Jook box

Here’s another brief dispatch from Hong Kong.

This morning, despite an intense craving for thick toast, I resolved to get some street food for breakfast, so I walked over to the cooked food hawker center on Temple Street where I’d seen people eating before sunrise.

I stepped inside a dim covered area and up to a stall, seen above, where an assortment of fresh ingredients sat ready to be pressed into service at the customer’s whim. I was (sorry!) briefly reminded of Subway. This is only two blocks off bustling Nathan Road, thick with tourists, but nobody here spoke English and there were no other Westerners.

The place specialized in jook (aka congee, okayu, rice porridge, 粥), a popular breakfast throughout Asia, and I ordered by pointing and smiling and shrugging a lot. The cook put a few slices of raw fish into a bowl, ladled in the porridge, and garnished it with scallions, whole Spanish peanuts, and shredded ginger. I added a bit of hot sauce at the table. It was more than I could finish, the price was about US$1.50, and it was very good, especially any bite with a peanut in it.

Do you have any memorable breakfasts while traveling? I’d like to hear about them.

Thick as toast

Hey, folks! I’m in Hong Kong for a couple of days. Here’s a brief report.

Dragonfruit

At home in Seattle, Laurie drinks black tea with milk. I drink green tea. Neither of us will go near the other’s tea. She thinks green tea tastes like leftover water from boiling spinach. I think milky black tea is for English grannies. (I have nothing against English grannies except as culinary role models.)

In Hong Kong, however, I’m drinking milky tea several times a day and loving it. It’s called milk tea, and the way it’s made is preposterous. As I understand it: First you brew some very strong black tea, boiling the tea leaves for several minutes until you have an inky, astringent liquor, then strain it through a fine mesh cloth and mix it with heated evaporated milk. Sugar is optional; I skip it. Milk tea is deceptive: it looks like cafe au lait but is smooth, strong, and astringent. It would freak out an English granny.

I had my first mug of milk tea at a restaurant called Australia Dairy Company, a Hong Kong-style teahouse with no shrimps on the barbie. The tea came with a breakfast set consisting of scrambled eggs, macaroni soup with ham strips, and thick toast. The latter can take many forms but in this case was two slices of crustless toast glued together with a layer of melted butter. (Peanut butter is also popular.) None of this was any better than it sounds, and the service was neglectful, but the milk tea was wonderful.

My plan was to have one classic Hong Kong fusion breakfast and then dedicate my other mornings to rice and noodles and dim sum, but the following morning, I had a craving for more thick toast and ended up at a chain restaurant that sounds like a brand of condom: Maxim’s MX. It’s a cafeteria-style place where, for about US$3, I got more thick toast and milk tea, this time with a fried egg, a slice of ham, and a bowl of rice vermicelli soup topped with seasoned ground pork. It was good enough to wipe away the memory of macaroni soup.

Asian chain restaurants are the greatest. You can spend time on Chowhound hunting down the very best pork bun or ramen or wonton noodles, or you can go to a chain restaurant and eat a pretty-good version of what you’re after, without waiting on line or paying tourist prices. American chains are fast, cheap, and not very good; Asian chains complete the trifecta. I quite enjoyed the crispy roast pork belly at the Tai Hing chain, which I ordered with rice and “healthy vegetable”: steamed gai lan with oyster sauce. Gai lan, also known as Chinese broccoli, is HK’s favorite vegetable, sold from huge mounds at streetside vegetable stalls and in plastic bags at urban supermarkets like Wellcome and ParkNShop. I’ve seen many ParkNShop locations; none has offered parking.

Milk

These little supermarkets are wonderful. The Wellcome store down my street is in a basement and is much smaller than an American convenience store but sells enough appealing fresh ingredients to make me wish I had a kitchen.

Now, I’m off to have dinner in a building notorious for murders, electrical code violations, and smelly backpackers.

Toodles,
Matthew

Hot spot

A couple of weeks ago, as kids often do, Iris pulled a surprise. It all started with 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne pepper.

Laurie made classic American tacos for dinner, the kind you may have heard about on a recent Spilled Milk episode, and she made homemade taco meat from the Cook’s Illustrated recipe. That recipe includes a bit of cayenne pepper, which I usually leave out so as not to singe the tender palate of my wimpy child. You’d think after 16 years of marriage Laurie would have developed the ability to telepathically intuit my recipe modifications, but this is not the case, so she included the cayenne.

