Rice, Noodle, Fish

Hi friends. Been a while!

I wanted to stop by to recommend Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture. Here’s what I wrote to my brothers:


Just started reading Rice, Noodle, Fish: Deep Travels Through Japan’s Food Culture, a new book written by Matt Goulding and published by Anthony Bourdain. I wanted to recommend it. Japan’s food culture, and the spirit of the Shokunin, is such a difficult thing to capture in words, and I’ve never seen it done better. The book is a phenomenal piece of writing– quick to read, but rich enough to draw you into hours of thinking.

I’m often asked why I keep returning to Japan, to the exclusion of other countries, and it’s always difficult to explain to those who haven’t experienced it for themselves. Many seem to think that I return to Japan again and again to relive the same experience over and over, as a child might hop back on the same roller coaster all day.  The reality is the opposite: Japan is so distinct from anywhere else that each visit leads to a new paradigm shift. Compared to Japan, Thailand or Vietnam would feel like just another variation of Hong Kong. Of course, it would be fun to visit Southeast Asia, get a Thai massage, lay out on the beach in Bali, etc…. but I know that these will not be places in which I find a home for my own spirit.

Back to the book: I’m 45 pages in, and already there are pages and pages– not merely a blurb like most publications– devoted to Sushi Sawada, Cafe de l’Ambre (a fantastic old coffee shop I visited in April), and Gen Yamamoto, whose cocktails are the only ones which, at this point, I feel are unfathomably beyond my own ability.

It took me 30 seconds to download on my iPad.  Please do the same, and join me in going ever deeper into Japan’s food.”


The State of Tacos

Featuring Andrea of Best Damn Food Blog fame:

Andrea Taco 1Andrea Taco 2a Andrea Taco 3 Andrea Taco 4

Letters To My Students: “Love Is Like A Red Wine Reduction”

Dear English 269 members:

Love is like a red wine reduction.

In cooking, a reduction means to simmer a liquid until only the flavorful compounds remain.  A red wine reduction, for example—the French workhorse sauce— is to boil a bottle of wine until there remains just one precious cup, thick as nectar, filled with fruit and zest and spice—the wine’s final, sweetest breaths.

But if you reduce it too much, you also boil away the flavor.

Love is like a red wine reduction—Delicate.

– – –

Does the word, “Love,” mean anything anymore?  Jonas’ father reprimands Jonas for using a word that’s become so generalized it’s almost obsolete—and he’s right.  Consider how casually we use the word:

“I love noodles.”

“I love your socks!”

Which word, then, pulses deep as the beat of our hearts?

– – –

In The Giver, Jonas asks incredulously, “What if they were allowed to choose their own mate—and chose wrong?”

Gentlemen, did you choose the wrong girl, or are you the wrong man?  How about we focus on being the right man, so such a question need never be asked.

Let’s reduce love—just enough.  Let’s concentrate it, squeeze out all the flavor.  “Show, not tell.”  Show and tell.

Tell her you love her, every day.

Remind her often how precious she is to you.  Tell her that she’s a gift, a pleasure to be with—because she is.  And every day, lay down your life for her.  Put her above yourself, in every way that you can think to do.  Leave no doubt in her mind– or in yours– that when the time comes, you would be glad to die for her.  Men, this is our privilege.

Because love is like a red wine reduction—Sacrificial.

– – –

Today, we’ll take cultural memory one step further and discuss why history matters.  We’ll talk about the link between color and emotion.  Also, why does The Community emphasize precision of language?  Is it to be precise, or imprecise?   Have you noticed the euphemisms?

I look forward to reading your papers, due next week.  In your writing, reduce.  Pare down.  Make the most of each word.  Better one meaningful phrase than five pages of stuffing.

Most of all, I hope are you are well and loved in these last days of winter.


Letters To My Students: “Salt”

Dear English 269 members:

If there was no such thing as salt, what would we lose?

