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!”
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.