“Hey, these are spicy,” complained Iris. “Why did you make them spicy?” Then she ate four tacos. It was a shot-for-shot remake of the time she ate two spicy enchiladas before she turned one.

Since the taco incident, Iris has requested spicy tacos as her pick of the week. She goes around saying, “I love spicy food.” See, it’s true what they say: if you repeatedly serve a kid a food you want them to try, eventually they’ll dig in. It only takes seven years.

Anyway, Iris’s timing is good, because I’m in love with Fuchsia Dunlop’s new cookbook, Every Grain of Rice. Unlike Dunlop’s two previous Chinese cookbooks, which focused on Sichuanese and Hunanese cuisine, this one is an eclectic collection of recipes. But it’s the most inspiring recipe collection I’ve ever seen between two covers. I’ve cooked over a dozen recipes from it so far; nearly all are winners, and nearly all contain either hot oil or Sichuanese hot bean paste (doubanjiang).

I hate being told what to do, too, but hot oil is one of those ingredients that you simply have to make yourself; the commercial stuff is lousy. Luckily, making it is easy, because hot oil is simply any kind of neutral oil infused with spicy dried red chiles. You can use crushed red pepper like you’d find at a pizza joint. You can crush any kind of dried red pepper you find at an Asian supermarket, or use Mexican chile de arbol. Dunlop, however, recommends Korean chile powder (gochugaru), and I happened to have a sack in my freezer. I heated soybean oil with the chile powder and a bit of crushed ginger and sesame seeds, and a few minutes later I had an intensely red, fiery oil to use in recipes or just drizzle on noodles. It’s good in the fridge for several weeks, but I used it up long before that, and now I need to make more.

In the US, the fava bean will likely never shake off its association with Hannibal Lecter. Every spring, I bring home the leathery pods from the farmers market and enlist my family for help in the endless process of preparing them: peel off the outer pods, blanch the beans, slip off the inner jackets, then saute in olive oil. What looked like a generous pound of beans turns out to be a stingy pile of green ingots, but the flavor is worth it. This happens once each spring, and then I forget about favas until the following year.

Aside from cannibalism, then, fava beans are a symbol of the Alice Waters style of local, organic, European-inspired, don’t-mess-with-the-ingredients cooking. In Sichuanese cuisine, however, favas are eaten daily in the form of doubanjiang, and someone else has done all the hard work for you.

Most versions, including the bestselling Lee Kum Kee (which is available in many Western supermarkets), are made with soybeans, and they’re good, but the fava bean version is better: more complex, more of a fermented character. To find the real stuff, I went to Viet Wah, a Vietnamese grocery in Seattle’s International District, where I faced off against no less than three dozen different chile pastes. Eventually I found exactly one that was made in China and contained fava beans (billed on the label as broad beans). Here’s the one I bought:

Spicy sauce Chongqing maodahan soup base

I asked about it online, and it turns out (thanks to @dianalesaux on Twitter) that this is Sichuan hot pot base. It has added ginger and garlic, which plain doubanjiang doesn’t.

No matter. It’s terrific stuff, and I used it last night to make one of my all-time favorite recipes, Dry-Fried Chicken, from Dunlop’s earlier book Land of Plenty. It’s a recipe I’ve made in the past for me and Laurie when Iris is out clubbing, or whatever eight-year-olds do out on the town. Last night, however, Laurie was out and I found a couple of chicken thighs in the freezer, so I made this recipe, which consists of cubes of chicken cooked far longer than necessary in peanut oil and doubanjiang until the hot bean paste becomes a crust on the chicken and the meat itself takes on a pleasantly chewy texture. As the dish finished sizzling on the stove, I tasted a chicken chunk and said, “Whew! This is spicy.”

Iris looked unnerved, but she ate a ton of chicken, drank two glasses of water, and said, “Dada, you have got to make this again.”

So I’m going to need more doubanjiang. My friend Marc Schermerhorn just got back from a cooking class in Chengdu, Sichuan, and I asked him what kind to get. We found a sketchy-looking website selling all sorts of chile pastes and split and order of two kilos of what Marc believes is the stuff he used in Sichuan. Yes, two kilos. Marc is skeptical of my ability (not to mention his own) to use up a kilo of chile paste, but I have a pint-sized secret weapon.

