they see me rollin’ (harumaki), they hatin’.

if you are from the united states, you know all about things that are rolled up and fried.  as kids, i’m pretty sure we all had that obligatory eggroll now and again that got thrown into your meal of delivery chinese food for free.  honestly, i only ever had one, because the first time i ate it i decided that i freaking hate eggrolls.  yeah, they are crispy and deep-fried, but that is where the deliciousness ends.  they don’t have any good sauces to go with them, the insides are soggy and weird, and they basically just taste like lightly seasoned cabbage.

in short, there is a reason they give them away for free with a lot of chinese food.  and that is because, when mass-produced, they aren’t very good.

but i’m not a stubborn man.  i’m always ready and willing to have my opinion changed.  and when it comes to deep-fried rolled foods, it was my time in japan that ultimately changed my mind.  although i modified it to make it slightly my own, i can’t lay claim to this recipe.  my buddy ben, who is currently doing what i do only in russia, showed me the elegant simplicity of fried spring rolls while we were both studying abroad in japan during our college years.  thanks dude, i owe you one.

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an ode to okazawa-san.

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every once in a while, you meet someone rare.  and when i say rare, i don’t mean a person who stands out in a crowd because they make an effort to stand out.  and i don’t mean the kind of person who stands out in a crowd naturally.  i mean the kind of person who doesn’t stand out in a crowd at all.  which is to say, the kind of person who doesn’t stand out in the crowd because they never even set foot near the crowd.  they don’t even know where the crowd is.  and most likely, they don’t care, because they have their own amazing thing going on.

okazawa-san is that man.  i’ve known him for almost a year now, and i know almost nothing about him.  i don’t know where he lives.  i don’t know if he is married.  i think he might have mentioned that he had a daughter one time, but i’m not sure.   if i asked him about any of that stuff, he would tell me.  but i don’t push, because if he wants to tell me all that stuff, he can.  if he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter to me.

what does matter is that he has potentially the sweetest set-up i could ever imagine.  he spends his days farming on a small plot of land next to a river and a bamboo forest.  between growing some of the greatest vegetables, herbs, and fruits i have ever had the pleasure of eating, he tends to the bamboo forest.  bamboo grows fast, and when it gets too thick, it can actually strangle itself and inhibit the growth of its own root structures.  he therefore takes it upon himself to keep the forest at a healthy thickness.  he keeps the strongest bamboo alive so it can put out shoots, and he culls the weak or inhibited bamboo.

but nothing goes to waste.  the weaker bamboo is carried up the steep incline to his homemade earthen kilns, chopped into segments, and split.  the split pieces are cleaned, and are then roasted in the super hot kilns over a long period of time to create charcoal.  and the charcoal has so many uses it will make your head spin.  i’ll save those for another post.

twice a month on saturday morning, okazawa-san gives me and a small group of like-minded people a bunch of alcohol, whatever local natural produce harvested that day, two grills to cook fresh fish and meats, all the bamboo charcoal we could ever want, and a spacious homemade gazebo to hang out in.  and in exchange, we give him a helping hand with whatever he needs done.  the most lopsided deal of all time?  maybe.  a boat load of fun for free?  you bet your butt it is.

he is a man who does not mince words.  if you don’t say anything and just sit on your butt drinking beer, he won’t bother you.  if you ask him what needs to be done, he’ll tell you and expect you to do it.  if you tell him you don’t know how to do the thing you just promised you’d do, he’ll teach you.  he is diligent and competent.  he is easy-going and mild-mannered.

okazawa-san is my botany teacher, my biology teacher, my local farmer, my drinking buddy, my host, and my friend.  and i can’t ask for any more than that.

here’s to you, good sir.  keep up the good work, and i’ll see you soon for some good eats and back-breaking hard labor.

brine the bird: smoked chicken on a sunday

when we sat down and started drinking last sunday morning, we did our best to come up with a variety of things to smoke.  we had two giant slabs of pork belly already cured, so that was an obvious choice.  we went out and we got some salmon, too.  and we bought some eggs.  (before you ask, yes, smoked eggs are a big thing here and they are delicious when done right.)

