Handmade Tofu and Mochi Keep Traditions Alive in San Jose’s Japantown

Handmade mochi and manju from Shuei-Do Manju Shop in San Jose Japantown. Photo: Anna Mindess

Handmade mochi and manju from Shuei-Do Manju Shop in San Jose Japantown. Photo: Anna Mindess

Amy Nozaki pats the jiggly block of tofu she has just uncovered after pressing it in a wooden crate and pronounces it “perfect.” She and her husband Chester run The San Jose Tofu Company, which may be the last local shop to make tofu the traditional way, completely by hand. This physically demanding, time-consuming process creates creamy blocks of utter freshness: sweet, silky, slightly nutty bean curd that is as far from those chalky chunks packed with preservatives in plastic tubs as a loaf of Acme’s Pain au Levain is from Wonder Bread.

San Jose’s Nihon Machi, a long, wide city block, is one of only three Japantowns nationwide. (The others are Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo and San Francisco’s Japantown — which I previously profiled on an Edible Excursions tasting tour).

Chester Nozaki, whose grandfather started San Jose Tofu Company. Photo: Anna Mindess

Chester Nozaki, whose grandfather started San Jose Tofu Company in 1946. Photo: Anna Mindess

On my recent foray to San Jose’s Jackson Street, nestled among the gift shops, ukulele stores, ramen and sushi spots, I discovered two culinary cultural gems run with devotion by husband and wife teams: the Nozakis and the Kumamarus.

The San Jose Tofu Company was started in 1946 by Chester Nozaki’s grandfather and passed down to Chester’s father. Although Chester had worked in the shop as a boy, delivering fresh tofu on his trusty red Radio Flyer wagon, as the second son he had no plans to follow in his father’s footsteps. In fact, he was studying industrial engineering. But when his older brother declined to inherit the tofu company, Chester dropped out of college and stepped in to help his father. He met his future wife, Amy when she was a waitress at a Japanese restaurant down the street from the tofu shop. Amy, originally from Taiwan, turned out to have an innate talent making tofu and eventually joined the family team.

The mild-mannered Chester tells me about a turning point in his life, “When I was in my 40s, customers began asking me if I was ever going to take over the business.” Emboldened, Chester informed his father that he didn’t want to wait until he was 64 years old to take the reins. As an oblique answer, his father immediately handed over the ledger book and described how he should make payments to vendors.

Once he was in charge, Chester’s first thought was to automate the business in order to produce more tofu. His father, in his characteristic soft-spoken manner, made it quite clear that this was not an option. Nowadays, Chester is in charge of PR and the business side, while deferring the cooking duties to his wife’s skill and intuition. Amy, clad in boots and apron, deftly navigates the slippery floor in the open kitchen, a simple set-up that allows the steady stream of customers to view the entire tofu-making process.

Amy Nozaki in a few of the steps involved in making tofu by hand. Photo: Anna Mindess

Amy Nozaki in a few of the steps involved in making tofu by hand. Photo: Anna Mindess

With the vagaries of weather and over 200 possible varieties of non-GMO soybeans, there is no ironclad recipe for length of cooking and pressing. “It all depends,” says Amy explaining that she does everything by feel. After the beans are soaked overnight, ground with the help of the shop’s lone machine (a bean grinder), they are cooked in water, then transferred to a hand-operated bean press which liquifies the ground beans into warm soy milk. A natural coagulant, nigari, is added to the soy milk. Armed with a large paddle, Amy stirs the curds in a huge pot until just the right consistency is achieved, then scoops them into wide rectangular wooden crates, lined with cheesecloth. These are covered with wooden mats and heavy weights for about a half an hour until they reach the desired density. Amy then turns out the scored tofu blocks to bobble in a cool water bath and hand cuts them into cubes.

Two years ago, the Nozakis added a new product to their line, a softer textured “tofu pudding” which comes with a brown sugar and ginger syrup, a traditional Taiwanese combination. This popular sweet sells out quickly every day.

Many of the customers are regulars who come into the shop armed with their own plastic tubs to transport their delicacies. The Nozakis sell to a few nearby markets but without any preservatives their tofu is at its best for only a few days. A while back, Iron Chef Morimoto visited the shop while he was setting up his restaurant in Napa. When he tasted the Nozakis’ tofu he was impressed with its sweetness and informed them he would serve it at his restaurant as long as they could deliver to Napa. Chester smiles ruefully and explains that he had to turn down the Chef’s request as his tiny family business didn’t have the resources to make such deliveries.

Batches of the Nozakis’ fresh tofu are produced all day long and usually sell out completely. “Quality is more important than quantity,” Chester says modestly. “Back in the store’s heyday we were producing up to 1600 blocks a day (versus the millions made by automated production companies). But the economic downturn had an impact and now we average 400-500 blocks a day. Our customer base is changing too as elderly Japanese customers are thinning out. But we are getting more Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese consumers as well as a few Caucasians and Latinos.”

When I take my precious bundle of tofu home, I decide to let its pure fresh taste shine through and so prepare it in the simplest fashion: topped with grated ginger, chopped scallions and a drizzle of soy sauce.

The freshest tofu deserves the simplest preparation. Photo: Anna Mindess

The freshest tofu deserves the simplest preparation. Photo: Anna Mindess

Puffy Sweet Treats

In a modest shop down the street from the Nozaki’s tofu shop, a long glass case holds jewel-toned gems of sweetness: enticing orbs of pink, mauve, and gold. In the back room of Shuei-Do Manju Shop, I meet Tom and Judy Kumamaru and learn the secrets behind these traditional Japanese treats. The couple sits amiably across from each other in the humid, sweet-scented room, like they have for 27 years, with a glowing pastel blob of hot rice flour mochi between them, their hands a blur of movement: pinch-stuff-fold-roll-pinch-stuff-fold-roll. They produce 800-1000 sweets a day: puffy pillows of rice flour mochi, glowing green yokan jelly cubes, strawberry chichidango or golden baked manju—most stuffed with the traditional red adzuki bean or white lima bean fillings, in a variety of shapes and combinations.

