Where’s the Beef? At Maru’s in Ishigaki


If you’ve ever had true Japanese beef, just watching – or even listening to a few seconds of the video above will make your mouth water! Like Pavlov’s dogs, it simply can’t be helped. The beef is every bit that good. Sure Kobe beef is a household name known around the world, but what is it about Japanese beef that makes it so expensive…and so damn tasty?

Club Med Ishigaki 2015, Maru Anniversary Dinner, tabletop feast WM

We recently had the pleasure of stuffing ourselves silly with Ishigaki beef for our 4th wedding anniversary, celebrated during a stay at Club Med on that Ryukyuan island. Taking a long and expensive taxi ride into town to a restaurant we ate at during a previous visit in 2014, Maru is a place that you can smell long before you see. Walking through the front door, we were greeted loudly by an obnoxious “mooooooooooooooooo,” broadcast in concert to the closing of the door. Checking in for our reservation, we proceeded to order a full sampling of the moo-cow’s finer cuts, with vegetables, rice and a large salad to serve as sides.

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Wagyu, as Japanese beef cattle are called, is a compound word made up of wa (“Japan”) and gyu (“cow”). Although most Americans know Kobe in terms of beef, what you may not realize is that Kobe is only one type of wagyu found throughout Japan. And most of the others are every bit as tasty, some much less expensive.

But what makes Japanese beef so dang delicious? It’s due in large part to the white marbled fat in the meat known as sashi in Japanese, the beef’s most prized aspect. In fact, cattle farmers spare no expense to help create intense patterns of fat that make the meat literally melt in your mouth. In Japan, wagyu beef is graded based almost entirely on the dispersion and amount of sashi present.

maru steak

As a point of comparison, what sets Japanese beef apart from that found in American is the amount of fat found in the meat. For example, prime beef in the United States only needs 6-8% fat to qualify for the highest USDA grade possible. In Japan, however, in order to be graded the highest quality ranking for wagyu (which is “A5”), the meat must have at least 25% marbled fat! And guess what? The sashi found in Japanese beef is primarily the monounsaturated kind, a “good” kind of fat which can actually lower “bad” levels of cholesterol in human blood. So eating Japanese beef is not just delectable, it can actually be…healthy (wink). The marbled fat results in a tenderness that, when cooked, is much like butter, resulting in an amazing flavor and mouthfeel like no other form of beef. The fat literally melts in the heat of the mouth and doesn’t linger. And even though it’s the most tender form of beef on the planet, wagyu retains a rich, meaty mouth feel.

Club Med Ishigaki 2015, Maru Anniversary Dinner, happy couple WM

We got lucky this time at Maru, at least after politely rejecting our initial waiter who was rather curt and spoke little English. Fortunately, there was another man who both spoke good English and was entirely personable, two qualities needed for an enjoyable anniversary dinner. Although the restaurant was sold out of a number of cuts and menu items, on our waiter’s recommendation, the food and beer started flowing.

Club Med Ishigaki 2015, Maru Anniversary Dinner, signage WM

Japanese cattle farmers take great care of their animals. Their cows are fed only the highest quality grains, mixed and blended with additives that each farmer holds as a close trade secret. The animals usually only drink local mineral water, all to help ensure the best quality meat results. Farmers are known to feed their cattle beer and sometimes sake to help fatten them up, and also brush and rub sake on their cows by hand in order to better distribute marbling and keep lice and ticks away.

Mura, a corner restaurant hidden away in a residential neighborhood

Mura, a corner restaurant hidden away in a residential neighborhood

Kobe beef comes from cows raised, fed, and slaughtered in Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture, where Kobe City is located. In America we now have “Kobe-style” beef, meat which comes from wagyu cattle transplanted and raised in the US. While much more inexpensive than that found in Japan, it is much higher in quality than say, American Angus beef, but it doesn’t even begin to compare with the real Far East thang. Why? Shortcuts are taken in American to help contain cost. As you might imagine, the cattle feed in America is of much lower quality, and the personalized attention for individual cows just doesn’t happen under corporate farming in America.

