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.

a fish, a man, and a super sharp knife.

i like to tell my friends that, when it comes to cooking, there are three kinds of people in this world.

first, there are the people who have a million different knives, none of which are sharp or useful.  second, there are the people who use their knife until it is no longer sharp, and then throw it away and buy a new one.

last, there are people who have one knife that they keep so ridiculously sharp it is at risk of cutting through the food, the cutting board, and the counter beneath.

while this categorization is a little bit cut and dry (no pun intended), there is some truth to it.  i admit, i used to be the second type of person.  but i can confidently say that now, i am the third type through and through.  in my opinion, one knife is all you need as long as you care for it and know how to use it properly.

and when it comes to using a knife properly, japan takes the cake.  not only are their knives incredible, the people who wield them command incredible respect and admiration.  i have been to a few sushi restaurants that consist of nothing more than a counter and chairs, but left with the feeling that i had been to a five-star restaurant.  the flavor of sashimi, maybe more than any other food in the world, is determined entirely by freshness and the knife used to prepare it.

so i thought, why not make sashimi at home?  and then i thought, “i’m not a 85-year-old japanese man who can slice perfect sashimi in his sleepo, that’s why.”  and then i thought, “even those guys had to start somewhere.”

and then i went and bought some fish.  my knife did not disappoint.

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wizards, ben franklin, and raw food week.

it’s imagination time.

let’s say a guy with a beard and a sweet hat shows up on your doorstep and politely informs you that he is a wizard.  as skeptical as you are of his claims, you probably do something nice somewhere in the story (like give him an ice-cold glass of lemonade or massage his feet or something) and he tells you that in return he will magically place you into any socioeconomic class you like.  i think most people, including myself, would swallow their guilt and go with “filthy stinking rich.”  and poof, just like that, happily ever after.  foie gras, black truffles, the finest aged cheeses, filet mignon, and black caviar every day until you happily die of gout.

and now, back to the real world.

do you have a socioeconomic wizard on your doorstep?  yeah, i didn’t think so.  it’s okay, i don’t either.  and while disney’s alladin, the tale of king midas, and many other non-fictional stories verified by hard, factual evidence lead us to believe that magic is the fastest road to riches, some trail-blazing individuals believe saving money is a far more effective solution.  at least that is what benjamin franklin thought.  and he was kind of like a wizard, only in real life.

so in the spirit of super long esoteric introductions (and saving money), i have decided this week to abstain from using my stove.

while the cheapest option would be to not eat food at all, dying of malnutrition is not in the best interest of my blog.  so instead, i will do all my cooking this week without the use of heat.

no stove, no toaster oven, no hot water.  in other words, raw foods or no foods.  will i be severely limited in my ability to prepare delicious food?  you bet your bottom dollar i will.  will i be hard-pressed to find any way at all to eat meat?  you know it.  will i give up and have a steak in less than 24 hours?  there is a distinct possibility.  but you know what, challenges make us stronger.

raw food mode: engage.

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pmk: officially renamed “the singed man’s kitchen.”

so you see at the top of the page, just below the title, where it says “live like a peasant, eat like a king?”  when i first used that slogan, i intended the “live like a peasant” portion to mean something along the lines of “don’t live beyond your means.”  the greatest things in life are often free, and in order to live a rewarding life, there is no need to engage in frivolous expenditures.  the second half, “eat like a king,” has a more obvious meaning.  don’t eat because you have to.  eat because you want to.  provide a bounty for yourself, and immerse yourself in the experience of eating.  by doing so, you will appreciate food more, and in turn learn to love cooking over time.

in all honesty, i think i probably do a better job of the second half of the slogan than i do of the first.  true, most of my friends can tell you that i live frugally.  i have my vices here and there, but on the whole i keep what i own to a bare minimum.  but it has dawned on me that “live like a peasant” really should mean something more profound.

bamboo

the bamboo forest, in all of its glory.

you know what is great about farming?

everything.

i am not an envious person, but on occasion i find myself longing for an opportunity to make things grow.  i truly admire people in this would who aim for self-sufficiency.  farming is one of the oldest and most magnificent professions that exists in this world.

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loquats, which are called “biwa” in japanese. great color, delicious fruit, and medicinal leaves. what is not to like?

and by nothing short of sheer dumb luck, an opportunity was dropped in my lap last year.  a good friend and colleague of mine introduced me to a long-time friend of hers who owns a few plots of farmland.  he also cares for a bamboo forest that is located near his property.  once or twice a month on saturday morning, he invites a small group of people to his land.  once we met and chatted for a while, i was fortunate enough to be invited to stop by whenever i liked.

these all day excursions in nature, replete with foods straight from the earth, yoga, booze, and great conversations with excellent company, have been a never-ending source of joy for me over the past ten months.  all i have to provide in exchange for such a bounty is a helping hand.

but lately, the bamboo forest hasn’t just been about fun for me.  botanical knowledge has become a perk that i cannot emphasize enough.  since last year, i have learned an almost inordinate amount about the living world in japan.

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green plums. yeah, they’ll mess up your stomach if you eat them raw, but they can be used for all kinds of good stuff. alcohol, vinegar, jam, you name it.

bamboo has become far and away one of my favorite living things.  i learned how bamboo reproduces, when it shoots, and what portions can be eaten.  i learned which bamboo stalks to cut and which to leave in order to have a healthy forest.  i learned how to split and dry harvested stalks.  i learned how to turn the split bamboo into chopsticks, grilling skewers, and charcoal.  i learned how to grill with the charcoal, how to use it when deep frying, and how to implement it in construction and landscaping.  and so much more.

this last saturday was one such bamboo forest excursion.  under an oppressive summer sun, i split bamboo for charcoal production, smoked eggs, grilled fish, and partook in all the delicacies of early summer that nature has to offer.

summer means fruit, and fruit means that when i left, i had enough loquats, green plums, and japanese bush ginger to give a lesser person a hernia stuffed into my backpack.  and a raucous tan.

that, in my opinion, is what “living like a peasant” is truly all about.

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