Oroshi (garlic paste) in tube

5.0 out of 5 stars Convenient and delicious

There isn’t too much one can say about this, other than it is great and a constant companion in my kitchen. It is basically minced garlic in a tube, and that’s about it. The consistency and flavor is roughly identical to garlic that has been through a garlic press.

However, anyone who does a lot of cooking with garlic knows what a pain it is to peel and crush the stinking rose, and just grabbing this little tube saves you a lot of time and energy. It substitutes just fine for any recipe requiring minced or crushed garlic. Obviously, if you want big chunks then you still have to do it the old fashioned way, but this is one of those short cuts that actually work. In fact, it works so good it is surprising that this is an imported Japanese product, and not a regular US food item found in any grocery store.

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Kewpie Mayonnaise

5.0 out of 5 stars Just tastes better

I always used to hate mayonnaise, and couldn’t imagine using it as a regular condiment. Turns out I just hated American mayonnaise.

Japanese mayonnaise is made with rice vinegar and a spice called ajinomoto, which gives it a hint of the flavor called umami. Umami is a special flavor, found mainly in Asian cooking, that can be detected by the human tounge outside the four basic tastes of sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness. Japanese mayonnaise is much better for cooking, especially for making salad dressings. That hint of umami makes all the difference.

Kewpie brand is the most popular brand of Japanese mayonnaise, and so it is a bit of a comfort food like Heinz ketchup is to Americans. Aside from tasting great, it is just nice to see the familiar bottle sitting in the fridge, knowing you can pull it out at any time and make your tacoyaki taste just that much better.

Kikkoman – Tamari Soy Sauce

 

5.0 out of 5 stars A healthier, more delicious soy sauce

Kikkoman – Tamari Soy Sauce 8.5 Fl. Oz.

Soy sauce isn’t just soy sauce. There are many different styles of quality and flavor, and just like any other condiment people are going to have their preferences.

Personally, I love pure tamari soy sauce. This is the original stuff, darker and more flavorful; it is the traditional recipe for Japanese soy sauce as it was originally introduced from China. Made as a by-product of miso production, tamari soy sauce has far more nutrients and health benefits than the mass-produced flavoring agent that can be found in any supermarket.

Unfortunately, due to production techniques and quality, tamari soy sauce is often considerably more expensive than the standard commercial variety. Even though I love it, I confess that I don’t use it when recipes call for large amounts, or when the richer flavor of tamari is just going to be lost in the blend. However, whenever I use pure soy sauce, such as with sushi or sashimi, then I absolutely dish out the extra cash for the better flavor. Tamari soy sauce and some real wasabi make a huge difference.

Kikkoman – Aji-Mirin (Sweet Cooking Rice Wine)

mirin

5.0 out of 5 stars Necessary

Mirin and Soy Sauce. That is all you really need for authentic Japanese cooking. And you need it everywhere. Those two liquids are the foundation for almost all recipes, and are used in some quantity in every dish. I do a considerable amount of Japanese cooking, and running out of mirin sends me into panic mode and heading out to the store.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that “teriyaki sauce” has anything with Japanese cuisine. Purely an American invention, true teriyaki cooking is a combination of mirin and soy sauce, based on the meat or vegetables which are then slowly cooked, rotating sides until they become a delicious brown sticky mess. It is sooo much better than the fast food restaurants try to pass off as “Japanese teriyaki”.

When it comes to brands, it is hard to go wrong with Kikkoman. For both mirin and soy sauce, they put out a consistently good product that you can count on to enhance your cooking. There are probably more refined and expensive brands out there, but Kikkoman does me just fine, as it does for the millions of Japanese households where it sees daily use.

As a sweetened wine, mirin adds flavor as well as nutrients to a dish, and can even be used as a sugar substitute in some recipes for those trying to escape from refined white sugar. Check out Japanese Foods That Heal for an in-depth discussion on mirin’s health benefits and uses.

Yuzu Kosho

yuzu

5.0 out of 5 stars My favorite spice

I got addicted to this stuff when I was living in Japan, and one of my big regrets about being back in the US is how hard, and how expensive, it is to lay my hands on some yuzu kosho.

Yuzu kosho is made from the citrus fruit yuzu, which has a distinct flavor, different from a lime or lemon. Kosho basically means “pepper”, and this paste has a peppery flavor with a distinct yuzu bite. It is soooooo good, and goes with almost everything. It is especially good on chicken and fish, which is what I mainly use it for. I also use it for a ranch-style dressing that is fantastic.

This brand here is a high-quality version, rather than the ubiquitous cheap tube form you can find anywhere in Japan. You don’t use a lot of it when cooking, and a little goes a long ways, so this little jar will last awhile. I am really glad to have a place to buy it here in the US, because frankly I don’t want to go back to cooking without it!

