All About Asian Food

May 2013 Archives

Fanime 2013 Wrap-Up

Another Fanime has come and gone, and it was one of our most hectic yet! This year we left the comfortable confines of Dealer's Hall to set up shop in Hall 1, where the swap meet and archery demonstrations took place. We're still reeling from the impressive turnout during the 4-day convention. After a full weekend of technicolor costumes, we are slowly readjusting to normal life, but we are glad to have served the legions of Fanime attendees many boxes of Pocky, bottles of Ramune, and bowls of ramen.

This year was a bit chaotic as construction was taking place in the convention center and various events were being held in new locations. Many people didn't even know we were here when they didn't see us in the Dealer's Hall, but once word got out that a pop-up Asian grocery store was in the house, things got crazy quick.

This year, we brought not only snacks but also plush dolls, cool mugs, and iPhone accessories. These new products took up 1/3 of our booth space, and we were happy at the reception. Our large plushies and body pillows quickly found an audience, as did our anime iPhone cases.

As always, the anchor of our pop-up store was our large stock of Ramune sodas and Pocky/Hello Panda snacks. It was flavors galore, as people marveled at the wide selection of over fifteen Ramune flavors and Pocky variants. Thirsty patrons were taken aback at the availability of obscure flavors such as Curry and Chili Oil. Some bought multiple novelty flavors to be consumed as dares, but of course we offer standard tasty refreshments as well. Customers definitely did not lack choice, and we were happy to see many repeat customers throughout the weekend.

We had trouble keeping our items in stock. Tables filled to the brim on opening day were bare by the time the con was over, and we were trying our damnedest to restock our booth.Whole boxes of imported Japanese bread were consumed within a few hours every morning. Our melon bread went quick as anime fans wanted to find out exactly what the fuss Shana makes about melonpan is all about (hint: it's delicious.)

For the first time in the five years we've attended Fanime, we stayed open 24 hours everyday, for the entire duration of the con! In the wee hours of the night, the Asian Food Grocer booth was the destination for anime fans looking for a meal. And we were totally ready for you bleary-eyed people. Our ramen station, complete with a hot water cooler and a microwave and a full complement of condiments such as Sriracha and sesame oil, played host to many hungry revelers. People gathered round the cooler, emptying their seasoning packets and cooking their noodles while resting and trading con stories. With snacks and Ramune freely flowing, the late-night AFG booth had the cozy feel of a tavern within the wide expanses of Hall 1.

The die-hard anime fans, taking a break from their all-night video room sessions, as well as hyped-up ravers, came by to raid our store for any thing caffeinated. Our coffees and themed energy drinks were a big hit, fueling folks up for more hours of late-night gaming and viewing in the adjacent halls. And when our caffeine drinks ran out, we offered up Black Black gum for those still needing an extra tick of energy.

The convention had some issues this year, but the real attraction has always been the people who flock to San Jose Convention Center, and in that sense, Fanime delivered 100%. We saw Bronies, cosplayers dressed up to the tee, and people in street clothes simply taking in the sights. Thank you to all that showed up to our booth, for your creativity and passion in your cosplays made our weekend all the more memorable. Hope all you guys had a good con, and we'll see you next year!

Hot Pot/Shabu-Shabu

Some know it as Chinese hot pot. The Japanese call it shabu-shabu. Others still refer to it as Chinese fondue. Whatever you call it, it is an event that celebrates food and communal love. Just like Americans love to get together to barbeque, it is an Asian tradition to gather around a hot pot during the winter. The simple act of boiling food in water brings a sense of warmth and joy to the folk who eat this meal regularly. With its easy preparation and promises of good times, you too should gather some loved ones together for a hot pot.

When it comes to hot pot or shabu shabu ingredients, the utmost importance goes to the freshness of the food. Beef, thinly sliced, is often the prime example of this principle. Have meat sliced thinly, so it would not require much time in the hot water to cook. As you hold the beef between your chopsticks and dip it into the water, move it around to get all the surface of the meat cooked. The resulting swish-swish sound is the where shabu-shabu got its name.

