Making Chevre with a Cheese Whiz, San Francisco’s Own Milkmaid

Goat cheese platter, Berkeley Cheeseboard Collective. Photo: Anna Mindess

Goat cheese platter, Berkeley Cheeseboard Collective. Photo: Anna Mindess

I’m gaga for goat cheese. When I saw a little sign at Berkeley’s Cheese Board Collective announcing a goat cheese class, I was all over it. On a recent evening, two dozen eager, cheese-maker-wannabes were welcomed by platters laden with dates, pears, persimmons and several varieties of goat cheese to get us in the mood. The Bonne Bouche, with its squiggly gray, ash-ripened crust and pungent creamy interior disappeared quickly among this herd of goat cheese lovers.

Louella Hill, SF Milkmaid. Photo: Anna Mindess

Louella Hill, SF Milkmaid. Photo: Anna Mindess

Then we met our instructor, the lovely Louella Hill, better known as the SF Milkmaid, who, in her old fashioned milk maid cap looked like she just stepped out of an illustration from a 19th century book of nursery rhymes.

Hill told us that her love affair with cheese started on a sheep farm in Tuscany, twelve years ago and then waxed poetical on her obsession:

“Cheesemaking is an art form that asks for patience. It’s a puzzle that challenges your brain and asks you to trust time. It encourages us to embrace the invisible microbial world, and that can’t be rushed.”

Then, on to the basics of her simple, but versatile recipe that is suited to making soft, fresh chevre or a complex, molded cheese. The fresh chevre we would go home with could be eaten in a day or so, or left to age with a pinch of added mold spores (geotrichium candidum) to turn it into a distant cousin of the Bonne Bouche.

Scooping the curds from the whey.

Scooping the curds from the whey.

With an animal lover’s tender gaze, Hill confided that cheese is better from a sheep, cow or goat with whom you have a personal relationship. But if you don’t happen to have your own goats and hillside, she recommends buying Summerhill Dairy Goat milk. And the only other ingredients needed are cultured buttermilk, and a drop each of calcium chloride and rennet (both available at the Cheese Board).

That led us into a serving of science, (including: coagulation, effects of homogenization, temperature, fat globules…etc.) but Hill’s explanations made these technical aspects easy to digest. She showed us a simple method to mix everything in the goat milk bottle, but instructed us to combine by gently tilting the bottle back and forth several times, instead of shaking. In order to help solids clump together and get rid of excess water, the milk mixture needs to rest quietly for about 12 hours (and not near a radio with a booming base, Hill cautioned).

When she brought out a pot she had made the day before, we got to ladle the curds from the whey into cheese molds to let finish draining in our own kitchens. Hill offered us the probiotic-rich, leftover liquid whey to take home and drink, put in our gardens or use to start another batch of cheese. (And I finally understood what Miss Muffet was eating when that insistent spider took a seat beside her.)

Plastic cheese mold vs. cheesecloth draining. Photo: Anna Mindess

Plastic cheese mold vs. cheesecloth draining. Photo: Anna Mindess

As an alternative to using a plastic cheese mold, with holes for the whey to continue to drain out, Hill demonstrated the tradition of tying up the cheese in–what else–cheesecloth.

She also showed us how to sprinkle already formed cheese rounds with ash or, for an added zing, wrap them in booze-soaked fig leaves.

 Wrapping goat cheese in booze-soaked fig leaf. Photo: Anna Mindess

Wrapping goat cheese in booze-soaked fig leaf. Photo: Anna Mindess

San Francisco Milkmaid Information:

SF Milkmaid classes
Twitter: @sfmilkmaid
Facebook: San Francisco Milk Maid

Upcoming classes include:

Louella Hill has a book coming out next May from Chronicle Books, called Kitchen Creamery, with 30 recipes for home cheesemaking.

My chevre comes home. Photo: Anna Mindess

My chevre comes home. Photo: Anna Mindess

KQED's Bay Area Bites
A version of the post first appeared on, Bay Area Bites

Posted in Cheese board, Cooking classes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gruesome Goodies: Halloween Bentos to Make for your Little Bats and Ghouls

Frankenstein bento, with cheese ghost and persimmon pumpkin. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Frankenstein bento, with cheese ghost and persimmon pumpkin. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

I’ve always loved the spooky aspects of Halloween — its spiders and skeletons — and reveled in the creative challenge of sewing costumes and decorating the house. But I’ve never been crazy about the forced candy overdose. When my daughter Lila was little, I tried various ideas to part her from her ton of sugar. (Did you know there’s a Candy Monster who will buy back your trick-or-treat loot if you leave it on your doorstep overnight?)

Lila has always appreciated my cute culinary creations. Now she’s away at college, but I still enjoy playing with food and I finally discovered the perfect antidote to candy mania: Halloween bento boxes — whimsical, packed lunches with healthy, attractive food that tempts your kids to taste new things and eat their veggies.

