Soba making class in Los Angeles

まず、。。。

First, water

everything else will follow.

Soba is a type of buckwheat noodle that is popular in Japan, and enjoyed both on a daily basis and for special occasions.  On New Years Eve Japanese people eat toshikoshi soba, which translates to ‘passing or crossing the year’, and is a longstanding cultural tradition since the Edo period to bring in good fortune, luck and longevity.  When people move into a new residence, they serve hikkoshi soba to their new neighbors in a social and friendly gesture to introduce themselves.  Soba noodles are frequently consumed in warm dashi broths with toppings which range from deep fried tofu, nameko mushrooms and shrimp tempura to dried herring and duck meat.  Cold noodles may be topped with gooey grated tororo yam, grated daikon radish, natto fermented soybeans or deep fried tempura bits, but soba purists will generally opt for a simple zarusoba plate of chilled soba noodles with a tsuyu dipping sauce made of kaeshi and dashi to enjoy the noodles in its simplicity and purity.

Soba is an integral part of life in Japan, from fast food standing-only soba stalls on train platforms that are frequented by salarymen in transit and zaru soba bento boxes sold in 7-11 convenience stores for office ladies in a hurry, to store-bought dried soba that is present in every household pantry.  Soba at first glance may seem like cheap food of convenience from an outsider, but artisanal soba is a deep and complex art that few are able to understand and master.  It takes years of apprenticeship and many more of real life experience to become a soba master, and it’s easy to tell when you’re having good quality soba that is made by an artisan.  Fresh soba has a light and delicate flavor with just the right amount of koshi, which is a Japanese word for the elasticity and slightly chewy consistency that noodles are supposed to have, and a slippery yet refreshing nodogoshi, which is a word to describe the pleasant way that food passes down your throat.  Soba is made only from buckwheat flour and water (and wheat flour for a combination soba), and nothing else, so it’s all in the skill of experienced hands to mix, knead, roll and cut these simple ingredients into good delicious noodles.

I recently took a soba making class with Akila Inouye, Master Chef and Founder of the Tsukiji Soba Academy and Sonoko Sakai, Japanese cookbook author and food writer, through an opportunity that I found on their website called mazumizu.  Mazumizu in Japanese means ‘first, water (and everything else will follow)’, which is the Zen principle of simplicity and natural flow in soba making.  They offer many different soba classes like the Easy Handmade Soba for Beginners for $85 and the Gluten free Kikouchi handmade soba class for $95, but I opted for the Basic Handmade Soba class for $125 that included a soba lunch.  The class was held at Sonoko’s lovely house in Santa Monica, and all supplies and ingredients were provided. 

Akila Inouye, the Founder and Master Chef of Tsukiji Soba Academy in Tokyo, Japan, has been teaching soba making for more than 15 years, and has trained many soba artisans who have gone on to open their own restaurants.  He conducted soba classes in Los Angeles last fall when he did a US soba tour from New York to the west coast, but by the time that I found out about this, classes were all sold out.  I was ecstatic that he returned to LA for the whole month of June to hold all types of classes.  He even brought different kinds of Japanese knives ordered and made especially for him, of which I was able to purchase one very special one.

Sonoko Sakai is a Japanese writer and film producer who is bicultural and bilingual.  She enrolled at the Tsukiji Soba Academy in Tokyo under the tutelage of Akila, and became a certified soba maker.  Her passion for soba making drove her to convert her home into a soba teaching studio and to spread the culture of soba to Angelenos.  What used to be the dining room is now a bright sunlit studio with 2 large wooden tables whose surfaces are perfect for rolling the soba.  A cabinet holds an assortment of beautiful Japanese ceramics in which to enjoy the soba and side dishes, and a side table is stocked with rolling pins, lacquer bowls, measuring cups and flour brushes.  With our aprons on and bandannas tied around our heads, our enthusiastic class of 5 was ready to knead and roll.

Master artisan Akila demonstrated the entire process step by step as we all watched in awe.  He prepared a 10 serving size of soba using 80% organic stone-milled Japanese buckwheat flour and 20% all purpose wheat flour in an 8:2 ratio of Nihachi soba which is the classic Tokyo style.  After he sifted the flour using a special fine sieve from Saitama prefecture, he started to explain the importance of water in soba making.

Water is the only other ingredient in soba, and how much you add is the key element in the entire process.  The amount of water to be added is not a finite proportion or weight, but largely depends on the flour quality and the humidity and temperature of the day.  Too much water and the dough will never form; too little water and the dough will fall apart.  The adjustment of water, unfortunately, is something that can only come from years of experience and professional intuition.  Once water is added to the sifted flour, use your hands to gently yet swiftly mix it up in a rotating motion.

Once the mixture is moist yet crumbly, gather it all to one side and gently compress it into a solid oblong roll.  Then repeat the process of fold and knead using the heel of your palms as you lean forward into the bowl with feet shoulder width apart.

Gradually, the dough will come together and feel sticky.  After adding just a touch of water, use your thumbs to knead with determination until it becomes soft, smooth and bouncy like a baby’s bottom.  Shape and mold into a large Hershey’s kiss before flattening the top into a thick disc shape.

Sprinkle a bit of uchiko (like cornstarch) on the table and lay your flattened dough on top.  Use a rolling pin in smooth swift motions going in all directions to flatten the dough.  Flatten into a rectangular shape, sprinkling bits of uchiko as you go along to prevent sticking.  The goal is to roll the dough into an even 1.5mm thickness.  Master Akila made it seem so easy and effortless, and little did we know how difficult this was going to be when it was our turn.

Fold the dough in 4 layers using generous amounts of uchiko in between each layer to prevent the noodles from sticking to each other.

Using a special soba kiri cleaver that has a long and perfectly straight and even edge, cut the soba in even widths in a relaxed posture.

Needless to say, our jaws dropped and we all fell silent when we watched Akila cut the soba with ease and grace.  We were all petrified at having to do this ourselves.

