Friday, October 30, 2009

Curry part 2 - Japanese curry

It may be a lowly, fast-food dish in Japan, often prepared from a sauce mix. Yet Japanese curry is one of my favorite Japanese dishes -- and one of my favorite curries.

Its personality differs from the curries of India, Pakistan, and Malaysia. The best version I have found is at Kubo's Cafe in the Bellaire Chinatown.

Is it curry or is it roux?

The word "curry" is confusing. In Japan, there is a distinction between curry sauce and roux. The roux is the base and is often as simple as curry powder and flour cooked in oil. The roux is then used to make a curry sauce which includes other, chunkier, ingredients like meat or potatoes.

Yet every version of Japanese "curry rice" that I ordered in the U.S. serves only the roux. Other ingredients -- rice, pickled vegetables and someimes a side protein -- are served on the side. At Kubo's, you can order just curry rice, or curry sauce with beef, chicken, pork katsu, or shrimp tempura.

Curry with Japanese personality

Curry came to the Japanese via the Europeans, not from India. So you might look at Japanese curry as a dumbed-down, milder version of an Indian curry that appeals to an audience afraid of too much spice.

But that is not how I look at it. Sure, the personality of Japanese curry couldn't be more different from the Malaysian dry curry I described in part 1. But the personality seems inherently Japanese.

The texture is smooth and delicate, almost creamy. There are no lumps. The roux is, more than anything else, consistent.

The flavors are beefy, mustardy, and slightly spicy. Yet no one flavor stands out. And every bite tastes exactly the same.

The flavor is unified, and distinctive. If you did a blindfolded tasting of curries from 10 countries, the Japanese version would be easy to identify.

This curry makes sense in light of the Japanese aesthetic, which values simplicity and an almost obsessive pursuit of perfection.

Why do I like it so much?

I should prefer the intense spice, variety, and earthy grittiness of the Malaysian curry. But something about Japanese curry is more comforting, almost addictive.

Perhaps it is the texture, almost exactly like my East Texan grandmother's cream gravy. But it also has something to do with that distinctive Japanese curry flavor.

Unfortunately, Japanese curry rice has been hard to find in Houston. Most Japanese restaurants don't serve it -- since it isn't sushi. I became addicted to it 18 years ago in Boston, and have had a hard time finding it here ever since. Fortunately, Kubo's Cafe now serves 6 varieties, all with that same roux.

If you like some heat, like I do, make sure you get one of the small red tubes containing Japanese crushed pepper. Ten or so dashes of pepper it just as hot as a curry from India or Pakistan.

And nothing beats a spicy, smooth gravy.

Next: Thai Curry

Halloween Quiz

I'll get back to curry later today.

For now, try this Halloween quiz: Can you guess what this dish is and what Houston restaurant was fearless enough to serve it last weekend?

When I was in 5th grade, my school had a haunted house. My job was to prepare foods, like cold spaghetti in ketchup, that felt gross. Guests would stick their hands in a hole in a box and feel the foods. Of course, the guests were told that they were feeling something's (or someone's) cold organs.

Is this dish the same sort of imitation? Or is it the real deal?

(Hint: this dish was awfully tasty.)

UPDATE: The dish, served by the folks at Feast, was "cold pigs brains on toast with green sauce."

It had a very mild liver-like flavor. The texture was glorious -- soft, moist, fluffy, almost gelatinous. It reminded me of a delicate, pate mousse.

Of course, it looked exactly like brains -- which may explain why my wife placed a bite in her mouth, but simply could not swallow it.

She missed out.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Curry part 1 - dry Malaysian curry

Thinking about curries

This is the time of year for spices. In summer, I avoid spice. It overpowers the garden flavors of summer vegetables and fresh herbs.

But when the weather starts to get cold, I hit the spice cabinet.

Last weekend, I did my annual spice cleaning and replacement. I noticed some spices that I had used very little -- fenugreek, turmeric, coriander. Those spices started me thinking about curry.

As much as I love curries, the word curry is troubling. It raises a lot of questions:

What is curry? Is it a blend of spices (or is that masala)? Or is it just a word for certain Asian sauces? If so, what is common to curry?

Is the word just a Western oversimplification of flavors we don't quite understand? Or is there really a category of food that is rightfully called curry?

I don't know the answers -- at least not yet. But I am going to try to find out.

Malaysian dry curry

Perhaps the best place to start thinking about curry is Malaysia.

Malaysian dry curries strike me as the essence of curry. The gritty curry you get on beef rendang looks like coarse spices resting in a small amount of oil. The flavor is full of intense spices, but not particularly hot spices. Malaysian curry tastes primitive; it tastes of-the-earth.

But the reality is a little more complicated than that.

At Banana Leaf in the Bellaire Chinatown, I ordered Banana Leaf Curry Chicken. The plate consists of hacked up chunks of bone-in, dark meat with a rendang-like sauce.

It is a dish that makes you focus on spice flavors. At one moment, the flavor is cardamom. Then ginger and garlic. And more than anything else, I taste the earthiness of cumin.

This curry looks like a simple mix of spices cooked in in oil. But it is more complex. The base is coconut meat -- an ingredient whose flavor I don't detect in the final sauce. But coconut meat may explain the gritty texture.

It also is not a simple dish. Malaysian curries are often cooked for a long time, sometimes hours.

The curry's personality

My theory is that every curry has a personality. Sometimes the personality reflects the culture. Sometimes it may not.

