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.)

Posted in desserts and sweets, Japan, Japanese food | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Sushi Maniac Serves Me an Oishii (Delicious) Day in Osaka

my attempt sushi Collage

I’ve just failed miserably at my first attempt to form a compact ball of sushi rice. But my teacher, Koichi, an Osaka brain surgeon by day and sushi aficionado on the weekend, reassures me that it takes years to perfect this art. He lets me smoosh some fresh wasabi root on a nifty grater made of shark fin, instead. “Grind it in circles, but not too fast,” he counsels. “Too high a temperature will spoil the flavor.”

I found my way to his compact kitchen through the Kansai Volunteer Guides’ website, where Koichi, who wants to practice his English with foreign visitors, mentions his love of sushi and desire to share its history with travelers. I’ve had previous memorable experiences with Kyoto Free Guides and Tokyo Free Guides and the prospect of learning more about my favorite food–sushi–during my brief stay in Japan was irresistible. I didn’t realize this tour was going to be so hands-on.

We started with lunch of traditional Osaka style pressed sushi at a 200-year old restaurant, which is currently situated in the middle of a noisy, colorful shopping street. (Website of Fukusushi restaurant is only in Japanese.)

My Osaka sushi guide, Koichi-san

My Osaka sushi guide, Koichi-san

As we enjoyed our lunch of Osaka style hakozushi, which is formed by pressing rice and prepared fish in a wooden box, Koichi explained a little about the history of sushi, which spans hundreds of years in Southeast Asia and Japan, and was originally a technique of preserving rice and fish by fermentation. The nigiri sushi using raw fish that we are most familiar with (known as Edo or Tokyo style) is a relative newcomer, only about 150 years old.

Osaka sushi Collage

Without refrigeration, raw fish could not be eaten, unless it was dockside. So all the fish featured in our Osaka style lunch was cooked or cured in vinegar.  After pressing in the wooden box, the resulting large block of sushi is cut into bite-sized pieces, each with two or more varieties such as shrimp, tamago, hirame and eel. Another Osaka specialty we sampled: large rectangles of pressed and sliced mackerel wearing a delicate kombu veil.

No wasabi was in sight and Koichi said our sushi didn’t really need soy sauce. He disapproved of the thick sludge of wasabi and soy sauce I told him most Americans stir up to slather their sushi.

It's all plastic - and the fire is fake

It’s all plastic – and the fire is fake

After a detour through a “chefs’ street,” perusing shops selling every incarnation of plastic display food and ogling gleaming professional knives costing several thousand dollars, we ended up shopping for the freshest fish at — of all places — Takashimaya department store basement. Actually Japanese department store food basements are a wonderland of every possible delicacy, attractively displayed – often with sample tastes – easy dining for non-Japanese speakers – all you have to do is point.

Collage

Koichi was thrilled to find some beautiful sanma  (pacific saury), a harbinger of autumn. He could tell it was very fresh from its gleaming silvery blue skin, transparent eye, and moist tail. He put a pair in his basket along with, anago (sea eel), tai (sea bream), tuna, aji (horse mackerel) and several other ingredients.

At his condo, I met Koichi’s wife and baby daughter and Koichi demonstrated the many rituals of the sushi preparation while I watched attentively from a ringside seat. Throughout his measuring, mixing, boiling, steaming and slicing, Koichi thoughtfully shared his recipes and provided me with a steady stream of tastes.

tamago Collage

First challenge: tamago, the egg omelet. This seemingly simple inclusion in many set sushi menus back home is actually extremely difficult to make. As he poured, folded and refolded the mixture of egg, mirin, sugar and soy sauce in a series of moves in a special pan, Koichi confessed that his success rate is only about 50%. Today was a lucky day and he nailed it.

Then the eel had to be boiled, the tai skin seared, and the sanma gutted and deboned and the other fish thinly sliced. Koichi offered me a knife but I’m a little squeamish with blood and guts and, considering he works as a neurosurgeon, I figured that sharp metal objects would be better off in his seasoned hands.

