Feeding the few in Rikuzentakata: Elio Orsara gives back

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

Estimates vary on how many perished in the city of Rikuzentakata on March 11th when the tsunami obliterated that small coastal town in Iwate Prefecture. In the early afternoon, some 23,000 residents were going about their daily lives: working in small businesses, shopping on the shotengai, studying in school.

By late afternoon, the city had vanished, crushed by a 13-meter wall of black water as immeasurable tons of Pacific Ocean advanced with inexorable force more than ten kilometers inland. Some accounts mention 10,000 deaths. Other accounts guess maybe 5,000. No one really knows. So much was swept back out to sea.

This last weekend, June 5th, Elio Orsara and his crew of 15, kitchen staff and volunteers, drove up to what remains of Rikuzentakata to serve a five-course lunch to some of the residents.

Elio is the owner of a very successful Italian restaurant in Tokyo, Elio Locanda Italiana. Japan and the Japanese have been very good to him, he says, and he wants to give back. This was his fourth visit to the town.

We gathered outside Elio’s Locanda at 11:30 p.m. Saturday night and waited on the street until others from the “Italians For Tohoku” organization showed up.

“I’m proud of how fast the Italians got together to help the people of Tohoku,” said Elio. Though within that group, Elio doesn’t want to promote himself or his restaurant with his charity, so he’s created his own loosely knit group, Calabresi nel Mondo. 

We, in Elio’s crew, will be going to Hirota Elementary School, he explained, while the other group of Italians in the caravan will serve lunch at a nearby community shelter.

A television crew shows up from a website. They start filming. Elio has no idea who the film crew was or why they were there.

When everyone finally arrives, he claps his hands together to gather us around. “OK,” he says, “we are going to Rikuzentakata to feed the people. We are not tourists. Don’t take photos like a tourist. These people have their pride and don’t take photos. We go there to work.”

At about 12:15am we set off. After a ramen stop at 4:00 a.m., we arrive around 7 a.m. at the location of the Rikuzentakata train station. Now completely gone. Nothing remains.

“When I came here the first time in March,” says Elio, “there was so much more debris. They’ve cleaned up two thirds of it already.”

Still, immense piles of steel, or wood, or rows of destroyed cars, trucks, and vans, or piles of dead trees or brown shrubbery stretch to the faraway hills.

In the distance, we see excavators and backhoes working with debris. At one spot near the cratered ruins of the town’s sports stadium, a vast expanse of seawater stretched to the horizon. “That is not the sea,” says Elio as we drive slowly past. “That is seawater that remains. The sea is a kilometer or two beyond.”

Since this was the crew’s fourth trip, the setting up of the portable kitchen and buffet goes amazingly fast. Three large tents are unpacked, unfolded, and snapped into shape in about five minutes.

Meanwhile in those few minutes, the truck is unloaded, tables set up and duct taped together, gas burners connected to portable gas containers, 30-liter red and blue plastic water containers unloaded.

Vacuum-packed bags of bolognese sauce, caponata, roasted potatoes, and chicken with rosemary are heated in cauldrons. Two large plastic boxes of al dente pasta are set out ready to add to the sauce.

Hours and hours of preparation had already taken place earlier that evening—making the minestrone, the meat sauce, the side dishes and main dishes, and kilograms and kilograms of al dente penne noodles.

Crisp white linen table clothes are then taped to the tables, as Elio checks the drape of each cloth so it hangs evenly. Fresh fruit is cut into wedges: oranges, watermelon, musk melon, red grapes snipped into small handfuls, then artfully arranged on plastic platters.

Large boxes of artisanal bread—large life-preserver shaped loaves, square loaves, focaccia and baguettes—all baked at Elio’s catering shop, are sliced and arranged in woven baskets under Elio’s watchful eyes.

Elio tastes the minestrone and the bubbling bolognese sauce, “Good, but add a little salt,” he says. “The sauce is still a little thin, add some Parmigiano cheese.”

Paper bowls and plates, plastic spoons and forks are sorted and placed for an easy flow along the buffet tables. Plastic bags are taped to the school building wall and labeled: burnable trash, plastic, raw garbage.

Under a separate tent, tens of boxes of donated items: shoes, blankets, blouses, scarves, sunglasses, space heaters, toys, a small red bicycle, umbrellas, jumpers, are set out. Elio had sent out a message via his Facebook site to all his customers asking them to donate whatever they could. He had it all boxed up and loaded into his truck.

Just before 11 a.m. Elio claps his hands together, “Come here, everybody! Okay, at 11 a.m. we start serving. Get ready.”

