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Ah yes, horse, the other red meat. You know, I’ve never understood why horse meat was off-limits in America. I mean, it’s an animal not all that dissimilar to deer or elk and we certainly have no problems eating them. Is it because we ride horses? Would you eat a cow if you rode it? I don’t know. I do know that many other places in the world do eat horse, and Japan is one of them. While it’s not a prominent animal in the extremely large, diverse, and interesting encyclopedia of animals consumed by the Japanese, it is featured in various areas where other meats might not be as readily available. As such, in places like Tokyo, there are restaurants dedicated to serving this animal on a platter rather than saddling it up for a gallop. The other night I finally got my first opportunity to enjoy the succulence of these animals when a friend of mine asked me if he could take me out for a horse. Not only is that the first time another man had ever asked me that questions, but that was a proposition I was only too happy to jump on. So, we headed out to the Ebisu district of Tokyo and headed to a place called Uma Yakiniku Takeshi. Uma is horse in Japanese, yakiniku is the style of grilling meat at your table, and Takeshi is the name of the proprietor of this establishment, he also happens to be a well-known Japanese comedian. Before I get to the food, one thing I love about Ebisu is that there are numerous interesting little izakaya’s serving up weird and exotic cuisine that you would never find unless you stumbled upon them. We ended up walking around for about 15 minutes before finding our destination.

When we sat down we were greeted with a cold glass of draft beer and some lightly pickled cucumbers with salted kombu. I’m not a big pickle or cucumber guy by any stretch of the imagination, but honestly, this wasn’t too bad at all. I even think my younger brother, he who has even stronger negative feelings toward pickled cucumbers than me, would eat this. At least he would if he was hungry enough to eat a horse.

We started off with horse tataki. Rolled in black pepper and lightly seared on all sides, this piece of meat (what part of the animal is still up for debate, but I think it’s the tenderloin) was covered with in thinly sliced onion and chopped scallions.

After a quick dip in ponzu (the horse meat, not me) here I am about to have my first taste in equestrian delights. MMMMMMMMMMMM! Honestly, it reminded me of kosher pastrami. I could throw this on some rye bread, slather on the mustard, and wash it down with a Dr Browns and be a happy man. Very delicious and surprisingly familiar to me. I had heard that horse tasted quite a bit like beef, but I think it’s a little more like bison as the muscles don’t have as much fat as cow does.

Next up was horse sashimi. Just think of this as beef carpaccio, except that it went nay instead of moo. A bit of fresh grated ginger and garlic, a splash in some tamari, and down the hatch. A little sweeter than beef, and much more tender than I expected. I can’t recall ever eating a beef carpaccio that I enjoyed as much.

Then we got the yakiniku going. The first plate had some napa cabbage, eggplant, the green part of the scallion, and, of course, some horse meat. This part of the animal comes from the belly/rib area. Think of it as thinly sliced ribeye.

Here’s our tabletop grill in full effect. I didn’t get a pic of it, but we each had a dish with three different dipping options for the grilled meat. There as a ponzu-based sauce that was my favorite, some sea salt, and some rice vinegar.

For the next cut of horse to be grilled my friend thought he’d throw me curveball, something I’d be hesitant to shove down my throat. He was wrong as it turned out to be one of the most delicious pieces of meat I’ve ever grilled yakiniku-style…the heart! I’m telling you, this was so tender and sweet, with a bit of black pepper it was heavenly! I’d jump a fence to get me some of this.

So good, the heart was (that’s my Yoda speak), that we had to get more on our next plate. Besides the heart and horse food (vegetables) this dish also had blood pipes. I don’t know if they were arteries or veins, but they were also delicious. A little rubbery, but after a few chews the clean flavor of the animal really came through. It was almost like eating thick intestines, but clean intestines. Very good indeed.

We put the grill aside after that and got a plate of horse weiner. No, not that kind of weiner, I don’t have that big of an appetite. This was a plate of weiner-style sausages. Again, a little sweet, but a very deep, rich flavor. It was also very juicy.