What if there were no songs being sung, no poems being read, no stories being told,

No lions on the plains, no fish in the sea, no flowers in the fields?

Is sex only for making babies?

Why read literature?  Why poetry?

What does art do?

– – –

All these questions and more, we’ll discuss as we read The Giver.  But here’s a starter:

Salt makes things taste good.

Salt takes flavorless, dull, bland, heavy, mundane clumps of meat and fills them with flavor, lightness, salience—makes them savory and mouthwatering again.  Salt makes things taste more like themselves.

Have you ever tried an unseasoned steak?

What if life was as bland as an unseasoned steak?

In the coming weeks, we’ll examine the worth of Beauty, Flavor, and Taste.  We’ll talk about Pain and Pleasure, for they are brothers, two sides of the same coin.  Also, Functionality vs. Hedonism.  And Salt—because literature is not about grammar.  It’s about color, story, delight— all the things that fill our lives with the brightest joys and deepest heartaches.  To quote Mario Vargas Llosa:

“Literature is the food of the rebellious spirit, the promulgator of non-conformities, the refuge for those who have too much or too little in life.”

May the words on these pages, and all the dreams therein, be food and refuge for a heart that yearns for better things than this world affords.

As we move into our fifth week, I hope you are well—or, if going through a season of pain, that you are grieving well, knowing that it is never for naught.


Sushi Sawada (Tokyo)

I’ve wanted to write about Sawada since my meal there in December 2012, but couldn’t find the words.  How does one describe the sublime?  What can be said?  Even now, months later, I haven’t found a way to communicate just how different Sawada was, on every level, from all my previous experiences with sushi, fish, rice, flavor, texture, and the heart of what food is.

Still, I’d like to try and share what I can.

For the past few years, whenever I read an article on “Best Sushi In Japan,” or watched a film like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, I would try to imagine what it would be like to eat sushi at the highest level.  I would see close-up shots and think, “Holy chicken, that rice looks incredible!  And look, how the fish glistens!”  I could almost taste it.  To begin with, I was no stranger to the form– I had dined at a few highly-revered sushi-ya’s on multiple trips to Tokyo.  And after reading so much, and seeing– even studying— so many pictures of delectable-looking fish draped over rice, I thought that I could somewhat imagine what it would be like.

Yet, the reality was so much more than simply an incarnation of my imagination.  It transcended and redefined all kinds of things I thought I knew about food– things like freshness and complexity.  Is it fresh if it’s aged?  Because it tasted “fresher” than any fish I’d ever known.  How can two ingredients, simply cooked or not at all, contain such depth?  Sawada was the polar opposite of uber-avante-garde Alinea, where I experienced another best-meal-of-my-life (if such a thing can be said).  It was utterly refined rusticity and simplicity; perhaps this is why it amounted to something even greater.  Sushi Dai was decent, and Kyubei better, but Sawada was on another plane, better by an order of magnitude; there was simply no comparison; it was not the same food whatsoever.  I immediately felt that all the others had been playing with scraps, cheap imitations (throw fish on rice and voila!  Sushi!), but Sawada was the real thing, the true craft of sushi.  It was tasting sushi for the first time.  Both the fish and the rice at Sawada were consistently of a much higher quality than I had ever tasted, in any kind of restaurant, anywhere in the world.  But I expected this.  What I didn’t expect was that at Sawada, one comes to understand what it means that sushi is not only about perfect fish and perfect rice, but rather the marriage between the two, a husband and wife that become more than the sum of their parts.  I finally felt the heart of sushi.

Much could be written on the physical qualities of the sushi, but perhaps an anecdote would be more telling. The morning after my meal at Sawada, I took a friend to the famed Sushi Dai, and found that I had to force myself to swallow their sushi.  Suddenly, Sushi Dai tasted like cheap, days-old box sushi from a Chicago supermarket.  Now, this had nothing to do with snobbery or attitude.  It was simply that after Sawada, Sushi Dai’s fish seemed to stink from “improper” handling/seasoning, and the rice seemed sloppy.  But this was because the fish actually did stink, and the rice was a mess, and there was no marriage between the two– I just hadn’t realized it before.