Required Hardware

You may have seen shabu-shabu and hot pot restaurants cropping up around your area, but it it really easy to get these meals set up in your own home. You'll need a pot, first and foremost. Here's where the magic happens. Any pot that will fit liters of water and a lot of food would work. For shabu-shabu, something like this wok will be ideal.

What you need next is a heating element. For this, you may use either an portable electric or gas stove. Burners using butane canisters, such as the shown on on the left, are preferred for its high heat output and adjustability. Or get this Oyama Hot Pot, an all-in-one solution, and call it a day. Lastly, you would need a big table and plenty of chairs.

Broth


The next element, and perhaps the most important, is the broth. This is where all your ingredients will be submerged. However, there is no wrong ways to go about the broth, only many right ways.

Different regions in China prefer different style of broths in their hot pot. There is also ma la, or numbingly spicy, broth, from the province of Sichuan. The power of peppercorns impart a heat so intense that it coats your tongue literally numbs your tongue due to the spiciness. Sounds tortuous, but it has its (fervent) followers.

Shabu-shabu broths also have many variations, but it can be as simple as adding some kombu dashi into the water as it boils. You can add as piece of kombu, or dried seaweed to the water to get the broth a savory flavor that will round out your cooked ingredients.

It's in the Dip

Once you've got the meats and veggies cooked, it's time to focus on your dipping sauces. Sure beef can taste good medium rare straight out of the broth, but a good dipping sauce can make it divine. The sauces can differ depending on if you're doing a Japanese shabu-shabu or a Chinese-style hot pot, as the culinary traditions differ in their taste preferences. 

On the Chinese spectrum, you seen many sauces packing a savory punch with the help of bean paste. Hoisin sauce, a sweet and savory sauce, is also a good component for a dipping sauce. Anyone looking for a bit of spice will be remiss not to include either chili paste or Sriracha sauce. The old standbys of soy sauce and sesame oil provide a pared-down taste for which to dip your cooked meats and veggies.

Shabu-shabu purists will lean towards a ponzu sauce, a light and tangy soy dressing cut with sake, or goma-dare, a savory sesame sauce. Since shabu-shabu is less chaotic flavor wise, diners tends to stick to the tried-and-true flavors, which compliments the beef very well.

Shopping List

After hitting up Asian Food Grocer, hit up your local grocers for the necessary meat and vegetables. Here's a list of items suitable for hot pot, by no means exhaustive.

Vegetables
Firm Tofu
Assorted mushrooms (shiitake, button, enoki)
Napa cabbage
Spinach
Chinese greens

Meat
Thin slices of beef
Beef balls
Tripe
Lamb

Seafood
Uncooked shrimp
Calamari
Oysters
Mussels
 
Noodles 
Rice Noodles 
Vermicelli
Cellophane noodles / bean thread noodles

 

Laid out on the table, the spread will look inviting and scrumptious to your dinner guests. Time to dip in and swish-swish your way to deliciousness! There is no rhyme or reason for choosing what to put in the pot and what to eat in what order. The only thing you have to pay attention to is to not leave the meat in there to cook for too long, as certain things can get chewy if overdone. In a way, hot pot becomes a game of time-management. Dig out the morsels of food at the peak of its doneness for maximum points!

Slotted spoons or strainers are handy tools for fishing morsels out of the broth for consumption, without getting liquid into your sauce and risk dilution. Some items cook very quick. Thin slices of beef especially; it is at its most tender when there is still some pink showing. It shouldn't take more than a few second for a slice of beef to be ready to eat.

Finally, savor the broth that. It has been infused with all the flavor of all the greens, meat, and seafood that has been cooked in it. Enjoy! By the end of the meal, lasting upwards of an hour or more, you would have enjoyed a wide range of foods right in front of your eyes. And you would've enjoyed the company of your family and friends. And isn't that what matters most?  

Ahh ramen. The meal of many a bygone day. As much as I'd like to characterize it as a quintessential college staple, truth is I'm still eating instant ramen a few times a month. It is a comfort food, cheap and easy to make, a known quantity. Whether in a packet or in a styrofoam cup, I know what I'm getting with instant ramen. Fueled by frugality, it's easy to develop a taste for this much-maligned institution.