Our final dish was horse fried rice. With a little scrambled egg and some scallions this was a very typical fried rice, but with horse meat.

I have to say, Americans are a weird bunch. We shun so many different food items that the rest of the world consumes. As I write this blog it becomes clear to me that the reason we’ve not been exposed to things like horse as an edible creature is solely because of politics. If the beef lobby wasn’t so powerful I think we’d be eating all sorts of other animals…guinnea pig, various insects, horse, etc. It really is a delicious animal, and one that doesn’t contribute nearly as much to Climate Change as cows do. If we open our minds as well as our mouths, there’s a lot of tasty things out there we could enjoy. Mr Ed, sorry, but you are one delicious creature!

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Last night for dinner I made Japanese-style ginger pork with miso soup. The more I cook Japanese food the more I realize just how much healthier it is to American food. There is very little added fat and much more vegetable-to-meat ratio. Cooking Japanese-style food is extremely as well, not to mention delicious!

I first got my miso soup ingredients ready to go. I won’t go into great detail about making miso soup because I’ve done that a few times on this blog already. I poured about 3 cups of water into my pot and added 4 sliced shiitake, 3 chopped fingerling potatoes, 3 chopped green onions, and about 3 tablespoons of dashi soy sauce. I rinsed and soaked some salted wakame and added it to the soup at the end along with a large tablespoon of miso. The soup simmered over low while I cooked everything else, just enough time for the potatoes to cook.

For the pork I used about 3/4 pound of snap peas, 3 ounces of bean sprouts, 1/2 onion sliced, 1 inch of ginger grated, 1 garlic clove grated, 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of sake, 1 tablespoon of mirin, and 4 thin pork chops each about 3 ounces.

I mixed together the ginger, garlic, soy, sake, and mirin as the marinade. I let the pork sit in it for about 15 minutes or so. I heated up my large skillet and added about 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil and then cooked the onion for about 4 minutes. I took the onion out and rested it on a plate and then cooked the pork (reserving the marinade) for about 2-3 minutes per side. I rested the pork with the onion. I poured the marinade into the skillet to cook it down a little. I added about 4 tablespoons of water to help turn the marinade into a pan sauce and scrape up the bits from the pork, lots of flavor there you don’t want to lose.

Once the sauce had reduced a little bit, a minute or so, I added the snap peas and let them cook for about 5 minutes. After that I added the bean sprouts and the reserved onions.

I placed the pork on top, covered the skillet, and let it go for a few minutes while I mixed the miso into the soup. Then I plated it all up with some white rice. Yuki topped the rice with some ground sesame seeds.

So, we got 7 different vegetables into dinner with only 3 ounces of animal carcass. The only added fat was 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil split between 4 portions. No wonder America is a bunch of fat-asses while Japan is extremely fit and healthy.

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Alright, back to the Land of the Rising Sun. Better known as Japan. Yuki was at a gathering with a bunch of her friends one of the Saturday nights we were there last November. Instead of hanging out with her parents, whom I love to spend time with, I met up with an ex-coworker of hers that I am also friends with, Reiko-chan, who moved back to Tokyo. We decided to meet up at the Ebisu train station and then head to one of the many Izakaya in that neighborhood. Izakaya are Japanese-style bars. Much different from what we’re used to they usually have a great chef that focuses on creative small bites that match with different types of alcohol. I had done some research and found this great little Izakaya called Ippo that focused on seafood and sake, my drink of choice.

Ippo is an extremely hard place to find. We walked all over the neighborhood for about 30 minutes trying to find it. Since Reiko is Japanese, and being Japanese speaks Japanese, I left it to her to ask various retail stores for directions. No one seemed to know exactly where it was even though we had an address. About to give up and go to a different Izakaya, I turned around and noticed the big Fugu hanging in front of the door. Finally! I needed some sake!

