Furikake (Japanese Condiment): Attention Crazy Spicers!

From a trip to Japan a friend gave me a mystery jar of some sort of flavoring. It turned out to be wasabi-flavored furikake. Furikake is used to season rice, I learned. It vaguely resembles salt and pepper but is far more complex and powerful. A version I bought has 25 ingredients, including sesame, wheat flour, lactose, salt, MSG, salmon, fish bone powder, and soybean protein. I use it many ways: on roast beef, eggs, and yogurt, for example. It is the easiest way I know to make hamburgers taste good.

The nearest Japanese market (in Berkeley) has 25 different types, I discovered. They cost about $4 each. I bought four. I’m going to buy ten more, to use for crazy spicing (randomly varying the smell of food to prevent strong smell-calorie associations from forming).

Assorted Links


Assorted Links

Japanese Discouragement of Foreign Visitors

In a post about Tokyo, I said it was a tragedy that there were so few foreigners there. You might think that someone in power in Japan would figure out that America’s biggest strength is that foreigners want to move there (for example), but apparently not. A Tokyo University student told me today that at her school, the dormitory for foreign students is one hour away from the campus.

Where to Buy Miso in Tokyo

In Tokyo I went to a shop that specialized in miso. It sold about thirty varieties, several of which I liked very much. There is a choice of packaging: hard or soft. The hard packages could be used for gifts. The phone number of the shop is 03(3841)7116, which you can use to google it. It is in the Hanakawado district, between Kototoi Dori and Edo Dori, near the Senso-ji Temple and the Amuse Museum. It is open 9 am to 6 pm. Maybe closed Sunday.

Address: 2 – 8 2-chome, Taito-ku, Tokyo Hanakawado 〒 111-0033, which 0.23 km from the Asakusa Station.

Incidentally, nowadays I tend to eat miso with a poached egg. Boil 0.8 cup water, add egg, cook until poached, add the miso which has been mixed with 0.1 cup water.

The Beauty and Tragedy of Tokyo

I told a Chinese friend I would stop in Tokyo on my way home. “Tokyo is a beautiful city,” she said. “Sort of,” I said. After a day in Tokyo, I realized she was right. Tokyo is beautiful, not sort of beautiful. Tokyo business signs and outdoor advertising aren’t beautiful but they are swamped by many things that are:

  1. Small irregular streets. On foot, the weird address system works fine.
  2. Plenty of parks and greenery.
  3. Many small neat attractive shops selling a huge variety of goods. A miso store, for example. Many parts of Tokyo are like Greenwich Village, in other words.
  4. Clean convenient free public restrooms. Unlike other cities, as I’ve said.
  5. Excellent service in shops. Unlike Paris and Amsterdam.
  6. Excellent map and direction signage. In subways, for example, way-finding signs tell the distance, not just the direction, of the destination. This is so basic (distance and direction are orthogonal) yet other places, such as New York, don’t do it. Such creative attention to detail, such improvement on something so old (wayfinding signs) isn’t just helpful, it’s inspiring. I came across a construction site sign that appeared to say how loud the work would be. Again, serious improvement on tradition.
  7. Everyone I asked for directions was helpful, although many were surprisingly ignorant (e.g., didn’t know which direction to Roppongi).
  8. So very walkable. Partly because the streets are curvy, partly there are so many little interesting things everywhere I went but also because when I got tired of random wandering, I could simply go to the nearest subway station and get to my ultimate destination.
  9. The proportions of buildings. Slightly thin, slightly tall.
  10. The repeated exterior details of apartment buildings. They are not smooth slabs. They have visible balconies, stairs, etc.
  11. The food shops in the basements of department stores. There are dozens of small booths. One sells miso, another sells pickles, a third sells salads, a fourth sells eel, and so on. Not only is the food itself often beautiful — Japanese food packaging is supremely lovely — but it is beautifully arranged. You could learn a lot about aesthetics (the hidden laws of beauty) by comparing these displays with similar (less attractive) displays in other countries.
  12. Clean air, clean streets. In spite of heavy use.
  13. Well-maintained neat small houses.
  14. Temples scattered throughout the city.
  15. Healthy-looking people, especially old people. I think it’s all the fermented food they eat (e.g., miso, pickles),  not the health-care system.

I did not find Tokyo expensive, even with the dollar way down against the yen. I never took a cab (and never wanted to — in Beijing I always want to). Equated for quality, I think Tokyo is cheaper than New York.

