The Wonders of Ancient Shio Koji


It just might be that the next Big Thing in cooking will be an ingredient that is uncommon here in the U.S. (for now) but that the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans have known about for a long time. Shio koji is a flavor enhancer, poised to become a wonder seasoning that happens to look like gruel, or more like congee. You could think of shio koji as a substitute for salt in many applications, but a ‘salt’ with very special properties because of two enzymes that break down protein and starch to bring out food’s natural umami and sweetness.

Some chefs here have been experimenting with it. It seems they’ve been universally enthusiastic. One associated with America’s Test Kitchen has gotten the bug, incorporating shio koji into fried chicken and roast turkey recipes. As a menu item ingredient, the first time I had it (aware of it, is a better phrase) was in shio koji chicken at Portland’s Chef Naoko Bento Café.

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Chef Naoko Tamura’s shio koji bento (2013)

Shio koji is a fermentation of rice koji, water and salt. Rice koji itself is an interesting oddity, made by inoculating malted rice with fungal spores, called koji kin, after which they multiply. “Wow, this looks promising!” is not the first thought that comes to mind when food is covered in mold. You’re more likely to dump it.

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Koji growth on steamed rice for sake (image from sakesaru.blogspot.com)

The thing is that koji kin, or simply koji, is essential to making miso, sake, mirin, shochu, makgeolli, rice vinegar and soy sauce. Watch the excellent documentary The Birth of Sake on Netflix to see how the sake master sprinkles koji on steamed rice. Without the mold, much of Japanese food as we know it would not exist, which makes it all the more remarkable that something that appears as unappetizing as this was exploited at all to make these cornerstones of Japanese cooking.

Shio koji became the rage in Japan only a few years ago. According to Nancy Singleton Hachisu, author of Japanese Farm Food and most recently Preserving the Japanese Way, it might not be so popular today had it not been for the efforts of Myoho Asari (aka The Kojiya Woman), who came across a mention of shio koji in an old Edo-period food anthology and subsequently wrote about it in her Japanese blog and experimented with it. It isn’t so easy to find in the U.S. That may change in the future. I was able to get it at a Seattle-area Asian supermarket—raw (nama) shio koji made in Oregon by Jorinji, which also makes traditional unpasteurized miso.

Jorinji brand nama shio koji (image from jorinjisoybeam.com)

Jorinji brand nama shio koji (image from jorinjisoybeam.com)

In my own cooking, I’ve been doing some experimenting. My introduction started out with an internet recipe for baked shio koji chicken that came out fantastically. Baby carrots tossed with it before roasting had wonderful depth. My favorite tuna salad benefited from using shio koji instead of salt and nutritional yeast. When local berry season arrives, I’ll play around with making jams that require much less sugar. I want to use it in stews, stir frys and dressings. The possibilities are endless.

I suspect that shio koji will be appearing in menu descriptions as time goes on. You can bet that it’s already being used as a ‘secret’ ingredient. So now, to the cook’s arsenal of other umami-boosters (soy sauce, mushrooms, tomato paste, kelp, Marmite, nutritional yeast, Worcestershire sauce, MSG, etc.) can be added a by-product of a mold that looks as ancient as time itself.

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In Princi-ple, Starbucks Adds Food to the Menu


Back in 2005, after a long flight to Milan and a late train to our hotel from Malpensa, all we could do after check-in (it was around 11pm) was to try to get some shut-eye. Try, as you can imagine, because our biological clocks were off-kilter.

The next morning, we headed out for breakfast. The night before, we walked past a bakery/café with a beautiful display of baked items. It was only a few doors away from our hotel on Via Speronari, so it was a logical choice to have our very first meal in Italy, breakfast at Princi. Rather than something sweet, we ordered savory focaccias that were cut up into little rectangles, and our beverages (espresso, cappuccino). Like the Italian customers, we had our breakfast standing up at the counter. Little did we know that many years later this café, now one of five in Milan and one in London, would capture the imagination of Howard Schultz, enough for Starbucks to enter into a business partnership with Rocco Princi to provide in-house food service at Starbucks Roastery stores and Reserve coffee shops, so reported the Seattle Times.

Rocco, I love your stuff.

Grazie, Howard.

