As much as I admire sushi, the ultimate Japanese dining experience is probably kaiseki. A kind of small-dish tasting menu, kaiseki combines the elegance of Japan’s ancient courtly cuisine with the simplicity of Buddhist temple fare (and often includes both small sashimi and sushi courses). The goal of kaiseki is to highlight the natural taste of ingredients at the peak of freshness and flavor, especially vegetables and seafood. As with the best traditional sushi meals, during a kaiseki meal you let the chef entertain you with a series of surprises, rather than ordering specific items yourself.
Real kaiseki is hard to find outside Japan and I’d been hunting for it in New York City. Finally acting on a tip from a friend, I found it the other night at Rosanjin, a restaurant in Tribeca. It’s expensive—for me, a meal I might have once or twice a year—but it’s also not that expensive compared to what a similar meal might cost in the city of Kyoto, the home of kaiseki cuisine. Included in this meal were three particular surprises for me, delicacies I’d never eaten before: the egg of an octopus, a fish called kue (kelp grouper or longtooth grouper), and a bulb-like plant called a butterbur.
Rosanjin has received some mixed reviews from critics and citizens of New York, but I wonder if some of that stems from a misunderstanding of the point of kaiseki, which might be defined as: simplicity, highly refined. I found the meal to be one of the most heavenly, meditative, and transformative culinary experiences I’ve had lately. Here’s a lengthy description of a meal at Rosanjin by a blogger who seems to have felt similarly.
The sake sommelier, a gracious and hospitable lady named Akiyo, patiently helped us test out different sakes that would complement the dishes. With so much variety in preparation among the courses, the contrasts between different sakes and how they related to the food came into focus particularly well.
At the end of the meal the chef seemed to have cooked a batch of special rice scattered with black beans in an iron pot separately for each table—some of the most fragrant plain rice I’ve ever had—and what you don’t finish, the staff wraps up for you to take home.
You smile when they bring out the doggie bag and it’s the lush pouch pictured above.
Then you smile again when the next day for lunch, you open the pouch and find a gorgeous gold chamber of cleverly folded paper housing your handmade rice inside, under a bent bamboo leaf. Ah, Japan.
It’s hard to believe there was a time when most Americans would rather eat a tuna sandwich than sushi. Or watch Ultraman instead of Iron Man. As a kid in the seventies I probably started watching Ultraman around the same time I started eating canned fish between slices of bread. Both were a low-budget half-mechanized sort of sustenance. Japanese sci-fi; the triumph of technology over nature.
Decades later American food had begun its gourmet revolution and a sandwich shop near my office featured its signature item “The Nicoise,” which got me eating tuna between bread again. Japanese sci-fi dreams had progressed a ways, too. Around the same time, the first Japanese hybrid car hit the market. I asked myself “What would Ultraman drive?” and bought one.
As much as I would enjoy being like Bruce Wayne, I haven’t slipped on an Ultraman suit to pilot my spacey silver hybrid car around Gotham at night. But if I did, and I encountered a giant tuna fish terrorizing the financial district, I would first subdue it with my Marine Spacium Beam (that’s the マリンスペシウム光線 for those of you keeping track). And then I would call Japan Air Lines and ask for the cargo division. For the gourmet food revolution has entered a whole new phase, and so has the Japanese sci-fi technology that enables it.
In a matter of hours JAL Cargo would put my freshly slaughtered giant tuna fish on ice in a high-tech container and fly it to Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market for sushi, and I would hang up the Ultraman suit, trade in the Honda hybrid for a Lamborghini, and retire as a billionaire.
Eerily like watching Ultraman as a kid was how I felt watching promotional footage from the 1970s that’s been newly released from the archives of JAL Cargo and included in a new documentary film called Sushi: The Global Catch. (I’ll be hosting a couple of screenings of the film in New York City; more on that below.) The vintage reel shows lab-coated Japanese engineers developing the original sci-fi-ish cargo container kit that allowed JAL Cargo to begin transporting fresh giant bluefin tuna between continents by air, a tricky science akin to cryonics. It’s easy to forget what an absurd proposition that was at the time, when all we knew and cared about was canned chicken of the sea between slices of mushy bread.
