Monday, June 25, 2007

"Waiter, There's Deer In My Sushi"

Another interesting article a friend sent me. Tuna is one of my favorite kinds of fish to eat raw, so it's really sad to hear about the continuing shortage. And although I agree that chefs should try to get creative with their sashimi and sushi (I'm curious as to what deer sushi even tastes like), I still think there's no substitute for fresh slices of high-quality fish that melt in your mouth.

Photos courtesy of moi, of course :D

"Waiter, There's Deer in My Sushi"
By Martin Fackler
(c) 2007 The New York Times Company

TOKYO, June 24 — Sushi made with deer meat, anyone? How about a slice of raw horse on that rice?

These are some of the most extreme alternatives being considered by Japanese chefs as shortages of tuna threaten to remove it from Japan’s sushi menus — something as unthinkable here as baseball without hot dogs or Texas without barbecue.

In this seafood-crazed country, tuna is king. From maguro to otoro, the Japanese seem to have almost as many words for tuna and its edible parts as the French have names for cheese. So when global fishing bodies recently began lowering the limits on catches in the world’s rapidly depleting tuna fisheries, Japan fell into a national panic.

Nightly news programs ran in-depth reports of how higher prices were driving top-grade tuna off supermarket shelves and the revolving conveyer belts at sushi chain stores. At nicer restaurants, sushi chefs began experimenting with substitutes, from cheaper varieties of fish to terrestrial alternatives and even, heaven forbid, American sushi variations like avocado rolls.

“It’s like America running out of steak,” said Tadashi Yamagata, vice chairman of Japan’s national union of sushi chefs. “Sushi without tuna just would not be sushi.”

The problem is the growing appetite for sushi and sashimi outside Japan, not only in the United States but also in countries with new wealth, like Russia, South Korea and China. And the problem will not go away. Fishing experts say that the shortages and rising prices will only become more severe as the population of bluefin tuna — the big, slow-maturing type most favored in sushi — fails to keep up with worldwide demand.

Last year, dozens of nations responded by agreeing to reduce annual tuna catches in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans by 20 percent in an effort to stabilize populations. But the decision only seemed to crystallize growing fears in Japan about tuna shortages, helping to push up prices of the three species of bluefin — northern, Pacific and southern — that are considered the best tuna to eat raw.

Since the start of last year, the average price of imported frozen northern and Pacific bluefin has risen more than a third, to $13 a pound, according to Japan’s Fisheries Agency.

Wholesalers say that competition from foreign fishing fleets and buyers has made the top-quality tuna increasingly hard to come by here. Tadashi Oono, who sells big red slabs of tuna from a stall in the sprawling Tsukiji fish market of Tokyo, said that three years ago, he routinely sold two or three top-grade bluefin every day. This year, he said, he sometimes finds only two or three tuna of that quality to sell in a month.

Some culinary enthusiasts say the anguish over tuna shortages may also reflect deeper anxieties in Japan about its recent economic decline, especially when compared with neighboring China.

After World War II, tuna became a symbol of the economic might that allowed Japan to dominate the buying of tuna on world markets from Boston to Cape Town. Japan now consumes about 60,000 tons a year of the three bluefin species, or more than three-quarters of the world’s annual catch, according to the Fisheries Agency.

But as more top-grade tuna ends up in other countries, there are concerns that Japan could one day lose its status as global tuna superpower.

“Fish that would have gone to Tokyo are now ending up in New York or Shanghai,” said Sasha Issenberg, the author of “The Sushi Economy” (Gotham, 2007). “This has been devastating to Japan’s national esteem.”

The tuna shortage is also having a more concrete effect on menus at Japanese sushi bars. Fukuzushi, a midpriced restaurant in a residential neighborhood in Tokyo, is having a tougher time finding high-quality fish at reasonable prices.

The restaurant’s owner, Shigekazu Ozoe, 56, said the current situation reminded him of the last time he had no tuna to sell — in 1973, during a scare over mercury poisoning in oceans when customers refused to buy it. At that time, he tried to find other red-colored substitutes like smoked deer meat and raw horse, a local delicacy in some parts of Japan.

“We tasted it, and horse sushi was pretty good,” he recalled. “It was soft, easy to bite off, had no smell.”

If worse comes to worst, he said, he could always try horse and deer again. The only drawback he remembered was customers objecting to red meat in the glass display case on the counter of his sushi bar.

“One customer pointed and said: ‘You have something four-legged in your fish case? That’s eerie!’ ”

So far, top sushi restaurants have avoided the shortages by paying top yen for premium bluefin caught off domestic ports like Ouma in northern Japan.