Vampire egg bunny and sausage fingers with red pepper nails. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Vampire egg bunny and sausage fingers with red pepper nails. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess


In Japan, the tradition of charmingly aesthetic food fabrication is taken quite seriously (with more women in the work force, it will be interesting to see if this cultural trend continues). You can read more about this Japanese tradition and view slides at PBS’s The Meaning of Food.  A brief excerpt:

A typical mother spends almost an hour crafting every lunch into a healthful, beguiling blend of cartoon characters, flora and fauna — anything that will make the food appeal to her child. The teacher judges whether the lunch box is prepared according to obento rules (e.g., the food must be as handmade as possible, and it must be appetizing and aesthetically appealing to the child).

Bentos often highlight the season or a coming holiday. Although Halloween trick or treating is not practiced in Japan, the nation that is wild for cosplay loves to dress up and Halloween is sneaking into advertisements and decorations, thanks in part to Disneyland and Universal Studio theme parks in Japan.

Boo!: nori black cat, soba noodles, olives and pickle. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Boo!: nori black cat, soba noodles, olives and pickle. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Not just for kids

The practice of bento lunchbox making has now been adopted around the world. Bentos’ popularity is due, in part, to the fact that they encourage healthy, mindful eating and are environmentally friendly — since there is no extra packaging to throw away. Adults often appreciate the portion control in pre-made lunches for weight loss. And taking the time to prepare an attractive meal definitely is a sign of love, (even for yourself).

Surfing the Internet, I discovered a lunchbox artist, who goes by the name of Gamene. Although she has moved on to a different job now, the former Manhattan attorney explained her motivation for making these edible works of art:

“…while at the law firm, Gamene found the work environment to be chaotic and often stressful… by taking the time to prepare healthy, colorful, and artistic lunch boxes, she guaranteed herself at least one moment of harmony during her busy work day.”


Really, you don’t need any special tools or equipment, just a sharp knife and a little patience. That said, there is a ton of stuff out there either made specifically for bentos or available at your local art, hardware or dollar store. Optional helpers: cookie cutters, hard-boiled egg molds, rice molds, divided boxes, silicone containers, fancy toothpicks.

Optional tools include an Exacto knife, cookie cutters, egg mold and containers. Photo: Anna Mindess

Optional tools include an Exacto knife, cookie cutters, egg mold and containers. Photo: Anna Mindess

Locally, a cheap place to buy bento-paraphernalia is the $1.50 store, Daiso. There’s one in Berkeley, one in SF Japantown and others in the larger Bay Area.

A little more classy assortment can be found at Berkeley’s Tokyo Fish Market Gift Shop.

Mummy of cheese-wrapped raisin bread, turkey patty witch. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Mummy of cheese-wrapped raisin bread, turkey patty witch. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

If the Internet doesn’t provide enough inspiration, Amazon lists hundreds of books on the subject. Number one on their list is The Just Bento Cookbook by Makiko Itoh, whose twin websites, Just Bento and Just Hungry, I visit often. They have deservingly won wide acclaim. Here is a post on Halloween bentos by Makiko.

 Graveyard with rice cracker tombstones set in hummus, jicama bones. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Graveyard with rice cracker tombstones set in hummus, jicama bones. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

You don’t have to make special food items for bentos; left-overs often serve well, with a little decoration. The unwritten rule seems to be that each bento should contain a well-rounded meal with protein, carbs, fruit and veggies.

In making my Halloween bentos, I found the following useful tips:

  • Persimmons sliced through the middle make great pumpkins
  • Pre-sliced jicama is perfect for bones and picket fences
  • Nori (dried seaweed) can be used for the bats, black cats, eyes and other accents (most easily cut with a very sharp pair of sewing scissors)
  • Olives, pickles, grapes, pimentos can make assorted facial features
  • Hummus works well as “glue”
  • Even though I don’t usually buy them, sliced cheese in pre-wrapped squares comes in handy
  • A slice of red pepper studded with teeth (of cheese or slivered almonds) looks just like “wax lips”

Happy Halloween Lunch making! (Hmm…I wonder if Lila would appreciate a bunny hard-boiled egg when she comes home for Winter break?)

Avocado monster with cheese accents. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

Avocado monster with cheese accents. Photo + Bento: Anna Mindess

KQED's Bay Area Bites

A version of this post first appeared on KQED Bay Area Bites

Posted in cute food, Japan, Japanese food | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Icy or Spicy? Cooling Foods Across Cultures

In summertime, some like it cold and some like it hot. Left photo: Managementboy, wikimedia commons; Right photo: McKay Savage, Flickr

In summertime, some like it cold and some like it hot. Left photo: Managementboy, wikimedia commons; Right photo: McKay Savage, wikimedia commons

Like a dripping popsicle in an overheated toddler’s hand, I’m melting in Kyoto’s sultry, summer streets. Luckily, my friend Tomoko knows the perfect thing to revive me: a cooling lunch of icy noodles at a restaurant perched atop a cascading mountain stream. The only hitch — and part of the fun — is that we’ll have to catch our somen noodles (with chopsticks, of course) as they whiz down the cold water rushing through a bamboo tube. Nagashi Somen or “flowing noodles” is a traditional treat to cope with Japan’s sauna-like summers. Some families erect a backyard bamboo course to delight the kids — as in this video.

