By CHEF RENEE MORGAN
I don’t know what was going on in my neck of the woods last week but you would have thought we were celebrating Asian food week or something. Having spent part of my childhood in Okinawa, I fell in love with Asian food at an early age, but more about that later. First I met up with one of my chef friends, Cheryl, for a girl’s lunch at Cho Sushi in Steiner Ranch. Cheryl recommended we try this place, saying that it had a reputation as one of the best Japanese restaurants in Austin. What a great afternoon of fabulous food, sake and catching up with an old friend! By the way, let me just tell you, pear infused sake….a revolution! You really have to try it sometime.
The next day, I was rushing around like the proverbial chicken with my head cut off. I don’t even remember the day so much. You know the kind of day I’m talking about. Dealing with the kiddos, business correspondence, cooking for a client meal delivery, returning phone calls and emails, running errands, blah, blah, blah. Anyway, I never even gave dinner a thought until the grand boys started asking that age old question, “What’s for dinner?”
Absentmindedly, I began going through the motions to put together a quick, down and dirty, go-to dinner, the kind you make from staples you normally keep in hand in your pantry. Let’s see…what can I pull together here? I have a few chicken tenders and mushrooms leftover from last night’s dinner. Here’s some rice. I have eggs and a couple of scallions. I was about halfway through cooking before I realized what I was doing. I was making fried rice. Another Asian meal.
Then, on Saturday, adorable hubby and I were running errands together over by The Domain. Please understand, John and I are crazy busy with our various businesses, raising our grandchildren, along with our charity activities. So, running these errands together, just the two of us, is almost like date night. We finish up around noon and my usually stuck-in-his-routine husband suggests that we try one of the restaurants at the Asian marketplace down on Lamar. What? He wants to try something new? What’s gotten into him? I was as giddy as a teenager on a first date. I wouldn’t even dare to mention that I’ve already eaten Asian food twice this week.
Here’s the thing about trying out a new restaurant. When all works out well, the restaurant is clean, the food is good as is the service, and you’ve added a new restaurant to your A list. However, it can be a bit of a crapshoot. As Forest Gump would say, it’s like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. And when it’s bad, it really makes me mad.
Luckily, this restaurant turned out to be one of the good experiences. It was a very small mom and pop kind of place. We were the only non-Asians in the place and as near as I could figure out, they advertised specialties in Chinese and Vietnamese food. No one there spoke much English, but John ordered his standard combination fried rice and I ordered Basil Chicken, which was completely yummy. The sweet, old Vietnamese man who took our order even suggested hot lemonade for my sore throat. I was a little skeptical but took his advice. I now have a new sore throat remedy!
All that Asian food last week got me reminiscing about living on the tiny Japanese island of Okinawa when I was a kid. My dad was a career Army man and was stationed there during much of my elementary school years. I thought it was the most beautiful, exotic place I’d ever seen. There was a Japanese restaurant down the street from our house. The entire parking lot was “paved” with shells. I used to walk down there every day and “collect” the prettiest ones until I got caught one day by the proprietress. She treated me very kindly and said I could keep the shells I already had but must stop collecting from her parking lot. Boy, was my dad mad at me! Anyway, the restaurant owner invited my family to the restaurant for dinner. My mom and dad accepted but thinking back on it, it was really funny watching them struggle with exotic foods like Kobe beef, seaweed salad and octopus. I guess it was foreshadowing of my future that I looked forward to each of these unusual dishes as a great new adventure.
There are so many great memories of the time I lived there, but some of my favorites were weekends when I would go home with the seamstress who worked for my parents. Labor was very inexpensive in those days and we had a maid, a gardener and a seamstress, called a sew girl. None of these people spoke English and we didn’t speak any Japanese, other than what I was taught in school. Every week, Yoshiko, the sew girl, would come to our house. We would show her fashions from the Sears or JC Penny catalog and she would make whatever we pointed to, custom fit for us. Luxury, right? Anyway, some weekends I got to go home with Yoshiko, who lived in the Okinawian countryside. Her daughter, Yoko, was about my age. Somehow, Yoko and I figured out how to communicate with each other and became good buddies. I loved hanging out with their family of about 20, who all lived together in a three-room house with a straw roof, tatami mats for beds and rice paper screens for walls.
Most of all, I loved sitting around the open fire pit that comprised the kitchen with the mamasan as she artfully prepared the family meal. The food was light, filling, healthy, oh-so-good with layer upon layer of flavor and carefully arranged like a beautiful work of art. I learned some important things at those meals that have stayed with me all these years later.
