Cats Have Nine Lives, Tuna Has Two: What is Katsuobushi?

Buy/catch/don’t steal a skipjack tuna, also known as bonito.

Gut it.

Dry it.

Ferment it.

Smoke it.

Bop it.

As long as you follow most of those steps – likely all but the last – you might be able to enjoy katsuobushi (鰹節/かつおぶし), a staple ingredient in Japanese cuisine.

Yes, if you were a student in an introductory course to the food of Japan, you, eh let’s be fair, probably already knew that fish was going to be a common theme.  But katsuobushi, or more specifically, its shavings, are key.

Larger, thicker shavings are called kezurikatsuo and combined with kelp (kombu), are vital in preparing dashi, a fish-based soup stock.  Those of a smaller, thinner variety are hanakatsuo.  These plucky condiments are frequently found crowning okonomiyaki, hiyayakko (a cold tofu dish) and takoyaki, and true to the weird title of this blog post, are reborn when in close contact with heat;  save a little for Sunday school.

Tokyo - Katsuobushi (2)

I saw this machine in Tsukiji Market in Tokyo.  What do you do with it?  Shove one of those katsuobushi bricks into it, and out comes…

Tokyo - Katsuobushi (1)

tuna shavings.  If you feel that you are lacking somewhat in upper arm strength, you could buy a katsuobushi kezuriki (鰹節削り器/かつおぶしけずりき) and do the labor yourself.  These days however it is easy enough to find the end product in Japanese/East Asian supermarkets.

How do you feel about Japanese food now?



Caracas, Venezuela’s Torre de David

My timing is not good these days.  Ah, that’s a half-truth.

Whereas the dollar went far on my recent visit to Caracas, Venezuela, the one building I wanted to visit, the Centro Financiero Confinanzas, was already been cleared of its squatters.  Since 2007 that structure, better known as Torre de David (Tower of David), had until recently joined the shortlist of buildings – alongside Ponte City in Johannesburg and Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong – more discouragingly termed vertical slums.

Construction started in 1990, with plans for multiple towers, a helipad, an atrium, and ample parking.  However, it came to be known as the Tower of David as its developer, J. David Brillembourg, died roughly around the same time an economic collapse started to occur in Venezuela, in 1994.  Thus, the subsequent developers pulled a Ryugyong Hotel and didn’t complete it, thus leaving the tower lacking elevators, some walls and utilities.

Caracas, Torre David (1)

Chávez Vive (Chávez Lives!) is written on top

In 2007, drifters started to move in, and worked together to bring water, electricity and fabricate walls so that the building turned into a much more welcoming environment.  Without elevators, a number of residents were forced to make the 20+ story trek on a daily basis, though some decided to drive their motorcycles up to their apartments.  With the Torre de David taking shape, businesses such as dentists and bodegas started opening up too so that no one ever had to leave the premises.

Caracas, Torre David (2)

Caracas, Torre David (3)

As I mentioned earlier, no tenants remained as of January 2015, and entrances to the building had been sealed.  However, if you’d like to learn more about what life was like while it was hotbed of activity, check out this video or this documentary.

So, who’s going to Airbnb this place next time?

If It’s Not Legal, It Must Be Illigal: A Very Brief Intro to North Jakarta’s Nightlife

Guilty-conscience: Feeling deep regret for something that either you have done to others or for something that has happened to others

Guilty-conscious: Going to a place like Illigals Hotel & Club in North Jakarta, Indonesia.

Jakarta, Illigals

To be fair, I’ve never actually visited that KTV (karaoke)/nightclub/hotel/obvious camera fodder for someone who knows the word illegal.  On the other hand, before its surprising demise last year, I’d go to the Stadium discotheque right nearby.  Somehow, Stadium still had a worse reputation than a place called Illigals.

Movie Locations: Slurping Ramen in “Tampopo”

Have you heard of/seen the Japanese movie Tampopo?  Directed in 1985 by Juzo Itami, it tells the fictional story of Tampopo, a female chef endeavoring to create the quintessential bowl of ramen.  In other words, if she moonlighted as a manager of dialysis centers, she’d be doing really well.  Other food-related vignettes are worked into the film too, and it remains one of my all-time favorites in any genre.

Filmed in large part in the Tokyo area, I finally decided to seek out the filming location of the titular らーめん屋 (raamen ya; ramen restaurant) last November.  Located well-off-the-beaten-path in Shibaura, the buildings in the immediate vicinity looked as if they were about to be torn down.  Better make haste and check it out!

Tokyo - Tampopo Ramenya Filming Location

Naturally, the day I went, the current occupant of the building is a restaurant called  はるみ, or Harumi.  They specialize in ホルモン やきにく (horumon yakiniku), which is to say, grilled organs.  Imagine a movie about a chef trying to grill the perfect spleen?  It would be a good double feature with Babe.

Changing Money in Caracas, Venezuela

My titles used to be more unique…give it time.  Then again, who’s going to do a search for “changing lettuce in Caracas, Venezuela?”