But some of the Kobe beef actually comes from Okinawa Prefecture, at least indirectly. In the southern stretches of the Ryukyu Islands lies Ishigaki Island, where Ishigaki gyu (“beef”) originates. On the island at any one time are about 35,000 head of Japanese “Black Cattle.” Ishigaki, with a year-round warm climate, provides an expansive and always lush grassland perfect for breeding and raising wagyu. Calves born and raised there are often exported throughout Japan, where they mature and become each area’s prized beef, such as that found in Kobe. In fact, only a limited amount of calves (~20%) are kept on Ishigaki to be matured, making Ishigaki beef somewhat rare and high-priced.

Club Med Ishigaki 2015, Maru Anniversary Dinner, contemporary interior WM

Maru is, from just about what everyone says, one of the best places to find Ishigaki gyu. The popular and locally famous eatery serves up delectable beef that you cook at your table yakiniku (“grilled meat”) style, with a little help from their friendly staff. Using a mini gas-fired barbeque grill in the center of the table, fresh cuts of meat and crispy vegetables are all cooked exactly to order, by you! One problem with East meets West at Maru is that the menu is not available in English, and very few of the waiters speak English.

Today's Specials!

Today’s Specials!

The prime cuts of Ishigaki beef take center stage at Maru, but there many other choices available. Since the servings are generally small, multiple items can be ordered and shared tapas style. Fillets, rib and sirloin cuts of meat top the menu in price, but diners can also sample beef tongue, beef shoulder, offal, beef sashimi, and yukke – raw beef topped with egg yolk. Maru also has a popular nabe (Japanese hotpot), a soup-like mixture of vegetables, tofu, beef broth and some meat.

Club Med Ishigaki 2015, Maru Anniversary Dinner, peaceful couple WM

Maru’s interior is eclectic, to say the least. Brightly colored art, featuring deep reds and dark blacks adorns the walls, giving the place a very contemporary feel. One of the best parts of any visit is the “Mooooooooo” cow call which greets each diner as they open the front door! Located only about a five-minute walk from downtown makes it a popular place for a meal, even if it can be hard to find. Maru is so fashionable, though, that any taxi driver will know its location.

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Maru is ever bit worth a visit. Hard on your wallet but easy on your taste buds, Japanese beef must be sampled to be truly appreciated. A map to the restaurant can come in handy, and their website is available, if only in Japanese. Likewise, they have an active presence on Facebook, in Japanese as well. Find them at 26-4 Tonoshiro, Ishigaki 907-0004, Okinawa Prefecture, and ring them at +81 980-82-0030.

Maru Map

“Live Fish Bowl Prime:” Gourmet Food at a Japanese Ryokan


Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, live fish bowl prime WM

“Live Fish Bowl Prime.” Sure, it sounds like an obscure faddish cartoon shown on Adult Swim back in the 1990s. Or at least it should’ve been.  But it turned out to be a machine translation (Google Translate via iPhone) of an item on Jody’s Japanese menu during dinner our first night at a high-end ryokan on Miyajima.

This is What it Meant!

This is What it Meant!

“What on earth does that mean?!” I asked Jody, laughing at how much technology fails a simple translation. “Who knows!” she responded with an anticipating smile, staring at her phone.

Individualized Menus, for Him and Her

Individualized Menus, for Him and Her

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, personalized menu 2 WMOur menu was personalized each night, it’s approval demonstrated by the han-stamp of the resident chef of the ryokan. The dinners were all served as 12-course meals, each choice indicated on the menu with a distinct line of Japanese. We attempted to translate each one, course by course. But as you might guess, something often gets lost in translation. Some of our favorite translations, besides “live fish bowl prime,” include “Hiroshima cow” and “fried bird”….  Or the one shown below.

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, the problem with machine translation WM

Concrete Soup. Yummy. Luckily it was MUCH better than it sounded…at least in English.

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, afternoon tea in our tatami room WMA ryokan (旅館) or “inn” is a type of traditional Japanese lodge that originated beginning back in the 17th century, maturing as today’s concept in the late 19th century. Originally serving travelers along Japan’s foot and horse paths, they now serve modern tourists at major sites throughout Japan. Typical features include tatami-matted rooms, communal hot spring baths, in-room personalized dining, and public areas where visitors may relax and socialize.

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, welcome to Miyajima

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, outdoor private onsen bath WMWe stayed in a ridiculously priced ryokan, the Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto in the resort location of Miyajima, a famous island retreat on the outskirts of Hiroshima. We were there celebrating, although at the time, we still didn’t know what we were celebrating. You can read more about that rather confusing situation is Commander, United States Navy, Arriving!  But in short, we booked one of the most expensive rooms in an already expensive lodge in honor of either Jody’s retirement, or her promotion.  Neither had happened yet.

