Sunday, February 24, 2013

Adventurous eating

Natto is a thing I'd heard about, but I'd never seen it until I went to Uwajimaya in Beaverton last weekend. I thought it sounded like a pretty strange thing, and even though I like trying all sorts of strange things, I was a little scared of it.

It came in a 3 pack in the frozen section. I think the gist of the little cartoon is that you warm it up then stir it around with your chopsticks. The cartoon was baffling until I opened up the package. I thought for sure it was a picture of a large pot, indicating that the natto should be stirred into a pile of boiled eggs. Which made no sense at all when I looked up eating instructions online. Yes, I did need to look up instructions for how to eat this. Even so, that cartoon... Once I opened the package the meaning of the drawing became apparent. The orange blob is a little dab of seasoning, and the round things that I mistook for a bunch of boiled eggs are, in fact, the fermented soybeans.

If you've never eaten natto before, I have 2 recommendations:

1. Unless you enjoy slimy goopy foods, don't.
2.Wait until you are very hungry to try it.

I realize these are very ominous provisos, but really, don't get scared off yet. I mean, I ate it, and I'm still fine. In the first place, if you don't like slippery gooey foods, there's no point in trying this stuff. There ain't nothing slipperier nor gooey-er, except maybe a mudpuppy dipped in Elmer's glue. I don't inherently dislike slimy food, so that, per se, didn't creep me out. Why wait until you are extremely hungry to try it? Because it is so profoundly unlike any other thing I have ever eaten.

Here's what you do: You microwave the little packet until it's hot through. You realize that the room now smells powerfully like stale beer. As you stir the dab of sauce into the beans, and watch the gravy turn into a filamentous mass of glue strings that are persistent enough to suspend a couple beans several inches below your chopsticks, you think better of consuming them neat, as it were. So you stir them into rice, with some hot sauce and furikake, as recommended by some people online who are either actual Asians or are mocking Asian-English syntax errors. And then you aren't sure if you like it, or you are actually horrified but ravenously hungry. The beans are just beans, they are like smaller ones of the things you find in a can of Busch's baked beans. But instead of that ketchupy red sauce, there is this stuff that acts a lot like rubber cement and smells like flat beer, and whiffy french cheese, and maybe feet, or maybe something floral and herby. It isn't sweet, it isn't very salty. Sriracha and furikake really help jazz it up. Minced green onion is tradidional too, but I was out of those. What can I say? It made quite an impression on me.

They say that it takes about 10 tries to determine if you actually like or dislike a new food, because we are designed to be slightly averse to novelty. It's an evolutionary safety feature. Novelty = increased risk, taking increased risks = (in nature) increased risk of DEATH! Having a preference for familiar foods cuts down on the likelihood of eating something that will kill you.

But come on people! We live in the 21st century! Live a little! If a slimy soybean didn't kill all those Japanese folks, it isn't going to kill you. In fact, natto is comfort food to lots of Japanese. They eat it for breakfast, but I think I need to try it at other times of day several more times before I do that.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Chinese Eggplant


If I'd known this would be worth writing down, I'd have taken a picture of the eggplants I used before I cooked them. The thing is, I am not a photographer any more than I am a chef. The eggplants didn't look special, except in hindsight, and before I cooked them I wasn't sure what was going to happen, so I didn't know that a visual aid might be useful later. At any rate, here is this eggplant dish.

about 1 1/2 pounds chinese eggplant- the long skinny kind

1/2 cup of the chinese noodle sauce from this post
6 or 8 green onions
2 or 3 slices fresh ginger
some hot pepper flakes, to taste
cooking oil

a tablespoon of cornstarch

Mix the cornstarch with 2 cups of water and set it aside.

Cut the eggplant into 1/2 inch slices. I cut mine diagonally because it looks more interesting. Cut the green onions into 2 inch pieces.

Heat a skillet with a couple tablespoons of oil on medium-high until the oil just starts to smoke. Sprinkle a pinch of salt in the pan and put in half the eggplant. Stir the slices to get a thin coating of oil on them, then poke them down onto the pan to sear. Periodically turn the slices so that each piece gets evenly browned. When the first batch is done, dump them in a dish and repeat with the second batch.

Put a little more oil in the pan along with the onion, ginger and red pepper flakes. Stir until the onions have gotten moderately brown, then put the all eggplant back in the pan to heat it through. Add the noodle sauce and the cornstarch and water. Cook until the sauce thickens and turns translucent.


1. Warning!!! This dish requires powerful ventilation! In the first place because you have to sear the eggplant, which creates smoke to set off your alarms, and secondly because of the part toward the end where you throw red pepper flakes in the pan. Capsaisin must volatilize easily; frying peppers makes it very hard to breathe. Leave your doors and windows open!

2. The eggplant should be slightly charred in places.

3. Even if your pan is large enough to cook all the eggplant at once, I recommend against it. Having it all in the pan together will trap steam around the pieces and will make them soggy. Cook in 2 batches and the water evaporates of easily.

4. Take your time and pay attention to the searing eggplant, but move fast and slosh everything together once you add the liquid. Once the sauce thickens, remove it from heat immediately or it will burn.

This is a version of the stuff you can get in chinese restaurants. It gets called a bunch of different things- eggplant in tangy sauce, Hunan eggplant, eggplant in garlic sauce, eggplant in bean sauce. Usually they make it too sweet and too goopy. They almost never sear the eggplant, which is a pity, because in a restaurant it's much easier to do. You can crank the gas jets up under a giant wok and flail around with a spatula the size of a shovel and whatever you want to cook is seared in moments. A home stove doesn't put out as much heat as a commercial stove. Instead, you have to compensate by making sure that you have a very heavy skillet and get it well heated before putting in the eggplant. Even so, it takes longer.

I don't remember that dad ever cooked this dish. In fact, other than eggplant sandwiches, I don't remember him ever cooking eggplant except one time: we were in China together my sophomore year in college, hanging around in some dodgy qi gong school. They provided all of our meals, and mostly the food was passable, sometimes it was a bit horrid. Eventually, dad got fed up with it, and the thing that put him over the edge was a dish of eggplant. It was a generic mess of goopy brown and purple, and he said that it bore no resemblance to what it was 'supposed to' be. So the next day, we went to the market for eggplant, which I think was something that perturbed our hosts, because going shopping is chores, and guests aren't supposed to need do any work, right? The actual cooking part was fine, because once dad got into the kitchen and shooed the disappoving cook out into the back yard, he could do his showmanship thing. I didn't look. That kitchen was spooky even before dad started making things ignite in great alarming whooshes. I was more or less expecting the whooshes, but the cook and our hosts were not. There was some gesticulating, and some loud commentary, generally admiring, and the cook shook his head a lot, but not so admiringly. Now I wish I had seen what dad did, because the dish turned out basically like shreds of eggplant jerky. It was chewy, and crunchy in parts, and had a few places where the flesh of the eggplant hadn't been dried or seared out, but remained slightly tender and almost custardy. I asked day what it was seasoned with, and he said just salt, pepper. No soysauce? Just a little "for color" he said.

The dish I made today does not resemble the dry fried eggplant dad made, but eggplant always makes me think of that.