Ideal vs. Reality: Recipes -3


Kaori's Bean Curd Appetizer.

In Part 2. we’ve created my version of the Bean Curd Appetizer. So, was it successful as a dish?  Let’s look at the image below from the original dish.

Bean curd

Original Salted Bean Curd dish

This dish is a simple dish with only two ingredients. Salted bean curd and cilantro. The cilantro was chopped in larger chunks.

I’ve revised this dish by adding some green onions, some bean sprouts & Takana pickles (高菜漬)for textures, minced the cilantro, and added some hot chili pepper to the sauce.

Comparing these two which dish reins supreme? Guess!

And the Winner is …………………………The Original Dish! (I think so).

And here is why:

When you combine too many elements you lose the sense of what is essential and the core. It’s like a sad sushi roll. What I mean by a sad sushi roll is a sushi roll with amazing ingredients fresh fish, fruits, veggies, great sauce superb quality but when brought together, it just doesn’t work because too many things are happening at once.

If you have an amazing fresh fluke you want to focus on the fluke and not focus on five other ingredients simultaneously and on strong flavored sauce that kills the natural flavor of the fluke. Even if each of the ingredients have great flavors, when brought together, with too many other ingredients and flavors, they cross out each of their qualities rather than compliment each other.

You need to be wise about the combination and bring in elements that would bring out the flavor of one another rather than compete and hinder the full experience. Sorry to say, most of those so-called special sushi rolls you find in many of the recent restaurants fall under this “sad sushi roll” category.

The essence of Japanese cooking, I believe to be, is to focus on the ingredients to bring out the best of their natural flavors.  This could be applied to any other dishes/cuisines as well. In this case, the original version had already achieved this goal where my version was a “sad bean curd” dish, too many things happening at once that resulted in ruining the dish.

Findings from my version of the salted bean curd appetizer:

Cilantro’s flavor became too strong and overpowering because it was minced.  More flavors and juices came out from cilantro. The large chunks of cilantro was a bit hard to eat in the original dish but because it was not minced and the flavor was more self-contained, the balance of the flavor in the entire dish was better. I would suggest rubbing it with some salt a bit and wash the salt off to slightly soften the textures.

Bean sprouts worked very well in this dish. The crunchy texture brought more depth to the dish.  Adding bean sprouts is highly recommended.

Green onions tasted nice but with both minced cilantro and green onions combined it became too much for this dish (usually, this combination works well but not in this case). I prefer using either or, just use the green onions or the cilantro.

Including Takana pickles (高菜漬)was not a bad idea but its flavor competed with the minced cilantro. If you were to use Takana pickles (高菜漬), I’ll go with green onions in stead of the cilantro. I think that would be a cleaner flavor.  Also texture of Takana pickles (高菜漬) didn’t really go well with textures of other ingredients.  Takana pickles (高菜漬) which is so similar to Suan cai (酸菜) does go very well with the salted bean curd and edamame beans.

I think Preserved Chinese Radish (四川搾菜), which was my initial option, might be a better ingredients  for this dish. With Preserved Chinese Radish (四川搾菜), large chunks of cilantro would work better than green onions or minced cilantro.  Also the texture of Preserved Chinese Radish (四川搾菜) would match better with the salted bean cured and the bean sprouts mix than the Takana pickles (高菜漬).

The sauce: As I’ve mentioned in Part 1. the sauce is critical to a dish like this. The secret recipe which was handed down to me by the woman at the restaurant was as follows:

  • Soy sauce
  • A little bit of sugar
  • Sesame oil

Yes, very simple!

I tasted the sauce before I made my own diversion, adding some red hot chili peppers. The flavor was simple and good but it tasted like Japanese-Chinese food. We have tons of these Japanese-Chinese dishes in Japan.  These are Japanese interpretations of Chinese dishes with Japanese ingredients.  They are tasty, sometimes made with great techniques, well thought out, and are almost there but not quite authentic.  You can still taste and feel the Japanese-ness somewhere and the thought process involved in this cooking is very Japanese. Very similar to learning a foreign language or understanding another culture, I think , you need to be aware of the differences in the cognitive process to understand the cuisine.

