Saturday, June 16, 2012

Pick Me Up: Cheat's Tiramisu

Funny how life plateaus, peaks, then drops just as suddenly, rather like a roller coaster.

After some personal issues came up yesterday, I needed a pick me up. Something to take my mind off things. Rather than waiting for Monday to come (my cousin and housemate has her final assessment for her postgrad studies that day), I needed it last night.

Pick me up. Tiramisu. Nothing like a bit of cream whipping to get the mind off things.

Out came the Savoiardi fingers, the mascarpone, and pouring cream. This is definitely not an authentic Italian recipe: it's one of my own creation since some in the family had issues with eating zabaglione.

Cheat's Tiramisu
Makes about 1 2L box, with extra (cook's treat)

250g Mascarpone
500mL pouring/pure cream
3 tablespoons sugar (adjust to taste)

200g Savioradi fingers
1 large cup strong espresso (about 250mL), cooled to room temperature

1. Mix mascarpone and sugar together. Add cream in small amounts, ensuring that the mix remains smooth. Whip until soft peaks form.
2. Line the box or container with savoiardi fingers. Spoon over espresso, allowing about 1-2teaspoon per biscuit. Press down slightly with the back of a spoon to break up the biscuits slightly. Don't worry if the biscuits aren't soaked through - it will draw more moisture from the cream and the top layer of sponge fingers.
3. Spread one third to half of the mascarpone cream over the soaked savoiardi fingers evenly.
4. Line with another layer of savoiardi fingers, and spoon over espresso again. Allow 2-3teaspoons of coffee per biscuit this time - "runoff" will flow to the bottom and soak the lower layer of biscuits.
5. Spread over another layer of mascarpone cream, ensuring that the biscuit layer is evenly and completely covered. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.
6. Slice or spoon and serve dusted with cocoa powder or grated chocolate.

I had cream and biscuits left over, so this ended up being the cook's treat.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Rose, Rose, I Love You - Shanghai Chronicles, Part 1

The Thirties and Forties. An era of glamour, intrigue, coloured with tales of spies and conspiracies. Shanghai appeared to be ruled by the KMT Government, but was controlled by the mafia. Tight fitting qipao, tailored suits, rickshaws, and dancing at the Bailemen. The era of the Peace Hotel, concession zones, and lace doilies. The age of Eileen Chang, of the Mesdames Song, the 8 year-long war sparked by the invasion of the Japanese.

An era I have always been fascinated with.

With the Chinese economy booming, there are more restaurants than ever, with a marked increase in fine dining. Some degustations cost upwards of 2000 Chinese Yuan per person (approx 335 AUD), with promises of imperial cuisine featuring abalone, swallow's nest, shark fin, sea urchin, and fish maw, dishes requiring days of preparation. There are also themed restaurants, like one which recreates a factory canteen during the days of the Cultural Revolution, with its enamel crockery and wooden chopsticks, and food served in aluminium lunch boxes.

Fu 1088 and Fu 1039 were more up my alley: set in restored houses built in the Golden Age of Shanghai, the restaurants serve traditional Shanghai fare (上海本帮菜) in mainly private dining rooms. None of the usual rowdiness and noisiness attached to Chinese restaurants here.

Let's start with Fu 1039. The name is derived from the house being No. 1039 on Yuyuan Road. "Fu" (福) means good fortune in Chinese. Along with Fu 1088 and Fu 1015, all located on Yuyuan Road, the restaurants are discrete settings in restored upper-middle class houses in the Changning district of Shanghai, with antique furniture and fittings.

Entrees: chilled drunken chicken, smoked freshwater fish Shanghai-style, jellyfish salad, sugar lotus stuffed with sticky rice.

Mains: Crystal freshwater prawns (no photo), braised pork belly, steamed Tenualosa with Jinhua ham and Jiuniang, braised black sea urchin with prawn roe, hairy crab 3 ways, yellow croaker soup.

Dessert: Fruit platter (no photo).

All in all, it wasn't too bad. Certainly it wasn't cheap for dinner in Shanghai, at around 300CNY per person (approx 50AUD), it wasn't too expensive either.