The five-course buffet line is set out beautifully: minestrone, penne with bolognese sauce, caponata, potatoes with herbs, and roast chicken with rosemary. Trays of colorful cut fresh fruit, and baskets of bread. And at the very end, boxes of Chupa Chups lollipops.

Then Elio bellows, “Irashaimase! Welcome! Lunch is served!” The oba-sans and oji-sans who had been sifting through the boxes of clothes start to move toward the cups of minestrone. The line lengthens.

I start scooping out a ladleful of penne onto each paper plate—in the amount Elio had decided for he needs to make the food last.

Elio starts smoozing with the oba-sans. Some wear plastic slippers, thick socks, cotton training wear. Some with aprons, wind breakers, and cotton hats. Some have faces as wrinkled as prunes, with thick sturdy fingers and bright undefeated eyes. I see pairs of hands after pairs of hands—moving past, holding plates and sometimes trying to balance the cup of soup.

Some of the donation boxes of shoes, or blouses are empty and stacked nearby. Someone realizes that carrying the abundance of food would be easier with a tray. A cardboard flap is torn off the box and used as a makeshift tray. Now plates and bowls enough for two or three are easier to carry. Suddenly, everyone has a torn piece of cardboard for a tray. The line of hungry people shuffle slowly past my pasta tray. It’s empty. Again and again, it’s empty. Each time, the cook behind me quickly replaces the empty tub of pasta with a full one.

Once people have settled down to eat on the concrete school steps, or makeshift tables under a tent set up by the elementary school, someone brings their torn cardboard “trays” back to the head of the line so that the next person can use one.

Some people come back for seconds or thirds. Elio, or other members of his crew, sometimes help out carrying the torn cardboard trays of food.

At noon, basketball practice ends and young students in blue sports uniforms start to line up too for lunch. Elio comes over to one woman who must be in her seventies. He says in Italian-accented Japanese, “Hello, my new girlfriend! How are you? Let me carry your food.” For ninety minutes we dish out food. One by one, the courses run out. At 12:30 p.m., all that is left is penne with bolognese sauce and bread. New people show up for lunch. We dish out hearty portions of the pasta into paper bowls topped with spoonfuls of grated parmigiano cheese.

The focaccia sandwiches which had been prepared for our lunches are set out for the Rikuzentakata citizens. Soon those sandwiches are gone as well.

Throughout the whole meal no one pushes. No one shoves. No one tries to take more than they think they can eat.

At 1 p.m., Elio claps his hands together again. “Ok! Let’s shut this down and pack it up!”

Within ten minutes, everything is packed up and loaded into the truck which is only half full now that the food and donated goods are gone. Large trays of the remaining pasta are left for the residents. All the donated boxes of clothing and toys are left too.

One boy plays with a toy dinosaur and a boxed race car set which is too big for him to carry. One woman looks at a silk scarve perhaps a Celine. “I can’t use that,” she says with a laugh. A few minutes later, I see another woman with a handful of those scarves and other goods stuffed into a plastic sack.

The cooks pour out the remaining water onto the red tiles of the landing and scrub them down, just as they do at the end of the day in Elio’s kitchen. The garbage bags are collected.

Before we get into the cars for the 7-hour drive back home, Elio gathers us all together again. Some residents ask for photos to be taken with Elio. Hand shakes. Then Elio asks us to form a circle for the Japanese tradition of “ippon jimei” which is done at the conclusion of a communal job well done.

“We served about 300 people,” he says. “Thank you for all your efforts.”

Elio’s right-hand man, Mikata-san yells out  the cue of “Yo!” Then we all try to clap our hands together in one loud clap. We mess up. Our timing is off. “Let’s do it again,” says Elio. This time it’s perfect.

Elio had originally planned to go to Hong Kong this weekend, but when he heard he could go to an elementary school this time, he cancelled his trip.

“I do this for the kids,” he says. “I like to see their smiles.”

The Rikuzentakata elementary school children have eaten and are sitting together on the red-tiled steps of the landing near the classrooms singing songs along with an oba-san strumming on a ukelele. The kids are laughing and clapping with white Chupa Chups sticks poking out from their smiles.

 

 

White Strawberries: Fragrance of First Love

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Some Tokyoites are welcoming the new year with a strawberry or two. That’s all most people can afford with these new Hatsukoinokaori, “Fragrance of First Love” strawberries going for almost 12 dollars a berry. The sales clerk confessed that this recently developed fruit tastes like any other strawberry: the flesh just doesn’t turn red. The berry’s PR flyer reveals that depending on the weather though, (or if the berry finds out how much she costs), she may start to blush pink.

