Jun 082016
 

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Today is World Oceans Day. It has been unofficially celebrated every 8 June since its original proposal in 1992 by Canada at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. It was officially recognized by the United Nations in late 2008. It has been coordinated since 2003 by The Ocean Project, a U.S.-based advocacy group, with increasing participation each year since.

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Marking the World Oceans Day, the UN has underlined these facts and figures:

— Oceans cover three quarters of the Earth’s surface, contain 97 per cent of the Earth’s water, and represent 99 per cent of the living space on the planet by volume;

— Over three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods;

— Globally, the market value of marine and coastal resources and industries is estimated at 3 trillion dollars per year or about 5 per cent of global Gross Domestic Product;

— Oceans contain nearly 200,000 identified species, but actual numbers may lie in the millions.

— Oceans absorb about 30 per cent of carbon dioxide produced by humans, buffering the impacts of global warming.

— Oceans serve as the world’s largest source of protein, with more than 2.6 billion people depending on the oceans as their primary source of protein.

— Marine fisheries directly or indirectly employ over 200 million people.

— Subsidies for fishing contribute to the rapid depletion of many fish species and prevent efforts to save and restore global fisheries and related jobs, causing ocean fisheries to generate 50 billion dollars less per year than they could.

— As much as 40 per cent of the world oceans are heavily affected by human activities, including pollution, depleted fisheries, and loss of coastal habitats.

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It’s astonishing to me how cavalier people are about the health of the world’s oceans. I get the impression that people assume that the oceans are so vast that you can just dump anything you want in them and they will take care of it, instead of understanding that they need care, same as any other ecosystem. This year, the theme of World Oceans Day is “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet,” with a specific focus on plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is a serious threat because it degrades very slowly, polluting waterways for a very long time. In addition, plastic pollution impacts the health of aquatic animals, not least because animals including zooplankton mistake the microbeads for food and are seriously damaged by their ingestion.

Children play on the litter-strewn beach off Jacmel

When I was a teenager, certain fish such as cod and mackerel, were treated in Britain (and elsewhere) as inexhaustible stocks for food. Overfishing has proven that perspective to be misguided. Cod and mackerel are now reaching dangerously low levels worldwide and may be unsustainable in the near future. A big part of the problem lies in limited culinary habits in some cultures. Just because a recipe calls for cod does not mean you have to buy cod. Use pollock, coley, hake, or whiting instead. These are wonderful fish, and not endangered as yet. But for today’s recipe ideas I’m going to turn from fish to seaweed.

Seaweeds are used extensively as food in coastal cuisines around the world although consumption varies widely. Seaweeds can be foraged naturally or farmed, and are generally favorable to marine ecosystems. The main potential problem with farming is the possibility of certain species becoming invasive. Seaweed has been an important part of the diet in China, Japan, and Korea since prehistoric times. Seaweed is also consumed in many traditional European societies, such as Iceland and western Norway, northern and western Ireland, Wales, and some coastal parts of South West England, as well as Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. It is much less common in coastal France, Spain, Italy, and the United States, although interest is growing there because of the influx of Asian cuisines.

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Seaweed has many health benefits because it contains abundant health-promoting materials, such as dietary fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, essential amino acids, and vitamins A, B, C, and E. It can be a good source of protein and lipids, with concentration levels varying between the types of seaweed.

I’d say have at it with whatever seaweed you can find. In China and Japan there are tons of fresh varieties readily available in supermarkets. I always had some on hand for salads or stir fries and soups when I lived in Yunnan. In the West it’s not quite so common, but you can find varieties in oriental stores as well as in conventional supermarkets if you look hard enough. Sheets of nori are pretty common. Here I’ll focus on kombu.

