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Pembroke Springs Retreat
Photo: Ikebana in the sunrise room (the guest room with Japanese decor) of Pembroke Springs Retreat.

I haven’t had a proper bath in a year-and-a-half. A friend was concerned that I was missing Japan a bit too much, and I tried to express the whole body feeling of fatigue and yearning for something warm—40ºC actually—I missed onsen.

A good portion of our travel experiences in Japan revolved around bathing. Our best memories are of checking in at a ryokan (traditional inn) with natural hot-spring baths. Before dinner we’d soak for an hour or two, get into our yukata (cotton robes), and be served a fabulous kaiseki dinner in our room. We’d eat, drink the local sake we’d picked up in town, and fall into a warm, pink-cheeked slumber. In the morning, we’d soak some more and eat some more, and head out to explore the local area. Who wouldn’t miss that?

A few weeks back we were at a holiday party chatting with some Japanese people working in the Washington, D.C. area. I mentioned missing Japanese baths, and one couple smiled and leaned in close to say, “There are authentic Japanese baths in Virginia. A Japanese woman and her American husband run a B&B in the country.”

The next day Carlos made reservations at at Pembroke Springs Retreat in Star Tannery, Virginia. Only a few weeks to wait and I’d be bathing.

Pembroke Springs Retreat
Photo: View from the common room.

Last Friday, as we were getting ready to take the road to the deep north of Virginia, the manager, Lisa, called us to tell us shocking news: the Japanese baths were not working. The extreme cold had first knocked out the pump and then the pipes had frozen. Did we still want to come?

She promised us a Jacuzzi tub in one of the rooms. The scenery and the Japanese dinner and breakfast were still on offer. We felt the urge to get away, bath or no bath, so we headed west on Route 66, well, not that 66, I-66, heading for the cow farms and rolling hills of the Shenandoah Valley.

The B&B is on 175 wooded private acres. One drives through the forest, past a pond which is fed by a natural spring, and up to the main building. The B&B is run by Taeko and Walter Floyd and their daughter, Lisa, who welcome you as if you are coming to their home.

Carlos marched out into the cold to try the hiking trails on the property. I sat and read a book while facing the mountain forest view from the common room. Taeko brought me warm apple cider with cranberries. I tried not to bother her too much with questions as she prepared our Japanese dinner. The conversation was warm and filled with memories of Japan and the sorry state of their ofuro below, which is fed by natural springs and then heated.

Pembroke Springs Retreat
Photo: Sake with dinner, more on that in a later post.

Before dinner we had a bath in a large Jacuzzi tub in one of the guest rooms. Warm and happy, we had a lovely home cooked meal including a first course of sautéed shrimp and scallops, with a side of homemade salt pickles, followed by chicken katsu and shredded cabbage with kushiyaki (grilled vegetable skewers) and miso soup and rice. We graced our meal with a sake we brought from home: Sawanoi kimoto junmai. Dessert was ice cream topped with tsubu-an (chunky red bean jam).

Pembroke Springs Retreat
Photo: Breakfast. Grilled salmon, hijiki nimono with konnyaku and carrots, tamago yaki (omelet).

Pembroke Springs Retreat
Photo: Breakfast, rice, miso soup.

In the morning we were treated to a Japanese breakfast and a long discussion about John Manjiro, a Japanese man who was shipwrecked in 1841, rescued by an American whaler, and taken to Massachusetts. He returned to Japan in 1851 after receiving a high-school education, and later acted as an interpreter and cultural go-between during the first interactions between Admiral Perry’s delegation and the Japanese shogunate.

Pembroke Springs Retreat
Photo: Raw eggs to crack over rice from Taeko and Walter’s Rhode Island Red and Araucana chickens.

The Floyd’s have created a personal and beautiful oasis that combines the casualness of an American country inn with flavors (and baths) of a Japanese ryokan. We were enchanted and will return when the baths are fixed and the weather is slightly warmer for hiking.

