Sunday, January 27, 2013

Europe Eating: I'll Pass on the Prickly Pear

Hiding beneath the different types of eggplant, not far from zucchini flowers and plump, beefsteak tomatoes, I spotted some curious-looking lumps that ranged in colour from yellowy-green to purplish-red. We were in Rome, and I had discovered the prickly pear, also known as cactus fruit.

Strange looking things, which turned out to be cactus fruit.
I rinsed the fruit under running water, picked out the reddest and softest specimen, and cut it open.  The flesh was sweet and juicy.  Not bad, I thought, but it's bit of work trying to eat around the hard seeds inside. I felt a little something on the side of my finger, and barely made out a tiny prickle sticking out of my skin.  I absent-mindedly pulled it out, and kept eating.

Cross section of a cactus fruit.
But wait, there's another.  And another!  My hands are covered in these little needles.  What had looked like smooth, spike-free fruit turned out to have invisible defenses called glochids.  Some of the bristles broke when I tried to pluck them out, leaving an end still in my skin.  Some got transferred to another place, with a couple ending up on the backs of my hands somehow!  I couldn't keep eating. I washed my hands and hoped the barbs would just fall off.

Prickly pear still on the cactus, shamelessly lifted from Wikipedia.

The next day, my hands were still feeling irritated.  And because I hadn't cleaned the table properly, I picked up a couple more prickles.  I gave up, and threw the rest of the fruit away (they were still green anyway).

Would I eat them again?  Only with extreme caution.  I might have to try burning the tiny spikes off, as some people seem to do.  Or cook them away in a jam.  I have nothing against the flavour of the fruit, but trying to eat them the way I did is more trouble than it's worth.

Prickly pears at the supermarket, below the eggplants.

Prickly pears at the market.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Tasting Tokyo: the Versatile Egg

Of all the ingredients I have ever cooked with, nothing is as commonplace yet as awe-inspiring as the egg.  Quick to prepare and equally good in both savoury and sweet dishes, it can transform from a thick fluid to a firm solid, or just as comfortably to a fluffy foam.  The way the clear white sets to an opaque colour is a wonder to behold, as is its contrast to the creamy golden yolk, which can change into a powdery sphere.

It is the basis of custards and souffles, and useful in glazes and sauces, but the egg is not just a delicious accompaniment to any meal.  It is a perfectly satisfying dish in its own right.  In Western breakfasts, you can have it poached, scrambled, boiled or fried.  In Chinese cuisine, you will see it steamed or preserved (think century eggs and salted eggs), or flavoured by steeping in tea.  You can even consume it raw, though more commonly with something else, for instance on steak tartare or bibimbap, or drink it in a cocktail.

Two types of Chinese preserved eggs from D.H. Supermarket: 無鉛松花皮蛋/无铅松花皮蛋 (wú qiān sōng huā pí​ dàn, "unleaded preserved egg", left) and  normal century egg, or 皮蛋 (pí​ dàn, right).
I thought I had seen all the different ways of preparing egg, until I came across Japanese cuisine.  (In the course of researching them though, I realised I have yet to try the Taiwanese iron eggs.  And those who prefer to play with their food would be interested in making naked eggs, unboiling an egg, writing secret messages on eggs, or performing other egg tricks.)

Seasoned Eggs, or ajitsuke tamago (味付け玉子)

Ajitsuke tamago, or "seasoned egg", are the eggs that are often served on ramen.  Various bloggers have also called them ramen eggs, molten eggs, or lava eggs.  The whites are firm, with a brown colour on the outside from being soaked in a soy bath, and the yolk is just beginning to set (at least this is the case with all the ones I have eaten, though there are many pictures online showing them with a slightly runny centre).  These are the most raved about eggs, because the first time you eat a proper one (which for me was actually in Hong Kong), the colour, flavour and texture just blows you away.  I could never go back to hard boiled eggs again, except maybe in a sandwich or salad.

The eggs are normally served neatly sliced in half lengthwise, but not in the case of this tsukemen specialist, where we bit into whole eggs.
Partially Boiled Eggs, or hanjuku tamago (半熟玉子)

Hanjuku tamago, or "half-cooked egg", are pretty much the same as ajitsuke tamago, except they are not necessarily seasoned.

