A few observations about food choices in Japan

September 16, 2013

I just had a two week food scouting mission in Japan, home of one of the world’s great cuisines.  I learned a ton about Japanese cuisine and ingredients. Here’s a few of my observations.

Food Aesthetics are very important.  Roundness, size and color together seem to be as important as flavor.  Japanese consumers will pay handsomely for perfect produce specimens.  Interestingly, some of their buying cues are very different than ours.  For example, this year’s fetishized brand of strawberries were pink.  US consumers would put their nose up to this.  I’m definitely not going to be able to sell those to Washington consumers.

No price is too high for perfection, (How about a perfectly round $12 Fuji apple?)   …but perfection is in the eye of the beholder.  Japanese beef producers look to export markets like the US in order to sell their choice cuts.  We have an expression here that anybody can sell the tenderloins, strips and ribeyes.  It’s the opposite in Japan: their beef producers are routinely backed up on those cuts.  Their domestic customers will pay top dollar for high-grade kobe beef, but only when it comes to top rounds and other inexpensive whole muscle cuts.  Japanese consumers slice the product thin, so they don’t need or want to pay for the cuts that you eat chunks of with a fork and knife … like a steak.

Marketers trumpet their products’ health benefits.  And, a lot of the benefits are extremely obscure.  All sales pitches came with some kind of benefit whether it was that the product was heart healthy or that it helped your eyebrows grow more fully or your finger nails grow faster.  Clearly health claims are a big part of their food sales culture.

Yet, additives are often OK.  For the most part, the Japanese seem to have no problem with MSG, artificial colors or other additives that a high-end consumer in the US would turn their nose up at.  I had to explain to a high-end nut butter company that if they want to enter the US market with their high-end product it is going to need be reformulated without the emulsifiers and such.  So many of the specialty products that I found were immediately dropped from my list due to these additives, with MSG surprisingly being one of the most common offenders (a product that they invented and that is apparently a household staple).

In general, taste, texture and aesthetics are king. Except for natto. Some Japanese will eat a slimy cardboardy, absolutely disgusting fermented soybean product called natto with their breakfast because it is apparently healthy.  I’d rather take innocuous-flavored supplement pills than ruin my breakfast.  (especially since traditional Japanese breakfast is so fantastically delicious)…why ruin it?

And, sometimes their pursuit of quality has incredibly positive health side-effects.  I met a pork producer who has a remarkably innovative system of feeding the pigs a fermented grain, probiotic-rich diet and thereby avoid administration of antibiotics, even though they are raised in confinement.  Surprisingly, animal welfare had nothing to do with his decision-making, he didn’t even know that he was breaking a paradigm.  He just does it because it makes the fat whiter and gives the pork a better smell.

The trip was great for learning about Japanese cuisine, for palate development, etc – but I still disagree with them on some things. I feel better equipped to handle those uber-fishy flavors, those slimy textures, etc. I ate everything put before me, even a number of endangered species (which I ate only because I didn’t order them, they were on a chefs tasting menu and it was killed already). The server at one such meal tried to tell me that they have whale because of their scientific research … yeah the scientific research study must be designed to repeatedly confirm that they like to eat whale meat. It didn’t do it for me. Frankly, it had a funky look and texture to it. Same thing with the sharks fin. Sure, it had a pleasing texture, but is it worth killing a whole animal just to eat a tenth of a percent of it? Fuck no.

Now I am confused.  I guess I need to go back and explore some more.

Note:  I did find a whole bunch of amazing products and am in the process of navigating how to get them into the US market.



Marx Foods Invites You to Bite Nite!

September 09, 2013

Marx Foods and 14 of Seattle’s top chefs are coming together to throw a party to raise money to support
WA Initiative 522 (which would require labeling GMOs). I’d love to see you there – Bite Nite’s going
to be the tastiest ticket in town!

For the price of admission you get:

15 amazing small bites from the chefs in attendance
To rub elbows with local culinary greats like:
Jim Drohman (Café Presse & Le Pichet)
Matt Dillon (Sitka & Spruce, The Corson Building, Bar Sajor)
Holly Smith (Café Juanita)
Shane Ryan (Matt’s in the Market)
Autumn Martin (Hot Cakes)
Nicki Kerbs (Cupcake Royale)
& more!
To support the Initiative with your ticket price – moving us a step closer to better information for consumers.