Judy and Tom Kumamaru have made mochi together for 27 years. Photo: Anna Mindess

Judy and Tom Kumamaru have made mochi together for 27 years. Photo: Anna Mindess

Before they started making these soft sweet clouds, the couple fabricated other things. Judy was a dental technician fashioning false teeth and Tom manufactured printed circuit boards. With the looming prospect of layoffs in their future, they became interested in the idea of owning their own business.

Shuei-Do Manju Shop (the name literally means “gathering place”) has been around for 62 years and was established by another husband and wife team: the Ozawas, who ran the business for the first 35 years and were friends with Judy’s parents. One day while the four elders were on a fishing trip, Judy’s parents (who were big fans of the store) remarked that when the Ozawas retired, maybe one of their children could take over their business.

During the ensuing negotiations, the Ozawas promised to train Tom and Judy for the first 6 months of ownership, but there was just one snag. They refused to let them see the back room where the actual labor occurred until the deal was signed. “Maybe they thought we would get scared to see how much work it really took,” quips Judy smiling.

Tom, who was born in Japan and came to California when he was 4 years old, grew up in Stockton, where his father worked as a gardener and tofu maker. He wasn’t particularly fond of sweets. Now his days are filled with them. The beans for the anko fillings must be soaked overnight, then cooked, strained and pressed. He cooks the bean fillings, whips the hot rice mochi so it will have the proper elasticity and helps his wife roll out multitudes of little balls.

Stuff mochi ball with sweet bean filling. Repeat 800 times a day. Photo: Anna Mindess

Stuff mochi ball with sweet bean filling. Repeat 800 times a day. Photo: Anna Mindess

Tom and Judy make 18 different kinds of manju and mochi, including a wildly popular variety for the traditional Japanese celebration of “Girls’ Day” in March—sakura mochi with textured pink rice wrapped in a cherry leaf. Although you can find boxed mochi in stores from Japantown to Costco, like the Nozakis, the Kumamarus use no preservatives, so their products are at their best for just a few days (but Tom says you can freeze them). They sell to a handful of stores and have a standing order with Apple. Steve Jobs had such an affection for handmade mochi that he told his chef to fly to Japan to procure some. A bit of research turned up Shuei-Do just 10 miles away, where Apple still has a standing order twice a week.

“Converting to machine-made mochi and manju is tempting; we could make maybe 2000 pieces an hour,” says Tom, “but then we would lose our uniqueness. It’s important to carry on the tradition of working hard so that Japantown does not lose its special flavor. What makes me happy is seeing how customers react to their first taste,” adds Tom, who was impressed to learn that many of his patrons hailed from countries across the globe, including Germany, Australia and Saudi Arabia. His rice flour treats also attract Asian customers, whose own cuisines feature similar rice flour sweets, including Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Mochi balls' sweet bean fillings. Photo: Anna Mindess

Mochi balls’ sweet bean fillings. Photo: Anna Mindess

The classic Japanese filling is sweetened bean paste, but that doesn’t stop customers from making other requests. “People ask us to fill them with berries or chocolate,” says Judy, “but we prefer to stick to the traditional.” The one concession they’ve made is a crunchy peanut butter-filled mochi that achieves the perfect balance of sweet and salty.

Perhaps not surprisingly in the 21st century, neither the Nozakis’ nor the Kumamarus’ children (who are all in their 20s) have expressed any interest in taking over their parents’ businesses, so the future of these two cultural gems is uncertain, which makes their traditionally-made tofu and mochi all the more precious.

San Jose Tofu Company
175 Jackson Street
San Jose, 95112
(408) 292-7026

Shuei-Do Manju Shop
217 Jackson Street
San Jose, 95112
(408) 294-4148

KQED's Bay Area Bites

A version of this post first appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites, June 16, 2014. I am thrilled that it’s been the most popular piece I ever posted and has brought customers to the lovely shop owners who shared their stories with me.

Posted in desserts and sweets, food artisans, handmade, Japanese food, Japantown, San Jose | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

For Lunar New Year, the Horse Gallops in with Traditional Foods of Tết

Giant painting at Oakland's beloved Vietnamese restaurant Le Cheval (French for "Horse") welcomes Year of the Horse.

Giant painting at Oakland’s beloved Vietnamese restaurant Le Cheval (French for “Horse”) welcomes Year of the Horse. Photo: Anna Mindess

As the Tran family gathers to celebrate the Lunar New Year–which officially started last Friday but is often celebrated for many days–they share wedges of thick, sticky rice filled with peppery pork and mashed mung beans (banh chung), slices of a cold cut made from chopped pig ears and snout (gio thu), pickled vegetables, and perhaps some fish in a caramelized kho sauce. When friends and relatives come by to visit, there will be endless cups of tea, served with dried fruits and nutty sweets.

Happy New Year proclaims this box of nut and seed cookies, a traditional snack for the Vietnamese celebration of Tet

“Happy New Year” proclaims this box of nut and seed cookies, a traditional snack for the Vietnamese celebration of Tết. Photo: Anna Mindess

These traditional foods are specific to the Vietnamese observance of the Lunar New Year known as Tết. The ancient holiday shares the annual date with the Chinese New Year and both cultures cherish similar traditions of buying new clothes, decorating recently cleaned houses and giving gifts of money in red envelopes. Yet at the essential family get-togethers to honor ancestors and exchange wishes for luck and prosperity in the coming year, the treasured dishes enjoyed around the holiday table vary considerably.

A festive bundle of banh chung, the quintessential Vietnamese Lunar New Year dish.

A festive bundle of banh chung, the quintessential Vietnamese Lunar New Year dish. Photo: Anna Mindess

In the Bay Area, with its large Chinese population and their early arrival as immigrants, Tết, (as well as Lunar New Year celebrations in the Korean, Singaporean and Indonesian communities) seems to get eclipsed by the older and more well known Chinese New Year parade and events.

Owner of Oakland's Le Cheval, Son Tan, was born in the Year of the Horse.

