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Spam, Umeboshi, and Egg Musubi


Spam musubi are rice balls (onigiri or omusubi) that are topped with Spam and wrapped with nori; they are different from sushi because musubi rice is plain or seasoned with salt, whereas sushi rice is seasoned with vinegar, sugar, and salt. They are a popular in Hawaii and are great as breakfast or a portable snack. They are easy to bring along for a hike.

The simplest Spam musubi are made from rice, salt, spam, and nori, but many variations can be made. Musubi Cafe Iyasume, which was just around the corner from the hotel I stayed at in Honolulu, offers avocado egg bacon Spam, umeboshi cucumber Spam, teriyaki Spam, egg cucumber Spam, and shiso Spam. The umeboshi version is my favorite since it is salty from the Spam and sour from the umeboshi.

The recipe below combines Spam, umeboshi, and egg; it makes 6 musubi using a “mini” 7 oz can of Spam. If you’d like to use a regular 12 oz can of Spam, then double the recipe but make 10 musubi.


Spam, Umeboshi, and Egg Musubi


  • 2 rice-cooker-cups (1.5 cups) raw Japanese white rice, or 4 cups lightly packed just-cooked Japanese white rice that is still warm
  • (optional) 3 umeboshi
  • 7 oz Spam, classic flavor (“mini”-sized can, about half the size of a regular can of Spam)
  • 1 Tbsp tare (recipe below)
  • (optional) 4 large eggs, beaten
  • neutral oil (such as peanut, grapeseed, or rice bran)
  • 1/2 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt
  • 2 sheets nori

Wash the rice by placing it in a bowl, covering with water, and swishing the rice grains to release starch. Drain and rewash two or three times or until the water is mostly clear (it will not be completely clear). Cook the rice using the “normal” setting on a rice cooker (not the “sushi” setting — the rice should be cooked softer than sushi rice) using the amount of water recommended by the rice cooker. Once the rice is cooked, keep it warm; use the “keep warm” setting on your rice cooker, if you have it.

While the rice is cooking, prepare the umeboshi, eggs, and Spam.

If using umeboshi: Remove the seeds from the umeboshi, and use a small pair of scissors or a knife to finely mince the umeboshi pulp.

Make the tare using the recipe below. Cut the Spam into 6 slices (about 1/4 inch to 1/3 inch thick). Heat a medium or large pan on medium. The Spam will release oil when heated, so it isn’t necessary to add oil the pan unless you are concerned about sticking. Add the Spam in a single layer; cook them in batches if they don’t all fit. Sear until the bottom is browned and then flip over. Brush tare on top of the Spam and sear until the bottom is browned. Remove from the pan and set aside.

If using eggs: To make the omelet, preferably use a square or rectangular pan (such as a Japanese tamago pan or a 5″ x 5″ inch square cast-iron skillet) so that it is easy to cut egg into strips that are approximately the same size as the Spam. Otherwise use a round pan which is just large enough to hold 4 eggs and to cut 6 strips from. Lightly salt the eggs — remember that the Spam is salty, so the eggs do not need much salt. Preheat the pan over medium to medium low heat, and then coat with oil. If using a small pan such as a tamago pan or a 5″x 5″ pan, cook the eggs in two batches. If using a larger round pan, cook the eggs in one batch. Pour in the beaten eggs, and use chopsticks to release the solidified eggs from the bottom of the pan in order to help the eggs cook through more evenly. Keep stirring until the majority of the eggs are no longer liquid, then let the eggs set. You can optionally cover the pan with a lid to help the top set. Once the top and bottom is set, use a spatula to release the egg from the edges of the pan, and then slide the eggs onto a cutting board. Cut the omelet(s) into 6 strips approximately the same width as the Spam; they can be up to 2 inches longer than the Spam. If you used a round pan, you may have some extra odd shaped pieces.

Use a plastic spatula to fluff the rice and mix the salt in. The rice should taste lightly seasoned, but not salty.

The rice should be formed into balls while it is still hot or warm, otherwise it won’t stick together.  While the rice is warm to hot, but not hot enough to hurt your hands, place about 100 grams of rice into a 1 cup measure (it should be about 3/4ths full of non-packed rice); the cup measure helps to shape the rice into approximately the correct shape. Wet your hands to prevent the rice from sticking, shake off the excess water, and then shape the rice into an oval-shaped stone. If the rice is firm, like sushi rice, then press the rice very firmly so that it will stay together; if the rice is moister and already sticky, then press it enough form a ball. Repeat to form 6 rice balls. Each time you make a rice ball, rub your hands together under water to remove any residual rice starch, and re-wet your hands.

Cut the nori into 6 strips which are 2-1/2 inches wide and are the length of the nori (about 7-1/2 inches long).

For each musubi, spread 1/6th of the umeboshi paste on top of each rice ball (if using), and then drape a piece of egg over the long-side of the rice ball (if using). Lay over a piece of Spam, centered, with the tare side down so that it also flavors the rice. Wrap the nori, shiny side out, around the middle of the musubi’s thin side (i.e. the musubi’s waistline), with the seam side underneath the rice. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap once cool. Try to use the plastic wrap to arch the fillings over the long-side of the musubi.

