Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Hihachi Never Again

This is Ms. Shouko Toma. She raises vegetables and plants and sells them at Onna No Eki. She is delightful and friendly.

There are many small farmers like Ms. Toma who sell their plant products at Onna No Eki, and I really enjoy asking them things like, "What on earth IS this, and how do I eat it?"

That is exactly what I did with the red seed pods she is holding in her hand. They are called "hihachi", and she told me to throw them in some broth with meat and veggies. I asked her if I can eat them as-is or if I have to cut off the little stems, and she said no, but she did say, "They are a little spicy." I was very intrigued, and being a native of Louisiana, I am no stranger to spicy.

So I also bought some unusual leafy vegetables that I had been curious about. This is つるむらさき or Malabar Spinach. The leaves are thick and fragrant. It has "character" and a lot of nutrients. Probably anti-oxidants, too.
I also bought this. It is シビラン, also known as African Spinach, according to Google. It is also very fragrant.

The next step was to get 鶏ガラ (chicken bones) from the supermarket, make a broth, and then chill it overnight to remove the fat. I kept the heat low and ended up with a near-ideal clear chicken broth. No fogginess at all.

So I heated my broth and then added garlic, onions, and minced chicken that I found in the freezer. It was a nice broth, rich but subtle. I carefully added salt to get it just right and then cut my Malabar and African spinach and washed my Hihachi. I was ready.

In went the Hihachi, then the exotic greens. I didn't want to overcook the leaves, but I was distracted by by a strange smell coming from somewhere. It smelled like old incense and forgotten shame, like wood shavings in a poorly-written, under-researched short story. I assumed that my kids has spilled something, and then I realized it was my soup.

So here is the result - chicken and hihachi soup with African and Malabar spinach... 

and it had a great deal of character, so much, in fact, that I had to throw it out.
I also had to run the kitchen exhaust fan all night. And apologize to the wife. And cook up some gyouza to make up for the lack of a main dish. Still, it was fun, and we had a great laugh.

The "little spicy" of which I was warned should have been more like, "These red seed pods are dried and ground for use as a substitute for pepper." Eating the actual hihachi is not recommended... at all. I ate one. That was enough.

Another problem was that I couldn't get the smell off my hands. They smelled like poorly-conceived fiction or expired wood polish. I think it was a combination of the fragrant greens and the hihachi, a failed experiment.

And yet, I will return to Onna No Eki and thank Ms. Toma for my adventure, and I will buy other things from her if I have the chance. I should have been more conservative and researched before jumping in the soup pot. The fault was all mine, but still, it was a very fun failure.

That being said, no more Hihachi. Never again.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Quest for Kunpen, Part 3: Shuri Kunpen

This is the third and final post in the series "Quest for Kunpen". Please start with the first post "Quest for Kunpen, Part 1 - Why?" to understand the what and why of the project.

I came to know of these last three kunpen through gifts and recommendations from people who heard about my project. All three are from specialty stores in the Shuri area of Naha, near the very famous Shuri Castle that was the home of the ancient Ryukyuu kingdom.

I decided to buy all of them in one trip to Shuri after bringing my family to the airport for a trip to the grandparents. I wanted to get these three makes of kunpen together and really think deeply about the kunpen - a process I will call "kunpenplation" (registered copyright).

座波菓子店 Zaha Kashiten
住所 沖縄県那覇市首里石嶺町3-6-1

The first time I had Zaha kunpen was on the way home from a trip to Naha with my family. A coworker recommended Zaha Kashiten for kunpen, so I had already registered the address in Google Maps. I was in Naha, and it was late in the evening. I was not sure if the shop would be open, so I called. A woman answered. When I explained that I had driven from Onna and wanted kunpen, she told me that she would open the store for me. As I pulled into the parking space, the shutter slowly rose and a few lights went on. She went about her business while I filled a basket with 40 kunpen to share with people at work. I asked her if she was the owner, and she said she was the mother of the current president, who is the "san-dai-me" or third generation to run the store.
The second time I visited the store, I met her son, who was just as natural and friendly as his mother.
Zaha Sandaime
Now on to the kunpen.
Zaha Kunpen
The gawa is like a soft cookie, very mildly sweet and comforting. The filling is about equal in proportion to the bun and smells strongly of peanut butter. No sesame here. The texture of the filling is pasty, with just a hint of sandy sugar. All in all, the Zaha kunpen is comforting, soft, and subtle, a delightful and simple treat with milk.