After the demonstration, it was our turn to try it all out, and we started from the very first step of weighing the flour and figuring out how much water to use.  We sifted, poured, mixed, gathered, kneaded, massaged, shaped, flattened, rolled, sprinkled and folded, all under the watchful eye and gentle direction of Akila and Sonoko.  When it came time to cut, we all struggled, some more than others.  It was an awkward task that none of us have ever experienced, and we inevitably ended up with uneven strands of soba.  These are the times when every person’s personality comes through- one woman had thick linguini sized soba, but she laughed it off and said that more volume meant more flavor.  Another was visibly frustrated and asked Akila to do the cutting.  The male student finished early with soba of various shapes and thicknesses, but didn’t seem to care about the imperfections at all.  I took a deep breath and tried to channel the powers of my Japanese ancestors, taking my time to get each strand as perfect as possible with utmost intensity and concentration.  Akila had to remind me several times to loosen my shoulders and relax.  What can I say, doctors are perfectionists by trade.  Although my soba wasn’t perfect by any standards, for a first timer, I thought I did pretty good:

After an intense but fun soba making session, we sat down for a wonderful lunch in Sonoko’s kitchen.  While we were making soba, Sonoko was busy in the kitchen making dashi broth with bonito flakes and preparing the dipping sauce.  Rattatouille of zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant and onions were cooked by a simple process of steaming with only a pinch of salt for seasoning- it was rich in flavor and absolutely delicious.

Soba (made and cut by our teachers, of course) was served in a cold tsuyu sauce with duck tsukudani simmered in soy sauce and ginger, Tokyo negi scallions, deep fried eggplant suage, sliced myoga ginger and mitsuba leaves.  I thought that the soba at Otafuku in Gardena was the best soba that I could get in Los Angeles- I was wrong.  This handmade bowl of soba by artisan Akila Inouye was not only the best soba that I’ve had in LA, but by far one of the best that I’ve ever had in my life, rivaling my favorite joint in Tokyo called Souhonke Sarashina Horii in Azabu-Juban.

To be able to learn how to make real Japanese soba is one thing, but to learn from a true artisan in the comfort of the teacher’s beautiful home and kitchen is such a treat.  I will never forget how that special bowl of soba with eggplant and duck meat tasted, for it’s attached with an unforgettable memory of my first experience with creating this traditional Japanese comfort food with my very own hands.  The following day I boiled some of my handmade soba for a simple zarusoba lunch at home.  Due to the unevenness of the noodles, it wasn’t first class, but knowing that I made it completely from scratch, it tasted delicious and comforting.  I regret not having enough time to take more of Akila and Sonoko’s classes, such as the seafood dinner party and summer entertaining classes which include sake tastings, but I’ll always have fond memories of this one magical sunny morning when their passion for soba touched and changed my life.

Mazumizu

www.mazumizu.com

Soba making and cooking classes

Soba master Akila Inouye is back in Los Angeles for more soba making classes.  This time around they are offering a class where you can mill your own soba and literally make everything from scratch.  Log on to www.mazumizu.com to register for these classes at the end of August- for one week only, so register now before they sell out!

Soba master Akila Inouye and Sonoko Sakai will also be doing a pop-up soba event using Shin-soba from Japan at the Breadbar for 1 week only at the end of August!

Random trivia:  Soba noodles contain antioxidants like rutin and quercetin, and essential nutrients and amino acids like choline, thiamine and riboflavin.  A lot of these nutrients and vitamins are lost to the water when boiling the soba, so there’s a tradition in Japan of drinking the left over water, or sobayu, at the end of the meal.

Street food in LA

Los Angeles has seen many food trends in the past few years- wine bars, gastropubs, burger wars, Top Chef contestant restaurant openings, temporary dining events, molecular gastronomy, mixology and food trucks .  Last year attracted much talk with the surge of food trucks galore, starting with the ever popular Kogi BBQ truck famous for their kalbi tacos, to others serving ‘gourmet’ delights like Vietnamese bánh mì sandwiches and Peruvian saltado.  A little over a week ago on February 13th, the very first LA Street Food Festival in downtown gathered a massive crowd of food truck enthusiasts who endured an unusually hot day and 2 hour lines to get their street food fix.  It was an incomprehensible mayhem of snaking lines and piles of trash, which I don’t think that I would have had the patience to tolerate if it weren’t for having a bit of an insider’s edge and some kindness from strangers.

On board for the big festival that day were already popular trucks like Baby’s Badass Burgers, Fishlips Sushi, CoolHaus, The Grilled Cheese Truck and Gastrobus.  There were a few that were about to make their LA debut, like the Dim Sum truck and a cart selling freshly fried baby donuts in the upstairs VIP lounge.  My favorite chef Ludo Lefebvre, in his now signature pop-up guerrilla style, overtook the spotlight of the festival with his LFC truck.  Decked out in bright red and white colors, his truck, which served his succulent Ludo’s Fried Chicken, proved to be the most popular truck on the grounds.  Hungry patrons were known to wait in line for more than 2 hours and an additional 1 to collect the food.  I cued in line for LFC, but after 10 minutes gave up at the insanity of wasting that much time for a couple of bites of food, even though it was Ludo’s food.  And then a miracle happened.  As we were eating savory shrimp har gow with a sesame soy sauce, and an awful peking duck taco served on a dry corn tortilla from the Dim Sum truck, a friendly group of people who sat on the lawn next to us offered to share their LFC.  They waited for 2 hours, yet they shared these golden morsels with us for free.  The dark meat chicken, which was brined for 2 days, was juicy and plump with a crispy rosemary crust that complemented the home made BBQ sauce.  Ludo, je t’aime.

I believe in reciprocating good gestures and random acts of kindness, so I quickly ran up to the VIP lounge to fetch all of us some hot mini donuts seasoned with confectioners sugar and cinnamon sugar.  They were delicious, especially shared with our new friends.

My friend and fellow food blogger Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA took me around this chaotic street fest.  He was responsible for recruiting the 2 food stands which to me really depicted the true meaning of street food. Sabor de Bahia served Brazilian street food like acarajé, which are beautiful ground black eyed pea fritters deep fried in red palm oil, then stuffed with chopped tomatoes, a creamy shrimp paste and topped with a tangy chili sauce called pimenta.  This was my favorite item of the day.