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Sushi Taro Osechi 2010
Photo: 重箱, jūbako, multi-layered box to serve food at New Year’s.

The jūbako is like a Ph.D. in Japanese culture in a box, how to start? The oshinagaki (menu) lists 43 items, in Japanese, so there was some kanji dictionary work for the names. But nothing on the palate was completely unfamiliar, a lot of comforting friends in that box.

A whole baby sea bream swam in a sea of preserved vegetables and fish. A jar of kuromame (sweet cooked black beans) was nestled one one side, like grandma had sent over her blue-ribbon preserves. To fully appreciate this bounty one must study the traditional meanings of the foods, the name puns (see below), the visual appeal and arrangement, the complex recipe preparations, the history of foods that have been eaten since ancient times (black soybeans, sardines) and the modern additions (black pork, beef).

And then you just tuck in.

Sushi Taro Osechi 2010
Photo: Top layer, 22 different items, including sea bream, ankimo tofu (monkfish liver pate), smoked salmon wrapped in many layers of thinly sliced daikon, kuri kinton (chestnuts in sweet yam paste), kinkan mitsuni (kumquat that was sweet simmered), tataki gobo (smashed burdock root with sesame sauce), house made karasumi (preserved bottarga, i.e., mullet roe), red and white kamaboko (fish paste), kararashi renkon (lotus root stuffed with mustard, ginko nuts, and more.

Arrangement of the food: The top layer of the box actually has two layers of food, laid out in a traditional format of celebratory foods on top, with a second layer of preserved foods beneath, the second box having the third and fourth layers of seafood and meats and then stewed vegetables. The visual appeal of the box is heightened by the names that are puns for good luck and success in the new year.

Sushi Taro Osechi 2010
Photo: 田作り, tazukuri, soy-glazed baby sardines. The name is a pun for “fertility.”

Sushi Taro Osechi 2010
Photo: Bottom layer, 21 items, which included winter Spanish mackerel yuan yaki, black pork belly miso yaki, chicken balls, house made datemaki (a fish and egg sweet omelet), sabazushi (a pressed mackerel sushi), salmon roe in a bamboo cup, and much more.

Sushi Taro Osechi 2010
Photo: Detail, bottom layer.

We’ve been feasting for several days. It’s preserved food meant to save the women (ahem, the cooks) of the house from having to prepare food in the first days of the new year. Some standouts: the black pork miso yaki, the sweet-simmered kumquats, the house-made karasumi (mullet roe), roasted duck, the glaze-grilled Spanish mackerel. Quite an experience, maybe next year I’ll make some myself…

Sushi Taro Osechi
Photo: Sushi Taro’s Osechi ryōri (New Year’s food)

That wrapped box is a bit of a pink tease, hmm?

I just received an e-mail from my former Japanese teacher in Yokohama. She thanked me for my nenga jo (New Year’s greeting card) and wrote that my Japanese had gotten better. I hadn’t told her that 10 handwritten lines of Japanese took me hours to compose, as I built a wall of dictionaries and textbooks around myself. So much for my past resolutions to study hard, gambarimasu, and all that. Nevertheless, here we are at the end of 2009 and I haven’t given up on studying the language and enjoying bits of Japanese culture in the Washington, D.C. area. In 2010 there will be more sake tasting reports on this blog, more outings to Japanese restaurants, and a report on an upcoming trip to a Japanese-style B&B in rural Virginia that has a traditional Japanese bath. My heart just got a bit fluttery with happiness.

Sushi Taro
Today’s lunch: Octopus, wakame, cucumber, and salmon salad with ponzu dressing.

A few weeks back we were at Sushi Taro and we placed an order for osechi. Osechi ryōri is traditional Japanese New Year’s food. Kyoto Foodie has an excellent series of posts about it, including the symbolic meaning of the various foods. Carlos and I had taken a class in Tokyo on osechi taught by Elizabeth Andoh, so we are eager to try Sushi Taro’s version.