Our Main Tatami Room, set for Tea

Our Main Tatami Room, set for Tea

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, flirting with the floating Torii WMRyokan are becoming more difficult to find within Japanese urban centers as mainstream and modern hotels are offering more at a much more affordable price-point. They have, however, have found their modern niche by catering to tourists with deep pockets, and are usually concentrated in scenic areas, exactly like Miyajima where we vacationed prior to moving on to Hiroshima proper.

View of the Setting Sun and Floating Torii from our Room

View of the Setting Sun and Floating Torii from our Room

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, sunset from our room 4 WMMiyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine,_6894Ryokan guest rooms are styled in traditional Japanese: tatami floors, sliding wooden doors, and rice-paper accented privacy screens. Most ryokan feature common bathing areas segregated by gender, using the water from a nearby hot spring (onsen). Higher-end inns provide private bathing facilities. These Japanese inns also provide yukata for guests to wear, and geta (wooden sandals) are available at exits for strolls outside.

Our Private Outdoor Onsen-Fed Soaking Tub

Our Private Outdoor Onsen-Fed Soaking Tub

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, Kevin playing the Japanese part 2Based on a number of reviews, we selected room 502 of the Arimoto Hotel, a very large corner room on the top floor of the ryokan, featuring sunset views of Miyajima’s famous “floating Torii,” as well as private outdoor hot-spring fed bathing and personalized in-room dining.  Check out the hotel’s website; our room is featured as the inn’s “Guest of Honor” billeting, and is also featured in a bridal shoot.  I must admit that it does serve as a fabulous setting to accent the beauty of a beaming bride, certainly more so than it does for my cheesy Japanese peace pose below.

Me Modeling (poorly) Japanese Yukata

Me Modeling (poorly) Japanese Yukata

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, Jody's fish bowl WMYukata (浴衣 literal “bath clothes”), are casual Japanese garments, sometimes referred to as a summer kimono, worn by men and women. Designed for hot weather, they are unlined and often made of cotton. As with kimono, the general rule is that younger women (and kids) wear bright, vivid colors and bold patterns, while older people wear dark, matured colors and dull patterns. Men in general wear solid dark colors. Yukata are staple wear during a stay at ryokan, commonly seen throughout the establishments. I rather enjoyed my own interpretation of their wear!

Yukata Ready-to-Wear and Me Ready for Dinner

Yukata Ready-to-Wear and Me Ready for Dinner

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, fresh fish WMI initially wore the yukata to and from our private balcony bath fed by the resort’s on-site hot-spring. The deep-soak tub was set to offer 180 degree views of the setting sun over Miyajima’s western shore. But since there was really no way for anyone to be a voyeur of our bathing habits, I quickly did away with any clothing at all. The yukata was, however, very comfortable to wear for dinner after a long afternoon soak to soothe achy muscles from the day’s adventures.

Our Dining Room

Our Dining Room

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, Jody and her Live Fishbowl Prime!The main tatami room serves three important functions: dining, tea and for sleep. Breakfast and dinner are served there, with tea service in the afternoon. But at night, tables and floor chairs and hidden away and lush futon bedding is spread out directly on the tatami floor, where ample pillows, sheets and blankets are provided for a deep, restful sleep after a day of hiking around Miyajima.

Our Bedroom (yes it is the same room)

Our Bedroom (yes it is the same room)

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, tabletop shabu-shabu WMMiyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, Japanese place setting WMRyokan stays include dinner and breakfast, and most guests take their meals in their room. Meals are central to a ryokan stay: the price and ratings of inns are heavily based on the quality of their food. Traditional Japanese cuisine called kaiseki, a meal consisting of a number of small, varied dishes, is featured, which includes seasonal and regional specialties. The meals are tailored and cooked to order, and service times are selected by the guests daily.

Can you Spot the Fried Lotus - YUMMY!

Can you Spot the Fried Lotus – YUMMY!

