A week ago, I was asking, "Can I be the Next Food blog Star???" To all of you who voted, a sincere thanks. The concept behind the contest that Foodbuzz is putting on is very exciting and a big challenge. I was thrilled to discover that I had made the initial cut. Moving on to challenge #2 (and hopefully beyond) gives the lucky 400 an opportunity to put our cooking skills to the test. This challenge will cut another 200 from the "game." So, every vote will count. Stay tuned to my begging post when I pass on the voting instructions (and again, thanks for all the votes I received).
Challenge #2 sounds simple... "How well can you tackle a classic dish from another culture? We're bypassing the French and Italian standards in favor of more challenging cuisines." We are to pick a cuisine out of our comfort zone, something we have never tried, explain why we chose it, how we went about recreating it and show off a finished product.
So first, pick a cuisine...
I wanted to go Asian. With the exception of a bad experience at a noodle bar in Las Vegas (could have been a bad attitude on my part, donkey called my "all in" with an Ace - Rag to my pocket queens and sucked out... but I digress), and the neighborhood Chinese take out joint, I have almost no experience with true Oriental cooking.
Asian food is a broad concept. Asia, being the largest land mass on Earth, has the largest variation of dishes. Westerners simply do not take the time to separate the different, and lump the whole, order their General Tso's chicken, and believe they have sampled Asian cuisine (when, in fact, there was not a dish called General Tso's chicken pre-1970, and then, it originated in New York City... But I digress again). Indian cuisine is different from Thai, which is different from Chinese, which is different from Japanese, which is different from Siberian... All Asian.
Powering up my search engine, I did a little reading. Superficially, I looked into all of the cuisines listed above (soon as I can find a polar bear heart, I have a terrific sounding Siberian recipe to try). But I was fascinated by one locale.
Okinawa, one of the smaller Japanese islands located about half way between the main island of Japan and Taiwan, has a distinctive diet, different from Chinese as well as Japanese. They also, on average, outlive every other nation on Earth. The Japanese are the longest living population by nationality. But, a resident of Okinawa is five times more likely to live to be 100 than a resident of the main island.
There must be something about the diet that is healthier than any diet in the world.
That alone makes it worth digging deeper.
Here's what I found ...
- Generally, the traditional diet of the islanders was 20% lower in calories than the Japanese average.
- Contained 300% of the green/yellow vegetables (particularly heavy on sweet potatoes).
- The Okinawan diet is low in fat and has only 25% of the sugar.
- The Okinawan diet is lower in grain, 75% of the grains of the average Japanese dietary intake.
- The traditional diet also includes a relatively small amount of fish (less than half a serving per day) and somewhat more in the way of soy and other legumes (6% of total caloric intake).
- With exception of pork, almost no meat is consumed; virtually no eggs or dairy products are consumed either. Okinawans include pork in their diets. However, the fat content of the pork is eliminated; prior to the preparation of the pork, the fat is boiled off.
But, in for a penny, in for a pound, and the challenge is to look beyond our comfort zone.
So, I uncomfortably prepared to boil my pork.
I selected an Okinawan Soba as my dish. It is primarily a noodle dish, with the boiled meat seasoning the water (a pork stock) that is absorbed into the noodles. The boiled pork is then seasoned with a glaze and served as a garnish to the noodles. Soba is the most consumed dish in Okinawa (another reason to make the recipe). Even the Okinawan McDonald's serves a form of Soba.
I looked over many recipes and came up with a hybrid of my own that seems to cover the concept of making this classic (within the limitations of shopping in Kansas City).
I got a great deal of help at 888 International Market. This is a HUGE Asian specialty supermarket in the suburbs of KC. The staff was very helpful in helping me locate items I was not familiar with, as well as offering cooking tips once I told them what I was planning.
From a vast array of fresh seafood (I recognized about half), to fresh vegetables (again, about half), to imported packaged foods to a huge frozen food section, this place had it all. Combined with a knowledgeable staff, I was set!
Here's the "out of my comfort zone" ingredients I found there...
- Bonito Flakes- Dried, fermented tuna.
- Mirin - Japanese sweet rice wine
- Okinawan Soba Noodles- Dispite the word "Soba" meaning buckwheat in Japanese, Okinawan Soba noodles specifically DO NOT contain buckwheat. I looked and could not find an explanation, but in order to make true (remember, the challenge is to make a classic recipe) Okinawan Soba, no buckwheat is allowed. The market had several packages of Soba noodles, but only one Okinawa Soba style. One was enough.
- And finally, I needed a bit of Sake (whoop de do!)
- They also had Pork Belly in stock at a very low price. My butcher shop would order it, but does not normally stock it. And of course, anything specially ordered is specially priced.
- And finally, they had pork ribs sliced against the bones. Again, something my butcher would have done, but the Asian market had it all in stock (like it was a common ingredient... Who knew?).
OK, supplied with the above ingredients, along with my pantry, here's what I did...
2 lb pork bones
1/2 lb belly pork
3 quarts water
1 1/2 cups bonito flakes
3 teaspoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons pork stock
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon awamori sake
1 tablespoon mirin
1 pkg (14 oz) fresh Okinawan soba
1 green onion, cut into 3-inch lengths
- In a saucepot, cover pork bones and belly pork with water. Bring to a boil; drain and rinse (I did it, I didn't like doing it, but I did it).
- Add the 3 quarts water; bring again to a boil. Cover, lower heat, and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Skim and continue cooking for 30 minutes more.
- Remove pork bones from stock and discard; remove belly pork and cut into 3 x 2 x 1/4-inch slices. Put the meat in a large frying pan to season.
- To stock, add bonito flakes; boil for 2 minutes. Strain stock and discard flakes.
- Add soy sauce; simmer for 2 minutes.
- In the skillet, combine sugar, pork stock, the 3 tablespoons soy sauce, the sake, and mirin; mix with the meat slices and cook, turning occasionally, until well glazed.
- Meanwhile, back at the stock pot, return to a boil, add the Soba noodles and cook for 4 minutes.
- Place 1 cup noodles in 4 serving bowls; add 1 cup seasoned stock. Garnish with pork and green onion.
And the verdict... The meat had a surprising amount of flavor. As you would expect from boiled meat, it was incredibly tender. The glazing of the pork as the final step added the tastes of the sugar, sake and soy sauce. The noodles (again, remember the meat is a garnish, this is actually a noodle dish), cooked in the pork stock had a distinctive flavor. Most of the stock was absorbed into the noodles. In just the time it took for me to photograph the dish, the noodles continued to absorb the stock to the point that less than 1/2 a cup of liquid was left by the time I started eating.
As served, this is an Okinawan style Sōki Soba. Meaning there is extra pork served with the noodles. A Sōki Soba is served on special occasions, like weddings, births, returns of the prodigal son and when the recipe is to be entered in the Next Food Blog Star Challenge
I was very excited about the challenge, and did quite a bit of reading about my options. In addition to the main dish shown here, I made a three course meal of the challenge with an appetizer of Vietnamese Vegetable Spring roll (with two homemade dipping sauces (HOT Soy Sauce and Hoisin), and for dessert, I made a Chinese 5 Spice butter cookie, usually served in Hong Kong for an afternoon high tea service.
Voting starts tomorrow... If you think I accomplished the challenge and did myself proud, come back for voting instructions! Lots of talent out there, I need your votes.