I asked Koichi why he didn’t buy already prepared sushi, since Takashimaya had plenty of tempting platters. “Sushi is my hobby, “ he replied. “It’s exciting, with many small details. It’s simple, but difficult and easy to fail.”

tuna

After the buttery tuna, he served me a new taste: scallion sprouts, a delightful, palate cleanser.

scallion sprout sushi

scallion sprout sushi

As we enjoyed our dinner,  I mentioned that my favorite sushi is mirugai (giant clam). Koichi was impressed (and I was glad to be familiar with more than just California rolls). As we said our goodbyes, Koichi presented me with a book on sushi in both Japanese and English for a “fellow sushi maniac.” I can’t imagine a more thoughtful gift to end a day that was totemo oishii (totally delicious).

sushi maniac Collage

Domo arigato gozaimasu, Koichi!

Posted in Japan, Japanese food, tasting tours | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Chinese Carver Jimmy Zhang Makes Melons Bloom and Carrots Fly

Jimmy Zhang’s passion was unleashed by a potato. As a teenager in Shenyang, China, he saw a video of a chef carving a rose out of a potato and was instantly hooked. But when he tried to fashion his own spud blossoms at home with an ordinary knife, he discovered it wasn’t as easy as it looked. So after high school, Zhang enrolled in a Chinese Culinary Arts Institute program specializing in the ancient art of fruit and vegetable carving. After assisting his distinguished teacher, winning international competitions in China and abroad, he moved to Northern California. He now teaches locally and nationally, presents live demonstrations and carves elaborate creations for events from birthday banquets to weddings.

Jimmy Zhang carves a rose. Photo: Anna Mindess

Jimmy Zhang carves a rose. Photo: Anna Mindess

Zhang’s parents were supportive of his career decision from the start, but his brother had some complaints. “I had to practice a lot at home, using materials like radishes and potatoes in the wintertime,” said Zhang, “and every night, my mother made the vegetables into a beef stew. My brother would sigh, ‘Stew, again?!’”

“My dream was to travel and see the world outside of China,” says Zhang. A visit to a friend in sunny California, decided his future, but in 1997, when Zhang moved here, he spoke no English. He took ESL classes–where he met his future wife–but didn’t think his English improved much.

When he landed a job teaching Asian art and cooking in the Culinary Arts Program at Oakland’s Laney College, however, his students helped him find the right words. “The students knew I had excellent skills, but my English wasn’t good enough to express what I wanted to say,” admits Zhang, smiling. “So I taught them with my broken English and they gave me the correct words to use, like “cut this smooth and round” and then I repeated what they said and that’s how I learned English.”

Chef Jimmy Zhang creates a bird from carrots. Photo: Jimmy Zhang

Chef Jimmy Zhang creates a bird from carrots. Photo: Jimmy Zhang

Zhang’s favorite subjects are living creatures, since the challenge is to depict their vitality through action or emotion. He has carved rearing horses out of taro, tropical fish from squash and carrots and a feisty dragon out of giant radishes.

A crew from Snapple once came to his house and filmed him carving an entire vegetable tableau to illustrate one of the facts on their lids: “A dolphin sleeps with one eye open.” Zhang fashioned a beach scene, complete with taro dolphin lounging on a beach chair underneath an acorn squash umbrella, the dolphin’s one open eye is focused possessively on his bottle of Snapple.

Watermelon carving by Jimmy Zhang. Photo: Anna Mindess

Watermelon carving by Jimmy Zhang. Photo: Anna Mindess

For awe-inspiring, elegant beauty, Zhang’s exquisitely faceted watermelon flower centerpieces are just too gorgeous to eat. They often require an hour and a half of precise, repetitive cutting with a special knife. Watermelon is the perfect sculptural medium with its translucent layers of green white, pink and red hues. (Traditional carvers prefer to take advantage of the exquisite natural colors that fruit and vegetables already possess, in lieu of dyeing them.)

Zhang, a recipient of numerous medals at professional fruit carving competitions, is in high demand as a teacher and is often invited to present daylong to weeklong courses at culinary schools around the country. He also organizes his own private group classes through his website, Art Chef.

Jimmy Zhang teaches at Veggy Art Studios. Photo: Jimmy Zhang

Jimmy Zhang teaches at Veggy Art Studios. Photo: Jimmy Zhang

Future plans include a summer program designed specifically for youth, ages 13-20. “Mostly, I’ve taught adults, both professionals and non-professionals, but young people really love this art too and it’s good to develop your skills at an early age, since it takes some practice,” says Zhang, who began learning his craft at age 19.

Zhang admits that even though he has attained the highest skill level in this exacting art, he no longer competes in tournaments. “I leave that to my students. And if they earn the medals, it means, I’ve done a good job as teacher.”

