Attack of the White-lined Sphinx Caterpillar, Anza-Borrego


They were everywhere, the caterpillars of the white-lined Sphinx moth, in a field of wildflowers at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California. I saw one, then noticed more—and more. Some plants had as many as four chomping away at their flowers. What seemed like different species of bug turns out to be the same, Hyles lineata. Their population seems to skyrocket when there is a corresponding explosion of flowers—a ‘superbloom’—like there was this year, one of the rare spectacles that my wife and I got to experience.

Green-colored variation of the sphinx caterpillar

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Anza-Borrego had a wildflower superbloom

Devil’s Golf Course, Death Valley National Park


It was surprising to me that there is so much exposed salt at Death Valley. Ancient lakes didn’t have an escape route to the oceans, so they simply dried up and left behind enormous salt deposits. At the Devil’s Golf Course, salt got sculpted into complex, intricate formations from weathering, a phenomenon that prompted the National Park Service to write in its 1934 guide book that “only the devil could play golf” here. The experience is all the more spectacular against the backdrop of the towering snow-capped Panamint Mountains to the west.

Lenticulars Over Mount Shasta


My breath is taken away every time I see Mount Shasta from Interstate 5, just south of the Oregon-California border. Even when skies aren’t always clear, its majesty dominates the horizon. Today, spectacular lenticular clouds were hovering over the mountain.

Biang Biang, the Winning Sounds of Xi’an Noodles


Don’t let the modest place fool you. Xi’an Noodles has some of the best noodles in Seattle. It’s one of the rare restaurants that specialize in one thing and do it extremely well. In this case, the specialty is the kind of noodles made in the Chinese province of Shaanxi (which touches Sichuan at its southwest corner), hand-made and pulled by noodle makers who stretch and slap the dough against the counter that make the sounds biang biang, as the Chinese hear it. Not ever having seen this done, which I might one day if I stick around long enough and peer into the open kitchen, I imagine the sound more like a comic-book whap, but whap whap mian doesn’t have that bouncy ring. Neither does thump.

Lily Wu trained in Xi’an, Shaanxi’s capital, with a teacher on how to make the noodles properly. The process is time-consuming and requires discipline and stamina. It would be much easier if a machine could do the work. But, Wu makes the pasta by hand daily. The noodles are very wide and thin, appropriately called ‘belt noodles’ in China. They’re also hand-torn (called ‘hand-ripped’ on the menu) which give them a slightly ragged edge. With her husband, she puts in long hours to run the restaurant named after the city.

One can have these noodles sauced (dry) or in noodle soups (my daughter feels the former is the tastier way to have them here). The vast majority are spicy, which is indicated on the menu with chile symbols. There is also a rice noodle option for the soups.

Spicy Tingly Beef Noodles (pictured above) were excellent. As I expected from freshly made wheat noodles, they were chewy and springy. Because of their width and sauce-covered slickness, they were tricky to grab hold of, let alone maintain a grip on with chopsticks. Green Sichuan peppercorns give the sauce its numbing quality, chile oil and dried pepper flakes, its heat. Straight from the kitchen, these noodles were not exceedingly spicy nor anesthetizing, better to taste nuances of shredded and chopped braised beef, cabbage and green bell peppers in a very flavorful sauce. If you crave more hotness, you can pile on chile oil from the condiments bar. At the top of the menu is Spicy Cumin Lamb Noodles, the most Shaanxinese way to have them.

For the chile-averse, there aren’t too many choices. Cooked fresh tomatoes in Stir Fried Tomato Egg noodles made the sauce teeter on the edge of being too sweet (or was it added sugar?) but they were tempered by scrambled eggs. Other mild choices are Stewed Pork Noodles and Vegetable Noodles.

Stir fried tomato egg noodles

Stir fried tomato egg noodles

Xi’an Noodles serves other things, such as the hotpot-like malatang, which is not on the formal menu but is advertised by signage and tubs of ingredients in a separate cooler section. Also on the menu are a few popular street food items, like roujiamo (called ‘burgers’ on the menu). The restaurant has been doing business for less than a year (grand opening, May 1, 2016) but the word has already spread, helped by being included in Seattle Met magazine’s list of 100 Best Restaurants. Expect waits at prime dining hours.

Tidbit: For some now-lost historical reason, biang is the most complex Chinese character to write, consisting of 57 strokes, yet doesn’t even appear in a dictionary. One theory is that it was invented by a noodle shop owner. It almost looks like a pot of boiling noodles.

Xi’an Noodles
5259 University Way NE
Seattle, WA 98105
206.522.8888

Seattle’s (go)Poké Future Is Bright


Getting good poké in Seattle was like getting good ramen used to be, a challenge. Now, very good ramenya are popping up with increasing regularity. Anyone who’s had ahi poké in Hawaii might agree with me that in Seattle, it’s been a disappointment. The primary reason is the fish quality. There’s something about tuna freshly caught off Hawaiian shores that makes it almost impossible to make bad poké on the islands. I’ve had great eating experiences at Ono Seafood (Kaimuki), Hawaiian Style Cafe (Hilo), Me Bar-B-Q (Waikiki), Poké Stop (Waipahu). My sister-in-law even swears by poké sold by Foodland, a Hawaiian supermarket chain. And like ramen, it seems poké is experiencing exponential growth in the U.S.

