Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Master Chef Junior: Kenzo and Seiji Make Dinner

With the beginning of school this fall for Seiji and Kenzo also came their entree into the workforce - namely, being "paid" for chores that contribute to the household. My sister and her husband had created a chart that designated the different chores that the boys could collect on. Their "fees" ranged from 25 cents, for chores that are intrinsically beneficial to all, like sorting the recycling, and $1 for greater tasks, like cooking dinner for the family.

Soon after this protocol was established, Kenzo was paid $5 one day, to remove all the childproof locks from the kitchen cabinets - deterrents that were installed during his toddler years. My youngest nephew was always a hands-on learner, who regularly scared all of us with his instinct for locating whatever sharp and dangerous objects were kept out of reach of small hands.

Now that Kenzo is 10, the removal of the locks is an acknowledgment that he can now handle some of these tools on his own, with supervision, of course. Recently, he and Seiji made dinner for the three of us. I was blown away when Jolene told me that Kenzo was making Gordon Ramsay's crispy salmon, which he learned to do from a YouTube clip.

Like most families, my sister, brother-in-law, and nephews spend a ton of time in or near the kitchen. Apart from being the room of the house where sustenance can be taken, the family's main computer, tables for doing tasks like homework, and the general creature comforts of home are all close by. But watching my nephews cook is like watching a family tradition being passed to smaller, less jaded hands.

When my sisters and I were younger, we were taught how to cook rice old-school, in a small sauce pot, rinsing it and measuring the correct amount of water with the second crease on the inside of our middle finger. My sister has a Zojirushi rice cooker the size of a Volkswagen, and infinitely more sophisticated of a machine. Distracted by the fact that Kenzo was wielding a chef knife, I nevertheless was aware of Seiji taking his task very seriously. He rinsed the rice about six times before placing its receptacle into the cooker and switching it on.

Kenzo meticulously seasoned the salmon
with EVOO and salt.
Kenzo methodically slashed the salmon's skin about a half inch deep, anointed the fish with olive oil, and rubbed grains of salt into each cut with his fingers. I tried very hard not to hover, but assisted with placing the pieces of salmon into a pan of hot oil, turning it after four minutes on each side. The hot oil produced a crispy and tasty skin and perfectly cooked salmon. It was, of course, amazingly good, and doubly so because (beware of bragging aunt) Kenzo made it.

On another evening, Seiji, Kenzo, and a friend were watching Master Chef Junior. Chef Ramsay is a different person on Master Chef Junior, his handsome face creased into smiles, not scowls, wearing a  blue jacket that brings out his eyes. He and his fellow chefs, Joe Bastianich and Graham Elliot, are respectful of the kids' skills, but like most adults, somewhat prone to gushing when children do something precociously amazing.

Another amazing thing about Master Chef Junior is how kind the children are toward each other. While a very few of the young competitors can be arrogant and a bit bratty, they are on the whole, admiring of each other's skills, and rush to comfort the afflicted one when tears or defeat arise. Upon receiving criticism, one observed in her off-stage commentary that, "We can't be A students all of the time." And after one elimination round, one of the kids noted that although she was sent home, she was one of the the 16 chosen to compete, and among the best young cooks in the country. Another kid said that he was going to continue to cook, wearing  his Master Chef apron.

Aunts have the luxury of daydreaming, while parents are busy doing the heavy lifting of raising kids. Whenever my nephews display an interest in anything, like the worst sort of stage mom, I get very excited and think of how a newfound talent might turn into a career in the future. When Seiji and Kenzo were small, I used to ask them each year what they wanted to be when they grew up. I never really got any concrete answers, except once when Kenzo said he wanted to invent toys and sell them.

If you had asked me what I wanted to be when I was Kenzo's age now, I would have said I wanted to be a writer. I've been fortunate in that this dream came to pass, both professionally and for myself. One of the best parts of writing is that I can put down stories like this one.

Home on the range: Look, Ma, I'm cooking!
Auntie Joanie: Why do you like to cook?

Kenzo: Because I like to eat it after.

AJ: Why is Gordon Ramsay your favorite chef?

K: Because he's very good at it. He knows a lot of techniques. He always makes [his food] perfect, and if it's not, he gets mad.

