curried pork belly: swined and dined.

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).

Continue reading

yakiniku: more than meats the eye.

until 1871, it was illegal to eat beef in japan.

yeah, you read that right.  in fact, it was generally frowned upon to eat any kind of meat taken from livestock until the midst of the meiji restoration.  chicken, pork, beef, you name it.  while the reason for such an edict is obviously up for debate, many historians think that it was originally put in place to prevent famine.  raising large livestock, particularly cows, requires an excessive amount of land and feed which can be put to better use on humans.  put simply, beef wasn’t efficient.

Continue reading

tanabata: festival of stars (and barbecue, apparently).

for most people in japan, tanabata is a time to go to festivals, eat food that comes on sticks, and drink beer or other refreshing beverages.  for my friends, however, it is a time to go out in the middle of the nature, fire up the shichirins, and cook so much food that we could feed the russian army twice over.

everybody brought a little something to the party, and while we all thought what we brought was humdrum and average, somehow the sum of all of our dishes made for one of the most elegant and refined meals i have had in a long time.  the following is a list, in order, of what we cooked.

Continue reading

an ode to okazawa-san.

DSCN3804

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.

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.

IMG_4629

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.

DSCN4008

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.

DSCN4010

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.

DSCN3660