Owner of Oakland’s Le Cheval, Son Tan, was born in the Year of the Horse. Photo: Anna Mindess

What better place to honor the lively equine spirit of the Year of the Horse than Oakland’s Le Cheval Vietnamese restaurant? I recently met with owner Son Tran, who was born in the year of the Horse and started the restaurant with his mother and other members of their large family. When they were trying to decide on a name for their restaurant more than twenty years ago, Tran told me, they thought a Vietnamese word would be too hard to pronounce, English would sound too American, and finally agreed that French, the language of the older generation and an artifact of France’s almost century of colonial rule, could convey just the right tone. Son’s astrological sign became the moniker of his family’s popular restaurant, which was sealed by his lucky find of a huge painting of stampeding stallions that defines the proud spirit of this beloved, downtown Oakland restaurant.

Since the “Horse is a highly intuitive animal,” says astrologer Susan Levitt, “people born in Horse year follow their hunches. Their keen judgment and natural intuition often help them make the right decisions throughout their life.” The Horse personality has also been noted for its independence, stubbornness and refusal to accept failure.

These traits undoubtedly helped Son Tran meet the challenges that came his family’s way when, in 2010, after 20 years as a prize-winning, neighborhood institution, Le Cheval lost its lease, was forced to close and had to lay off 70 workers due to a clash with their contentious landlord (who was later found guilty of massive wage fraud and other crimes).

When the building went into foreclosure and then auction, the Trans’ luck finally turned around and they were asked back by the new owner. In 2012, Le Cheval re-opened to the acclaim of neighborhood regulars who couldn’t wait to once more enjoy their bowls of pho, claypot rice, calamari salad, succulent beef cubes and complimentary creamy carrot soup in the same cavernous space on Clay Street beneath the soulful stares of its iconic herd of horses.

Banh Chung, the must-have dish of Tet, sticky rice stuffed with peppery pork, is eaten fresh, dipped in a bit of sugar or fried.

Banh Chung, the must-have dish of Tet, sticky rice stuffed with peppery pork, is eaten fresh, dipped in a bit of sugar or fried. Photo: Anna Mindess

Tran explained to me the story behind the most ubiquitous Tết dish, banh chung, hefty brick-like packages of pork and rice. In the Vietnam of olden times, shops and businesses would close for at least the first three days of the New Year, so townsfolk needed food to last them till the markets reopened. These blocks or cylinders of stuffed rice, were wrapped with banana leaves, neatly tied up, and then boiled for upwards of eight hours. Although some people made them at home, their labor-intensiveness compelled most families to stock up on premade bundles to enjoy for at least three days, either freshly cut or fried until crispy.

Many Chinese New Year dishes represent good luck by their shapes. A whole chicken, for example, symbolizes family togetherness and dumplings resemble golden ingots. Others take advantage of sound puns. The word for fish “yu” can also sound like “surplus” which portends prosperity in the coming year.

The same principle operates in the  Vietnamese language. Tran tells me it is important to have a Tết display in the home with budding flowers and the following fruits: mangosteen, coconut, papaya and mango, because their names also sound like other words that convey a message. For the answer to this riddle, I turned to Professor Dzuong Nguyen, who teaches Vietnamese language courses at Stanford University.

He revealed that:

    • The word for Mangosteen sounds like the verb “to pray.”
    • Coconut sounds like “barely”
    • Papaya sounds like “enough”
    • Mango sounds like “to spend”

So this fruit quartet conveys the concept of “Wishing to earn just enough to spend” (or “Here’s hoping you make enough money to cover all your household expenses”).

Sweetened dried lotus seeds are another popular snack for Tet.

Sweetened dried lotus seeds are another popular snack for Tết. Photo: Anna Mindess

Award-winning cookbook author and cooking teacher Andrea Nguyen, describes many traditional festive foods like banh chung and kho, (simmered meat or fish cooked in a caramelized sauce of sugar and fish sauce) that are prepared ahead of time and preserve well “…because during Tet, you’re supposed to be out having fun not slaving away in the kitchen!”

Son Tran told me about other festive foods, including a kind of sausage made from chopped pig ear and nose, formed into cylinders by packing tightly in cans. Pickled vegetables, such as mustard greens, daikon radish, carrot and cabbage, help with digestion of the fatty meats.

Tea and sweets, like these nutty cookies, are served to family and friends when they come to visit.

Tea and sweets, like these nutty cookies, are served to family and friends when they come to visit. Photo: Anna Mindess

Since an essential element of Lunar New Year celebration involves visiting friends’ and relatives’ homes, one must have an array of sweets on hand to serve the parade of guests. Nuts and seeds figure in many of these because, Professor Nguyen ventures, in old Vietnam, nuts were seen as a luxury item, so treating your guests to them was a special gift.

Watermelon seeds made even more lucky by red coloring. Photo: Anna Mindess

Watermelon seeds made even more lucky by red coloring. Photo: Anna Mindess

Both the flesh of the watermelon and its seeds are eaten, for their lucky red color. Dried fruits are also traditional snacks to be shared with visitors over a cup of tea. “Sweet foods are important for this holiday,” Professor Nguyen explains, ” because we are always wishing each other a sweet and happy life.”

This Sweet Fortune Snack Tray contains candied winter melon, carrots, yam, kumquats and soursop.

This “Sweet Fortune Snack Tray” contains candied winter melon, carrots, yam, kumquats and soursop. Photo: Anna Mindess

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới! Happy Lunar New Year!

It’s not too late to celebrate the Year of the Horse at Le Cheval

Le Cheval will host their annual Lunar New Year celebration on Sunday February 9 at 7pm with Lion Dancers and Martial artists entertaining guests inside the restaurant. Reservations are recommended: 510-763-8495

Le Cheval
Address: Map
1007 Clay Street
Oakland, CA 94607
Phone: 510-763-8495
Facebook: Le Cheval

KQED's Bay Area Bites
A version of this post first appeared on KQED.org Bay Area Bites

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Don’t Poison Your Guests: Tips for Hosts on Food Allergies, Intolerances and Sensitivities

New challenge for hosts: pull off a delicious dinner without knocking off your guests. Illustration: Lila Volkas

New challenge for hosts: pull off a delicious dinner without knocking off your guests. Illustration: Lila Volkas

Illustrations by Lila Volkas

As her friend spooned a ladle of steaming, scalloped potatoes onto Tara’s plate, he murmured, “Oh, I always put a bit of flour in the sauce, I’m sure a little won’t hurt you.”