Ever think of expanding the business outside of Milan? You know, go world-wide? Kinda like my vast empire.

No offense, Howard, but my business model is different. We make things from scratch, use organic ingredients, control the entire operation from beginning to end. We strive for top quality, whatever it takes. Our operation isn’t scalable like yours.

Rocco, you gotta be kiddin’ me. Think big. Maybe cut a few corners here and there. If the pizzas get a little burnt, bitter maybe, no one’s gonna care. Give it a catchy name like full città arrosto.

Not gonna happen, Howard.

Rocco, Rocco. People respect your name, and they’ll pay.

It’s a matter of principle.

Did I mention that Starbucks would provide you with the space and equipment? You’ll make a mint.

How much are we talking about?

This dialog didn’t ACTUALLY take place. It’s more an alternative conversation. So, what’s really happening here? Starbucks gets exclusive rights to open Princi outlets all over the world, both in its high-end stores and as standalone entities. Since its inception in 1986, Princi has opened six stores (including one in London), clearly in keeping with a strategy of careful growth. Starbucks has over 20,000 stores. Its customers will recall that, in response to criticisms of inferior pastries (my daughter being one of them), Starbucks in 2012 bought La Boulange of San Francisco, which had quite a Bay Area following. While their pastries will continue to be sold at Starbucks, all 23 brick-and-mortar La Boulange stores were unceremoniously shuttered in 2015. They “weren’t sustainable for the company’s long-term growth.” A cautionary tale for Rocco Princi is in there somewhere.

To be clear, food service is going to be provided only at Starbucks’ special stores. Exactly what will be served is up in the air now, though pizza and focaccia are surely slated. The first to get a Princi will be Seattle’s own Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, perhaps in the summer.

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Starbucks Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room, Seattle

Current tenant Serious Pie, operated by local superstar restauranteur Tom Douglas, will be replaced by Princi, an agreement reached amicably.

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Princi will take over Serious Pie’s place

I’ll be one of the first to find out how Princi handles the transition, but the feeling of café intimacy I got in Milan surely will not be part of the experience.

Wok and Woe: HardWok Cafe (Bellevue, WA)


Yet another Taiwanese restaurant opened recently in Bellevue to join others in the greater Seattle metro area to cater to the significant number of Taiwanese-American residents. With Facing East, MonGaDough Zone and Din Tai Fung already attracting the faithful on the Eastside, it’s become a bit more difficult for newbies to break in. HardWok Cafe does an admirable enough job with food. However, since its opening last August, a nagging problem seems to persist with service, an unforgivable management lapse after a half year of operation. The emphasis here is on popular street food with smaller portion sizes to match, clearly a format for diners to share plates.

The day before, friend DesM enjoyed a very good Beef Noodle Soup (and atrocious service, the details of which I won’t go into because they’re laughable). Both he and I decided to put our appetites together and order family-style. The results were mixed. Today, the service was fine.

Though the presentation looked promising, Taiwanese Style Rice Noodle with Meat Sauce was bland. By way of comparison, the version at another Taiwanese restaurant, Kung Ho, in the Factoria area is much more savory.

Taiwanese Style Rice Noodles

Taiwanese Style Rice Noodles

Similar in shape to triangular nigiriPork Sticky Rice was for me a revelation, the inside filled with savory pork, shiitake and peanuts, the glutinous rice enclosure draped with a kind of gravy.

Pork Sticky Rice

Pork and Cabbage Dumplings were tasty enough, but for my money I much prefer to have stuffed pork dumplings in the form of xiao long bao, which HardWok also offers.

Pork and Cabbage Dumpling

The best dish was a terrific example of mala in which a sauce or broth is peppery and quite spicy. Spicy Mala Beef mostly had various kinds of fish cake, served with a bowl of sesame-sprinkled rice. A small amount of rice in a separate bowl helped to temper a scoop of the fiery soup ladled over it; still there was plenty of nose-blowing.

Spicy Mala Tang

Service issues aside, HardWok Cafe is worth a return visit to explore its extensive Taiwanese menu. There is no shortage of dessert items, including boba milk (bubble tea) and shaved ice that are so popular in Taiwan. One that caught my eye, if for no other reason than its monumental size and impressive presentation, is the honey toast that comes with a variety of fillings. Imagine a loaf of hollowed out, toasted sweetened bread, refilled with toasted squares of the inside, topped with fruit, ice cream, whipped cream and syrups, and you get an idea why many patrons save room for this extravagance.