Hanjuku tamago on a simple bowl of ramen.
Some dictionaries translate the term as "soft boiled eggs", but I've had soft boiled eggs in Singapore and Malaysia before, at those toast places where you serve them with soy sauce and white pepper.  Those eggs had runny yolks, and whites that were just coloured.  You could easily turn the whole thing into a puddle by stirring it.  As you can see, hanjuku eggs are not that soft.

For those who don't have the time or will to cook these at home, the convenience store also sells these eggs with perfect, translucent, orange centres!

Hanjuku egg from the local Seven-Eleven.
Not bad for a supermarket egg.
Hot Spring Eggs, or onsen tamago (温泉玉子)

Literally "hot spring egg", onsen eggs are cooked in their shell for a long time at a low temperature, so the white is the texture of a delicate, soft custard, while the yolk is beginning to firm.  Like a nature-given sous vide, I suppose, if you are actually making them in a hot pool.

This very soft boiled egg is a little less cooked than I expected.
Raw Eggs, or nama tamago (生玉子)

Raw eggs aren't new to me, of course.  But I included this because the first time we had a raw egg in Japan, it was a tiny quail egg served on soba.  The delicate yolk sat above what looked like egg white with a very strange texture indeed.

Soba with sweet tofu and what I thought was a very strange egg.
It was slimy, with solid white bits in between the sticky gloop.  Did the egg react with the broth somehow?  I wondered.  I tried reproducing it at home, but all I got was your usual poached egg.  I tried googling "lumpy egg white", "japanese raw egg", "raw egg on soba", you name it.  I ended up finding about a Japanese breakfast dish of raw egg stirred through rice, called tamago kake gohan (卵かけご飯, "egg sauce over rice"), but nothing about the strange texture of our egg white. I asked several Japanese friends, who had no idea what I was on about.  Finally, I sent the picture below through to an acquaintance.

Close-up of the "lumpy egg white".
The reason I couldn't find anything about it was because it wasn't egg at all!  The white bits were actually a root vegetable known as yamaimo (山芋, "mountain potato)", which includes many varieties of tuber.  Also called Chinese yam, it is used as the binding agent for okonomiyaki pancakes.  In grated form mixed with dashi (出汁), the way we had it, it is known as tororo (とろろ).  If you've ever had nattō (納豆, fermented soybeans), the texture of the grated yam was a bit like that.

Black Eggs, or kuro tamago (黒玉子)

Kuro tamago, or "black egg", seem to be mostly known as a specialty of Ōwakudani (大涌谷, "Great Boiling Valley"), a volcanic valley in Hakone, not far from Tokyo. The eggs are boiled in the hot pools on the northern slope of Mount Kamiyama, where on a clear day you have a gorgeous view of Mount Fuji. (Actually, you can also find kuro tamago elsewhere, for instance at Goshogake Onsen.) The minerals in the water turn the outsides of the shells a spectacular black colour. Martin Lersch of gives this explanation:
The black color is caused by hydrogen sulfide which reacts with iron from the hot spring to form iron sulfide which is deposited on the egg shell. This reaction does not occur in the hot spring due the low pH, but occurs on the egg shell which is primarily calcium carbonate. When left in the air the iron (II) sulfide is oxidized by oxygen in the air to iron (III) oxide. The sulfur ends up as either elemental sulfur or sulfur dioxide.

Unfortunately the pools at Ōwakudani have rather hot water (80°C) and they leave the eggs there for an hour, so they are well and truly cooked.  To me, they tasted no different from a normal hard-boiled egg. To help sales along, the enterprising shopkeepers not only include a little packet of salt in your paper bag (you can buy no fewer than five eggs at a time), but also claim that eating one of these eggs will extend your life by 7 years, eating two by 14!

The black eggs were, sadly, hard boiled.
Japanese Rolled Omelettes, or tamagoyaki (卵焼き)

On this trip, we came across the Japanese bento box staple of tamagoyaki, meaning "grilled egg", in the form of sushi.  Sometimes laid on top of rice, and sometimes just served as a block alongside other sushi, this neatly sliced omelette cake was generally soft and slightly sweet, and served cold.