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, meat and veg WMMiyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, beautiful salad WMWhile we got off to a rough start with the ryokan staff, due mainly to some of our specific dietary requests and the lack of English-speaking staff, we came to thoroughly enjoy our in-room meal service. Dinner was unrushed and personal, served by a private waitress, course by course, and lasted anywhere from two to three hours. We had the opportunity to enjoy some local Hiroshima wine while Jody tried quite a few new fish dishes, as I focused my meals more and more on the local high-quality and perfectly delicious Hiroshima beef…with some pork and chicken thrown in as well.  Lucky for us, after the first night of only machine translation of our meal, a waitress called “Emmy” was placed with us, who having spent 8 years in England spoke quite good English, even if it was more aligned to the Queen’s.  She actually stayed an extra day to help us in our culinary adventures as she was moving on to a 9-monht contract job on an Italian cruise ship as a hairdresser.

Stone-Grilling Fresh Hiroshima Beef - the BEST!

Stone-Grilling Fresh Hiroshima Beef – the BEST!

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, Hiroshima mussels on hot stones WMMiyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, appetizer Hiroshima beef mock sushi WMHiroshima specializes in farm-raised oysters, which were served fresh and in a multitude of ways. One of the more surprising items that Jody enjoyed was fresh stonefish, and not only was she served the delicate and sometimes poisonous meal (if prepared wrong), the fish itself took center stage in her dinner’s presentation! I can’t say it’s appearance is all that…appetizing.

Stonefish: it's a Good Thing we don't eat their Faces!

Stonefish: it’s a Good Thing we don’t eat their Faces!

Miyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, personal fish soup composite WMMiyajima 2015, Miyajima Grand Hotel Arimoto Hotel, in-room dining, Conger Eel and dipping sauces WMBut the most surprising course was a small covered dish of fresh seafood destined to be steamed tableside during dinner. Just after being placed on the table, the dish made a loud knocking sound, quite to our collective surprise. Our waitress, as curious as we were about the sound’s source, innocently lifted the dish’s top. And out flopped a large, live shrimp! We jumped back a bit as the crustacean made good attempt to escape, which our waitress was all too happy to block. Trapped back in its ceramic cell, the dish was placed on a flame for steaming, and no other sound was heard…until Jody’s coos upon eating the poor crustacean.

The Offending Prawn, Embarrassed about it's Behavior and Turned Red

The Offending Prawn, Embarrassed about it’s Behavior and Turned Red

But was it worth truly worth the expense? In terms of such an important celebration, sure it was! Spending money on treasured experiences is never a bad thing. Enjoying “live fish bowl prime,” the premium fresh seafood served to us during our ryokan stay:  priceless!

Miyajima 2015, Itsukushima Shrine, peaceful day on the waterfront WM

See Miyjima Grand Arimoto Ryokan for more photos of our stay!

 

As You Like: Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima


 

Okonomiyaki are really more like really thin pancakes….

“Nagata-ya,” said the tiny female valet as she tapped a map she was marking for us. We were checking into the ANA Crowne Plaza in Hiroshima and were asking about where to get the savory Japanese pancake for which that prefecture is so famous. This woman, all 5’2” high and 42 kilos strong, then proceeded to drag all four of our bags to our room…without using a luggage cart. We could barely handle two of our overstuffed, overweight and oversized American suitcases.

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, delicious concoction! WM

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, uses for related utensilsOur appetites, however, were no match for the oversized okonomiyaki (お好み焼き, pronounced “Oh-kono-me-ya-key”) served through Hiroshima. Often called a Japanese pancake, they are really more a crepe. In any case, the thinness of the dough simply serves as the foundation for oh so much more. “Okonomi” in Japanese means “as you like,” referring to the many permutations of ingredients from which a diner can choose to pile onto their grilled (“yaki”) goodness. The delicacy is most popular in Kansai (Osaka, Kyoto) or Hiroshima areas of Japan, but can be found throughout, including in Okinawa. The biggest regional differences are in the toppings and batter used, along with how they are arranged during cooking.

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, Nagata-Ya Hiroshima Style WM

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, ideas on how to eatWe had passed Nagata-ya the day before happily by accident, and decided to stop by on Saturday after enjoying Hiroshima’s peace park and museum. There was no line late Friday afternoon, but when we returned on Saturday about 3pm, there was a line stretching down the street in front of the store. We decided to stick it out, and ended up waiting probably about 20 minutes. The staff however, like in most of Japan, were amazingly and happily efficient, taking orders outside on electronic keypads, which were then transmitted wirelessly directly back to the kitchen. By the time we sat down at the grill-side counter, our okonomiyaki creation had already been started.