Ajinomoto – Hon Dashi

hondashi

 

5.0 out of 5 stars Can’t cook Japanese without it

The basic stock for 1,000s of Japanese recipes, dashi is absolutely essential for anyone wanting to cook authentic Japanese cuisine. As famous chef Shizuo Tsuji once said ” “many substitutes for dashi are possible, but without dashi, dishes are merely a la japonaise and lack the authentic flavor”.

Dashi can be made pretty easily from scratch, boiling some kombu or katsuobushi shavings, but you often make far more than you need for the particular recipe, and it can be a pain to spend all that time boiling. Instant dashi does the trick just fine, and almost no one will notice the substitution. This kind here, “Hon Dashi” (meaing “Real Dashi”), is the cream of the crop of instant substitutes. Made by the company Ajinomoto, Hon Dashi is absolutely brimming with umami, the fifth basic flavor found in Asian cooking. Hon Dashi is made from katsuobushi shavings, so it is a basic fish stock and not suitable for vegans, who would probably want to make their own kombu stock.

I use Hon Dashi for almost everything, from basic miso soup, to tamagoyaki, to using it to boil vegetables and give them a heartier flavor. Along with mirin and soy sauce, it is one of the most basic ingredients in a Japanese kitchen.

The Ramen King and I: How the Inventor of Instant Noodles Fixed My Love Life

 

 

ramen

 

4.0 out of 5 stars Appreciations, Mr. Noodle

I’m not sure what it is about Japan that encourages people to write self-indulgent sex memoirs. Some, like Donald Richie’s The Inland Sea, are profound classics that will live far beyond the lifespan if their author. Some, like Josh Muggin’s How To Pick Up Japanese Chicks And Doom Your Immortal Soul are slightly amateurish in their style but painfully honest and insightful. Some are just unreadable.

Andy Raskin’s entry into the genre, “The Ramen King and I,” falls somewhere in the middle. It is certainly readable, being the kind of breezy, quick pop writing with short chapters that you can blow through in a few days, if not sooner. Fairly light on content, I can’t say that this is a book that will linger after the last page is closed. But it is a fun one-off read.

The scenario follows Andy through a series of failed relationships (where he cheated and lied), and into the world of craigslist and fast, easy seduction. Eventually coming to terms with himself as a sex addict, he seeks help and gets a mentor, Matt, who encourages Andy to abstain from sex and dating for 90 days and to write letters he will never send to God or someone he respects. Andy chooses Momofuku Ando, the Japanese creator of instant ramen, as the target for his healing.

The first half of “The Ramen King and I” was tough reading for me. Raskin is fairly full of himself (“conceited,” as he later owns up to), and this section reads like someone who is trying to write about their mis-spent youth as if it was a bad thing, but is secretly really proud of it. Raskin performs legendary feats: After six months of studying Japanese, he can read a Japanese newspaper, something that takes normal students years to accomplish. He casually gets his MBA from an ivy league university, then jet sets back and from between Japan and the US for the next several years in various high-paying consultant jobs. He can walk into an exclusive restaurant, show off his food skills, and be thanked by the chef for coming, something that “never happens to first-timers.” He can easily go from saying “hello” to a girl in a café to watching her undress in less than an hour.

Of course, all of this is said with the point of “look at what a shallow, bad guy I was” but you can tell Raskin doesn’t really believe that and the whole smarmy tone of it just makes you want to reach through the pages of the book and slap the guy around a bit.

The second half is when the book really takes off, and I am glad that I made it that far. There is a greater level of honesty and introspection, and when he gets put on the 90-day sex fast by his sponsor Matt, Andy is forced to focus on other things in his life. That means that “The Ramen King and I” gets to be more than a bragging recounting of his sexual exploits and food knowledge. The letters to Momofuku Ando take on a deeper meaning, and the whole tone and voice of the book alter, become more real and thus more interesting. I wish the entire book had been at the same level.

One personal disappointment with “The Ramen King and I” is that there is actually very little to do with Momofuku Ando. I lived in Ikeda, Osaka for several years, where Momofuku Ando’s house and the Instant Ramen Museum are, so I was hoping that Raskin would incorporate more of that into his book. I have been to the museum several times and was there when Momofuku died. (I also got e-mailed the “Appreciations, Mr. Noodle” article by just about everyone I knew.) Sadly, Momofuku remains little more than an otherworldly focus for Raskin, and never becomes more than a name and some clever sayings. For me, there was too much Andy and not enough Ando.

For those who know something about Japan and have read a few memoirs of this type, you are probably going to have a hard time believing that “The Ramen King and I” is a strictly honest story. Like Peter Carey’s Wrong About Japan, some of the Japan-based parts of the story seems forced and don’t really ring true. That is forgivable though, as I am sure he needed to condense things for a wider audience.

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