“The prices of top-name tuna like Ouma are already as high as they can go,” said Yosuke Imada, owner of Kyubey in the upscale Ginza district of Tokyo. “What will happen is that the prices of lower grades of tuna will rise to catch up.”

That prospect worries Mr. Yamagata of the union of sushi chefs.

Mr. Yamagata, 59, has been experimenting with more creative tuna alternatives at Miyakozushi, a restaurant catering to the business lunch crowd that has been in his family for four generations. He said his most successful substitutes were ideas he “reverse imported” from the United States, like smoked duck with mayonnaise and crushed daikon with sea urchin. He said he now made annual visits to sushi restaurants in New York and Washington for inspiration.

“We can learn from American sushi chefs,” Mr. Yamagata said. “Sushi has to evolve to keep up with the times.”

Sunday, June 24, 2007

New Omelette Variation

As I mentioned in a previous post, I love omelettes. So I tried a new variation today using peas!

Pretty simple recipe. Just beat 3-4 eggs in a bowl, season with salt and pepper, and stir in the peas. Heat a frying pan and pour in the egg-and-pea mixture and cook over medium heat for 3-4 minutes until the mixture sets. It should turn a nice golden color. Cut and serve immediately. I like to sprinkle a little pepper on top for extra color and flavor.

I used canned peas because that's all I had, but frozen peas would add more color and freshly shelled peas would add more flavor. If you like mint, you could also add some chopped mint leaves to the egg mixture before frying - it'll be a refreshing and tasty breakfast!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

"Eating Beyond Sichuan"

A New York Times op-ed piece from June 15 that a friend forwarded to me. I definitely agree that Chinese food in its native land is vastly superior to what we're used to here in the states. If any revolution's occurring, I'm more than ready for it!

Accompanying photos courtesy of yours truly, of course :)

Eating Beyond Sichuan
(c) 2007 The New York Times Company

Twenty years ago, American perceptions of Asian food could be summed up in one word: “Chinese.” Since then, we have developed appetites for Korean, Japanese, Thai and Vietnamese fare. Yet while the quality of the restaurants that serve these cuisines, particularly Japanese, has soared in America, Chinese restaurants have stalled. For American diners, the Chinese restaurant experience is the same tired routine — unimaginative dishes served amid dated, pseudo-imperial décor — that we’ve known for years.

Chinese food in its native land is vastly superior to what’s available here. Where are the great versions of bird’s nest soup from Shandong, or Zhejiang’s beggar’s chicken, or braised Anhui-style pigeon or the crisp eel specialties of Jiangsu? Or what about the tea-flavored dishes from Hangzhou, the cult-inspiring hairy crabs of Shanghai or the fabled honeyed ham from Yunnan? Or the Fujianese soup that is so rich and sought after that it is poetically called “Buddha Jumps Over the Wall,” meaning it is so good that a Buddhist monk would be compelled to break his vegetarian vows to sample it?

Like so many other aspects of Chinese life, the culinary scene in China is thriving. As capitalism has gained ground there, restaurants have become a place for people to spend their newfound disposable incomes. Cooking methods passed down within families over the centuries have become more widely known as chefs brought the traditions to paying customers. Today, there are a number of regional cuisines known in China as the Eight Great Traditions (Anhui, Cantonese, Fujian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan and Zhejiang cuisines). Unless you’ve visited China, they most likely have never reached your lips.

That’s because the lackluster Cantonese, Hunan and Sichuan restaurants in this country do not resemble those you can find in China. There is a historic explanation for the abysmal state of Chinese cuisine in the United States. Without access to key ingredients from their homeland, Chinese immigrants working on the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s improvised dishes like chow mein and chop suey that nobody back in their native land would have recognized. To please the naïve palates of 19th-century Americans, immigrant chefs used sweet, rich sauces to coat the food — a radical departure from the spicy, chili-based dishes served back home.

But today, getting ingredients is no longer an issue. Instead, the principal obstacle to improving Chinese fare here is the difficulty of getting visas for skilled workers since 9/11. Michael Tong, head of the Shun Lee restaurant group in New York, has said that opening a major Chinese restaurant in America is next to impossible because it can take years to get a team of chefs from China. Chinese restaurateur Alan Yau planned to open his first New York City restaurant last year but was derailed because he was unable to get visas for his chefs.

