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Trevor Corson at Zentan
Photo: Sushi chefs preparing plates at Zentan.

March 3rd at Zentan restaurant in Washington, D.C., Trevor Corson (a native of the D.C. area and author of The Secret Life of Lobsters and The Story of Sushi) gave the first in a planned series of “sushi concierge” presentations. He hopes to come down to D.C. whenever he can book enough people for his sushi talks. I, of course, was lured out by the promise of sake, hoping to score something new.

While I was waiting at the bar for the event to start, I tried some Wakatake junmai daiginjo: sweet, smooth, fruity, but I had a hankering for something a little more fleshy that evening. The Zentan sake list discombobulated me. Several of the sakes are only listed by their English translations rather than their Japanese names. Thus, Ama no To is listed as simply “Heaven’s Door.” The English translations are nice to have, but why no Japanese transliteration? I was completely unmoored by these de-Nipponized sake names with no brewery listings. I’m praying this is not the wave of the future.

Trevor Corson at Zentan
Photo: Three selected sakes of the evening.

Corson’s presentation was designed to help one experience throwback sushi, that is, the more classic fish, rather than the common American style of sushi. As he put it, “Hey, I happen to like California rolls, but I think we should search out a fuller experience.” He specifically excluded salmon and bluefin tuna from the evening’s menu because they are not “traditional,” and wanted to focus on white and silvery fish and shellfish. Whether or not we need to buy into the concept of historical sushi fish versus modern fish, he makes a sound plea for diversity in sushi eating.

Nothing in his lecture was particularly earthshaking, but his focus on expanding the repertoire of sushi in America is admirable. He’s trying to get Americans to eat less appreciated fish that sushi chefs want to serve in the States but can’t get their customers to order. Thus, he emphasized that one should concentrate on texture from shellfish and the more subtle flavors of certain fish rather the “obvious” fatty and simplistic tuna belly, salmon, and unagi. Bluefin tuna should be off the menu for many obvious environmental reasons, but I like Corson’s manner of selling species diversity as evidence of diner sophistication. Will America buy it? Probably not, but it’s a worthy message.

We were served what is apparently the Zentan signature dish, Singapore slaw, which at first has some nice flavors and textures with hazelnuts and fresh radish and crispy rice noodles. Then it gets soggy and makes one think of July 4th party leftovers. The first of three sakes was Ame no To (Heaven’s Door) tokubetsu junmai. This is an old friend of mine from Japan, with that delightful crisp and ricey palate. Good stuff, and not hard to find in the States. In fact, all three sakes of the evening were Vine Connections imports. Corson declined to comment much about the sakes, saying he doesn’t have enough knowledge to do the subject justice. Disappointing, I wonder if he needs a lecture partner?

Round one of some well-made nigiri sushi: kanpachi with yuzu garnish, ocean trout with California caviar, madai with umeboshi, sweet shrimp with salmon roe and deep fried shrimp heads (particularly yummy), anago (sea eel) with the standard eel sauce.

Corson moved on to some well-known etiquette issues: Americans need to stop insulting sushi chefs by rubbing their wooden chopsticks together before eating (something I’ve always found bizarre). Later in the evening when he stopped by our table, I offered him my theory that some people feel the need to “remove splinters” because they are tightly (and incorrectly) pressing their lips against the chopsticks as they pull them out of their mouths (like a person eating chocolate cake with a fork).

He also counseled against pouring copious amounts of soy sauce, making a wasabi slurry, and sloshing away with the fish. As he put it, sushi chefs have told him when they see this they ensure that customer is “off the best fish list for the night.” Again, the choir says, Amen Brother.

He made an interesting point about how tightly sushi rice is packed for nigiri in the United States and that one way to get your sushi chef to regard you as good fish—worthy (the secret stash under the counter) is to ask for a looser pack on the rice. In this case, you’d eat the sushi with your fingers, something he encourages.

Corson confirmed a suspicion I had that sushi chefs in the States were preparing very sweet sushi rice compared with the sushi rice in Japan (even allowing for Kansai/Kanto variations). He said Japanese sushi chefs learn quickly that sweeter rice sells more sushi because it pleases the “American palate.” There’s mention of the American palate again! Someone please wash out America’s mouth with soap.