Since speaking directly about US dollars in that country can be taboo, they have been nicknamed lechuga verde, or green lettuce.  Let me tell you, if you are carrying greenbacks you’re already one step ahead.

Just don’t let the airport (official/ATM) exchange rate set you thousands of steps back.

I did some sleuthing before I went to Caracas for a brief few days – where to find the least hygienic arepas, top ten places to not get mugged, why are you coming to Caracas anyway – but the trickiest part by far was learning about where to change money into bolivares.  For instance, checking rates at the Embassy Suites hotel for random stays always displayed results that reached into the US$800s:

Caracas, Embassy Suites Prices

OK, so tourists who enjoy spending (wasting?) their money in Manhattan might be able to relate, but two points stood out on the website; 1) the message relating to Venezuela’s “SICAD II” exchange rate, and 2) the Advanced Purchase rate for significantly less.  Search with your usual hotel booking website and report back if you dare.

In spite of this, there are only two numbers that you should be concerned with: the airport rate, which is roughly $1= 6.3 bolivares (as of 12 January 2015) and the black market rate, which is debatable (and illegal).

I’ll regale you with a couple of photos of how much $40 can get you, first with the official rate, and then with the find-someone-willing-to-exchange rate:

Caracas - Bolivares Fuertes (1)
In total, $40 x 6.3 = 252 bolivares.  But exchange rates – in Spanish, tipo de cambio – mean nothing without references.  The public bus from the airport to Bellas Artes station downtown cost me 60 of these.  Officially, that’s about ten bucks.  Sounds steep when gasoline costs about two cents a liter.  Another example is a bottle of water in a vending machine.  I saw a price as low as 12 bolivares in airport vending machines and 7-30 bolivares downtown so wow, continuous agua purchases can definitely add up.

Or do they?

Caracas - Bolivares Fuertes (2)
Here you have what $40 buys you if you found a generous rate on the street…or in the back of a store.  Apparently, the highest black market rate is derived from trading in Colombia, Venezuela’s western border, and you can verify it at this website.  The more you are willing to sell, the better a rate you are likely to get, but even that depends on your counterpart’s mood/zest for dollars/ability at spinning yarns.  Do keep in mind that the highest denomination of bolivares is only 100, so if are used to sticking your wallet in your pocket, be creative when someone gets curious…

For now, if you are willing to take a chance and arrive in Caracas/Venezuela without a hotel reservation but with plenty of cash, you’ll save quite a lot if you don’t book somewhere online first.

Have you recently visited Caracas?

The Borojó Fruit of Ecuador

The best thing about visiting food markets is trying things that either aren’t available or aren’t available fresh in your hometown.  Case-in-point: the borojó fruit.

Quito, Santa Clara Market - Borojó

Welcome to my kitchen, everyone!  Actually…if this was my kitchen, there would be a lot more cereal and a lot less room.  And a few cans of this.  In fact, this is at the Mercado Santa Clara (Santa Clara Market) in Quito, Ecuador.

The borojó – in the photo above, the brownish brain with the spoon sticking out of it – is native to rainforests in Ecuador and Colombia in South America, and additionally grows in Panama.  Unlike rush hour commuters, it requires constant high humidity and warm temperatures.  It is custardy, sour and muy rico (very filling), though the woman making my borojó batido (shake) said that coconut milk was a good mix.  Right, because that’s not filling at all.  If she just threw in some potatoes I’d be full for the rest of the year.

In any event, the borojó contains a good deal of phosphorous – useful for your teeth, bones and much, much more, amino acids, protein, and vitamins C & B, and according to some sources (population figures or pharmacists?), is also an aphrodisiac.  In other words, considering its welcoming appearance, you’ll want to turn away from it and pick up another hobby.

Have you heard of the borojó?

Tokyo’s Shakaden: BuildingMyBento’s Mother Ship?

Azabudai, Tokyo - Reiyuukai Shakaden (3)

If I’m physically from New York, I’m incredulously from the Tokyo Shakaden (釈迦殿).

Azabudai, Tokyo - Reiyuukai Shakaden (2)

Located in Azabudai but close enough to Tokyo’s Gomorrah - also known as Roppongi, Shakaden is in fact the H.Q. of Reiyuukai (霊友会), a Buddhist sect.

Azabudai, Tokyo - Reiyuukai Shakaden (1)

Reiyuukai was established in Tokyo in 1930 by Kubo Kakutaro, though the space ship was completed in 1975.  The prefix “Shaka” refers to Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, and contrary to what you may think from first glance, the hall is not only open to the public but actually encourages visitors to learn more about Shakyamuni’s teachings.  Not to mention, free water?  Before you take advantage of their generosity, think it over and sleep on it.

An employee told me not to take photos inside.  Not that you’d want to disturb inanimate wooden statues of Buddhist icons anyway.  Plus, would you believe there’s a concert hall tucked away in there?  Weird, right?

…and to think the Shakaden doesn’t even make the list of the top 50, 000 most unusual buildings in Japan.  On second thought, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was an arcology.