For the first time, I tasted sushi that was made in such a natural way– like, why doesn’t everybody do this?  So much so that all the other sushi just didn’t even make sense anymore.  I mean, why would you take a piece of raw fish and just slap it on rice?  That’s not sushi, is it?  Sawada’s extensive prep and attention to detail made the sushi Sushi, you see, so the former way was revealed as incomplete, like a burger without buns or an unsalted steak– a piece of meat, but the flavor isn’t there.

Which brings me to the question of Perfection.  In Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the legendary sushi chef is asked whether he believed that perfection could be achieved.  He answers, “No, I don’t think it’s possible.”

Yet in a way, I think it is possible.  If food were static, a complete universe by itself, then it would not be possible.  Yet I keep coming back to what I mentioned in my first post: that food is not simply “all by itself.”  Rather, it is dynamic and interactive– with our taste buds, memories, friends, atmosphere, mood, etc.  So I answer for myself:

If at a meal, one is the happiest that he has ever been, and is filled with joy, laughter, and thankfulness; if he has tasted none better and can imagine no more; if it compels him to shake his head in disbelief that he could be so blessed; if it brings tears to his eyes and wonder to his heart– This is perfection.

Such was my experience at Sawada.

I’ll close with an excerpt from my email to my two brothers and their wives immediately after eating at Sawada:

“Sushi Sawada was indescribably sublime . . . I now dream of eating here with you.  Actually, since Sawada only has six seats, if the five of us (and my date) visit Sawada, we would rent out the entire restaurant.  Sounds crazy, but if you ever want to visit, I would fly to Japan– if only for a day– just to eat there with you.”

I haven’t had sushi since, and don’t intend to until I visit Sawada again.

– – –

Sushi Sawada
MC Blg, 3/F, 5-9-19 Ginza
Chuo-ku, Tokyo
Reservations essential: +81 (0) 3 3571 4711

*No photos were allowed

*A great review on Sawada here:


During my search for the best Niu Rou Mein recipe a couple of years ago, I came across this video by the lovely Nana Chan (a.k.a. Nanamoose, or “Beef Noodle Soup Lady”).  The recipe turned out to be so delicious that when my Taiwanese friend tasted a spoonful, she burst into tears and exclaimed, “it tastes like home, but better!”  It’s been one of my go-to recipes ever since.

Thanks, Nana!

When I heard that Nana was opening her own cafe, my first reaction was, “What?  Not a noodle soup restaurant?!”

Still, I knew it would be something special.

[Nana Chan]

– – –

Before we talk about the cafe, let’s put the Hong Kong restaurant scene into perspective.

For the most part, Hong Kong is dominated by restaurant chains that exist solely to maximize profit by following whatever trend happens to be ‘in’.  So you get a lot of: “Hey, ramen is really popular this season!  If we open a ramen joint, we could make a lot of money too!” says some guy (or corporation) who doesn’t care about ramen.  So he opens yet another “ramen” restaurant in HK.  But no, it’s not ramen.  But that doesn’t matter, because it was never about ramen in the first place; it was about business.  So now we have a hundred “ramen” shops that all taste bland, like just another generic Hong Kong bowl, inauthentic, neutered of  integrity, bereft of soul, a disgrace to all that’s good and true.

See, real food isn’t about profit.  Real food is about love.

Which brings us to Teakha.

Teakha is the real thing.  The folks here put a lot of love into what they do, and you can taste it.  They recognize that love is the essential ingredient.  Teakha is one of my happy places, a place of nourishment and rest, an oasis in a land of drought, a place I tell everyone about.


– – –

Now, let’s talk about milk tea.

Truth be told, I’ve always been a coffee person.  I love the complexity of great coffee– the way the acidity counters the bitterness; how the milk lends richness to the tannins; the fruity and floral high notes; the spicy, earthy, resonant low notes.  I love the way it undresses each flavor, slowly, distinctly, and seemingly without end.