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, menu WM

Okonomiyaki became very popular during WWII when rice was in very short supply. Due to the lack of other ingredients, a simpler version was made with more readily available fixings. Suffering harsh wartime conditions, the freshly grilled and hot wheat pancake was nutritious, filling, and inexpensive, all at the same time.

The Line at Nagata-ya's

The Line at Nagata-ya’s

Hiroshima 2015, Peace Memorial Park, Jody night portrait with the A-DomeOsaka-style okonomiyaki mixes all the constituent ingredients, including shredded cabbage, egg, green onion and usually some type of protein, into the batter before grilling. The okonomiyaki in Hiroshima uses very similar elements, the biggest differences being that they are layered on top of the grilled batter rather than mixed within, and include a layer of noodles (soba or udon), and are often topped with a fried egg.

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, grilled deliciousness WM

I am a huge fan of udon (my favorite soup in the whole wide world), so we elected for this starchy layer over soba. Looking up and down the grill, however, showed that we seemed to have made a faux pas of sorts: our order was the only one involving the pasta-like noodles. Seriously though, I think okonomiyaki would be better with soba. Nagata-ya offers a “jumbo” coke, and for once, Japan finally served an American-worthy sized soda!

Yes, ours is the only one with udon....

Yes, ours is the only one with udon….

What results is a meal about the size of a dinner plate, and the thickness of the deepest dish pizza you can imagine. It was impossible for me and Jody to imagine eating one each, so we ordered one to share, a move that seemed to surprise our waitress to some extent.

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, busy line chefs 2 WM

Part of the rather unique flavor of this Japanese culinary specialty comes from okonomi sauce that is brushed on during grilling. This glaze is best described as one part steak sauce, two parts BBQ, and one part tonkatsu sauce. Eating the okonomiyaki I was unsure that I really liked the sauce, and now weeks later, I still remain undecided. Although peculiar, it certainly didn’t stop me from devouring my portion of the savory pancake!

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, cooked to order WM

In Okinawa, okonomiyaki is called hirayachi (ヒラヤーチー) and is much simpler, using less components than those described above from other areas of Japan. However, Okinawans enjoy this dish mostly at home and cooked at home, so there are very few okonomiyaki restaurants in Okinawa. We have found one (and only one) since our trip to Hiroshima, but haven’t found a way or place to partake of the Ryukyuan version.

Hiroshima 2015, Okonomiyaki, hungry Jody WM

Yes, Japan is known for sushi, sashimi and even Kobe beef. But Okonomiyaki too is a uniquely, if much less known distinctive Japanese dish, and should be included as part of any culinary adventure to this corner of the Far East. Seek it out, whether you find yourself in Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto. But in Hiroshima, seek out Nagata-ya’s. You and your oversized American appetite will not be disappointed.  But more importantly, you won’t be afraid to admit how much you really love these really thin pancakes!

Cutting into our very own fresh Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki

Cutting into our very own fresh Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki

 

For More Information:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okonomiyaki

http://japanesefood.about.com/od/holidaytraditionalfood/r/hirookonomiyaki.htm

http://nagataya-okonomi.com/en/shop.html

Cambodian Food & Friends


18464649729_6dfe7baf29_b“This is perfect,” Jody smiled B-I-G big as she realized how intriguing our dining experience for the evening would be. “What a wonderful idea and cause!”

After having so many problems with our Cambodian tour company’s restaurant selections in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh during our recent travels, this one – Romdeng hit our desired mark: an upscale dining experience set in a beautiful colonial mansion surrounded by a pool-side garden located deep in the hectic heart of Phnom Penh…

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…but one which offered a culinary adventure where diners could not just eat, but could eat proudly and ethically.

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You see, Romdeng is a training restaurant, where homeless, orphans, and otherwise disenfranchised young people are given a chance for a new life with a much more secure future. Cambodia is in dire need of such programs; just 40 years ago, while the country was still reeling from the detrimental effects of the Vietnam war, the Khmer Rouge (which I will be blogging about at length – stay tuned) came to power and purged the country’s cities of all people, murdered all those with higher educations, professions, and even poor eyesight, and in doing so in a little over three years, managed to kill about one out of every three people then alive in Cambodia, reverting what remained to an agrarian-bases stone age. It will take many generations to recover from such widespread devastation of such depth; such restaurants serve a critical role in the country’s current recovery.

