October 2007

Great news for fans of things Japanese who live in Europe, the UK in particular: Daiso, the 100 yen store chain, is opening a branch in London on November 17th. They are teaming up with Japan Centre, one of my favorite sources for Japanese food and other things. (Disclaimer: Japan Centre advertises on this site, but I'm also a happy customer.) It will be at 213 Piccadilly.

If you're not familiar with the awesomeness of 100 yen shops, you owe yourself a visit if you go to London. I am hoping that they will carry plenty of cute goods for the fans of cute. I think I need to go to London soon! I'm rather curious as to how they'll price things at the London store...will everything be a pound? We'll see.

Daiso also has several stores in North America.
An excerpt from the press release follows after the jump.

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I am almost ready to give birth to a project that's been incubating for ages. It's still rather sparse (or, as they say in Web 2.0 speak, 'beta'). If you take a look let me know what you think....

[Update:] Thank you for all of the positive comments! (If you have any criticism that's welcome too.) As you can probably see already, the site will be quite tutorial-heavy, especially since there are already a growing number of bento blogs. As I've written in Bento Basics, the focus of most of the bentos (I'm sure there will be some exceptions) I'll be writing about are 1) brown-rice based with a large portion of vegetables, 2) made in 20 minutes or under (with some prep work) and 2) 600 calories or under (a bit more for bigger guys). They won't be that cute - at least inside the bento box. I don't have a lot of patience for cute-fiddling in the morning. You can of course add cuteness with the bento box itself or the wrapper for the bento box.

The site is still 'beta' because I'm still ironing out some background kinks, but you can already subscribe to it and things.

Incidentally, I started to make a concerted effort to make bento earlier this year, as part of an overall 'eat healthier, dammit' thing. It's been a really positive experience health-wise and taste-wise, and as one side effect I've lost about 30 lbs (15 kg or so) since the beginning of the year. Does that give you an incentive to start making bento too? :)

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Keep reading just beta →

The French-language blog sooshi has pictures of Uchitomi, a Japanese grocery with stores in Genève and Lausanne. The selection looks very nice!

I have also spotted real yuzu recently at the Bürkliplatz market in Zürich. In the summer I have seen live shiso plants there, both red and green too, Japanese-style sweet potatoes at Barkat, and satoimo (taro roots) at the Indian grocery store next the Hooter's at Helvetiaplatz. It's really great to see more 'exotic' Japanese and Asian produce more easily available here. When I first came to visit Switzerland back in the mid-'90s, you had to buy fresh ginger in the exotic food department at Globus! How times have changed. .

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I love pasta in many guises, but when it comes to ultimate Comfort Pasta, there is nothing that compares to a spaghetti bolognese. By spaghetti bolognese, I mean spaghetti topped with a rich, ground-meat and tomato based sauce. No fancy ragu or such. I don't think it's that authentically Italian, but I don't really care. It's one of my favorite cool-weather dinners.

Once upon a time, I had what I thought was a perfect recipe for spaghetti bolognese. Then, about a year ago I lost my way. After a year of bewilderingly off-target bolognese, I've found my way back.

I blame Heston Blumenthal for messing with my head. (Disclaimer: I am otherwise a big fan of Mr. Blumenthal.) Last year, he tackled spaghetti bolognese on his In Search of Perfection television series (and in the book of course), and came up with a "perfect" version. The perfect Blumenthal version of spaghetti bolognese is, naturally, extremely complicated, but compared to the other "perfect" versions of various popular dishes it seemed to be the most doable. So, we (note the plural: it required a team effort) tackled it, piece by piece. It does help in life to have an almost equally food-obsessive partner for such quests.

It took us 3 full days to accomplish, starting from the pre-ordering of the meaty oxtails at the butcher counter (it's not a commonly used cut here), finding the perfect spaghetti, ripe tomatoes in December (yes, I know) and the final slow cooking of the sauce. And the result?

It was good, yes, but perfect? Neither of us was sure. But yet it had flashes of something great in there; the meatiness of the gelatinous oxtail, the unctuous richness. So, we embarked on a long journey of trying to tweak that recipe. We tried different meat combinations. (Turkey is a definite no.) We experimented with bacon, chorizo, various sausages, salami. We tried less or more of the vegetables, canned tomatoes alone or fresh alone.

All were interesting, but I still felt off kilter. Then, the other day I made bolognese more or the way I had made it for years until the Blumenthal experiments - and, it was just about perfect.