Meanwhile, one of the most gripping parts of the documentary for me was one of its most understated moments—a quiet interview with Akira Okazaki, a JAL Cargo executive who is something of a legend in Japan but little-known in the West. As my fellow sushi journalist Sasha Issenberg has reported, in the 1970s Okazaki and his colleagues were trying to solve a very specific problem: after dropping off 747s full of Sony Walkmans in America, JAL Cargo was flying its planes home to Japan empty. What did North America produce at the time that the Japanese could be convinced to buy? Not much. It is Okazaki who is credited with the idea of filling JAL’s planes with bluefin tuna.
What Okazaki and his colleagues did changed everything. Until the mid-20th century, tuna had been a garbage fish seldom used for sushi. After JAL Cargo’s technical and logistical innovations, bluefin became such a priceless global commodity that now many of its populations are in danger of being wiped out. It’s a stunning reminder of how a cultural habit that we imbue with the dignity of tradition, and that can be as intimate as what we put inside our bodies for dinner, can turn out to have been literally engineered just a few short years ago by a corporate marketing team.
The most touching parts of the documentary for me were the scenes from a remote fishing village called Oma on the northernmost tip of Japan’s main island, where a white-haired curmudgeon named Hirofumi Hambata, chairman of the local fishermen’s co-op, states his profound concern about the global overfishing of bluefin tuna, and explains why Oma’s small-town bluefin are the most sought-after by sushi chefs. Having worked as a small-boat commercial fisherman in a remote village myself, I was heartened to hear one of Tokyo’s best chefs describe how Oma fishermen catch bluefin from a small boat with a single hook & line. It’s described in the video clip below.
And not included in this clip, but in the film, is a moment when Hambata makes a point that particularly resonated with me, because it’s something I mention at every one of the historical sushi dinners I host: in sushi, there are so many other delicious fish to eat besides tuna that aren’t endangered. To hear a Japanese tuna fisherman who serves the highest end of the sushi market say this is profound.
Sushi: The Global Catch is opening in New York City this weekend and the distributor has hired me to host a couple of post-screening Q&A sessions about what’s depicted in the film. More details here of when I’ll be on site at Quad Cinema. Hope to see some of you wearing your Ultraman suits.
(Tuna sushi photo above: The Delicious Life.)
Cool: the other day Anthony Bourdain retweeted some of my sushi etiquette tips. Inevitable: amidst many positive responses, I got some others suggesting that perhaps such attention to detail was a tad elitist. Irony: I totally sympathize.
Food snobbery is exactly what I was hoping to avoid when I decided to focus The Story of Sushi on a motley crew of American sushi apprentices in L.A., rather than penning a hagiography of, say, Masa. (Though in the book I do, of course, delve deeply into the Japanese sushi tradition.)
On the other hand, researching the book made it clear to me how much is wrong with our day-to-day sushi, especially in America. And when I say wrong, the first thing I’m worried about is our health. And then there’s the health of the ecosystems that provide our fish.
My sushi-eating tips, and the educational dinners I host, are partly intended to help people get a more delicious and authentic meal, yes. But they’re also intended to help us avoid crap sushi that could make us unhealthy—there’s a lot of crap sushi out there these days—as well as take more care in the consumption of the oceans’ fast-disappearing sea creatures. Most of us don’t realize, for example, that all that wasabi and soy sauce and all those spicy rolls are there for a specific purpose—to prevent us from tasting fish that’s subpar or past its prime. (Don’t take my word for it, check out this recent FDA recall of spicy-tuna filling—it was so bad that the Centers for Diseases Control sent out an email blast about it.)
Here I have to give a shout out to Lucky Peach, the new food magazine from David Chang and McSweeney’s. The current issue, titled “American Food,” contains a graphic spread by cartoonist Lauren Weinstein that features some of the juiciest scary facts I covered in The Story of Sushi about the origins of your typical sushi fish and turns them into an info-graphic called “Sushi, USA” that is not to be missed.
Below is a snippet—look for the magazine at your newsstand or bookstore.