We also tried coxinha de frango, Portuguese for little chicken legs.  These small but dense deep fried dumplings were made with flour dough and filled with shredded chicken, chopped vegetables and cream cheese.  They’re formed into their classic tear drop shape before they’re battered and fried up.  The coxinha were the size of a golf ball, but they deceptively weighed heavier than a dumbbell.  Packed with power and savor, these balls delivered.  With a squeeze of ketchup right out of the bottle in true Brazilian style (according to Bill), we thoroughly enjoyed these Brazilian delights.

Antojitos de la Abuelita came strong with their tlayuda, the Oaxacan version of thin crust pizza.  3 types of succulent meats lay atop a  generous slab of beans, tomatoes, onions and shredded cabbage.  Chili marinated pork called cecina and salted beef called tasajo were both mouthwatering and delicious, but my favorite morsel of meat was the homemade chorizo.  We also had a fantastic plate of chicken in green mole sauce.

As we finished our day at the street food festival with some Hawaiian style shaved ice which wasn’t anything like the refreshing cups of shaved iced that I’ve had on the islands, I pondered once again over this food truck craze in LA.  Although I am not a big fan of this so-called ‘gourmet’ food truck phenomenon as previously posted in my blog, I accept its popularity and presence all over the streets of LA.  I think it’s great that there is something food related that people can get excited about, but just like the economic bubble, this food truck bubble is bound to burst very soon.  It’s impossible for these trucks to keep multiplying at the same pace.  Sooner or later, the really bad ones will be weeded out and only a few will remain.

What I have more of a problem accepting is for these young food trucks, serving outrageous new food combinations, to be called ‘street food’.  Street food to me depicts regional cuisine and local flavors which have been painstakingly protected and honored by its people.  It doesn’t matter where it’s sold- out of an apartment, a street corner, a food truck or a restaurant- but it should reflect a long history of tradition and culture that has remained untainted by modern trends.  I got a taste for real street food in East LA a couple of weeks ago when Bill took me on a food crawl to meet some of his trusted vendors.

Our first stop was a food truck on a street corner close to Olympic Boulevard and Dakota.  There were actually 2 similar food trucks in close proximity to each other.  One had a long line of customers, and I assumed that this was where we were going.  These customers don’t know what they’re doing, Bill muttered under his breath, as he escorted me to the one with no line called Mariscos Jalisco.  Hailing all the way from San Juan de los Lagos in Jalisco, these vendors specialized in Mexican seafood delights.  You can get shrimp and octopus cocteles, and even some fresh oysters by the dozen, but we were here for one thing- the shrimp tacos, taco dorado de camaron.  The deep fried morsels of shrimp were so tender they were almost creamy, contrasted by the crunchy texture of the fried taco shells.  The taco was topped with a generous heap of buttery avocados and a tangy salsa with chopped cabbage, cilantro, onions and tomatoes.  Simple.  Comforting. Delicious.

Our next stop was at Tamales Elena in the deep ghetto neighborhood of Watts.  As Bill told me about the history of gang violence in the area, I couldn’t help but wonder if we were talking about the same place.  Granted we went in broad daylight on a beautiful sunny LA day, but there was a sense of peace and chill on the streets as we pulled up behind this unassuming food truck on the corner of Wilmington and 111th.  We were greeted by the patrons of the truck with bright welcoming smiles as we dug our forks into their fantastic pork tamales.  Should we go with the red or green salsa?  No need to make a decision, the friendly patron brought out another complimentary tamale for us to enjoy.  I loved the hearty consistency of the masa and the smoky flavors of the succulent pork filling.

They even let me inside the truck for my very first food truck tour.  It’s not a big space, but just big and comfortable enough to create culinary wonders to please the mass.  A big pot of tamales was quietly steaming away in the far corner, while a pot of stewed meats seduced me to take a peek inside.  Again, delicious and satisfying food for such a low price.  Can you believe that these tamales are only $1?

My favorite part of the food crawl was when I met Rodolfo, who had a food stall on the sidewalks of Soto and Michigan.  This was real street food in the literary sense- it was just a grill and a table on an otherwise vacant sidewalk with a handwritten ‘Barbacoa’ sign hanging on the chain linked fence.  When we commenced our food crawl, I told Bill that I was a big offal lover, so he made this compulsory stop for me to get my pancita fix.  Pancita is lamb’s stomach stuffed with all kinds of offal with chiles and spices, and cooked for hours until the meat becomes tender and flavorful.  It may not sound like your cup of tea, but when Bill started describing this dish to me, I got pretty hot and sweaty.  This is the kind of stuff that turns me on.

The pancita that day was stewed with guajillo peppers, and contained a cheerful assortment of heart, testicles, tripe, lung, liver and stomach.  It wasn’t that gamey but it had just the perfect amount of iron undertone, and the luscious pieces of juicy organ meats made me flutter my eyelashes in ecstasy.  It went particularly well with a splash of chopped onions, a smidgen of cilantro, a squeeze of lime and a dollop of Rodolfo’s red salsa made with habanero, chipotle and chile de arbol peppers and some tomatillo.

We also got to try the lamb tacos, made this particular time with a young 1 year old lamb.  The meat was surprisingly tender with a light flavor, and again went well with all of the condiments.  I loved the comforting and soothing flavors of the lamb consommé, made from the meat drippings of the braised lamb and served with chick peas.  We enjoyed this warm cup of delicious lamb juice in its simple and unadulterated state, but Bill told me that some people add onions and cilantro to it.

Although I really enjoyed the food here, what was most memorable for me was the interaction that I had with Rodolfo.  Rodolfo immigrated from Michoacan, and has been in Los Angeles for many years in order to pursue a better life for his family.  He has been cooking food for as long as he can remember, and really loves what he does.  Since his lamb dishes were so divine, I assumed that he had been doing this for his whole career, but he divulged to us that his specialty is actually seafood.  He looked truly sad when he told us that he wasn’t doing that anymore because he couldn’t find good quality seafood here that was worthy of his dishes.  We talked about his family, his life, his struggles and his passion, all on this street corner in the middle of East LA as cars and buses whizzed by.  I was starting to see the real meaning of ‘street food’.  It’s definitely about the food, but it’s really about the human spirit creating the food.  I was so touched by this man’s humility and dedication, and I didn’t want to leave that street corner.  I wanted to keep talking to him and finding out more about his life, but we had to go to our next stop.