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Kombu (昆布) is edible kelp from the family Laminariaceae and is widely eaten in East Asia. It may also be referred to as dashima (Korean: 다시마) or haidai (simplified Chinese: 海带). Most kombu that is sold is from the species Saccharina japonica (Laminaria japonica), extensively cultivated on ropes in the seas of Japan and Korea. With the development of cultivation technology, over 90% of Japanese kombu is cultivated, mostly in Hokkaidō, but also as far south as the Seto Inland Sea.

During the Muromachi period (1336 to 1573) in Japan, a newly developed drying technique allowed kombu to be stored for more than a few days, and it became an important export from the Tohoku area. By the Edo period (1603 and 1868), as Hokkaidō was colonized and shipment routes were organized, the use of kombu became widespread throughout Japan. Traditional Okinawan cuisine relies heavily on kombu as a part of the diet and this practice began in the Edo period. Okinawa uses more kombu per household than any other prefecture. In the 20th century, a way to cultivate kombu was discovered and it became cheap and readily available.

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Kombu is sold dried (dashi kombu) or pickled in vinegar (su kombu) or as a dried shred (oboro kombu, tororo kombu or shiraga kombu). It may also be eaten fresh in sashimi. Kombu is a good source of glutamic acid, an amino acid responsible for umami, the Japanese word used for a basic taste identified in 1908, but still not very widely acknowledged in the West. Wake up people – we have taste buds just for umami.

Kombu is used extensively in Japanese cuisines as one of the three main ingredients needed to make dashi stock. I’ve described how to make this already: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/motoori-norinaga/ .

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Kombu may be pickled with sweet-and-sour flavoring, cut into small strips about 5 or 6 cm long and 2 cm wide. These are often eaten as a snack with green tea. It can also be included when cooking dried beans to add nutrients and improve their digestibility, reputedly because the kombu cuts flatulence when the beans are eaten.

Oct 102015
 

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On this date in 1964 the Summer Olympics, officially known as the Games of the XVIII Olympiad opened in Tokyo. Tokyo had been awarded the organization of the 1940 Summer Olympics, but this selection was subsequently passed to Helsinki because of Japan’s invasion of China, before ultimately being canceled because of World War II. The 1964 Summer Games were the first Olympics held in Asia, and the first time South Africa was barred from taking part due to its apartheid system in sports.

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These games were also the first to be telecast internationally without the need for tapes to be flown overseas as they were for the 1960 Olympics four years earlier. The games were telecast to the United States using Syncom 3, the first geostationary communication satellite, and from there to Europe using Relay 1. These were also the first Olympic Games to have color telecasts (partially). Certain events like the sumo wrestling and judo matches, sports huge in Japan, were tried out using Toshiba’s new color transmission system; but just for the domestic market, not for any international coverage. History surrounding the 1964 Olympics was chronicled in the 1965 documentary film Tokyo Olympiad, directed by Kon Ichikawa.

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I remember being absolutely enthralled by the telecasts. We had watched snippets of previous Olympics via tapes that were flown to Australia, or, in the case of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, films shown on newsreels in the local cinema. Besides being able to watch whole events and somewhat continuous coverage, I was amazed by all the new technology – electronic starters and photo finishes, instant replay, slow motion, the works. It was as if the modern world had arrived fully formed into our living room in a rather electronically impoverished corner of South Australia.

TRANSPAC-1, the first trans-Pacific communications cable from Japan to Hawaii was also finished in June 1964 in time for these games. Before this, most communications from Japan to other countries were via shortwave.

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The start of operations for the first Japanese “bullet train” (the Tokaido Shinkansen) between Tokyo Station and Shin-Ōsaka Station was scheduled to coincide with the Olympic games. The first regularly scheduled train ran on October 1, 1964, just 9 days before the opening of the games, transporting passengers 515 kilometers (320 mi) in about 4 hours, and connecting the three major metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka.

Some already-planned upgrades to both highways and commuter rail lines were rescheduled for completion in time for these games. Of the 8 main expressways approved by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in 1959, No. 1, No. 4 and a portion of No. 2 and No. 3 were completed for the games. Two subway lines totaling 22 kilometers (14 mi) were also completed in time for the games, and the port of Tokyo facilities were expanded to handle the anticipated traffic.