Catch your noodles before they get away. Nagashi Somen, Kibune, Japan. Photo: Anna Mindess

Catch your noodles before they slip away. Nagashi Somen, Kibune, Japan. Photos: Anna Mindess, Tomoko Yoshihara

Near Kyoto, just one restaurant serves this summertime-only, snatch-your-noodle-experience. Tomoko and I take a 20-minute train ride and a 10-minute bus ride to the village of Kibune, nestled in a forested valley. Then we walk up a narrow mountain road, past picturesque inns and high-end kaiseki restaurants set on platforms over the gushing river. Even though it’s an uphill trek to the last eating spot at the top of the path, the forest’s shaded greenery, undulating thrum of cicadas and refreshing river air feels revitalizing — plus it’s twenty degrees cooler than in the city.

This popular restaurant adds a stainless steel gutter inside the traditional bamboo pipe — perhaps for ease of cleanup or added speed? The crowd of diners are seated ten at a time at the noodle bar and treated to bracing breezes from nearby dramatic waterfalls. As the server brings us each a bowl of dipping sauce and pair of chopsticks to nab our noodles, she points out which of the several pipelines are assigned to which diners and the fun begins as slippery strands zoom by hungry patrons. Squeals of delight or frustration are heard all around, followed by murmurs of enjoyment.

Tomoko is seated “downstream” from me, so she can snag a clump of noodles if I miss it, which I do on the first round. Then she shares her strategy: stand the ends of the chopsticks in the water to act as a dainty dam. It works! My chilled nest of noodles, dipped in tangy sauce, tastes even better for having caught it. Once we all get the hang of it, the challenge is to grab your noodles, take a photo, dip and eat before the next bundle comes whizzing by. You can watch all the diners attempting this juggling act. After a dozen or so rounds, a last tangle of pink noodles silently slides by to announce the final serving.

On our journey back to the city, I ask Tomoko what other foods are eaten in Japan’s meltingly hot summers. Besides cold noodles (somen, reimen and soba), she tells me that unagi is supposed to supply strength to withstand the withering weather. Plus cooling sweets such as mizu-yokan (a jelly made with red adzuki beans) and shaved iced desserts like kakigori, flavored with green tea or other syrups.

Even though our rare Bay Area hot spells are short and blessedly dry,” I start to wonder about “cooling foods” in other cultures. So I ask a few Bay Area connections to share their wisdom. (This is just a sampling of cultures. Please feel free to add your favorites).

Sweet and Icy. Left: Halo-halo, photo: tumbler??. Center: Kakigori, photo: Chris 73, wikimedia commons. Right: Ice Kachang, photo: Anna Mindess

Sweet and Icy. Left: Halo-halo, photo: tumblr. Center: Kakigori, photo: Chris 73, wikimedia commons. Right: Ice Kachang, photo: Anna Mindess

Sweet and Icy

Aileen Suzara, educator, natural chef and environmental justice advocate, who often writes about Filipino cuisine at Kitchen Kwento,  suggests the classic Filipino icy treat, halo-halo, “literally a mix-mix” with a range of possible ingredients. The layered medley may include jackfruit, kaong palm fruit, pineapple gelatin, red beans, a scoop of shaved ice, toasted rice pinipig or ube (purple yam) ice cream, topped with evaporated milk, leche flan and strands of coconut.

This reminds me of Ice Kachang, a mountain of shaved ice, doused with syrups and toppings, which I sampled on a trip to Singapore, another steamy city. Korean Pat-bing-soo also features shaved ice, topped with sweet red bean paste and mochi. And of course, even a day in the 70’s would be an excuse for San Franciscans to head over to Bi-Rite Creamery for a scoop of their salted caramel or balsamic strawberry ice cream. Ironically, this article in Time reveals that slurping ice cream actually heats up the body, thanks to its fat content. (Oh, now I know why SF is such an ice cream-crazed city — it makes us warmer!)

Soup (cold or hot)

While we’re on the subject of chilled dishes, people in many countries enjoy cold soups during the hottest months — think Spanish gazpachos, Swedish fruit soups, and French-inspired vichyssoise. Yet, on the opposite end of the culinary continuum, diners in other cultures prefer to sip hot summer soups for their cooling properties.

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune featured Korean summer foods, like Sam gye tang (Ginseng Chicken Soup).