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And Romdeng is part of re-establishing Cambodian’s people and their professions. The staff are dressed in two different colored shifts, clearly labeled (in English) whether they are trainees or teachers. The Teachers are all graduates of the program, one which lasts a year or more during which much more than just professional training is offered. The trainees all do internships in the kitchen, at the bar, and in serving food. But they are also provided educational classes in the basics, and are given room and board for the duration. Needless to say, there is a lot of pride among the staff trainers, and likewise, much to learn for the young but energetic students.

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The restaurant’s interior is outfitted with locally produced furniture and décor, including silk from a local sewing vocational school and paintings from a local artistry training center. The eclectic gift shop sells a wide array of branded merchandise whose sales provide additional support to these training centers. Romdeng sources all of its ingredients used in their dishes from local farmers and purifies their own local water. The establishment and its rehabilitative social outreach are all run by Mith Samlanh, who has worked tirelessly to build and provide futures to former street children and marginalized young people throughout Phnom Penh since 1994.

Fried Tarantula at Romdeng

Fried Tarantula at Romdeng

Romdeng offers a true taste of Cambodia cuisine, serving authentic Khmer foods that range from almost forgotten recipes from rural provinces to contemporary creative Khmer cuisine. The adventurous can also try one of Cambodia’s most popular snacks: fried tarantula. I, however, did not.

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Because we had our meals built into our tour itinerary, we weren’t able to sample many of the foods available, but instead were held to a “set” menu. For starters, we had crunchy yet savory pork and pumpkin laap with fresh local herbs. This was followed by Cambodia style chicken and straw mushroom soup, seasoned with preserved lime. Our main was delicious beef fillet sautéed with galangal and lemongrass, two of the main ingredients used in Khmer cooking, of course served with fresh steamed Jasmine rice. And dessert was nothing overly complex, and nor does it have to be in the Asian tropics where fruits are overly ripe and plentiful: Khmer style assorted fruits accented with a touch of heat provided by a dusting of chili salt.

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Romdeng is also just one eatery in a network called TREE, a global alliance of Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) training restaurants offering high quality standards of practice in such social enterprises. TREE restaurants are based upon a highly successful model which provides enhanced customer satisfaction through direct involvement in social engineering, but also enhanced sustainability through the use and reuse of local resources, produced by locals themselves. All profits from TREE restaurants are reinvested in the social programs which support their students during their long and often difficult journeys in becoming skilled, productive and happier people facing a much more secure future than their pasts would belie or allow.

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Romdeng is 0pen every day 11am – 10:30pm (kitchen closes at 9.30pm), and is located at #74 St 174, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. They can be contacted by ringing (855) 92 219 565, or emailing E contact@romdeng-restaurant.org. Reservations are accepted and encouraged. Find them on Facebook as well!

Farm Fresh Fruit: Strawberry Picking on Okinawa


Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, strawberries and smiles WM

Got a hankering for strawberries? Well, you could easily run over to the commissary and buy a package of the oversized waxed fruit that we’ve come to expect, shipped from somewhere distant overseas at a premium price. Alternatively, you could get your strawberries at any supermarket on Okinawa, which are far superior to those available on base in color, size, and taste. But, the farm-fresh strawberries picked by hand at Okinawa ichigo (Japanese for “strawberry”) farms are made oh so much delectable by the fruits of your labor!

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, ripe strawberries WM

It’s strawberry season in Okinawa, and here the fruit is farm fresh – literally.

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, yummy fresh strawberries WMOkinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, rows of strawberries WMStrawberry picking in Japan is a popular activity this time of year, and strawberry farms across its many islands offer opportunities for highly coveted all-you-can-eat visits. On Okinawa strawberries have only recently been harvested starting as early as March. Traditionally, before modern housed cultivation, the season begun only in early summer. But if you want until then it’ll be too late!

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, strawberries and smiles 3 WM

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, couples' greenhouse selfie 2 WMOkinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, a couple of fresh strawberries WMJody and I had an Okinawan friend help make our reservations – they are highly encouraged, and most places require one in order to enjoy their berries. We selected a farm up in the middle of the island, well away from the urban sprawl that seems to infect most of the southern reaches of Okinawa. We left early enough to ensure at least an on-time arrival, but ended up about 15 minutes early. But even then, the first groups of the 1100 picking hour were already being led into one of the large, plastic-draped greenhouse.