The drunken chicken was very chilled, served with Shaoxing granita on top, the chicken having sucked up the fragrance and flavour of Chinese rice wine. The smoked freshwater fish, Shanghai-style isn't actually smoked - the fish pieces are first marinaded, then deep fried, and finally dipped in a sweet soy-based sauce, served at room temperature. The version at Fu 1039 wasn't too bad, but leaned towards the dry side. Jellyfish salad, was refreshing and crunchy, a kind of crunch that does need some getting used to. Sugar lotus with sticky rice, though, is my personal favourite; and yes, as sweet as it is, the dish isn't actually a dessert, but a starter. The contrast between the slight bite of lotus root and the soft glutinous rice coated in osmanthus sugar syrup was lovely.

A few special mentions: the crystal freshwater prawns (I was too engrossed with eating and forgot to take a photo) were fantastic. The right balance between crunch, subtle umami and tenderness, that can only be achieved with wild caught freshwater prawns. I have lost count of the number of times I have tasted prawns from the sea passed of as its freshwater cousins.

Pork belly was unctuous. The Tenualosa bony but full of flavour, albeit slightly overcooked and a tad dry. The hairy crab 3 ways came in the form of stir-fried crab meat, fried sesame ball with crab roe and meat filling, and baked crab shell. All delicious, but a bit rich towards the end of a meal.

The yellow croaker fish was a let down. What was supposed to be a milky white soup with specks of dark green from the Ningbo-style salted preserved vegetables came to our table as a slightly murky green milky soup. One taste was enough to conclude that the fish had not been properly slaughtered - the fish gall had been pierced and contaminated the meat. Needless to say we informed the waitress, who immediately turned and walked out of the room without saying a word. We called her back, and requested, more firmly, that we wanted to speak with the manager. That took a good ten minutes. The manager then insisted that the soup was fine, and the peculiar bitterness must come from the "special" style of the salted vegetables and not an issue with the soup - something my grandmother, born and raised in Ningbo, simply did not buy. The manager initially resisted our invitation to taste the soup, but later gave in, tasted it, and took it back to the kitchen. While she may have not charged us for the soup, it did leave somewhat of a bitter taste in our mouths, literally and otherwise. While it may sound bad enough on paper, I must admit that service has improved overall in China: ten years ago, a comment like that would have been the fuse for a fight.

A beautiful setting, with distinctly Chinese service. Still worth a try.

Fu 1039 福1039
1039 Yuyuan Road, Changning District, Shanghai
+86 21 52371878
Bookings required. Minimum spend per person may be applicable.
Expect some Chinglish on the menu.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Osaka, and Looking for Ramen

It's no secret there's a noodle fanatic in my family. He loves noodles, from the wanton egg noodle soups of Hong Kong to the hand-stretched noodles in yellow croaker soup. In fact, I convinced him to visit Japan by promising authentic Japanese ramen, then ended up eating more ramen than I ever bargained for. Mainly because the Ramen-lover also held the pursestrings.

We found ourselves in Osaka again, 3 years after our first Kansai visit, drawn by ramen and onsen. Kyushu Ki-Ou Ramen was a place we "found" on our first visit to Osaka: the ramen so good, we ended up eating there three times in the span of two days. No surprise that this time, Ramen-lover wanted to head there almost immediately after we stepped off the plane.

After getting absolutely lost in the giant maze that is the Osaka-Umeda station underground metropolis, we finally found the right direction, then walked past the place half a dozen times and resorted to asking someone (working for a seafood nabe place, no less!) where that hole-in-the-wall ramen place was. Luckily, we were in Osaka, and people in Osaka are really, really friendly. The waitress called out to the owner, who then led us in person to that elusive Ki-Ou. I silently promised myself to visit their seafood nabe restaurant next time I'm in town.

The place is absolutely tiny, with a total of about 12 seats. But, good things do come in small packages. Ki-Ou is one of them. The menu isn't too big, with about 10 or so different ramens to choose from, and some sides (the requisite gyoza, simple donburi, so on). Beer is also available.

Four things make Ki-Ou special. They use ramen with different thicknesses for different ramen on their menu. You can also choose how soft or hard you want your noodles. The soups range from the very light shoyu type, to the rich tonkotsu, and even thicker for tsukemen (where soup and noodles are served separately). You can also ask for a less salty soup and they're happy to accommodate. If one serve of noodles ain't enough, don't finish your soup and they can serve up an extra half- or full-portion of noodles. Their toro-tama (boiled eggs) are made using free-range eggs, with a self-saucing yolk.