“Yeah, right,” replied Tara, who has celiac disease and had provided her host with a complete rundown of her extreme intolerance to gluten, “if you want me to end this evening in an ambulance!”

Modern menus have turned into minefields, as it seems that everyone and their little brother asserts their sensitivity to something: nuts, wheat, dairy, soy, eggs, fish–even cilantro. Suddenly, it’s puzzling or even perilous to invite people over for a simple meal. What’s the difference between a trendy, personal preference and a life-threatening condition and what can we serve that all our guests will enjoy without a trip to the ER?

Many people are sensitive to bell peppers. Illustration: Lila Volkas

Many people are sensitive to bell peppers. Illustration: Lila Volkas

When I cook for friends, I always inquire about their dietary restrictions, because I have a collection of my own: bell peppers make me burp, and dairy, wheat, and soy cause painful bloating. But luckily, my food intolerances are not the same as allergies and thus are easily managed. Lacking the right enzymes to digest these foods, I do best just avoiding them, but I’ve also found some workarounds.

Smaller fat molecules make goat milk easier to digest than cow milk. Illustration: Lila Volkas

Smaller fat molecules make goat milk easier to digest than cow milk. Illustration: Lila Volkas

Goat milk, for instance, is much easier to digest than cow’s milk because it contains less lactose and its fat molecules are one-fifth the size of those in the bovine beverage. So I only pig out on goat cheese. If a friend offers me a tempting slice of her homemade pumpkin bread, I can pop a couple of enzyme pills, which usually do the trick. And even if I unknowingly consume a bite of wheat or dairy, while I might be uncomfortable for the rest of the evening, it won’t send me to the hospital.

Not so for my friend Rachel, who has severe allergies to a host of foods, especially fish and nuts. These extreme allergies run in her family and compel her to carry a self-injecting dose of epinephrine, which might just save her life.

Scientists cannot yet explain the recent rapid growth in the number of people (especially children) who suffer from potentially fatal food allergies. Nearly 15 million Americans have a moderate to severe food allergy. This now includes 1 in every 10 preschoolers, a rate that has more than doubled in the last decade.

These life-threatening allergies are a disorder of the immune system, in which the body sees the allergen as a foreign invader and mobilizes its forces to attack by releasing histamine and other powerful chemicals that trigger allergic symptoms, such as nausea, hives, itching, swelling, and shortness of breath.

Even a sharing a kiss with someone who just ate fish is enough to unleash a vicious anaphylactic reaction. Illustration: Lila Volkas

Even a sharing a kiss with someone who just ate fish is enough to unleash a vicious anaphylactic reaction. Illustration: Lila Volkas

It only takes a tiny bit of the offending food to unleash anaphylaxis which can lead to death in a matter of minutes. Even kissing a person who just snacked on sushi or polished off a PB & J is enough to spark an onset of dire symptoms.

With more children suffering from severe allergies, their parents try to cope by taking full control of everything their children put in their mouths–a daunting task. But recent news of a new therapy has shown promising results in desensitizing even those with multiple allergies.

When my friend Rachel was in her twenties and had a battery of allergy tests, her doctor noticed obvious positive results for allergies to many fish, but didn’t see a reaction to salmon and so recommended that she cautiously experiment with it. The next time Rachel and her husband went out to dinner, he ordered the grilled salmon and she dipped her fork into a drop of salmon juice run-off, but the minute it hit her tongue, Rachel immediately felt a tell-tale itching sensation on her lips. Her husband rushed her to the hospital and she made it just as her throat was dangerously starting to swell.

Now, Rachel picks her restaurants carefully (avoiding fish-forward cuisines like Japanese or even Thai, where fish sauce is a common ingredient although it’s not always listed on the menu). She informs waiters and friends that she cannot have any nuts or fish or even anything that came in contact with these foods.

“Sometimes people just don’t understand the severity of this condition,“ Rachel tells me. “Last summer, I was invited to a friend’s barbeque and although he assured me he would be preparing chicken and burgers, when I arrived I saw a plate of fish sitting by the grill. I was horrified. My friend had good intentions, but didn’t understand that cooking my chicken next to his fish could cause an allergic reaction. In the end, to my immense relief, he decided not to cook any fish that night.”

For those with celiac disease, gluten acts like an alien invader and tramples the villi in their small intestines. Illustration: Lila Volkas

For those with celiac disease, gluten acts like an alien invader and tramples the villi in their small intestines. Illustration: Lila Volkas

Celiac disease is another autoimmune disorder, but one that targets the small intestines. Gluten destroys the villi, which are fingerlike projections lining the small intestines, where the vitamins and nutrients from the foods we eat are supposed to get absorbed. Continued exposure to gluten often wreaks havoc on the entire body.

My friend Tara only discovered she had celiac in her mid-30s, after a lifetime of assorted complaints (skin problems, arthritis and digestive issues). After a few months on a trip in India, (with its rice-based diet), her symptoms inexplicably improved. But when she returned to California, they worsened. A clever doctor made the connection and the diagnosis.

“Twenty-five years ago, there weren’t many resources for those who have to eat gluten-free,” says Tara, “but thankfully now there is so much more awareness, gluten-free products even restaurants with gluten-free menus. “And Mariposa Bakery in Oakland,” adds Tara smiling, thinking about their cupcakes.  Tara has become an expert gluten-free baker herself so that she does not have to feel deprived.

For both my friends Tara and Rachel, getting invited over to someone’s house for dinner necessitates preparation and backup plans. They let their hosts know their dietary restrictions and often offer to bring a dish to share. If they are going to a large event where it won’t be easy to know for sure what possible allergens are in the food, they may eat something at home first, or bring an emergency back-up snack, just in case.

