Oden 関東煮

Oden @ Sensoji

On a visit to Tokyo’s Sensoji Temple during Hatsumode (first shrine visit of the new year), I once had this oden from one of many many food stands there. They were selling each item for a whopping 500Yen (you get to choose 5 items, making this dish of a daikon slice, 3 fish balls, a bundle of Konnyaku noodles, one wedge of black Konnyaku, an egg, and that smidgen of mustard about $25 bucks CAD.) You would of course know that at the local 24hr Family Mart, you can get the same thing 10 times cheaper, but heck, it’s one of the biggest and oldest temples in Japan during its busiest time of the year, so they have the right to rip off tourists and festival-goers alike.

Truth be told, oden (関東煮) is really a very modest Japanese one-pot hot pot easily made at home. It basically consists of a dashi broth as a base, and then pretty much whatever you want to throw into it. Typically this would be things like daikon, tofu, shitake mushrooms, eggs, konnyaku, and various surimi-based products such as fish balls, fish cakes, surimi rolls, etc. Everything is cooked in the broth for an hour or so, and then served right in the big pot it is cooked in. Oden makes for a very comforting and filling meal, and really warms you up in the winter.

You can make your own dashi, but I just use Ajinomoto’s Hon Dashi powder. I like to throw in napa cabbage because it takes care of the vegetables as well, and napa soaks up the broth nicely. In this particular oden there were also fish balls, hanpen (triangular-shaped fish cake), tofu, chikuwa (surimi tubes), kamaboko, imitation crab sticks, and crimini mushrooms. It was all cooked in a giant wok (one of the biggest in the kitchen), and it didn’t cost me 2500Yen. 😉

Oden
Advertisements

The Ugly Duckling: Okinawan Purple Sweet Potato

The Okinawan purple sweet potato is one interesting tuber. From the outside, its tan, light brownish colored skin makes it a plain old root vegetable, and its thin, irregular shape puts it at the ugly end of the spectrum. (Not that any tuber can be considered remotely good looking, but some are not particularly ugly, like baby potatoes.) At first glance you might disregard it as another dirty root vegetable sprung from the ground; I definitely wouldn’t know it’s got anything to do with purple if it wasn’t labeled as such. In fact, given the price (over 2 dollars per pound) I might just roll my eyes and pick up a typical, cheap as dirt, sweet potato.

Purple potatos?

But! Never judge a book by its cover, or, er, a potato by its skin! Because underneath this very unassuming exterior hides a most majestic interior – a deep purple lightly speckled almost like a gem of sorts – that is deliciously rich, slightly moist, and very sweet. I didn’t believe it when first introduced, but the purple sweet potato is the Cinderella of root vegetables, and tastes as beautiful as it looks (inside).

Purple sweet potato

The purple sweet potato was introduced to Japan in the 1600s from China. Today, outside of Japan, it is mainly grown in Hawaii. In your Asian supermarket, you will find it falsely labeled as “Hawaiian Purple Yam“. According to this source the purple sweet potato is not the same as the ube, which is a yam that also has purple flesh but red skin. (And this Nerd really shouldn’t have to explain to her dear readers what the difference between a yam and a sweet potato is, should she now? ;-))

Although both the purple sweet potato and the ube is pureed into a purple mush to create various kinds of purple-colored desserts like cakes, pies, and ice cream, I think it is great to enjoy it as is. The best way to prepare it is not by baking, but steaming. Despite being sweet, it doesn’t have as much moisture as the normal sweet potato, so baking doesn’t quite produce a soft and moist potato but dries it out. (This was baking 2 hours at 375F – the thing was still hard and not mushy unlike baking a sweet potato.) On the other hand, steaming it on a plate sat on a water-filled pan or wok, is much faster and retains a bit of the moisture. From experience, not all are sweet, and skinnier potatos that don’t have giant bulges (or at least have a somewhat uniform diameter throughout) seem to be sweeter. But I am really no expert, so you might want to buy more than one in case I am not right.

