Sunday, December 26, 2010

From their islands to ours: a taste of Japan

Just a few days ago, I had a question on a blog post from almost two years ago about where to get good Japanese eats here in NYC. Now, finding Japanese food in general is no trick - it's everywhere! But finding the good vegan stuff may not be so easy, precisely because there are so many places to choose from. And picking up a little something on the run is always a skill best gleaned from the locals.

Of course I can only speak from my personal experience, and given that I've been an office slave since I came to this funny little part of the country, I can speak pretty knowledgeably about Midtown East. As luck would have it, this happens to be a GREAT place to find Japanese vittles. As I mentioned in my post from way back when, 47th Street between 3rd Avenue and Lexington is a nice epicenter of all things Japanese.

On 51st between 3rd and 2nd Aves lives Tanaka, a place near and dear to my heart for two reasons. 1) It's the first place I ever experienced a peanut roll - yes, maki with peanuts as the filling, which is strangely delicious, especially when they also include avocado. 2) The wacky, 4 foot tall plastic Japanimation figure that stands outside the front door beckoning you to come inside! He never fails to put a smile on my face. Other standouts here include the sweet potato roll and the mango roll. (Trust me, after working in Midtown for five years, these things are exciting. Tanaka is a pretty small place, and if you show up during lunch with more than one other person, expect a long wait. At any other time of day, you'll waltz right in. But don't be surprised if you feel like you're sitting in the lap of the strangers at the next table.

I've only recently discovered Tanzen on 2nd Avenue near 53rd, a restaurant that is positively enormous for a Manhattan scale. It's lovely too, with a central sort of waterfall. It's a bit more expensive for the three roll special (that's what you get for a waterfall), but they are much better at handling large groups and are significantly less crowded. They too feature the beloved peanut avocado roll; mango's not on the menu, but my guess is they'd make it if you asked. It's a good place for an office birthday.

A few blocks south (45th between 3rd Ave and Lex) there is now a rice ball place called Oms/b. It's tiny, and mostly caters to the Midtown lunch crowd, so if you stop in on a weekday between 12 and 2:30 pm, don't plan on sitting down. They generally have at least three or four all-vegetable and/or tofu varieties of omusubi (also known as onigiri) on hand. Don't get the soup combo deal though: when last I checked, all of their soups were made with a fish base. (This makes me shake my fist at the sky demanding, "but why? WHY?!?" in frustration.)

Are there Japanese places further south (like, below 14th Street)? Sure! Plenty! But once I'm down there I tend to go to the actual vegan restaurants... though I am still waiting for the day that someone realizes there should be a vegan Japanese place. I will be up in there like white on rice.

OK, so that's all fine for sit-down, service meals, but what about grab-and-go food? Well, there is no shortage of Japanese markets. I'm a sucker for these places for one main reason: DAIFUKU! I adore anything that's made of rice flour dough. Fill it with sweet red bean paste and cover it with sesame seeds, and I'm like putty in your hands. Japanese markets never fail me for these sweet treats, that somehow pack a ridiculous amount of sugar (often around 60 grams). Dainobu on 47th Street is really a full blown, if small, grocery store, and it does not disappoint in the daifuku department. Or in any other department, for that matter. There are many prepared meals here, but careful label reading is required.

There is a great little Japanese market much further downtown, not far from Astor Place, called Sunrise Mart - though it's a little tricky to find. It's upstairs, so you have to take an elevator! It's above St. Mark's Bookstore. Though it's well known among the neighborhood college students and hipsers, and everyone else for that matter, the majority of other shoppers that I usually see there are Asian family types going about their shopping for dinner. Make sure to check the far back corner - it's a hectic array of merchandise, and you might just find yourself a pretty little tea pot.

Not far from that up by 10th Street there's a much bigger place called M2M (Morning 2 Midnight). This place is predominately, though less specifically, Japanese, and has a more pan-Asian feel to it. There's a tiny seating area up in the front corner, if you want to sit down for five minutes to wolf down your avocado roll. Just around the corner really, at 2nd Ave and St. Mark's (8th Street), you'll find JAS Mart, which has two other locations as well - on 23rd just East of the Flatiron building, and on Broadway above 110th in Harlem.

For any newbies out there, packaged foods are pretty easy. But in restaurants, some things to watch out for: miso can be made with fish stock, bonito flakes are made of fish (but can often just be left off), and tempura batter is sometimes made with egg. Kani is crab, so that's a no go. But oshinko is pickled cabbage, daikon is radish, and ume or umeboshi are pickled plums. And while natto is technically vegan, you really might not want to go there...

So there you go. Be safe, have fun... peanut avocado rolls for everyone! :D

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Happy Christmas to all!!

I'm happy to report that our Christmas feast was maybe even more successful than our Thanksgiving feast. We didn't get as crazy with it - we cooked enough for about eight or ten people, and we had five diners total. That's about right in my book. We had "chicken" breasts and drumsticks, macaroni and cheese, cauliflower casserole, broccoli au gratin, my now-famous spinach dip (cold this time) with crosstini to start, and my classic chocolate chip cookies for dessert. I am completely photo-less, since I couldn't find my camera; it was "hiding" in exactly the place where I keep it next to my computer. Sneaky little bastard.

And here is where I once again promise to share recipes! I really will this time. Swear. Any day now. Uh huh.

But right now I gotta go watch It's A Wonderful Life - I haven't seen it yet this season!!!!! Priorities, people, priorities. ;)

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Sustainable fish sticks? I think not.