but i also wanted to give chicken breasts a go.  yeah, they are super cheap and i didn’t want to break the bank.  but more than that i wanted to give myself a challenge.  i wanted to see if there was a way to make a notoriously dry and flavorless piece of bird into a juicy and delicious masterpiece using nothing more than time and a few ingredients i had on hand.

and i succeeded.  when we pulled the chicken out of the smoker, it looked and smelled good.  and when we ate it, it tasted so good we all stood around gawking in disbelief.  it easily qualified among the best chicken i have ever cooked.  while chorusing “dang, that is good” over and over again, we decided to make it a staple when firing up the smoker.

what was the secret?  maybe it was the spice rub.  maybe it was the half a head of garlic used in the recipe.  but if you ask me, we owe it all to the brine.

apple-smoked curry chicken breast

you’ll need:

  • chicken breasts (boneless, skinless)
  • apple woodchips
  • half a head of garlic
  • a tall can of malty beer
  • curry powder
  • sea salt
  • black pepper
  • cinnamon
  • sugar
  • chinese hot pepper
  1. rinse off your chicken breasts and dry them.  set them aside.
  2. add salt to a large mixing bowl.  the goal is to make a brine with a 16:1 ratio of liquid to salt, so feel free to go pretty heavy on it.  the salt in a brine allows the meat to become softer and more absorptive of the flavors present in the smoker.  i also highly advise adding an equal amount of sugar to the brine to even out the intense saltiness and provide color to the meat (espeically the exterior).
  3. peel and mince all of your garlic finely.  add it to the mixing bowl.  finish with a tablespoon or so of curry powder.
  4. pour in your beer and stir.  call me an alcoholic if you like, but i didn’t actually add any water to my brine (which is obviously normally the main ingredient).  normally, a brine which includes ingredients that aren’t water soluable needs to be cooked for a while and then chilled before meat is added.  the carbonation of beer allows the flavors of the garlic and curry powder to combine more easily, and it also really does wonders for the softness of the chicken when working in tandem with the salt.
  5. add the chicken.  you can butterfly each breast if you like, but they retain the moisture better when left whole.  make sure all the breasts are completely submerged.  cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it in the fridge for 60 to 90 minutes.
  6. once finished, drain the brine and rinse the chicken.  don’t worry, it should have soaked up most of the flavors you exposed it to.  most people advise patting the chicken dry so it develops a crust in the smoker, but in this situation i kept it a little bit damp from the rinse so that i could apply a spice rub.  sprinkle each breast with a healthy smattering of cinnamon, black pepper, hot chinese pepper, and a little extra curry powder.  use your fingers to massage the spices into the breast, making sure they stick.  if you are worried about the moisture, you can set the meat on a drying rack in front of a fan for five minutes or so, but you don’t need to.
  7. pop it in the smoker.  i won’t go into the detail of how to go about smoking meat here, but rest assured there are all kinds of great blogs that can help you along the way.  i highly recommend patrons of the pit.

notes:

traditionally, the goal is to get chicken to an internal temperature of around 140ºf.  to do this, it is generally recommended to get the smoker to around 230º.  our smoker, at this moment, doesn’t even get close to that temperature.  so we smoked it at a very low temperature for a very long period of time (not to mention with all the other meats and fishes we decided to smoke that day in the same smoker).  although we were skeptical of how it would turn out, when opened the smoker and took out the chicken, it had a beautiful golden crust and was done almost all the way through.

we sliced the chicken and fried it in a pan with just a little bit of olive oil over medium heat (just to be safe).  and honestly, i think it turned out better than any chicken breasts i have had that were completely cooked straight out of the smoker.  the outside was crisp and slightly chewy (as the smoker tends to do) and the interior was super succulent.

summer, shirtlessness, and smoked meats.

it gets hot in japan.  and when i say hot, i don’t mean pleasant, dry, “hydrate and wear sunscreen and you will be ok” hot.  i mean the sticky and brutally humid kind of hot.  actually, when summer gets into full swing, it is a lot like my home-state of missouri.  which, as most people from missouri can tell you, is terrible.