Gremlins! The Beard Papa’s Craze

Hmm cream puff 

Ever since Beard Papa’s opened its first Canadian store a few months ago at Aberdeen Centre, and there has been a bit of a commotion over it. For hours, people waited in a snake, right off the escalators to the third-floor food court, just to max out that “2 dozen per customer” limit. They are still making only one flavor (plain vanilla), but boxes and boxes of yellow cream puffs continue to fly off the shelves.  On the weekends it is still supposedly crazy; on a weekday it looks something like this:

Beard Papa’s

I must say I am not a big fan of profiteroles: First – I don’t like cream, creamy fillings, sweet creamy custards, etc. (With the exceptions of ice cream and a bit of whipped cream on the cappucino.) Cream is often too sweet for my taste, but it is more its goopy texture that puts me off. It is something I always scrape off of cakes, or out of custard-filled pastries. (And this I have done as a child, long before I knew what “fat” and “health” meant.) Second – I did have a fascination with cream puffs, once. Once upon a time, I bought a giant box of those little frozen ones from Costco (probably a bad idea that resulted in my relationship henceforth with cream puffs), and after having to eat the first dozen, I got sick of them and had the box sitting in the freezer staring guiltily at me for the longest time (and I still didn’t finish it). 

So, I digress, but that is essentially my very personal feelings with profiteroles.

Anyway, this Beard Papa’s looks rather funny to me, since it basically a store infested with clones of only one variety of cream puffs. It reminds me a little of a scene from Gremlins. (Also, I am guessing that they are saying here that 230 calories per sugary puff is a good thing.)

Beard Papa’s

Gotta wash it all down with some coffee. Hence the heading back down to ground-level Starbucks for an Americano:

Cream Puffs and a Coffee

I must say, aesthetically, a cream puff is a really peaceful, angelic looking pastry, even these big ones. It could be the powdered sugar sprinkled on the top of that fragile exterior which encases that sweet custard inside. For me at least, it’s only after you bite into it that you get attacked by giant globs of cream! Aaahhh, GREMLINS!

Giant Bite!

This reviewer says: I don’t see what the big fuss is all about, I’ve had better puffs in Vancouver. These are not overly sweet, but I still had to scrape out a lot of the custard. It’s not exactly cheap either (so I’d probably head for the 雞蛋仔(Gai Daan Jai) the next time I’m at this food court). Can we go shopping at Daiso now that we’re done?

Maybe if they have other flavors… perhaps a green tea custard might sit better with me.

Yakitate!! Japan

Yakitate Japan

Yakitate!! Japan

I’m hooked on Yakitate!! Japan right now. This is a 69-episode anime about a young and talented bread-maker named Azuma Kazuma who wants to create the ultimate Japanese national bread, or “Ja-pan” (pan = Japanese for bread). Azuma leaves the country side for Tokyo to train at Pantasia, the biggest bakery chain in Japan. The story is about him, his coworkers, the breads they create, and baking competitions. It’s like Iron Chef but as an animated soap opera, and all about bread making. Crap that just gets me all salivating and giddy.

Yakitate! Japan

There is some extreme comic fictitiousness to it all, like Azuma’s legendary “Solar Hands” (hands capable of forming awesome bread dough because they are warmer than body temperature), or a croissant with something like 500 layers. But the thing I find impressive about Yakitate (Yakitate = “freshly baked”) is that the science of bread-making is both preserved and not overlooked. For all the breads they would explain how a certain taste, texture, or some other aspect of the bread is achieved, or why an ingredient works the way it does. But that never takes away from the plot or becomes a bore. An example is the goat’s milk substitution in Episode 5: Azuma made bread using milk from a goat instead of a cow. This prevents allergic reactions to milk, because the most common allergen found in cow’s milk (Alpha S1-Casein) is not present in goat’s milk. It was also explained that goat’s milk make bread taste better because it has smaller fat particles, so more of the particles fit into the dough compared to cow’s milk, making the bread more flavorful. Here’s a screen cap of that explanation, so cute:

Bread dough

 

And this scene brought back memories of my recent visit to Kei’s Bakery (but it is reminiscent of many Asian French-inspired bakeries too):

Yakitate

Anyway, highly recommend for anybody remotely interested in breads and pastries – whether you like making them, or just devouring them. It’s an entertaining and hilarious anime, beautifully directed, but one thing that sets it apart is that it is also surprisingly informative. And makes you salivate and want to make bread afterwards. The manga is also available in English now on Amazon.