The musubi is best if it sits for several minutes to a few hours before eating, since the rice will adhere to itself better after resting and the nori will become black and smooth from the rice’s moisture.

Keeps 1 day at room temperature. Keeps a couple days in the fridge, but it will need to be reheated (e.g. by pan frying) before eating because the rice will get hard.

Variation: Optionally you can place a piece of konbu that is left over from making dashi or a new dry piece of 1 inch by 1 inch konbu on top of the rice as it cooks.

Tare is a Japanese term for a sweetened, thickened soy sauce; each cook may have their own version. Tare can be used for basting, as a dipping sauce, for flavoring for broths (e.g. ramen broth or dashi for udon soup), and can be brushed on meats before and while being grilled or on grilled rice balls just before they are removed from the heat. Although some tare sauces are infused with flavors, such as ginger, garlic, or scallion, this is the most basic minimal version of tare. The recipe makes more tare than needed for spam musubi, since it is hard to make smaller amounts.

Tare (sweetened, thickened soy sauce)

  • Servings: Makes about 1/4 cup
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  • 1 Tbsp hon mirin (use pure “hon” mirin, not a mirin-like substitute)
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce (usukuchi or regular)

Cook mirin and sugar over medium heat until the sugar dissolves (this also evaporates the alcohol). Do not let the liquid dry out. Add the soy sauce. Bring to a simmer; reduce heat to low to maintain the simmer. Cook for 3 minutes.

If storing, let cool to room temperature before putting it in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Keeps in the refrigerator for 3 months. Stir before using.

Quick Pickled Cucumber With Umeboshi

“Fortunately, canning is not a prerequisite for pickling. In fact, as long as you can commit to eating them within a week or two, there are countless pickles that you can make quickly and store in your fridge.” — Mark Bittman

Quick pickles, also called refrigerator pickles, are unfermented pickles made by marinating vegetables or fruits in a vinegar or salt solution for a short period of time, usually several minutes to a few days. They don’t require canning if they won’t be stored for more than a few weeks, though they should be refrigerated. Usually recipes for quick pickles are simple and require minimal effort — often just cutting, mixing, and waiting. Slightly more complicated recipes may require blanching or may require the brine to be heated to dissolve sugar or salt, infuse flavorings, or lightly cook the vegetables. Examples of quick pickle recipes can be seen here (Mark Bittman), here (Food52), here (Smitten Kitchen), or here (The Awl).

This quick pickle is recipe is one of the simplest types; it requires only cutting and mixing ingredients. These pickles get a mouth-puckering sourness and floral aroma from umeboshi, Japanese salt pickled plums. Since umeboshi is pungent, it can be an acquired taste; I love it because it makes these pickles unique from other refrigerator pickles. These pickles are best served besides plain Japanese white rice, though when eaten on its own, its pungent sourness can be pleasing because jolts you awake. I use a special Japanese cutting technique, called the serpent’s belly cut, since it makes the cucumber tender but still very crunchy and it looks pretty. However the recipe also works if the cucumbers are simply sliced.

Recipe inspired by “Quick Cucumber Pickle With Ginger and Umeboshi” by Ayako Iino of Yumé Boshi.

Quick Pickled Cucumber With Umeboshi

  • Servings: serves 4 as a snack
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  • 2 Japanese cucumbers, Mediterranean cucumbers (available from Happy Quail Farms in the Bay Area), or similar type of cucumber, which is preferably small (about 6 inches long), not very thick, thin-skinned, seedless, and 2-1/2 to 3 oz each. If substituting seeded cucumbers, see the note below. If using a different size of cucumber, adjust the seasonings accordingly.
  • Diamond Crystal kosher salt
  • 1 umeboshi
  • 2 tsp ume vinegar

Cut the cucumbers using the serpent’s belly cut described below, or into thin slices, half moons, or a similar shape. The sliced cucumbers should be salted or soaked in brine, as described below, in order to draw out their extra moisture which would otherwise dilute the pickle’s flavorings.

If using the serpent’s belly cut: Cut the cucumber crosswise into small pieces, about the size of one or two bites. Cutting it into bite-sized pieces before it is soaked in the saline solution will make cleaner cuts since the cucumber is firmer. Soak the cucumbers in 2 cups water mixed with 2 tsp salt for at least 30 minutes. It is easier for this saline solution to get between all the slices and pull the moisture out than mixing the serpent’s belly cut cucumbers with just salt.

If using another cut: Mix a generous pinch of salt with the cucumber.

After 30 minutes the cucumbers should be semi limp (if not, stir in some extra salt and let them sit for a few minutes longer). Drain, rinse off the extra salt, and then gently squeeze to remove excess water. This prevents the pickle from getting watery. Don’t squeeze hard enough to mash them; it is okay for a small amount of liquid to remain.