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, strawberry fields forever WM

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, private greenhouse WMOkinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, Kevin likes strawberries WMStrawberry farming is relatively new to Ginoza, starting only about the last decade. Okinawa’s harsh high heat and humidity is hard on the fruit, and strong summer typhoons and winter storms can easily damage the fragile plants. But greenhouses have changed all that. The farms on Okinawa cultivate the berries in greenhouses, which makes variations and swings in climate and temperature a thing of the past. The well-sheltered greenhouses additionally offer protection from strong winds, birds, and insects.

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, countryside greenhouses 2 WM

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, sweet reception WMOkinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, couples' greenhouse selfie WMJody and I found the registration desk, and after finding our names on the farm’s list – easy to find when you are the only English on a whole page of Japanese – we were led to a 2nd greenhouse (out of the 5 or 6 available) just opened with two Okinawan women, one of which turned out to work on-base and became our impromptu translator for the rest of the day.

Our nearly private greenhouse!

Our nearly private greenhouse!

Lessons

Lessons

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, butterfly pollenator WMOkinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, ketchup and jams for sale WMThere, in our nearly private but massive greenhouse full of strawberry bushes, we were given a quick lesson in picking and eating. Remember, there is etiquette for everything in Japan! Then, with plastic cups in hand for the berries’ inedible tops, we were turned loose for the next 40 minutes to wander and wonder, all the while stuffing our faces with the seeded red deliciousness.

Elevated Cultivation is the Way to Go!

Elevated Cultivation is the Way to Go!

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, kids in the greenhouse WMOkinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, kids hunting for berries WMWithin the greenhouses, there are two major methods of cultivation: elevated and ground level. In the elevated approach, the crop is planted in waste-high planters that offer a few major advantages over in-ground growth. This tactic keeps the berries off the ground so that there is almost no spoilage, but equally as important, it’s easy on the lower back as no squatting or bending over is required to enjoy the fruits of your labor! Plus the ground is completely covered so there’s no worry about mud or dirtying your footwear.

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, beautiful fresh strawberry WM

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, picking strawberries WMOkinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, delicious fresh strawberries WMStrawberries on Okinawa are different from those found in the more northern reaches of Japan. Because the sun’s ultraviolet rays are so much stronger here, the berries grown on Okinawa take on a deeper red and develop a richer, sweeter taste. Strawberry farms, such as the Ginozason Agricultural Successors Training Center which Jody and I visited, are extremely busy in the spring, especially during the weekends. But if you confirm your reservation early, the farms in Ginoza will provide your money’s worth, not just of farm-fresh strawberries, but of the overall experience.

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, strawberries and smiles 2 WM

Be sure to dress in layers; although Okinawa can still offer chilly early morning breezes, the houses will warm and with some humidity. Oh, and be sure to use the facilities before you start; strawberries are mostly water after all, and forty minutes is a long time….

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, cup of fresh strawberries WM

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, beautiful fresh strawberry 3 WMOkinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, beautiful fresh strawberry 2 WMWhile the large plump berries will tempt you and seem to be the obvious choice, Jody and I found that the smaller, redder berries offered the most sweetness. And since the strawberries here are grown completely organically, they are eaten directly off the bush. No need to worry about chemicals, dirt, or insects. Morning is the best time to pick strawberries when they are chilled and well-hydrated from resting overnight. Jody and I both agree that these are the best strawberries we’ve ever had. While I usually have to add sugar to most berries in order to really enjoy them, the small sweet variety here explode in your mouth in a cascade of full flavor and almost crunchy texture.

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, peaceful delicious strawberries WM

Strawberry picking is not to be missed and costs around 1,500 yen ($15) per person, but the prices vary from farm to farm. Most offer all-you-can-eat visits for 30 or 40 minutes, and few offer take-away options based on weight. The details of the facility we visited can be found below.

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, couple of strawberries selfie WM

Ginozason Agricultural Successor Training Center

Prices

Prices

Okinawa Apr 2015, Strawberry Picking, countryside greenhouses 3 WMOffering elevated cultivation, the center is open late January to May, with generally three rounds of all-you-can-eat picking for 40 minutes at a time. 1,300 yen ($12) elementary students 900 yen, preschoolers 600 yen. Reservations are required; call 098-968-5102 for more information or see them online at ginoza-ichigo.net. Sorry, the website is Japanese only!