The tragedy of Tokyo is the lack of human diversity: few foreigners. Such a great city should draw people from all over the world, but it doesn’t. It has a a lot to teach the rest of us about how to live in cities (for example, where does Japanese perfectionism come from?) but somehow this sharing hasn’t happened. Like a cure for cancer in a journal no one reads.

Tokyo Restaurant Recommendations — and Why They Might Be A Bad Idea

An earlier post asked for Tokyo recommendations. A kind reader (Andrew Clarke) provided the following recommendations of off-beat restaurants:

One place I always recommend is Andy’s Shinhinomoto, in Yurakucho: http://www.frommers.com/destinations/tokyo/D61101.html. I have never seen a travel show that has covered the place, but it’s a best kept secret within the ex-pat community. Its menu is a standard Japanese Izakaya (pub) menu with some of the freshest sashimi (and fish in general) in Tokyo, and the strangest thing – it’s ran by a long-term British ex-pat, who is so renowned for his ability to pick good ingredients that he selects and delivers fish for several local sushi shops. Upstairs seating is best for atmosphere, but the food is the same downstairs. They have an English menu, and I’d also recommend the fish head and tempura. It’s also not super expensive, somehow I never manage to spend more than 7000Y  with alcohol. Continue reading “Tokyo Restaurant Recommendations — and Why They Might Be A Bad Idea”

Tokyo Visit

I will be in Tokyo from Friday (January 6) through Tuesday (January 10). If you — my one Tokyo reader — would like to get together, let me know.

If you — my other readers — have suggestions about what to do in Tokyo, let me know those, too.

My overall view of Japan is  simple:  They understand fermented food. Better than anywhere else (France is second).

A Unified Theory of Japanese Food

I used to like Japanese food because it was less fattening than other foods — I lost weight eating sushi. Now I like it because the Japanese eat so much fermented food: miso, pickles, yogurt, Yakult, umeboshi (pickled plums), natto, vinegar drinks, and alcoholic beverages. A Tokyo food court might have 20 types of pickles, 15 types of miso, and 10 types of umeboshi.

Abundance of fermented food isn’t the only way Japanese food is unusual. I see Japanese food as an outlier on three dimensions:

  • Use of fish. More fish-centered than any other major cuisine.
  • Beauty. More beautiful than any other cuisine.
  • Fermented food. More fermented food than any other cuisine.

As I’ve said, lightning doesn’t strike twice in one place for different reasons. If two rare events could have a common explanation, they probably do. I’ve discussed before why a fish-centered cuisine could lead to better visual design: Because cooks can’t use complex flavorings to show how much they care (it would make all fish taste the same), they take pains with appearance to convey this.

What about fermented foods? Here’s an idea: In the development of Japanese cooking, lack of complex flavoring of main dishes increased desire that other parts of the meal provide complexity, which is what fermented foods do so well. For example, Japanese meals often include pickles. We want a certain amount of complexity in our food, in other words. Most cuisines provide complexity via complex spice mixtures (mole sauce, harissa, curry powder); Japanese cuisine provides it with fermented foods. (I love Japanese curry, but it isn’t common.)

This explanation predicts that desire for complexity is like thirst: It grows over time and can be satisfied. Prediction 1: Eating one complex food will make a second one will taste less pleasant, just as drinking one bottle of water will make a second bottle of water taste less pleasant. Prediction 2: Over time, the pleasure provided by complexity grows. The same complex-flavored food will taste better at Time 2 than Time 1 if you haven’t eaten anything with a complex flavor between the two times.

My Theory of Human Evolution (baseball park collector)

Waiting in line at Tokyo immigration control, I met a woman from North Carolina who’d come to Japan for an organized tour of Japanese baseball parks (17 of them). She learned about the tour from a friend. In America, she’s visited 117.

I told her I was a psychology professor and had a theory of evolution in which connoisseurship played a big role. She was a baseball-park connoisseur, I said.

The evolutionary role of connoisseurs and collectors was to provide demand for finely-made stuff — things made by state-of-their-art artisans. Connoisseurs and collectors would pay more for features that had no clear value otherwise. By trading for these things, the connoisseurs and collectors helped the artisans make a living and thereby push their technology further.

In Tokyo — Wanna Meet?

From Thursday Sept 2 through Sunday Sept 6 I will be in Tokyo. If you’d like to meet, let me know.