Remove the seed from the umeboshi and smash the pulp into small bits with your fingers or a fork or mince with a knife. Mix the smashed umeboshi, ume vinegar, and the cucumbers. Taste and add salt if necessary; the umeboshi is salty so it most likely won’t need any additional salt.

The pickles can be eaten right away, which is how I like them best, or they can be kept for up to five days if refrigerated. They will get more pungent and sour the longer they are stored.

Serving suggestion: Serve with hot steamed Japanese rice.

Variation: If substituting cucumbers with seeds, then halve the cucumbers lengthwise and use a spoon to remove the seeds. Cut into half moons.


In Japan, this cut is usually used only for cucumbers. This type of cut makes the cucumber malleable like a serpent or an accordion and gives the cucumbers an interesting shape. It makes the cucumber tender but still very crunchy. The resulting pieces has great texture and the folds hold the marinade well. A seedless cucumber must be used, since there is no way to remove the seeds when using this cut.

Reference: “(Jabara-giri) Serpent’s Belly Cut” in “Japanese Kitchen Knives” by Hiromitsu Nozaki

Serpent's Belly Cut for Seedless Cucumbers


  • seedless cucumbers, preferably Japanese, Mediterranean, or other type of seedless cucumber, which is preferably thin-skinned and not very thick.

Cut the ends off the cucumbers. Optionally rub the cut surfaces of the cucumber end and cucumber against each other and wipe away the froth that forms — supposedly this technique helps pull out bitterness from the cucumbers.

Optionally use a vegetable peeler to remove alternating strips of skin. This creates a varied and interesting texture and appearance. Removing some of the skin also makes the cucumbers more tender. If you have one, I recommend using a serrated peeler since it makes pretty ridges which echo the ridges of the serpent’s belly cut.

Place the cucumber horizontally on the cutting board. Position the tip of knife to make diagonal cuts (slanting from northwest to southeast for right handed cooks) starting from the right side of the cucumber, with the tip of the knife on the cutting board and the heel in the air. Leave the tip of the knife on the cutting board to help steady the knife and move the heel of the knife in the air to make thin diagonal cuts halfway through the cucumber at narrow regular intervals as you move the blade down the cucumber, from right to left. You can curl the index finger of your free hand against the side of the blade to help make the cuts more regular. It is important to not cut more than halfway into the cucumber. Continue all the way down the cucumber.

Carefully turn the cucumber lengthwise end over end and repeat, making diagonal cuts in the same direction and same slant as before on the uncut side of the cucumber. The cucumber should now be pliable like a serpent or accordion.


The Long Way Home – New York to San Francisco by Train

I recently traveled across the United States by train. It takes four days for a train to travel 3,000 miles — that’s the distance between the east and west coasts. When I began the trip this March, it was snowing in New York and some parts of the Hudson river still had ice. The trees were bare and the sky was grey. Our train followed the Hudson river northward, and then passed by small towns with lots of brick buildings. We had to wait at one of the stations in upstate New York for a connecting train to bring sleeper cars that would be attached to our train — the sleeper cars I would be staying in. We passed by one of the Great Lakes. Sometimes it snowed, but it didn’t stick to the ground. Our train pulled into Chicago late because of the delay, so we missed the connecting train and stayed the night in Chicago. No matter; you shouldn’t take the train cross country if you are in a hurry. Downtown Chicago is windy, just like everyone says, but it is a fun city with good restaurants — The Aviary was especially nice.

The next train, called Amtrak’s Zephyr line, crossed the Mississipi river, passed by farmlands, and then reached the Rocky Mountains. I was told that the trip was pretty, however Denver to Salt Lake City was much more beautiful than I expected. We got glimpses of little ski resorts and then the train followed the Colorado river; a steep incline was on one side of the train and the river was on the other. Many parts of the river are only accessible by train or kayak so the views were unmarred by roads. Twice we saw a swimming pool with people in it — this section of the train’s route was warm enough for that in March. Then Utah’s slowly eroding red rock formations appeared. On the train, strangers conversed often since due to limited space, tables are shared in the train’s dining car and viewing car. More farms passed by. Sometimes the train’s rocking gave me a slight motion sickness. And then finally, after several days of sleeping and eating on the train, we arrived in the Bay Area. Home.


Okonomiyaki is a Japanese savory pancake. The word okonomiyaki means “what you like, cooked”. Accordingly there are many types and variations — most have cabbage and some sort of batter; often pork is included, though sometimes seafood is used. The recipe below is for a type invented in Osaka which is the most commonly found type throughout Japan. Lots of toppings are added, most commonly: a sweet-salty sauce (okonomiyaki sauce or tonkatsu sauce), mayonnaise, bonito flakes, and aonori (seaweed powder). You can draw designs with themayonnaise or marble the sauces with a toothpick . When the tissue-thin bonito flakes are put on top of the hot pancake, they appear to “dance” — they move about from the hot air rising.