Our next stop was Antojitos Carmen Restaurant on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue.  This is a true rags to riches story, as they used to be a food stall but became so successful that they opened a restaurant.  We started with their pambazo, a torta drenched in chile and fried to a nice black sear.  The one we had was filled with potatoes, lettuce and chorizo.  This, Bill taught me, was real street grub.  This Latin hamburger of sorts was hearty and filling, and the kind of food that would satiate any late night cravings.

They gave us a special salsa to augment our meal.  I don’t think this is on the menu, and it’s something you have to ask for if you know about it.  It was a decadent and heavenly salsa made with different types of seeds and nuts, and brought together with a fiery chile de arbol paste.  It was really delicious, and reminded me a little of Korean gochujang. The mezcla of different textures and flavors in each powerful spoonful was intense and inspiring.

Everything that I tried at this restaurant was new to me, including the huarache with a half portion of huitlacoche and half of chicharrones. Huaraches, named after sandals which resemble its shape, are oblong deep fried masa tortillas with any number of toppings.  I had been dying to try huitlacoche, corn fungus, and I’m glad that I entrusted Bill to guide me to the best place in town.  These tender silky pieces of corn fungus had an earthy and smokey flavor to them that was almost like eggplant.  The other half with chicharrones was fatty and crispy, and evenly tempered by the fresh ribbons of lettuce.

I also got to try a bowl of migas, a pork soup with soaked bolillo bread.  The pork bits, in all its meat, cartilage and fatty glory, had been braised for hours and hours, rendering the cartilage into a soft gelatinous delight and the meat into a tender fall-off-the-bones wonder.  The smokey and intense flavors of the soup reminded me of the heartiness of Taiwanese beef noodle soup.  This wonderful bowl of soup that I had at Antojitos, is something that I would crave when I’m feeling sick, hungover, or even sad.  I can see myself gulping down this entire bowl in silence as the comforting and loving essences of the soup circulate through my body and permeate my cells.

Although my street food crawl, so wonderfully orchestrated by Bill Esparza, taught me the real meaning of street food, I know that I only grazed the surface.  I cannot claim to know the first thing about the Latin street food culture in LA, which penetrates deeper into the veins of this city than anybody can imagine, but I can tell you that the genuine feeling that I got in my heart as I ate this wonderful food and met the even more wonderful people behind it was real.  The so-called ‘gourmet’ food trucks may appeal to the trend seeking part of the brain, but it doesn’t grab your heart or embrace your soul.  Go explore the streets of Los Angeles and experience for yourself the true spirit of street food.  Take the time to talk to the vendors, and you will be sure to hear an inspiring and brave life story that spans many generations and crosses many borders.  Go taste the traditional foods that are all lovingly prepared by hand and let these flavors open up your heart.

Random trivia: Did you know that huitlacoche is a type of fungus that grows on corn and destroys it?  Also known as corn smut or corn fungus, these blue-black spores are considered delicacies in many Latin cultures, and are harvested specifically for human consumption, hence its other name which is Mexican truffle.  Huitlacoche, in Nahuan culture, means ‘raven’s excrement’.

Summer baby shower

Summertime, outdoor BBQ, sunshine, cool breeze, champagne, friends, laughter, gifts, food, laying out on the grass…

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All of these wonderful elements came together for my friend Emi’s baby shower that I co-hosted this summer.  I was genuinely excited to throw this bash and make it a special day for her.  Emi, wife of the chef and owner of The Curious Palate, has been my good friend since the 6th grade.  I brainstormed for weeks about the food spread for the joyous occasion.  I wanted to keep things simple and fresh, and I wanted to use farmers market ingredients that were at their summer peak. I also needed to simplify the preparation, garnishing and plating, in order to minimize my time in the kitchen and maximize my time having fun at the party.

For starters, I made a watermelon gazpacho.  I used plump heirloom tomatoes to deepen the flavors, blanched almonds to add texture, Spanish Jerez Reserva sherry vinegar to add a subtle kick, and a nutty French extra virgin olive oil to bring it all together.  Garlic and red peppers were thrown in for some underlying zest.  Garnished with edible flower petals, chopped chives and drops of basil oil that I made the night before, it was the perfect cool concoction for a hot summer day.

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Roasted red and yellow beets were flavored with Jerez Reserva sherry vinegar, olive oil, ginger and slivers, zest and juice of Valencia oranges.  The snapping ginger and citrus flavors balanced out the deep sweetness of the beets, and the vibrant colors of the edible flower garnish really popped out against the crimson background.

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For the main course, we decided to do the obligatory BBQ.  What’s an outdoor summer party without slapping some meat on the hot grill?  I marinated kalbi short ribs in my own secret recipe, and let it absorb the flavors overnight.  Italian zucchini and eggplants cut lengthwise were brushed with olive oil and flavored with fleur de sel.  What a sight to see 3 chicks (the 3 hosts) running the hot smoking grill in heels and summer dresses!  Sorry, no photos of the meat, it went too quickly.  They were tender, succulent, juicy and delicious.

I wanted to do something special, original and cute for dessert.  A store ordered cake with a messy ‘Congratulations’ in chocolate inscription?  Boring.  Cupcakes from Sprinkles?  Been there, done that.  After numerous revisions, I decided to make a playful plate that featured ripe summer white peaches.

I found this interesting fruit called a honeyloupe at the farmers market in Santa Monica.  As you can guess by the name, it’s a cross between a honeydew melon and a cantaloupe.  I used cookie cutters to cut the flesh into star, leaf and flower shapes, and marinated it for a few hours in lemongrass syrup.  Lemongrass syrup is easy to make- boil equal parts water and sugar in a pot with bruised lemongrass stalks for a few minutes.  You can drizzle it over ice cream or yogurt, and it marinates fruits really well.  It also keeps in the fridge for a long time.

I made a chocolate fudge sauce that I painted onto the plate with a pastry brush, and sprinkled the honeyloupe pieces along with edible flower petals and mint leaves to create a shooting star effect.  Using a cardboard stencil that took me only a few minutes to cut out with an exacto knife, I sprinkled a Valrhona chocolate powder teddy bear onto each plate.

I poached the white peaches the evening before in water and sugar with: cinnamon, cloves, black peppercorns, vanilla beans, honey, star anise, ginger and lemon zest.  To make the peach foam, I puréed some of those peaches with the poaching syrup, then added bloomed silver gelatin sheets before pouring it into my Espuma gun.  For those of you who don’t own an Espuma gun, I highly recommend getting one.  You can turn anything into foam or cream, and it’s so fun to use.  Load it with a couple of CO2 cartridges, and you’re ready to foam away.

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It all came together nicely for a colorful and cute summer dessert plate.

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My friend Emi had a healthy and beautiful baby boy, and I’m already thinking of the desserts that Auntie Tomo can spoil him with.

Random trivia:  Did you know that lemongrass oil enhances milk production in breast-feeding mothers?  It’s also believed that babies who drink this milk will have a better immune system, making them less prone to infections.

Los Angeles Food Trucks

Let's Be Frank food truck at the Helm's Bakery

Let's Be Frank food truck at the Helm's Bakery

Los Angeles is in the midst of a food truck craze.  Although there have been numerous breakfast and taco trucks in all parts of LA for decades, it’s only recently that ‘gourmet food trucks’ have become almost a cult phenomenon.  First there was Cafe Nagomi, an organic Japanese food truck frequently found in the Sony studios area in Culver City that sells delicious bento boxes and green tea lattes.   Let’s Be Frank, a lovely hot dog truck that you can find in the parking lot of Helm’s Bakery in Culver City, is one of my favorites.  I first discovered them at a Santa Monica Pier twilight concert event in the summer of 2008.  Their uncured beef franks topped with generous heaps of Indian spiced pepper sauce hits the spot.  Then there was Kogi BBQ, probably one of the most popular trucks today that people follow religiously on Twitter.

Let's Be Frank's brat dog

Let's Be Frank's brat dog

Since then there’s been an explosion of others, such as Baby’s Badass Burger serving gourmet burgers, Get Shaved serving Hawaiian style shaved ice,  Fishlips Sushi serving sushi rolls, Lomo Arigato serving Japanese style Peruvian food, and most recently Nom Nom Truck known for Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches just to name a few.

Why the craze and why all this mania?  First of all, in these tough economic times, who doesn’t like cheap, quick and delicious eats?   Secondly, easily bored Angelenos are always looking for something innovative to tweak their interest and please their appetite.  IMG_1154Now these mobile trucks are easily accessible in major LA neighborhoods well into the late hours of the evening to provide good old comfort food.  And now that the majority of the population not only have iPhones, but play with it incessantly and obsessively every other minute to update their Facebook status or follow others on Twitter, one will always know where to track these trucks down.  And who can deny the thrill of the chase?  It’s so much more exciting to hunt down a roving venue that is hard to catch.  The pursuit is just as appealing as the triumph of finding it and enduring the long lines to actually eat the food.

So does the food live up to its hype?  Is it really worth Twittering Kogi BBQ and waiting in line for 2 hours for $5 tacos?  I wasn’t about to waste my precious time, so I tried some Kogi BBQ food at The Alibi Room in Culver City.  We started off with the vegan sesame leaf/perilla tacos with kimchi slaw and a side of taro and lotus root chips.  The tacos had a nice crisp texture to the slaw and a refreshing citrus flavor.  A nice, simple starter.

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The chips were greasy and tasteless.  None of the lotus root chips were crispy, in fact they were all a soggy sad-looking mess.

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The tofu and citrus salad looked like everything else we just had plus tofu, all thrown into a plate.  Same flavors, same ingredients,  just a different container.

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The thing to get for sure is the Kogi 3 taco combo where you can sample the kalbi short rib, bbq chicken and spicy pork.  They all came with the same cabbage, cilantro, lime and onion slaw as the previous dishes.  At least the meats were different.  The tacos were good, but not great.  They were good enough for me to enjoy them with my beer as I sat at the lively bar on a Saturday night hanging out with friends.  But they weren’t good enough for me to have to drive around LA hunting down the trucks, only to sacrifice another couple of hours waiting in line and eating it on the sidewalk.  It doesn’t seem worth it.  I go to Let’s Be Frank and Cafe Nagomi because there is never a line, it’s always at the same place and I know I can get my food within minutes.  But the other food trucks just don’t excite me right now.  Too much work for too little return.

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Don’t get me wrong, I am the first one to drive for miles in pursuit of outstanding eats.  I will frequently drive out to San Gabriel Valley by myself just to have some shrimp dumplings or pickled pigs ears, and if that urge hits me during rush hour, then so be it.  I am also always willing to patiently wait in line for good food.  Recently at the 1 day-only public wholesale event at Gourmet Imports in SGV, I waited in line for 2.5 hours to buy whole Rougie foie gras lobes, white truffle honey, argan oil and Piment D’Espelette.  But for now, if I get that craving for burgers or fancy tacos, I’ll round up my friends and head to a sit-down dive where we can sit comfortably and talk over a bottle of wine.

Steve sizing up the dog

Steve sizing up the dog

On a recent quick stop to Let’s Be Frank to satiate my hot dog craving, I met Steve Plotnicki from Opinionated About Dining.  He’s an experienced and refined foodblogger/gourmand from New York who has eaten the world!

http://kogibbq.com

http://twitter.com/kogibbq/

Random trivia:   Did you know that purple sesame leaves, or red perilla, is toxic to some cattle and horses?  When they consume these leaves while grazing in the fields, they can get a lung condition called perilla mint toxicosis.

Poppies and grilled cheese

Spring is in full force, and the Lancaster poppies were in bloom early this month in April.  I decided to take a day trip up to these famous poppy fields to have fun with nature photography and test out a few different lenses.  I didn’t make it out there until just after their peak, but it was really nice to be in the middle of flowering fields and beautiful skies.  Lancaster is about an hour drive up north from Los Angeles, and I was excited to have a fun nature excursion. The sky was a perfect clear blue, but it was windy as hell.  It was quite a challenge taking close ups of moving flowers with a macro lens.