but thankfully, it isn’t that hot yet.  monsoon season still has the spotlight.  but after three soid days of rain and dreary grey skies, the heaveans finally saw fit to give izu two beautiful days of happy (see: not brutal) sunshine, very few clouds, and comfortable 24°c heat.

so in an effort not to waste such excellent weather, i spent most of my waking hours this weekend outdoors.  on saturday morning, i went out to the bamboo forest and spend the whole day making plum jam and jambalaya.  in between beers, i probably split enough bamboo to build a small house.  and while i was at it, i even took a little bit of time to even out my heinously unbalanced tan.

i got home around six, took a shower, and then ran out the door to meet up with my buddies brian and marc for ramen.  when we finished, we got some supplies together and made our way down to izunagaoka (where marc lives).

then we drank beer, grilled chicken and avocadoes, and chatted it up outside until we were too tired to keep drinking.

on sunday morning, we woke up nice and early, had some coffee and conversation, and picked up some supplies.  at around ten o’clock, we cracked open some beers, prepared about 5 kilograms of meat and fish with a variety of seasonings, and filled the smoker to the gills.  once we got the fire going and the door sealed tight, all we had to do was wait.

we drank, worked out, and napped until around five o’clock.  and when we finally opened the smoker, we partook in one of the most epic bounties i have yet to eat so far this summer.

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the flavor of summer.

when june rolls around in japan, the weather takes a turn for the worst.  these few weeks between spring and full-fledged summer are characterized on this side of the world by rain almost every day, intense heat, and truly ridiculous humidity.  the japanese call this weather tsuyu, which is of course their word meaning “to die of asphyxiation because the air is so laden with moisture you could drown whilst walking to the grocery store.”

that being said, atrocious weather isn’t the only herald of summer.  because of the amazing raw food culture that japan has, all kinds of tasty and extremely fresh foods start appearing in the mom and pop small restaurants all over the country the moment june swings into full-force.  while it may seem strange to most of us in the west (with the exclusion of pasta salad, which i was never really that big on anyway), cold noodle dishes like zarusoba and hiyashi chuka become very easy to consume in quantity when the mercury goes through the roof.

and in my mind, there is no cold noodle dish that can hold a candle to sōmen.  these japane

se noodles are made from wheat flour and have a milky white color to them, much like udon.  but sōmen stand alone in that their diameter is extremely thin (less than 1.3 mm by definition), which makes them super delicate and incredibly fast cooking.  once cooked and flash chilled, the noodles are generally added to a deliciously salty broth and topped with all manner of awesome fresh produce.

yesterday, i got to hankering, and decided to give it a go.

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an ode to yudai-kun.

yuudai

while farming was an excellent way to get sunburned, it occurred to me that there had to be a faster and more physically taxing way to get the same results.  and then i was invited to go fishing, and everything fell into place.

i got to the port around 8:45 on saturday morning, and fished until around 4.  it was super hot, smelled like fish and bait and sweat and sea water, and i had pretty much no idea what the heck i was doing.

in other words, i had a freaking blast.  we caught about 250 little mackerel (which were delicious), two giant pacific saury, one or two horse-mackerel, and two baby splendid alfonsino (which we threw back so they could become more delicious as adults).  but that isn’t the point of this post.

the point of this post is to pay homage to one of the greatest people i have met in japan so far.  his name is yudai, and i can only describe him as the japanese huck finn.  is he a little portly?  yup.  does his crack show every time he bends over the put bait on his fishing pole?  heck yes, it does.  and it is pretty darn endearing.

i won’t go into the details, but yudai-kun doesn’t exactly have an easy life.  due to the dubious nature of his parent’s work, they are not always around (and sometimes incarcerated), which means he has to do most of the looking out for his crazy (but adorable) six-year-old sister.  he’s a good kid, and although he gets into trouble in school, he spends every spare hour he can at the port developing his skills as a fisherman.  not that they really need developing.  he made me look like a moron, and he’s eleven.  seriously, towards the end we had to tell this kid to please stop catching fish because we couldn’t gut them fast enough.

he knew all the best spots, all the best lures, all the best fish, and had the perfect attitude for fishing.  he had an air that screamed, “hey, i’m fishing.  and so are you.  let’s just fish, and maybe in between we’ll say some stuff to each other.”  and somehow, over the course of eight hours of not really talking that much, we became friends.