But one must not sustain solely on fried noodles and soup base. We know what you're up to. You're having ramen for dinner every night, in between marathon-ing episodes of Ghost in the Shell and Code Geass. Salad Pretz isn't really vegetables, despite what the name may say. With the aims of making instant ramen more exciting and, dare I say, healthy, let's take a look at some ways to quickly enhance your bowl of noodles.

Flavor Thy Broth

The broth is the most important part of ramen. Ramen shops are judged on the quality of their broths. I recommend you to not let the broth hinge on the soup base. You don't have to boil pork bones for hours; little things can make a difference and turn your broth into something worth savoring.

The use of miso paste can quickly impart a complex taste to the proceedings. It can be hard to dissolve miso paste in the pot, so you should stir it up in a bowl with a bit of hot water before pouring it into the broth. Because of the high levels of sodium in miso paste, you can cut back on the seasoning packet.

Another way to add flavor to your broth is to put in a squirt of toasted sesame oil. The intense flavor of sesame oil means a little bit goes a long way. A final suggestion would be to crack an egg into the broth and stir it in about 40 seconds before you take the noodles off of the heat. This creates an egg drop effect and thickens the broth considerably. Read on for more egg ideas.

Eggs Ideas


The egg is the MVP of ramen in terms of being able to be used in multiple ways to enhance instant noodles. Hard-boiled eggs are the easiest way to add protein and heft to a bowl of instant noodles.Sliced up, it adds a nice visual element to your bowl as well. With its softer yolk, a soft boiled egg offers even more pleasures. A fried egg is also a no-brainer, especially with a runny yolk that can be broken and mixed into the soup.

For the true egg mastery, you can even attempt the onsen tamago, or hot spring egg, otherwise known as a slow-cooked egg. This preparation is similar to soft-boiling, but it produces an egg that has silky egg whites with a firm yet creamy yolk. If a perfect soft-boiled egg is shooting for the moon, onsen tamago is shooting for the stars.

To make an egg hot spring style, heat the egg in water over low heat for 20 minutes. The water should not boil; you're aiming for a temperature under 160 degrees (a thermometer helps a lot). Yes, this isn't the most logical choice when looking for "quick" ways to spruce up your instant ramen, but give it a try, as the result is amazing. Take a look at the hot spring egg in the picture to the left. It looks so soft and delicate, and if you were to puncture the soft egg white, the yolk will burst forth in creamy goodness.

Greens and Protein


Here is where you can really make an impact on a lowly bowl of ramen. Give it some veggies and meat and the meal goes from collegiate slumming to something you'd actually feel good about eating. The amount of effort and time you want to commit to adding veggies is really up to you. 

If you have quick wilting vegetables such as Napa cabbage or spinach, it doesn't take long at all to incorporate some greens into the bowl. Frozen vegetables can also work well, as it can warm up at the same time as your noodles. Sweet buttered corn is another staple of ramen shops that you can easily duplicate with a can from the grocery store.

As for meats, you can quickly chop up slices of ham or Spam to add some meaty goodness with little thought or effort. Or you can take the time to prepare actual slices of pork, or chasu, like they do in the ramen-yas. Even leftover chicken can taste great when paired up with ramen noodles. 

Chewy slices of bacon, ground pork, etc. The mind reels with the possibilities. But to keep to the instantaneous nature of this meal, let's stick to ready-to-eat meats for tossing in the noodles.

Toppings


So you've got the base of your ramen noodles all ready. You could just dig in now, but one final step can kick your noodles into the stratosphere in terms of taste.

Furikake seasoning is a quick way to spice up a bowl of rice, and it can do the same for your instant ramen. A mix of sesame seeds, dried bonito, and nori, among other ingredients, furikake is highly versatile and adds a toasty taste to your ramen. In lieu of furikake, plain sesame seeds work just as well.

If you have sheets of seaweed lying around (don't we all?), toss a sheet on top. Anyone of these seaweed varieties will fit well on a bowl of ramen.

Another great addition is shichimi togorashi, a condiment found in many ramen shops in Japan. A blend of seven spices, togorashi is essentially a chili powder, but with added complexity from orange peel, sesame seeds, ginger, peppercorn, and bits of nori. A dash on top of eggs really kicks things up a notch.