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I was hoping to frolick in infinite flowing fields of bright saffron orange poppies, but we were surrounded mostly by yellow wildflowers.  It was still a beautiful and poetic experience.  Since we went on a weekday, hardly anybody was there and we sat peacefully on the ground in a tête-à-tête with the flowers with the violent whispers of the wind blowing through our hair.

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It was a beautiful ever flowing ocean of poppies, wildflowers and weeds of blue, purple, yellow, orange, green, and brown.  It was exhilarating to be surrounded 360 degrees by nature and breath in the fresh unpolluted air.  We took a break from photography and ate juicy sweet bright red cherry tomatoes on the dirt path.  All of my senses were saturated with an innocent and pure feeling of happiness.

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The orange poppies had delicate thin petals that swayed gracefully in the strong wind.

poppy

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As the wind picked up the fallen poppy petals and whisked them away into the deep blue sky, I realized that nothing is forever in this world.  Things that touch our lives will come and go whether we like it or not.  Enjoy the moment, seize the day, live in the now…..

And eat grilled cheese sandwiches now in April, during National Grilled Cheese Month, before it’s too late.  They will not be around after a couple of weeks.  Don’t let that good one slip through your fingers.  Enjoy the sandwich, seize the cheese, live in the melt….

Clementine's

Clementine's

After our Lancaster poppy outing, we went to my favorite neighborhood joint, Clementine’s.  They throw a huge National Grilled Cheese Month celebration every year in April.  This year they were featuring specialty sandwiches in collaboration with Los Angeles celebrity chefs.  That particular week they had a Chicharron de Queso sandwich with black beans, avocado, pickled jalapeños and pico de gallo courtesy of Jimmy Shaw, owner/chef of Loteria Grill.  The previous week was a Provolone and Hot Italian Sausage with garlicky rapini on ciabatta sandwich courtesy of Evan Kleinman, host of KCRW’s Good Food and chef/owner of  Angeli Caffe.  This coming week is a Camembert sandwich with mustard greens and mushrooms on country bread courtesy of Amelia Saltsman, author of The Santa Monica Farmer’s Market Cookbook. Next and final week is a Queso Mahon and Chorizo sandwich with quince paste and romesco, courtesy of Suzanne Goin, chef/owner of Lucques, A.O.C. and Tavern.

I was impressed with the celebrity line up.  After quenching our thirst with their lovely ginger limeade…

Ginger limeade

Ginger limeade

We had the ‘Little Armenia’ with soujouk, melted cheese, herbs and grilled tomato on Armenian bread.  Soujouk, sujuk, soudjouk, yershig, is a dry spicy sausage consisting of beef with cumin, sumac, garlic, salt and red pepper.  In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan they use horse meat.  They used a white Armenian string cheese that had little black nigella seeds.  The bread was perfectly toasted in the panini press, and this sandwich was unbelievably delicious.  It was one of my favorite grilled cheese sandwiches that I’ve ever had.  The meat was smokey, spicy and flavorful, and it tasted like a combination of bresaola and pastrami.

Little Armenia sandwich

Little Armenia sandwich

We also had the Grilled Garlic Melt served with fava bean purée, sauteed greens and shaved parmesan.  The roasted garlic flavor was intense in the sandwich.  This was a no frills simple grilled cheese sandwich, executed in an orthodox and simple fashion and bursting with fresh spring aromas.

Grilled Garlic Melt

Grilled Garlic Melt

Every week in April they feature 5 different types of specialty grilled cheese sandwiches.  This week I have my eye on their Pastrami Reuben with Niman Ranch pastrami, gruyere, sauerkraut and 10,000 lakes dressing.  They usually have this sandwich on their regular menu, and it’s one of the best pastrami reubens in Los Angeles.  Next week I have my eye on the Queso Mahon and Chorizo by Chef Suzanne Goin.

What a wonderful day of indulging all of my senses in nature, food and art!

Clementines

Random trivia: Did you know that in 2004 a grilled cheese sandwich bearing the image of the Virgin Mary sold on eBay for $28,000?

Thai New Years

This past weekend celebrated Thai New Years or ‘Songkran’, also known as the Water Festival.  The wonderful thing about living in Los Angeles is that we can experience so many different cultural festivities like this.  The festival took place on Sunday in Thai Town, which is in Hollywood.  They blocked off a good portion of Hollywood Boulevard and lined it up with food stalls, karaoke stages, business and market booths, a beauty pageant event and a Muay Thai kickboxing ring.  There weren’t as many food stalls as the previous festivals that I’ve been to, but it was still fun to soak up the festive energy.

Thai Town

Thai Town

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Although this is a religious and sacred holiday, it has become known as the festival in which people throw or spray water at each other.  The throwing of water originated as a symbol for cleansing and renewal, but it has gained a reputation of becoming the biggest water fight party because it falls on the hottest month of the year in Thailand.  Not so in LA, though it was a bright and hot day on this particular Sunday.

People will usually go to a wat (Buddhist monastery) to pay their respects to monks.  I’ve been to Songkran at the large Wat Thai temple in North Hollywood before, and it’s a vibrant and lively festival.  On Hollywood Boulevard, there’s a different type of crowd representing Thai Town:

Festival entertainment

Festival entertainment

At Wat Thai, the temple grounds are usually teeming with hundreds of monks wearing their bright saffron orange and yellow garb.  In contrast, I only saw a few monks on Hollywood Boulevard, standing out against a background of dirty asphalt, iron fences and faded buildings.

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The smell of chicken, pork and beef satay roasting on the charcoal barbecue grills emanated throughout the streets. I love that dense smokey aroma of barbecued meat and fat unique to charcoal grilling.  It makes me salivate.

chicken satay on the grill

chicken satay on the grill

We shared a chicken satay stick, sausage, and grilled pork salad.  The grilled pork salad was garnished with red onions, fresh cilantro, scallions and a tangy chili sauce that was so delicious.

Street food

Street food

After watching people get their asses kicked in Muay Thai kickboxing, we worked up an appetite for more Thai food.