A sneak preview of what I’m working on in Japan

The ‘Food Question’

The fishy and vegetable abominations known as “Japanese food” can only be swallowed and digested by a few, and that after long practice.  —Isabella Bird, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, 1880

Isabella Lucy Bird was an English eccentric, a proto-backpacker, never happy in her own country. She complained of illnesses and infirmities that were reliably cured by a jaunt to India, Hawaii, or or Baghdad. In the exotic land of Colorado, she had a torrid romance with a one-eyed outlaw called Rocky Mountain Jim. This episode was left out of her 1873 book, A Lady’s Ride in the Rockies.

In 1878, Bird went to Japan. She began in Tokyo and, with a backpacker’s determination to avoid tourist traps, set off up north on horseback through Tohoku to Hokkaido. Her adventures are cataloged in Unbeaten Tracks in Japan.

Reading travel writing from even a few decades ago is a real slog, not because of any language barrier but because even an incipient feminist hellraiser like Bird can’t help but portray the locals as zoo animals, and she often seems genuinely surprised when they have recognizable human emotions, just like Europeans. The contrast is bizarre. In the village of Irimichi, Bird notes with approval the beauty of ikebana flower arranging; the lending library that supplies village children with adventure stories; and the art of Japanese calligraphy:

Giotto’s O hardly involved more breadth and vigour of touch than some of these characters. They are written with a camel’s-hair brush dipped in Indian ink, instead of a pen, and this boy, with two or three vigorous touches, produces characters a foot long, such as are mounted and hung as tablets outside the different shops.

Good, good. Until…

[L]ater, an agonising performance, which they call singing, begins, which sounds like the very essence of heathenishness, and consists mainly in a prolonged vibrating “No.”

The essence of heathenishness!

The most heathenish aspect of the Japanese was their cuisine. “The ‘Food Question’ is said to be the most important one for all travelers,” she writes. “However apathetic people are on other subjects, the mere mention of this one rouses them into interest.”

So Bird brought along canned meats, brandy, soups, and other heavy crap. I imagine her astride a Seussian camel, the rear hump piled to the sky with European delicacies.

Admittedly, Bird’s trip was only a decade into the Meiji restoration. Meat-eating was still rare in Japan, and there were no ramen shops, no tonkatsu, no Yoshinoya beef bowl restaurants. Also no Meiji-brand candy.

But the availability of these foods probably wouldn’t have made much difference. A reputation is hard to shake. Before my first trip to Japan, I took a conversational Japanese class at the local university extension. One of my classmates was a middle-aged American woman who traveled regularly to Japan for business. I asked her what advice she’d give me for my first visit to the country. “Bring food,” she said. “The portions are so small, you’ll be hungry all the time.”

This was nonsense, and Bird, too, came to regret schlepping cans of deviled ham:

After several months of traveling in some of the roughest parts of the interior, I should advise a person in average health—and none other should travel in Japan—not to encumber himself with tinned meats, soups, claret, or any eatables or drinkables, except Liebig’s extract of meat.

Humans, it turns out, can digest the local food, even if it consists mostly of raw fish, rice, pickles, “rice beer” (sake), and a profusion of bean derivatives that would make George Washington Carver proud. Bird even enjoyed the tea:

The hot water is merely allowed to rest a minute on the tea-leaves, and the infusion is a clear straw-coloured liquid with a delicious aroma and flavour, grateful and refreshing at all times. If Japanese tea “stands,” it acquires a coarse bitterness and an unwholesome astringency. Milk and sugar are not used.

Much more on tea later.

Leibig’s extract of meat is an interesting story in itself. Later called Oxo, Leibig’s was a tarry concentrate made from heavily reduced beef stock. Its biggest competitor was Bovril, originally known as “Johnston’s Fluid Beef.” But enough about the irony of the English passing judgment on anyone else’s cuisine.


Umbrellas

Seattle is not an umbrella city. In Seattle, you find tourists by looking under umbrellas. There is more than a little spite underlying the Seattleite’s antipathy to standing under a parasol: if they’re going to tell us it rains all the time in Seattle, well, dammit, we can repel it with Gore-Tex and a bad attitude. (Actually, as you’re probably tired of hearing by now, it doesn’t rain that much in Seattle.)