Like my problem with peppers, some food sensitivities don’t fall neatly into the categories of intolerance or allergy. Take the great cilantro divide. Genetics seems to determine whether we love the fragrant green leaves or find their flavor reminiscent of soap.

And while the focus here is on medical conditions, strongly held personal preferences and practices — from veganism to the Paleo diet — can be just as fervently followed and thus present their own set of hosting hurdles.

ADVICE FOR THE HOST

What are the best ways to deal with this array of possible food proscriptions? It depends on the size of the group you are cooking for. If it’s an intimate dinner for a couple of friends, you can probably make the whole meal conform to their dietary needs and thus be assured of a relaxed evening for everyone. Here are some other strategies if you are coordinating a large potluck or serving a buffet for 100.

Thoughtful hosting: a make your own salad bar. Illustration: Lila Volkas

Thoughtful hosting: a “make-your-own” salad bar. Illustration: Lila Volkas

TIPS

  • Ask guests re: dietary restrictions before you plan your menu. If you are unsure of the specifics of their sensitivities, ask clarifying questions.
  • Keep the labels, boxes and bags of foods you used, so guests with allergies can check them out. Sometimes they will recognize a benign sounding ingredient as potentially harmful.
  • On a buffet table: a card next to each dish, detailing ingredients will be much appreciated.
  • Since even a small amount of an allergen can make people sick, avoid cross-contamination of utensils, dishes and cutting surfaces with offending foods.
  • A “make-your-own” bar for salads, tacos or ice cream sundaes, etc. will allow guests the freedom to include or avoid ingredients.
  • Provide questionable add-ins in separate bowls, each with its own spoon, to avoid cross-contamination
  • For a potluck or buffet, set aside a corner of the table for g/f, nut-free, vegan, etc. so these dishes can be grouped together.
  • Read labels. There may be hidden ingredients that you are not aware of, (e.g., regular soy-sauce contains gluten; while wheat-free tamari does not).
  • Don’t take it personally, if a friend declines to try your prize-winning ceviche or sculpted marzipan fruits.

KQED's Bay Area Bites

A version of this post first appeared on KQED Bay Area Bites on December 26, 2013

Posted in Food allergies, Politeness | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Making Chevre with a Cheese Whiz, San Francisco’s Own Milkmaid

Goat cheese platter, Berkeley Cheeseboard Collective. Photo: Anna Mindess

Goat cheese platter, Berkeley Cheeseboard Collective. Photo: Anna Mindess

I’m gaga for goat cheese. When I saw a little sign at Berkeley’s Cheese Board Collective announcing a goat cheese class, I was all over it. On a recent evening, two dozen eager, cheese-maker-wannabes were welcomed by platters laden with dates, pears, persimmons and several varieties of goat cheese to get us in the mood. The Bonne Bouche, with its squiggly gray, ash-ripened crust and pungent creamy interior disappeared quickly among this herd of goat cheese lovers.

Louella Hill, SF Milkmaid. Photo: Anna Mindess

Louella Hill, SF Milkmaid. Photo: Anna Mindess

Then we met our instructor, the lovely Louella Hill, better known as the SF Milkmaid, who, in her old fashioned milk maid cap looked like she just stepped out of an illustration from a 19th century book of nursery rhymes.

Hill told us that her love affair with cheese started on a sheep farm in Tuscany, twelve years ago and then waxed poetical on her obsession:

“Cheesemaking is an art form that asks for patience. It’s a puzzle that challenges your brain and asks you to trust time. It encourages us to embrace the invisible microbial world, and that can’t be rushed.”

Then, on to the basics of her simple, but versatile recipe that is suited to making soft, fresh chevre or a complex, molded cheese. The fresh chevre we would go home with could be eaten in a day or so, or left to age with a pinch of added mold spores (geotrichium candidum) to turn it into a distant cousin of the Bonne Bouche.

Scooping the curds from the whey.

Scooping the curds from the whey.

With an animal lover’s tender gaze, Hill confided that cheese is better from a sheep, cow or goat with whom you have a personal relationship. But if you don’t happen to have your own goats and hillside, she recommends buying Summerhill Dairy Goat milk. And the only other ingredients needed are cultured buttermilk, and a drop each of calcium chloride and rennet (both available at the Cheese Board).

That led us into a serving of science, (including: coagulation, effects of homogenization, temperature, fat globules…etc.) but Hill’s explanations made these technical aspects easy to digest. She showed us a simple method to mix everything in the goat milk bottle, but instructed us to combine by gently tilting the bottle back and forth several times, instead of shaking. In order to help solids clump together and get rid of excess water, the milk mixture needs to rest quietly for about 12 hours (and not near a radio with a booming base, Hill cautioned).

When she brought out a pot she had made the day before, we got to ladle the curds from the whey into cheese molds to let finish draining in our own kitchens. Hill offered us the probiotic-rich, leftover liquid whey to take home and drink, put in our gardens or use to start another batch of cheese. (And I finally understood what Miss Muffet was eating when that insistent spider took a seat beside her.)

Plastic cheese mold vs. cheesecloth draining. Photo: Anna Mindess

Plastic cheese mold vs. cheesecloth draining. Photo: Anna Mindess

As an alternative to using a plastic cheese mold, with holes for the whey to continue to drain out, Hill demonstrated the tradition of tying up the cheese in–what else–cheesecloth.

She also showed us how to sprinkle already formed cheese rounds with ash or, for an added zing, wrap them in booze-soaked fig leaves.

 Wrapping goat cheese in booze-soaked fig leaf. Photo: Anna Mindess

Wrapping goat cheese in booze-soaked fig leaf. Photo: Anna Mindess

San Francisco Milkmaid Information:

SF Milkmaid classes
Twitter: @sfmilkmaid
Facebook: San Francisco Milk Maid

Upcoming classes include:

Louella Hill has a book coming out next May from Chronicle Books, called Kitchen Creamery, with 30 recipes for home cheesemaking.