The version below uses thinly sliced pork belly (available at Japanese markets) — the notes at the end of the recipe explain how to substitute ground pork or minced shrimp. My favorites are the pork belly and the ground pork versions. I don’t recommend substituting bacon because its flavor is very strong; it overwhelms the pancake and tends to make the entire pancake taste like bacon. The sauces and toppings are some of the best parts of the pancake, and these stand out more against the more delicately flavored pork belly. Toasted (dark-colored) sesame oil is used to cook the pancakes; it can be used for cooking on medium heat (not high heat since it has low smoking point).

The recipe below specifies the brand names of two items: Bulldog brand tonkatsu sauce and Kewpie brand mayonnaise. Although you can substitute other brands (or even homemade), my preference is for these sauces since they are the most popular brands and are icons. Okonomiyaki sauce is too thick and sweet for my tastes; Bulldog brand tonkatsu sauce has the perfect balance of saltiness and sweetness. Kewpie mayonnaise is smoother, creamier, and has less oil than American mayonnaise; it has a tang from apple and malt vinegar and comes in a soft squeeze bottle which is perfect for making thin ribbons on top of the okonomiyaki.

Leftovers keep for one day, but they won’t be as good as a freshly made pancake. If you make extra pancakes, it is easy to reheat them if the toppings are left off; store in the refrigerator, re-pan fry to heat up, and then add all the toppings. If the leftovers have the toppings on them, I usually don’t reheat them — eating cold leftover pancakes for breakfast the next morning is one of my guilty pleasures.

Source: Adapted from “Osaka-Style Okonomiyaki” from “Japanese Soul Cooking” by Tadashi Ono & Harris Salat.


  • Servings: Serves 4 (Makes 4 pancakes). Recipe can easily be halved or quartered.
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Dry Ingredients for the Batter:

  • 2 cups flour (unsifted)
  • 2 tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 tsp sugar

Wet Ingredients for the Batter:

Additional Ingredients:

  • 1 lbs green cabbage
  • (optional) 1 cup tenkasu (crunchy bits of deep fried flour-batter bits)
  • toasted sesame oil, enough to thinly coat the pan
  • 8 oz very thinly sliced pork belly (preferably sliced about 1/32 to 1/16 of an inch thick) or 1/2 lbs ground pork


  • about 4 Tbsp Bulldog-brand Tonkatsu Sauce
  • about 4 Tbsp Kewpie-brand mayonnaise
  • about 4 Tbsp aonori
  • about 4 Tbsp dried, shaved bonito

Mix the dry batter ingredients. Add the wet batter ingredients and mix until just barely combined. The batter should be thick, stiff, and clumpy. It is okay if the batter is unevenly mixed or if there is a small amount of unmixed flour or unincorporated egg; don’t over mix. If you have time, let the batter rest for 2 to 3 hours at room temperature (place it in the refrigerator for longer storage times).

Remove the core of the cabbage and the thick veins from the cabbage leaves — the pancake comes out nicer when these tough parts are removed. You can either cut the cabbage into 1/2-inch squares (this makes an airier lighter pancake — don’t chop the cabbage too finely since the larger squares give it heft) or shred the cabbage into thin strips about 1/4-inch wide and 2 to 3 inches long (this size makes the pancake become more of a cohesive unit and blends the tastes more). The cabbage pieces don’t need to be precise or consistent; aim for approximately the suggested size.

If you have a grill pan which covers two burners or several pans (preferably cast iron), you can cook multiple pancakes at the same time. If you only have one pan, then cook each pancake separately. Preheat the grill pan(s) or cast iron pan(s) on medium low.

Mix the tenkasu into pancake batter just before cooking — this keeps the tenkasu crunchy. Add the cabbage and tenkasu to the bowl containing the batter. If using ground pork, break it up into small clumps and add it to the bowl. Gently mix until the cabbage is coated with batter and everything is evenly distributed.

Lightly coat the pan(s) with toasted sesame oil. To make each pancake, spoon out 1/4 of the batter on to the pan. Use two spatulas to gently press the sides of pancake so that it forms a circular shape about 6 inches in diameter and about 1 inch thick. Don’t push down on the pancake too much; you want a fluffy pancake. If you are making several pancakes at the same time, spoon out each pancake into a separate area; the pancakes don’t spread out much, but you need enough space to be able to turn them and they should not be touching. If using the pork belly slices, lay enough pork belly slices over the top to cover the pancake in a single layer.