Tokyo, meanwhile, sprouts umbrellas like mushrooms at the first threat of rain. The most popular umbrella is made of glossy clear vinyl and sells at convenience stores for ¥500. We have six of them: three bought on our first day at the FamilyMart; two more that came with our apartment, one that Iris and I bought in Ikebukuro after going out umbrella-less. We also have a child-sized polka-dot umbrella.

I’m still learning how to use an umbrella, and I keep pestering Laurie with Stupid Umbrella Questions and poking people with my umbrella spokes. Luckily, this is not New York, and people in Tokyo are far too polite to say, “Hey, watch it, fuckface.” Slowly, however, I’m learning the right moment to furl my umbrella in #1 Pretty Good Alley before entering the covered Nakano Sun Mall. And I’ve gotten used to repairing my umbrella by stuffing a couple of free-swinging naked spoke ends back into their plastic aglets before setting out.

Nearly every establishment in Tokyo offers either an umbrella stand or umbrella bags outside the entrance. This morning, in a downpour, I walked into the Nakano Starbucks with a dripping umbrella and apologetically asked, “Kasa wa…?” (What should I do with my umbrella?) An employee ran to the other entrance and brought me a plastic umbrella bag, which I clumsily slipped over my umbrella. I haven’t come close to mastering the umbrella bag, an impressively wasteful device which works like an umbrella condom and is similarly discarded after use. The bottom few inches of my umbrella always pudge out from the bottom of the bag like a muffin top.

Tokyo’s umbrella culture reaches full flower at Shibuya Crossing on a rainy day. Shibuya Crossing is probably the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world, although a claim like that is hard to verify. (Laurie visited what is allegedly Japan’s largest bathroom, a 64-stall behemoth at Venus Fort shopping mall. Like an American roadside attraction, Japan takes great pleasure in its superlatives.)

In any case, Shibuya Crossing certain feels like the busiest. It’s a multi-way pedestrian scramble; you’ve probably seen photos or seen it in Lost in Translation. Every three minutes, the light changes and three thousand pedestrians cross in all directions with amazingly little pushing and shoving, even when you jam three thousand umbrellas into the mix. The umbrellas are mostly the clear kombini special, but one in ten is solid color, or striped, or polka dotted, or solid color with two translucent wedges, a popular parasol-umbrella hybrid. The slow-moving color umbrellas are like hand-painted frames in a black and white movie. Climb to the second floor of Shibuya Station, or the Starbucks across the street, and you can watch this hypnotic ballet from above.

City life and umbrellas have been partners for a long time, because the modern umbrella is anything but modern: the extendable hub-and-spoke design goes back at least as far as first-century China. You can see this history in the kanji for “umbrella,” which is perhaps the most pictographic of all the kanji:


Noodle Breakfast

Finally worked up my courage to join the salarymen (and occasional women) for breakfast at the noodle stand across from Nakano Station. The noodle stand, which doesn’t seem to have a name, has a yellow awning reading INAKA SOBA UDON. I’m not sure whether Inaka (“country-style”) is the name of the place or just a description of the fare.

The noodle place can accommodate six diners, standing room only. You wait for a spot to open up at the counter, poke your head under the noren, and order fast. It’s not a place you walk into; you’re literally standing on the street while you eat. I scouted the joint for several days, trying to read snippets of the menu as I walked past, because I didn’t want to be the stammering foreigner holding up the line, or, worse, the self-important foodie who wants to discuss every aspect of the menu while everyone else is just trying to get to work.

Now that I’ve had my breakfast, I can tell you how it’s done. You will be shocked to learn that Inaka Soba Udon serves two dishes: soba and udon. You call out your noodle of choice, which is quickly refreshed in hot water and tossed into a pottery bowl, where it gets a ladle of shoyu-based noodle broth and a handful of sliced Japanese leeks. Leeks are much more common than scallions here, and they are delicious.

The trick is in the toppings. The menu at Inaka is just a list of potential additions to your noodle bowl. I took a quick look left and right, saw a kakiage (vegetable tempura cake) luxuriating in a neighboring bowl, and requested one for my soba, plus a raw egg. The serving process takes about ten seconds and is presided over by an old woman who I assume is the owner; she didn’t cook while I was there, but she takes the money and makes sure everything runs smoothly. You hand over the cash while the cook makes your noodles; that way you can run for the train as soon as you finish. My soup was ¥420, about $5. Other popular toppings are kitsune (fried tofu) and chikuwa, a sausagelike tube of fish paste which is tastier than it sounds.