Can you believe the Japanese still use fax machines—lots of them? How come they haven’t switched to email like the rest of the modernized world? It’s mainly because their language and culture are so unique, according to an amused headline this week in the Washington Post. Those Japanese are so quirky.
We love “Japan is so quirky” stories. This latest, in which the contradictory Japanese live in a super-high-tech society yet still send messages in a laughably old-fashioned form, via fax, leads us to conclude that the Japanese are a mysterious, and entertaining, curiosity. We enjoy these articles because they’re fun (and tweetable). Remember the one about the vending-machine costumes that Japanese people wear to avoid getting mugged?
Except, the ubiquity of fax machines in Japan doesn’t really have much to do with “language and culture.” Nothing about the Japanese language makes typing a fax any different from typing an email, or really that different from typing English in an email. Is Japanese so weird that it has to be written by hand and then faxed? In fact, typing on a computer in Japanese is easier than writing by hand, since you don’t have to remember exactly how to write each character. As the article notes, to its credit, Chinese speakers have embraced web-based communications, and their language if anything ought to be more “quirky” since Chinese has no native alphabet. (Japanese does.)
Throughout modern history, these sorts of ideas about the inscrutable uniqueness of Japan’s language and culture have led to some seriously simplistic stereotypes, and are actually what the Japanese themselves have long used to justify their own racism against foreigners and immigrants, something I encountered occassionally when I lived in Japan as a highly fluent Japanese speaker.
So wait, but, how come fax machines are still so common in such a high-tech information society? The article glosses over the more concrete reasons for the slow transition to email in Japan—perhaps because they are pretty normal, having to do with political arrangements that give bureaucracies and corporations a conservative grip on businesses and technologies that could otherwise become more democratized, inexpensive, and widespread, such as home internet service. Yeah, I know—yawn.
Hang on, though—could there be something of interest for us in that? Something that would make for a more illuminating article?
Put it this way: I could easily imagine, say, a Scandinavian newspaper publishing a story along these lines: Americans are so quirky and old-fashioned, you wouldn’t believe the way they still love TV so much that they loyally pay far more than they should to cable TV monopolies to provide them with home internet, instead wanting reasonable prices and competition between internet service providers.
Should have kept my fax machine.
One of the scenes from The Secret Life of Lobsters that people remark about most is the description of the “LTV”—”lobster trap video”—which exposed the behavior of lobsters in a trap as rather like a mob of escaped convicts in a barroom brawl. Escaped convicts because, after their slugfest, most of the lobsters caught on the LTV security cameras didn’t stay imprisoned in the trap at all, but manage to bolt their underwater cage and remain at large.
The LTV was the brainchild of Dr. Win Watson at the University of New Hampshire, whose lab is exactly the place you’d want to work if you happen to be a marine-ecology-minded mad scientist. Other Dr. Watson projects I mention in the book include an Astroturf lobster treadmill, a baby lobster racetrack (with betting restricted to Dr. Watson’s students), and a tethered-lobster cross-generational cannibalism study.
One of Dr. Watson’s latest inquiries has asked whether lobsters talk. If you’ve read The Secret Life of Lobsters you know, of course, that they do—using urine ejected from nozzles on their faces. Which is also how they flirt on a date. But all that is another story. Here Dr. Watson was interested in vocalization—actual sound. Avid divers have told me that when they go lobster hunting underwater, they swear they hear the lobsters growling at them. But never before had audible lobster talk been scientifically documented.
Now it has, and the evidence suggests that lobsters aren’t just talking, they’re specifically talking to fish. (And the occasional invasive human.) Here is a short writeup of Dr. Watson’s recent discoveries from the current issue of the Working Waterfront:
Maybe no surprise to lobstermen who handle thousands of lobsters every week, researchers documented for the first time this year that lobsters make sound—part groan, part buzz—by vibrating the carapace, the largest part of the shell. A research team working in Dr. Win Watson’s laboratory at the University of New Hampshire conducted a series of experiments to study lobster noise-making habits.
They held lobsters in separate tanks—either alone, with other lobsters, or with fish, including cod and striped bass. The lobsters held alone made only one or two sounds in each 30-minute period, while those in the tanks with striped bass made 15 sounds, and those with cod made a raucous 50 sounds in the half hour.
