Now that the countdown to Christmas has turned to a mere handful of hours, we’ve officially reached the apex of that time of year when calorie counts break down and anything we’d already consider decadent is battered, fried, and topped with ice cream (aka the parallel universe known as November through January in America). I can’t tell you the amount of buttered, dipped, iced, or glazed things I’ve consumed in the past few weeks (not that I was much of a poster child for moderation before that). And so with holiday fast approaching, and my willpower at its annual low, I find myself recounting yet another chapter in the tale of The Demise of Maggie’s Cholesterol. Let’s dig in:
As my previous post discussed, one of the reasons I actually like the holiday season (inflatable lawn ornaments aside) is the emphasis on tradition. Chanukah may only be a minor festival in Judaism, but there are certain habits and rituals that my family and I use to mark the occasion, and that’s what truly makes it significant for me. This past weekend I was lucky enough to be invited to join in a tradition of my friends Laura and Steven — a day of cooking and eating Japanese food. This tradition isn’t necessarily holiday-season-bound for them, but being included at this time of year made me feel like a kid being asked up to the grownups’ table for the first time, and that table was covered in fried dumplings.
For at least as long as I’ve known them, Laura and Steven have been going to this Japanese market in White Plains called Daido. For years it was a mythical place for me, where the strange candies like Koala’s March and Pocky in Laura’s lunch bag came from, but lacking in a real geographical location. Of course, when we actually went there on Saturday I realized I’ve driven by it literally hundreds of times (in my defense, there is poor signage!). Aside from supplying unique desserts for their lunchboxes, Laura and Steven would occasionally go to Daido to pick up a hodgepodge of dumplings, croquettes, noodles and meat for their ritual fried feast. Basically, I was prepping myself for a meal at a Japanese Cracker Barrel (and if you think I’m referring to the cheese company, then you’ve never had the joy of highway rest stop chicken fried chicken, and I’m sorry for your loss).
Daido was larger than I anticipated, given the specialty markets I’ve been to in NY. While certainly no Super Stop ‘n’ Shop, Daido had enough room for 5 or 6 aisles, plus a meat, frozen, and produce section. Not to mention the small Parisienne bakery (what?) near the registers.
One of my weirder interests is my fascination with foreign fast food (much like my fascination with foreign public transit systems — you know what, the mundane stuff can tell you a lot about a culture), so if I’d had more time I would have roamed the aisles to really explore all the strange frozen meals and snacks. But we were on a mission, and the first step was procuring rice balls. I was told rice balls are to be eaten in the car immediately after checkout and before going home, as a prelude to the main event. Some eating before our eating? I am fine with that.
Despite multiple efforts on my part, I remain not a huge fan of sushi, so I was a little reluctant to dive into the rice ball world of salmon roe and seared tuna. Laura, Steven, and my friend Sarah (of Thanksgiving dessert amazingness fame) were kind enough to guide me to the tuna/mayo rice ball. Comforted by the safety of that purchase, I went out on a limb for my second rice ball and picked out kelp, an admittedly odd combination. Then Steven and Laura went off to pick out the necessities for dinner, and Sarah and I wandered the aisles as she picked up some wasabi-flavored rice crackers and I scanned the cookies. While I didn’t find any Japanese Oreo products, Sarah and I stumbled upon the terribly unfortunately named Couque D’Asses. Predictably, a quick search on the internet leads to many other bloggers with the same juvenile reactions we had, but not explanation of what these Japanese confectioners were going for. Even Google Translate just explains it as “Biscuit of Asses.” Clearly we had to buy it. I’m disappointed to report that these cookies had no clear connection to either donkeys or bottoms — it ended up just being a delicate chocolate-filled wafer cookie that tasted like a mild Milano. So I guess kudos to Pepperidge Farm for winning the “classiness” competition, simply by not trying?
Once all our comestibles were purchased, we headed back to the car to commence stage one of our day of eating: rice ball consumption. Little did I realize there is a specific procedure for prepping the ball, which Laura walked me through. First, remove the rice ball from the plastic, then carefully slide the separately packaged seaweed wrapper out (careful not to tear it), and finally, rewrap the rice ball in the seaweed. Then stuff it in your face as quickly as possible, because these things are unfairly delicious. The first few bites are mainly sticky rice, but eventually the filling in the center is revealed. The tuna/mayo was nothing special visually, but I was surprised by the kelp — it was almost a paste in consistency, as opposed to the strings of seaweed like material I thought I would be eating.
It’s hard to describe why I liked the rice balls so much, since the flavors were straightforward. The tuna/mayo tasted pretty much like the tuna sandwiches my dad would pack in my lunchbox for school, and the kelp tasted mostly of salt and “beach grit,” if that makes any sense (although oddly, I found it pretty satisfying and would get it again). Perhaps I liked it because rice balls focus on the elements of sushi I actually enjoy — the well-cooked sticky rice contrasting with the salty pucker of the seaweed wrapper. Now that I’ve tried them, I actually do want to be a bit more adventurous with my next sampling, so I need to see if there are any Daido equivalents in Manhattan.
Reasonably full of starch for the moment, we returned to Steven’s house, where the chef and sous-chef set up shop in the kitchen and the guests settled in to watch the mandatory holiday viewing of Love Actually. While awaiting the main course we tried the Couque D’Asses and an equally odd American snack — Pizzeria Combos. This was probably the third time in my life that I’ve eaten Combos, but I was floored by these. Not because of some outstanding salivary experience, but because they don’t taste like pizza — THEY TASTE LIKE A PIZZERIA. Some magical food scientists distilled the olfactory sensations of being in a pizza shop and shoved it into a pretzel crust. It was mind boggling, and makes me glad that I neglected to look at the ingredient list.
In the kitchen, Laura and Steven were contending with hot oil and boiling water as they got our dinner together. The menu consisted of an assortment of items to be refried: shrimp shumai, shrimp spring rolls, chicken and shrimp dumplings, calimari, and vegetable croquettes (okay, so not my best attempt at keeping kosher, I admit). Add to that shrimp wontons, rice, yakisoba noodles, seared tuna, and the collection of random desserts, and well, you know why I was basically in a coma for the rest of the day.
My favorite part was probably the fact that Steven has all the paraphernalia, from rice bowls to real chopsticks — not just the remnants of your takeout collection. We all sat on the floor around the living room coffee table to eat, and while I definitely felt super not Japanese, it was fun to attempt a nod to the culture of the cuisine.
Overall, while totally delicious, the meal ended up being a little heavy for me. I hate to admit it, but I think my stomach is not the steel-girded machine it used to be. My favorite dishes were the vegetable croquettes (like a hash brown with peas), and the yakisoba noodles. Mostly it was just a really wonderful day of sharing in someone else’s foodie ritual. Between Colin Firth speaking in broken Portuguese and nibbles on Koala’s March, somehow the holiday spirit snuck in, without a Christmas ornament or menorah in sight. Sometimes friends and good food is really all you need. Oh, and Hugh Grant dancing to the Pointer Sisters. That’s like, a basic requirement.
Nippan Daido, USA
522 Mamaroneck Avenue,
White Plains, NY 10605