Last December, brothers Bayley, Michael and Trinh Le opened goPoké in Seattle’s International District. They have island cred because they grew up in Hawaii, the father was a tuna fisherman and the mother responsible for selling the catch and who developed her own version of poké to sell. Even the children got involved in door-to-door sales. This is the time when other vendors are establishing their own ventures in Seattle, including Hawaiian celebrity chef Sam Choy with Poké to the Max (3 food trucks, 2 brick-and-mortars), his only restaurant in the U.S. outside of Hawaii.

The three brothers wound up in Seattle and decided after a time to start goPoké across the street from Hing Hay Park. They would draw on decades of collective experience. Automatic success was not assured, though opening day last December saw a line form around the block. But after Bayley Le’s KING 5 appearance in February on the New Day show, there was valuable media exposure. Did it make a difference? Maybe so, with help from word-of-mouth and social media, because goPoké is going gangbusters. The name itself seems intentionally or not a play on Pokémon Go.

Theirs is a great ahi poké, cut (cubed) in uniform bite-sized pieces, firm and smooth, dressed with the right balance of Hawaiian sea salt, limu, white onion, scallions, toasted sesame seeds and sesame oil and, above all, fresh. There is also a spicy aioli version, as well as an extra-spicy one, the latter of which would seem to mask (disrupt) straight poké’s delicate and natural flavors. In a gesture to Northwesterners, there are also three styles of salmon poké. An invention of goPoké’s own is the Combo Bowl in which three kinds of poké are combined with rice, edamame, krab (faux crab made from pollock) salad, seaweed salad, pickled ginger (gari, sushi ginger), cucumber sunomono, and two toppings (from among fried shallots, fried garlic, furikake, chopped macadamia nuts). Friend KirkJ (and his wife), who was with us, ordered one and enthused over the tako and salmon poké.

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Aloha Combo Bowl (image posted on Yelp by Michelle C.)

The fun doesn’t stop with poké. I was personally excited about five—yes, five—menu items that I happen to love from Hawaii: Bubbies mochi ice creams, SPAM musubi, Kona Brewing Company beers, Hawaiian shave ice (with snow cap!) and Dole pineapple whip (which many of you know is a Disneyland staple). With enticements like these, do I need excuses to visit the International District more?

Passionfruit/mango shave ice

Passionfruit/mango shave ice (partially eaten)

Bubbies passionfruit, lychee and guava mochi ice creams

Bubbies passionfruit, lychee and guava mochi ice creams

Dole pineapple whip

Dole pineapple whip

goPoké
625 S King St.
Seattle WA 98104
206.799.9560

Winter on Orcas Island


Orcas Island has been one of our favorite local spots to vacation. Our family used to camp regularly in the summers at Moran State Park, memories that our daughters still hold today. Lately, with the kids now grown and having their own families, my wife and I have been going to Orcas during off-seasons to avoid crowds. In the summer months, taking the ferry can be an exercise in frustration. Still, I’ll never tire of ferrying through the San Juan Islands.

ferry-to-orcas

We had never gone there in February and are not apt to again. It isn’t that we won’t appreciate the slower pace or minimal number of tourists but that many recreational activities and attractions are not available or open for the year. When we arrived on Sunday, the weather was still frosty outside. The higher elevations, like Turtleback Mountain, were covered in snow. I thought it would be spectacular to get a 360-degree view of the San Juans all covered in white from atop Mount Constitution, but as I suspected, the entrance was closed. And, when Monday rolled around, it snowed—quite a lot. In the town of Eastsound, Orcas’ hub and commercial center, which is a little above sea level, 8″ or so of fluff accumulated, more higher up. And the nights dipped below freezing. Lucky for us, one of our favorite bookstores, Darvill’s, was open for business.

Restaurants, we discovered, are spottily open, at this time of year typically closed for two days of the week. We did appreciate that they must’ve arranged among themselves to stagger the closures on different days to always have a restaurant or two for tourists’ sake.

For a small town, Eastsound has a number of very good restaurants and cafés. With not much else to do, we still did manage to eat quite well. Continue reading

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, more like congee actually. 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.

Here, some chefs have been experimenting with it. Enthusiasm seems to be the universal reaction. 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 (a better phrase is ‘aware of it’) was in shio koji chicken at Portland’s Chef Naoko Bento Café.

shio koji bento

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 terrific!” is not the first thought likely to come to mind when food is covered with 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 so unappetizing 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, shio koji might not be so popular today had it not been for Myoho Asari (aka The Kojiya Woman), who came across a mention of it in an old Edo-period food anthology and subsequently blogged about it 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 Jōrinji, 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 a fantastic internet recipe for baked shio koji chicken. 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’ll 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.