The pancake will be cooked for about 5 minutes on the first side, 5 minutes on the second side, and 5 minutes on which ever side needs more browning or split the time between both sides. The exact time depends on the temperature and thickness of the pancake; cooking time will be about 15 minutes in total. More detailed instructions for this step are below:

  • Begin by cooking for 5 minutes on the first side; while it is cooking occasionally slide the spatula underneath the pancake to loosen and then rotate the pancake once or twice so that it doesn’t get excessively brown in particular spots or unevenly cooked.
  • Use two broad spatulas or fish spatulas to flip the pancakes. Don’t press the pancakes down after flipping since you want tall pancakes. If you are unable to flip it using spatulas, you can place it on a plate, put another plate on top, and flip the two plates over in order to turn the pancake upside down before returning it to the pan.
  • Tuck any stray bits back into the pancake after flipping. Gently press any parts that break off back into the pancake. The first side of the pancake should be gently browned; adjust the heat if it is too high or low. Cook the pancake on the second side for 5 minutes, rotating once or twice.
  • Very thin slices of pork belly won’t release much fat, but thicker slices will. If the pork belly releases a thick pool of oil or fat, mop up the excess with a paper towel. Otherwise, the hot oil or fat may splatter and burn you when you flip the pancake.
  • Flip the pancake back on to the first side and check the amount of browning on the second side; cook for the final 5 minutes on which ever side needs more browning or split the cooking between the sides. Rotate occasionally.
  • When it is nearly done, check that the batter is cooked through by sticking a chopstick, skewer, or cake tester into the center. When it is cooked through, the tester should come out dry (it doesn’t always come out clean, but it should be mostly clean). If using a Thermapen, you can also use the inside temperature to judge doneness — it should be hot enough to cook ground pork through. The cooked pancake should be lightly browned on both sides, the pork should be cooked through, and the cabbage should be tender but still have some crunch; ideally the outside of the pancake should be crispy and the inside should be moist, tender, and gooey but cooked through.

Place each pancake on a plate, pork belly side up. Squeeze about 1 Tbsp of Bulldog Tonkatsu Sauce over the top, either in thin ribbons or spread evenly all over. Squeeze about 1 Tbsp of mayonnaise over the top in thin ribbons. Optionally use a toothpick to marble the tonkatsu sauce and mayonnaise. Sprinkle about 1 Tbsp of bonito flakes over and then garnish with 1 Tbsp aonori. Increase or decrease any of the toppings as you prefer.

Serve immediately while the pancake is hot. The tissue-thin bonito flakes may dramatically move and appear to “dance” from the hot air rising and steam.

Repeat cooking pancakes until you have used up all the batter.


  • Substitute the pork belly with 1 lbs cleaned, peeled, minced shrimp or 1/4 lbs thinly sliced squid tubes (4 squid tubes) and 1/2 lbs cleaned, peeled, minced shrimp. Mix it in with the cabbage and pancake batter.
  • Add 2/3 cup kim chee.
  • Add 4 tsp Beni shōga (thin strips of pickled ginger, usually dyed red) to the cabbage and pancake batter just before cooking (adding it earlier to the moist batter will cause the dye to bleed).
  • Add 1/2 cup grated nagaimo (Japanese mountain yam).
  • Add some minced scallions to the batter.


I recently visited Shanghai for a week. I was surprised how new and modern it is. There are new buildings and skyscapers everywhere. There are also lots of commercial districts; every brand that I can think of seems to have a branch in Shanghai–the city is lush from China’s economic boom. There are many types of street foods (some of the variety can be seen but the most exciting street foods for me was the many types of dumplings that are available. Dumplings are conceptually simple–they’re meat wrapped in a starchy dough. But there are many variations and each has a different technique, taste, and often an intricate folding technique. I wanted to taste several different types on my trip in order to improve my dumpling making skills and to learn about new types.

Shanghai is famous for inventing xiaolongbao (also called “xlb”, “juicy pork dumplings”, “soup dumplings”, or “Shanghai soup dumplings”). Another specialty of Shanghai are Shengjianbao (pan-fried buns). But there is also boiled dumplings (a style popular in the north of China), intricate styles such as four happiness dumplings, shumai (a type of dumpling which is open at the top), pan-fried pot stickers, wontons (small dumplings with long thing skins served in soup), and dessert dumplings filled with sweetened black sesame paste. The first thing I did when I got to the city is take the dumpling tour and the breakfast tour from Untour Shanghai with Carla as my tour guide. I’m glad that I did! I got to sample nearly all of these dumpling types and more in smaller neighborhood places — places that I wouldn’t have found or would have been to timid to venture into on my own. I wouldn’t have been able to find this large of a variety of foods without the tour — the first half of my pictures below are all from the tour. And Carla also explained some of the history and architecture of the French Concession area; this helped me picture what it is like to live in this neighborhood. So for me the tours were a must-do.

I also took cooking classes from Chinese Cooking Workshop to learn how to make a several varieties of dumplings: xiaolongbao (juicy pork dumplings), shengjianbao (Shanghai’s pan-fried buns), 4 happiness dumplings, and hat shape dumpling. I have folded xiaolongbao dumplings a few times before but my technique has never been good enough to photograph to post on this blog. This class was great because I learned several new tips and techniques for folding xiaolongbao and it’s good to be able to get a feel the correct dough consistency (it should feel soft and pliable like a “baby’s bum”). Chef Mike pointed out specific things about the way that I was folding them that could be improved, and confirmed that medium-gluten flour (which has a protein level of 10-11% such as Gold Medal bleached all-purpose flour) should be used for the flour wrappers. The dumplings that I made in his class were the prettiest that I’ve ever made.