Sushi with o-toro (fatty tuna belly) and tamago (egg).
If you are a perfectionist, it can take a long time to learn to make your tamagoyaki just right, even if you own a special rectangular pan for the purpose.  At Jiro Ono's three-Michelin starred restaurant, an apprentice had to make it 200 times before his omelette gained the chef's approval.


We were in Japan for less that two weeks, so we didn't have time to eat everything we wanted to.  We didn't manage to sample omurice (オムライス omu-raisu), a modern Japanese invention using an omelette to wrap fried rice.  Nor did we have a steamed savoury egg custard known as chawanmushi (茶碗蒸し), literally "tea bowl steam", i.e. "steamed in a tea cup".  Fortunately, fine renditions of both of these are available in Auckland, for instance at Restaurant Morita.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Dumpster Diving: Economy or Nuisance?

A friend asked me the other day what he could do with lots of eggs, other than quiche, omelette, lemon curd and pavlova.
Me: How many eggs are we talking about?
Friend: Uh... about 400!

It turns out a friend's flatmate's friend (or something) had investigated one of those skips behind a supermarket, and brought back more than enough food.  Not just eggs (which by the way weren't expiring for another week), but also such perfectly edible items as sponge cakes and fruit (which was turned into kiwifruit jam in addition to lemon curd)

Now, I can see why a supermarket might struggle to sell eggs which are going to expire in a week, or fruits which are past their prime.  I can also see why they might not want to just give that food away to their hard-working employees and their friends.  Or why they might keep their skips locked and chase out those annoying types who want to poke around in them.  But it just seems plain wrong to throw out such quantities of perfectly acceptable items, when there are plenty of hungry people in our midst.  Surely it would make more sense to give the groceries away to one of those kitchens for the homeless?

Looks like the idea was being investigated last year.  But obviously there is still a mountain of comestibles being discarded for no good reason, and that makes me a sad panda.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

In-Flight Poached Eggs - With Runny Yolks!

I don't know about you, but I had always assumed that eggs on planes had to be overcooked, rubbery omelettes.  Airlines can't risk somebody falling sick; surely everything had to be heated to a high temperature.  So when poached eggs were offered for breakfast on our Economy class Air New Zealand flight home from Tokyo, I was curious as to what it would be like.  Would it actually be a hard boiled egg in a different shape?  Slathered in sauce so you don't pay attention to the egg?

As it turns out, we had no choice but to order the poached eggs, since clearly all the other passengers had more faith in the salmon on rice. The potato wedges that came with the meal were, as you might expect, sad and soggy, and the baked beans tasted more of thyme than tomato, but—wonders of wonders—the poached eggs (yes, covered in hollandaise sauce) oozed out a beautiful golden yolk when you cut them open. How on earth did they manage that?

Poached eggs on toast - on a plane!
Admittedly, the eggs were strangely flat and round, the whites had a funny texture, and the sauce looked less than picture-perfect because half of it stuck to the tin-foil covering for the meal, but we couldn't fault the yolks.  Together with the sweet toast bread and the processed frankfurter-like sausage, this could easily have been served in any number of Japanese Western-style restaurants.

According to the World Food Safety Guidelines for Airline Catering, as set out by the International Flight Services Association, the minimum required core temperature for unpasteurised eggs is 74°C / 165°F. Harold McGee tells us in his book On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen that eggs can be pasteurised "by careful heating to temperatures between 130 and 140°F/55-60°C".  A helpful table on, provided by Martin Lersch, a Norwegian research scientist with a PhD in organometallic chemistry, shows that egg yolks would still be runny at this lower temperature:

Temperature / °CEgg whiteEgg yolk
62Begins to set, runnyLiquid
64Partly set, runnyBegins to set
66Largely set, still runnySoft solid
70Tender solidSoft solid, waxy
90Rubbery solidCrumbly texture

Poached eggs in airline meals are not as rare as I had thought though.  Singapore Airlines even offers them (pictured with runny yolks) in their meals for young passengers aged between 2 and 11 years.  However, Melissa's Flight Attendant Blog advises that you should avoid them if you possibly can: "Soft poached will almost always turn hard poached on board and it takes a galley operator with true skill and lots of experience (and properly working ovens) to have both a hot dish and a runny yolk."