In some rare occasions,  I can achieve “I can fake it for a Chinese” dishes – dishes that are made following the authentic Chinese cooking procedures and taste very authentic – owing to my Chinese cooking gurus (Chinese friends and Taiwanese brother-in-law who taught me their way of cooking and thinking ).  For this one, I knew something was missing.

I think the main and the obvious reasons why it didn’t taste authentic was because of the soy sauce flavor (other than the fact that the chef, me, was Japanese). I was using a mass produced Japanese soy sauce. I would like to revisit this issue once I discover the appropriate Chinese soy sauce for this dish.  I would recommend adding the hot red chili pepper to this sauce especially, when you don’t have the Chinese soy sauce.

Another thing  I speculate about the flavor being a bit off was that when the woman shared her sauce recipe, she just provided three ingredients described above without any specific quantities.  There is a slight chance that she overlooked some ingredients because it was too obvious and normal to her.  Therefore she didn’t feel the need to communicate.

When I tasted the sauce, I recalled that the original version had some sort of an aroma in addition to these three ingredients. I have been trying to figure this out but haven’t been able to pin point exactly what it is. It smelled slightly like a star anise but was not as strong. Just a hint of something was there to suggest that some Chinese herbs or some aromatic ingredients were included – perhaps the bean curd was slightly flavored (but not smoked).

Revised salted bean curd dish

Refined Salted Bean Curd Appetizer

I’ve revised my recipe based on my findings.  This is the refined version of the recipe.

I’ve revised the following:

Excluded green onions, replaced Takana pickles (高菜漬) with Preserved Chinese Radish (四川搾菜), and chopped cilantro into larger pieces.  Kept following ingredients as is: salted bean curd, bean sprouts, and the sauce.

This turned out to be much nicer than the first version. It has a better balance of flavors that blends and compliments well. I still have to explore  the soy sauce issues to see whether some of my hypotheses are true.

It’s interesting how you think you have a well versed understandings of flavors and ingredients, combine them in your mind with confidence, then your confidence could be easily defeated in the physical world.  You come up with ideas about recipes and get very excited.  Still, you never know whether they work until you actually put them together and sample them.

I wonder how many versions of recipes would a chef try out until she/he comes up the final version.  I’m sure it depends on the individual and the dish.   My first inception of this dish was absolutely stunning in my mind but my reality, my taste buds, told me otherwise.  Like in any other case where you are faced with the dilemmas between your ideal and your reality, you just have to accept the situation, identify the issues, and come up with some sort of solutions – often creative ones.  My journey (obsession) continues.

**Detailed refined recipe coming soon.


Ideal vs. Reality: Recipes -2

After learning the secret of the bean curd appetizer sauce from one of the customers at the restaurant, I started putting together some ideas for my own version of the bean curd appetizer. First, I had to go and get the right type of a bean curd.  It has to be the firm rubbery tofu with a dark brown color outside.

There is a bean curd shop in Chinatown (Manhattan), where they have one of the best quality tofu and also the best deal in the city.  You have to go there in the morning otherwise the special/unusual bean curds are gone.  They go quickly because of the quality and the price.  In my case, by the time I arrived at this shop, unfortunately, the bean curd I wanted was already sold out.  I knew another shop close by where they have a similar kind of a bean curd.  I went and got this one in stead (below photo). The price was $2.75 .

salted tofu

salted tofu

This is a regular version of this kind of a tofu but there also is a smoked version which is a bit more expensive (about a dollar more).  I usually like the smoked version better but decided to try this one so I could test the recipe.  The dish I had in Flushing was not using the smoked kind.