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The 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo celebrated Japan’s progress and reemergence on the world stage. The new Japan was no longer a wartime enemy, but a peaceful country that threatened no one, and this transformation was accomplished in fewer than 20 years. Although Japan’s foreign policy was closely linked to the United States during the Cold War, the city of Tokyo hosted the 1964 Summer Olympics in the spirit of peaceful engagement with the entire international community, including the Communist states. The goals were to demonstrate to the world that Japan had fully recovered from the war, had disavowed imperialism and militarism, welcomed high-caliber sports, and sought to engage the peoples of the world on a grassroots level. Sports were kept entirely separate from politics. The event proved a great success for the city and for Japan as a whole, with no untoward incidents. Japan’s foreign policy was expanded to include sports diplomacy as the nation sent teams to international competitions across the globe.

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Japanese cuisine was once virtually unknown in the West. For my 21st birthday (1972) I went to the ONLY Japanese restaurant in London where my partner and I were the only Westerners in the place – and the waitresses (dressed as geishas) spoke minimal English. It was a memorable meal which set me on a life course of eating as well as preparing Japanese dishes. It’s possible to prepare a number of dishes at home but you have to have the right ingredients, prime of which is the bonito stock – dashi. I give a recipe here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/ajinomoto-monosodium-glutamate/ Above is an example of my Japanese home cooking – various kinds of fish with dipping sauces. Udon and soba noodles are usually readily available at Asian groceries and are very easy to prepare, simply by poaching them in dashi and then serving them in the stock or cold with a dipping sauce of soy sauce and bonito flakes, or shaved ginger root.

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However, for a good variety it’s just as well to go to a restaurant where you’ll find all manner of traditional dishes prepared perfectly and served beautifully.

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Jul 252015
 

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On this date in 1908 the Ajinomoto Company was founded on the work of Kikunae Ikeda who that year discovered and patented a method for producing monosodium glutamate (MSG), still one of the company’s main products.

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Ikeda Kikunae was eating dinner with his family when he suddenly stopped. That day his cucumber soup was more delicious than normal; after stirring a few times he realized the difference was the umami flavor from the addition of kelp. He understood that kelp was the secret to that flavor, and from that day on he studied the chemical composition of kelp. After half a year of research he discovered that the flavor of kelp is derived from sodium glutamate. This chemical, sodium glutamate, is the chemical basis for the umami flavor. He found that the most important compound within seaweed broth for common use was actually a glutamate salt, which he identified with the taste umami, a Japanese word meaning ‘pleasant taste’ or ‘savoriness’.

Westerners generally know that the tongue can identify salty, sour, bitter, and sweet, but have yet to fully grasp that there is a fifth savor – umami. The old notion that salty, sour, bitter and sweet are the basic tastes detected by specific regions of the tongue is seriously outdated, but it’s one of those concepts (like right and left brain) that won’t let go in popular consciousness even though debunked by biologists. The FIVE basic tastes (including umami) are detected by all parts of the tongue not as illustrated in this commonly found diagram.

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Many foods are rich in umami. Umami taste is common to foods that contain high levels of L-glutamate, most notably fish, shellfish, cured meats, mushrooms, vegetables (e.g., ripe tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, spinach, celery, etc.) or green tea, and fermented and aged products involving bacterial or yeast cultures, such as cheeses, shrimp pastes, soy sauce, nutritional yeast, and yeast extracts such as Vegemite and Marmite. Many Asian broths, pastes, and sauces are abundant in umami, as is tomato ketchup. Many humans’ first encounter with umami is breast milk. It contains roughly the same amount of umami as broths.