新垣カミ菓子店 Arakaki Kami Kashiten
沖縄県那覇市首里 赤平町1-3-2

Having read about Arakaki Kami on the internet, I decided to visit the "honpo" or original store in Shuri. It is not a drive for the faint of heart or those who lack a car navigation system. You go through narrow, winding roads and then turn off into a two-way street that at first glance might be mistaken for a footpath,  barely affording space for even one car to pass. You coast downhill past homes and old buildings until you see the shop, which is pretty easy to miss.
Arakaki-Kami HQ
It looks like a early- or mid-Showa storefront, with a hand-painted sign, no electric banners, and only a tiny space for customers to stand before the very old glass cases. The sliding door is reluctant and squeaky, and the aluminum and glass of the storefront seems decades away from the plate glass and faux-adobe of modern flashy Okinawan tourist traps.
Half of the Sixth Generation of Arakaki-Kami and the mother of the Seventh Generation or Nanadaime
Again, the woman behind the counter was the mother of the current president, but in this case, the current president is the "nana-dai-me" or seventh generation to run the store. This family has been making traditional Ryukyuu sweets for seven generations, forgoing fads like strawberry shortcake, soft "nama" chocolate, and the more recent goya jelly to continue making only makes fives kinds of traditional Ryukyuu ceremonial sweets. And kunpen is one of them.
Arakaki-Kami Kunpen
The kunpen looks different from others, but the flavor differs even more. There is a crack on the side of each kunpen, and they are more irregular than others. The gawa smells and tastes like a good egg cookie - wholesome, simple, only slightly sweet. Very sincere, the gawa is just sweet enough. There is very, very little filling, and like many historical, traditional sweets, it is not very sweet at all. We have come to expect the super-sweetness of modern confections, mass-produced in an age of abundant, cheap corn syrup, but this filling contains both peanut butter and sesame and has that crystalline crunchiness that you find in middle-eastern sesame sweets.

The sweetness of the kunpen comes from the bun. At first impression, there seems too little filling for size of the bun, but when you taste it, you realize that any more of this filling would be overwhelming. It really is something to experience. The filling is more smoky than sweet, with a really intense sesame flavor that fills the mouth and shoots from the nose, exploding in the short moment when you hit it. The rest of the time, you are contentedly chewing through the mild bun in high-carb bliss.

Any kunpen is a bit dry without a beverage, but with a cup of straight tea - assam in my case - this kunpen was flowery, fragrant, and wonderful.

Sweets like this heighten the senses with subtle flavors and mild sweetness, letting the ingredients shine through, unlike the bludgeoning effect of some more modern creations, most of which are advertised by smug-yet-inclusive voice-overs saying, "Treat your family to the new Cro-Magnon butter-scotch and fudge brownie three-scoop ice cream sundae at Fatty Fridays. Come on a weekday and get a coupon for free dialysis with every order."

知念製菓 Chinen Seika

This was the last stop on my kunpen parade through Shuri. The store is small but new, right on the main tourist street, and behind the counter was none other than the "ni-dai-me" or second-generation president, the father of the "san-dai-me" or third generation who currently heads the company.
Chinen Nidaime
The Nidaime was wily and challenging when I asked him about kunpen. He made it clear that Shuri is the place to find real kunpen and that Chinen was very popular. I asked him about other traditional sweets, and he said that when he is asked for authentic chinsuko (a kind of Okinawan shortbread), he sends people to Arakaki-Kami, but he isn't budging on the quality of his kunpen or the new mainland Japanese sweets being introduced by his son, the Sandaime. It turns out that the new young president studied Wagashi (mainland Japanese sweets) on Honshu and is introducing new items like Yabure-manju to raise the profile of Chinen even further.
Chinen Kunpen
Now back to the Chinen kunpen. Chinen kunpen are for people who love nuts. When you open the bag, you get a wonderful puff of peanut fragrance. When you cut one in half, you can see the whole sesame mixed into the filling. The bun is chewier than most others and a little sweeter than the more traditional Arakaki-Kami kunpen. With this kunpen, the filling is the star by far. First of all, there is a lot of filling in each kunpen. And then there is the texture - you can feel the individual sesame seeds, and biting down on them changes the flavor has you chew. The filling also has that crystalline crunchiness you get in middle eastern sesame sweets, and the fragrance and flavor of the peanut butter is terrific. This is very strong, flashy, bold kunpen - sweeter and stronger than Zaha or Arakaki-Kami. The flavor holds its own with pretty much any beverage. I had this with a homemade cafe-au-lait and did not regret it one little bit.

