Kitchen Tales

CHAPTER 1

I Know Why Scientists Carry Pens In Their Front Pockets

Bun's dad, Dr. Yin Lok Lai MD PhD, Cambridge University

Tonight, I feel like a kid at his birthday party since I get to do fifty-five Kaiseki dinners. An in-depth explanation of what I’ve created is central to the Kaiseki dinner experience at Miya’s; each creation has an illuminating story which takes hours, cumulatively, to present. Each story allows the diner to appreciate the dish from my own unique perspective – as the inventor. The socio-historical significance of many of my dishes are often as important as their gustatory value.

Tonight’s Kaiseki dinner adventurers are a group of scientist’s from all around the world. I have a special affinity towards scientist because my father’s passion has always been research.

My dad has always carried around a pad and pens in his front pocket like the stereotypical mad scientist that you see in the movies. I know why scientists do that because I asked him one day when I was a small boy.

“Bun, I never know when I’ll get a good idea and when I do I have a pen and pad ready so that I can write it down. In fact, I even have a pen and pad next to my bed because sometimes good ideas come to me in my sleep.”

Years later, I read a book called “The Committee Of Sleep” which discusses how dreams can be used to feed one’s creativity or to solve problems. I spent most of my academic career sleeping, so this book made perfect sense to me, in bed.

This morning, when I sprang up, ideas that I had literally dreamt up for the Kaiseki party were still darting around my head like so many guppies. One idea that I felt particularly excited about was for the final course. I scribbled it down, half asleep, on the pad next to my bed.

A couple months ago, I’d fermented an experimental batch of lactose sugar sake. My brilliant idea was to warm it up and serve it in baby bottles so that each guest could feel nurtured like a…baby.

Not all the ideas that end up scribbled down on my pad are good ones. I’m sure that’s the way it went for my dad too.

CHAPTER 2

There Were No Crumbs Left

Yancey, French Presidential candidate Jose Bove and Bun

The other night I had dinner with one of my heroes, French presidential candidate, Jose Bove. Bove is the French Roquefort cheese farmer turned anti-globalization activist who initially became world famous for driving a tractor through a McDonald’s in Millau in 1999.

One of the many reasons I love French culture is that the French are tremendous romantics. France is one of the few places where one can drive a tractor through a McDonald’s one day and run for president the next. In this year’s French presidential election he said that he is running for the people without a voice.

Bove has supported the causes of small French organic farmers, Tahitians, Palestinians, Kanaks and indigenous Melanesians. I may not agree with all of his politics but I have to respect a person who puts the little people and the environment before big business and profit.

Famed anthropologist David Graber brought him in for dinner. Bove was one of the easiest customers I have ever had to please. He insisted on nothing and enjoyed the food, the drink, and the camaraderie in the proper French fashion. From his notorious media image, I expected a defiant political rebel, and instead found his easy-going enthusiasm refreshing. Though he is a staunch defender of traditional food cultures and my cuisine can easily represent the type of cultural homogenization that America has pioneered, he enjoyed it nonetheless.

Out of respect for Bove, many of the ingredients that I used to make his dinner was locally grown. Of course, all of the recipes were mine with the usual mixture of international influences. I created a central course of mini Big Macs with tuna sashimi to commemorate his drive through McDonald’s, which garnered the laughs that I was hoping for.

Towards the end of dinner, we smoked Connecticut tobacco in our pipes and drank lots of locally picked sassafras sake that I brewed for the occasion. As the table was finally cleared, I noticed that there were no Big Macs left, and not even a crumb on Bove’s plate.

CHAPTER 3

How To Properly French Kiss

The only way to truly french kiss is to kiss a French person. “French lips are softer and warmer than the lips of people of any of other nationality” (April 2007 issue of Nature.)316 That’s why nobody “American kisses” or “Chinese kisses,” as a rule. Everyone aspires to “French kissing.” My newest dish, The Softest French Kisses, which can be found on page 5 of the menu, has captured much of the sensual pleasures of french kissing; it is soft, luscious and warm.

For those of you who have never french kissed, The softest French Kisses will be almost as good an introduction to french kissing as the real thing. It is a warm sashimi of scallops in a light oyster sauce. Sashimi is traditionally served cold. I wanted to create a warm sashimi without the traditional soy sauce; inspired by my Chinese side, I chose an oyster sauce. I slowly simmered the plumpest local oysters, caramelized brown sugar, salt and potato starch until it glistened like amber. Adding sake, ginger, garlic and scallions complete this rich Cantonese-styled sauce.

The recommended method of eating this dish is to slowly and sensusally rub the scallop once around your puckered lips then, finally, sucking it into your mouth with a popping sound.

CHAPTER 4

Gathering Dinner At Teaswood Pond

Today I went to gather dinner ingredients at Teaswood pond in Conroe, Texas. I caught stonefly larvae, dragonfly larvae, baby crayfish, snails and tiny translucent freshwater shrimp by dragging a butterfly net through clusters of curled pondweed and grass.