If you like shopping for fruit like you shop for jewelry, head to “Sun Fruits” in Tokyo’s Midtown shopping center. Besides strawberries, the shop sells individual apples, bananas, dried persimmons, assorted fruit baskets, and other seasonal fruits—all in absolutely museum-class condition and at world-class prices.

Now is strawberry season and Sun Fruits offers a dozen choices. If pale berries are not your thing, try Echigohime. She’s billed as big and juicy, with a balanced sweet and sour taste, and a rich berry fragrance. Or Benihoppe, “Red Cheeks,” who is so delicious your cheeks will fall off—her flesh is red inside and out. Perhaps the seductively shaped Yumenoka, or the firm Yayoihime. You won’t be able to resist buying only one Mouikko, “Just One More,” with her plump size and balanced sweet and sour taste. Metaphor lovers will swoon for Hinoshizuku from Kumamoto Prefecture. The area is famous for pure water and this berry is thought to resemble a drop of that famous water. Tochihime is more sweet than sour, but her flesh is yielding and needs to be consumed quickly. Sachinoka boasts great mouthfeel. And Sagahonoka was developed jumbo-sized to be given as a gift.

The ever popular Tochiotome is a well rounded, balance character. And the precocious Amaou is cleverly named after her four attributes: akai (red), marui (round), ooki (big), and umai (delicious).

A box of 24 Amauo will set you back over 100 dollars.

Sun Fruits is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. everyday.

www.sunfruits.co.jp

Tsukudani in Tsukudajima

Sunday, April 12th, 2009

tskudajima-outside

Tsukudajima is a neighborhood unlike any other in Tokyo. It survived unscathed the Great Kanto Earthquake and the fire bombings of the Second World War, but other pockets of the city share that good fortune. What sets Tsukudajima apart is the sense of community that has survived for over four centuries.

Originally a grassy island at the estuary of the Sumida river, it was settled at the beginning of the Edo period, at the invitation of Ieyasu Tokugawa, by a group of fishermen from Osaka whose descendents still fish the waters of Tokyo Bay.

Tsukudajima still retains the slow-paced, quiet atmosphere of a rural fishing village. The houses, many of which are superb examples of mokuzou kaoku, traditional wooden timbered structures, are crowded together with only narrow passageways between them. A handful of long-handled water pumps, which still work, are scattered throughout the neighborhood. Docked at a rickety peer in a canal off the river are several fishing vessels and a traditional yakatabune, a tatami-floored party boat, which can be hired out for special occasions.

The small neighborhood is bordered on two sides by a vanguard of nine towering apartment buildings, with more on the way. But if you turn your back on those highrises and look toward the river, nothing looms on the horizon.

The heart of the neighborhood embraces a post office, a liquor shop, a barber shop, and a general store which sells everything from scrubbing powder and dishwashing liquid to jump ropes and penny candy—100 kinds of which attract a constant parade of neighborhood kids. These shops, of course, have been run by their respective families for generations. The neighborhood also boasts three shops which specialize in tsukudani, an Edo-period delicacy.

marukyu-tsukudaniTsukudani is a salty-sweet preserve of tiny fish, shrimp, shellfish, seaweed, or other edibles which have been simmered in soy sauce, sugar, and salt. Often eaten as a topping on rice, tsukudani originated in Tsukudajima.

Kenji Kobayashi, the voluble 6th generation proprietor of Marukyu, a tsukudani shop open since 1859, is most often found behind his small counter lined with red lacquer boxes containing various types of tsukudani.

“Each item is simmered for 3 or 4 hours in a huge iron pot,” he said spreading his arms apart, “large enough for two men to stand inside.”

His tsukudani is made exactly the way it’s always been made. The exact balance of salty and sweet is a secret varying shop to shop. “We make new batches every two to three days,” he continued, “depending on what’s needed.”marukyu-exterior1

“Once all our raw material came from Tokyo Bay,” he said gesturing out toward the river. “The fish, the seaweed, the shrimp—but now only asari (clams) come from the Bay.”

The looming towers don’t seem to bother him much. “We’ve got 3 generations of customers coming here,” said Kobayashi. “Even those new apartment buildings are not bad for us,” he said. “Many young people are living there and some of them come in to try our tsukudani.”

Another member of the community is Yasuhide Nakamura, 11th generation master craftsman of Edo urushii nori, Edo-style lacquer work.

nakayama-working2“My ancestors started in Nihonbashi at the time of Iemitsu Tokugawa, more than 300 years ago,” said Nakamura. The war destroyed his family workshop, and some forty years ago his father moved the atelier to Tsukudajima. The old wooden shack that serves as his workshop is perhaps the oldest building in the neighborhood.