Earlier this week I received a truly perplexing email. Rather than describe it to you, I think I really just need to give it to you whole:
Hi Melissa,

I would like to invite you to join a group of food writers, bloggers and chefs for a Food Revolution Roundtable next Tuesday, 12/14. With your passion for food and your influential talent for writing/blogging about food, you would be the perfect addition to this group!

The details are listed below. Please say yes!

An invitation to a Food Revolution Roundtable

Bird’s Eye, in partnership with their Ad Agency Chiat/Day, is hosting a 2-hour Food Revolution Roundtable in NYC on Tuesday, 12/14. They want explore the edges of the Food Revolution among people who are really passionate about food -- chefs and/or writers like you. Bird’s Eye wants to bring revolutionary thinking to their brand at every step, from sourcing to prep to recipes to packaging. The roundtable will be approximately 10-12 influential people (including you, we hope) and will be really energizing and fun… full of projective exercises and invigorating chat.

For your time, you will be paid $350.

Also, if you would like to recommend a friend or two who fits this description, and would enjoy participating, let us know!

WHERE: Wine Shop, NYC, NY
WHEN: Tuesday 12/14, from 11 a.m. - 1 p.m.
WHAT: 2 hours of ideation, and yummy food!

If this sounds like something you’d like to do, please email me back, or call me at 555-555-5555.

I look forward to hearing from you soon!

I swear to you, I have only changed this to take out identifying details. "explore the edges of the Food Revolution", "ideation", and "yummy food" are all straight from the horse's mouth. When I first skimmed the email, I assumed that I'd just gotten stuck on some mailing list, and that it was a workshop that I'd have to pay through the nose to attend. Upon more thorough reading, I realized that they were actually offering to pay me. That's when I got really suspicious.

So I turned to tha internets. I know who Bird's Eye is - who doesn't? Frozen corn, right? Ah yes, but also major players in many frozen meats - particularly in the fish stick market, apparently. Who knew. What about Chiat\Day? A positively ENORMOUS advertising agency. We'll call that strike two - anyone know why I don't own a television?

And then, exactly what I'd been suspecting: I started finding articles like this one. Since July, Bird's Eye has been working on an initiative it is calling "Forever Food". Supposedly the company's effort to make its food production more "sustainable", this push is pretty much entirely focused on reducing energy usage during production. They're quite proud of figuring out how to use less energy while flash freezing their fish sticks, for instance.

Uh huh.

So, after a day or so of careful consideration, I sent the following reply:
Dear Sarah,

Your offer is both flattering and intriguing. However, I must decline for two reasons. The first is logistical: I work a 9 to 5 and am not available mid day on a Tuesday. The second, though, outweighs the first: I do not feel comfortable contributing to "ideation" with a company that sells a proliferation of animal products.

Honestly, it strikes me that this "Food Revolution Roundtable" is part of the company's ongoing effort to engage in greenwashing - via the so called "Forever Food" initiative. While cutting resource use is of course necessary for all, from my perspective the project is essentially wrong-minded. Personally I'm far more interested in supporting the small, independently owned vegan businesses already in existence than helping to create more fake "natural" brands or products. Encouraging "sustainable fish sticks" is simply not something I will do.

If Bird's Eye truly wants to bring "revolutionary thinking to their brand at every step", it should take this revolutionary step: Consider the number of animals it currently kills; the environmental destruction caused by raising (or "harvesting") those animals; the conditions of the workers who raise, harvest, and slaughter them; and the dozens of other ramifications easily avoided by simply not selling meat. And please note, fish and marine invertebrates are animals too.

Melissa Bastian
I hope you're not wondering why I'm referring to "Forever Food" as greenwashing. But in case you are, I will briefly explain my problem(s) with it. First of all, there's the name. Forever Food? Really? We'll have food forever and ever because you're putting your damn fish sticks in a smaller box, and meanwhile still pillaging the oceans dry to produce overprocessed junk? Second, there is no such thing as good aquaculture. Even putting animal ethics aside, the environmental ramifications of even the best run captive fish operations are just obscene. Wild harvesting poses completely different problems that are just as awful. Third, why would we put animal ethics aside? And all of that is really just the tip of the iceberg.

Before sending my response and ever since, I've been plagued with the feeling that I'm passing up an opportunity to be heard. But I have a strong sense that Bird's Eye and Chiat\Day do not want to hear me. Or rather, they do want to hear me, but only just enough so that they can figure out how to defeat or defend against the arguments of me and those like me, and/or to exploit the lot of us. (By exploit, I of course mean more effectively market to.)

If they were interested in genuine change, they would be consulting with environmental engineers - not bloggers and chefs. They would be rethinking their factories and processes from the ground up - not asking me what I think about their packaging. They know damn well what they need to do to make genuine change. It's just that that's not what they're interested in. What they want is what all the big food companies want: to appeal to the growing market of people on the "edge of the food revolution" - or those who think they are. The pescatarians, the locavores, the "happy meat" people. Well they can go right ahead and try, but I sure as hell am not going to help them.

And so, while it is my nature to doubt myself, I do believe that I made the right decision by turning the offer down. (Incidentally, I make WAY less than $350 a day at my job! So it would have been a nice little monetary gain 'round x-mas time. But so it goes.)

Surprisingly, Sarah did write back:
Hi Melissa,

Thank you for your thoughtful response. I am sorry you won't be able to weigh in on the panel discussion this Tuesday. Believe it or not, I believe your arguments are points that the Bird's Eye folks would be interested to hear during this session. Feel free to send us any references of vegan bloggers or chefs you know who might be interested in participating in Tuesday's group.

Thank you,
I'm sure they would be interested too, but for all the wrong reasons. And that's pretty much the point.

P.S. - If any of my vegan friends also received this offer and have chosen to go, I respect that - and I hope they hear you.