The research team conducted a series of experiments with the sounds, and documented that 75 percent occurred when fish approached within a foot or two of the lobster, and often resulted in the fish moving away, leading to the conclusion that lobsters may be sounding off in order to discourage fish predation.
Part buzz, part groan. Which is exactly what I’d expect of the subjects of my first book talking to the subjects of my second.
Image: Guinness fish and lobster vintage pub sign.
This is a pile of lobsters photographed on the coast of Maine around 1870. Lately the piles of lobsters being hauled in by Maine lobstermen are even bigger. That’s partly because lobsters are all that’s left in the Gulf of Maine for fishermen to catch—most of the cod, haddock, hake, and other fish have long since been wiped out from overfishing. This means that baby lobsters have few predators, which probably helps more of them survive. For now, that’s great news for lobstermen.
This causes a new problem, though. “Monoculture” is a word you often hear to describe farming methods that eliminate diversity by planting vast swaths of only one crop. The same thing can happen in the sea. The fishing industry in the Gulf of Maine now relies almost entirely on a monoculture of lobsters. This is dangerous because monocultures are often more susceptible to disease or ecological damage. Worse, if you lose your monoculture harvest, there’s nothing else to turn to—no diversity of alternative crops or sea creatures. And monocultures are very hard to change, because the farmers—or, in this case, fishermen—who depend on them for their livelihoods have developed a strong economic reliance on the way things are.
If you’ve read The Secret Life of Lobsters, you’ll probably remember the main biologist character in the book, the red-bearded renegade scientist Bob Steneck. Well, Bob is back in the news, having published a new paper in the journal Conservation Biology that warns of the dangers inherent in Maine’s over-reliance on lobsters. You can learn more about Bob’s latest concerns about the lobster fishery in this article in the New York Times.
I’m not normally much into fashion, but Alexander McQueen captured my heart with what the New York Times called the “lobster claw stiletto bootie,” perhaps the most aquatically sensual shoe ever created.
The Times wrote:
The boot transformed the models’ feet into … the claws of some futuristic crustacean. … McQueen, influenced by On the Origin of Species, presented a kind of evolution in reverse: from the sea we emerged; to the sea we will return.
Once again I find myself moved by McQueen’s work in the “Jellyfish Ensemble” pictured here, boots included, which is currently being featured in ads for the new retrospective of McQueen’s work at the Met, “Savage Beauty.” The jellyfish skirt, the fishy scales, the colors, and even the lighting here are stunning in their evocation on the human form of marine life in the depths, which is indeed, after all, from whence we came.
Having played in a rock band in high school, the dream, of course, was always to “play an arena.” I’d assumed that dream had died a brutal and summary death once I’d headed down the path of becoming a writer—not to mention a writer who has spent a good chunk of his time writing about things like spatial and temporal patterns of benthic habit usage by invertebrates.
So it was kind of like getting a little piece of the high-school dream back when I arrived at the National Marine Educators Association conference in Boston yesterday to deliver my keynote speech and discovered that I would, actually, be playing an arena—Matthews Arena, home of the Northeastern Huskies.
Not exactly Madison Square Garden, but hey. Life is usually so full of disappointments. Savor those sweet, small victories.
Thank you, NMEA—you’re great people, it’s always a pleasure.
It’s official, I spotted the future digs of New York City’s fast-approaching kaiten sushi joint in SoHo, on the corner of Grand & West Broadway, which according to a sign on the window of interrogation-room glass will be opening in February. As you probably know, kaiten sushi is the Japanese term for “conveyor-belt” sushi, and apparently sushi lovers in NYC are meant to be enthused by the news that it’s “already a massive hit in Mexico.”
I know I sound like the sushi snob that I am, but any traditional sushi chef worth his real wasabi will tell you that a piece of sushi quickly dries out and oxidizes immediately after it’s made, which is why good sushi is best eaten straight out of the chef’s hands.
Yeah, I know conveyor-belt sushi is popular in Japan. The Japanese people eating in those places are the same people who buy their grilled salmon from 7-Eleven.