AJ: Do you get mad?

K: Hmmmmm...

AJ: What do you do when something doesn't work out the way you want?

K: I make it again.

AJ: What is the first thing you ever made?

K: Sugar cubes.

AJ: Why?

K: It's less expensive.

Olive oil and salt make for a crispy skin on panfried salmon.
Note: My sister rarely buys sugar cubes. And he doesn't mention the half pound of turbinado sugar that he went through to make about 30 sugar cubes. But it's the journey and not the destination when you're 10.

AJ: What is the best thing you've made? And the worst?

K: Salmon is the best. And avocado smoothie the worst.

AJ: What do you want to learn to make next?

K: Something with beef.

AJ: What are your favorite things that your parents make?

K: Poppy makes fried rice. And Mama makes taco rice.

Although not as ambitious in the kitchen, Seiji realizes its significance as the center of the home. My athletic and fitness-conscious nephew is nevertheless as in thrall of good food as the rest of us, and appreciates excellence in flavor and presentation.

Auntie Joanie: Why did you rinse the rice six times?

Seiji: Since Kenzo was making fish, I wanted to make the rice the best.

AJ: What do you like best about the kitchen?

S: The smells of things like steak, salmon, and curry.

AJ: What are your favorite dishes that your parents make?

S: Mama's taco rice, and Poppy's breakfast burrito with eggs, cheese, sausage, and tomato. And this green vegetable he makes.

AJ: Is there anything you want to learn to cook?

S: Meat is the first thing you need to learn. It's in everything - it's the protein of your meal.

AJ: Why do you think good food is important?

S: Besides nutrition, in my mind, it's an art, kind of, because this is an art you can taste.

AJ: What do you think people get out of cooking for others?

S: The feeling that they are serving other people. That is an important thing for them, and a big responsibility. If they like it, that's an added bonus.

Seiji asked Kenzo, "Do you cook because you like the feeling of being the head of the family and taking care of them?" Kenzo answered with his customary, "Mmm Hmmm." I think he was plotting his next big kitchen project.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Baba-Hera Ice: Rising Tohoku Food Fair Celebrates Japanese Resilience

The Peace Rose
One of my favorite flowers has always been the "Peace" rose, a blend of yellow to gold petals, edged with pink. The rose is aptly named, as its origins reveal. French rose breeder Francis Meilland developed it in 1935, a few months before Hitler invaded France. To ensure that his new creation was not trampled underfoot in the ensuing chaos of war, Meilland smuggled parcels of budwood onto the last plane out of France. The cuttings ended up scattered throughout Italy, Germany, and the United States.

Meilland launched what was left of his new rose in France, and named it, "Madame Antoine Meilland," after his mother. Over time, he learned that the rose was being cultivated in Italy, where it was named, "Gioia" (Joy), and Germany, where it was known as "Gloria Dei" (Glory of God). It was only after the liberation of France in 1944 that Meilland heard from Robert Pyle, an American rose breeder in Pennsylvania who ended up with one of the parcels of budwood, who notified him that the rose had survived the war and was being grown successfully.

A rose by any other name... ought to be made of strawberry
and banana ice! A vendor prepares baba-hera in the shape
of a rose at Mitsuwa Marketplace.

Meilland decided to change the name of his rose, and wrote to Field Marshal Alan Brooke, a British Army officer, to thank him for his part in liberating France from the Nazis, and if he would give his name to the rose. Field Marshal Brooke declined, and suggested that a more fitting name for the resilient bloom would be "Peace."

Given the Peace Rose's history, I was profoundly moved when I noticed a bright pink and yellow rose made of sorbet,  blossoming under the hands of a skilled vendor at a stall in Mitsuwa Marketplace last Sunday afternoon. His stall, which sold the "baba-hera ice," was part of a "Rising Tohoku Food Fair," which showcased the culinary specialties of the region of Japan that was ravaged by a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in March of 2011.

The words, "baba" - which means "old woman," and "hera," which means "spatula," belie the ethereal beauty of this unique treat. I almost missed baba-hera stall, walking past displays of richly marbled Wagyu beef, intriguing kiritanpo rice sticks, and colorful Japanese sodas.

