Thursday, June 10, 2010

You Ate What!?!

While in Japan, I suspended my wheat free diet leaving me free to eat as I pleased. I tried to stay wheat free for the first few days but realized I would be limiting myself from foods I may never be able to try again. One of these is called Fu which is an Okinawan speciality that is made entirely from wheat gluten. It is like a big soggy noddle and not much to write home about, but my brother loves.

What I loved was the Tonkatsu which is a fried pork cutlet with panko breading. This was one of the best meals during our visit. It was served with sesame seeds which you had to grind and sprinkle on the cutlet then drizzle in sauce. Yummy, I want some now!

We also went out for conveyor belt sushi which was delicious and cheap. By the end of the meal we had a tower of plates and they just came by and scanned the tower to gives us our bill. They had some speciality sushi like Taco rice which is an island classic and is just what it sounds like.

I had the natto sushi and liked it much better than when I tried it for breakfast, it is very spider webby. Natto is fermented soybeans which have a strong smell and flavor. Very popular for breakfast it really isn't something I want to wake up and eat.

We had lunch at Shuri Jo (castle) and I really enjoyed the jiimamii-dofu which is a peanut tofu. I was almost like a custard with a mild savory peanut flavor. The meal also came with Okinawan Soba, marinated seaweed, and Mimiga which is marinated pig's ears. The ears were very chewy and had a crack pop to them similar to seaweed. Can you guess what is what from the picture below?

And every where you go to eat you are given a moist towelette to wash your hands before you dig in. I often could have used one for afterwards as well. And the kids meals always came in these fun dishes. Some were shaped like a car or a cartoon face, that kept my two year old nephew happy. And boy can that kid eat! After two servings of Grandmom's delicious Curry rice (which is very different from Curry off the island) he ate 3 tangerines and tried to steal his mother's for a fourth.

I also enjoyed Benimo which is a purple sweet potato that grows only on Okinawa. They make it in to potato chips, tempura, ice cream, cakes, and candy. This potato cannot be shipped off the island in its whole potato form but I was able to bring home some Benimo Kit Kats. I enjoyed a soft serve twist of Benimo and Okinawan Brown Sugar at the Blue Seal Big Dip. The combination was almost too sweet but very enjoyable. I really loved that ice cream shop and wish I had eaten there every day.

Okinawa also produces some interesting fruits like Shikwasa which is like a lemon/lime/tangerine and is made into juice, jello, and sorbet. I really enjoyed the juice. I also had the tastiest pineapple while visiting Okinawa. I had pineapple that was great in Hawaii but the pineapple in Okinawa was more tart and juicy. As it is a sub-tropical island they grow many fantastic fruits but it was the pineapple which surprised me every morning at breakfast.

And how can I almost forget to mention Goya. Goya is a very bitter melon that grows in Okinawa. Our hotel had a huge breakfast buffet that included a salad bar on which there was often corn (which is a favorite pizza topping on the island), tomatoes, onions, and Goya. I find Goya too bitter on its own and needs to be balanced which corn is perfect for. We also had a Goya Chanpuru which is a Goya stir fry. They offer many different kinds of Cahnpuru on the island and I missed out on Papaya Chanpuru but there is always next time.

Now I started us off gently, but it is time to get into the more unusual fair. We visited the fish market in Hewia Dori and upstairs there is a food court where you can have any of the fish from the market cooked. I ordered the Yaki sashimi and Ikasumi-jiru.

Yaki means goat, I ate raw goat. It was very chewy and seemed to still have the skin attached. The meat was slightly sweet and served at room temperature. Please know that I never experienced any stomach or intestinal discomfort the entire trip. In Okinawa they say almost everything is good for you and has medicinal purposes and they do have the longest life expectancy so they must be doing something right.

This meal we also had goat fried with greens that was also chewy and Yaki Goza which was yummy but who doesn't like a fried dumpling.

The real surprise winner of this meal was the Ikasumi-jiru which is a soup of squid and squid ink. The squid ink had a very mineral taste similar to the iron taste of liver. The squid itself was incredibly tender and delicious. I love squid and octopus but usually it is overcooked and chewy but not this time. It was so good, I wanted to eat more of just the squid. I could go for some of that now but I am making London broil for dinner.

We went out to an Izakaya which is basically a bar that serves food. We were way more focused on the food except for my brother who drank many beers and I drove his monster van home. (It was weird driving on the wrong side of the road) We enjoyed a lot of good food during that meal but I couldn't leave well enough alone and ordered the basashi which is raw horse.

It was served frozen with thin slabs of horse fat and a dipping sauce similar to soy sauce. The meat was marbled like kobe and tasted good but I couldn't help but wonder if it would be more flavorful if it wasn't cold. It seems they only eat horse raw and frozen on the island. I have always been curious as to the taste of horse and was very amused as I live in horse loving Virginia. The fat however was very chewy and took much more effort to get down then the meat. I wanted to take the fat and fry some potatoes in it.

I will try anything once and I am always excited to try new foods. Okinawa was a wonderful place to visit and where I tried an American classic for the first time. Yes, I am talking about Spam. I do not know what is with Pacific Islands and their love of this canned pork product. Spam is extremely popular in Okinawa and one of my brother's favorites. I had some in an egg, rice, and seaweed wrap. It was good but bacon is better and I won't find myself craving the taste.