It is a popular belief in the West that large doses of MSG can cause headaches and other feelings of discomfort, but in controlled studies scientists have been unable to trigger such reactions. Nonetheless many Chinese and Japanese restaurants in the West put “no MSG” notices in their menus. I have always used it as a flavor enhancer in soups and stews, partly because I rarely use salt in my dishes. No one who has come to dinner at my house has ever complained of headaches. I do use small quantities, however, because increasing the amount does not increase the effect. Scientific study shows that the optimum concentration varies by food. In clear soup, the pleasure score rapidly falls with the addition of more than one gram of MSG per 100 ml.

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Not sure what to do for a recipe. MSG is not really the kind of ingredient you can feature. I suppose Japanese dashi is the obvious choice because of its rich umami taste. The most common form of dashi is a simple broth or fish stock made by heating water containing kombu (edible kelp) and kezurikatsuo (shavings of katsuobushi – preserved, fermented skipjack tuna also called bonito flakes) to near-boiling, then straining the resultant liquid. Homemade dashi, made from dried kombu and katsuobushi, is less popular today, even in Japan. Granulated or liquid instant dashi replaced the homemade product in the second half of the 20th century and that’s what I usually use. Compared to the delicate nuanced taste of homemade dashi, instant dashi tends to have a stronger, less subtle flavor, due to the use of chemical flavor enhancers—glutamates and ribonucleotides.

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Dashi

Best method is to soak 2 pieces of kombu in 4 pints of cold water. Then bring to the point where the water begins to form bubbles over medium-low heat. Leave at this point for about 5 minutes, then turn off the heat and remove the kombu.

Sprinkle in 2 cups of bonito flakes and stir. Let sit for about 30 minutes then strain the broth through a cheesecloth lined sieve.

You can re-use the kombu and bonito flakes to make a second (weaker) dashi if you like.

Dashi is like a mother stock in Western cooking, used to make clear soup, miso soup, and a host of sauces and flavorings.

Jun 212013
 

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Today is the birthday (1730) of Motoori Norinaga (本居 宣長) often considered the most influential scholar of Kokugaku (Japanese Studies) in the Edo period (1603 – 1868) when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shoguns.  The Edo period was a time of political stability, national isolation, economic expansion, rigid social control, and artistic development.  What many Westerners think of as “typically Japanese” culture evolved in the Edo period.  The contemporary version of sushi, for example, was created at this time.

Norinaga was born in what is now Matsusaka in Ise Province into a wealthy merchant family.  With the death of his father and elder brother, Norinaga became the head of the family’s merchant house and was expected to run the business.  But he was more inclined to intellectual pursuits and showed little aptitude for business.  So, at age 22, his mother sent him to Kyoto to study medicine which was more suited to his temperament. Although medicine was less prestigious than the life of a merchant, it gave Norinaga time to read and absorb classic literature (as well as partying more than a little, as evidenced by a stern note from his mother advising him to cut back on the sake).  At this time Japanese intellectual life was dominated by Chinese ideologies, and ancient Japanese literature was poorly understood because changes over time in Japanese language had made the classics hard to read.  They needed detailed commentary and careful study to be properly interpreted.  Alongside his medical studies Norinaga was a student of several renowned Kokugaku scholars whilst in Kyoto.

At age 28 Norinaga returned to Matsusaka to practice pediatrics (which he did until 10 days before his death). Although having to devote much of his time to his patients, he was able to read and absorb the Japanese classics on his own.  He had a small study on the second floor of his house which had once been a tea room. Because of his love of bells he called the room, Suzu-no-ya (Room of Bells). He always pulled up the ladder to Suzu-no-ya so that he could study without interruption.