In Japanese homes, the whole family gathers around the fire pit or table to eat together. The men sit cross-legged on the floor and women sit with their legs bent to one side, no matter the age of the person. A meal in the Japanese home begins with gratitude and compliments. The diner expresses gratitude for the meal they are about to receive. No one begins eating until the oldest person is served and eating. Everyone is given a hot towel. This is to wash your hands with before the meal, not to wipe your hands after the meal like you might think. Before anyone eats even a bite, everyone admires and expresses praise for the cook’s artistic ability in regards to the presentation. Each course is presented with a great amount of care, even in the way the vessels are set down before the diner. It is considered good manners to let the cook know how much you are enjoying the food while you are eating and this is often done by slurping or other sounds of enjoyment. There is even etiquette regarding the use of the chopsticks. For example, it is considered rude to point or stab your food with a chopstick and food sharing is never done from one set of chopsticks to other set of chopsticks. It would be considered poor sanitation. At the end of the meal, people take great care to replace each piece of service ware exactly as it was presented to them. Lids are replaced on bowls. Chopsticks are returned to their rests or sleeves. This is to show respect for the service ware choices of the cook.
In all Asian cooking and particularly in Japanese cooking, nothing is wasted. Everything is utilized. This shows respect for the animal that gave its life and respect for the hard work it took to provide and prepare the food.
Did you know that there are more people over 100 years old per capita in Okinawa than anywhere in the world? They obviously are doing something right. Many in the medical community believe it has to do with their diet, consisting mostly of vegetables, fruit and seafood, with little meat, hardly anything fried and a moderate amount of grains. I think it also has something to do with a kind of natural portion control. When you eat with chopsticks, you naturally eat slower and smaller bites. Have you ever had that feeling of overeating to the point to feel miserable? You know, like at Thanksgiving, when you have to unbuckle your pants and take a nap after dinner. Part of this phenomenon has to do with the fact that it takes the brain about 20 minutes to signal the stomach that it’s full. Seems to make sense to me that if we were eating slower and smaller portions, we might have time for our brains to send that all good signal before we eat ourselves silly.
Whether Asian or any other ethnic food is a fav, you’re more of a meat and potatoes kind or somewhere in between, it is interesting and useful to try foods from other cultures and learn about their customs and rituals. Maybe even adopt some of the ones that are especially meaningful to us. Expressing a little more gratitude for our food and the ones who cook it, honoring our elderly and taking care of what we have, eating smaller portions in a more leisurely way…I think those are good ideas we can all incorporate into our lives in some small way.
Many of us have dined on ramen noodles during our penny-pinching college days. Please enjoy the real thing!
Chef Reneé is a classically trained, award winning chef and columnist . She earned her culinary degree at the famous Le Cordon Bleu, as well as a bachelor of music degree from Hardin-Simmons University. She has an extensive background in events planning and management. Reneé lives in Liberty Hill with her husband, John, their dogs, cats and chickens.
1 1/2 pounds boneless, country-style pork ribs
1-tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, chopped medium
6 medium garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled, sliced into ¼ inch thick coins, and smashed
8 cups low-sodium chicken broth
4 (3-ounces) packages ramen noodles, flavoring packets discarded
3 tablespoons red miso paste
2 tablespoons soy sauce
½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil
2 scallions, sliced thin
1-tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
1. For the broth: slice ½ pound of the pork ribs crosswise into 1/8-inch thick slices; cover and refrigerate until needed. Cut the remaining pound of pork ribs into 1-inch chunks; then process in a food processor to a coarse chopped texture, about 10 pulses.
2. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add the chopped pork and cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until well browned, about 10 minutes. Stir in the onion, garlic, and ginger and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Stir in the chicken broth, partially cover, bring to a simmer and cook until the broth is flavorful, about 40 minutes. Pour the broth through a fine mesh strainer, discarding the solids.
For the broth:
1. Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot. Add the ramen noodles and 1-tablespoon salt and cook until just tender, about 2 minutes. Drain the noodles and divide them evenly between 4 individual serving bowls.
2. Return the strained broth to a clean saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Whisk ½ cup of the hot broth into the miso until dissolved and smooth, and then whisk the miso mixture into the saucepan. Stir in the soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil, and sliced pork. Cover; remove the saucepan from the heat, and let sit until the pork is cooked through, about 3 minutes (do not overcook or the pork will be tough). Season with salt to taste. Ladle the soup into individual bowls, garnish with the scallions and sesame seeds, and serve.