The snails were abundant but tiny, like pebbles. Boiled and dipped in a roasted sesame black bean sauce, it was as good as the best escargot. The baby crayfish fried whole were like soft-shelled crab. I also fried the dragonfly and stonefly larvae. I used a standard vegetable oil to fry the larvae with, so that I could better taste what I was eating. I seasoned them with salt and they were crispy and sweet and went well with the crayfish. The shrimp tasted like their cousins from the ocean. I also dug up little freshwater clams in the sand but they didn’t taste like much (I made a simple broth, so not to interfere with the clam’s natural flavor), true to their reputation.

I dug up the root of a thorny thistle plant and simmered it in sake, soy, mirin and a dried chili pepper and it was deee-licious. A few days earlier, I had found a branch covered with dry green lichen. I had soaked it in water and changed the water about a dozen times over three days. I made sure to separate the lichen from bits of bark and grit. Sauteed with garlic, extra-virgin olive oil and a little salt it tasted like the mongrel child of seaweed and oyster mushrooms, taking the best characteristics from both parents.

My gals, Meredith and Mary Margaret, tried everything that I had collected. In fact, by the time I was done cooking, there was barely any left for me. This flattered the heck out of me! Most Texans don’t eat bugs nowadays, so I do believe that these cowgirls were brave epicures.

CHAPTER 5

Far From The Maddening Crowd

My mother showed me how to collect wild burdock when I was nine and I would bring home long roots of it, as a gift for her. I started reading around the same time and fell in love with “My Side Of The Mountain,” “The Cay,” “A Light In The Forest” and “The Yearling” – all children’s books that have the protagonists separated from modern life and living in tune with nature. Since I spent much of my youth playing out in the woods, to this day I consider myself a country boy more than anything else.

In 2004, Dr. Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize. Her African woman’s movement is responsible for planting tens of millions of trees, to counter-act deforestation in Africa. She brings to attention the vital connection between environmental destruction, poverty and war. She recalled a special tree that her mother told her, as a child, never to hurt because it was connected to God. Those trees were being razed. Many indigenous cultures, especially the animistic ones, see God everywhere in nature. It makes perfect sense to me.

Perhaps, if we know how to eat from nature, which most of us do not know how to do anymore, we would appreciate it as something that nourishes our souls and we’d want to protect it more like Wangari Maathai is doing.

In many religions food and eating has religious significance. Christians have the Eucharist where bread and wine is eaten as the symbol of the body of Christ; Muslims have Ramadan and Jews have Yom Kippur where fasting brings them closer to God; in Asian Ancestor worship food is brought to the shrine to feed the souls of their departed loved ones.

Foraging to me is like prayer. It helps bring me closer to nature, and nature always makes me feel closer to God, when I am away, far from the maddening crowd.

CHAPTER 6

Sweet Mother's Milk

Artichokes And Apples 

The television show “The Little Rascals” started my long relationship with artichokes. I didn’t grow up eating them, because Asians just don’t eat them. On one of the episodes of the show, Alfalfa is shown diligently peeling open an artichoke, leaf by leaf, and is surprised to find inside…an apple!

Later, grocery shopping with my mother, I spotted an artichoke and shamelessly begged for it. I wasn’t a kid who begged much but this was a big deal to me. I didn’t just want it. I needed it.

“Bun, do you really know what that is?”

She stopped the carriage as I reached out towards the artichoke. I kicked my feet a little and tried to pull myself out of the carriage seat to emphasize my point.

“Mom, trust meeee, I know how to eat it!” I pleaded.

The walk home from the grocery store felt like a lifetime. Finally, we sat at the speckled linoleum kitchen table that my mother had let me pick out at a tag sale, just a week earlier. My mother patiently watched as I confidently peeled it open, leaf by leaf, just like on the show but slower and with more anticipation. I eventually peeled my way to the prickly, furry center. What? Had the apple not yet developed? Closely inspected, there was no sign of even a crab apple inside. A dud! I need another one!

Artichokes are one of my favorite vegetables nowadays. I’ll have it for lunch in a sandwich, as a side during dinner or as a healthier and funner alternative to popcorn when I’m watching a movie.

*Over many years at Miya’s, I have chopped apart thousands of pounds of artichokes to be rolled into sushi and to be served steamed with a side of my six month aged hot and frothy jalapeño dip. Why am I so into this vegetable? I can’t help but wonder…is little me still searching for that apple?

*Our jalapeño sauce, which is served with our Sweet Mother’s Milk and The Kung Fu Tuna, is made from homegrown jalapeños that have been pickled. The pickling method used is a middle eastern process that causes the steamed, salted jalapeños to slowly pickle in their own juices in a vat of olive oil for six months. The result is a pickle that is dramatically milder than vegetables that have been pickled in a vinegar solution. I got the inspiration to pickle jalapeños in this way because I fell in love with the pickled eggplant, called makdoos, at Mamoun’s Falafel Restaurant.