When developing my own version of this dish, I wanted to add some different textures from the original dish.  I’ve been craving about adding some crunchiness.  The bean sprout was my first option to achieve this.  In Chinatown you can get some bean sprouts for 60 cents/1lb.

Asian cucumbers were another option but I thought it might get soggy. Also I didn’t want my dish to resemble the jelly-fish appetizer.

Another ingredient I though of to enhance the texture of this dish was the  Preserved Chinese Radish (四川搾菜). I imaged this Preserved Chinese Radish (四川搾菜) to be mixed with sprouts and the salted bean curd.  Seemed like a very nice combination.  Then I remembered I had some left over Takana pickles (高菜漬).

Takana pickle is a Japanese pickles that is very similar to Chinese pickles called Suan cai (酸菜). Takana pickles, Preserved Chinese Radish, and Suan cai are sometimes used in similar dishes.   It is wonderful when you mix one of them with pork, bamboo shoots, and top them over some hot noodles soups.  Takana vegetable came to Japan from China during the Heian Period (794~1192) but the current Takana is a hybrid between this ancient breed and the new breed brought from China during the Meiji Period (1867~1912).  I’ve decided to use Takana pickles in stead of the Preserved Chinese Radish (四川搾菜).

I went and got some cilantro as it was one of the main ingredients from the original dish (well, the original dish had only two ingredients) but in stead of using big chunks of cilantro, by stems, as it was used in the original dish, I decided take a different approach by mincing it.

I’ve also decided to add more aroma by adding some green onions.  I love the combination of minced cilantro and finely chopped green onions. This combination works very well in many dishes but one of a good example of this is for me is when making the thousand year old eggs and tofu dish.

Still, I felt I needed to accentuate the flavor a bit  more.  Something was missing.  Perhaps from the sauce.  Pondered over whether I should add some garlic but decided not to because I felt it was a too much diversion from the original dish.  In stead, I’ve decided to add some hot chili into the sauce to add a slight kick

Here is the recipe: Serves Four People.


**Click on the each link to see how they are prepared.

1 and 1/2 piece – Salted Tofu – thinly sliced.

1/2 lb – Bean Sprouts – boiled.

1 small piece – Takana (高菜)pickle (very similar to Suan cai 酸菜) – thinly sliced.

1 large stalk – Cilantro – minced(or 5 tablespoon of minced fresh cilantro).

1 medium size stalk – Green Onion – finely chopped (or 4 tablespoon of finely chopped fresh green onion).

Sauce ingredients:

2 tablespoon – Soy Sauce (I used the Japanese soy sauce I already had but I think it’s better if you can get the Chinese soy sauce).
2 teaspoon – Sesame Oil (again, the Chinese version might be better).
1 1/4 teaspoon – Sugar (or 3/4 teaspoon – Splenda).
1 medium piece – Chili
A dash of Salt.

Directions: 1 to 11.

1.  Wash all the ingredients before starting the preparation.

2. For this package, Salted tofu comes in four.  Take 1 and a 1/2 piece and slice them to thin pieces (please refer to the above ingredients link).

3. Mince, chop, and slice cilantro, green onion, and Takana pickles as shown on the ingredients links.

4.  Bring the pot to boil with a dash of salt and add the sprouts to cook ( do not cook more than a minute. 30 seconds to under one minute is the ideal).

5.  Strain the pot and place the sprouts under the running cold water then drain the water.

6.  Mix all the ingredients together in a mixing bowl.

Putting all the ingredients together.

Putting all the ingredients together.

7.  Sprinkle some salt to 6 and mix them all to blend the flavors.

8.  Mix soy sauce, sesame oil, and Splenda (or sugar), in a separate bowl.

Mix soy sauce, sesame oil, and Spleda.

Mix soy sauce, sesame oil, and Spleda.

9.  Crush the red hot chili pepper and add to 8.

Add some crushed Chili peppers to the sauce.

Add some crushed Chili peppers to the sauce.