“Boiled chicken in a steaming stone bowl may sound like the last thing you crave on a sweltering, 90 percent humidity afternoon. But that’s exactly what Koreans line up for during the summer doldrums. Sam gye tang is young chicken or hen stuffed with glutinous rice, garlic, jujube (a prune-y maroon date), ginseng and sometimes ginger, then simmered in its own fat and juices. The two vital “warming” ingredients, ginseng and garlic, are meant to inject you with nutrients lost to excessive sweating, as well as regulate blood flow and metabolism.”

Wok-wizard and acclaimed cookbook author, Grace Young, grew up in a traditional Chinese home in San Francisco. In The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen she presents “the brilliant harmony of Chinese cooking” as an ingenious system to mitigate the effects of external as well as internal heat. “Unlike the Western practice of drinking iced beverages to cool the body,” Young explains, “hot soups are often drunk in the summer in China.”

Young includes recipes her mother and aunt would routinely make during hot weather, including Herbal Winter Melon Soup with adzuki beans, and Soybean and Sparerib Soup with ginger. She explains that these soups are “tonics” and sipped for their healing properties, rather than consumed as a meal. Young recalls that growing up in her Cantonese family’s home, a bowl or two was drunk at mealtimes, in place of water, milk or soda. She also notes that these  “yin-yang concoctions” are “an acquired taste” and change with the seasons.

Heat from Spice is Nice

It’s not just the warm temperature of the food, but the heat from spices (especially peppers) that many cultures employ to beat the heat. Vinita Jacinto, chef and cooking teacher, who writes at The Spice Whisperer  shares that in India, certain herbs and spices (like cumin and cayenne) promote perspiration to naturally cool the body. “Spicy food is a natural way to keep cool in the tropics,” she says.  One of her favorite hot weather beverages is  Jal-Jeera, a spiced lemonade she prepares with toasted cumin powder, mint, cilantro, black salt and raw sugar or agave.

Vinita Jacinto, the Spice Whisperer

Vinita Jacinto, the Spice Whisperer, photo: Anna Mindess

Because of its replenishing, high water content, watermelon is a natural hot weather favorite around the world. Jacinto amps up watermelon’s cooling capabilities by sprinkling chunks of fruit with a mixture of dry mango powder, black salt, ginger powder and garnishing with chopped mint. An additional summer drink she suggests is a salted buttermilk lassi with toasted cumin and muddled mint. “Its protein fights off heat exhaustion as it rehydrates the body,” counsels Jacinto.

Another devotee of the power of peppers is Nico Vera, who chronicles the drinks and cuisine of Peru in his blog Pisco Trail.  “During Peruvian summers [November-March], when Lima is hot and humid,” Vera says, “the most cooling dish for lunch is ceviche: fresh fish, lime juice, onions, salt, hot peppers, and a cold beer make quite the combination. I suspect that the hot peppers also act as cooling agents, in that they make one perspire and cool off.”

Japanese inspired Peruvian Ceviche by Nico Vera

Japanese inspired Peruvian Ceviche, photo by Nico Vera

Traveling full circle back to Japan, Vera comments that, “Peru has a tremendous abundance and variety of fish. But not until the arrival of the Japanese 100 years ago, did Peruvians truly become interested in seafood. Thanks in large part to their profound appreciation for fish, the Japanese transformed how Peruvians prepared and ate Ceviche, making it one of Peru’s most culturally significant dishes.” Here is his recipe for Ceviche Nikkei.

With our quirky Bay Area weather patterns, we often get our warmest days in early fall, so you might just want to keep some ice and spice handy.

KQED's Bay Area Bites


version of this post first appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites

Posted in Chinese food, Filipino food, Indian food, Japan, Japanese food, Korean food, Peruvian food, Singapore | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

From Peaches to Persimmons: A Taste of Two Seasons (in Japan)

momo to kaki - fruit straddles two Japanese seasons

Japanese momo makes way for kaki – fruit signifies the shifting seasons

When I arrived in steamy, hot Kyoto in early September, I fell into a torrid summer romance – with white peaches. I was consumed with these perfumed, seductive, satisfying, luscious orbs. Each white peach is treated like a luxury item in Japan, a queen, whose head rests on a lacy ruffled collar.

one peachI’m from California, where we certainly grow peaches and I’m a loyal farmers’ market shopper. But buying peaches at home is a hit-or-miss-affair. Sometimes they’re hard, or mushy, or worst of all: mealy. In Japan, by contrast, every single white peach I ate was perfectly sweet, ripe, ready for eating, the essence of summer. A bit of research turned up the reason behind this perfection: the loving care peaches receive in their birthplace, Okayama, where they are individually wrapped in little bags while still on the tree.