Mechanically Tenderizing Beef – A Danger of Omission

July 22, 2013

People have been mechanically tenderizing beef for ages – I’m sure you’ve all seen cube steaks in the grocery store with that distinctive odd-looking texture.  If it’s a tender cut from the round you’re looking for, there’s nothing wrong with taking a meat mallet, needler, or other mechanical tenderizing system to tougher cuts of beef to make them more tender…but I think needling in a restaurant should be disclosed.

The problem is the beef industry is struggling to meet the low-end restaurant business’s demand for cheap tender steaks.  To keep the beef coming, while holding prices down, they’ve taken to needle-tenderizing beef that would otherwise be too tough to serve as a steak.  The USDA (so far) doesn’t require them to say when a cut has been tenderized in this way, so most restaurants don’t disclose it.

You’ve probably also all seen the warnings at the bottom of menus telling you that the USDA doesn’t recommend eating undercooked meats.  Most people order steaks less than well done anyway, because the inside of a steak is considered essentially sterile, they figure the risk is low.

That’s not the case with needled steaks.  As the needles pierce the meat to break up muscle fibers and make it more tender, they can also force bacteria from the surface of the steak (where it would be killed during cooking) deep into the center (where it may survive at lower levels of doneness).

Suddenly your steak might not be safe to eat Medium Rare.

The Kansas City Star published a good article on the subject that I’d recommend reading.  Just be aware that there’s a fair amount of meat packer imagery attached that some may find upsetting.

News Flash: According to NPR, the USDA has just proposed requiring mechanical tenderizing be disclosed on packaging.  I hope it’ll go through – this is clearly a situation where the industry could use more transparency.



What We’ve Been Reading – July Edition

July 17, 2013

Lots of intriguing food articles have come out over the last month or so…here are some of our favorites…check them out!

Eating Bugs: Would You Dine on Cicadas?
Can Farmed Trout Go Vegetarian?
Chef in a Box
Germany Drops its Longest Word
Your Choice in Utensils Can Change How Food Tastes
Savory & Sweet: A Taste for Infertility

I’ve also been reading about the rising unlabeled use of mechanical tenderizers (read more here) and a new drug called “Zilmax” in the US beef industry (my thoughts here).



Congrats Chris on being named Master Sommelier!

June 10, 2013

There’s nothing like watching someone you admire work their ass off and achieve an absolutely enormous goal.  I could not be more proud of Chris Tanghe for becoming a Master Sommelier.

Most of you probably won’t be aware of the certification, the prestige that comes with it, or the incredible amount of time, work and effort that goes into it.

Let me put it in perspective for you.  The Court of Master Sommeliers was founded around 1977 as an international organization to promote, test, and certify wine knowledge at the very highest level.  They award the Master Sommelier diploma as the ultimate achievement a sommelier can attain.

You know how many Master Sommeliers there are now?  201.  In the world.

Chris was one of 63 who took the most recent exam – which includes what is probably the most brutal blind taste test ever conceived – and one of only four who passed.  His achievement has been seven years, 2000+ flash cards, and hours and hours and hours and hours of work in the making.
When it comes to wine, he is officially the fucking man.

That’s not just my opinion, either.  This diploma is so cool that when someone earns it it’s news – read more over at The Seattle Met and Sip Northwest.

But I don’t want to gloss over Chris’s other culinary achievements.  He may be one of the world’s beverage elite now, but he’s also no slouch when it comes to the kitchen.  He’s studied at the very prestigious Culinary Institute of America, he’s cooked for many great restaurants, and he’s the chef behind about half the recipes on our blog.  He has all of the gastronomic bases covered.

All this and he’s also a down to earth, solid, great guy and a wonderful friend.

Congratulations Chris, you’ve earned it!



Have You Heard of Zilmax?

June 05, 2013

When it comes to beef, marbling is key.  This interspersed thin layers of fat throughout muscle is used to judge beef quality (that’s how Select, Choice & Prime are decided).  It’s believed to play an important role in tenderness, flavor and moistness.

But when it comes to grain-fed beef produced in the US, marbling is about to become a lot less common.

Zilmax = More Beef, Less Quality
In a new Slate article entitled Why Beef is Becoming More Like Chicken, Christopher Leonard describes the introduction of a new feed supplement called Zilmax – a drug originally intended to treat asthma.

“A new cattle drug called Zilmax is being widely used in the industrial feedlots where most of America’s beef comes from, but not because it produces a better sirloin.  In fact, it has been shown to make steak less flavorful and juicy…” he writes.   “Zilmax is a highly effective growth drug, and it makes cattle swell up with muscle in the final weeks of their lives.  And despite concerns within the industry, the economics of modern beef production have made the rise of Zilmax all but inevitable.”