Ki-Ou Kuroniku Ippon-men (黑肉1本面)
My favourite has got to be the Kuroniku Ippon-men. A bowl of this will set you back about 860 yen, and with one of their toro-tama, about an extra 130 yen. This is not your normal chashu - this is a slab of rib, cooked to nearly falling apart, roasted, and will just melt in your mouth. The soup is rich and hearty, packed with collagen, and very moreish. I like to taste the soup first, take a bite of the meat, a slurp of noodles, then start adding condiments like pickled garlic, chili oil, and a dash of vinegar towards the end to refresh the palate. This was why I had to go back to Osaka. Why we had to go back to Osaka.

The rest of the menu are equally good. A side of gyoza never goes wrong, with its crispy bottom and juicy innards. And a glass of icy Kirin Ichiban First-Press beer washes everything down nicely.

Ramen-lover was happy. And that's all that matters.

Kyushu Ki-Ou Ramen 九州亀王ラーメン
2-7-12 Sonezaki, Kita Ward, Osaka
(Near Umeda OS Hotel)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Japan 2012 - Kobe Mouriya

I will be back.

It's what I say almost every time I visit a new city, but never have I lived up to that promise so soon.

Kobe was on our itinerary for the second-last day of the Japan holiday. Being all guided by the stomach, we went for the beef, and pretty much only the beef. There are many, many other merits to the city, such as its architecture, but I must apologise - our sole purpose in going to Kobe was for the beef.

And have I mentioned the beef?

Having missed out on eating Kobe beef my first visit to Kobe (long story, still can't believe it happened), I learned my lesson and did my homework this time. And by homework I mean watching way too many Japanese variety shows and DVDs in every single spare moment for the sole purpose of finding restaurants to try out. In this case, the blood, sweat and tears was worth it. (There is no way you will get an admission that all the videos I watched was actually for fangirling and not travel purposes. Oh, did I just say that out loud?)

Surprisingly (or not), our first stop in Kobe was actually the Ikuda Shrine, about 2 blocks from Sannomiya Station, because we felt it necessary to include a Shinto shrine on this trip. It was quite nice, we happened to be there as a corporation (we think...could've been yakuza for all we know!) were there for their hatsunode, the first prayer for the year. It was interesting to watch the ceremony from the side, with the theatrics of bowing, presenting leaves, and chanting...

As interesting as the ceremony and the Shrine was, we really were in Kobe for the beef... so it was off to Mouriya, literally on the doorstep of the Shrine.

Mouriya, established in 1885, serves top grade Kobe and their own selection of wagyu beef from selected bloodlines, all descended from the Tajima bloodline. Their cattle is carefully selected and bred, to minimise inbreeding, and the meat served at all three Mouriya restaurants are usually A4 or A5 grade, with the fat hybridisation (BMS) value of 6 or above. In basic terms: it's bloody good beef.

With a group of 7 and no reservation, getting there early meant we got top seats on the third floor - the best option if your party members all have strong knees. Counter seats are also the way to go - full view of the chef, the cooking, and a chance to have a little chat too. The lunch menu ranges from 4900-9800 yen, with Kobe beef and other Wagyu of all grades. They have half the menu dedicated to Kobe beef, and the other half for Tajima beef - the Tajima breed being the ancestors of the modern Kobe beef variety. The menu also explains the grading system: beef at Mouriya not only have the usual A1-5 grading, next to each there is also a BMS number. The higher the BMS value, the more evenly distributed the marbling. Mouriya serves mainly beef with a grade of A4 or above, with BMS No. 6 or above. In other words, top quality stuff.

On our first visit, we had both Tajima and Kobe varieties, just to compare. We had one Shigekanenami sirloin (茂金波, Kobe beef A5BMSNo.8-10, 9500 yen), one Yasumidoi sirloin (安美土井, Tajima beef A5BMS No. 10-12, 9800 yen), and two Kikuyasudoi fillets (菊安土井, Tajima A4 BMS No. 6-7, 6500 yen). One of the advantages of going to Mouriya in a group is that because the steaks are cut to order, if you have 2 (or more) of the same they will give you a thicker piece of meat. And you can also opt to share the different steaks in a group. For carbs, there's a choice of rice or bread rolls.

After your order is taken, for counter seats you are presented with a plate, and the chef then starts distributing the condiments: salt, pepper, wasabi, fried garlic and two types of dipping sauces - miso and a tangy yuzu shoyu. Pumpkin soup is then served. Thick, creamy, and yellow, it went down like velvet, and really warmed the body. A great start.