My peach passion spilled beyond the fruit itself. I devoured white peach yogurt and jam, guzzled white peach smoothies and branched out to white peach flavored water, candy, even lip gloss. I told you I was obsessed.

white peaches
Then, about a week later, in the middle of September, I noticed a subtle shift, but not in the weather, which remained unrelentingly hot. No, the change I noticed was in product packaging. All of a sudden, radiant rust and golden autumn leaves appeared everywhere, on candy containers, bento boxes and store displays. And at my local market, glowing orange persimmons (my favorite fall fruit) made their shy debut.

fall persimmons

This punctuation between peach and persimmon may have coincided with Tsukimi, the Moon Viewing Ceremony, an intriguing event I attended that heralds the coming of autumn. As usual, special foods are involved: tsukimi dango,  moon-shaped sweets, plus moon themed salads and noodles. I even heard that Japan’s Mc Donald’s featured a “moon burger” with the addition of a fried egg.

Good moon viewing food

Good moon viewing food

It was the night of the Autumn Moon Viewing that I started to notice the profusion of persimmon-themed sweets. And had the Best. Persimmon Mochi. Ever.

persimmon mochi collage

the best persimmon mochi

And as I transitioned my taste buds from peaches to persimmons, during the last week in September, several Japanese friends mentioned the concept of “shun” and told me it was a hard one to translate in English. Immediately, my interest was piqued, as those hard to translate words often carry keys to culture.

The first instance occurred during my sushi-focused day, when Koichi, my Kansai guide, erupted in delight upon spotting a silvery fish for sale in the market. That fresh sanma (Pacific saury) seemed to be a harbinger of autumn. He bought a pair to make for dinner and couldn’t wait to show his wife. He said she would be so excited — to see a fish — and she was.

surprise salad

Then my friend Keiko took me out to dinner at Kitchen Raku Raku, a unique little spot where we trusted the chef, with brilliant results. Chef Akira Mizobuchi started us off with a “surprise salad,” his artful combination with avocado, tofu, mushrooms and goya  (Okinawan “bitter melon” that the chef transformed into delectable, golden fried crescents). As Keiko and I finished off the shared salad, she excitedly pointed to a little brown nub and exclaimed, “Ohh, look! kuri! (chestnut) Shun!” Then she tried to explain the meaning of “shun“. Not really “at the height of the season” but just at the beginning.

On a lovely site I just discovered called Savory Japan, Risa Sekiguchi describes the concept like this:

There is also a word to describe the celebration of seasonal food at its peak, as there is no equivalent in English: shun. This word describes the exact moment that a vegetable is at its very best, a fruit at its most succulently sweet, fish at its most flavorful. Serious chefs take great pride in the celebration of shun, and it is central to the culinary world.

persimmon sweets

yatsuhashi – persimmon sweets

This Japanese quality of being exquisitely in tune with the seasons pervades everything and deeply touched this California girl with the meaning it adds to the smallest details of daily life. As Sekiguchi says,

“Consideration for the season is second nature; part of the Japanese psyche. This attention to the seasons even has a term: kisetsukan. The origin of this emphasis on seasonality can be traced back to the roots of the indigenous nature-loving Shinto religion, as well as to Japan’s agrarian past…”

kaki gum

I brought home some boxed persimmon sweets (yatsuhashi) to savor and share this feeling. (And a pack of persimmon gum and a tiny sewn persimmon, just for fun.)

Posted in desserts and sweets, Japan, Japanese food | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Sushi Maniac Serves Me an Oishii (Delicious) Day in Osaka

my attempt sushi Collage

I’ve just failed miserably at my first attempt to form a compact ball of sushi rice. But my teacher, Koichi, an Osaka brain surgeon by day and sushi aficionado on the weekend, reassures me that it takes years to perfect this art. He lets me smoosh some fresh wasabi root on a nifty grater made of shark fin, instead. “Grind it in circles, but not too fast,” he counsels. “Too high a temperature will spoil the flavor.”

I found my way to his compact kitchen through the Kansai Volunteer Guides’ website, where Koichi, who wants to practice his English with foreign visitors, mentions his love of sushi and desire to share its history with travelers. I’ve had previous memorable experiences with Kyoto Free Guides and Tokyo Free Guides and the prospect of learning more about my favorite food–sushi–during my brief stay in Japan was irresistible. I didn’t realize this tour was going to be so hands-on.

We started with lunch of traditional Osaka style pressed sushi at a 200-year old restaurant, which is currently situated in the middle of a noisy, colorful shopping street. (Website of Fukusushi restaurant is only in Japanese.)

My Osaka sushi guide, Koichi-san

My Osaka sushi guide, Koichi-san

As we enjoyed our lunch of Osaka style hakozushi, which is formed by pressing rice and prepared fish in a wooden box, Koichi explained a little about the history of sushi, which spans hundreds of years in Southeast Asia and Japan, and was originally a technique of preserving rice and fish by fermentation. The nigiri sushi using raw fish that we are most familiar with (known as Edo or Tokyo style) is a relative newcomer, only about 150 years old.

Osaka sushi Collage

Without refrigeration, raw fish could not be eaten, unless it was dockside. So all the fish featured in our Osaka style lunch was cooked or cured in vinegar.  After pressing in the wooden box, the resulting large block of sushi is cut into bite-sized pieces, each with two or more varieties such as shrimp, tamago, hirame and eel. Another Osaka specialty we sampled: large rectangles of pressed and sliced mackerel wearing a delicate kombu veil.