Facebook: Jimmy Zhang, Art Chef

KQED's Bay Area Bites

A version of this piece was first posted on KQED Bay Area Bites. A big thanks to filmmaker Kim Aronson for collaborating with me. 

Posted in Chinese food, Thai food | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

ZATAR – A Mediterranean Oasis Nurtures Diners with Homegrown Produce

Co-owners of Zatar, Waiel and Kelly Majid. Photo: Anna Mindess

Co-owners of Zatar, Waiel and Kelly Majid. Photo: Anna Mindess

Do you hunger for that delicious feeling of being well cared for, dining with friends who cook up flavorful dishes incorporating fruit and vegetables from their own gardens?

Then invite yourself over for lunch or dinner at tiny Zatar restaurant, tucked away on Shattuck Avenue near University in Berkeley, where meals featuring organic produce and naturally raised meats have been lovingly prepared since 2002 by Waiel and Kelly Majid.

Zatar’s cuisine can be hard to pigeonhole. Kelly Majid describes it as “eclectic Mediterranean, with dishes inspired from the region, including Syria, Lebanon and Morocco.” She adds, “We are not trying to be authentic to any one country, but rather enjoy the freedom to adjust our recipes. Our food is always Mediterranean in essence, employing ingredients like olive oil, lamb, fresh seafood, sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses, homemade yogurt, lots of fresh herbs, and other common elements used in Mediterranean cooking across the area.”

Zatar's boreka. Photo: Anna Mindess

Zatar’s boreka. Photo: Anna Mindess

With the tantalizing aroma of sautéed onions and leeks lingering in the air, Waiel Majid sits down for a quick chat between his cooking chores. The softened greens he just prepared will be later mixed with sheep’s feta, enrobed in filo and transformed into a creamy and crunchy boreka appetizer.

Majid immediately shatters the classic image of a chef learning his skills at his mother’s knee. “My mother was a terrible cook,” he admits. “I was the youngest of nine children, and by the time I was born, she was bored with cooking for so many kids and went back to school to become a teacher, so she didn’t have much time.” Growing up in Baqubah, Iraq, a fertile, riverside area known for its citrus fruits, pomegranates and figs, Majid says, “It was natural to eat from the bounty of my family’s garden. In summer, we grew cucumbers, green beans, lettuce, tomatoes, eggplant and squash right on the riverbank.”

“I taught myself to cook so I could eat,” he adds with his characteristic deadpan delivery. Inspired by his daily job collecting bread from the village baker, at age nine, Majid built his own clay oven in the backyard to bake bread and cookies.

After high school, Majid had an opportunity to come to the U.S. for training to become a pilot.  These aviation skills were needed to fight a special war — a war against swarms of locusts that could destroy an entire field of vegetables in an hour. To save their local crops, the Iraqi Department of Agriculture recruited a group of physically fit young men to travel to Oakland, California and train to become crop dusters.

When he arrived in California in 1977, Majid spoke only Arabic, but his aviation school offered English courses to its international students. “I also got an American girlfriend to learn to speak better,” he says with the hint of a grin.

American food presented many surprises. “I was amazed that Jack in the Box was open 24 hours,” says Majid. “And one Thanksgiving, with all the families of my friends’ girlfriends, we went to five dinners of turkey and pumpkin pie.”

After graduating from aviation school, he traveled back to Iraq and assumed he would start dusting date palms. But Majid discovered that the aviation training the government had sponsored seemed in actuality to be preparation for the war with Iran. He decided to leave the country, and, saying he was going to visit a friend in London, came back to California instead. He heard later that several of his classmates ended up using their aviation skills to transport wounded soldiers, weapons and supplies for the war.

After training in aerospace mechanics, Majid worked for 15 years in California making booster rockets for the Space Shuttle. “When the company folded, 17 years ago, I decided to open a restaurant with a couple of partners in a vacant space on Shattuck Avenue that used to be a Peruvian restaurant,” Majid said. [This first incarnation was called Europa.] “Everyone thought I was crazy. Open a restaurant in Berkeley? With no experience? I didn’t care. I loved to cook.”