Kei’s Bakery

Matcha

Mt. Matcha 

After having the best Japanese melonpans last year at Plaire, a bakery at the Sensoji Temple in Asakusa (to which I shall later devote an entire post), I have been searching for an authentic Japanese bakery in Vancouver. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but there just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of these in Vancouver. I found Kei’s Bakery on Arbutus around 8th Ave, and finally paid a visit.

Kei’s on Arbutus 

Kei’s Bakery on Arbutus 

This is a little bakery run by a couple from Japan. The owner is really nice, and patiently waited as I looked at all the various cute little buns. They also had some very soft, fluffly bread loafs (white and whole grain) sitting on the counter. There is some variety here, but because they are a small bakery they make only a bit of everything for a day, so once an item is sold out, that’s it. At 2pm it appears I have arrived just in time to grab the very last melonpan (hiding behind a sign on the top left corner here):

pastries!

Cute buns galore!

Nothing looks plain and ordinary at this pakery: A lot of thought and creativity goes into their buns; everything looks beautifully handcrafted and cute. They had these little animal pan shaped into turtles and bears. And a “yakisoba sand”, which is quite popular in Japan. It’s essentially a hotdog, but in the place of the wiener there is yaki soba.

Animal buns

Animal Pan

Yaki Soba Buns! 

Yakisoba sand

Banana and others

Banana buns and others

 

Besides the melonpan I also got a banana bun and a “Mt Matcha”. The owner was threw in a free cheese stick, which was nice of him. (Although I didn’t see cheese sticks on sale, so I think it might have been left over from the day before.)

Bag 

The Goodie Bag!

A few of items, such as the Mt. Matcha, also have K’s “engraved” onto the bun itself, which is pretty neat.

cimg3057.JPG

Melonpan, Banana, and Mt Matcha

 

Their melonpan doesn’t have the traditional pineapple rind pattern on the top though, which was a bit disappointing. It tasted the way I expected it to: The top was crusty and sugary, and the bun underneath sweet. The crust I found a bit on the hard side and the bun wasn’t light and fluffy. It was just OK, and if it wasn’t labeled melonpan I’d have just called it a plain old sweet pan. No where close to the orgasmic melonpans I had at Sensoji. Also doesn’t beat traditional Chinese pineapple buns.

cimg3062.JPG

Melonpan sans melon crust

The banana bun had a piece of banana and banana paste inside. I thought it was a strange thing to begin with, and I don’t particularly like the color banana turns into after cooking, but I guess if you’re really into bananas… The star-shaped Mt Matcha was the best and my favorite. It looked so pretty with its sugar-powdered green tea crust on top and it’s “K’s” mark on the side. The bun was also very soft. Inside, there is a green tea cream filling. It tasted very matcha. But in a good way. Definitely a must try from this bakery.

Inside the banana bun Inside the Macha 

Bananas for bananas? And more matcha inside the mountain of matcha.

Items are at an average of $1.50 to $2 bucks each – you are probably paying for the craftsmanship. Overall, I liked their creativity and cuteness, but I wasn’t that impressed with the taste (wasn’t bad, just nothing out of the ordinary). I might go back if I was passing by and felt like some matcha-flavored buns. But then I might probably just keep going and head to a Chinese bakery where they offer a similar variety of good tasting sweet buns for less than half the price instead.

 

Kei’s Bakery

2351 Burrard St. (between 7th and 8th), Vancouver
11:00 am to 6:30 pm (Closed on Wednesdays)

Good dashi @ Ichiro

cimg2436.jpg

Ichiro again. Trying to spread the word. From J’s recent recommendation, I tried their vegetables in soup. It was nice: Enoki, cabbage, spinach, leeks, two giant slabs of tofu, in a nice pot of dashi soup. This also looked better than the picture they had on their menu. A decent size at $6.95, but of course one cannot simply come and go, without a very generous sampling of “the usual”:

cimg2433.jpg cimg2437.jpg

Glad to know I’m not the only one who suffers from that menu recurrency syndrome known as “Sticking to the good, reliable default even though you know you should be trying other things.”

On a side note – They were sold out of their coffee jello’s. It took them a long 15 minutes to inform us of this.

一朗亭 Ichiro Japanese Restaurant (Great udon!)