I am not sure why airlines don't serve stews more often, as that would be a lot more tolerant of re-heating and dry conditions.  If I had to have eggs on a plane though, poached eggs with runny yolks would be it.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Tasting Tokyo: Our Best Airport Meal: Sushi @ Sushi Kyotatsu (すし京辰)

Happy New Year!  Hope you had, or are having, a great holiday—we certainly did.

I had intended to spend my break writing about our favourite meals in Europe, but thanks to cheap airfares from Grabaseat, we found ourselves in Tokyo on Christmas Day, with ten days for sampling as much as we could of what this great city had to offer.  With our limited language skills and a lack of knowledge about Japanese customs, we were uncomfortably in the dark about a lot of things, but that didn't stop us from having many excellent meals.  In fact, we only managed to have one meal that was bad in Tokyo (and even then there were parts of it that were good); the rest were what we considered above average, if not fantastic.

For many people, sushi is the first thing that comes to mind when they think of Japanese food.  Although not as plentiful as, say, ramen eateries in Tokyo, all the sushi places we tried served a greater range of sushi than we are used to in Auckland.  Mostly made with raw seafood (including shellfish, octopus tentacles and roe, as well as many types of fish), they were far more exciting than the chicken or canned tuna ones which seem to be more common here.  And more often than not, they were presented in the nigiri style (握り寿司, "hand-formed sushi"), with the flesh draped over the vinegared rice, rather than the makizushi (巻寿司, "rolled sushi") we generally see here.

Amazingly, the best sushi we had on our trip was at the most unlikely of places: the airport.  Given that even in such food-focused countries as Singapore, we were served terrible airport food, we did not have high expectations at Narita Airport. However, Sushi Kyotatsu (すし京辰), located opposite Gate 33 in Terminal 1, was even better than the tiny sushi shop I was going to rave about, where you had to eat standing up in front of the chef who made your sushi to order.  And we were only able to try it because the boarding for our flight home was delayed by 15 minutes.

A selection of sushi at Sushi Kyotatsu.
That's right, 15 minutes was all it took for us to walk in, be seated at the counter, say hello to the four chefs, clean our hands on hot towels, go through the menu, order, watch the sushi being made, eat, and pay the bill, all without feeling rushed.  Admittedly, the restaurant was empty when we entered, but two other groups came in while we were eating and there was still a chef to spare.  Sushi is the ultimate fast food, and I guess they are used to customers being in a hurry.

One of four chefs brushing our tuna with marinade.
We ordered the first item on the menu, a sushi set (8 pieces including a block of seasoned egg for ¥2,800 or around NZ$40), part of which you see above. Immediately, the chefs started making the sushi one by one, shaping the seasoned rice (which had a darker colour than we have seen elsewhere), applying wasabi, and attaching fresh seafood.  We liked the semi-fatty tuna sushi so much that we ordered an extra couple of pieces.  At ¥500 or over NZ$7 per piece, this was the most expensive sushi we have had, but then again, it was also by far the best.

Even more expensive sushi, which we did not order.
Perhaps one day, we will have the opportunity to try the sushi at Jiro Ono's famous three-Michelin-starred establishment, which we saw—and were blown away by—in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Reservations at the 10-seater basement restaurant, a glass door away from a Ginza subway station entrance, are notoriously hard to get. A meal there, excluding drinks, costs ¥30,000 (~ NZ$430, cash only, no credit cards), and consists of around 20 pieces of sushi chosen by the chef, served one by one, over 15 or 20 minutes.  You are looking at paying over NZ$20 per minute (or per piece of sushi), but that is probably a good thing, because I think we would feel pretty uncomfortable under Jiro's gaze.  Until then, Sushi Kyotatsu is good enough for us.

Restaurant Details

Sushi Kyotatsu (すし京辰)
Terminal 1, No.3 Satellite, 3rd Floor, Narita Airport, Japan
+81 (0)476 321 777

Opening hours:
Mondays to Sundays 8:30am - 9pm (last order 8:30pm)

The sign we saw on the way to our gate.

Entrance to Sushi Kyotatsu.

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