Banana Honey Toast (posted by Huong L. on Yelp)

HardWok Cafe
667 156th Ave SE
Bellevue, WA 98007
Lake Hills Village
(425) 590-9058

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Batchoy, My Brother-in-Law’s Way


I thought my brother-in-law said bok choy. He repeated: batchoy, a Filipino noodle soup dish that had its origin in Iloilo where he happens to be from. While it’s traditional to use pork organs, a pork neck bone was used instead. Combine that with spare ribs and beef bones with marrow, shrimp paste and brown sugar and simmer for a long time and the result was thick with gelatin and flavor, a tad funky from marrow essence. Any meat and fat were scraped from the bones and shredded.

He brought the broth, which he made at home, over to my other in-laws’ house in southern California’s San Gabriel Valley (where I stayed with my wife for the holidays) and made the rest of the batchoy, boiling the noodles (a thick pancit), frying roughly chopped garlic and pork cracklings, slicing green onions. I was expecting to eat a sandwich for lunch. What do you suppose I ate when the batchoy showed up?

Home-made cracklings

Home-made cracklings

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Wide-Eyed at Seattle’s Pike Place Market


On my photography outings, I’ve never used a variable wide angle as my only lens. The holiday season was a good excuse to visit Pike Place Market yesterday, which my wife and I would’ve done last week if it weren’t for the freezing temperatures. The closed-in, tight spaces of the market are ideal for wide-angle shots. The summer bounty of produce and flowers were long gone (as was the summer crush of tourists), but there were plenty of interesting subjects.

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DeLaurenti Specialty Food and Wine

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DeLaurenti’s butcher case

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For many, no holiday season would be complete without panettone from DeLaurenti

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Local Dungeness crab

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Alaskan king crab legs

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Pigs can fly

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Holiday “floral” arrangements consist of evergreens, berries, mums and dried flowers

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Rockfish (also labeled red snapper locally)

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Idaho golden trout

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Northwest truffles

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Local steamers

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Monk fish at Pike Place Fish Company occasionally ‘surprises’ unsuspecting customers

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Custom doggie toys

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Plenty of California produce to keep us going

Bite of Montreal in Vancouver: Poutine and Bagels


In a city known for its international cuisine, including my personal favorites of Japanese izakaya and ramen and Chinese restaurants in nearby Richmond worthy of Hong Kong, I’ve come across really tasty examples of not local (i.e., Northwest) food but grub transplanted from Montreal.

No doubt you’ve heard of poutine, the Québécois fast-food combination of French fries, cheese curds and gravy. At first, the thought of it wasn’t all that appealing to me, but then I realized that Yanks drench their fries in ketchup, chili or even melted cheese, so the concept of smothering fried potatoes with sauce is not just a Canadian thing. Over a year ago, I had very good poutine at Fritz European Fry House in Vancouver, judged mainly on its gravy, a deeply satisfying, savory bombshell. There were a few hiccups.  Starting off very crispy, the fries softened under all that hot gravy and the cheese curds melted and became stringy.

Poutine at Fritz's European Fry House

Poutine at Fritz’s European Fry House

While in town again, I was looking at a Vancity internet map last month when I noticed another poutinerie (that also sells hot dogs) only blocks from our hotel. Mean Poutine is only a counter operation on Nelson near Granville. There is nowhere to sit though you can stand and eat at the counter. My wife got a single order for takeaway and brought it back to our room. I didn’t see any visible gravy, though the fries were clearly wet. I thought it odd that it seemed to have disappeared, more like dissolved into the potatoes. The fries were cut thinner than Fritz’s but they were superior, having a double-fried texture and a very thin batter that gave them an appealing crunchiness. The curds also kept their shape. An interesting twist, one which I liked, was the addition of sliced green onions.

Mean Poutine

Mean Poutine

Many Canadians eat these snacks late at night, which explains why Fritz is open until 2am-4am, depending on day of the week, and Mean Poutine until 4am. This is not a good idea if you’re trying to keep the poundage off.