I was surprised by the Japanese love of pork. I expected lots of fish and sushi but on our way home the plane offered your choice of pork or pork for the in-flight meal. So much was pork and even the Miso Onigiri Grandmom made had pork inside, they were so yummy. I wish I could get a decent Onigiri at home and my only meal in Tokyo consisted of 3 delicious rice balls. Japan is not a good place for those who are Kosher, Muslim, Vegan, or vegetarian especially if you do not know the language. Good thing I am none of those things but I do prefer my pork with a bit less fat.

I can't wait to return to Okinawa and I hope to spend more time eating on mainland Japan. Maybe by then my nephew will speak some English so I can finally understand what he says. Regardless of language, he is a cute lil' devil.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Okinawa Cheese Scene

I have just returned from two weeks in Japan, which is why I have not been posting. I spent one night in Tokyo and the rest of the time visiting family on the island of Okinawa. I was excited to explore the cheese scene in Okinawa. Whenever I travel, I like to explore local markets big and small. I visited Heiwa Dori in Naha and visited a few different Jusco store locations and a few other smaller supermarkets. I am embarrassed to say that I only just discovered Cheers!! which looks like an actual cheese shop in Okinawa. I must admit I did not plan much for this trip as it was really focused on seeing family.

Visiting supermarkets, the cheese scene reminded me of what the American cheese landscape must have looked like in the 70’s. There might be a Camembert or smoked Gouda but for the most part it was processed cheese. I did find some Boursin and Mimolette in a gourmet food store. I did not see a cheese plane to go with the Mimolette as this cheese must be shaved thin or the texture is not delicious. Some of the cheese offerings were individually wrapped processed cheese squares with flavor additions like salami, black pepper, and jalapeno. They did offer Philadelphia cream cheese which is nice to see as I am a Philly girl at heart. The best cream cheese is made by Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, MI but that is hard to find outside of Michigan. All the cheeses seemed to be made from cow’s milk. I knew the island had goats so I kept searching for some goat cheese. While visiting a Jusco near Naha, I found some.

Pinza Blanc is an Okinawan goat cheese made in Nakagusuku. I used Google to translate their website with some interesting results. The packaging seemed full of information but alas, it was all in Japanese and I have been unable to translate it into English. Goats seemed to be raised mostly for meat but this farm also makes and sells goat milk, goat yogurt, and soap in addition to the cheese.

Pinza Blanc goat cheese is hand made in a French style with a bloomy rind. The texture was slightly chalky and dry. It was more aged then brie and tasted similar to a crottin but not as yeasty. The rind was mild and did not have any bitter flavors which I often associate with brie that has aged past its prime. The Pinza Blanc did not have a strong goat flavor and was milder then Humboldt Fog. We demolished the round during a picnic and everyone, Japanese and American, really seemed to enjoy the cheese.

I was also searching for cheese in restaurants. Our first dinner out was at Kenny’s which offers Japanese, Chinese, Italian, and American cuisine. They had quite a number of cheese offerings on the menu and we tried a few of them. We enjoyed a fried cheese and potato ball which was served with fried Camembert and both were tasty. We also ordered an artful plate of cheese, ham, and avocado and a cheese plate.

The cheese plate was very dainty and consisted of a very processed cheese square which may have been cheddar, mozzarella, a standard smoked Gouda, a Camembert, and a tasty blue cheese. The plate was adorned with olives and tomatoes which were filled with cheese. Our hotel, EM Coastal Vista also offered a cheese plate but I never got to explore their rendition.

We also had a great dining experience at Cheese Cheese Cheese, Okinawa’s first cheese restaurant. They did not have an English menu so my sister-in-law was nice enough to order for the group.

I am not sure what exactly we ate but we enjoyed Fondue, some roasted cheese and rice balls (onigiri which I love!), a salad with smoked Gouda and other cheeses, a cheese and potato gratin, as well as a chicken and cheese stew which was presented table side. There was a large hot stone in the pot with chicken and veggies then a rich creamy cheese sauce was poured into the bowl. We also enjoyed another dish with a table presentation but there was no cheese in this one. It was black pig that was steamed at the table and very delicious. When it comes to restaurants we visited and ambiance, this one took the cheesecake!

Japan may have the best cheese crackers I have tasted which are not 100% cheese. Cheeza crackers, come in 52% Cheddar cheese, 51% Camembert, and 51% Gorgonzola. I did not taste the Gorgonzola but did try the other two varieties. They are packed with real cheese flavor and have a great texture, way better than any Cheez-It. I brought home 6 packs and wish I had brought home more. I really want to try the Gorgonzola variety but did not see them until I was boarding the plane at Narita airport and I was all out of Yen.

Cheese has a place in the belly of Japan and the market seems to be growing. I watched many Japanese people enjoying tall glasses of milk during the breakfast buffet at our hotel. I have never been one to sit down to a tall glass or even a small glass of milk unless it is chocolate or accompanied by cookies. I find it strange to see an adult drinking milk with a meal but I was happily surprised by the number of people enjoying milk with their breakfast. Plus, our hotel offered a local organic milk.

One of my biggest regrets was not trying the Orange Cheese Moochi ice cream ball while I was in Tokyo. I had hoped to find one elsewhere but have had no luck. It will have to wait until my next trip along with the Gorgonzola Cheeza crackers and my visit to Cheers!!. Can't wait to tell you about everything else I ate during my trip...