Milk tea generally lacks that complexity.  In fact, its simplicity has allowed it to become Hong Kong’s daily cup.  It is simply rich, warm, and creamy.

Teakha’s milk tea, however, does have distinct layers.  It’s the only milk tea I’ve tasted that offers coffee-like complexity.  But Teakha’s drinks also tend to be very balanced.  In fact, I didn’t realize how heavy HK milk tea usually is until I tried Teakha’s.  They are almost completely different drinks– and in my mind, there’s no comparison: Teakha serves the best milk tea in Hong Kong.

[Hong Kong style milk tea]

[Keemun black tea w/red date honey]

Their pastries are also incredibly good.  The first time I ordered a scone, I was asked to wait as they took a batch of raw dough, formed it, and put it in the oven.  Literally baked fresh on the spot.  It was softer and lighter than any scone I’d ever tried, with a perfect texture and bursting with fresh ginger flavor.

[Hojicha ice cream]

Teakha is Hong Kong’s embodiment of Hemingway’s “Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”  Every item on the menu is exceptional, given attention to detail, and served with care– a true artisanal cafe.

For these reasons, I give Teakha my highest recommendations.

– – –

18 Tai Ping Shan St., Sheung Wan

Lagavulin 16 (Scotch)

Tasting notes:

September evening.  A warm breeze hits my face, along with a saltwater spray.  Sea air fills my lungs as I inhale deeply, then back out as I exhale. Smoke drifts in from a crackling wood-burning fire, mingling with the heady musk of sea urchins roasting on top.  Sheets of white fog hang like pirate-ship sails above a swirling ink-black sea.  As it roils, seaweed rushes toward the surf, bringing brine-filled oysters, which spill their juices over shore rocks.   The alcohol hits– burning, powerful but I like it.

Now on the fire, chestnuts are roasting– their sugars caramelizing into something sweet, smoky, round, woody.  Moss grows somewhere behind me– the smell of peat– and mountains further off, minerally like black slate, so imposing I can taste it, hard and cold, though the fire still burns.

It’s been a long night. The sharp iodine, the crisp sea air, the crackling smoke– all gradually fade as the whipping night wind dies down, the waves become still, the red-hot fire settles into embers– and I drift to sleep with my head on a log and my heels in the sand.

Rating: 90/100

Highland Park 18 (Scotch)

My two brothers and I developed a taste for single-malt scotch over a shared bottle of Highland Park– the stunning 1977 Bicentenary– so HP has a special place in our hearts.  I think of that moment every time I drink this.

Tasting notes:

Clear Autumn morning. It’s just cool enough for my favorite girl to wear a light cashmere sweater, yet warm enough for her to wear a skirt. We’re in a cottage kitchen with my family. Outside the open window, oak branches shed their leaves, which twirl to the ground like scattered puzzle pieces, all red and brown and golden like the butter toffee we’re warming in our hands. Butter and burnt sugar; the smell fills the house. Pumpkin pie is in the oven, spiced rum with nutmeg and cinnamon in our mugs. The sun is out and the whole scene has that hazy glow all around, like a childhood memory. Outside, a beehive full of honey is hanging from the oak tree– my brother is smoking out the bees with leaves from the pile. Moments later, we’re chewing on the honeycomb while smoke from the smoldering leaves wafts into our kitchen. The bees migrate to pollinate the gardenias in our garden, which release their sweet perfume into the air. My golden retriever curls up on my toes; her paws smell like graham crackers.

I’ve got my girl in my arms. Her cheeks are soft and her smile warm. We’re eating toffee and walnuts, drinking spiced rum, and waiting for the pumpkin pie, now on the windowsill, to cool. But there’s no rush– we’re just settling into our favorite book. It’s bound in supple leather and even smells old, like a classic, like one I’ve read a hundred times but it still amazes me every time– my favorite kind.