When we sat down the bartender handed us each a couple of little starters. One was a cold pork and green bean salad, the other was a macaroni salad in a mayonnaise dressing. Nice little starters, good with either a beer or sake.

Speaking of sake, their list was over fifty long, all written in Japanese. I had no idea where to start. Luckily, one of the bartenders lived in Las Angeles for a while and spoke fluent English. He also knew that sake list off the back of his hand. There were all varieties of sake from brewers both large and small as well as from every region of Japan that produces it. I honestly can’t remember what all I drank, but throughout the night I ended up putting back 4 cups of different sake, all delicious in their own way. Some more floral, some herbal, some sweeter, all fantastic selections. When I say 4 cups I don’t mean those little sake cups we’re used to getting at sushi joints, I mean 4 12oz cups filled to the rim! Love it!

We started off with a plate of sashimi. I don’t know all of the different types, some of the communication was lost in translation, but there were two kinds of tuna and three different kinds of hamachi. I do remember that they were all fresh as can be (they get their fish every morning from the Tsukiji Market) and cut by a chef who knows how to cut a piece of fish. You can’t get sashimi that good here in Chicago.

After the sashimi we got a plate of the house specialty, Namero. It’s basically a tartare of mackerel in miso, ginger, and scallions. Mackerel is a strong-tasting fish with a lot of natural oil, but this was incredible! The miso and ginger masked the strong fishy smell and fit the flavors perfectly. I can see why this is a house specialty as it was probably the best match with sake I’ve ever had.

Then we got the Daigaku Imo, candied sweet potatoes. These were prepared different than normal though. They’re usually deep fried and then coated in a sweetened soy sauce with black sesame seeds. Here, they lightly coated them in batter that had black seseame seeds mixed in before frying, basically tempura style. The were sweet enough that they didn’t need any added sugar. Served only with some grated daikon they were a great snack to eat at a bar.

Kaki was next up. Some of the biggest, juiciest oysters I’ve ever seen on a plate! Removed from the shells and grilled all the chef did was add some herbs to them. With a squeeze of lemon they’re ready to go. If you’re a fan of oysters, you’d love these. If you hate oysters, you’d still probably love these.

After the Kaki we ordered up some Ankimo. Steamed monkfish liver served with grated daikon, ponzu, and green onions this is one of the great delicacies of Japanese cuisine. It’s called the foie gras of the sea, but in all honesty, I think foie gras should be called the ankimo of the land. It’s so soft and creamy. If not for the next dish I’d call it Japan’s greatest contribution to the world of food.

Here it is, one of the greatest things in the world. An item that will make most Americans sick to their stomach but makes my mouth water…Shirako. The king of seafood. Meaning “white children” in Japanese, shirako is the soft roe of male fish, usually monkfish, cod, or fugu (pufferfish). Basically, it’s the male fish’s genitalia. You read that right, it’s a fish sperm sack! You may be wincing at the thought of eating that, but think about it, you eat caviar don’t you? Well, this is the male counterpart to caviar. It’s extremely soft and delicate with a slightly sweet briny taste that literally melts in your mouth (and it’s not sticky!). Ippo serves it raw with ponzu, scallions, and sesame seeds. It can also be steamed. Any way you look at it, I luz me some fish balls!

My experience at Ippo really makes me sad that we have nothing like this in Chicago, or really anywhere in America for that matter. Sure, there are a handful of Izakaya-style bars throughout the country (mostly on the west coast), but nothing quite like Ippo. Just a long bar in a hidden space that serves up some of the best quality seafood and sake one could ever ask for. Why are we stuck with bars that serve nothing but big greasy burgers (not that there’s anything wrong with that), frozen wings, and chicken fingers? Let’s get some creativity into the American bar scene! Great chefs don’t need to be in a white cloth atmosphere to shine. We’d all be better off for it there were Izakayas scattered throughout the country.

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