10.  Pour 9. into 7. and mix them well.

Mix the sauce and all the ingredients together.

Mix the sauce and all the ingredients together.

11.  Plate them and garnish with cilantro to your liking.

Plate from the bowl and done.

Plate from the bowl and done.

So, was this a successful dish? Let’s examine it at part 3.

Ideal vs. Reality: Recipes -1

While I was at a restaurant in Flushing for my Xiao Long Bao (小龍包) exploration, I shared a table with groups of women.  They were all friendly and was open to answering my questions.

I saw a waiter bring in a new dish into their food counter and noticed that the two women who were sitting next to me were talking about the dish.  The dish was a Shanghai salted bean curd appetizer.  I asked them whether the dish looked good.  They said it looked good (it was only later that I found out that the ladies were just being polite).  I ordered the dish and when my bean curd arrived at the table two women started giving me a dirty look with some giggles.  To my inquiry, they whispered into my ears that I’m being ripped off ($3.95). “It’s a dish you can make easily at home!”

Bean Curd Appetizer

Bean Curd Appetizer

I’ve encountered scenes like this in some of the Japanese restaurants.  People ordering some easy and common dishes that are somewhat overly priced.

I believe there are one of those “what have you done to make it so expensive (or “Are you really ripping me off?” )” dishes in every restaurant.  They are something you can easily make at home and you have a good sense of how much it might cost to make the dish – low.  I rather make them at home and avoid having them at a restaurant.

One of the examples for such a dish would be Ohitashi.  Contrary to it’s mysterious name, Ohitashi is a simple dish.  It’s a boiled green (usually spinach) with bonito flakes and soy sauce.  Sometimes it comes with some dashi sauces but often times  these dashi sauces are not even home made.  You would just boil the veggie, sprinkle bonito flakes, and pour soy sauce over it.  If you were to pursue the perfect Ohitashi, I think you can make more elaborate Ohitashi by pursuing the perfect dashi, the timing of cooking the spinach, the best ingredients (soy sauce, Bonito flakes), and the treatment of the root part of the spinach.  Unfortunately, I don’t believe you can find such a high quality version of Ohitashi in Japanese restaurants in the US or even very rare to find in Japan.

There are two different theories on where this mysterious name Ohitashi came from.  One theory says it was derived from  the word “Hitasu” which means to soak something.  People soaked spinach in dashi sauces.  Another theory says it was derived from “Ohidachi” or “Hitachimono” – both referring to “one from Hitachi”.  There are three regions in Kanto area that are known for their soy sauce.  Noda, Choshi, and Tuchiura (Hitachi).  During the Edo period, people called the soy sauce from Hitachi as “Ohidachi” or “Hitachimono”praising the superb quality of Hitachi soy sauce.  The first theory is more accepted in general.

The bean curd dish I ordered was tasty but I shall not repeat this defeat of spending my money on the Chinese equivalent of “Ohitashi”.  Next time I should make it at home.  So, what would you do if you are an innocent “non-native-to-the-cuisine” individual who is at the mercy of the restaurant servers?  Always make sure you talk to the other customers and observe what they are eating.  Even if you fail to get a timely feedback, as was in may case, you will learn as along as you pursue.

So, what is the next step?  In my case, I had a strong confidant sitting next to me.  I asked the woman for the recipe since she said it was an easy dish.  My main concern was the sauce.  Usually, the sauce is the most difficult part of the cooking.   As you can tell from the photo, only ingredients for this dish were bean curd (some call it salted bean curd) and some cilantro.  The key to this dish is really the sauce.  Some sauce could be a very simple combination of common ingredients but this combination is usually governed by tradition and culture .  Most native-to-the-cuisine people select them unconsciously.  We usually are willing to pay a price knowing that we don’t have the insight of the native-to-the-cuisine people.