Unusual tanabata decoration - kind of like a sumo
wrestler pinata.
Mitsuwa Marketplace has these food fairs periodically, highlighting the cuisine of various regions of Japan. The crowds are a wonderful mixture of native Japanese, Japanese Americans who in some cases, are just learning about the food of their parents' homeland, and the rest of us. The name of this particular fair, "Rising Tohoku" was particularly poignant, giving the extensive recovery efforts that the region has undergone in the last four years.

In July of 2011, three months after the earthquake and tsunami, the organizers of six traditional festivals in the
six prefectures of Tohoku, collaborated to present
for the first time ever, a combination of all of their festivals in the city of Sendai, in order to celebrate this northeastern region of Japan, and to encourage hope among the people.

At Mitsuwa that day, there were performances by dancers and drummers from Morioka, and Nobuta dancers from Aomori. A large empty space that for years used to contain a stationery store, a bookstore, and a couple of other retailers, had been cleared to create a common area, with tables and chairs for activities such as this. That day, it was festooned with elaborate tanabata decorations typical of Sendai, and paper lanterns of the type used in the Akita Kanto Festival.

Dancers and drummers from Morioka,
Iwate Prefecture. The colorful streamers
on the back of the drummers' outfits
are meant to ward off evil.
Mitsuwa is one of those fantastic ethnic markets where even on a regular day there, you almost feel like you've left L.A. behind and have gone somewhere different and often, rejuvenating and transformative. I had only stopped in to get a snack after a drive back from the Westside, where only a few hours previously, I enjoyed a wonderful brunch with a friend. I wasn't hungry for food necessarily, but needed to stretch my legs and a change of scenery from the 405. I didn't know the Tohoku fair was taking place, and it was a welcome surprise.

Although I hate waiting in line for anything, queuing up for my own baba-hera was an experience. There was something calming and magical about watching this iced confection being created in front of our eyes. A little girl asked for hers to be made of all pink strawberry sorbet. I couldn't hear what others in line before me asked for, but I saw more pink in some, more yellow in others.

The baba-hera ice was refreshing and pretty. Moreover, seeing someone making it by hand made me stop and if not smell the roses, enjoy the expertise that created them out of sorbet. And it made me think about the all-too-human need to reclaim a positive outlook after disaster and tragedy.

Three years later, recovery from the earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku is far from complete. One can assess how far things need to progress, depending on whether one chooses to accept positive or negative updates. But one thing is for certain: giving up is not an option. If it was, no one would continue to find joy in festivals, foods that bring up feelings of nostalgia, or roses made out of sorbet.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Party Fowl: Giant Rubber Duck is Everyone's Very Best Friend, It's True

A duck to water: Florentijn Hofman's "Rubber Duck" presides
over revels at the 2014 Tall Ships Festival LA at the
Los Angeles Harbor.
The Tall Ships Festival L.A., which took place in San Pedro a couple of weeks ago would have been exciting enough with the thought of vintage yachts and schooners gliding along the L.A. Waterfront. However, it was the giant rubber duckie that floated near the Cruise Terminal that caught my attention.

Attending the Festival with two of my best friends, Shiho and Jason, added to the experience. I was a bit perplexed by the posters I had seen around town for weeks: announcements of the Tall Ships Festival with an image of a rubber duck, photo-bombing at the margin. Jason, who had seen photos of the sculpture on display all throughout Asia, solved the mystery for me.

The 54-foot inflatable sculpture, titled simply "Rubber Duck," is by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman, who has also created other gargantuan icons of childhood nostalgia that have been shown all over the world. Outsized stuffed rabbits, a concrete bear carrying a pillow, and an inflatable frog wearing a party hat are just some of Hofman's fanciful menagerie. Created in various sizes, "Rubber Duck" has been on display across the globe, including showings in Australia, Brazil, Japan, China, and Europe. San Pedro is only the third location in the United States where he (I've decided it's a "he") has radiated his sunny yellow glow.

Live chaat: India Jones Chow Truck proves once
again that it's a small world after all when it comes
to great street food, with this Mexican-Indian collaboration.