Norinaga was greatly inspired by the works of Kamo no Mabuchi and in 1763 was able to meet him in person for one night – now known romantically as “the night in Matsusaka” because they reputedly talked all night. The two never met again but corresponded frequently. Mabuchi supervised what was to become Norinaga’s greatest work, his annotations of the classic Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters). Norinaga took the view that the heritage of ancient Japan, to be admired and emulated, was one of natural spontaneity in feelings and spirit, and that imported Confucianism ran counter to such natural feelings. For Norinaga true Japanese consciousness was embodied in the concept of mono no aware Mono means “things” and aware means “deep feeling.” For Norinaga poetry and literature had no other purpose than to evoke deep feelings (not to instill moral, or religious or intellectual values).

Norinaga’s life work was to strip Japanese culture of outside influences, notably Chinese, and return to what he considered to be a uniquely Japanese way of living.  As such he wrote in the ancient Japanese poetic style known as waka (as opposed to the up and coming haiku form).  He wrote over 10,000 waka, hundreds of which were devoted to cherry trees, his passion.  He brushed the following on a self portrait (pictured).

Shikishima no
Yamato gokoro wo
Hito towaba
Asahi ni niou
Yama-zakura-bana

Asked about the soul of Japan,
I would say
That it is
Like wild cherry blossoms
Glowing in the morning sun.

Norinaga died on September 29, 1801 at the age of seventy-one. Publication of his 44 volume commentary on Kojiki had begun 16 years earlier, and took another 21 to complete. It is an unrivalled masterpiece. He was buried on top of Mt. Yamamuro, eight kilometers from the center of Matsusaka, in accordance with the will he had written the year before. Also in the will he requested a Buddhist funeral, but a Shintoist grave. “The grave should be seven shaku (2.1 meters) square. Make a mound slightly behind the center of the square, and plant a cherry tree on top of it.”

There are many sweet confections sold in Matsusaka in honor of Norinaga, some, such as Yamazakura and Suzu Monaka (pictured), in the shape of the bells he loved.  These, however, are best left to professionals.  Instead my recipe for the memory of Norinaga is a simple dish of fried tofu in broth, agedashi tofu, which comes from a cookbook of the Edo period (modified for the modern kitchen). The broth is traditionally made of three parts dashi (made from seaweed and bonito flakes), one part mirin (sweet rice wine), and one part Japanese soy sauce.  You can get all the necessary ingredients in Japanese markets or online.  If you are not up for making dashi, an instant (powdered) version is an acceptable and quick substitute.  Most times when you get agedashi tofu in Japanese restaurants in the U.S. and Europe the “broth” has been thickened with sugar and cornstarch.  This recipe is more loyal to Edo period style.

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Agedashi tofu

Ingredients:

1 block firm tofu
corn starch for dredging
flavorless oil for deep frying
daikon (Japanese white radish) shavings
green onion chopped
1 cup (2.4 dl) dashi
2 tbsp (30 ml) soy sauce
2 tbsp (30 ml) mirin

Instructions:

Heat the dashi, soy sauce, and mirin in a small saucepan to just below the boiling point and keep warm.

Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 350°F (175°C).

Drain the tofu and pat it dry with paper towels.  Cut it into bite sized cubes.

Put the cornstarch in a shallow bowl and thoroughly coat all sides of the tofu cubes.

Deep fry the tofu a few at a time until they are golden.  Drain on wire racks.

Divide the broth among 4 bowls and then place 4 to 6 tofu pieces in each.

Top with daikon shavings and chopped green onion.

Serves 4

Ichiban Dashi
(Measurements here are deliberately approximate and can be varied according to taste.)

Ingredients:

4 cups (9.6 dl) water
1 strip kombu (dried kelp)
1 handful of loosely packed katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes)

Instructions:

Place the water and the kombu in a pot and let the kombu soak for about 15 minutes.

After soaking, heat the water and kombu over medium heat until just below boiling.

Remove the pot from the heat and add the katsuobushi, scattering it over the surface of the water loosely.

When the katsuobushi sinks (3 to 4 minutes) strain the broth using a coffee filter or several layers of cheesecloth to be sure the resultant liquid is clear.

The dashi can be used immediately or stored in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.