Soup was followed by a light salad: refreshing leaves with a wafu (Japanese-style) vinaigrette. Something I managed to not take a photo of on both visits.

Then comes the meat. Slabs of beautiful Wagyu beef, presented on wooden geta. This is the opportunity for the obligatory shot by the waiter, of you holding up your prized meat before it ends up in your belly.

Top right: Kikuyasudoi double serve (Tajima, A4 BMS No. 6-7), middle: Shigekanenami (Kobe, A5 BMS No. 8-10), front: Yasumidoi (Tajima, A5 BMS No. 10-12)

The chef will then ask how well you want your steak done. I went with whatever he recommended, which was rare. And yes, the system is the same in Japanese as it is in English - rare, medium rare, medium, well-done. They will actually understand you if you speak English at this point.

Then the theatrics begin. The chef decides which piece of meat you have first. I believe our order was the Yasumidoi, then the Shigekanenami, then finally the Kikuyasudoi. Starting with the "best" piece of meat actually meant that by the end, your palate actually feels "cleansed" by the less fatty piece of steak. Personally, I found the Kikuyasudoi - the cheapest one - was my favourite. It was meaty, juicy, but not too oily and overpowering. The yuzu shoyu and wasabi cut through the greasiness surprisingly well.

As the meat course comes to a close, the chef will roast some vegetables (pumpkin, eggplant, capsicum) and use the offcuts to render fat, then toss bean sprouts. All of that goes really rather well with the steaming bowl of rice, and the miso dipping sauce really shines through with the vegetables...though the pickles might be more of an acquired taste.

To close, as the chef cleans up the hot plate, a steaming cup of Japanese green tea, followed by coffee or black tea. The conversation between the group then turned into something like this:

A: That was so good, but I want to try the other Kobe and Tajima cuts.
B (who holds the wallet): We have enough money to come again tomorrow if you want.
C: Hey that's a great idea! (To me) Ask them if they take reservations!
Me: Hahahaha I'm sure they do... oh wait you're serious about coming again tomorrow?

...And yes, we did end up at Mouriya for lunch again. The next day. Before our evening flight.

What really surprised me on the second visit was the consistency of service and the level of quality. We were offered some cuts that weren't on the menu by the maitre d', an offer we gladly took up. Amazingly, the steaks were even more delicious than the first time, something none of the group had expected at all.

As I was paying the bill, the reason for this became clear. The maitre d' had arranged for the Head Chef, Mr Yamamura, to come in especially for our group. Something none of us had expected, and true sign of excellent hospitality and service. Apart from that, he had also noticed one of our group had some trouble climbing the flights of stairs on the previous day, and arranged for ground floor seating. Honestly, it was attention to detail to a point beyond expectation.

Which is why I would wholeheartedly recommend Mouriya for great Wagyu steaks, and wonderful service too.

Mouriya モーリや
Head Restaurant: Yamanote To-ri 2 Cho-me 1-17, Kobe City, Kyubei Prefecture
(Outside Ikuta Jingu, near Sannomiya Station)

Monday, June 11, 2012

Things to try in Japan

Yes, yes, I've been neglecting this blog considerably. Nothing like a twitter conversation to bring me back though. This is not only for the benefit of @Lauren_Mmm, it's probably also a good record for myself because the below are things I would definitely eat again and again in Japan.

Before plunging any further into this post, I would like to point out that the following list is very, very subjective. They're merely things that I don't think a lot of people will recommend. Most certainly, it is not at all geared towards fine dining at all. In fact, it's very budget in some ways...

1. Yasuda Drink Yoghurt ヤスダドリンクヨーグルト
I know, the name is yet another example of the Japglish... Look past that, and you will find one of the smoothest, creamiest yoghurt drinks available anywhere. It is rather low in acidity compared with a lot of other yoghurts. Most department stores will stock this in their supermarket sections. Look for the distinctive navy blue packaging with a silver cow.  150mL will set you back around 160 yen.

2. Yomogi Daifuku, or Kusa Daifuku (草大福)
One of my favourite treats since childhood are daifukus, Japanese mochi with red bean paste fillings. My personal favourite are the Yomogi type, also known as Kusa Daifuku. Best eaten fresh, most department stores will also have at least 2-3 different Wagashi makers who will stock some kind of Yomogi Daifuku. Prices range from about 150-350 yen.
*Note: some daifuku are actually savoury, so be sure to ask first. "Kore wa amai desu ka?" (Is this sweet) is the easiest way.