One of Nakamura’s best selling items is the Edo hakkaku bashi, 8-sided chopsticks made from teak or purple rosewood. “These chopsticks will last 20 years,” he said. “And I’ll repair them for free, if they need it.”

“I make real things,” said Nakamura. And what exquisite things they are. The luminous dakkanshitsu (Japanese sweets dish) his family is famous for is painstakingly crafted layer by layer of hemp linen, washi paper and coatings of red lacquer. Three years are required to create a set of five.

Lacquer painting is a tedious process. “It’s paint-dry-paint-dry,” said Nakamura. “You brush on one coat of lacquer and that’s it for the day,” he said with a grin. “Young people don’t have the patience for this kind of work.”dakkanshitsu2

Patience is most important, stressed Nakamura. It takes time to make something strong, beautiful, and useful—until “aji ga deru,” the deeper quality is revealed.

Something similar, perhaps, happens to neighborhoods. Four centuries of remembrance and appreciation have helped to define the unique sense of community that thrives in Tsukudajima.

Highrise by highrise the city slowly encroaches on Tsukudajima, but life still goes on pretty much as it has for generations. A tofu peddler, a young man in baggy jeans and a baseball cap, pulls a cart through the narrow alleyways and ocassionally blows two forlorn notes on a small brass horn announcing fresh tofu and yuba for sale. A housewife stops him to purchase something for the evening meal. Then he is on his way again—blowing his tune into the evening air.

Gyaku choco: “Reverse” chocolate in Tokyo

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

 

3-gyaku-choco

Tokyo spends millions of yen each St. Valentine’s Day on chocolate. The big houses—Jean-Paul Hevin, Pierre Marcolini, La Maison du Chocolat, Neuhaus, Godiva, etc.—are thronged.

For some misguided reason, though, St. Valentine’s Day in Japan means that only females give chocolate to males. And the harried young women braving the elbowing crowds must carefully consider just what category of chocolate they’re buying. There’s giri choco, or inexpensive “obligation” chocolate given to male colleagues and bosses. There’s tomo choco, “friend” chocolate given to… well, friends. And there’s honmei choco, “true love” chocolate given to those lucky enough to have found it. 

gyaku-choco2This year, though, a bold marketing genius at Morinaga Chocolate came up with a fourth kind, gyaku choco—”reverse” chocolate that progressive young men can give to women on St. Valentine’s Day. The gyaku choco labels are mirror images of regular Morinaga-brand sweets, but with a special blue ribbon stating, “This year gyaku choco” and  “Thanks to You.” For those puzzled by the weird labeling, a little disclaimer at the bottom explains that the image has been reversed on purpose.

Men usually reciprocate with chocolate on “White Day” one month later on March 14th.  But perhaps Morinaga has a double-reverse choco ready to launch then for women who want give back chocolate for the chocolate they received for giving chocolate.

Ume time with Pinky

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

pinky-1

The other night, the January moon hung low over the city, and if you happened to be standing under a plum tree as I was, (my head in the branches) the mix of moonlight and early plum blossom fragrance was intoxicating.

 Prunus mume is what the textbooks call this tree—a type of plum sometimes misnamed “apricot.” Some of the Japanese names, though, are more picturesque: Kenkyou, Shiratakishidare, Ooshuku, Oimoinomama, Benichidori, Kokinran, Aojiku, Osakabeni, Tamagakishidare, Shinonome, and Kagoshimabeni. These translate as See the Surprise, White Waterfall Falling Down, Nightingale Inn, Just as I am Thinking, Red Plover, Old Gold Brocade, Green Stem, Osaka Cup, Shrine Fence Falling Down, Eastern Cloud, and Kagoshima Red.

 Opening after the camellia, the last flower of winter, the plum blossom beats the crocus as a harbinger of spring. Tokyo has thousands of plum trees—any temple or shrine worth its salt has at least one. From just about St. Valentines’ Day until the ides of March, plum festivals are celebrated throughout Tokyo and everywhere else in Japan. Yushima Tenjin Shrine hosts the most famous “Ume Matsuri” in town, celebrated each spring since 1355.

 This is also the jukenjigoku “examination hell” season. Recently the candy manufacturer, Pinky, released a plum mint candy to cheer up the millions of kindergarten, elementary, junior high, high school, junior college, and university entrance-test takers. The kanji impressed on one side of each mint is katsu, “victory,”—a small lozenge of hope.  