I got the secret from the woman and I was shocked to learn what was included in the sauce.  That easy?  Really? Wow!!  I have to try it for myself to see if this is true – unexpectedly simple.  My journey (and an obsession) to make my own version of the bean curd appetizer had now begun. Check out part 2 for the recipe.

Soup Dumplings (小龍包)

Reading a posting on two soup dumpling places in Flushing, I couldn’t ignore my urges to go and check these dumplings out for myself. So, after going to M.Night Shyamalan’s casting call in Flushing Town Hall, off I went to explore the two dumpling shops, Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao and Shanghai Tide.

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao

Supposedly, this is one of the best soup dumplings in Flushing.  The size of dumplings are larger than the usual.  Because of this larger than the standard size, more soup is included in the dumpling and the higher risk of burning your tongue. Abundance of soup makes this dumpling very special.

Another reason that this dumpling stands out compared to other ones is because of it’s dipping sauce.  Usually, Chinese black rice vinegar is used as the dipping sauce for soup dumplings.  Here, the color of the sauce is a bit lighter than the black rice vinegar and also it’s sweeter.  You can tell that something is mixed into the vinegar.  One unfortunate thing about their dumpling was that I slightly tasted instant soup-ish flavor from the soup.  Very slight but reminded me of a ready-made cubic soup broth flavor. I felt a dash of western-ish flavoring which is foreign from Chinese flavors I’m familiar with (but I’m Japanese, who grew up eating authentic Chinese food prepared by my Chinese Friend’s family, so could be wrong).

As mentioned in some of the comments on the Serious Eats’ article the skin of the dumpling was a bit too thick for my liking.  Their price is also higher than the average Xiao Long Bao.  $ 5.25 for six pieces where most places charge under $5 for 8 pieces for the standard pork Xiao Long Bao (one without the crab meat.  I always test the pork version to compare and evaluate the soup flavors).  I’ll give 3.5 out of 5 stars for this dumpling.

Shanghai Tide

Shanghai Tide

When I walked into the shop, I thought I must have came to a wrong place.  It was almost empty and most customers were eating hot pots and not soup dumplings.  That’s a bad sign.  Oh, am I doomed?

Contrary to my observation, their dumpling was quite descent.

Dipping sauce was what you would expect;  100% Chinese black rice vinegar with thinly sliced chopped ginger.  Very dark unclear color.  Sizes of dumplings are standard.  Skin could be thinner but not as thick as the dumplings at Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao.  The soup tasted authentic Chinese (that I know of).  It was tasty and far better than I had anticipated but was not exceptional.  Sad thing was their Chinese cabbage.  When you steam the soup dumplings you put the Chinese cabbage onto the steamer to avoid the dumplings from sticking to the steamer.  Some find pleasure in eating this cabbage while enjoying the dumplings.  It’s not an official or formal way of eating the soup dumplings but you can see many customers doing this.  Some of the Chinese cabbage on my steamer was old, dry, and discolored.  Rather unappetizing.  I like having the healthy clean looking Chinese cabbage.  The price was $4.95, standard price.  I give 3.5 out of 5 stars for their dumpling, too.

I haven’t found any soup dumplings that I would give more than 3.5 stars, yet.  I hope to explore as many soup dumpling shops as I can.

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao
38-12 Prince Street
Flushing, NY 11354

Shanghai Tide
13520 40th Rd
Flushing, NY 11354
(718) 661-0900

Reminiscence: My Universe

I haven’t touched the After Effects since in the early 2000.  I’ve been wanting to get back into doing more video work.  I’ve decided to take a class on After Effects and made my first fun try-out piece.

Things have definitely changed.  Back in those days After Effects (AE)was not compatible with vector files – I couldn’t use Illustrator files then but now you can easily import them.  This allows you to have a better control over the typography, the clean crisp alphabets.  Also, now, it’s compatible with flash.  In early 2000 Flash was becoming to be popular but still it was not as a dominant tool as in mid-2000, so there was no features like “Export” as .swf file that you find in the current version.  Flash was not a tool to handle videos on the web in those days.