I visited a few famous dumpling shops on my own: Yang’s Fried Dumplings, and Nan Xiang Steamed Bun Restaurant in the First Foodmall. I also loved the caulerpa lentillifera seaweed (also known as “sea grapes” or umi-budō) dish with a soy wasabi dipping sauce at Wujie, a vegetarian Chinese restaurant, too much to not mention it because the seaweed resembles green caviar. And the Long Bar at the Waldorf Astoria was very elegant and relaxing.

I was surprised at how different Shanghi is than Beijing. I liked the older parts of Beijing (the hutongs), its many famous sites (Great Wall, Forbidden Palace, and Summer Palace). Beijin is the capital, so it is a governmental city. In contrast, Shanghai is new, bustling. Shanghai is a financial center and I think it has better food.

Japanese Black Sesame Sauce (Goma-ae)

There are very few sauces which are black-colored. Squid ink is one of the few well known ones. Japanese black sesame sauce (goma-ae) should be another; its shiny black color is mysterious and dramatic. Since the sauce is nutty and slightly sweet, it complements many types of blanched or cooked vegetables such as: fava beans, green peas, spinach (shown above), broccoli, broiled and peeled eggplant, edamame, and string beans.

This sauce is made from just a few ingredients: raw (untoasted) black sesame seeds, soy sauce, sugar, and dashi. The first step is to toast and then grind the sesame seeds. The recipe starts with raw sesame seeds because once they are toasted, the oil can quickly become rancid. Raw sesame seeds stay fresh for much longer, so sesame seeds should be bought raw and toasted as needed. Japanese cooking almost always uses unhulled sesame seeds; thus tahini can’t be substituted for the sesame seed paste made by this recipe since it is made from hulled sesame seeds. The hulls give the sesame paste a coarser texture, a richer flavor, and a darker color. Since the hull is the black part of black sesame seeds (the seed underneath is tan), black sesame seeds are always unhulled. Raw unhulled sesame seeds can often be found in organic and natural food stores (Japanese markets often only have pretoasted seeds).

A Japanese-style suribachi mortar and pestle is the best tool because it has grooved edges inside the bowl which are especially well suited for grinding sesame seeds. The pestle is scraped against the grooves in a circular motion to grind the seeds to a paste. The remaining ingredients of the sauce can also be easily be combined in the mortar using the pestle. Suribachi mortars and pestles are sold in Japanese cookware stores and the cookware section of many Japanese markets; they are inexpensive because they are made out of ceramics. Larger mortars (about 8.5 inch diameter) are more convenient to use since they can hold greater quantities and the vegetables can be tossed with the sauce directly in the mortar.

The following recipe makes enough sauce for:

  • 1 bunch of asparagus, tough bottoms removed and blanched
  • 1 bunch of spinach, blanched and gently squeezed to remove excess water so that it won’t dilute the sauce but not enough to severely bruise the spinach.
  • 1 pound of unshelled green peas and 1 pound of unshelled fava beans, shelled and blanched (about 1 cup shelled). Remove the fava bean’s inner skins after blanching. Peas can be substituted for fava beans or vice versa.

Blanch or cook the vegetable until it is crisp-tender (See “Blanched Vegetables” if you’d like a recipe), drain and pat dry. The sauce can be served with the vegetables in many ways; for example it can be tossed with the vegetables, drizzled over, or arranged under, around, or over the vegetables. Optionally garnish with a pinch of toasted black, brown, or white sesame seeds. Serves 2 to 4 people as a side dish. Presentation suggestions are given after the recipe.

Do ahead: The sauce and the blanched vegetables can be prepared up to one day ahead of time. If prepared an hour or so ahead of time, store the cooked vegetables at room temperature and the sauce in the refrigerator. For longer storage times,  keep both the sauce the cooked vegetables in the refrigerator (up to 1 day).

Source: Adapted from “Fava Beans and Green Peas with Black Sesame Dressing” from “The Sushi Experience” by Hiroko Shimbo

Black Sesame (Goma-ae) sauce


  • 2-1/2 Tbsp raw (untoasted) black sesame
  • 1/2 Tbsp soy sauce (shoyu) or more to taste
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp dashi or more (click here for the recipe)

Special Equipment:

  • Japanese suribachi mortar and pestle

Dry toast the sesame seeds (see here for detailed instructions). Immediately place the seeds into a suribachi mortar.

Grind the toasted sesame seeds while they are still hot, by scraping the seeds in a circular motion with the pestle against the mortar’s grooves until the seeds can no longer be distinguished and the paste is the consistency of finely-textured damp sand. Add the soy sauce and sugar and grind well.

Start by adding half the dashi to the sauce and regrind to mix. Carefully mix in however much of the remaining dashi that is needed to make the sauce just slightly looser than hummus–an oozing and drippy consistency which will drape over and cling to the vegetables (if too much liquid is added, the sauce will be too thin to stick to the vegetables). Taste. If the sauce isn’t salty enough, add a bit more soy sauce or a tiny pinch of salt.