It is hard to find a good Japanese restaurant in Vancouver, despite the vast multitude in the city (Dinehere lists 328 of them, which is double the number in the “pubs” or “pizza” or “family” categories). Maybe it’s my picky palate. I have gone places where I pay $30 for a few pieces of sashimi freshly imported from Japan, and came away disappointed. I have eaten sushi rolls so fusion-fancy and dressed up I can hardly tell what I’m eating. Us Vancouverites sure love our sushi (and quite literally, as sushi seems to be favored over other types of Japanese food such as don, men, nabemono, or yakimono). As long as there is rice, a piece of nori, and some fish all wrapped together in a neat little roll, we will eat it. Some probably love sushi so (blindly) much they don’t care they are eating at restaurants calling themselves Japanese, but have little right to do so.

Quite frankly, I’d be insulted if I were Japanese. It’s food-blasphemy!

It’s like if every Chinese dim sum place I go to the owners and chefs are speaking to me in Korean and putting kimchee in my char siew bao! (Hmmmm! Not that I wouldn’t love a kimchee bao!) But seriously, yes, fusion cuisine is all the rage and quite exciting, but “ethnic” cuisine is best enjoyed in true authenticity, no?

Anyway, I am hardly a connoisseur of Japanese cuisine. But over the years I’ve become a bit picky. My three basic requirements are quality, authenticity, and freshness. That means no all-you-can-eat, no eating at restaurants run by non-Japanese Asians, no sushi that comes in a foam or plastic box. (OK. The one thing I am guilty of is liking California rolls.) These three points are important because I adore sashimi, and you can go so wrong so easily if you eat sashimi at the wrong places. 

一朗亭 Ichiro Japanese Restaurant  (2nd Ave. and Chatham, Steveston) definitely meets the three requirements. Japanese-run, they serve fresh sashimi, tastey soup bases, and superb udon. Good service (though a tad slow), and gets quite busy even on weeknights. Below, a small sampling:

Uni sashimi (1/2 order):

 Uni

Words cannot describe how much I love uni. It is not for the faint of tongue, even if you don’t know what it is before you eat it. One of my favorite ways to enjoy it is freshly prepared and served atop the sea urchin shell itself. Ichiro serve all their sashimi on ice, although with uni it might not be the greatest idea – you have to eat it fast or it will not hold up against the melting ice! Very fresh though, and very… uni. $8.99 well spent for this uni aficionado.

Chicken Udon:

Chicken Udon Yum

Chicken udon – that default noodle in soup thing to order. But this is no ordinary udon. I don’t think any other place has udon so good: not thick, white and doughy, the perfect consistency with just the right chewy. Perfect slippery udon texture. It also soaks up the flavor of the soup so well that if they had served the plain udon in soup, it would be a delicious dish. Ichiro‘s udon is a definite must-try.

Sashimi: Sockeye and Yellowfin Tuna:

Salmon Sashimi Yellowfin tuna 

Pretty generous portions of sashimi, unlike a lot of places that try to cheat you with little thin slices. Again, served on ice. The Sockeye is nice, red, and oily. The yellowfin is definitely among the best I’ve ever had. And it’s just cheap, plain old yellowfin tuna! So many places serve flavorless tuna, with that still-frozen taste, or with this rough texture and feel and kind of falls apart funny in your mouth. Ichiro‘s consistently had the perfect tuna taste. Nice, smooth, yum.

Rolls: California, chopped scallop, Steveston:

Rolls 

These are pretty standard rolls, as are most of the rolls on their menu. The Steveston roll (which is just salmon, shrimp and scallop) is not that exciting even with the green tobiko. Ichiro doesn’t try to fancy it up like so many places nowadays by wrapping their rolls with thin slices of mango or avocado or salmon. Which is just fine. I am not that taken with their rolls as their other items. They are good, but slightly overshadowed by everything else. 

Deep Fried Sole:

Deep fried sole 

A delightful snack. Very light, and super crunchy without being overly salty. Yes, you can eat the bones, which I think is the best part. You can also eat the head. It is served with coarse salt and a sauce, but is just great on its own.

Beef Soba:

Beef soba 

I say their udon definitely rocks, but their soba is great too. Nice and light with a good texture. If you’re not a big fan of udon… well, you should order the udon anyway, then have your soba.

If you are like me and order a lot of sashimi (and are “adventurous” is what my best friend likes to call me) a dinner here costs about 30 bucks a person, which is not bad for the quality of food you are getting. They also have bento boxes and good looking desserts. Highly recommended by all dinnermates I’ve eaten with here.