My chevre comes home. Photo: Anna Mindess

My chevre comes home. Photo: Anna Mindess

KQED's Bay Area Bites
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Gruesome Goodies: Halloween Bentos to Make for your Little Bats and Ghouls

Frankenstein bento, with cheese ghost and persimmon pumpkin. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Frankenstein bento, with cheese ghost and persimmon pumpkin. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

I’ve always loved the spooky aspects of Halloween — its spiders and skeletons — and reveled in the creative challenge of sewing costumes and decorating the house. But I’ve never been crazy about the forced candy overdose. When my daughter Lila was little, I tried various ideas to part her from her ton of sugar. (Did you know there’s a Candy Monster who will buy back your trick-or-treat loot if you leave it on your doorstep overnight?)

Lila has always appreciated my cute culinary creations. Now she’s away at college, but I still enjoy playing with food and I finally discovered the perfect antidote to candy mania: Halloween bento boxes — whimsical, packed lunches with healthy, attractive food that tempts your kids to taste new things and eat their veggies.

Vampire egg bunny and sausage fingers with red pepper nails. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Vampire egg bunny and sausage fingers with red pepper nails. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Tradition

In Japan, the tradition of charmingly aesthetic food fabrication is taken quite seriously (with more women in the work force, it will be interesting to see if this cultural trend continues). You can read more about this Japanese tradition and view slides at PBS’s The Meaning of Food.  A brief excerpt:

A typical mother spends almost an hour crafting every lunch into a healthful, beguiling blend of cartoon characters, flora and fauna — anything that will make the food appeal to her child. The teacher judges whether the lunch box is prepared according to obento rules (e.g., the food must be as handmade as possible, and it must be appetizing and aesthetically appealing to the child).

Bentos often highlight the season or a coming holiday. Although Halloween trick or treating is not practiced in Japan, the nation that is wild for cosplay loves to dress up and Halloween is sneaking into advertisements and decorations, thanks in part to Disneyland and Universal Studio theme parks in Japan.

Boo!: nori black cat, soba noodles, olives and pickle. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Boo!: nori black cat, soba noodles, olives and pickle. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Not just for kids

The practice of bento lunchbox making has now been adopted around the world. Bentos’ popularity is due, in part, to the fact that they encourage healthy, mindful eating and are environmentally friendly — since there is no extra packaging to throw away. Adults often appreciate the portion control in pre-made lunches for weight loss. And taking the time to prepare an attractive meal definitely is a sign of love, (even for yourself).

Surfing the Internet, I discovered a lunchbox artist, who goes by the name of Gamene. Although she has moved on to a different job now, the former Manhattan attorney explained her motivation for making these edible works of art:

“…while at the law firm, Gamene found the work environment to be chaotic and often stressful… by taking the time to prepare healthy, colorful, and artistic lunch boxes, she guaranteed herself at least one moment of harmony during her busy work day.”

Tools

Really, you don’t need any special tools or equipment, just a sharp knife and a little patience. That said, there is a ton of stuff out there either made specifically for bentos or available at your local art, hardware or dollar store. Optional helpers: cookie cutters, hard-boiled egg molds, rice molds, divided boxes, silicone containers, fancy toothpicks.

Optional tools include an Exacto knife, cookie cutters, egg mold and containers. Photo: Anna Mindess

Optional tools include an Exacto knife, cookie cutters, egg mold and containers. Photo: Anna Mindess

Locally, a cheap place to buy bento-paraphernalia is the $1.50 store, Daiso. There’s one in Berkeley, one in SF Japantown and others in the larger Bay Area.

A little more classy assortment can be found at Berkeley’s Tokyo Fish Market Gift Shop.

Mummy of cheese-wrapped raisin bread, turkey patty witch. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Mummy of cheese-wrapped raisin bread, turkey patty witch. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

If the Internet doesn’t provide enough inspiration, Amazon lists hundreds of books on the subject. Number one on their list is The Just Bento Cookbook by Makiko Itoh, whose twin websites, Just Bento and Just Hungry, I visit often. They have deservingly won wide acclaim. Here is a post on Halloween bentos by Makiko.

 Graveyard with rice cracker tombstones set in hummus, jicama bones. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Graveyard with rice cracker tombstones set in hummus, jicama bones. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

You don’t have to make special food items for bentos; left-overs often serve well, with a little decoration. The unwritten rule seems to be that each bento should contain a well-rounded meal with protein, carbs, fruit and veggies.

In making my Halloween bentos, I found the following useful tips:

  • Persimmons sliced through the middle make great pumpkins
  • Pre-sliced jicama is perfect for bones and picket fences
  • Nori (dried seaweed) can be used for the bats, black cats, eyes and other accents (most easily cut with a very sharp pair of sewing scissors)
  • Olives, pickles, grapes, pimentos can make assorted facial features
  • Hummus works well as “glue”
  • Even though I don’t usually buy them, sliced cheese in pre-wrapped squares comes in handy
  • A slice of red pepper studded with teeth (of cheese or slivered almonds) looks just like “wax lips”

Happy Halloween Lunch making! (Hmm…I wonder if Lila would appreciate a bunny hard-boiled egg when she comes home for Winter break?)

Avocado monster with cheese accents. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Avocado monster with cheese accents. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

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Icy or Spicy? Cooling Foods Across Cultures

In summertime, some like it cold and some like it hot. Left photo: Managementboy, wikimedia commons; Right photo: McKay Savage, Flickr

In summertime, some like it cold and some like it hot. Left photo: Managementboy, wikimedia commons; Right photo: McKay Savage, wikimedia commons

Like a dripping popsicle in an overheated toddler’s hand, I’m melting in Kyoto’s sultry, summer streets. Luckily, my friend Tomoko knows the perfect thing to revive me: a cooling lunch of icy noodles at a restaurant perched atop a cascading mountain stream. The only hitch — and part of the fun — is that we’ll have to catch our somen noodles (with chopsticks, of course) as they whiz down the cold water rushing through a bamboo tube. Nagashi Somen or “flowing noodles” is a traditional treat to cope with Japan’s sauna-like summers. Some families erect a backyard bamboo course to delight the kids — as in this video.