You don’t just have to take his word for Zilmax’s effects though – here’s a product overview from Merck, producer of Zilmax.

When it comes down to it, the margins in commodity beef production are too narrow NOT to use Zilmax.  According to Leonard, Feedlot managers are making the switch in the hopes of making just an extra $30 in profit per animal.

Zilmax isn’t the only strange thing being fed to cattle in the US
We’ve also written about the how’s and why’s of growth hormone use in grain-fed cattle, and antibiotics as feed supplements and byproducts in feed.

So What Do You Do?
…if you don’t want beef with all this stuff in it?  Switch to specialty beef where producers focus on quality rather than quantity.  Switch to beef from countries that outlaw the use of antibiotics, hormones, etc as growth promotants.  Like our amazingly delicious New Zealand Grass-fed Angus Beef



New Animal Feed Supplements: Marijuana, Probiotics & Zilmax

May 20, 2013

Farmers and agricultural colleges have long experimented with tweaking livestock feed to improve weight-gain and animal health.  Farm animals need help growing, especially in feedlots where  illness spreads quickly because the animals are crammed into an unnatural habitat and fed an unnatural diet.  In conventional American agriculture, antibiotics and/or hormones are routine, but I have recently heard about a couple exceptional feeds being used on small farms:

On a recent trip to Japan, I met a pig farmer who has a remarkably innovative system of feeding the pigs a fermented grain, probiotic-rich diet and thereby avoiding administration of antibiotics, even though they are raised in confinement.  Get it?  Probiotics instead of antibiotics.  Surprisingly, animal welfare had nothing to do with his decision-making, he didn’t even know that we have a major antibiotics-in-feed problem in the states.  He just does it because it makes the fat whiter and gives the pork a better smell.  The fermented grain feed gives the meat more marketable qualities – but as a result, he also has healthier pigs without antibiotics – a surprise win-win.

Of course, that example isn’t nearly as amusing as BB Ranch’s pot-fed pigs, which you can read about over at the Seattle Met blog.  Pigs have long consumed the leavings of agricultural production – but I bet none have enjoyed their feed as much as these pigs, who dine on the stems, leaves and root bulbs leftover from a local medical marijuana co-op.  Weed supposedly provides healthy fiber to the pigs and a more savory flavor to the meat.  Farmers throughout the world are focused on getting their livestock to gain weight quick.  There must be few feeds out there that give livestock the munchies like weed.

As far as weight-gain supplements go, I’ll take probiotic-fed or ganja-fed over zilmax-fed any day of the week.  Or every day.



Tsukiji Fish Market

May 08, 2013

It’s not just that the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo is the largest fish market in the world. It is also the most exhaustively, obsessively comprehensive market I have ever seen. It has all the fish in the sea (and shellfish and sea veg) in every form you could imagine. Alive & Dead. Fresh, Frozen & Dried. The cheapest cuts to the most precious. Whole & Filleted. Portioned, Powdered, Salted & Sliced. From the teeny-tiniest fish to the mega tuna. Fish graded by size. Fish graded by quality. Smoked, Cured & Raw. Flesh & Innards. Endangered & Sustainable. Exotic & Ordinary. Unborn (eggs) & Born. Fish you recognize & fish out of Dr. Seuss.It literally has every possible incarnation of fish as an ingredient spread over what seems like miles and miles of 10 foot wide stalls. And then of course there are the restaurants that sell it cooked and raw.
Interestingly, as large as this market is, I didn’t see large volumes of pallet movement (except for an adjacent produce market). Seafood-wise, it seemed to principally serve the chef market.  I might have missed it, but didn’t see tractor trailers carting off vast volumes. Instead, I only saw  chefs walking off with their catches of the day.
These early hours speak to the tough life of a chef. If it really is the same chef that comes here to shop before the market shuts down at 9, then those guys have a long day if they are serving the product for dinner. As if the chef’s work life isn’t hard-working enough.


What We’ve Been Reading

April 27, 2013

Serious Reporting About Serious Food Issues:
Under the Label Series – NPR

If you’re trying to make more sustainable choices when purchasing seafood, NPR’s recent special report series on the Marine Stewardship Council and their standards of sustainability is a fascinating read/listen.

The above link also includes a link to the Marine Stewardship Council’s response, so you can see what they took issue with and draw your own conclusions.