Zatar's mezza sampler. Photo: Anna Mindess

Zatar’s mezza sampler. Photo: Anna Mindess

An anthropology major who also grew up cooking from her garden, Kelly came in to try out Europa before her planned move to Texas to continue her studies. She loved the food Waiel prepared and later responded to a “Help Wanted” sign. A vegetarian for 15 years, all it took was one taste of Waiel’s leg of lamb for her to begin eating meat again and drop her Texas travel plans.

With seven years of restaurant experience at Europa, Waiel and Kelly decided to take it over and reincarnate it as Zatar, named for the traditional and ubiquitous spice blend of dried herbs and sesame seeds. One big change they instituted was a switch to organic, local, seasonal produce and all-natural meats.

Their richly colored dining room has only 30 seats, including two romantic window seats set with crimson pillows. Kelly and Waiel covered the old Formica tables with bold Portuguese tiles, hung up hand-beaded lamps from Damascus and decorated the walls with ceramic platters, mostly souvenirs from their trips to Italy, Spain, Morocco and Syria.

colorful plates decorate Zatar's walls. Photo: Anna Mindess

colorful plates decorate Zatar’s walls. Photo: Anna Mindess

Waiel and Kelly do all the cooking themselves, preparing everything from scratch, such as their organic yogurt. In the dining room, Kelly serves handsome platters festooned with edible flowers and piled with produce from their half-acre organic garden, which includes more than 50 mature fruit trees and a plethora of vegetables, herbs and salad greens harvested daily for Zatar’s kitchen.

Kelly admits that she and Waiel do not have training in business or PR, just a love of gardening and cooking. She recalls an evening 15 years ago when an excited diner called her over. “Where did you get this carrot?” the woman exclaimed, “Oh my God, I’ve never tasted a carrot like this.” When Kelly informed her it was from their own organic garden, the woman told her, “You must put that information on the menu!”

Zatar’s menu offers a medley of small plates to start. The mezza sampler (above) shows off their house-made hummus, lebna (yogurt cheese) and mohamara, a pomegranate, walnut and red pepper spread. Salads feature butter lettuce and mixed greens from their garden.

Kabob feast for two features veggies from the garden. Photo: Anna Mindess

Kabob feast for two features veggies from the garden. Photo: Anna Mindess

The kabob feast for two lets you sample tender leg of lamb, moist chicken and flavorful kefta (spiced ground lamb with shallots) over rice. The plate is adorned with a bounty of their grilled, garden-fresh veggies—sweet carrots, crunchy peas and beans, and a parsnip that melts in your mouth. Other dishes include warm lamb dolmas, grilled calamari and a fish tagine. Lunches feature grilled lavash sandwiches and falafel that is crispy on the outside and bright green on the inside, loaded with fresh herbs. Drinks extend the Mediterranean mood, with house-made lemonade with spearmint, tamarind with rosewater and lemon, and traditional Lebanese jalab (date syrup with rose water). Their wine list focuses on handcrafted, small-production, and sustainable family-owned wineries.

To allow the Majids family-time with their two young children, they have recently adjusted their restaurant’s schedule. In addition, they will be closed  for the month of July, during which time they will focus on writing a cookbook that incorporates recipes, gardening tips and stories from the last 17 years.

Zatar Restaurant, 1981 Shattuck Ave. Berkeley, CA, Tel: 510-841-1981. Summer hours through the end of June: Lunch: Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Friday and Saturday 5:30-9:30 p.m. Regular hours (resuming in August): Lunch: Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Friday and Saturday 5:30-9:30 p.m. Note: Zatar does not take credit cards, but happily accepts local checks or cash. Check Zatar’s Facebook page for updates. Special events are sometimes held on Thursdays and Sundays, and Zatar is always available for catering and private parties.

A version of this article first appeared on Berkeleyside NOSH, June 18, 2013

Posted in Immigrants' stories, Lebanese food, Middle Eastern Food, Morocco | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Dinner with The Spice Whisperer

Vinita Jacinto

Vinita Jacinto told us to close our eyes and taste the sun, moon, stars and earth in the food she had lovingly prepared: saffron-kissed basmati rice and creamy lentils flavored with cumin and turmeric, topped with a dollop of pureed greens (including mustard, spinach, turnip and amaranth).

I had met the chef, who was born in Mumbai, grew up in Calcutta and identifies as Punjabi, when we both worked at the California Culinary Academy. For 7 years, she taught  sustainable, vegetarian, healthy cooking at CCA. I had worked there as an ASL interpreter.