Mind you, it's probably because my criteria for a perfect bolognese are different from the great chef's, as I explain below. And some of the ideas gleaned from the Blumenthal version and the ensuing experiments did creep in, making the sauce even better. In any case, I'm now happy that this is my Perfect Spaghetti Bolognese. I can now move on to perfecting other things.

Yesterday, the Soil Association in Britain, a highly inflluential charitable organization, announced that in a year, they will only certify food that is air shipped into the country as organic if it also met fair trade standards. Since some thought that they should stop certifying any imported fresh food as organic, this looks like a compromise on their part. Even if on the surface organic and fair trade don't have much to do with each other, in the realm of fuzzy good-feeling consumerism they are certainly related.

I don't think that enough study has been done yet on just how greener locally produced food is though. As I've written about here before, food produced in cold to temperate climates with short growing seasons requires a lot of energy. It's probably beyond the scope of organizations like the Soil Association at this point in time to try to address complicated issues like that though. Far easier to place restrictions and requirements on far-flung producers with little or no political power.

Buy organic, support fair trade. Avoid trans-fats and simple sugars. Avoid additives and chemicals and extraneous packaging. Hope there are no harmful bacteria. Oh yes, and worry about the rising cost of food too. I used to love going to the supermarket. I still do mostly, but these days that enjoyment is tinged with a lot of stress.

(See also: should the supermarkets pre-edit our choices? Personally, even with all the thinking and decision-making that's required I'd rather make my own choices.)

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Next year, the United Nations wants us to celebrate the humble potato for an entire year. I'm not certain how the UN makes its decisions about such things (why not the Year of the Tomato or the Year of the Turnip?), but I have no objections against the humble potato, one of my favorite foods. Unless you are an avowed anti-carb person, how could you not love the potato?

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My general 'simple is better' attitude to food has continued into the fall. At the moment I'm not cooking much per se, but I am enjoying the foods that are so good at this time of the year. A lot of these foods share a similar quality, for which I can't think of an appropriate word in English to describe. There's a perfect word in Japanese though - hoku hoku. Hoku hoku is the word that is used for a starchy, dense, sweet flavor and texture. Think of roasted sweet chestnuts, winter squash, and sweet potatoes. Baked white potatoes can be hoku hoku too.

My favorite hoku hoku food is sweet potato - though I do mean the kind we get in Japan (called satsuma-imo), not the kind that's most commonly seen in the U.S. (and here in Europe too). The U.S. kind of sweet potato has an orange skin and bright orange-yellow flesh, but the Japanese kind that I grew up with has a pale cream-white flesh and pink-purple skin. It's less fibrous and sweeter than the orange-flesh kind, which I feel needs added sweeteners most of the time (which is why it's so great in sweet potato pie and the like).

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Forgive me for neglecting Just Hungry a bit this week - I've been spending all of my free waking time in Knightsbridge. I did want to follow up on the thoughtful comments left on my post about eating local in winter, in areas without 4-season growing conditions. Perhaps because I've been immersed in the 14th century has helped, but I'm increasingly intrigued by the idea of trying to experience how it would have been like to survive the winter in an age when fresh foods were not shipped in from far parts.

So I am going to try it out for at least a week in a few weeks - I think the end of January/beginning of February would be a good time. I don't think I will go back as far as the Middle Ages, but something prior to the 19th century anyway - prior to fast trading ships as well as the advent of refrigeration. (I'm not sure if I will aim for pre-canning days as well). I'm also a bit undecided as to if I'll try to emulate how it would have been in Switzerland, or something more generic, as well as what class in society I'd put myself (since rich people would have eaten a lot better then poor people, of course). When I've done more research into this I'll post what I'm going to do.

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Celebrity chefs have been around for some time now, but they seem to have exploded all over the place in the last decade, mainly through food related TV shows.

The restaurant food world is becoming similar to the world of fashion. There are the actual restaurants, most of which are too expensive for the majority of the population - people without generous expense accounts or oodles of money - other than for a rare treat. These are the couture studios (as in real couture, not 'couture' as it's used to describe anything that's not a plain t-shirt these days) of the food world. Then you have all the merchandising, from cookbooks to dodgy cookware to frozen dinners bearing a chef's name. Those are the perfumes and bags and H & M special-designer label lines of the food world.

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As long time readers of Just Hungry may know, I used to recap every single episode of the Bravo TV reality show Top Chef. The first season had me glued to my...er, computer screen. However for various reasons I did not do so for the third season that just concluded. I did watch it though, and have just a few thoughts.

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