And so I conclude my Quest for Kunpen. I very much enjoyed going in deep on this easily-overlooked part of Okinawan cuisine. I hope you try it for yourself.

This is the third of four installments:

Quest for Kunpen, Part 2: Department Store Kunpen

This is the second part of a three-part series. Please read the first part of the series - Why? to get an idea of what Kunpen is and why I am doing this set of reviews.

I started my kunpen reviews by just buying whatever kunpen I could find at grocery stores, department stores, shops in tourist areas, and wherever else I came across them. Most of these easily-found kunpen turned out to be unexceptional… except for two: Miyagi and Sakumoto Mochiten.

御菓子御殿 Okashi Goten

Okashi-goten Kunpen

This Okinawan landmark is known for its purple potato tarts, but it also offers two kinds of kunpen - large and small. The large konpen is more about the gawa or bun, which is soft but flavorful, not too sweet, with a whole-grain flavor. The filling is unexceptional.

The smaller Okashi Goten konpen, which has a different package, has the same soft gawa, but the filling has more sesame flavor and is gentle and not too sweet.

サニー食品 Sunny Shokuhin

Quite hard and dry bun, with harder filling, too. The filling is a little crunchy and much sweeter than the Okashi Goten. However, other than sweet, there is not much flavor or character here. So uninspiring that I forgot to take a photo.

株式会社誠もち店 Makoto Mochiten - Beni-Imo Kunpen

Makoto Mochiten Beni-imo Kunpen
The "Beni-imo Kunpen" has a very small amount of filling for the size of the bun. No nutty smell at all, which makes sense because it does not contain sesame or peanuts. It contains purple sweet potato, and this brings up the question of whether it is kunpen or not. The whole reason I am trying all these kunpen is to find something nutty and delicious. This is not kunpen. That having been said, the bun is chewy and sweet, quite nice. And the beni-imo filling is not bad. But again, it ain't kunpen, people! Having purple potato kunpen is like having a plate of steaming non-dairy, sugarless, eggless liver and onions ice cream. It might taste good, but it ain't ice cream. It's liver with onions, dammit! I think I have made my point and will move on now.

株式会社誠もち店 Makoto Mochiten - Kokuto Kunpen

Makoto Mochiten Kokuto Kunpen
The "Kokuto Kunpen" contains sesame but no peanuts. The smell is more malty than nutty. The bun is nice, enhanced by the complex flavor of "kokutou" or Okinawan raw sugar. However, the filling is small and forgettable.

吉兆 Kichimomo

Kichimomo Kunpen
Good peanut smell, but both filling and bun have the same texture and moistness, or rather lack thereof. This one somehow seems not quite cooked. It is too blonde and dull, with no edge - a pasty milksop of a kunpen. Go home to your mamma, wimpy kunpen. You are too weak for the mean streets of my teeth.

大福製菓 Daifuku Seika

Daifuku Seika Kunpen
Only five ingredients, with no unpronounceable chemical ones and no sesame at all. Decidedly peanut-rich smell, and the shape and placement of the filling suggests that it is hand-made or at least made with minimal automation. The bun is soft and cookie-like, but not pasty. Flavor is slightly sweet, making for a wholesome, filling, and inexpensive kunpen - very simple and honest.

南風堂株式会社 Nanpudo

Nanpudo Kunpen
Highest filling-to-bun ratio so far. Nutty fragrance that shows good balance between peanuts and sesame. Bun is soft and flaky, not cookie-light but crumbly and slightly chewy. Comforting and mild, it would make a suitable post-heartbreak snack.

マルキヨ製菓 Marukiyo Seika

Marukiyo Kunpen
No strong fragrance. Shiro-an, peanut butter, sesame. Bun is medium hardness with little chewiness. Filling is like bland white bean paste. The sesame flavor is stronger than the peanut flavor, but neither stand out. Average.

大城製菓 Oshiro Seika

Oshiro Kunpen
Big thick filling with slightly sweet, indifferent bun. Not much to like. Very little moisture. Very little character.