One final thing! Sprinkle some chopped green onions or scallions to complete the for a bit of fragrance and crunch. Now you're ready to eat!

And Enjoy!


And those are my tips on enhancing instant ramen. Don't take this as necessary additions in order to make instant ramen palatable, because ramen is delicious in its own right. Think of this blog instead as a page of audibles that you can turn to to change it up at times. You can do just of the additions, or all of them at once. Remember, the essence of instant ramen is convenience.

Voila! You have a meal worthy of a ramen shop. Just don't let any ramen snobs read this. If you think these additions are too ambitious, feel free to stick to plain instant ramen, because it's fine as is. If these additions aren't ambitious enough, then it's time for you to do some stretches and start pulling fresh ramen. But for the rest of you, I hope you'll breathe new life into the humble bowl of instant ramen.

For a while now we've been stocking these sweet Iwako Japanese erasers. We just had a new shipment come in, so now is as good a time as any to remind you guys just how cool these erasers are. In Japanese, these collectible trinkets are known as omoshiro-keshigomu, or literally "funny eraser." In Japanese, funny also takes on the connotation of amusing, and there is no stationery as amusing as Iwako erasers. Their appeal is three-fold: they're cute figurines to display, and they're fun to collect, they're even functional erasers.

Iwako and its designers are reknown for their attention to detail and precision in manufacturing. This is especially important because the erasers are in fact "puzzle erasers," in that each eraser can be taken apart into separate pieces. Each piece is cast in metal molds so that they fit together perfectly. Try disassembling your pieces and putting them back together! It can be quite a challenge with some of the more intricate pieces, like the fire truck and the ducks. You can reassemble them with different colors to further customize your erasers.

Iwako often open up their factories for tours to group of young Japanese students. These lucky students get to look behind the curtain and see how Iwako's erasers get produced. The factories are about as close to a Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory as you can get in real life. The kids get to see the molds from which these cute erasers are formed. Iwako themselves say that they sometimes take suggestions from students and make the into actual eraers.

Iwako also takes great care to make erasers that are environmentally friendly and safe. The materials used in each eraser are lead-free, latex-free and non-toxic. They're even recyclable, though we find no reason why anyone would dispose of these erasers, even if done so responsibly. 

Inspiration can strike at any moment. Every eatery presents opportunities for new erasers idea. Food has been one of the more fruitful themes for Iwako. They have made eraser sets based on traditional Japanese food, sushi, dim sum, baked pastries, and fast food too. All of them look good enough to eat, but please do not eat, because Iwako erasers aren't food. The company seems to make food erasers based on the cuisine that is well known in Japan. With burritos recently making an incursion into the Japanese market, we hope to see a Mexican food set in the near future.

There is an indisputable charm in Japanese erasers. We commend Iwako's ingenuity to make everyday items all the more appealing by miniaturizing them in eraser form. The magic of Iwako erasers come from the intricate details in every piece. Look at the cherry eraser pictured above. The leaf marks are etched in convincing fashion, and the way the stems meet at the top is lifelike. And you can pull the cherry off the stem just like with a real cherry. It's oddly satisfying.

It's easy to take one look at Iwako erasers and immediately fall in love, consumed by the urge to collect them all. That's how I felt when I first saw these cute erasers at my local Japanese store. Not trying to tempt you, but if you're interested in starting a collection, we have themed erasers sets ready to purchase that are great starter packs. Pick up one of these massive sets and your collection is off to a good start at sixty strong.

Something about Iwako erasers compels people to want to share their joy with the world. These erasers, ostensibly made for students, are so simple yet the appeal is universal. Go on YouTube, type in "iwako erasers" or "japanese erasers" and you'll find many videos of people showing off their eraser collections, narrated by both adults and young children. 

We like seeing everyday objects shrunken down into miniature size. The novelty rarely rubs off. Make a mundane object like a toaster in miniature size and we woudn't be able to help but ooh and ahh at it. Come to think of it, there hasn't been a kitchen appliance eraser set released yet. Someone write Iwako to get on it! Until then, we'll just have to enjoy all the amazing erasers they have already put out.