Let me make a suggestion: I think an excellent type of restaurant for employing slow-moving conveyor belts to deliver food to diners would be restaurants that specialize in serving Triscuits and Cheez Whiz.
In the meantime, these folks should know better than to claim to be the first kaiten sushi restaurant in New York. There’s already one a few blocks away in the food court of a grocery store. Which tells you something.
Then I dare say here is the perfect doggie sweater.
The timeless topic of how best to dispatch a lobster is revived again this weekend in a New York Times review of two new books that flesh out the lobster literature alongside my book, The Secret Life of Lobsters.
The review ponders the best way to kill a lobster for cooking, and cites “an illustrated blog post” I wrote detailing a quick and humane way to end a lobster’s life before cooking it. I’m republished that post here, below.
The Times review also mentions the “Crustastun” lobster-killing machine, which I’ve written about and posted pictures of as well (it’s two stories tall and weighs 80,000 pounds; you’ll also see a photo of the slightly horrifying “crustacean without the crust”), and you are welcome further to peruse my essay in Boston magazine on the Whole Foods lobster-killing controversy, as well as my criticism of the late David Foster Wallace in a Salon interview concerning his famous “Consider the Lobster” article.
Interestingly, debate has been raging over in Europe (and in the page of New Scientist magazine) about whether crustaceans should have legal rights, like cows and pigs; imagine a near future in which the police arrest you for boiling a lobster alive. There’s at least one town in the world where that could actually happen, as I’ve written in The Atlantic.
Personally, I think it seems a safe assumption that being boiled alive probably sucks, which is why I use the humane-approved technique that follows for killing lobsters before putting them in the pot:
Step 1: Cool the lobster in the freezer for fifteen minutes or so. Lobsters are cold-blooded and their body temperature adapts to match the ambient temperature around them, with a corresponding slowing of their heart rate, metabolism, and neural functioning. Cooling the lobster prevents it from moving around while you’re working, which is a lot safer, and results in some deadening of the animal’s nervous system.
Step 2: Hold the lobster upside down and place the point of the knife between its hindmost legs.
Step 3: Thrust the knife straight down into the body, and proceed immediately through Step 4.
Step 4: Slice down through the head, to split the front of the animal in half.
A few additional pointers:
• You don’t have to slice all the way through the last bit of shell to the cutting board; leave the top of the lobster’s shell intact for a more attractive presentation on the plate.
• If you execute the knife maneuver correctly, the claws and front legs should go instantly limp. But be aware that because lobsters have a decentralized nervous system, even though you have severed most of the nerve ganglia in the front of the lobster, the tail and hind legs may continue to twitch. (If that bothers you, remember that this is an animal that, based on its neural structure, appears to be roughly equivalent in its level of sentience to a mosquito. If it still bothers you, you should probably consider eating mock lobster.)
• Immediately after you kill the lobster, put it in the pot to boil, as you would have with the live animal.
WARNING: By reading this page you hereby agree to use the methods described here at your own risk. I make no claims to be a qualified instructor of culinary butchery, and I will not be responsible if you hurt yourself using a knife in your kitchen.
On the other hand, for those of you who crave additional drama and heroism in your kitchen, there are, of course, even more exciting ways to kill a lobster:
Maxfield Parish, untitled; cover linings for Poems of Childhood by Eugene Field, 1904.
P.S. Don’t take my word for all this. What follows is a statement prepared by Dr. Neville Gregory, who received an award from England’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
(At the time Dr. Gregory prepared the following statement on lobsters, he worked in the Animal Welfare and Stress department of the New Zealand Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. New Zealand has a significant fishery for spiny lobsters.)
The Humane Way to Kill a Lobster
by Dr. Neville Gregory
The appropriate way to humanely kill a lobster is to chill it, then kill it by either splitting or spiking it.
Chefs using this method can be sure that they are killing the lobsters humanely, while preparing good quality lobster meat.
Any animal killed for meat consumption must be killed humanely. This means the animal must not be stressed when being handled, should be held at the place of slaughter for only a short time under appropriate conditions, and the killing method must not cause pain or distress prior to death.