No wasabi was in sight and Koichi said our sushi didn’t really need soy sauce. He disapproved of the thick sludge of wasabi and soy sauce I told him most Americans stir up to slather their sushi.

It's all plastic - and the fire is fake

It’s all plastic – and the fire is fake

After a detour through a “chefs’ street,” perusing shops selling every incarnation of plastic display food and ogling gleaming professional knives costing several thousand dollars, we ended up shopping for the freshest fish at — of all places — Takashimaya department store basement. Actually Japanese department store food basements are a wonderland of every possible delicacy, attractively displayed – often with sample tastes – easy dining for non-Japanese speakers – all you have to do is point.


Koichi was thrilled to find some beautiful sanma  (pacific saury), a harbinger of autumn. He could tell it was very fresh from its gleaming silvery blue skin, transparent eye, and moist tail. He put a pair in his basket along with, anago (sea eel), tai (sea bream), tuna, aji (horse mackerel) and several other ingredients.

At his condo, I met Koichi’s wife and baby daughter and Koichi demonstrated the many rituals of the sushi preparation while I watched attentively from a ringside seat. Throughout his measuring, mixing, boiling, steaming and slicing, Koichi thoughtfully shared his recipes and provided me with a steady stream of tastes.

tamago Collage

First challenge: tamago, the egg omelet. This seemingly simple inclusion in many set sushi menus back home is actually extremely difficult to make. As he poured, folded and refolded the mixture of egg, mirin, sugar and soy sauce in a series of moves in a special pan, Koichi confessed that his success rate is only about 50%. Today was a lucky day and he nailed it.

Then the eel had to be boiled, the tai skin seared, and the sanma gutted and deboned and the other fish thinly sliced. Koichi offered me a knife but I’m a little squeamish with blood and guts and, considering he works as a neurosurgeon, I figured that sharp metal objects would be better off in his seasoned hands.

I asked Koichi why he didn’t buy already prepared sushi, since Takashimaya had plenty of tempting platters. “Sushi is my hobby, “ he replied. “It’s exciting, with many small details. It’s simple, but difficult and easy to fail.”


After the buttery tuna, he served me a new taste: scallion sprouts, a delightful, palate cleanser.

scallion sprout sushi

scallion sprout sushi

As we enjoyed our dinner,  I mentioned that my favorite sushi is mirugai (giant clam). Koichi was impressed (and I was glad to be familiar with more than just California rolls). As we said our goodbyes, Koichi presented me with a book on sushi in both Japanese and English for a “fellow sushi maniac.” I can’t imagine a more thoughtful gift to end a day that was totemo oishii (totally delicious).

sushi maniac Collage

Domo arigato gozaimasu, Koichi!

Posted in Japan, Japanese food, tasting tours | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Chinese Carver Jimmy Zhang Makes Melons Bloom and Carrots Fly

Jimmy Zhang’s passion was unleashed by a potato. As a teenager in Shenyang, China, he saw a video of a chef carving a rose out of a potato and was instantly hooked. But when he tried to fashion his own spud blossoms at home with an ordinary knife, he discovered it wasn’t as easy as it looked. So after high school, Zhang enrolled in a Chinese Culinary Arts Institute program specializing in the ancient art of fruit and vegetable carving. After assisting his distinguished teacher, winning international competitions in China and abroad, he moved to Northern California. He now teaches locally and nationally, presents live demonstrations and carves elaborate creations for events from birthday banquets to weddings.

Jimmy Zhang carves a rose. Photo: Anna Mindess

Jimmy Zhang carves a rose. Photo: Anna Mindess

Zhang’s parents were supportive of his career decision from the start, but his brother had some complaints. “I had to practice a lot at home, using materials like radishes and potatoes in the wintertime,” said Zhang, “and every night, my mother made the vegetables into a beef stew. My brother would sigh, ‘Stew, again?!’”

“My dream was to travel and see the world outside of China,” says Zhang. A visit to a friend in sunny California, decided his future, but in 1997, when Zhang moved here, he spoke no English. He took ESL classes–where he met his future wife–but didn’t think his English improved much.

When he landed a job teaching Asian art and cooking in the Culinary Arts Program at Oakland’s Laney College, however, his students helped him find the right words. “The students knew I had excellent skills, but my English wasn’t good enough to express what I wanted to say,” admits Zhang, smiling. “So I taught them with my broken English and they gave me the correct words to use, like “cut this smooth and round” and then I repeated what they said and that’s how I learned English.”

Chef Jimmy Zhang creates a bird from carrots. Photo: Jimmy Zhang

Chef Jimmy Zhang creates a bird from carrots. Photo: Jimmy Zhang

Zhang’s favorite subjects are living creatures, since the challenge is to depict their vitality through action or emotion. He has carved rearing horses out of taro, tropical fish from squash and carrots and a feisty dragon out of giant radishes.