My soba arrived steaming hot and fragrant from the negi and shoyu. I haven’t figured out how to eat Japanese noodles anything like a native: when I slurp, it makes the wrong kind of noise, and I’m always biting off noodles and letting them drop back into the bowl, which is a no-no. Furthermore, I looked down the counter and noticed I was the only one accumulating a palette of broth droplets in a six-inch radius around my bowl, which the owner discreetly wiped away occasionally with a towel. The kakiage became reassuringly saturated with broth; I’m learning to appreciate the texture of fried foods dunked in liquid, which is very common here. And I broke my egg yolk and stirred the egg into the soup. My favorite part of the meal was lifting the bowl to my mouth and drinking the broth, rich from egg and tempura grease and noodle starch, sturdy enough to fortify me for several hours of intense writing.

That’s not a joke. Really! This is the first morning that I haven’t found myself dreaming of Mister Donut around 9:30. I ate my soup as fast as I could but it wasn’t fast enough: the guy at the end of the counter who came in after me and, I was pleased to note, ordered the same thing I did, finished his soup before me and ordered a second bowl. The portions at Inaka are country-style. A second bowl would have killed me, but then, I was just walking a block to the Starbucks, not dashing for the Chuo Rapid and a day of meetings and piecharts and, uh, whatever it is businesspeople do.

Cool tools

Park Char Afflicted

Learning kanji involves lots and lots of writing by hand. I haven’t been in the habit of doing a lot of handwriting in, oh, thirty years–not since I convinced my elementary school teachers to let me hand in typed homework. And typing in Japanese is extremely simple (and fun) on any modern computer or smartphone or iPad.

But kanji can really only be learned by hand. (Actually, it can probably be learned by writing it with your finger on a touchscreen, but I’m too old for that to feel natural.) Right now I’m almost exactly one-third of the way through learning to write, from memory, the 2,100 “daily” kanji literate Japanese are expected to know. Perhaps it’s an exaggeration to say I’m one-third done, since at any given time I’ve forgotten about 20% of them, but at least I keep remembering 80% of a larger number.

In a couple of days I’ll share some of the agonies involved in writing kanji, but today I want to talk about the pleasures: the gear.

Because I spend an hour a day writing kanji, I wanted a good pencil and a good pen: a pencil because I make loads of mistakes that I want to erase, and a pen because modern kanji is very much in touch with its calligraphic roots, and sometimes it’s just more fun to write it with the proper pen. (As Alex Kerr notes in his book Lost Japan, doing Japanese calligraphy is a lot more fun if you have a drink in front of you.)

When I went to my local Kinokuniya branch to shop for writing implements, I found myself in a classic paradox of choice situation, faced with over a hundred mechanical pencils to choose from before I even stepped into the pen section. It was exactly like in the book Millions of Cats: each of the millions and billions and trillions of pencils seemed to be the prettiest. Do I choose based on lead thickness? Ergonomic gel grip? Cartoon mascot?

I bought a $3 pencil (because it was purple) and went home to do more research by visiting JetPens.com, which specializes in Japanese pens and pencils. That’s where I discovered Kuru Toga, the very definition of an obscure modern convenience you didn’t know you needed.

Kuru Toga is a spring-loaded gearworks that slowly rotates your pencil lead while you write. Follow the link and you’ll see a very Japanese comic explaining why you would want this. In short: you get a more consistent line and less lead breakage. It really works, and more important, you can see it working through a clear plastic window in the pencil. It’s not even that expensive: the model I linked to is the one I bought, for less than $10.

For when I’m in a swoopy calligraphic mood, I picked up a brush pen, another item I never knew existed until I went looking for it. It’s just what it sounds like: an ordinary-looking pen with a paintbrush tip.

There are three or four different types of strokes used for writing kanji. When you write with a pencil, you can be pretty lax about using the right kind of stroke and no one but the most fastidious Japanese language teacher will ever know. With a brush pen, there is no room for error. This is frustrating but also fun. The pen I bought, which was less than $5, has a brush on each end: one large, one small. (The caps nest, so you can pull the cap off either end and stick it onto the other end while you’re writing.)

Those kanji at the top of the post are a few I wrote with my brush pen. Feel free to make fun of them.