Great bagels on the West Coast are hard to find. The ones here tend to be softer than their East Coast counterparts, verging on being bread-like. I’ve heard East Coasters complain about western bagels. In college in L.A., I had a Jewish buddy from New Jersey who more than once made the same claim. And so did Joel Siegel when he moved from Montreal to Vancouver. He decided to open Siegel’s Bagels in 1990. He incorporated his vast experience that he accumulated while working at a Montreal bagel shop. The bagels would be boiled in a kettle, baked on shivas in a 25-ton wood-burning stone-hearth oven. At the original Kitsilano location and the newer one on Granville Island, you can watch them being made.

Siegel’s bagels are seriously good. The bagel can by itself be an object of meditation: what the perfect one should be like. They have the requisite crispy exterior, a dense and chewy inside with a slight sweetness that make almost all bagels I’ve had before pale in comparison. But for me, they find their greatest expression in the form of Siegel’s signature Montreal smoked meat sandwich on a sesame bagel. Siegel’s has not only transplanted the quintessential Montreal-style bagel to Vancouver, it also imports (weekly) smoked brisket from Montreal, which is then thinly sliced and steamed in-house. All that’s needed is a slathering of plain yellow mustard to complete a whole that is greater than its parts, at once chewy, crispy, nutty, salty, sweet, tart and savory in perfect balance.

Siegel's smoked meat bagel sandwich

Siegel’s smoked meat bagel sandwich

Vancouver is lucky to have a taste of Montreal in its own backyard, and so am I only a three-hour drive away.

Fritz European Fry House
718 Davie St
Vancouver, BC
(604) 684-0811

Mean Poutine
718 Nelson St
Vancouver, BC
(604) 568-4351

Siegel’s Bagels (Granville Island Public Market)
1689 Johnston St #22
Vancouver, BC
(604) 685-5670

Siegel’s Bagels (Kitsilano)
1883 Cornwall Avenue
Vancouver, BC
(604) 737-8151

My ceviche with cancha and sweet potato

A Taste of Lima, the Culinary Capital of South America


At almost sea level, my lungs were finally free of high altitude. They sighed welcome relief in Lima after 18 straight days at 7,700ft or higher. I had an extra spring in my step as I deboarded at Jorge Chavez.

In our trip planning, my wife and I saw Lima only as a gateway to Puerto Maldonado when we arrived in early September and, at the end, a stopover before going home, never mind the city’s function as de-pressurization chamber. It wasn’t, in other words, a destination like Machu Picchu, Cusco, the Amazon rainforest, or any other major place on the itinerary. Still, we did decide to spend a day in Peru’s capital at the end of the trip.

We were met at the airport by Alberto Astete and Lourdes Valencia of One Earth Peru, the company (in concert with Crooked Trails of Seattle) that made all the fantastic travel arrangements for us throughout Peru. Despite our late afternoon arrival, we were still taken on a short tour, which included the Monastery of San Francisco and its catacombs, a drive past the Huaca Pucllana ruins and a stop at an overlook above the beaches of Miraflores that faced the Pacific Ocean, before being taken to our hotel in Miraflores.

At the time I made travel arrangements months ago, I thought what better way to spend the single day than to take a food tour. Lima is, after all, the gastronomic center of South America, the domain of superstar chef Gaston Acurio. The Lima Gourmet Company picked us up in a van at the hotel. Silvia was our engaging, informative hostess and guide. Ours was an enthusiastic group from a mix of English-speaking countries: a couple from Chicago, two ladies from Australia, one from New Zealand, another from the U.K. and ourselves (Seattle).

Our first stop was a coffee shop, ironically a few doors down from a Starbucks (and would you believe Dunkin’ Donuts?), in the district of Barranca. Tostaduria Bisetti roasts its own beans from organic Peruvian farms. It’s said that they’re fanatical about their vetting process and roasting. Each of us enjoyed a beverage of choice (mine, a delicious double-shot black espresso) in a beautiful garden area in the back, enjoyed with delicious cakes.

Next was a milkshake at La Bodega Verde, this one made with a fruit called lúcuma. It’s common to Peru and very few other places. I couldn’t drink it because I didn’t have a Lactaid tablet. Too bad, because my wife said it tasted like butterscotch.