If Henry Kissinger could practice “Ping-Pong diplomacy,” perhaps Condoleezza Rice could try her hand at “dumpling diplomacy”? China and the United States should work together on a culinary visa program that makes it easier for Chinese chefs to come here. With more chefs who are schooled in China’s dynamic new restaurant scene, we would see a transformation of the way Chinese food is served in this country.

Imagine, if you will, what it would be like to discover for the first time Memphis-style barbecue, New York deli food, soul food and Creole, Tex-Mex, Southwestern, California and Hawaiian cuisines all at once. Eating food prepared by an influx of Chinese chefs would be like opening up a culinary time capsule.

When authentic Chinese cuisines reach our shores, we can expect a revolution in ingredients and styles that will change the way we prepare food for years to come. Look how quickly our taste for offal, sous-vide cooking and tasting menus have grown. We have a much more ambitious dining culture today than we did 150 years ago.

So, we welcome Chinese chefs to share their authentic cuisines with us. American palates, unlike those of previous generations, are ready for the real stuff.

Nina Zagat and Tim Zagat are the co-founders of the Zagat restaurant survey.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Tiramisu Cream Puffs!

Beard Papa's makes the best cream puffs, and their current flavor of the week is tiramisu. Since I love their cream puffs and tiramisu is my absolute favorite dessert, I have been indulging in these cream puffs since Sunday. A light, fluffy pastry full of cream with flavors of espresso, mascarpone cheese, and cocoa. Just heavenly.

Too bad it's only the flavor of the week...I'll be very sad at the end of this week. But hopefully they'll keep bringing it back!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Home, Home on the Range

The latest gem I've discovered in the Mission District - Range, a restaurant where you can enjoy great California-style cuisine at reasonable prices in a sophisticated yet unfussy setting.

It's easy to pass right by Range and not even notice it, because its exterior is very simple and not glamorous at all (one of my friends even said its sign was too small). The interior, although simple as well, emanates sophistication without overdoing it. A subtle industrial theme runs throughout the restaurant, from the concrete bar to the metal lights to the aluminum-like tables. The industrial elements give the space enough quirkiness to make it memorable, but still don't ruin the overall coziness. Our servers were quick but not hurried, friendly but not stuffy.

The wine list was fairly extensive, although I wish they offered more wines by the glass. They also had an interesting list of speciality cocktails.

The best part of the dining experience was, of course, the food. For starters, we had asparagus soup and manila clams with spicy sausage. The soup was amazing - very light with just enough fresh asparagus flavor, with a small dollop of sour cream. The clams were cooked in a tasty broth, and the bits of spicy sausage and jalapenos added a nice zest.

Manila clams and spicy sausage ($12)

Asparagus soup ($7)

For entrees, one of my friends got the halibut with escarole, shiitake mushrooms, and bacon bits. The fish was very fresh and soft, with a semi-buttery texture that went well with the mushrooms. My other friend and I ordered the slow cooked pork shoulder with fava beans & bacon bits, which was quite heavenly. The pork was a little too much on the fatty side, but it was very juicy and tender.

Halibut with escarole, shiitake mushrooms, and bacon ($18)

Slow cooked pork shoulder with fava beans and bacon ($20)

And you can't go someplace this good and skip dessert - so we ordered a peach soup with bing cherries and shaved ice to end our great meal. Most of you are probably thinking, "Peach soup? What IS that?" I can assure you it's not some thick glop of peachy porridge. It's actually a very light juice of yummy peach flavor served cold in a bowl. The juice itself wasn't overly sweet, so the bing cherries were a nice touch. Definitely a refreshing dessert that anyone would have room for!

Peach soup with bing cherries topped with shaved ice ($8)

I am definitely going back to Range very soon! Their menu changes daily (for example, most of the things we ordered are not listed on their website), so it'll be exciting to see what they have next time. I've heard wonderful things about their lamb, and I would love to try their strawberry shortcake.

If all of this sounds appealing to you, go and check out Range for yourself! You'll feel right at home.

842 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 282-8283

Friday, June 8, 2007

Best of San Francisco

I was tagged in a meme by fellow food-blogging buddy Passionate Eater to make a post on my five favorite places to eat in San Francisco. It took me a little while to narrow the list down to five, since there are so many great places to eat in the city. But here's my list (not necessarily in order of preference, because that depends on my mood) with accompanying photos and links:

1. Osha Thai: Authentic and flavorful Thai food at very reasonable prices! All their soups, curries, noodles, and rice plates are just delish. The one on Geary is open late and has the cheapest prices, while the ones at 2nd Street and Embarcadero have beautiful decor and Asian-themed cocktails. This is definitely a place I can always go to for consistently great food. Read my Osha Thai review here.