Catch your noodles before they get away. Nagashi Somen, Kibune, Japan. Photo: Anna Mindess

Catch your noodles before they slip away. Nagashi Somen, Kibune, Japan. Photos: Anna Mindess, Tomoko Yoshihara

Near Kyoto, just one restaurant serves this summertime-only, snatch-your-noodle-experience. Tomoko and I take a 20-minute train ride and a 10-minute bus ride to the village of Kibune, nestled in a forested valley. Then we walk up a narrow mountain road, past picturesque inns and high-end kaiseki restaurants set on platforms over the gushing river. Even though it’s an uphill trek to the last eating spot at the top of the path, the forest’s shaded greenery, undulating thrum of cicadas and refreshing river air feels revitalizing — plus it’s twenty degrees cooler than in the city.

This popular restaurant adds a stainless steel gutter inside the traditional bamboo pipe — perhaps for ease of cleanup or added speed? The crowd of diners are seated ten at a time at the noodle bar and treated to bracing breezes from nearby dramatic waterfalls. As the server brings us each a bowl of dipping sauce and pair of chopsticks to nab our noodles, she points out which of the several pipelines are assigned to which diners and the fun begins as slippery strands zoom by hungry patrons. Squeals of delight or frustration are heard all around, followed by murmurs of enjoyment.

Tomoko is seated “downstream” from me, so she can snag a clump of noodles if I miss it, which I do on the first round. Then she shares her strategy: stand the ends of the chopsticks in the water to act as a dainty dam. It works! My chilled nest of noodles, dipped in tangy sauce, tastes even better for having caught it. Once we all get the hang of it, the challenge is to grab your noodles, take a photo, dip and eat before the next bundle comes whizzing by. You can watch all the diners attempting this juggling act. After a dozen or so rounds, a last tangle of pink noodles silently slides by to announce the final serving.

On our journey back to the city, I ask Tomoko what other foods are eaten in Japan’s meltingly hot summers. Besides cold noodles (somen, reimen and soba), she tells me that unagi is supposed to supply strength to withstand the withering weather. Plus cooling sweets such as mizu-yokan (a jelly made with red adzuki beans) and shaved iced desserts like kakigori, flavored with green tea or other syrups.

Even though our rare Bay Area hot spells are short and blessedly dry,” I start to wonder about “cooling foods” in other cultures. So I ask a few Bay Area connections to share their wisdom. (This is just a sampling of cultures. Please feel free to add your favorites).

Sweet and Icy. Left: Halo-halo, photo: tumbler??. Center: Kakigori, photo: Chris 73, wikimedia commons. Right: Ice Kachang, photo: Anna Mindess

Sweet and Icy. Left: Halo-halo, photo: tumblr. Center: Kakigori, photo: Chris 73, wikimedia commons. Right: Ice Kachang, photo: Anna Mindess

Sweet and Icy

Aileen Suzara, educator, natural chef and environmental justice advocate, who often writes about Filipino cuisine at Kitchen Kwento,  suggests the classic Filipino icy treat, halo-halo, “literally a mix-mix” with a range of possible ingredients. The layered medley may include jackfruit, kaong palm fruit, pineapple gelatin, red beans, a scoop of shaved ice, toasted rice pinipig or ube (purple yam) ice cream, topped with evaporated milk, leche flan and strands of coconut.

This reminds me of Ice Kachang, a mountain of shaved ice, doused with syrups and toppings, which I sampled on a trip to Singapore, another steamy city. Korean Pat-bing-soo also features shaved ice, topped with sweet red bean paste and mochi. And of course, even a day in the 70’s would be an excuse for San Franciscans to head over to Bi-Rite Creamery for a scoop of their salted caramel or balsamic strawberry ice cream. Ironically, this article in Time reveals that slurping ice cream actually heats up the body, thanks to its fat content. (Oh, now I know why SF is such an ice cream-crazed city — it makes us warmer!)

Soup (cold or hot)

While we’re on the subject of chilled dishes, people in many countries enjoy cold soups during the hottest months — think Spanish gazpachos, Swedish fruit soups, and French-inspired vichyssoise. Yet, on the opposite end of the culinary continuum, diners in other cultures prefer to sip hot summer soups for their cooling properties.

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune featured Korean summer foods, like Sam gye tang (Ginseng Chicken Soup).

“Boiled chicken in a steaming stone bowl may sound like the last thing you crave on a sweltering, 90 percent humidity afternoon. But that’s exactly what Koreans line up for during the summer doldrums. Sam gye tang is young chicken or hen stuffed with glutinous rice, garlic, jujube (a prune-y maroon date), ginseng and sometimes ginger, then simmered in its own fat and juices. The two vital “warming” ingredients, ginseng and garlic, are meant to inject you with nutrients lost to excessive sweating, as well as regulate blood flow and metabolism.”

Wok-wizard and acclaimed cookbook author, Grace Young, grew up in a traditional Chinese home in San Francisco. In The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen she presents “the brilliant harmony of Chinese cooking” as an ingenious system to mitigate the effects of external as well as internal heat. “Unlike the Western practice of drinking iced beverages to cool the body,” Young explains, “hot soups are often drunk in the summer in China.”

Young includes recipes her mother and aunt would routinely make during hot weather, including Herbal Winter Melon Soup with adzuki beans, and Soybean and Sparerib Soup with ginger. She explains that these soups are “tonics” and sipped for their healing properties, rather than consumed as a meal. Young recalls that growing up in her Cantonese family’s home, a bowl or two was drunk at mealtimes, in place of water, milk or soda. She also notes that these  “yin-yang concoctions” are “an acquired taste” and change with the seasons.

Heat from Spice is Nice

It’s not just the warm temperature of the food, but the heat from spices (especially peppers) that many cultures employ to beat the heat. Vinita Jacinto, chef and cooking teacher, who writes at The Spice Whisperer  shares that in India, certain herbs and spices (like cumin and cayenne) promote perspiration to naturally cool the body. “Spicy food is a natural way to keep cool in the tropics,” she says.  One of her favorite hot weather beverages is  Jal-Jeera, a spiced lemonade she prepares with toasted cumin powder, mint, cilantro, black salt and raw sugar or agave.