The personality of dry Malaysian curry is deceptively simple, basic, and masculine. Its texture is oily, gritty, primative. It changes from bite-to-bite as different spices step forward to assert themselves. Yet it is not a curry that allows any other flavor to dominate the raw earthiness of the spices. There is no sweet coconut here, no peppery heat -- just spice.

This is a curry that demands one thing: "The spice must flow."

Next: Japanese curry

Thursday, October 22, 2009


popping up everywhere

I had never heard of tiradito before summer 2008. Randy Rucker had returned from Peru and served this tilefish tiradito with lemon verbena, fennel blossoms, and kimchee consomme.

Since then, tiraditos have been popping up on menus around Texas. At Reef, Bryan Caswell has made famous this tiradito of sea bream with blackfin tuna bacon, green apple, and avocado:

In Dallas last week, Stephan Pyles's menu offered three tiraditos, including these two: scallop and Spanish mackerel.

Several Dallas restaurants now serve tiradito. That makes sense. Dallas has one of the many outposts of Nobu. And Nobu has a lot to do with the history of tiradito in America.

what is it?

Tiradito is a Peruvian raw seafood preparation that lies somewhere in between South American ceviche, Italian crudo, and Japanese sashimi.

Typically, the fish is sliced thinly and marinated with lime juice, sometimes ginger, and sometimes hot pepper. Unlike ceviche, it does not use onions. Compared to ceviche, the flavor is delicate, and doesn't overwhelm the fish.

a little background

Tiradito is relatively new. Although the Peruvians traditionally had access to fantastic seafood, they did not like it and rarely ate it. Only in the last half century has any seafood, much less raw seafood, starting appearing on Peruvian menus.

In the early 1970s, Nobu Matsuhisa left his sushi apprenticeship in Japan to help run a sushi restaurant in Peru catering to Japanese immigrants.

It was Nobu who helped popularize the tiradito. And it was Nobu who introduced it to the U.S. when he started opening restaurants here. Ever had that popular dish of yellowtail sashimi with citrus and japalapeno? You can thank Nobu and his brief Peruvian interlude for it.

Unlike most of the U.S., Houston's connection with tiradito is not through Nobu, but direct from Peru. A few years ago, Michael Cordua took some young chefs, including Rucker, to Peru to learn about Peruvian cuisine. Those chefs returned with a lot of ideas about tiradito.


There is not much of a tiradito orthodoxy. So you see a wide range of styles.

The Stephan Pyles's tiraditos were minimalist. The fish was treated delicately, with only a hint of other flavors. It worked, especially with the scallop.

In contrast, Rucker and Caswell's tiraditos are more complex, and perhaps slightly more interesting. In their dishes, the marinated fish is only a component, combined with other ingredinets and flavors.

Like ceviche, most tiraditos highlight raw fish with citrus. But unlike so much ceviche, a tiradito preparation does not use too much onion or sauce to cover up the fish. Tiradito preparation is better than ceviche, and is an interesting Latin alternative to crudo and sashimi.

leche de tigre

At least one other idea Randy Rucker brought back from Peru was leche de tigre. Not for the faint of heart, leche de tigre is the juice byproduct from making a tiradito or ceviche.

Leche de tigre is citrusy, fishy, and spicy. It is rumored to be a good cure for hangover, as well as a boost to, um, potency. It is the kind of drink that will grow hair on your chest. I wish more of these Texas chefs serving Peruvian raw fish also would serve us a shot of this wonderful juice.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Reef photos

I signed up for the food photography course when I learned it would be at Reef.

I'm no photographer. But I couldn't miss the chance to shoot a few dishes at Reef during the day. At night, Reef may be Houston's worst restaurant for photos. Something about the lighting blurs every shot.

Yet in the afternoon, with lots of natural light, Reef makes photos easy, even for a point-and-click novice like me.

So here are some of Brian Caswell's greatest hits -- plus the man in the orange cap himself.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Foam at Catalina Coffee

More outstanding cappuccino foam

Waldo's foam impressed me with it unruly, cotton-candy texture.

Catalina Coffee's impresses with a different style of foam -- tightly focused and dense, with artistic patterns.

The whole operation at Catalina Coffee on Washington Ave. is a little more serious, a little more sophisticated than Waldo's counter-culture aesthetic. Catalina's counter even features baked goods and a CD on display -- just like you-know-who.

But like Waldo's, Catalina isn't Starbucks. The baristas are artists -- and individuals.

Will it be art?

Catalina's web page shows foam in the pattern of a heart. As you can see from the 1st photo, this morning, I got a leaf. Two days ago, there was no pattern other than a carefully constructed cylinder topped with a perfectly flat plateau.

If I go to Catalina often enough, will I get the same pattern twice? Or is every drink an individualized creation?

Sure, visual patterns don't change the flavor. But they can make the coffee better. Drinking is a visual experience too.

Why independent coffee houses matter

We shouldn't hate corporate coffee. American coffee is far better after Starbucks than it was before. Even McDonald's now serves decent coffee drinks.

But every Starbucks cappuccino is essentially the same. As is every McDonald's cappuccino. They are assembly-line product that customers value for consistency.

Wildly different, a cappuccino at Catalina or Waldo's is going to be the creation of an individual. It probably will taste a little better. Its beauty may even approach art.

And it almost certainly will be more . . . human.