 

Fun & Eye Opening:
Worms: a Zimbabwe snack, from tree to dinner table –Associated Press (KOMO News linked)

I must admit, I wasn’t expecting to find sentences like “Banda was known for carrying around pocketsful of worms that he would also offer to children” or “Soak dried worms in water for 3-4 hours to reconstitute” in the next food article I read, but this one is an amazing window into a regional delicacy.

The mopane worm is a large caterpillar that is commonly collected and dried for consumption in Zimbabwe and southern Africa, either raw as a snack or cooked in sauce.  It’s significantly higher in protein than beef, easier on the environment than beef, and has a flavor “reminiscent of salty potato chips.”

What do you think?  The next snacking sensation?

 

Fascinating:
Some People Really Can Taste the Rainbow – NPR

Synethesia is a neurological condition where stimulation of one sense stimulates another sense as well.  It’s surprisingly common, with one in 26 people believed to have some form of it.  Only a very tiny proportion of those people have a variety that involves taste being evoked by other senses or vice-versa.

Some people experience flavors when they hear words, or experience tastes as colors, etc.  This article attempts to give the reader a window into their world.  Ultimately I wish it was a lot more in depth, it fascinates but ultimately left me wanting so much more.  Still, it’s an eye-opening read that you should check out!

 

Intriguing and/or Horrifying:
From Pets to Plates: Why More People Are Eating Guinea Pigs – NPR

Every wondered why guinea pigs are so high strung?  I’ve always assumed it’s because they’re considered a delicacy in some parts of the world (you’d be nervous too).  This article explores the practices of preparing and eating guinea pigs, their potential impact on the environment as a cultivated food animal (significantly lower per pound than cattle), and guinea pig meat’s (aka cuy) slow emergence on restaurant menus in the US.

 

Money Saving Food Science:
A Shocking (and Hot!) Tip for Preserving Produce – Modernist Cuisine Blog

W. Wayt Gibbs of the Cooking Lab (here in Seattle) has published an informative guide to heat-shocking produce, a simple step than can dramatically increase the shelf life of fruits & vegetables.

 

Ever Heard of a “Vegas Strip Steak”?
Can You Patent a Steak? Part 1 & Part 2 – NPR

Believe it or not, new steaks do show up on the market from time to time.  Cattle aren’t changing before our eyes, but our knowledge of butchery is.  Oklahoma State University is attempting to patent a new butchery method for removing a new steak cut, which they claim offers tenderness akin to a NY Strip Steak, from where it’s been hiding in the midst of muscles usually ground to make hamburger. They’re calling it the Vegas Strip Steak.

 

A New Excuse for that Martini…
Shut Up and Drink Your Salad: Cocktails Embrace Spinach, Kale, and Arugula – Daily Details

Ok, putting leafy greens in your cocktails isn’t going to let you square them with your doctor as health food…but it will give them new flavors and truly gorgeous colors.  Hit the link above for some drool-inducing eye candy and new mixology ideas.



Things I Take for Granted

March 25, 2013

There’s nothing like going to a farm to realize how spoiled and disconnected I am from my food.  In this case, my lessons came from the 100,000 acre Nokomai Station near Queenstown, New Zealand where 25,000 Silere Alpine-Origin Merino unknowingly grow our sweaters and protein in a lamb nirvana (and also one of the backdrops for the hobbit).
So, what do I take for granted?  As a city-dwelling middle-to-upper class American, there most certainly is no end to the answer to that question.  For now, I will just talk about the meat in my belly and wool on my back.
To observe the shepherds, the shearers, the pilots, the farmhands, the managers and the dogs do their work is to gain a mountain of appreciation and respect for all the work that goes into raising our meat and clothing.  The only hard work we do is take a package of meat off the shelf and put it on a grill.  We’ve got it easy.  Being behind the scenes on a working ranch is to get a glimpse into the unending list of things that go into good farm management: pasture management, animal health, diet, selecting the right grass for the right species, logistics and getting the animals to the abbatoir.  There’s the breeding and genetics and then the processing, distribution and marketing.   Trust me, I am just categorically scratching the surface.  I am not doing this list justice and anyone reading this that actually knows about ranching now knows that my understanding is basically at a preschool level.
There’s so many reasons why we are disconnected from our food.  For one thing, it is a great luxury to be free from worry about acquiring our sustenance.  Modern life gives us plenty else to worry about as well as the luxury of moving up Maslow’s pyramid.  But the connection to our food is often intentionally obscured by marketers.  For good reason — much of our food production is ugly.  Feedlots are nasty, for example.
But, there is also plenty of beauty in our food production.  I have seen dozens of ranching operations and I can say for sure that Silere Alpine-origin Merino is the class of the world.  It’s hard to impugn the ethics of eating meat when animals are raised this way.  Nokomai Station, a vast 100,000 open range that has been raising lambs for generations, is epically gorgeous and pristine.  I think the pictures speak for themselves.