CHAPTER 7

The Importance Of Peanut Butter

In fifth grade at an exclusive elementary school in New Haven, Norberto Ortiz, one of my best friends, delivered a breath of fresh air. In a school where little alligators on our tennis shirts expressed our solidarity, his choice of fashion stood out like a totem pole. That year, his jacket of choice, that even the hottest days of summer would not convince him to take off, was a shiny red plastic Michael Jackson one; the same one that M.J. wore in his “Beat It” video. His lunchbox was of the same design as his jacket; it glistened, big, red, and plastic with a semblance of the singer, pushing out of the center like he was trying to escape. Norberto’s lunchbox contained an ever-changing menagerie of food treasures that my mother was oblivious to the existence of: Twinkies, Oreos10, Cheese Doodles, Fritos, Doritos, Pringles, Ruffles, Ding Dongs, Fruit Roll-Ups, Goldfish, Cracker Jacks with the little prize in the box, every good food that this ten year old could ever desire.

My lunches were a source of constant internal struggle for me and I felt that I was at war with my clueless mother who made them. I didn’t expect some sort of utopian lunch that Norberto had. All that I wanted was the type of lunch that everybody else had; peanut butter and jelly or a ham sandwich; perhaps an apple to go with it; that simple; and maybe some Kool-Aid too. What I got for lunch was quite different; little rice balls filled with cooked fish; a bento box of chicken and vegetable fried rice with a pickled plum; a sandwich with eggs and vegetables; sushi – holy crap, no!

By lunchtime starvation was setting in so I had to eat my lunch, as much as I despised it for being different. It made me furious that something that I hated so passionately tasted so delicious. “Please,” I would think to myself, “I hope nobody sees me eating my lunch because I know people are gonna think I’m weird.”

“Mom, I only eat peanut butter sandwiches at school, okay?”

Dr. Phuey had streaks of white in his helmet of jet black hair. He was a French Vietnamese scientist who lived next door with his French wife, Teresa, who was a good friend of my mother’s.

“An Asian with a French accent, what a curious thing,” I thought to myself, not thinking that it was at all odd that my parents spoke English with a Chinese and Japanese accent. Dr. Phuey and I were in West Haven again, on a rock pier, fishing for whatever would come our way. We loved fishing but we rarely caught anything; this had more to do with our lack of knowledge as fishermen, I suspect, than the lack of fish along the coast.

Usually, after a few hours of catching seaweed and driftwood (while everyone around us were pulling up whales, practically), Dr. Phuey would unwrap his favorite sandwiches that he had prepared especially for us. I’d always eat it, smiling gratefully at Dr. Phuey as if to say “this is really yummy” while trying hard to enjoy it but never quite succeeding to. What made Dr. Phuey’s sandwich so unusual was that it was an English muffin stuffed with ham and…PEANUT BUTTER!

As I was eating a rice ball during lunchtime the next day at school, I was grateful that my mother didn’t pack me a Dr. Phuey special instead. If she had, I think I would have died, at the tender age of ten, from disgust and embarrassment.

When I have children I hope to teach them to appreciate the unusual. I hope they appreciate the uniqueness in themselves and others; above all, I hope that they learn to appreciate peanut butter and ham sandwiches.

Sometimes, I have the opportunity to invite New Haven public school children, specifically the ones who are from more challenging circumstances than mine, to my restaurant. These children don’t usually have exposure to a restaurant like mine; one that doesn’t serve pizza or burgers. Every time I have kids over, at first, the children are reluctant to try what we cook for them, then they topple into acceptance, one by one like dominos. We all need to be inspired to try something new sometimes.

There are endless possibilities for food, as there are for our lives, if we would only make the effort to look around and change our perspective.

Once in a while, when I’m thinking that things are tough;

or when I’m letting myself fall into some kind of complacency;

and when it’s best to prod myself into adjusting my world view,

so that I can be inspired again to keep marching in the right direction;

I go to my restaurant and savor a sushi roll;

the one with peanut butter in it.

CHAPTER 8

David & his Mom

At Miya’s in 1983, David Hayden spun out endless steaming plates of tuna teriyaki from the tiniest kitchen in town.

When I was nine, David took me camping to Canada. I went fishing and made sunfish soup. When one of the other kids poured too much salt in it – upsetting me, David fixed it by adding potato. Later, I glowed as the adults complimented me on my soup, as they navigated through the piles of bones and scales and eyeballs floating in it.

When I was fourteen, David and I wrestled on the carpet of Miya’s. David got a bump on his head. “Davuuuuuuuu!” I heard my mom reprimand. “…but it is common sensu!” I chuckled but David felt bad whenever my mother was upset. He was her protector and if the Japanese believed in guardian angles, David was my mother’s.

David retired from Miya’s to take care of his mother and passed away shortly after she did. At the end of his life, my mother and I and a great man named Bill Fischer were among the only few peoples he wanted to see.

At home, my mother has a traditional Japanese ancestoral shrine where she prays. The ashes of my grand parents are kept there. Some of David’s are too.

Recently, I found a letter that was written to my mom in 1993 by David. He had worked at Miya’s for over a decade at that point.

Dear Yoshiko,

I want to thank you for caring about people, for caring about their health and growth as human beings first. You never did anything just for profit or for fear of losing money.

You set an example by your faith: with the courage to hold onto right principles no matter what the cost. Someone can be a good person and a good businessperson. Thank you for your patience and strength. I will not forget them.

With special regards – David