Later I interviewed her for two articles: where to sample breakfasts from different cultures and how to eat with your hands for a sensuous, mindful meal.

appetizer spread

This evening’s dinner, a springtime meal to celebrate Punjabi New Year, began with a table spread with a dozen delectable appetizers, incorporating the Six Ayurvedic Tastes. Vinita’s colorful platters tempted the eye as well as the palate. She thoughtfully provided labels, as the array of dishes was new to many guests and included: stuffed eggplant with ginger and garlic, black chickpea balls, and my favorite, spiced Indian potatoes, topped with yogurt and tamarind or cilantro-mint chutney and crunchy sev noodles.

Indian potato salad

Vegetables included cooked asparagus, spinach and beets and raw radishes, jicama and cucumbers. For a new gustatory experience, Vinita encouraged her guests to sprinkle the latter with “black salt”. She warned us that the black salt (which actually had a pinkish hue), would first give off a scent of sulfur “rather like an elephant’s fart.” I tried it and after a moment’s pause, discovered it did enrich the crunchy cukes with an earthy accent.

black salt

Vinita not only nourished her guests with the dishes she had carefully prepared, but with her culinary memories and wisdom.

In the traditional Hindu kitchen, no one enters to cook until they’ve bathed and no shoes are ever worn in the kitchen. You also don’t taste what you are cooking, but intuitively can smell if something is missing. Through touch, the cook passes on her emotions, be it anger or love. My DNA transfers to you – that’s true farm to table cooking.

Her blog, The Spice Whisperer, not only shares Vinita’s recipes, but her poetic side as well, “Some read auras. I read spices.”

Spices, they resonate with me.

You pound them; roast them,

Dry them and toast them.

And they impart their essence to you No matter what!

They heal. They flavor. They whisper through our foods.

Vinita’s newest endeavor is creating customized spice blends for couples, individuals or wedding parties.

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Sushi California: 27 years as Berkeley’s Beloved Japanese restaurant with an Okinawan Twist

Chef Ryoji Arakaki prepares sushi rice

Chef Ryoji Arakaki prepares sushi rice at Sushi California on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley. Photo: Anna Mindess

Have you ever felt at home in a café or restaurant the moment you walked in? My husband and I have been frequenting Sushi California for less than a year, but the night we discovered this cozy Japanese dining spot on Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Berkeley, we already felt like welcomed regulars.

We had just returned from a two-week trip to Kyoto, where I took cooking classes while my husband taught at a university. At night, we would wander into little family-run neighborhood restaurants. That immediate sense of shared intimacy with strangers at Sushi California resonated with our best Kyoto memories.

Chef Ryoji Arakaki has been serving sushi and other Japanese dishes to an international crowd of Berkeleyites (including students, professors and Lawrence Berkeley Lab employees) since 1986. We have probably driven past Sushi Cal (as the Chef calls it) on MLK between University and Addison hundreds of times, but with its unassuming name and façade, and its position just below street-level, like a sunken treasure, it is easily overlooked. Continue reading

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A Dozen Deaf Foodies Savor Gourmet Ghetto Tasting Tour in ASL

My pair of professions straddles two worlds. By day, I work as an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter and otherwise, I’m a food writer. Although these domains rarely intersect, it’s a thrill when they do. In 2011, I broke the news of San Francisco’s first Deaf-owned restaurant, Mozzeria and followed up last Spring with an interview of the owners in ASL.

But there are plenty of Deaf Bay Area food lovers who aren’t chefs, and I recently took a dozen of them–software developers, college professors, actors and retired folk–on an only-in-sign-language tasting tour of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto through Edible Excursions.

I’ve been leading Edible Excursions tours of San Francisco Japantown for the general public since last summer, and recently added ASL–only tours for members of the local Deaf community. (Because ASL is a separate language, with its own grammar, one can’t speak English and simultaneously sign ASL.) Since the Berkeley culinary romp was my third ASL tour, I knew from experience that I would be breaking a rule of politeness in Deaf culture and added the following warning during my intro speech in front of Shattuck Avenue’s Cheese Board.

Due to our tightly planned schedule tasting tidbits at nine places in three hours, I explained that I was going to have to rush the group from one spot to another. In Deaf Culture, despite the advances of email, video phones and texting, face-to-face communication in expressive ASL often has top priority and thus it is considered rude to interrupt signed conversations. In the interest of maximal food appreciation, however, the Deaf foodies replied to my rudeness tip-off with amenable nods.