 Pinky is not the only company to get behind the test-takers. Some neighborhood bakeries sell katsu roll cakes, and the sales of the chocolate-covered wafer snack, Kit Kat, have increased across the country because “kit kat” sounds, as every nervous test-taker knows, like kitto katsu  which in Japanese means “surely win!”

 Many people consider the plum to be the plainer sister to the more “beautiful” cherry tree. The cherry blossom has its charms and its famous life-is-brief sadness. But to my mind, the plum beats its sister hands down. Cherry petals fall too quickly. The flowers are ostentatious and scentless. Give me plum blossoms bright in sunshine against a cold blue spring sky or mixed with a touch of moonlight. The tree also, of course, provides the “ume” in “ume shu,” plum liquor, which tastes as fine as the blossoms smell. And is just as intoxicating.

Dominique Bouchet and saké at Isetan

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

bouchet-sake

Chef Dominique Bouchet knows saké.  He knows how to cook with it, how to pair it with food, and how to serve it. He also knows that saké is misunderstood. The French don’t like it much because they think it’s distilled and as strong as Chinese baijiu. And the Japanese are surprised by how well their ancient beverage complements foie gras, salmon, scallops, beef, cheese, or anything else you’d like to pair it with. 

Bouchet is internationally renowned as the chef of Le Jamin, Hotel de Crillon, La Tour d’Argent, and Moulin de Marcouze. But he has left that star-encrusted cuisine behind (though his Paris restaurant is still graced with one Michelin star) to focus on simplicity and elegance. 

He has a decades-long association with Japan and Japanese cuisine and it has affected him deeply. Two years ago he opened the Wa-Bi Salon in Paris as a showcase  for the beauty and passion of French and Japanese products and cooking.

Bouchet believes that saké should be accorded more respect. Last year he collaborated with the venerable saké maker Fukumitsuya to market three sakés especially suited to French cuisine. These “vin de riz” have been packaged in smart Riesling-like bottles and should only be served in stemmed wine glasses.

Through January 20th, you can sample all three “wines” paired with an amuse bouche specially prepared by Bouchet. The light, fruity “Sachi” is paired with salmon, goat cheese, and chives (¥1470). The smooth, crisp, well-balanced “Yuri,” my favorite, is paired with a small selection of cheeses—Crottin de chevre, Cantal doux, Roquefort, and Morbier—and a luscious pear cumin jam (¥1890). The full, rich “Fuku” is wonderfully matched with foie gras de canard and a balsamic gelee (¥1680).

These tastings, in the saké corner of Isetan’s basement food court, run from 2pm to 8pm. Last order is 7pm. Bouchet will be on hand to answer any questions.

Where is the Bib Gourmand?

Friday, December 26th, 2008

Last month, the second Michelin Guide to Tokyo was published with stacks of their books, as thick and blood red as Kobe beefsteaks, piled high in every bookstore. 

But where is the Bib Gourmand? The chubby little icon smiling next to a listing serving good food at reasonable prices? 

Why are only starred restaurants listed?  Why the full-page color photos both interior and exterior?  Why the long, dull, lifeless prose? Why the typos?

Consider this description of Yebisu, a one-starred teppanyaki restaurant in Ebisu: “At each counter, chefs skilfully [sic] grill Japanese and Western ingredients right in front of diners.” Wow, right in front of diners. Isn’t that what teppanyaki means?

Or more: “The head chef pays particular attention to colour, composing dishes in tempting colours.” Maybe the writer ought to pay particular attention to redundancy. 

Or more: “After dinner, guests can move from the teppanyaki counter to sofas for dessert.” A sofa for dessert? Make mine lightly upholstered, please.

With an estimated 200,000 eateries in this fine city, why focus on a place like Arakawa, a steak joint, where lunch is listed at ¥52,500. That doesn’t include the service charge, by the way.

Why only three Italian restaurants? Why no Korean restaurants?  Why no Indian restaurants?  Or any other from the vast panoply of world cuisines that Tokyo offers?  Why no ramen shops? 

When Michelin really starts to get serious about eating in Tokyo; when it replaces dull ad-copy-like prose with terse descriptions of food, specialties, and ambiance; when it gets rid of colorful photos of food and interiors; when it includes restaurants that offer good food at reasonable prices; when it lists not only 218 “starred” restaurants but perhaps 518 restaurants of all types and price ranges; then their little red book will become a real guide to eating in Tokyo—as it is in Paris and many other cities—and not merely a collection of glossy promotional brochures for each starred restaurant.