Muay Thai

Muay Thai

We went to a restaurant called Ruen Pair on Hollywood Boulevard that boasts comfort Thai food.  It’s a quaint little restaurant in a mini mall that is always packed with local Thai residents. The young coconut juice with fresh coconut shavings and grass jelly drink were both sweet and refreshing.

coconut and grass jelly drinks

coconut and grass jelly drinks

We got the combination egg noodle soup, stir fried morning glory and stewed pork leg.

Combo egg noodle soup

Combo egg noodle soup

The egg noodle soup had char-siu BBQ pork, duck, fish cake and fish balls.  It was pretty average; the kind you can expect to get at most Chinese restaurants.

The morning glory, sautéed with fresh garlic and soybean sauce, was absolutely heavenly.  I just love when the simplest of dishes hits the spot and makes my taste buds happy.  Morning glory, also known as on choy, is a hollow leafy vegetable that maintains a crunchy texture at the root when cooked just right.

Morning glory

Morning glory

The best dish of the day that just blew me away was the stewed pork leg, or Khao Kha Moo.  These fatty pork legs are stewed for hours so that the meat falls off the bones and the skin turns into a soft gelatinous mass of rich collagen that melts in your mouth and makes your skin glow the next day.

Stewed fatty pork leg with pickled cabbage

Stewed fatty pork leg with pickled cabbage

The sharp citrus accents and sour vinegar kick from the pickled mustard greens went extremely well with the intensity of the pork leg.  It really amazes me when I get to eat foods that are paired so perfectly like this.  The rice was infused with pork essence, and every bite of this dish was an intense mingling of wonderful flavors.  Lucky me, I got to take home the leftovers and have round 2 for lunch the next day.  Stewed pork leg from Ruen Pair, are you the love of my life?  Even better news is that Ruen Pair is open until 4 am.  It’s the perfect digs for those late night post-clubbing cravings. 

Ruen Pair

5257 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 466-0153

Random trivia: Did you know that the meat from the left leg of a pig is supposed to be more tender than the right?  Most pigs are right-leg dominant and scratch themselves with their right leg, so the right leg meat is more muscular and tough.  That is, unless it’s a left legged southpaw pig…

Sama

Have you heard of Sama Eyewear?  Even if you haven’t, you’ve probably seen it without knowing it.  Look through any gossip magazine and you’ll see A-list celebrities wearing it in their candid shots.  Reese, J-Lo, Brad, Cameron, Charlize,  and the list goes on.  If you’ve seen the movies Terminator 3 or Mission Impossible 3, then you’ve definitely seen Sama sunglasses.  Yes, those famous sunglasses that Ahhhhnold Schwarzenegger wore in T-3 are from Sama.

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I’m in love with Sama Eyewear, and have been a huge fan for many years.  I love their designs and the impeccable craftsmanship.  These frames are built to last with high quality materials, and even their cases come in stylish designs.  I own 5 sunglasses by Sama that are all very different, but all are timeless classics.  They are part of my wardrobe, and they can instantly change my overall look.  I have 2 glasses by Sama, and I loved the one with pink frames so much that I had them replace my prescription lens with clear lens after I had my LASIK procedure, so that I can still wear them.

Sama eyewear

Sama eyewear

Sama eyewear

Sama eyewear

One of my very close friends works for Sama, and I frequently visit her at the West Hollywood head office and showroom.  This is where celebrities go for their private fittings.  On this particular day, she was working at the Beverly Hills retail store, so I went to check out the store in search for another cool pair of sunglasses to add to my collection. The store is in the heart of Beverly Hills, close to Rodeo Drive.

Sama interior

Sama interior

The interior of the store is very clean, white, and spacious.  I love the natural light that comes in through the front window.  There are small crystal chandeliers by the front window that shine rainbow patterns onto the wall. The wall paper is handmade with intricate hand drawn patterns and designs.  If you look closely, sometimes you can see figures in interesting kama sutra positions (no joke!  See for yourself.  It was done intentionally)

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A lot of the popular and new designs are displayed in glass cases, recessed shelves, or on glass tables.  However, you can see their entire collection in all of the numerous drawers in the cabinets.  I felt like a kid in a candy store, opening all of the drawers and trying everything on.

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I love how the store has different kinds of mirrors to check yourself out in.  They have a full length mirror, a large wall mirror, a small face mirror, and a hand held mirror.  This made the whole shopping experience really fun too.

On top of the classic Sama designs, they also have a Badgley Mischka and Loree Rodkin Eye Couture collection.  Badgley Mischka is known for their intricate and gorgeous couture gowns that celebrities often wear on the red carpet.  Loree Rodkin creates rocker chic jewelry, and one of her famous signature designs is the rhinestone skull and bones.  You can see this, among other rhinestone motifs, on the sunglasses in her collaboration line.

Loree Rodkin

Loree Rodkin

After hours of deliberating with my friend and the other store consultant, the verdict is in.

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The Monaco design in Rose.  The same one that Jennifer Aniston wears.  Tom Cruise has it in black, and Charlize has it in gold.  Coooool.

http://www.samaeyewear.net/

Random trivia: Did you know that in the United States every 14 minutes someone loses, breaks or sits on a pair of sunglasses?

Tet Festival

Today I went down to Little Saigon to check out Tet, the Vietnamese New Year festival.  Little Saigon has the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam, so you can imagine how crowded it was. There were a lot of vendors, food stalls, game booths, and random karaoke stands.  A lot of women were dressed up in cute Chinese dresses and beautiful Vietnamese aodai dresses.

Tet girls

Tet girls

I was really excited to try different types of foods at the food stalls, but to my disappointment a lot of them had the same stuff with very little variety.  I ended up settling for some cha gio (deep fried spring rolls), goi cuon (fresh spring rolls wrapped in rice paper), and pho bo (beef rice noodle soup).  When in doubt, stick to the basics.

Beef Pho

Beef Pho

The festival grounds were filled with the pungent and distinct smell of squid:

Dried squid

Dried squid

The dried squid is quickly roasted, then torn up into little pieces and served with hot sauce and pickled vegetables.  We have something similar to this in Japanese cuisine, and it’s usually savored with a glass of cold beer.