Many seafood shops and restaurants and also private citizen chefs kill lobsters inhumanely.
Eight common procedures are used to kill lobsters, usually with two or more methods combined. These were chilling, drowning, spiking, chest spike, splitting, and tailing, freezing, and boiling (definitions listed below).
Freezing or boiling methods affect the quality of the meat. Boiling lobsters alive tends to make the meat chewy while freezing makes the meat lose its fresh appearance. Both are inhumane.
Lobsters need to be chilled before being killed.
Being cold blooded, chilling the lobster helps reduce nerve function and metabolic activity. When it is fully chilled, the lobster will stop moving and no longer responds to being handled.
After chilling a lobster, split it along its length where it has two chains of nerve ganglia, with interconnecting nerves along its body under the shell. Chilling beforehand prevents the lobster from moving which avoids mistakes during splitting—otherwise it is hard to achieve a humane kill in an unchilled animal.
Original text and photos are © copyright Trevor Corson. Please only use this material with attribution, thanks!
In an email from a Japanese friend in Tokyo:
People in Tokyo tend to have spring allergies, so in the old days at this time of year, we’d greet each other with the words, “The pollen count is low, it’s a nice day, isn’t it?” Lately, we’re greeting each other with the words, “The radiation level is 0.09 millisieverts, a little higher than normal, isn’t it?”
Having experienced the earthquake in Kobe, Japan in 1995—during which I was utterly convinced my life was about to end—and now seeing even worse devastation in Japan again, with the tsunami, I’m struck by this graphic from the GeoResources website illustrating the confluence of tectonic plates that causes these devastating tremors. Japan could not be more terribly situated for seismic destruction.
People have been asking me whether I think sushi is going to be safe to eat, with the threat of radiation from the stricken nuclear plant possibly affecting Japan’s food supply. While this might seem almost irrelevant considering the potential direct threat to the people of Japan at the moment, it’s a fair question. For starters, here are few thoughts I offered the New York Times in an article published today:
…Trevor Corson, a sushi expert and a former commercial fisherman who used to live in Japan, said seafood caught “in an ocean churning with movement and dispersal might turn out to be less of a concern than agricultural products that are exposed and stationary.”
But Mr. Corson also said the Japanese seafood industry could face a long and difficult struggle “to establish faith in the safety of their seafood—not unlike the challenges faced by gulf fishermen in the U.S. after the BP oil spill.”
The Tsukiji fish market in central Tokyo, the world’s largest clearinghouse for just about anything that fishermen pull from the sea, was not physically damaged by the earthquake. Its cobblestone aisles and alleyways were as loud, profane and hurly-burly as ever on Saturday. But something in Tsukiji’s soul seems to have been lost, or at least badly bruised, in the tsunami.
Before the disaster, the market drew 10 percent of its daily inventory of 2,400 tons of seafood from the waters off Tohoku, the coastal epicenter of the earthquake. The fishery there is renowned for its scallops, seaweed, bonito and shark’s fin. Tohoku, as a place and a brand in Japan, was formidable. …
“I have started to hear people in the West worrying about radioactive sushi and so on, but perception and reality are quite different,” said Mr. Corson, the author of The Story of Sushi. “Much of the seafood typically used in sushi doesn’t originate in Japan and never passes through the country.”
Check out the entire article, which discusses other Japanese food products as well, such as Kobe beef. I’ll try to post more on this question soon.
Update: My more detailed post on this topic at The Atlantic.
Photo of destroyed Japanese fishing boats: Itsuo Inouye/Associated Press, via NYT.com
I must compliment the Lotos Club for considering the wide range of potential interests among its members and last night providing, in addition to Don Rumsfeld’s book signing upstairs, at the same time a talk on the lovemaking techniques of lobsters by Trevor Corson in the library—preparations pictured above. While Henry Kissinger chose not to attend my lecture, I’m pleased to report that several world-famous chefs opted for the crustacean porn.
The delightful and indefatigable Dorothy Hamilton, founder of the International Culinary Center and the French Culinary Institute, among many, many other accomplishments, has posted further details on the evening, including photos of one of said world-famous chefs decorated with a lobster bib.