Sushi Taro
Today’s lunch: Katsuo (bonito) nigiri-zushi. Part of the “Sushi Tokujo” set.

Lunch at Sushi Taro today was relaxing. I watched many couples and families (99% of Japanese descent) arrive to pick up their osechi. They hoisted the pink-wrapped boxes with a slight hesitation (it’s a heavy box!), and turned to walk down the stairs. I toasted a few of them as I drank warmed Shimeharitsuru “Jun” junmai ginjo. Yes, warmed properly by putting the tokkuri in a pan of water, not boiled to death in the microwave (I asked). The nose was koji and a bit of crème caramel, the taste started with peppermint alcohol and finished with a lovely lingering tail of sweet almond nougat.

I was buzzed before I even drank the sake. New Year’s makes me crazy and full of wary hopefulness. Life is like a box of salted fish roe and dried baby sardines.

Sushi Taro
Today’s lunch: Hijiki with soy beans.

Happy New Year! We’ll undress the jubako tomorrow…

Day 5, dinner at Mukune-tei
Photo: Dinner at Mukune-tei, the restaurant at Daimon shuzo (sake brewery) in Osaka.

January 2008: I’m at the John Gauntner Sake Seminar, it’s the last dinner of the week. We’re upstairs in the restaurant in the impossibly gorgeous old farmhouse and Daimon-san is giving a lecture about sake. I’m trying to focus, but the junmai daiginjo is making the table glow and I get distracted by the crispy coating on the little pink and white fried taro balls. I ask the waitress and she tells me, “mijinko.” I write it down on the menu and put it aside. I figure I’ll look it up later. I do, and I can’t find anything about it.

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Fried stuffed lotus root with “Japanese rice crispie” coating at Sushi Taro, Washington, D.C.

November 2009: I’m in Washington, D.C. at Sushi Taro, and the waitress brings course 8 of 10, fried lotus root that has been stuffed with kamaboko (fishcake) and she says, offhandedly, “Coated with Japanese rice crispies.” Ah, mijinko!

All I can find about mijinko is that it is glutinous rice flour (related to or the same as kanbaiko). On some Web sites, I find info that mijinko is part of rakugan, somewhat hard Japanese sweets, but this doesn’t seem to fit the characteristics of the crispy popped rice texture of the coatings in the photos. Maybe it isn’t mijinko at all. My ongoing investigation to continue…

Dining at Sushi Taro the night before Veterans Day: a treat in honor of my husband’s present (and my past) service to our country. It was also his ploy to stop temporarily my obnoxious keening for Japan.

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: First appetizer, gomadōfu (sesame tofu) in dashi with garnish of uni, adzuki bean, and wasabi.

I had tried Sushi Taro last summer, during one of my ongoing, but here scantily reported, tastings at several Japanese places positively noted by the local Washington, D.C. foodie news. I was, and remain, skeptical at each new outing. Japanese food in the DC area is—how shall I say?—not always in full blossom.

I headed to Sushi Taro the first time last summer when I read that it had been transformed from a beloved neighborhood sushi bar (with a good quality, standard-in-America sushi menu) into a kaiseki ryōri joint. The Yelpsters were screaming how it was now too expensive and fancy, which I took as possibly a good sign. Tom Sietsema, in the Post, quoted the new chef (son of the former chef), Nobu Yamazaki, justifying the change, “Chicken teriyaki and spicy tuna roll are not exactly authentic Japanese food.” Not that I have anything against chicken teriyaki, but Yamazaki-san was calling to me.

On that lovely summer evening, I ordered a la carte: baby ayu (sweetfish) tempura, takigawa dōfu (homemade tofu cut into long strands and arranged like a river flow in a dashi broth), and my personal quality tester nigiri sushi: yellowtail, salmon roe, and tamagoyaki [the last one is a good way to see how much care the chef takes with the humblest ingredient, egg]. Everything was excellent, everything was served on seasonally appropriate dishes. I was transported. As I sipped my Suigei tokubetstu junmai sake, I said a little toast to the chef and intoned, Itadakimasu. I humbly receive.

