there is a special place in my heart for what i call “errant foods.”
i find that when a food manages to make its way across national borders (and sometimes oceans) to establish itself in a new locale, is worth giving a try once or twice at the very least.
i firmly believe that there should be a division of anthropology devoted to the study of errant food. errant food never develops in a vacuum; it is the result of cultural interaction, which means the resulting recipes can be used as a sort of historic landmark for when, where, and how culinary traditions from different cultures collided.
as babies, most of us regularly ate and bathed in our food at the same time. and even though we are all adults (some more than others), i think a small morsel of that glorious messy-eater mentality remains in each and every one of us, regardless of how cultured, well-preened, and properly educated we may be. somewhere deep inside, we all have a soft spot for getting really super messy at meal time.
it follows, therefore, that there are very few people in this world who don’t enjoy a good chicken wing.
when my japanese elementary schoolers list off the foods they detest, there are three which top the list without fail. eggplant and mushrooms are neck and neck at number two, but so far, the undisputed winner is piiman. the following is a brief list of reactions i have observed at the mere mention of the word piiman:
- vigorous shaking of the head
- two thumbs down
- face expression reminiscent of edvard munch’s “the scream”
- ten solid seconds of fake barfing noises
if you were to wander into one of the estimated 46,000 convenience stores in japan, you would eventually come upon a section of the refrigerated shelving designated for rice balls. some of them contain extravagent ingredients, like spiced cod roe, chopped green onions, and fresh wasabi. others are decidedly non-japanese in flavor, such as the surreptitiously bright yellow dry curry rice balls.
but no matter where you go, regardless of whether you are in a 7-11, familymart, circle k, daily yamazaki, or lawson, you will undoubtedly find a rice ball labeled “sea chicken.”
it contains, as you might guess, a 1:1 mixture of tuna and mayonnaise. they are the cheapest for a reason. namely, because they are just awful.
humor me for a second here.
imagine, if you will, a pork belly.
now imagine not rubbing it generously with pink curing salt and/or nitrates. imagine not curing or smoking it. imagine not using it to make bacon or any bacon-esque food (e.g. pancetta, proscuitto, speck, canadian bacon, etc).
how do those iron chefs do it?
super chefs have some sort of sixth sense that allows them to recognize the exact weight of each ingredient required to prepare a single portion of their dish. when they pull the curtain off the secret ingredient in kitchen stadium, i like to think the iron chefs are thinking “ok, i’ve got this licked. i’m going to need one scallop, two figs, 3 grams of cheese, 5 ml of wine, and a 20cm strip of phyllo dough per plate.” i think maybe it is a gland or extrasensory organ we normal humans just don’t have.
regardless, the portions come out perfect every time. nobody has leftovers on iron chef. the members of the celebrity scoring panel never take home extra black truffle and snow crab terrine to microwave the next day.
or do they?
this post is going to start with a little bit of unadulterated praise.
most chefs who prepare washoku in a restaurant setting have a truly incredible attention to detail, which can encompass everything from the taste of their dish to the geometry of their plating. as is the case with a lot of facets of life in japan, there seems to be a tried and true method behind most japanese recipes. some of these methods are easily explained and demonstrated, while others seem, for lack of a better word, almost magical.
i often find myself in childlike awe when watching a few of my japanese friends cook their specialty dishes. watching pros prepare foods like slow-simmered fish heads, deep sea angler hot pot, or dozen-egg rolled omelettes is mind-blowing. of course the end product tastes great. but the freshness and simplicity of the ingredients they use necessitates a borderline superhuman culinary sense. a culinary sense which can only be acquired through (what i assume to be) trial and error.
that being said, i am not japanese. i have the attention to detail required to cook complex japanese food, and on occasion i even use it. but i like to cook on the fly. i’m not much one for patient measuring, complex kitchen tools, or difficult techinques. i have a very deliberate personal style when it comes to cooking.
sometimes, that style involves getting drunk, nearly cutting off my fingers, forgetting that the stove is on, and starting a fire in my kitchen.