3. Milk
After the milk scares of China in recent years, my family in Hong Kong has bought nothing but Japanese milk. Hokkaido 3.6 is a favourite, but I've come to appreciate milk from Kyushu too. Actually, I love Japanese milk so much, I've found it difficult to find substitutes in Australia - though few of the smaller organic brands are coming close now.
Meiji milk can be found everywhere, but think of it as something not that different to Dairy Farmers, Pura, and Paul's. If the label has a location, usually it's a good sign. Alternatively, if it says a number greater than 3.6 on the label, it's probably a good sign of a rich, creamy, full-bodied milk.

4. Omoide Yokocho (思いで横町), or Piss Alley, Shinjuku
It's a quirky little place, the famous Piss Alley, with overhanging pipes and more Yakitori stalls you can poke a stick at. The place is somewhat special to me, though. I had my first meal in Tokyo there. A little soba place called Kameya (かめや), manned by ojisan and ojiisan, open til the wee hours of the morning. Possibly even open 24 hours. I can't remember.

A steaming bowl of tentama soba really, really hit the spot, especially on a cold, wintry night, armed with nothing but a guidebook and basic Japanese I hadn't used in front of a real Japanese person for years. A perfectly cooked onsen tamago, with a round piece of tempura shredded vegetables, topped with finely chopped spring onions, in a bowl of steaming hot soba noodles. Just make sure you're hungry. I did have it on a full stomach once - the tempura got a bit heavy towards the end.

A bowl of tentama soba (天玉そば) will set you back around 380 yen.

4. Parfaits
I. Love. Parfaits. What is there not to love about fresh fruit, ice cream and sponge cake, all topped with whipped cream? Admittedly, not all places do the same fantastic parfait, but one can judge from the look of a store. I was lucky enough to be in town during strawberry season, which meant that strawberry parfaits were on the menu. The one in the photo below was from Takano Fruit Parlor West Shinjuku (タカノフルーツパーラー地下鉄ビル店). 

Above: Strawberry Parfait; Below: Strawberry Trifle, Takano West Shinjuku
Prices will vary and menus may change seasonally. Expect anywhere from 500-2000 yen. Takano will cost at least 1000 yen. Summer heralds peaches, musk melons and cherries.

5. Fruit
Japan has some of the best tasting fruit. Yes, I know, department store supermarkets stock them at huge markups, but the price is well worth it...most of the time. I have always visited Japan in winter, which means mandarins, persimmons and strawberries galore. For the top end stuff, head to the supermarket section of any major department store (Daimaru, Takashimaya, Isetan, Mitsukoshi, etc). Don't be afraid to head in; some department stores have 2 or more sections for fruit - one that is intended as gifts (v v v expensive! Think individually wrapped, gift boxed, then ribboned up) and another for more "everyday" consumption. Tsukiji Markets also have a great variety of fruit stalls around, outside the main seafood market.

6. Yo-shoku
Yes, I am talking about omuraisu, hayashi rice, curry rice, and so on and so forth. Feel free to blame that on my obsession with Japanese dramas, especially ones about food (I'm talking Lunch no Joou and Ryuusei no Kizuna here). There are restaurants a-plenty everywhere, particularly on the top couple of floors of department store buildings. These restaurants have usually been scouted by management, so quality usually is not an issue. You will also find an array of Chinese and Japanese food there, but don't expect it to be too budget. That said, they usually won't be too expensive either.

A safe bet is Restaurant Park, on levels 12-14 of Takashimaya Shinjuku. [Special mention: the kimono section of most department stores are absolutely stunning. Especially in places like Takashimaya Shinjuku.]

7. Soft-serve ice cream
Only natural that ice cream would come up after mentioning milk and yoghurt drinks, right? Yup. I love Nissei soft serve ice creams. They range from the ultra creamy Hokkaido to the sorbet-like fruit flavours. Look out for seasonal flavours, too. The Sofore (ソフォレ) and Hokkaido soft cream (北海道ソフトクリーム) are personal favourites. Or be like me and attempt to try every flavour available over 2 days.

I know, I haven't talked about ramen, or katsudon, or sushi... Given my past trips to Japan and being rather restricted in what I could do, there really just hasn't been that many opportunities to try every single thing. Rest assured, I intend to visit Japan again and again (and again), so expect more lists like this in the future.