Outside, the sky is blue and the leaves are on fire, even those that aren’t burning. They rustle as Ella and Duke croon a duet. My favorite girl is in my arms and her smile is warm.

This is the stuff dreams are made of.

Rating: 89/100 

Watari Bune Junmai Daiginjo (Sake)

Once upon a time, there grew a strain of rice whose grains were particularly dense with pure, white starch.  It was this starch that yeast would consume and convert into sugar, and then– as one of nature’s great gifts– into alcohol, or as the Japanese call it, sake.

The purer the starch, the purer the sake, and for this the rice was exceptional.  However, as with many fine things, it was also fragile.  The stalks grew very tall, and its starch-packed grains very heavy, so that the slightest gust of wind would send them falling to the ground.

In hopes of creating a more resilient strain, a new breed was engineered in 1923– Yamada Nishiki.  This hybrid strain was so successful that today, nearly all ultra-premium sakes are produced from it . . . so successful, in fact, that the original strain– the father of Yamada Nishiki– became extinct.

Watari Bune is that original rice strain.  Unlike most sake rice used today, Watari Bune is an heirloom variety, a pure strain.  (Consider here the difference in flavor between the hybrid tomatoes from your chain grocery store and the heirloom tomatoes from the farmer’s market in summer).  Over six decades after the birth of its replacement, it was revived in 1988 from only 14 grams of seedlings by a brewery named Huchu Homare.  They remain the only brewery that uses this rice.

This sake can be classified as a Junmai Daiginjo Nama-zume:

Junmai: No added alcohol.

Daiginjo: Brewed with rice that has been polished to less than 50% of its original size (in this case, 34%).

Nama-zume: Pasteurized only once, instead of the usual twice.

It is marked by the most pure, lingering, breathtaking clarity I’ve ever tasted.

(As an aside, there’s a marked difference between “pure” and “tasteless.”  Vodka is tasteless.  A freshly shucked oyster, or the freshest uni, or an Asian pear at the height of ripeness is pure.  Tasteless is the absence of flavor; Pure is the presence of it– indeed the essence of it.)

Tasting notes:  An incredibly evocative sake that can only be described in images: It is a bright silver moon illuminating a burbling stream in deep winter; it is fresh rainwater hitting clean pavement on a crisp October evening.  This sake possesses the same timeless quality certain black and white photographs do– Ansel Adams’ Tetons comes to mind– transporting one into a time and place that seems never to have been experienced by man, and once passed, would never be experienced again.  But, how striking the silhouette!

Flavors: Honey dew, toasted rice, rose.  Very, very fragrant.  Most strikingly, while many Junmai Daiginjos have a finish that disappears almost immediately, the finish on this lingers on and on and continues to develop, like a flower that continues to bloom in the mouth.

Price: US$120 / 750ml

Rating: Highest recommendations.

Ansel Adams, Tentons and the Snake River (1942)

Artisanal Bloody Mary

The traditional Bloody Mary has always been a confused creature– a misappropriated soup at best, a gag-inducing goulash at worst, but certainly never a cocktail.  Often a thick, swampy, sour combination of cooked tomato juice from a can, Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire, and vodka, it fills the appetite instead of stimulating it and burdens the spirit instead of lifting it.

The local market was offering some gorgeous tomatoes on the vine, so I decided to make a version with more integrity.  Less an appetizer and more a cocktail, this version is bright and clean, bursting with umami, and bloody delicious– a perfect pairing with Sunday brunch.

Artisanal Bloody Mary

  • 1.5 oz. Hendricks gin
  • 3 oz. fresh-squeezed tomato juice, preferably heirloom or grape.
  • 1 barspoon aged balsamic vinegar
  • 1 barspoon fresh-grated horseradish
  • 1 barspoon tomato paste
  • pinch of sea salt
  • dash of angostura bitters

Shake with ice and strain into coupe glass.  Garnish with freshly-cracked black pepper and a tomato leaf.