Another impression I got by using the current AE was that it seemed like they are aiming to turn the composite tool into a 3D tool.  Some of the 3D affects you can create in current AE is amazing. Has came a long way from the flat 2D features they created in the late 90’s (still it was a powerful tool then).   Unfortunately, for a 3D tool, it’s still very primitive and needs a lot more improvements.  The capabilities are not fully there and is rather like a 3D wanna’ be tool (trying hard yet the goal is undefined.  The control of the 3D elements such as camera, lighting, fog and etc… is not very sophisticated (they are limited in the 2D module – e.g. need to go out of your way to observe the movement of the camera).  It’s difficult to use if you had been exposed to more sophisticated 3D tools.  I give credits for their efforts and still is a very powerful tool.   It is amazing that I just imported some rather boring images created in Illustrator but it’s beyond what you would anticipate some flat vector files to look .  These images were nothing fancy.  I just used mostly default brushes and color swatches (I didn’t have an access to a 3D tool so everything was in 2D but could some how fake it in unusual way). This try-out movie posted here is a work in progress and I plan to add some different camera shots and some audio files.

I am posting my very old piece below.  This was done in Quadra (not even a PowerPC).  The second digital video I made.  In those days, I’ve spent hours just trying to see the preview of a movie (it took long, especially, using a slow machine like a Quadra).

What software did I use to create this piece?

Adobe Premiere.

This was created before Adobe bought After Effects.  In my graduate program we had no manuals or classes to learn the softwares.  They were just considered as tools and we were responsible to somehow figure out the ways to use them and incorporate them into our projects.  I nearly lived in the lab just to figure out  the way to use the software.  Like for this piece, I’ve spent hours creating and manipulating the graphics in PhotoShop to get the kind of effects I wanted to achieve using Premier.  Since most people never thought Premier could be used to get some affects you see in AE, I  ended up using the tool in a rather unexpectedly original way.  You had to go through a lot of tedious re-touching and graphics productions but doing so had a sense of craftsmanship to work around the limitations of the tool.  Looking back it was such a fulfilling experience to focus and engage in a time consuming process.  Now, the tools have become more powerful yet still it’s up to the user to come up with their own creative solutions to express their visions, the creation of their universe.  Of course the vision is the most important part of any creative endeavors and persistence to discover the best possible execution.

So finally, the beginning…

I’ve created this blog about 2 years ago but never had a chance to really start working on it.  Initially, I took a food writing class so I could work on contents for this blog.  Then I ended  up discovering about my paternal grandfather whom I never met because he had passed away immediately after my father got engaged to my mother.  He never met my mother or never knew my existence.

To my surprise, my grandfather was a significant figure in the sake history. He was responsible for developing a sake brewing method called Sokujoumoto.  In short this method revolutionized the art of sake making by bringing more predictable and stable results to the production process.

Growing up, my late father often told me that well made sake should be consumed chilled.  He was a firm believer in chilled sake.  He saw value in warmed sake, too but was enthusiastic about chilled sake.  Little did I know that he had strong sentiments toward chilled sake because that was one of the only ties he had with his own father, my grandfather.  My grandfather’s invention made the consumption of the chilled sake possible and he believed in creating modern form of sake that is favored and consumed by the younger generations.  In the article from Osaka Asahi Shinbum (Asahai Newspaper) published on June 27, 1933, he talks about his aspirations of making a new type of sake for the new generation in the coming century (20th Century).  From this article, I can feel his passions for the creation of chilled sake and also pursuit for the art of sparkling sake.

A New Sake is Born! No need to be heated.

A New Sake is Born! No need to be heated.

Like my father and my grandfather I adore chilled sake.  I also enjoy heated sake and sake brewed in methods aother than my grandfather’s Sokujomoto such as Kimoto and Yamahai.