Check This Stud Out

March 18, 2013

His name is “Infinity E3” and he is the man. Don’t believe me? Listen to this: E3 gets to mate with over a hundred cows a year. Every year. Wilt Chamberlain would have been jealous.
Before I met E3, his owner Daniel Absolom told me “the unique thing about E3 is his performance metrics.” Performance Metrics? Excuse me?
It turns out that genetics is one of the three key factors in meat quality (the other two are on-farm management and processing). And that is why E3 is such a ladies man. Angus farmers want his
genetics in their herd, so they are willing to pay handsomely for his offspring and his semen.
I bet that’s something you never thought about while choosing a steak.
Did you know that there are genetic markers for things like marbling and tenderness? In fact, there’s at least a dozen performance metrics that ranchers look for when purchasing breeding stock for their herds. E3’s offspring are in the top 69th percentile for rib fat and 68th percentile for rump fat, making him and his progeny likely to have great marbling. He’s in a whopping 83rd percentile for birth weight and upper 70th percentiles for all of the weight measurements, you know his kids are going to grow up nice and big. His scrotal size is in the 78th percentile which means that his male offspring will likely have big balls (ie big loads ie lots of semen to sell!). A short gestation length in his genes means that his female offspring can restart their reproductive cycle quicker.
He’s basically in the upper percentiles for everything. Better genetics are more expensive, but also produce meat with better eating qualities.  You get what you pay for.  Want to try some grass-fed meat with impeccable genetics and, therefore, exceptional eating qualities?  Order it here.


Antibiotics in Meat. An Argument for Sparing Use.

March 09, 2013

Ask a grass-fed cattle farmer, pretty much any grass-fed cattle farmer, about antibiotics and you will be greeted by a reaction that is a mix of defensive and dumbfounded, a reaction that is so uniform that you’d think they were reading off their talking points like a party politician.

 

Farmers insist that it would be inhumane to deny an animal antibiotics if their health or life depended on them.  Just like we need to be medicated when we are sick, sometimes animals need to be medicated.  One New Zealand farmer I spoke to said that he gives antibiotics to about 2 out of 1,000 cattle in any given year and then they have a 30 day waiting period before the animal can be sent to slaughter.  This is basically what the claim “never fed sub-therapeutic antibiotics” means.

 

Personally, I would prefer to eat 100% antibiotic-free meat, but I realize that position is either: 1) rather elitist of me and/or 2) a slap in the face of animal welfare.  Those who claim to sell “never-ever” meat simply put the medicated animal into separate production of 100% antibiotic-fed meat, so somebody is eating it, just not me.  And, if the animal is not treated it could suffer needlessly from an infection.

 

I suspect that the reason why grass-fed farmers are often defensive about this question is because they feel that urbanites don’t understand that to deny antibiotics to an animal who is suffering is inherently inhumane.  The grass-fed farmers who I have met care deeply about the animals that they are raising.  The reality is that animals that live on grass, with space, in a natural environment seldom need antibiotics so they are used sparingly in grass-fed operations.

 

The big problem arises when antibiotics are administered as a matter of practice and in large volumes.  In North America, farmers order antibiotics from a catalog just like they order corn and they administer those antibiotics routinely to all of their animals.  Feedlot cattle are fed antibiotics with their food because in a confined and crowded environment, a steady regimen of antibiotics is necessary to keep the animals growing and alive.

 

In New Zealand, antibiotics can only be administered by a vet to treat sick animals, there is a 30 day waiting period before that animal can be sent to the abbatoir and violation of this rule is apparently punished mercilessly by the authorities.  I’m not sure if residues remain in the meat after 30 days, but maybe?

 

At this point I agree with the ranchers.  If antibiotics are used extremely sparingly and administered only by a veterinarian, then we should treat sick animals rather than let them suffer.  If that means that a small quantity of antibiotics enters the food supply, then that is a consequence that we should live with.  There’s so many variables to balance.  What do you think?