Tuesday, March 06, 2007

What I Learned From Teppanyaki

My husband had a life in Japan without me before he had a life in Japan with me. He worked for a year in Kita-senju while we both conducted our romance at a distance by exchanging what I'm sure were hundreds of cassette tapes of ourselves talking. During that time, he socialized on occasion with students and got to know a few of them fairly well.

When we both moved to Japan together (after about a year in California and our wedding), one of his students who worked for a major car company took us both out to an expensive teppanyaki restaurant in a major hotel in Ikebukuro. This particular place specialized in steak much to my husbands delight and my complete indifference. The steak was grilled in little cubes and served with individually cooked slices of garlic and onion. I remember their scraping down the grill between rounds of tiny servings and artfully pouring oil over it with what resembled a tiny, fine-spouted coffee pot.

The chefs cooked everything with great care and to perfection and it was reflected in the price. My husband recalls that his student paid 22,000 yen (about $190) the first time around. We went back a few times on our own dime and it cost between $100-$140 and I wasn't exactly tucking in.

These days, we'd never spend that sort of money on a meal but that was when we were still willing to pay a premium to have a variety of cultural experiences. I did take something more than a lighter wallet (and a dissatisfied stomach) away from these meals. The way in which they prepared the garlic in particular stuck with me and I do my best to follow a similar technique to this day when I make steak for my husband.

I know I talk a lot about eating cheaply but every meal isn't about cheap chicken and ground meat. My husband goes to Costco every 6 weeks or so and buys a few packages of their relatively (about an inch) thick steaks. While it costs about 600 yen ($5.15) for an 8-10 ounce steak and that's no "cheap" meal, it's still about half of what you'd pay for about half as much steak at a Japanese shop or restaurant. You can't really hope to do better when it comes to having steak in Tokyo.

These steaks keep well in the freezer when we wrap them individually first in plastic wrap and then in foil. After an overnight thaw, they're ready for a turn in the frying pan. The element I carry over from the teppanyaki is the garlic preparation.

As preparation, take about 5 fat garlic cloves and remove the tips and the paper then slice them as thinly to make garlic chips. I also clean an onion and slice off two medium-sized slices.

Heat a large (empty) frying pan over medium heat until it is thoroughly hot then add just enough olive oil to coat it. (Note that Japanese chefs do not use olive oil. I believe they use soybean oil.) You don't want to overdo the oil because it'll saturate the garlic and make it soggy and be absorbed by the onions. Heating the pan first ensures that the smallest amount of oil will coat the bottom since the oil flows more freely when warmed.

Place the onions on the hottest part of the pan and scatter the garlic such that each individual slice is separated from the other. Here is where you have to exercise great care. Keep an eye on the garlic chips and turn them over when they are delicately brown around the edges. You'll have to turn each chip over at a different time since they will likely be different thicknesses and be on hotter or cooler parts of the pan. Cook the onions until they are caramelized on one side and turn them over.

Be very careful when you cook the garlic slices so as not to burn them in the least. Garlic becomes bitter if it is burned so it's always better to err on the side of making it too pale than too dark. Since the garlic essentially makes the meal (the chips are eaten with each bite of steak), you don't want to spoil it.

When the garlic is just browned on both sides, you can either remove it from the pan or you can push it off to the side so that it stays warm but no longer cooks. My husband prefers it warm so I push it out of the way and position the pan on the burner such that there is no direct heat under the side with the garlic. You then add the steak to the hottest part of the pan and finish cooking the onions. The nice thing about this is that the garlic has already flavored the oil in the pan so the steak is cooking in naturally flavored oil.

When the steak is done, remove the chips and blot them with a paper towel if they're a bit too oily. My husband loves this particular meal with a can of Kirin happoshu.


CMUwriter said...