One Tokyo restaurant:

Please enjoy the dinner of the chef recommendation adhering to a “place of production”, “freshness”, a “season”, “health”, and “beauty” as a menu of a season.

Exactly. Words such as freshness, season, and so on in restaurant descriptions are indeed quotations but usually the quotation marks are missing.

Fermented Food in Japan

If you know anything about heart disease epidemiology, you know that Japan has the lowest rate of heart disease in the world. The usual explanation is high fish consumption. But other countries, such as Norway, also eat a lot of fish but don’t have low heart disease rates.

My visits to Japan suggest to me that Japanese eat far more fermented foods than people in other countries, including Norwegians. If heart disease is due to infection, then it’s clear that the immune stimulation provided by fermented foods helps fight infection. My umami hypothesis — that we like umami, sour, and complex flavors to encourage bacteria consumption, which we need to be healthy — began with a trip to Japan in 2008, when I noticed, in a food court, many types of miso for sale. Back in Berkeley, I started making miso soup. I was stunned how well it worked. All you needed was miso. No other flavorings. It was so easy and good I ate it every day. It was my first bit of evidence that fermented foods are different and better than other foods.

Here are some fermented foods that are easy to get in Japan:

1. Miso soup. Most Japanese eat this daily. In a few countries, such as France, many people eat yogurt daily. Koreans eat kimchi daily. In most countries, as far as I know, it’s hard to find a fermented food (apart from cheese and alcoholic drinks) that’s eaten daily by most people. Miso is also used to flavor fish.

2. Japanese pickles. The best pickles in the world. Some are pickled as long as as two years, developing noticeable alcohol. Other countries have pickles, of course, but as far as I know the only pickle restaurants are in Japan. Moreover there are pickle shops in big Japanese cities. The only other pickle shops I’ve seen are in New York City.

3. Pickled apricots (umeboshi). At a food court you have a choice of acidity, anywhere from 5% (slightly sour) to 25% (extremely sour).

4. Vinegar drinks. Tokyo 7-Elevens sell a black vinegar drink. Vinegar and water. In food courts you can buy special vinegars for this purpose. I’ve never seen vinegar drinks for sale anywhere else.

5. Natto.

6. Yogurt. The Japanese yogurts I’ve tried were sweetened but weren’t as sweet as the yogurts sold in Beijing.

7. Yakult. The fermented milk drink. It’s sold in such small packages it’s pretty clear it must appeal to people who think it improves their health. It doesn’t boost energy, quench thirst, or taste especially good. The manufacturer says it is good for health and that one bottle per day is all you need.

8. Beer and wine.

Because soy sauce is used in small amounts, it doesn’t count. At a Tokyo restaurant I met a nurse who said she thought you should eat fermented foods every day to be healthy. She said perhaps a third of Japanese believe this.

I’ve never seen high Japanese consumption of fermented foods noticed by epidemiologists. Individual fermented foods (such as miso), yes; the whole category, no. You can see how hard it would be to combine across foods: how much miso equals how much Yakult? Yet I’m sure fermented food consumption is extremely healthy.

Ocean Science High School

There is a high school in Osaka called (in Japanese) Ocean Science High School. It specializes in training students for fish industry jobs. During my visits to Japan, what’s most impressed me hasn’t been high-end restaurant food, as great as it is, but the way everyone seems to take pride in their job and doing it well. At one point a friend’s car got a flat tire. We limped to a service station. The attendant fixed the flat in 3 minutes, running around as if we were in a race. Typical for Japan, but unlike anywhere else I’ve been. I hope someday I can learn how this attitude is taught. Surely it has something to do with schools like Ocean Science — not Fish Industry — High School.

Natto is Nothing . . . Try Funazushi

From a travel guide to Hikone, a town near Osaka:

But natto is nothing. The real test of gastronomic mettle in [Japan] is funazushi.

News photo
A challenging plate of funazushi.

This forerunner of all sushi comprises fish that have first been salted and then had the salt soaked out before being packed into large crocks between layers of cooked rice and left to “mature” for two or three years. The resulting utterly ungodly stench from this finny fare is enough to make a grown man practically keel over.

But, reflecting that some fine-tasting cheeses have a rancidity not unlike that of diaper contents, I tried it. And of course the stuff tastes exactly like it stinks. The official guide to Hikone cheerfully observes that funazushi is often referred to as the “king of delicacies.”