here’s to you, yudai-kun.  you are the man, and i’m proud of you.  i can’t wait until next we meet.

fried chicken with a side of fried chicken.

you know those meals that make you feel like you could smash a cinder block with your forehead, or ramp a jet ski over a wrought-iron fence into a pool, or do some other heinously dangerous and extremely manly activity?  even if you answered no, just pretend like you answered yes for a few minutes.  humor me.

in my world, those meals that make you feel like a reckless man more often than not begin with fried chicken.  and most of the time, they end with fried chicken, too.  sometimes, in the middle i eat something other than fried chicken, but those occasions are rare.

in the usa, fried chicken and arnold schwartzenegger’s commando is about the manliest night i can think of.  so last night, when i decided to watch toshiro mifune in yojimbo, i thought that because my action movie had taken a decidedly japanese turn, i would be remiss if my fried chicken did not follow suit.  and so i made an immense batch of kara-age.

put on your fried food pants and get some napkins ready, because we are about to get messy.

kara-age

japanese fried chicken.  this ain’t no kfc, let’s just put it that way.  the skin is crunchy and the meat is juicy, piping hot, and jam-packed with flavor.  why, you say?  well, because you marinate it, silly.

you’ll need:

  • 2 chicken thighs (or breasts) skin on
  • ginger
  • garlic
  • black pepper
  • soy sauce
  • sesame oil
  • seven-spice (or chinese hot pepper)
  • a little bit of mayo
  • japanese sake
  • oil for frying (vegetable is probably best)
  • katakuriko (potato starch)
  1. rinse your chicken and pat it dry with some paper towels.  use a really super sharp knife to cut it into non-bitesized pieces.  the goal is to have pieces big enough that they require two or more bites.  chomping into a giant nugget of super crispy delicious chicken and being able to see the delicious succulent white meat you are about to dig into on bite number two is nothing short of bliss.
  2. go to town with a fork.  puncture a bunch of holes all over the chicken.  tenderizing will make your bits of chicken soak up the flavors of the marinade a lot better.
  3. peel the garlic and the ginger.  you are going to want to use about 3 or 4 cloves of garlic and about a thumb of ginger.  grind them on an oroshi board, a microplane, or a very fine grater.  put them into a large non-reactant mixing bowl.
  4. add seven-spice, black pepper, a dash of sesame oil, and soy sauce and sake in a 2:1 ratio.  add a touch of mayo to firm up the marinate just a little.  remember, if you firm it up too much the chicken won’t suck up the flavor like you wanted to, and all that tenderizing will go to waste.  stir to combine all the ingredients.
  5. add the chicken, and stir with your hands to coat.  cover with some saran wrap and set it in the fridge to marinate for about an hour.
  6. once the chicken is about finished marinating, add enough oil to deep fry to a frying pan and bump the heat.  you want to oil to be hot enough to fry the chicken, but not hot enough to smoke or burn.  test the oil with a little piece of chicken if you aren’t sure of the temperature.  on my stove, which has temperature markings that read “off, 1, 2, 3, high,” i got the oil to the temperature i wanted using the “3” setting, and kept it from getting too hot by reducing to “2” once i started frying.
  7. pour some of the potato starch onto a plate.  one thin layer at a time is best (as opposed to emptying the whole bag at once).  dredge each piece of chicken in the starch and pop it into the oil.  the marinade on the outside of the chicken should make the breading stick super well.  try to keep from adding so much starch to the chicken that it becomes crumbly.  you really only want to add enough to coat each piece, and no more.  too much starch will make a dusty, starchy layer between the fried outside and the juicy chicken meat, effectively ruining the texture and flavor of all your hard work.
  8. the oil should bubble, but not spit.  you will probably want to turn each piece one or twice in the course of frying.  once the chicken is golden brown and done all the way through, take it out and put it on a few sheets of paper towels to soak up the extra oil.
  9. dig in and eat until you can feel the flow of your blood slowing from cholesterol intake.  or, if you are generous, share with your friends, and watch them become lethargic under the weight of the epic cholesterol.  your choice.