Vinita Jacinto, the Spice Whisperer

Vinita Jacinto, the Spice Whisperer, photo: Anna Mindess

Because of its replenishing, high water content, watermelon is a natural hot weather favorite around the world. Jacinto amps up watermelon’s cooling capabilities by sprinkling chunks of fruit with a mixture of dry mango powder, black salt, ginger powder and garnishing with chopped mint. An additional summer drink she suggests is a salted buttermilk lassi with toasted cumin and muddled mint. “Its protein fights off heat exhaustion as it rehydrates the body,” counsels Jacinto.

Another devotee of the power of peppers is Nico Vera, who chronicles the drinks and cuisine of Peru in his blog Pisco Trail.  “During Peruvian summers [November-March], when Lima is hot and humid,” Vera says, “the most cooling dish for lunch is ceviche: fresh fish, lime juice, onions, salt, hot peppers, and a cold beer make quite the combination. I suspect that the hot peppers also act as cooling agents, in that they make one perspire and cool off.”

Japanese inspired Peruvian Ceviche by Nico Vera

Japanese inspired Peruvian Ceviche, photo by Nico Vera

Traveling full circle back to Japan, Vera comments that, “Peru has a tremendous abundance and variety of fish. But not until the arrival of the Japanese 100 years ago, did Peruvians truly become interested in seafood. Thanks in large part to their profound appreciation for fish, the Japanese transformed how Peruvians prepared and ate Ceviche, making it one of Peru’s most culturally significant dishes.” Here is his recipe for Ceviche Nikkei.

With our quirky Bay Area weather patterns, we often get our warmest days in early fall, so you might just want to keep some ice and spice handy.

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From Peaches to Persimmons: A Taste of Two Seasons (in Japan)

momo to kaki - fruit straddles two Japanese seasons

Japanese momo makes way for kaki – fruit signifies the shifting seasons

When I arrived in steamy, hot Kyoto in early September, I fell into a torrid summer romance – with white peaches. I was consumed with these perfumed, seductive, satisfying, luscious orbs. Each white peach is treated like a luxury item in Japan, a queen, whose head rests on a lacy ruffled collar.

one peachI’m from California, where we certainly grow peaches and I’m a loyal farmers’ market shopper. But buying peaches at home is a hit-or-miss-affair. Sometimes they’re hard, or mushy, or worst of all: mealy. In Japan, by contrast, every single white peach I ate was perfectly sweet, ripe, ready for eating, the essence of summer. A bit of research turned up the reason behind this perfection: the loving care peaches receive in their birthplace, Okayama, where they are individually wrapped in little bags while still on the tree.

My peach passion spilled beyond the fruit itself. I devoured white peach yogurt and jam, guzzled white peach smoothies and branched out to white peach flavored water, candy, even lip gloss. I told you I was obsessed.

white peaches
Then, about a week later, in the middle of September, I noticed a subtle shift, but not in the weather, which remained unrelentingly hot. No, the change I noticed was in product packaging. All of a sudden, radiant rust and golden autumn leaves appeared everywhere, on candy containers, bento boxes and store displays. And at my local market, glowing orange persimmons (my favorite fall fruit) made their shy debut.

fall persimmons

This punctuation between peach and persimmon may have coincided with Tsukimi, the Moon Viewing Ceremony, an intriguing event I attended that heralds the coming of autumn. As usual, special foods are involved: tsukimi dango,  moon-shaped sweets, plus moon themed salads and noodles. I even heard that Japan’s Mc Donald’s featured a “moon burger” with the addition of a fried egg.

Good moon viewing food

Good moon viewing food

It was the night of the Autumn Moon Viewing that I started to notice the profusion of persimmon-themed sweets. And had the Best. Persimmon Mochi. Ever.

persimmon mochi collage

the best persimmon mochi

And as I transitioned my taste buds from peaches to persimmons, during the last week in September, several Japanese friends mentioned the concept of “shun” and told me it was a hard one to translate in English. Immediately, my interest was piqued, as those hard to translate words often carry keys to culture.

The first instance occurred during my sushi-focused day, when Koichi, my Kansai guide, erupted in delight upon spotting a silvery fish for sale in the market. That fresh sanma (Pacific saury) seemed to be a harbinger of autumn. He bought a pair to make for dinner and couldn’t wait to show his wife. He said she would be so excited — to see a fish — and she was.

surprise salad

Then my friend Keiko took me out to dinner at Kitchen Raku Raku, a unique little spot where we trusted the chef, with brilliant results. Chef Akira Mizobuchi started us off with a “surprise salad,” his artful combination with avocado, tofu, mushrooms and goya  (Okinawan “bitter melon” that the chef transformed into delectable, golden fried crescents). As Keiko and I finished off the shared salad, she excitedly pointed to a little brown nub and exclaimed, “Ohh, look! kuri! (chestnut) Shun!” Then she tried to explain the meaning of “shun“. Not really “at the height of the season” but just at the beginning.

On a lovely site I just discovered called Savory Japan, Risa Sekiguchi describes the concept like this:

There is also a word to describe the celebration of seasonal food at its peak, as there is no equivalent in English: shun. This word describes the exact moment that a vegetable is at its very best, a fruit at its most succulently sweet, fish at its most flavorful. Serious chefs take great pride in the celebration of shun, and it is central to the culinary world.

persimmon sweets

yatsuhashi – persimmon sweets

This Japanese quality of being exquisitely in tune with the seasons pervades everything and deeply touched this California girl with the meaning it adds to the smallest details of daily life. As Sekiguchi says,

“Consideration for the season is second nature; part of the Japanese psyche. This attention to the seasons even has a term: kisetsukan. The origin of this emphasis on seasonality can be traced back to the roots of the indigenous nature-loving Shinto religion, as well as to Japan’s agrarian past…”

kaki gum

I brought home some boxed persimmon sweets (yatsuhashi) to savor and share this feeling. (And a pack of persimmon gum and a tiny sewn persimmon, just for fun.)

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