I have been reading your blog for the past two days and I find it very interesting. I have always wanted to go to japan for some unknown reason. On the other hand I am not the type of traveler who wants to see all the tourist traps. Reading yoru blog has given me a glimpse into what it is like –albiet from a westerner –to live in japan. I would have to say that my favorite post is the one about your apartment. It reminds me a lot of when i was going to Central Michigan University and lived in a very tiny room, in an apartment i shared with five people. There were always some little spacesaving techniques i cooked up from time to time.

it was neat too, because one day you would be sitting in your room, and space saving idea would crop up, you would perform the action and all of a sudden you pulled some more out of thin air. I do have a question, and perhaps i am missing it somewhere in your blog. What does the outside of your building look like, also what does the hallway look like? How much space did the designers of the building save by making the hallway small or large?

Anyway thanks for the blog, I actually stumbled across is while i was trying to find the origins of the term "all that and a bag of chip" and i look forward to reading the next installment, as well as the old ones.

Also I think I am going to try cooking your steak thing. Living in a rural part of michigan really drives the beef prices down here. I actually just bought 25 pounds of professionally processed ground beef from small farm in northern michigan at $1.25 a pound. Thanks, and you should do a post about pen pals, i have always want to do that, but i could never get into it, or find a service for it.

Shawn said...

While this does make me crave steak, you make a good point about the price. That's the primary reason I haven't been gorging myself on slabs of beef (secondary one being that I rarely have the freezer space).

The fact that the recipe relies primarily on garlic strikes me as I worked on a fairly garlicky dish Sunday night, and seem to still be smelling it on myself. Devilish substance, but so tasty I just don't care ;)

Shari said...

cmuwriter: Hi there and thanks so much for your comment! I read your first blog entry and I have a sense that we are kindred spirits on some level. The fact that you mentioned how great it was to suddenly have an idea pop into your head to save space really rang true to me but other things do as well.

As for our apartment building, I've avoided showing the outside much because I don't want my location to be clearly revealed. It's not that I think thundering hordes of people will start showing up or anything or that I'm afraid my Ming vase will be pinched but I think it's good to be circumspect about exactly where I am. A lot of my readers are also in Japan and my neighborhood's name is clearly shown in some of my pictures. A shot of my building would pinpoint me.

In regards to a hallway, I'm not sure if you mean an external or internal one. There isn't one inside our apartment. It's essentially a square and all but the shower/tub area is pictured (though the door to it is shown) in the apartment tour. It's rather atypical for a Japanese apartment in that it has no "tunnel" leading through it. It's one of the reasons we like it.

Externally, there is a relatively narrow walkway leading to the three apartments on the ground floor (about wide enough for 1.5 people to walk through). This borders the landlords little garden and carport.

I've read that there are serious space restrictions on what can be built in Tokyo in terms of total square feet used per piece of territory. I believe I read that only 70% of your land can be used, for instance. My landlord owns a sizeable piece with our apartment building (6 units), his house which is two stories with another 3 units of apartments on top, and a small garden and car port. I'm guessing he's using as much as he's legally allowed.

I hope that addressed the question but feel free to ask again (or ask anything else!) if I missed the point.

I will try to do a penpal post at some point. I tend to have a lot of "history" topics that are waiting for the right avenue to show themselves in and my history with penpals is certainly one of them.

BTW, I love that you found this blog by looking for the origin of "all that and a bag of chips."

Shawn: My husband (I know you know his name but he wishes to remain nameless in my blog ;-) ) was wondering if steak in the U.S. (particularly at Costco) is the same price as it is in Japan. I guess it would probably seem more expensive to you given that food prices are cheaper on the whole in the U.S.

I think garlic is a magical substance. The smell may linger around (perhaps somewhat unpleasantly) but it's very good for you (fresh stuff keep colds at bay) and so tasty. It's got Carl!

CMUwriter said...

I assumed that you lived in a large apartment complex, and i didn't realize that it was not a really big one, so i thought that perhaps there was a hallway on the outside that you had to travel down or whatnot.

Shari said...

Ah, I see. The types of really big places that you're thinking of tend to be a bit further from the center. The place our apartment is in is relatively small. If I lived in one of those huge places, I'd probably be less reluctant to post a picture since they all look relatively similar and are so huge that finding one particular party in one wouldn't be all that easy.

Our place is relatively distinctive-looking. ;-)