At the Festival there were, of course, the food trucks that are now de rigeur at any large gathering or fair. We enjoyed the menu at India Jones Chow Truck, with its inventive takes on Indian chaat, or savory street food. Shiho and Jason each had the "frankie," a piece of roti flatbread rolled up into a burrito-like tube that contains a variety of fillings like lamb, chicken, or paneer cheese. I went for the taco chaat, which was made up of two blue corn taco shells, filled with spicy lamb and potatoes.

Yellow was indeed the hue of the day, as we all toasted "Rubber Duck" with mango lassis, a drink that would beat out Starbucks Frappucinos any day. Imagine if Ganesha was on the coffee shop's logo instead of a mermaid.

There were other notable sights at the Tall Ships Festival that depicted a sense of nostalgia. The International Guild of Knot Tyers had their own booth, where they showed off examples of nautical practicality and knicknacks made of thick ropes. And the current incarnation of the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile (the original was created in 1936), was on display at the end of the Cruise Terminal. Hordes of kids were posing for photos in front of it - kids whose well-meaning parents probably only feed them hot dogs made of soy. Nevertheless, who can be mad at a giant frankfurter?

Holy nitrates, Batman! The Oscar Meyer Wienermobile
celebrates two great American traditions: cars and
processed meat.
But in the end, it truly was "Rubber Duck" that was the main event. What was amazing about the experience was that everyone at the Festival seemed more excited about the giant duck than anything else. I was astonished by how many people would show up to view a giant inflatable toy, but will readily admit that it was what I was most looking forward to at the Festival. People took shot after shot of the sculpture, and even featured him in selfies and photos of friends. The three of us were no exception to the madness. Shiho, an accomplished illustrator, sketched the scene, while Jason, whose photos easily belong in National Geographic, and I took shots of the duck from every possible angle, with the Vincent Thomas Bridge, passing ships, or mere mortals en masse for scale.

The artist's statement on Hofman's website declares that, "The Rubber Duck knows no frontiers, it doesn't discriminate people and doesn't have a political connotation. The friendly, floating Rubber Duck has healing properties: it can relieve mondial tensions as well as define them." This was evident in the way that the crowds venerated the oversized duck like it was a giant golden Buddha (no offense to practicing Buddhists). The imposing but friendly golden deity truly emanated a peaceful feeling of calm and happiness.

Even at night on Harbor Boulevard, "Rubber Duck" still has had numerous visitors, who can't get enough of his glowing personality, even in relative darkness, with some street lighting and the happy smiles of his fans. And those of us who are Duck-obsessed are in luck: after a two-day hiatus in Wilmington Harbor - and a deflating misadventure - "Rubber Duck" was reinstalled after Labor Day weekend, near the L.A. Maritime Museum where he continues to bask our collective adulation until Sept. 6.

After the Festival, we three headed to Baramee Thai in nearby Downtown San Pedro, where we were happy to find Papaya Pok Pok. The classic green papaya salad was prepared sans dried shrimp - a boon for Shiho and others who are allergic to shellfish - yet still featured its complexities of spicy coolness. I am ashamed to report that Roast Duck Salad did beckon to me from the menu for a second, but only for a second. I ordered my default Spicy Beef Salad instead, as I could not in good conscience eat roast duck that day.

Lucky duck: Our resilient inflatable friend
survived a deflation mishap and will
continue to grace L.A. Harbor until Sept. 6.
Admittedly, this post really wasn't about the food. But time spent with good friends while experiencing an event of rare wonder can feed the soul, much in the way that a great meal nourishes more than the body. Such experiences can also make you see things in a more optimistic light than usual.

Seeing "Rubber Duck" in person, as opposed to the thousands of photos online, is unforgettable in a way that defies description. At the very least, the experience got me to post on this blog after nearly a year's hiatus. I'm still floating (no pun intended) from the euphoria that the whimsical sculpture has given Downtown San Pedro and the L.A. Harbor, areas that can be less than idyllic, despite some admirable efforts. I will miss him when he goes off to new vistas and more delighted viewers. And I hope that San Pedro locals - myself included - will see our hardscrabble Port Town as capable of greater resiliency in the future - kind of like a deflated 54-foot duck that can rise again.