株式会社くしけんSS Gushiken SS

Gushiken Kunpen
Impressive appearance. Whole white and black sesame in the filling. Very strong sesame flavor, with good peanut flavor, too. The bun is pretty average, but on the whole, comfortingly mild.

佐和田 Sawada

Sawada Kunpen
The package seems to be a generic wrapper used by several kunpen makers. The flavor is similar, too. This is a good example of what some Okinawans told me they don't like about kunpen - a base of slightly dry anko bean paste mixed with sesame peanut butter in an unexceptional, flavorless bun. That being said, the filling is dry but tasty, with visible bits of peanut in it, so be sure to have a good beverage. Okay with tea or milk.

みやぎ菓子店 Miyagi Kashiten

Miyagi Kunpen from Ishigaki Island
I found this one mixed in with the cheap sweet breads at the Sun-A Gushikawa Main City department store, but it is anything but just another kunpen. Strong peanut fragrance. Thin bun with lots of filling. The bun is very subtle, harder than others but not cookie-like, with a hearty wheat flavor. The filling is crunchy, rich in peanut yumminess. This is good kunpen, with a nice balance of peanut and sesame. The filling has that crystalline sesame sandiness you find in some middle-eastern sweets, and it is just sweet enough. This is very good kunpen.

佐久本もち店 Sakumoto Mochiten Konpen

Sakumoto Kunpen
The other department store surprise, this kunpen has a nice, nutty fragrance and a moist bun which is like a soft cookie. The filling is like a thin ribbon, but with nice sesame and peanut chunks in it. I was very surprised by this unassuming package and the really yummy bun. The filling was a nice accent to this tasty cookie. Surprisingly good kunpen, and very similar to the Arakaki Kami kunpen. After the Sakumoto kunpen, you won't want to go back to the white characterless bean-paste type.

Go on to the third part of the series - Shuri Kunpen.

This is the second of four installments:

Quest for Kunpen, Part 1: Why

I had just arrived in Okinawa, and I was looking through some local sweets and asking the store clerk about them, "What is this Kunpen… is it like a manju?" "Kind of," she replied, "but it has peanut butter in it." I was hooked. Having lived in Japan for 18 years, a lot of me has "gone native", but I am still hopelessly addicted to peanut butter, and the prospect of a peanut-butter-rich dessert was too good to ignore.

Kunpen, also known as Konpen or Kunpin, is an Okinawan "o-sonai-mono" or offering - special foods that are placed on a family shrine as an offering to one's ancestors. During the summer observance of Okinawa's "shiimii", which is analogous to mainland Japan's "o-bon", families gather to catch up, play with cousins, and tell thread-bare stories of shared embarrassments. The express purpose of the holiday is to pay respects to deceased family members, but it is really a way to reinforce family ties. In mainland Japan, family members gather at the home of the current head of the family, and they determine that by a combination of familial arithmetic plus tweaking for circumstance and convenience. In Okinawa, families gather to picnic at the main family tomb, and kunpen is usually a part of the meal.

One Okinawan co-worker told me that he did not like kunpen when he was younger, but as he ages, the "soboku" or plain, simple character becomes more and more pleasing. A younger Okinawan co-worker told me that for her kunpen is comfort-food - mild, familiar, and trustworthy; when she feels down or anxious, she goes to Zaha for a kunpen (see the review below), and things just seem better.

The dependability and honesty of the unchanging, unassuming kunpen became the focus of my interest. The Japanese snack food industry is aggressive about innovation and variety, turning out new flavors and gimmicks so fast that many consumers never get a chance to try a new flavor before it disappears. And the need for variety results in some pretty wild products. A few years ago, I remember feeling ill after washing down a bag of Kalbi Wasabi Beef Potato Chips with a Cucumber Sprite, but that was still better than when I tried a Cherry-Blossom Kit-Kat with a can of Nestle Sparkling Cafe - cold, sweet, carbonated black coffee. In Japan, crazy and creative snacks, gum, candy, and drinks are debuted and withdrawn all the time, but amidst it all, traditional sweets like the kunpen stay the same. They are the rocks in the tide, the bass and drums in the jazz jam, and that is why I decided to do a selfish and subjective review of as many kunpen as I could find.

Kunpen look like large, fat cookies or baked versions of Chinese steamed dim-sum buns. They consist of a bready or cookie-like "gawa" (skin) or bun and sweetened peanut butter, sesame and/or bean paste "goo" or filling in the center.

This is the first of four installments: