wanted to make certain that I understood, "We serve only sushi.  We don't serve Japanese food.   We don't serve California rolls."  These rules have given Sushi Sasabune an image similar to that of the infamous Soup Nazi from Seinfeld.

The strict enforcement of these rules intimidates many people from wanting to try the experience.   But somehow this doesn't bother me at all.  For one thing, even in Western culture we've got rules about etiquette that we follow in a fine dining environment.   You're not supposed to put your elbows on the table.  You're supposed to use the right fork for the right course.  You're not supposed to talk with your mouth full, or open your mouth while chewing.   We don't complain about these rules because we've grown up with them.  The Japanese rules of sushi etiquette just take a little learning beforehand, and you will have the same level of comfort.   But besides that, I understand that when I cook a dish, many times I want my audience to eat it in a certain way, just so that I know that it tastes the way that I am trying to present it to people.   If, for example, they add a lot of shoyu (or any other condiments for that matter), it will be saltier than I had intended.  After spending a lot of time trying to find the right balance of seasonings and flavors, I don't want people to distrupt the flavors I'm trying to present.  Some people may think that enjoying food should be adjusted as a matter of personal preference, but then it's not what I, as the chef, have created.  You don't go up to the Mona Lisa and add a little flower in her hair because you think it would make her prettier.  Likewise, I want to pay my respects to the sushi chef  by eating it the way he wants to present it.   In fact, if I'm paying this huge amount of money to eat there, I definitely want him to tell me how he thinks his creation is best enjoyed.   I want to hear the story he has to tell, and not put words in his mouth.  My only qualm would be if they were unfriendly, rude, or obnoxious about their rules.   But they really weren't.  They were as attentive, friendly, and welcoming as any other fine dining restaurant in town.

Naturally, we didn't bother to order anything.   We went with the omakase, meaning we left it up to the chef to decide what he wanted to serve us.  This presumes he knows what his best dishes are, he knows what is fresh that day, and he will serve you what he thinks is best.  So, what did I have at this ultra elite, fine dining sushi experience?    What was the story that the chef wanted to tell?   Here it is, course by course:

Albacore Tuna & Blue Fin Tuna Sashimi in Ponzu Sauce at Sushi Sasabune
First up, was an appetizer of albacore tuna (white) and blue fin tuna (red) in ponzu sauce.   The first thing that I noticed, was that the tartnessof the ponzu sauce instantly woke up my mouth, and fired up all of my taste buds.   A good opening gambit.  The second thing I noticed was both tuna, were cut absolutely, unmistakably, perfect.  There was not a single vein in any piece of fish whatsoever.  It was incredibly smooth.  Though both tuna, the albacore definitely tasted different from the blue fin.   My sister liked the albacore better, whereas I thought the ponzu overpowered it a little.  I liked the blue fin a little better, as I thought it had a stronger fish taste, but she thought the reverse.

Squid Stuffed with Blue Crab at Sushi Sasabune
My next dish was a squid stuffed with blue crab.   The squid was a nice soft texture, but what made this dish was the crab.   The crab inside was just incredibly creamy, and full of crab flavor.   It puts any crab cake in the world to utter shame.  The sweetness of the sauce below was counter balanced by the strong roasted flavor of the sesame seeds on top.   All of which was just superb with the crab.

Hamachi Collar Nitsuke at Sushi Sasabune
My sister is allergic to squid.  Once in Nanjing, China, she had some squid that made her eyelids swell so much, they essentially swelled shut, making her look like a blind cave salamander.   So the chef happily took that allergy into accomodation and prepared her an alternate second course of hamachi collar.   If you've never had it, hamachi collar is pretty much the best part of any fish you will ever eat.  It is the most tender, perfect fish meat.   And his preparation was an awesome nitsuke style dish.  It was a very familiar shoyu flavor, and she just loved it.

Toro Nigiri at Sushi Sasabune
Our third course was the first actual sushi.  In this case, it was toro (or fatty tuna).   Frankly, I was suprised to see this dish so early on.   When you eat a piece of pear that's sweeter than an apple first, then you eat the piece of apple it seems kind of bland.  The same goes for sushi.   Usually you want your fattier pieces of fish to come later, otherwise you won't enjoy he leaner pieces as much.  But in any case the toro was excellent.   What I also immediately noticed, was that the rice was warm.  Body temperature in fact.  This is kind of odd when most places serve you chilled or room temperature rice.   But I really liked the warm rice.   It brought out the fish flavor more.  Imagine a piece of butter on room temperature bread.  Then imagine a piece of butter melting on warm bread.  That is essentially the difference with the warm rice at Sasabune. 

Flounder (top) & Amberjack (bottom) Nigiri at Sushi Sasabune
Our fourth course was a combination of amberjack and flounder sushi.   The flounder has a crunchier texture, similar to king clam.   Which was a nice contrast to the buttery, fatty, toro in the previous course.   The amberjack had a nice piece of toasted garlic on it that gave the entire piece of sushi a very strong garlic taste.   It was wonderfully garlicy, but I didn't taste the fish too much.  

Hamachi Nigiriat Sushi Sasabune
Our fifth course was hamachi.   I adore hamachi.  It is my favorite sushi fish of all, so I had very high expectations here.  Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed.   On the downside, the wasabi was just a little too strong in my piece, so it really overpowered everything else.   Also, the flavor of the fish just wasn't pronounced enough.   It should have been much fattier, more buttery, but it was just lost to the wasabi.   On the upside, that had one of the best textures I've had from any piece of hamachi anywhere.   So the texture was awesome, but the flavor of the fish not strong enough.   In fact, if there was one complaint my sister had throughout, this would be it.

Scallop (top) & Salmon (bottom) Nigiri at Sushi Sasabune
Our sixth course consisted of scallop and salmon.   The salmon, like the hamachi, just didn't have a strong enough salmon flavor.   It had a piece of pickled kelp on top which again overpowered the fish.   Again, it had a fantastic texture, but not enough salmon taste.   The scallop on the other hand was really huge, plump, and had one of the sweetest seafood tastes anywhere.  It was super sweet.

Oyster Dynamite at Sushi Sasabune
Our seventh course was a baked oyster (sliced into 2 bites for you).  It was hands down one of the plumpest, juicest oysters I've ever had.  They cooked it just right too, so it was still plump and tender, and hadn't started to get shrivelled up or tough.  It had a really strong oyster flavor, which was just complemented by the baked dynamite on top.  

Blue Shrimp (top)  & Mackeral (bottom) Nigiri at Sushi Sasabune
Our eighth course was a blue shrimp and spanish mackeral.  This dish seemed very out of place to me.   Following the oyster, both pieces seemed a little bland.   I have had much sweeter shrimp in other places.   So this dish was a little less memorable.   By this time, my sister complained that she was getting full, but I convinced her the better stuff was still coming.

Snow Crab (left) and Mackeral (right) Nigiri at Sushi Sasabune
Our ninth course was a different type of mackeral and a snow crab.   Again, the mackeral was not that memorable.   But then always prefer the buttery grilled saba, to the kind of sour sashimi or sushi mackeral.   The crab on the otherhand was fantastic.   The chef took the roux (or as my wife likes to call it the "green stuff"), out of the head of he crab, and made it into a sauce that he drizzled on the crab itself.  This nearly floored me.   The combination of crab roux and sweet crab meat was just awesome.   It gave it a truly intense crab flavor.   It may just be the greatest piece of crab that I have ever put in my mouth.  

Negitoro Nigiri at Sushi Sasabune
Or tenth course, was the negitoro.  Now, they serve negitoro at Genki Sushi, but that might as well be a completely different dish entirely.   This negitoro is the signature dish at Sasabune.   They take the fish and chopped it so fine, that it practically has the texture of whipped cream.  By pulverizing the fish, they also draw out much more of the fish flavor, than the regular piece of toro at the beginning.   It was superb, and easy to see why it's their signature dish.   I thought that this might be the last dish, as it was their signature, but there was much more to follow.

Spiny Lobster at Sushi Sasabune
Our eleventh course, was a spiny lobster.    The lobster was cooked absolutely perfectly.  It was just the right balance of tender and firm.   So it was just perfectly succulent.   But by this time, my sister is seriously complaining that she's over stuffed, so she didn't get to enjoy it too much.  Again, I thought that this might be the last dish, as lobster is a pretty substantial thing to end on, but we pressed on.

Unagi Over Tamago at Sushi Sasabune
Our twelfth course, was an unagi over a piece of tamago.   This was kind of innovative and interesting to me, because the chef substituted tamago for sushi rice.  The tamago was a very soft spongy texture, which is worlds better than the tamago you usually get in your bento from Shirokiya.  But again, this dish seemed out of place for me, because it was far less interesting than the crab, or negitoro, or lobster.   At this point, my sister decided she just couldn't stomach any more, and told the waiter to stop for her.   I on the other hand elected to keep going, for two reasons.  Firstly, I didn't want to stop short, and not get my full money's worth.   Secondly, and more importantly, I didn't want to cut short the story the chef was telling.   As I explained it to my sister, you don't read a mystery novel, and quit before you find out who done it!   I wanted to ride the train to the very last stop to see where the chef was going with it.

Blue Crab Temaki at Sushi Sasabune
For my thirteenth course, I got a blue crab hand roll.   Now this was the same blue crab that I had gotten at the very beginning.   While still extremely flavorful and creamy, I couldn't really understand why the chef had elected to repeat himself.  This story was starting to not make any sense to me.   On the other hand, as it was a hand roll, I figured the chef was just trying to fill me up with rice, as you would towards the end of a meal for diners who are still hungry.  While the crab was tasty, it was still kind of ordinary to me.

Butterfish with Monkfish Liver Sauce at Sushi Sasabune
For my fourteenth course, I got a butterfish.   But instead of done, misoyaki style, as we're used to in the islands, the chef made a sauce out of monk fish liver and poured it over the butterfish.   Monkfish liver has been called the foie gras of the sea, so I was very excited to get to try it.    However, at this point, I asked the waiter how many more courses there were, and he told me that the chef just keeps going until you tell him to stop.   A little alarmed now, I politely told him that that would be it for me.   Since I was a little frazzled by this new information, I really didn't get to enjoy the butterfish that much.  

Not understanding how the omakase concept worked at Sasabune had 3 huge drawbacks that threw a big damper on our evening.   Firstly, my sister had a huge tummy ache, and she moaned practically the whole way home.   Had she known we could've stopped at any time, she probably would've stopped way before hand, and saved herself some pain.

Secondly, my understanding was that it would be a fixed price for the omakase course, like a prix fixe menu.  But, even though we hadn't ordered ala carte, they were charging us for each dish we ate.  So as we were eating more and more, we were racking up the tab.  Since almost 90% of the menu was imported from around the world (like Japan and New Zealand), with very little local ingredients, you would expect it to be pretty pricey.    In total, for the whole evening (including tax and tip), we paid $250 for just the two of us!   I was expecting it to be expensive, but that was even more than I had anticipated.   Doing the calculation, it was roughly $10 per plate on average (compared to Genki Sushi where it is roughly $2 per plate).   Sasabune, has a 4 plate per person minimum, so had we known, we could've spent $80 minimum for the two of us.  

Thirdly, and the thing that was the most disappointing to me of all, was that this meant that there was no story that the chef was trying to tell.   There was no logical progression from dish to dish, one leading to another, the chef building up to a climax and a denouement.  This was just the chef slapping together whatever the hell he felt like making.  This was especially disappointing, because like my example of the apple and the pear, certain foods must preceed others as to not be overpowered.  For a restaurant that places so much emphasis on precisely how the food should be eaten and enjoyed, for the price I was paying for the chef's expertise and artistry, not having a planned progression was a huge let down.   It's like hiring J.K.Rowling to come and play with your magnetic poetry board, rather than to write. 

Having experienced probably 75% of their menu, the next time I visit Sasabune, I would probably just order ala carte.   Conforming to their 4 plate minimum, I would probably pick the squid stuffed with blue crab, the oyster dynamite, the snow crab, and the negitoro (not necessarily in that order). I might get the lobster, or the albacore and blue fin tuna in ponzu sauce too.   Then again, having experienced Sasabune once in my life, I think I'm pretty satisfied.  I really did enjoy it.  They certainly showed extremely high quality ingredients, and an absolute mastery over their preparation.  My own lack of understanding should not be counted against them.  I will say this for certain, that is one dining experience that I will never forget.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Fantastic Filipino Food

So, this one started out as a bet between my sister and myself.   Having explored the extent of Filipino fast food, at places like Golden Coin, and having thoroughly enjoyed Andrew Zimmern's adventures in the Philippines, I really wanted a taste of the real, authentic, homemade Filipino food.  I wanted to begin exploring my own backyard for some place serving the real thing.  Now, my sister has quite a number of Filipino friends from Hawaii, who she met in school on the mainland.   So I asked her, to ask them, where to find the really good Filipino food here in Hawaii.  I wanted insider knowledge.   Just as I could rattle off the best Chinese places, I wanted a local Filipino guy to tell me where all of the good Filipino places were.   Her response was that, while available on the mainland, it simply didn't exist in Hawaii.  I was immediately, simply taken aback.   How could that possibly be true, when we have such an incredibly large Filipino population.  Even moreso, how could it be available on the mainland but not here, when we have such a big Filipino community.  Her rationale was that the Filipino population here is more prone to eating at home than eating out.  Therefore, there are no restaurants that serve the really good Filipino food.   Whereas on the mainland, everyone's so independant, that they don't eat at home with their families, and the demand for authentic Filipino food is greater.  While logical, I just couldn't believe that our local Filipinos community wouldn't have something really authentic and good to offer the rest of the us, their plantation neighbors.   So I set off on another quest, to find the really good Filipino food here, and more importantly to prove my sister wrong.

The Filipinos came to work on our sugar cane plantations very shortly after the Koreans, in 1906.  Like the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, they quickly found a new home in these islands, and fast friends in their island neighbors.  The neighborhoods of Kalihi and Waipahu became predominantly Filipino.  Driving in Kalihi is always fun because you get to see the fancy Filipino architecture, immediately recognizable by the balconies and the colors.  In my quest to find the good Filipino food, I again looked to Frank DeLima's "Filipino Christmas".   The one (to the tune of  "Oh come let us adore him"), "You'll find us in Waipahu!  You'll find us in Waipahu!" seemed like a veritable sign for me.  And indeed, I did find them, and good food, in Waipahu.  

The name that kept popping up in Waipahu for the best Filipino food, was Thelma's Restaurant, right on Farrington Highway.  So one day after visiting a client in Waipahu, I decided to pop in to Thelma's.  The first thing that surprised me, was that they were offering a lunch buffet.  Like the Indian buffet at Zaffron, this was a wonderful way to first get exposed to real Filipino food.  There were about a dozen dishes, most of which were completely unfamiliar to me.  The most predominant thing that you notice about Filipino food in general, is that while using many of the similar flavors to all Asian cuisine, like shoyu and fish sauces, there is a distinctly sour component to many of the dishes.  They love sour fruit juices and vinegar.  This combined with the pungent fish sauces, make a distinctly Filipino flavor.    Thelma's is a great way of trying a wide variety of new dishes.  While this gives the buffet a distinct advantage, the drawback is that you are unable to really familiarize yourself with a few representative dishes.  You aren't able to name any dishes, or really understand their composition.  Additionally, buffet food is never the highest quality, since it sits there for so long.   So while a fantastic cursory overview, to really get familiar, and make some favorites, you need to move beyond the buffet.

After a bit of additional research, I found the place that I would consider (as many do) the best Filipino food on the island.  It is a little restaurant right on River St. called Mabuhay Cafe.   It was a little intimidating at fist, being a non-Filipino walking into this restaurant.   I was a bit afraid it would be like walking into a saloon in those old Westerns, were everyone suddenly stops talking and turns to stare at you.   But they certainly made me feel welcome.  Their walls, are completely covered with Filipino luminaries that have graced their tables.  I took it as an instant sign of quality that they had a picture of Ben Cayetano on their wall.   If the place was authentic enough to satisfy our own Filipino governor, then it must be good.   The only problem with Mabuhay Cafe is that they're located in a somewhat unsavory part of town.   Even parking across the street, I was accosted by a druken crazy person offering me his sage advice.  It's not the kind of place, I would want to take a date, or any female friend for that matter.   Then again, once walking through the doors, you're in an oasis of good food. 

Pork Adobo at Mabuhay Cafe
As the baseline for a visit to any Filipino restaurant, you just have to try the adobo.   It gives you a good reference point, but besides that, not having the adobo is like learning about Japanese food and never trying sushi.   Adobo is so iconic of Filipino cuisine, that you simply need to try it.   But when I tried the pork adobo at Mabuhay cafe, my jaw almost dropped.   Their adobo was quite simply the best adobo I've ever had in my life.  It was like I had never tasted real adobo before.   Their meat was incredibly tender.  Fork tender, the way you can only get it if it's stewed for a really really long time.   While it had some vinegar taste, it was very light.  Some adobo I've had is overpoweringly sour, but theirs wasn't sour at all.   The most distinctive spice in fact was black pepper, but it wasn't ground pepper you taste.  That kind of flavor only comes from whole peppercorns, that have again been stewed long enough to infuse the meat with their flavor.   It's a little oily, but it's a very flavorful oil.  All in all, it wasn't nearly as overpowering as other adobo, and much more savory.  It's one of those classics, that even the uninitiated can recognize is a classic.