The sauce can be served at room temperature but it benefits from being cooled in the refrigerator; the sweetness of the vegetables is completed by the sweetness that the cold brings out and the coolness emphasizes the flavor and the complexity of the dashi. Keeps up to 1 day refrigerated. Keep the sauce separate from the vegetables until just before the dish is served.

Variation: Substitute miso (any type) for the soy sauce. Since misos vary greatly in saltiness, the miso should be added to taste. Start by adding 1 tsp miso and add more as necessary. Add an additional 1 Tbsp or more dashi to thin out the sauce until it is looser than hummus since the miso thickens the sauce. This makes a richer tasting sauce.

Variation: It is possible to substitute raw white or brown unhulled sesame seed for the black sesame seeds. The brown-colored sauce will taste good though it will lack the drama of the black-colored version and may have an off-putting resemblance to brown-colored baby food or diluted chunky peanut butter. So the brown sauce should be presented in a way which doesn’t emphasize the sauce such as mixing it with the vegetables, smoothing it underneath them, or drizzling it over in thin ribbons.

Presentation Ideas:

  • Any Vegetable:
    • Presentation 1: Mix the sauce with the vegetables just before eating. Optionally garnish with toasted black, brown, or white sesame seeds. (If you plan to use the same colored sesame seeds for the sauce and garnish, toast the seeds for the sauce and garnish at the same time.)
    • Presentation 2: Drizzle the sauce over the vegetables just before eating. Optionally garnish with toasted black, brown, or white sesame seeds. (If you plan to use the same colored sesame seeds for the sauce and garnish, toast the seeds for the sauce and garnish at the same time.)
  • Blanched Asparagus: Before serving, line up the blanched asparagus stalks so that they face in the same direction, and cut them lengthwise in half or thirds so that they will be easy to eat with chopsticks. Arrange on a plate, lined up in the same order that they were before being cut and drizzle the sauce over.
  • Blanched and Squeezed Spinach:
    • Presentation 1: To make a compact circular spinach disk with the stems and leaves aligned:
      DSC03550-3 DSC03584-4 DSC03627-1
      Buy raw mature bunched spinach that still has its stems attached at the root. Soak in water to wash away the dirt, but leave the bunches attached at the root. Blanch them whole. Rinse with cold water to cool. Align the roots and leaves of the spinach bunches on a sushi mat. Use the mat to roll the spinach into a round tight bundle and to squeeze out excess moisture. Unroll, place the spinach bundle on a cutting board. Cut off the roots and discard. Cut the bundle in half lengthwise. Since the bundle is thinnest at the top and thickest at the stems, place the two segments adjacent to each other so that the top of leaves are next to the bottom of the stems in order to even out the thickness. Use the mat to roll the spinach into 1 compact circular-shaped bundle. Cut in half again and line up the two bunches. Use the sushi mat to roll into one bundle. Repeat cutting and rolling until the spinach bundle is about 2 inches tall. Just before serving, spread half of the sauce on a plate, and place the spinach dish on top. Spread the rest of the sauce on top of the spinach and garnish with toasted white or brown sesame seeds. Either dip the spinach into the sauce as it is eaten or mix the spinach and the sauce just before eating. Note: If you can’t find any spinach which is attached at the stems, it is possible to use mature bunched spinach that has been cut at the stems — it will take more time to line up the stems and leaves before rolling it in the sushi mat.
    • Presentation 2: To make molded spinach: Gently pack the spinach into a ramekin or cup. Spread the sauce on the bottom of a small bowl and over turn the cup or ramekin into the middle of the bowl, and gently tap to dislodge the spinach. Store in the refrigerator if it won’t be served for a few hours. Either dip the spinach into the sauce as it is eaten or mix the spinach and the sauce just before eating.

Potato Salad with Smoked Salmon

I first tried the combination of smoked fish and potato salad at David Wilcox’s popup (which sadly ended early due to a small fire that broke out in the building’s flute). It is a natural pairing — the smokey and salty flavor of the fish accents the creamy potatoes. My potato salad pairs the land and the sea, with the sea represented by the fish and seaweed, in the form of aonori (powdered seaweed flakes), and the land represented by creamy potatoes, crunchy onions, chives, and shichimi togarashi (a Japanese blend of seven spices including red pepper).

The fish should be the hot smoked type (wiki) which means it was smoked at a temperature hot enough to fully cook the fish and the fish can be eaten as-is with no further cooking. Unlike cold-smoked fish such as Nova-style, Scotch-style, or Nordic-style lox (wiki) which is cured with salt and smoked only long enough to add flavor but not to cook it (wiki), hot smoked fish has the texture of cooked fish because the heat of the smoking cooks the fish through. My source for smoked salmon is Gilmore Fish Smokehouse (yelp, facebook). They have several flavors, many of which would work in this potato salad (the pepper-spiced smoked salmon is what I used). The potatoes should be cooked until their edges start to soften so that when they are combined with the other ingredients, the oil and vinegar soaks in and the edges crumble and become part of the sauce. Use medium to large red-skinned potatoes; small potatoes have too much skin in proportion to their mass which prevents them from crumbling sufficiently. Aonori and shichimi togarashi can be found at Japanese markets.