A crew from Snapple once came to his house and filmed him carving an entire vegetable tableau to illustrate one of the facts on their lids: “A dolphin sleeps with one eye open.” Zhang fashioned a beach scene, complete with taro dolphin lounging on a beach chair underneath an acorn squash umbrella, the dolphin’s one open eye is focused possessively on his bottle of Snapple.

Watermelon carving by Jimmy Zhang. Photo: Anna Mindess

Watermelon carving by Jimmy Zhang. Photo: Anna Mindess

For awe-inspiring, elegant beauty, Zhang’s exquisitely faceted watermelon flower centerpieces are just too gorgeous to eat. They often require an hour and a half of precise, repetitive cutting with a special knife. Watermelon is the perfect sculptural medium with its translucent layers of green white, pink and red hues. (Traditional carvers prefer to take advantage of the exquisite natural colors that fruit and vegetables already possess, in lieu of dyeing them.)

Zhang, a recipient of numerous medals at professional fruit carving competitions, is in high demand as a teacher and is often invited to present daylong to weeklong courses at culinary schools around the country. He also organizes his own private group classes through his website, Art Chef.

Jimmy Zhang teaches at Veggy Art Studios. Photo: Jimmy Zhang

Jimmy Zhang teaches at Veggy Art Studios. Photo: Jimmy Zhang

Future plans include a summer program designed specifically for youth, ages 13-20. “Mostly, I’ve taught adults, both professionals and non-professionals, but young people really love this art too and it’s good to develop your skills at an early age, since it takes some practice,” says Zhang, who began learning his craft at age 19.

Zhang admits that even though he has attained the highest skill level in this exacting art, he no longer competes in tournaments. “I leave that to my students. And if they earn the medals, it means, I’ve done a good job as teacher.”

Facebook: Jimmy Zhang, Art Chef

KQED's Bay Area Bites

A version of this piece was first posted on KQED Bay Area Bites. A big thanks to filmmaker Kim Aronson for collaborating with me. 

Posted in Chinese food, Thai food | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

ZATAR – A Mediterranean Oasis Nurtures Diners with Homegrown Produce

Co-owners of Zatar, Waiel and Kelly Majid. Photo: Anna Mindess

Co-owners of Zatar, Waiel and Kelly Majid. Photo: Anna Mindess

Do you hunger for that delicious feeling of being well cared for, dining with friends who cook up flavorful dishes incorporating fruit and vegetables from their own gardens?

Then invite yourself over for lunch or dinner at tiny Zatar restaurant, tucked away on Shattuck Avenue near University in Berkeley, where meals featuring organic produce and naturally raised meats have been lovingly prepared since 2002 by Waiel and Kelly Majid.

Zatar’s cuisine can be hard to pigeonhole. Kelly Majid describes it as “eclectic Mediterranean, with dishes inspired from the region, including Syria, Lebanon and Morocco.” She adds, “We are not trying to be authentic to any one country, but rather enjoy the freedom to adjust our recipes. Our food is always Mediterranean in essence, employing ingredients like olive oil, lamb, fresh seafood, sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses, homemade yogurt, lots of fresh herbs, and other common elements used in Mediterranean cooking across the area.”

Zatar's boreka. Photo: Anna Mindess

Zatar’s boreka. Photo: Anna Mindess

With the tantalizing aroma of sautéed onions and leeks lingering in the air, Waiel Majid sits down for a quick chat between his cooking chores. The softened greens he just prepared will be later mixed with sheep’s feta, enrobed in filo and transformed into a creamy and crunchy boreka appetizer.

Majid immediately shatters the classic image of a chef learning his skills at his mother’s knee. “My mother was a terrible cook,” he admits. “I was the youngest of nine children, and by the time I was born, she was bored with cooking for so many kids and went back to school to become a teacher, so she didn’t have much time.” Growing up in Baqubah, Iraq, a fertile, riverside area known for its citrus fruits, pomegranates and figs, Majid says, “It was natural to eat from the bounty of my family’s garden. In summer, we grew cucumbers, green beans, lettuce, tomatoes, eggplant and squash right on the riverbank.”

“I taught myself to cook so I could eat,” he adds with his characteristic deadpan delivery. Inspired by his daily job collecting bread from the village baker, at age nine, Majid built his own clay oven in the backyard to bake bread and cookies.

After high school, Majid had an opportunity to come to the U.S. for training to become a pilot.  These aviation skills were needed to fight a special war — a war against swarms of locusts that could destroy an entire field of vegetables in an hour. To save their local crops, the Iraqi Department of Agriculture recruited a group of physically fit young men to travel to Oakland, California and train to become crop dusters.

When he arrived in California in 1977, Majid spoke only Arabic, but his aviation school offered English courses to its international students. “I also got an American girlfriend to learn to speak better,” he says with the hint of a grin.