Pork Gisantes at Mabuhay Cafe
Following the adobo, I opted for another classic dish, pork gisantes.   Like the adobo, I've had gisantes where the tomato is very strong and sour.   But their gisantes is just wonderfully savory.  The peas have a really strong flavor, giving it almost the taste of split pea soup.   But unlike split pea soup, where the peas are nothing but mush, giving it a baby food texture that I've never liked, the peas in the gisantes are still whole, and though soft, still have enough distinct texture to that I really enjoyed it.  Again, the best pork gisantes I've had in my life.

Crispy Pata at Mabuhay Cafe
I wanted to have lechon, but looking on the menu, I found something that was a little more interesting.   Instead of roast pork belly, they have deep fried pig's feet, called crispy pata.   I'm used to pig's feet being in soup, and being basically a melt in your mouth skin.   The crispy pata on the other hand, turns the skin into an uber crunchy pork rind.  And I have no idea how they find so much meat in the pig's foot, but it's very meaty.   It's not like lechon or roast pork, where you've got layers of fat and layers of meat.   The meat here is just meat, but it's the perfect meaty texture.   Some people may be a little scared to try pig's feet, but once you get a bite of that awesome crunchy skin, you're hooked.

Fried Tilapia at Mabuhay Cafe
Filipinos are also well known for their fried fishes.   When done right, the fish is fried to the point where the fins and the tail take on the texture of potato chips.  It's awesome.   They're also known for using a fish that the rest of us consider somewhat repuslive, tilapia.    In Hawaii, the tilapia swims in some of our most poluted streams (like Nuuanu stream itsef).   Since tilapia takes on the flavor of whatever it's swimming in, most of us feel that eating tilapia is roughly the equivalent of shoving garbage in your mouth.   My dad said that he used to have Filipino co-workers that would even fish the tilapia out of Nuuanu Stream.  He said that the trick was to throw the fish into a tank of fresh water for about a week or two, continually changing the water.   Doing this, essentially flushes all of the nasty taste out of the fish.  I'm not anxious to try it, but I'm sure that the tilapia served at Mabuhay Cafe is farm raised.   It's delicious, and even my dad, who isn't as big a fish eater, he realy enjoyed their fish.  The best part is the cheeks in the head, and the collar right behind the gills.  

Filipino food has a bad stigma for dishes like black dog and balut.  While neither of these dishes are on the menu at Mabuhay Cafe, there are other dishes that most people would find a little frightening.   Dinuguan, for example is basically a stew of pig guts and blood.   The velvety, dark black color, reminiscent of a squid ink stew, is a little scary to the Western palate.   I myself would love to try it, but I'm just not allowed to eat internal organs anymore.  As I really love ox tail, I was intrigued by their kare kare, which is a sort of peanut butter flavor stew.  The problem again, is that it's cooked with tripe, which I'm not allowed to eat.  Mabuhay Cafe also has some prominent goat dishes on the menu, something I've never found on any other menu around the island.   Being quite fond of the gamey taste of lamb, I thought that I would really enjoy goat as well.   Unfortunately, goat has a lot of small, brittle bones that shatter and must be picked out of your food.  The little bones made the goat somewhat less enjoyable for me, so I'm not as fond of it.  

Admittedly there are some flavors that I just aren't that appealing to me.   They have a vegetable soup called sinigang, which has a very sour tamarind flavor.   I'm not really fond of sour soups, so sinigang just isn't very appetizing to me.   Probably the most famous Filipino vegetable dish is a mixed vegetable stir fry called pinakbet.   It's got all kinds of vegetables in it.  Most people don't care for it, because it's flavored with bagoong (their famous shrimp paste, similar to Chinese harm ha), which has a very strong flavor.   I personally love harm ha, so I have no problems with the pungent flavor, but the main vegetable in the mix is one that I just don't like, bitter melon.   Bitter melon is something that my Po Po used to love, and something my dad really enjoyed as he got older.   We figured that as you get older, your taste buds aren't as accute as they are in your youth, so stronger flavors like bitter melon appeal to you more.  But as kids, we just don't like it.   So every year, we take a little taste, shudder, make a horrid face, and say "nope, I'm still young!"

Mabuhay Cafe is easily the best Filipino food I've ever eaten, and a great place to try exciting new flavors.   The best part about it was, that I definitely won my bet with my sister.   We really do have excellent authentic Filipino food here, as we should considering how big a part of our island community the Filipinos have been.