Potato Salad with Smoked Salmon

  • Servings: Serves 4 as a side dish
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  • 1/8 red or yellow onion
  • 1/4 lbs hot-smoked salmon (often sold as “smoked salmon”)
  • 1 lbs medium or large red-skinned potatoes (about 4 potatoes)
  • salt
  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • pinch of ground black pepper
  • dash of shichimi togarashi (a Japanese blend of seven spices including red pepper) plus some for garnishing
  • lemon juice or sherry vinegar, about 2 Tbsp
  • chives (about 10 to 15 blades), either cut into 1/2 inch batons or finely minced
  • large pinch of aonori (powdered seaweed) plus some for garnishing

De-skin and de-root the piece of onion. Cut the onion into as thin strips as possible (i.e. preferably about 1/16 inch thick), following the grain of the onion, not across the grain. If the onion strips are 3 inches or longer, cut in half so they are bite-sized. Soak in cold water for at least 10 minutes to help lessen their bite. Drain.

Salmon flesh is arranged in layers which can easily be divided — separate it into individual layers. Remove pin bones, if any. Break into small flakes. Discard the skin. Place in a large bowl that you will toss the potato salad in.

Scrub the potatoes. Cut the potatoes into approximately 3/4-inch bite-sized cubes; leave on the skin. As you cut them, place in a pot filled with enough cold water to cover the potatoes by about 1-inch (placing them in water soon after they are cut prevents them from browning). Salt the water heavily (it should taste like the sea). Bring to a simmer. Simmer until the potatoes can be easily be broken apart with a fork and they are cooked through, about 8 to 10 minutes or more depending on the size of the potato pieces and type of potato. The edges should have just barely begun to show faint traces of softening but the potato pieces should still have some solid texture and resistance when you eat a piece and should not be disintegrating. Use a strainer to drain them. Let the potatoes steam for a minute or two to help evaporate any excess water still clinging to them. Handle them gently and don’t vigorously shake them in the strainer because they will crumble and stick to the strainer.

Add the drained onions, olive oil, ground pepper, and a pinch of shichimi togarashi to the bowl with the salmon. Immediately, while the potatoes are still very hot, add the potatoes to the bowl and gently mix. The edges of the potatoes will crumble — this is a good thing for this potato salad since it makes an almost creamy textured sauce. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let sit for 10 minutes, so that the potatoes have time to absorb the oil and flavors (especially the smokiness from the smoked fish) and for the onions to soften from the heat.

Set aside a pinch of chives for garnishing. Mix the vinegar or lemon juice, the rest of the chives, a pinch of aonori, and a pinch of salt into the potato salad. Taste and add more lemon juice, vinegar, or salt if needed; since the smoked salmon is salty, make sure you taste a bite of the salad with and without a piece of salmon when you evaluate the saltiness. The acidity in the potato salad should be just barely noticeable.

Transfer the potato salad to a serving bowl and garnish with the reserved chives and a few sprinkles of aonori and shichimi togarashi. Serve warm, at room temperature, or cold. It is best when freshly made, though it also keeps well for 1 day or longer in the refrigerator.

Variation: If using lemon juice, add the zest of one lemon when you mix the smoked salmon and potatoes. Substitute a pinch of red pepper flakes for the shichimi togarashi, and omit the aonori.

Variation: Discard the inner pulp 1/4 of a Moroccan-style preserved lemon (preferably made from Meyer lemons). There is no need to wash off the excess salt from the lemon peel — it will season the dish. Cut the skin (zest with pith) into a fine dice. Add the preserved lemon when you mix the smoked salmon and potatoes and use lemon juice (preferably Meyer lemon juice) for the acidic component. Omit the aonori and shichimi togarashi. Pluck the leaves from 1 to 2 stalks of tarragon; discard stems and replace the chives with the tarragon leaves. This will make a potato salad with a stronger and more floral lemon taste that is accented with tarragon.

Variation: If the smoked salmon has flavorful oily liquid in its package, replace some of the olive oil with that liquid.

Shiso Tobiko (Flying Fish Roe) Spaghetti

This summer, I ate at Basta Pasta in NYC, which is a restaurant that makes pasta the way that it is made by Italian restaurants in Japan. Although many of their dishes are classic Italian, there are a few surprising dishes that top Italian pasta noodles with a mixture of Japanese and Italian ingredients. In other words, it is Japanese-style spaghetti; in Japan this is called wafu pasta or wafu spaghetti since wafu (sometimes also spelled wafuu) means “Japanese-style”. As explains, this style emerged in the 1970s when “essentially, things that are usually eaten with white rice were mixed into or put on top of spaghetti and other [Italian] pastas”. The resulting flavor combinations are a fun and unexpected mix, which strangely go well together. Read More