Osha: Pad see you w/ beef

2. Minami Restaurant: Since I'm pretty picky about my Japanese food, you can safely bet a Japanese restaurant is pretty good if I recommend it. While I love trying the creative, fusion-y rolls at some of the more upscale restaurants in the city, at the end of the day, nothing beats fresh and traditional Japanese dishes. That's simply what Minami is all about, and the fact that the restaurant is run by a small family just adds to its charm and intimacy. Very fresh sushi and teriyaki dishes, and great presentation. You can tell they are definitely proud of their food here. Read my Minami review here.

Minami: Sashimi combination

3. Tartine Bakery: Ah, c'est bon! A small but cozy French-style bakery with excellent baked goodies, sandwiches, desserts, and coffee. I'm still dreaming about their banana cream tart...mmm. Read my Tartine Bakery review here.

Tartine: Cakes & pastries

4. Saigon Sandwiches: The best Vietnamese sandwiches (banh mi) I've ever had in the city, and luckily for me, it's just a couple blocks away from where I live! Everything they use for their sandwiches - crusty baguettes, pate spread, meats, and pickled veggies - taste perfect. And the prices are dirt cheap - just $2-3 for a sandwich that fills you up quite nicely. Read my Saigon Sandwiches review here. I apologize for not having a photo!

5. Cafe Mums: A shabu shabu place in Japantown that I recently tried. $23 for all-you-can eat beef, veggies, and noodles. $35 for all-you-can-eat plus all-you-can-drink beer and hot/cold sake. There's nothing like spending quality time with your friends while drinking and swirling meat and veggies into a pot of boiling water. While there's definitely not much variety in terms of the food, the ingredients are fresh enough, and it's all about the meat anyway!

Cafe Mums: Raw beef

And there's my top five! Of course, I love a lot of other places in the city, and the list would be pretty different if I could work with the entire Bay Area. Anyway, I encourage you all to think about your own "Top 5" list, and feel free to suggest new restaurants to me :)

Saturday, June 2, 2007

House of Nanking

I'm always impressed with my meals at House of Nanking, a busy little Chinese restaurant on the border between Chinatown and the Financial District. This is a good place to go with a group of friends for lunch or dinner, and the flavors of the dishes are tailored to please both the Chinese and the American palette. Which is not to say this is simply gourmet Panda Express. I'm not big on Americanized Chinese food (case in point - Yank Sing), but even I find Nanking's hearty dishes irresistable.

The best thing to do is to ask the server to choose the dishes for you (just tell him how many dishes, whether you want soup or rice, etc) to ensure that you get to try their best stuff. Then just share family-style among your friends.

Orgasmically good seasame chicken with yams. You'll never go back to the orange chicken at Panda Express.

Eggplant topped with scallops, pea shoots, and lemon slices

Sauteed shrimp, squash, onions, and super juicy mushrooms

Sauteed pea shoots (I think it was some kind of garlic sauce)

Overall, the ingredients are fresh, and the food is very flavorful and hearty (definitely goes well with a beer). The prices are pretty reasonable, too!

House of Nanking
919 Kearny Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 421-1429

Asian Art Museum

I love museums. Something about walking through one just relaxes me. The Asian Art Museum has free admission on the first Tuesday of every month (courtesy of Target), so I went last month in an attempt to distract myself from studying for finals.

I enjoyed their Japanese bamboo exhibit, which had so many cool baskets and vases that it made me want to try basket-weaving myself (reality hit me later and I haven't embarassed myself by actually trying this). Then I wandered around looking at their normal exhibits, which showcased various artifacts (mostly paintings, ceramics, and clothing) from China, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia. My favorite part of the whole museum, however, was the gorgeous stairway near the entrance. Just beautiful.

Top left: Stairway entrance. Top right: Silk embroidered Korean bridal robe. Bottom left: Collection of vases from the Chinese Qing court. Bottom right: Recreation of a Japanese tea room.

The little eatery on the first floor, Cafe Asia, also has some pretty decent food, and you don't need to pay admission to eat there. I ended my museum trip with a Thai green papaya salad (steamed prawns served with shredded green papaya salad tossed with mint, basil, peanuts, and cilantro dressing) and a cold bottled Kirin. It's kind of sad how many Japanese restaurants don't have Kirin, and here I found it in a museum!

Anyway, this is a lovely place to spend an afternoon :)

Asian Art Museum
200 Larkin Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 581-3500