The farm, along with nearby “Ginoza Strawberry Farm” is easy to find. Take the Okinawa Expressway north to Interchange No. 9 (IC Ginoza), and follow the exit ramp past the tollbooth to your first left. After making the turn you’ll come to a large baseball park and stadium. Here you’ll see signs featuring strawberries along the road directing you to the farm area, which requires a few twists and turns along back country roads. Once you’re close, parking is along the roads wherever you can find it.

Finished!

Finished!

See more strawberry picking photos here in my Flickr Photostream.

Best Burger in the Far East? Malone’s Made in China


 

Malone's Pub-Like Storefront

Malone’s Pub-Like Storefront

There’s a problem with finding a good hamburger in Asian. They just don’t get it here. I’m not sure if it’s because they don’t have ‘Merican beef, or they are just philosophically opposed to ‘Merican mimicry. What is served as a burger is really just, well, meatloaf, referred to as “hamburg” throughout Japan. Read McDonald’s Can Kiss My Ass for more concerning this particular affliction for which there seems to be no inoculation. Until finding Café Captain Kangaroo this past weekend in the northern reaches of Okinawa with their fabulous array of deliciously hand-crafted burgers, the best beef patty with the usual accoutrements we had the pleasure of devouring was…

Made in China.

tongren2

At Malone’s, in Shanghai, to be exact. Described as an “American Café,” Malone’s is home to one of the most extensive burger menus in that far-eastern Asian metropolis. Located conveniently close to a few Western embassies and consulates right in the middle of the Tongren Lu district of Shanghai just around the corner from the Shanghai Center, Malone’s has been described – note the past tense – as “packed with expats and the out-of-town business crowd.” The three-story establishment used to offer differing venues, where a Filipino cover band used to play on the 2nd floor most nights, and the 3rd floor “Loft” offered a respite from the hustle and bustle of city life. The extensive bar and the outdoor seating areas hinted at quite a maximum occupancy, but on the cold fall evening we visited, no one was sitting outside, and only about ¼ of the indoor seats were taken.

tongren3

These characterizations all share one important similarity: their tenses are all in the past. It seems that although Malone’s was at one time the place to be for Westerners visiting Shanghai, complete with an award-winning burger, today the bar/eatery is a mere shadow of its former self.

Past Awards Quite Dated

Past Awards Quite Dated

However, having arrived very late in Shanghai after traveling all afternoon and evening, Jody and I were hungry for a late dinner before bed. Our local Chinese guide, asking if we were interested in a good burger, recommended this particular place, which happened to be within walking distance from our hotel. Normally we both shy away from American food and chains traveling in Asia, but the lure and lore of a REAL burger was too much to pass up. Fifteen minutes later we were walking into Malone’s, and within another 15 and after a round of cold Chinese Tiger beers, a truly wonderful burger did arrive. It certainly didn’t take 15 to devour.

While the Atmosphere is Lacking, the Burgers are NOT!

While the Atmosphere is Lacking, the Burgers are NOT!

Malone’s opened its doors about 20 years ago as an international extension of a Vancouver, Canada-based chain of the same name. As the first western-owned and run restaurant outside of high-end hotels in the city, it was originally managed by a group of Canadian expats who wanted to bring western-style dining in a neighborhood-pub setting to Shanghai. It appears that the change in management from foreigners to locals has been a change for the worse. The bar is rather dirty, with the 2nd and 3rd floors closed during our visit. We were seated on the 2nd floor, but only after we asked about alternative seating since there were so many smokers and smoke on the first floor. The area clearly hadn’t been used, clean, or refurbished in I would guess at least a year or two. The service was okay, the beer was cold, and the food actually well above par. And all for a reasonable price. It’s unfortunately that this place has taken such a nose-dive.

Burgermondayflyer

I can still recommend the burgers at Malone’s for those that are craving a western-style meal after spending a fair amount of time flirting with mere “hamburg” in the Far East. But I wouldn’t visit the pub looking for atmosphere, music, or any type of night-life…. Read some recent thoroughly trashing reviews at SmartShanghai.com and Trip Advisor.

Map

Address:  255 Tongren Road, near Nanjing Xi Lu; 铜仁路255号, 近南京西路, Shanghai, China

Phone:  86 21 6247 2400

Website:  www.malones.com.cn

Email:  malones@malones.com.cn

METRO:  Jing’an Temple, 15 mins. walk

Hours:  Daily, 10am-2am