Last Tuesday night I finally went back with my man. We drank:

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Kubota koju tokubetsu junmai.

The Kubota had a big mouth feel with a kick on the middle of the tongue, then a long bamboo-lime finish (I know, sounds weird, tastes delicious). The bottle was chilled, but I would let a glass warm slightly on the table to taste the transition from crisp grassy start to a banana smoothness. The sake list is very nice, but the prices are a bit nutty. [But premium sake prices in the U.S. make me sick. I found a deal today at the Super H, but that’s for another post…]

The food, on the other hand, I consider good value (for kaiseki). We each had a 10-course meal including 3 special courses of madai* AND 2 courses including matsutake mushrooms, for $90. The photos show most of the courses.

*Sushi Taro’s menu and various Web sites identify madai as snapper, but my Hosking Dictionary of Japanese Food has it as “sea bream.” It was written in Japanese on the menu as madai. Hosking also tells me madai is best in spring, hmm.

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Second appetizer, soft cod roe tempura with a lotus root fritter dressed with thickened yuba sauce.

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Third appetizer, slow braised female ayu, fishcake-stuffed ginko nuts, green beans.

[Not pictured] The soup course was matsutake mushroom dobin mushi (served in a little tea pot, good explanation at Kyoto Foodie) with anago (eel) meat, shrimp, and ginko nuts.

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Sashimi course, chūtoro (tuna middle belly meat, that night of remarkably excellent quality), madai, hiramasa (yellowtail?), sea bass, and cucumber-wrapped monkfish liver (ankimo).

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Hassun (“tray of tidbits”) course, madai head and collar, grilled sanma, miso-marinated egg yolk, pickled daikon-wrapped salmon, lotus root stuffed with mustard sauce, tuna kakuni, pickled myoga.

This giant fishhead on a platter struck me as kaiseki on steroids (cue the Schwarzenegger Suntory ad). I’m still wondering if the chef sent it out waving his carbon-steel, yelling, “Banzai! Take that California-roll eaters!” We picked it clean. Back at you, badass.

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Same course, showing the other side of the plate: miso-marinated egg yolk, pickled daikon-wrapped salmon, lotus root stuffed with mustard sauce, tuna kakuni, and an unidentified chinmi dish (a “delicacy” that I couldn’t quite identify). I think it was ankimo mixed with something.

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Sushi course, buri fatty belly meat and oyster.

[Not pictured] The next course was lotus root stuffed with fishcake, coated with Japanese “crispies” (mijinko, I think) and deep fried. This course reminded me of izakaya pub grub, but it was delicious.

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Oshokuji (rice, soup, and pickles) course, matsutake mushroom and madai infused rice, served with miso soup and pickles. The miso soup was a thick country-style soup with enoki mushroom, cabbage, and scallions. The pickles were a bit disappointing. (Soup and pickles not pictured.)

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: First dessert, purin (Japanese custard, like a loose flan).

Sushi Taro kaiseki
Photo: Second dessert, the art of fruit in kanten.

Despite the news that Sushi Taro is too “fancy,” for a kaiseki place it’s quite casual. The waitstaff are dressed in samue, which makes me think of a slumber party. Across from us a couple was absorbed separately in texting while the waitress placed dishes on the table. The pacing of the meal was a bit rushed. We gulped down the soup course when she brought the sashimi. Something ineffable about the experience of kaiseki hasn’t been translated. I wonder…next stop Makoto!

Nevertheless, for a few hours, I gazed out on 17th Street, the warmth of sake in my belly and head, my husband smiling across from me, and I was royally feasted.

————
Note: Sushi Taro is offering osechi (New Year’s food). They give the link to the order form only on the Japanese-language version of the Web site. I assume they mean to weed out casual inquiries from those who don’t know osechi well (especially because even Japanese can become weary of it). I love all the different tastes. We made an order and I’ll write a post about it in January.

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