Lucuma milkshake (image from recetas.cuidadoinfantil.net)

Lucuma milkshake (image from recetas.cuidadoinfantil.net)

San Isidro Mercado Municipal has one of the nicest produce stands I’ve seen anywhere. The quality and variety at Ortiz Fruteria was mind-boggling. The produce there is good enough for Gaston Acurio. There was quite a selection of Amazonian fruit, including mangos, bananas, granadillas, starfruit (carambola), lúcumas, pineapples, guavas, papayas, oranges, grapefruit, limes (which are interestingly called limón), chiles, cacao, coconas, avocados (palta). Many of these I saw on a farm near the Tambopata Nature Reserve at the beginning of the trip.

Ortiz Fruteria

Ortiz Fruteria

We were given samples of fruit I’d never tasted before and some I had, but varieties I’d never get at home. I read somewhere that the abundance of fruits in Peru would be astonishing, and it truly was.

Our next stop was Embarcadero 41 Fusión, a restaurant in Miraflores. I had my share of pisco sours throughout Peru—they might’ve replaced margaritas as my favorite cocktail—but here was the opportunity to make one with the restaurant’s mixologist. I’ve posted before the recipe she gave us, so I’ll only add that our entire group, two at a time, had the chance to make them in front of everyone else. The pisco brand they used was either Cuatro Gallos or Portón, a three-grape blend of the latter readily available here in the States. This was definitely a fun experience.

our-piscos

All we had to do was slide over from the bar to the dining area to learn next how to make ceviché. I have to state that my preferred way to eat raw fish is as straightforward sashimi with only soy sauce and a bit of wasabi for flavoring. Anything else is excess, which is why the idea of ceviché never struck a chord with me. I had poké on the U. S. mainland, which never impressed me much, until I had it in Hawaii, which was an eye-opener. Here was faultlessly fresh and buttery fish (ahi) dressed with other ingredients that in the right proportions could make me swoon. Now I was going to be in Peru and ceviché, especially in Lima, was on everyone’s list of must-haves. The first time I had it on the trip was in Cusco where the fish was trout, so readily available in mountainous Peru. It was certainly good, though very tart from the liberal use of Peruvian lime (limón), which has the characteristic of being extremely sour. The Embarcadero chef showed us in what proportions to use limón juice, fish broth, red onions, chiles, cilantro and sea salt. We could, if we wished, alter the amounts according to preference. I stuck with the basic ratios, with a bit more chiles for added spiciness. The fish was sea bass.

Ceviche ingredients

Ceviche ingredients

Before I continue, a word about Limeños and fish. Silvia remarked that by afternoon, the people of Lima consider any fish caught that morning to be too old. Limeños tend not to eat ceviché for dinner. The sea bass in front of me was very fresh, I gathered.

The ceviché was exceptional, nicely balanced, tart without being puckery, onions providing a nice bite, seasoned with just the right amount of salt (pictured at top). Peruvians like to accompany ceviché with cancha and, of course, the ubiquitous potato, which I can do without.

As if the group hadn’t had enough to eat, we were next taken to Huaca Pucllana Restaurant that was next to the famous pyramidal ruins that look like terraces of upright bricks, thought to have been built by the ancient Lima Culture.

Huaca Pucllana ruins

Huaca Pucllana ruins

The restaurant is definitely upscale, someplace one would go for special occasions. Its location next to the ruins provides lots of ambience, especially at night when they’re lit up. I had no idea we were coming here, but as the visit was included in the tour, all my wife and I did was to sit back and enjoy. What followed was a bunch of shareable small plates, all wonderfully prepared, featuring Peruvian ingredients. There was no menu to look at. The food arrived, we ate. Silvia rattled off their names, but I couldn’t keep track. Several desserts came at the end. The meal was a spectacular end to a culinary adventure.

Desserts at Huaca Pucllana Restaurant

Desserts at Huaca Pucllana Restaurant

My wife and I were taken back to our hotel. Because we had checked out of our room before the tour, we walked over to the beach area and wandered around Larcomar, an outdoor, multi-level shopping complex, before we went back to the hotel’s spacious lounge area to spend the last few hours in Lima (and Peru). We would finally be going home late that very night. The food tour, which was sort of an afterthought, turned out to be a wonderful and fun conclusion to an almost month-long trip to South America that will remain one of our fondest travel memories.