Sushi round two: sea scallop, horse mackerel with ginger and scallions, flounder with chili daikon, and ye olde bara zushi of mackerel and kelp.  Sake two: Tentaka Kuni (Hawk in the Heavens) junmai. More about that below.

Lecture concluded, Corson visited all the tables to answer questions, and miso soup was offered tragically in a lipped bowl with stainless steel spoons. I stared at the bowl on the table and held the spoon above it wondering what was wrong. Then I realized that so much of the enjoyment of miso soup is bringing the bowl up close to the face, appreciating the aromas, and sipping from a warm lacquer (ok faux-lacquer plastic) bowl. With Western-style etiquette plus a wide lip on the bowl keeping it anchored to the table and the feel of the cold, stainless steel soup spoon, the miso soup lost all its allure. I left it.

The Tozai ginjo nigori (Voices in the Mist) served with dessert was crisp and not as cloudy as many nigoris. Very nice, and I am hard on nigori sake. Dessert was an enjoyable, modern almond panna cotta with pineapple raspberry ravioli and passionfriut sauce.

Trevor Corson at Zentan
Photo: Tentaka Kuni (Hawk in the Heavens) junmai.

I played nice with our waiter and he brought me a free second glass of the Tentaka Kuni. I may have to revisit this one for the interesting bitter nutty taste with a widely spreading palate. Intriguing. Has some warming potential but was served cold that evening.

See Trevor Corson’s Sushi Concierge site for more about these lectures in D.C. and New York. He admits that his standard lecture must be aimed at sushi newbies. A private lecture (you must have at least 6) might be better for people who want to delve deeper.

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This one’s for Tyson for reminding me that a blog needs to be fed.

Breakfast
Photo: Sunday Japanese breakfast at home. Broiled aji hirakiboshi (split-open, lightly dried horse mackerel), rice, pickles, miso soup, genmai cha (green tea with roasted brown rice).

I woke up this morning craving a Japanese breakfast: miso soup, grilled fish, rice, pickles. I had been collecting all these Japanese products and we hadn’t been fully exhausting the pantry and freezer. Time to make the dashi.

Yesterday I had bought some tofu at the grocery store near my house which is cheap, close and definitely/defiantly NOT going for the Mom’s Organic Market vibe. Even as I picked up the sad little tetrapak I wasn’t expecting much, but this morning when I looked at the package I was horrified to find that it was tofu “lite.” I put it in the miso soup knowing I was making a big mistake. Disgusting. What was I thinking? I had just written on this blog that one need not have tofu in miso soup. It was white tasteless goo, with the texture of pannacotta. Too bad it wasn’t pannacotta, we could have eaten that for a snack with a nice berry sauce. Stupid girl I am. Looks like it’s time to check out Thanh Son Tofu in the Eden Center. But I digress…

Delicious breakfast, and I had enough leftover rice to make a bunch of omusubi (rice balls, perhaps more commonly called onigiri). Leftover rice tip: Rice is much like bread, it keeps much better in the freezer than in the fridge. Of course, if you are making fried rice the next day and need dried out rice, the fridge works. But when I’ve made extra Japanese-style rice—sometimes koshi-hikari from California, uonuma from Niigata when I am jonesing for the supreme stuff—I make omusubi to freeze.

When the rice is still warm, wet your hands, rub your palms with a little salt, and press the rice into thick triangles or round patties (or balls or cylinders, whatever). Wrap in plastic wrap and put in the freezer. When you want rice, you can grill/broil them. Put them in a green tea and dashi broth (to make ocha-zuke). Or eat them grilled and topped with a miso sauce, such as a walnut (kurumi) miso sauce (example at TasteofZen.com). You can also just steam them if you want plain rice.

I got a little overexcited finding this wicked cool Japanese Web site with 100 regional onigiri/omusubi styles. Even if you can’t read Japanese, click on the text around the map to pull up some photos. There are also four categories (click on the the bars at the top of the map) that show: furosato (local style) onigiri, kōraku (sightseeing, picnic) onigiri (with examples for spring, summer, fall, and “late fall”), innovative onigiri for the 21st century, and kihon (basic, fundamental) onigiri.

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…

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