Saul's deli delights, photo courtesy Alyce Reynolds

Saul’s deli delights, photo courtesy Alyce Reynolds

With that, we headed to Saul’s Deli, where a table was already set with glasses for what proved to be our first guessing game of the day. I told the group that this straw-colored soda was house-made, as was common in the heyday of New York delis in the early 20th century, when this flavor was touted for its health benefits. What is it? Ginger and vanilla were the first guesses. I shook my head no. Finally, a member of the group with a sensitive palate guessed correctly: celery seed soda.

Then, we were joined by Saul’s owner Peter Levitt and over succulent house-smoked pastrami sandwiches, he explained Saul’s mission to serve  locally made deli fare, as opposed to the former practice of flying in deli foods from New York.

Imperial Tea Court, photo courtesy Alyce Reynolds

Imperial Tea Court, photo courtesy Alyce Reynolds

Next, we ambled over to the Epicurious Garden complex and entered the regal Imperial Tea Court for a lecture on the history of tea with seven kinds to sniff and one to taste.

Chocolate heaven at Alegio, photo courtesy Ken Arcia

Chocolate heaven at Alegio, photo courtesy Ken Arcia

The most popular stop on the tour–not surprisingly–introduced the group to “the best chocolate in the world,” accordingly to Alegio’s co-owner Robbin Everson, which grows only on Sao Tome, a tiny island off the coast of West Africa. The series of nibbles of bars from 100% to 73 1/2% cacao was revelatory and sublime. Thanks to Everson’s expertise, the guests delighted in having all their questions answered. Two of the most surprising discoveries: Hershey’s bars contain only 10% cacao and there is no caffeine in chocolate–instead a stimulating compound called theobromine produces a different set of effects on the body.

On our way out of Epicurious Garden, we made a quick stop at Soop for some warming Thai Red lentil soup and I explained that owner Marc Kelly serves Swedish yellow split pea soup every Thursday to honor his Swedish mom’s national tradition.

Monica Roccino of Local Butcher, photo courtesy Ken Arcia

Monica Roccino of Local Butcher, photo courtesy Ken Arcia

After a short walk down Shattuck Avenue, the group assembled in a large semi-circle (with sign language, everyone needs to be able to see) in front of The Local Butcher Shop. While they munched on the sandwich of the day, pork with onion, cabbage and BBQ sauce, I interpreted a fascinating lecture about whole animal butchery from co-owner Monica Roccino, after which she entertained questions. “What’s the most exotic meat you carry?” one person asked. Perhaps the questioner was hoping to find ostrich or reindeer on the menu. But Roccino explained that she and husband Adam’s commitment to local ranchers means that they only use animals raised within 150 miles, so the most exotic meat she could come up with was squab (pigeon).

Cheese Board pizza slices quickly disappear, photo courtesy Kim Aronson

Cheese Board pizza slices quickly disappear, photo courtesy Kim Aronson

In front of the Cheese Board Pizza Collective, I told the group how this worker-owned collective was inspired by an Israeli kibbutz, while they scarfed down the flavor of the day: zucchini, onions, mozzarella, feta cheese, and basil pesto.

After a shot of caffeine and history at the original Peet’s Coffee which started the gourmet coffee movement back in 1966, the group was more than ready to mellow out across the street at Vintage Wine, where owner Peter Eastlake described the three wines the group was about to sample from Healdsburg’s Preston Winery. But as I began interpreting in ASL, I had a momentary brain-freeze as I realized that common terms in the wine world, such as: “full-bodied,” “thick, round texture,” and “floral notes” were not the kind of phrases that usually come up in my daily courtroom interpreting. Thankfully, several Deaf guests were clearly wine connoisseurs and knew exactly what Peter was talking about. Reverence for the grape, it seems, transcends language.

And with a parting sweet scoop of gelato from Lush back in Epicurious Garden, the Deaf tour guests reflected on the satisfying aspects of the day: one enjoyed learning the history of many places she has frequented throughout her years as a foodie, another appreciated “discovering these awesome hidden gems in Berkeley and the stories behind them and learning about them in ASL,” and a third was so overcome with the delights of the day, he admitted, “I’m sign-less!”

Related Information:
Edible Excursions’ Gourmet Ghetto tours Thursdays and Saturdays  (stops may vary).

KQED's Bay Area Bites

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