I really enjoyed the tall cup of freshly squeezed sugar cane and kumquat juice:

sugar cane juice with kumquat

sugar cane juice with kumquat

The sugar cane is put through the machine several times to extract every last drop of juice.  I remember having freshly squeezed sugar cane juice in Cuba, but they had to manually crank a large 3 foot high machine to do it- it was hard labor.

I was amazed at how large this festival was.  There were so many game booths and large amusement park rides; I was really impressed!  I regressed for a little while and enjoyed playing games that I hadn’t played in a long time.  I won a red crawfish stuffed animal…which reminds me, I just had crawfish in Little Saigon last week, so I’ll post that on my next blog entry.  I also rode the ferris wheel- it’s been ages since I’ve done that!  I felt like a little kid again.

We watched a bunch of live performances by local Vietnamese-American artists and high school and college groups.

The most interesting part of the evening came after the festival though.  My friends and I went to a restaurant called Luc Dinh Ky on Bolsa Avenue.  They serve free sweetened chrysanthemum tea and specialize in Chinese herbal soups.  We ordered 2 types of soup, one with black chicken and the other with goat testicles.

Mixed herb chicken soup

Mixed herb chicken soup

This was like the Korean chicken soup, sam gae tang, with all of the same Chinese herbs (chinese dates, goji berries, chestnut, jinseng).  The chicken meat was so tender and flavorful, and it just fell right off the bones.  The chicken used here is black chicken, with white feathers but black skin, meat and bones.  It’s supposed to have more anti-oxidants than regular chicken, and is highly prized for its nutritional value.  Here’s what it looks like:

Black chicken

Black chicken

If you think that looks unusual, then look at what I had for dinner tonight:

Goat testicle soup

Goat testicle soup

This has the same type of Chinese herbs as the black chicken soup, except the main attraction are the chunks of goat testicle.  They are very tender, soft, a bit spongy; like biting into a spongier version of very firm tofu.  But they definitely have a slightly strange aftertaste- or maybe it’s just psychological.  I was okay with the testicles at first, but I became more and more apprehensive when I started identifying attached structures by their medical names.

My favorite dish of the night was Bo Luc Lac, which means ‘shaking beef’.  It was super tender ( I didn’t now stir fried beef could be this tender!!) and went really well with the stir fried rice.

Bo Luc Lac

Bo Luc Lac

‘Bo’ means beef, and ‘luc lac’ refers to the way that you have to ‘shake’ the skillet back and forth to cook the beef.

We also had Com Tay Cam, which is white rice in a clay hot pot served with, in our case, salmon.

Com Tay Cam with salmon

Com Tay Cam with salmon

I love eating the crispy browned rice in these clay hot pots.  Such a wonderful crunchy texture, not to mention the deep smokey taste.

What a full day, filled with new experiences and new foods.  I look forward to celebrating next year’s Tet!

Random trivia:  Did you know that around the world, more people drink goat milk than cow milk?

Lunar New Year 2009

January 26th, 2009 was Lunar New Year, the most important holiday in many Asian cultures (eg. Chinese, Vietnamese, Nepalese).  Although in Japan we celebrate New Years on January 1st, I still love to celebrate Lunar New Year. Any excuse for partying and traditional food is good by me!  During this celebration people wear red clothes, decorate with poems on red paper, and give children “lucky money” in red envelopes.  Red lanterns are hung and there is red and gold just about everywhere you look.  Red symbolizes fire, which according to legend can drive away bad luck. The firecrackers that go off are rooted in a similar ancient custom.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to join in the festivities with some Vietnamese friends.  We went to 2 temples in the San Gabriel Valley.  It was a lovely day for temple hopping, and I was impressed with the massive Hsi Lai Temple.

Chinese lanterns

Chinese lanterns

I couldn’t believe how many people there were!  There was so much excitement and happiness in the air, and it was so nice to be a part of this cultural experience.  The Hsi Lai Temple sits atop a hill and boasts spectacular views of the SG Valley.

Hsi Lai Temple

Hsi Lai Temple

At the main entrance to the temple, there was a small stall run by 2 ladies selling Dharma fortunes.  For $1 (hey, the Chinese will charge you for everything!) you can buy a small red plastic ball containing your fortune.  Sort of like a poor man’s fortune cookie.  Here is mine:

“In getting along with others, be amiable.

In business, be diligent.

In research, be serious.

In practice life, be detached.

Master Hsin Yun “

Hmmmm…..gramatically incorrect Buddhist teachings.

After receiving blessings in the main temple, we set our lit incense sticks in the big incense burner.

Incense burner

Incense burner

Unfortunately, we got here later in the afternoon so all of the food stalls were out of food.  However, we did get a nice home cooked Vietnamese new years meal at our friend’s house.  It is tradition to eat a simple vegetarian meal in honor of this Buddhist holiday.

Vegetarian new years meal

Vegetarian new years meal

Our friend’s mother made us a wonderful curry dish with mushrooms and carrots.  It was light , not too thick, and wonderful over white rice.  The stir fry dish above is with bitter melon, bamboo shoots, and faux abalone made from gluten.  It was nothing even close to real abalone, and reconfirmed my general aversion to fake meats (eg. Tofurkey, imitation crab).  You just can’t substitute the real thing.  The faux abalone tasted like deep fried tofu, so it tasted good as long as I didn’t fixate on the fact that it was marketed as ‘abalone’.

The green roll to the left is banh chung, which is a traditional Vietnamese new years delicacy.  It is made with sticky rice, mung bean, and fatty pork bits wrapped and steamed in banana leaves.  We were initially presented with a vegetarian version of this dish in keeping with the spirit of new years, but our friend’s mother was kind enough to give us the real pork version, which was very flavorful.  We ate it with pickled vegetables which definitely enhanced the flavors of the fatty pork.

They say that the way you spend new years day will reflect how the rest of your year will go.  I spent the day with intentions of peace, happiness, and positive vibes- I hope 2009 will be a wonderful year for me!

Happy Year of the Ox!

Random trivia: Did you know that in ancient Egypt the new year was celebrated when the Nile river flooded?