American food presented many surprises. “I was amazed that Jack in the Box was open 24 hours,” says Majid. “And one Thanksgiving, with all the families of my friends’ girlfriends, we went to five dinners of turkey and pumpkin pie.”

After graduating from aviation school, he traveled back to Iraq and assumed he would start dusting date palms. But Majid discovered that the aviation training the government had sponsored seemed in actuality to be preparation for the war with Iran. He decided to leave the country, and, saying he was going to visit a friend in London, came back to California instead. He heard later that several of his classmates ended up using their aviation skills to transport wounded soldiers, weapons and supplies for the war.

After training in aerospace mechanics, Majid worked for 15 years in California making booster rockets for the Space Shuttle. “When the company folded, 17 years ago, I decided to open a restaurant with a couple of partners in a vacant space on Shattuck Avenue that used to be a Peruvian restaurant,” Majid said. [This first incarnation was called Europa.] “Everyone thought I was crazy. Open a restaurant in Berkeley? With no experience? I didn’t care. I loved to cook.”

Zatar's mezza sampler. Photo: Anna Mindess

Zatar’s mezza sampler. Photo: Anna Mindess

An anthropology major who also grew up cooking from her garden, Kelly came in to try out Europa before her planned move to Texas to continue her studies. She loved the food Waiel prepared and later responded to a “Help Wanted” sign. A vegetarian for 15 years, all it took was one taste of Waiel’s leg of lamb for her to begin eating meat again and drop her Texas travel plans.

With seven years of restaurant experience at Europa, Waiel and Kelly decided to take it over and reincarnate it as Zatar, named for the traditional and ubiquitous spice blend of dried herbs and sesame seeds. One big change they instituted was a switch to organic, local, seasonal produce and all-natural meats.

Their richly colored dining room has only 30 seats, including two romantic window seats set with crimson pillows. Kelly and Waiel covered the old Formica tables with bold Portuguese tiles, hung up hand-beaded lamps from Damascus and decorated the walls with ceramic platters, mostly souvenirs from their trips to Italy, Spain, Morocco and Syria.

colorful plates decorate Zatar's walls. Photo: Anna Mindess

colorful plates decorate Zatar’s walls. Photo: Anna Mindess

Waiel and Kelly do all the cooking themselves, preparing everything from scratch, such as their organic yogurt. In the dining room, Kelly serves handsome platters festooned with edible flowers and piled with produce from their half-acre organic garden, which includes more than 50 mature fruit trees and a plethora of vegetables, herbs and salad greens harvested daily for Zatar’s kitchen.

Kelly admits that she and Waiel do not have training in business or PR, just a love of gardening and cooking. She recalls an evening 15 years ago when an excited diner called her over. “Where did you get this carrot?” the woman exclaimed, “Oh my God, I’ve never tasted a carrot like this.” When Kelly informed her it was from their own organic garden, the woman told her, “You must put that information on the menu!”

Zatar’s menu offers a medley of small plates to start. The mezza sampler (above) shows off their house-made hummus, lebna (yogurt cheese) and mohamara, a pomegranate, walnut and red pepper spread. Salads feature butter lettuce and mixed greens from their garden.

Kabob feast for two features veggies from the garden. Photo: Anna Mindess

Kabob feast for two features veggies from the garden. Photo: Anna Mindess

The kabob feast for two lets you sample tender leg of lamb, moist chicken and flavorful kefta (spiced ground lamb with shallots) over rice. The plate is adorned with a bounty of their grilled, garden-fresh veggies—sweet carrots, crunchy peas and beans, and a parsnip that melts in your mouth. Other dishes include warm lamb dolmas, grilled calamari and a fish tagine. Lunches feature grilled lavash sandwiches and falafel that is crispy on the outside and bright green on the inside, loaded with fresh herbs. Drinks extend the Mediterranean mood, with house-made lemonade with spearmint, tamarind with rosewater and lemon, and traditional Lebanese jalab (date syrup with rose water). Their wine list focuses on handcrafted, small-production, and sustainable family-owned wineries.

To allow the Majids family-time with their two young children, they have recently adjusted their restaurant’s schedule. In addition, they will be closed  for the month of July, during which time they will focus on writing a cookbook that incorporates recipes, gardening tips and stories from the last 17 years.

Zatar Restaurant, 1981 Shattuck Ave. Berkeley, CA, Tel: 510-841-1981. Summer hours through the end of June: Lunch: Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Friday and Saturday 5:30-9:30 p.m. Regular hours (resuming in August): Lunch: Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner: Friday and Saturday 5:30-9:30 p.m. Note: Zatar does not take credit cards, but happily accepts local checks or cash. Check Zatar’s Facebook page for updates. Special events are sometimes held on Thursdays and Sundays, and Zatar is always available for catering and private parties.

A version of this article first appeared on Berkeleyside NOSH, June 18, 2013

Posted in Immigrants' stories, Lebanese food, Middle Eastern Food, Morocco | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment