Peachy: “Changing Season” captures the passing of a family farm from one generation to the next

NOTE: “Changing Season” will be screened during the Colorado Dragon Film Festival on Sunday, May 22 at 12 noon. Click here for full information about the festival.

You’d think after a lifetime of growing and harvesting peaches, you’d get sick of eating them. But the Masumoto family still loves peaches and serves them up every way imaginable. David “Mas” Masumoto, 62, the farmer who has nurtured his parents’ peach groves, says “Actually no. I love peaches, almost literally in my blood.”

Nikiko Masumoto, his daughter, adds, “We have 10 varieties and each has a window of ripeness for two weeks. So it’s like getting to see your best friends for two weeks out of the year.”

The father-and-daughter interaction is central to the delightful dynamics of “Changing Season: On the Masumoto Family Farm,” a documentary by director Jim Choi. The film follows the two, as well as the farm’s matriarch, Marcy and Nikiko’s brother Korio, through a transitional year not only in the farm but in the family’s life.

The Masumoto Family Farm, which produces nectarines and raisins in addition to peaches, was purchased and first tilled by Mas’ father, Takashi “Joe” Masumoto, in 1948. The family had returned to California’s Central Valley after spending World War II in a concentration camp in Arizona along with thousands of other Japanese American families.

Mas wasn’t planning on following in his father’s footsteps. He attended the University of California at Berkeley in the early 1970s, thinking he’d escaped the sweat and labor. “I studied something that I thought would never bring me back to the farm: Sociology, he says. “But it got me to study how a plant grows and everything around the peach” – the whole community of people and processes that produce the fruit.

He ended up embracing the sociology of farming as part of the ecosystem that connected humans to the Earth. And maybe Cal helped lead Mas to be an early adopter of organic farming.

“When I was growing up it was somewhat conventional. At the time fertilizers and pesticides were expensive. When we were transitioning to organics, I relied on my father’s experience of farming. It was much simpler.”
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Cross-cultured leader keeps Asahi Foods’ promise of perfect sushi fish

DSC_3297It’s cold outside, but it’s colder in Asahi Foods’ refrigerated cutting room, where stacks of cardboard and Styrofoam boxes filled with giant fish await. The fish cutter is in early on a Saturday, wearing a white lab coat and heavy rubber gloves, various razor-sharp knives at the ready.

Charlene Thai, a tiny woman in a similar lab coat, hovers nearby, watching over the daily cutting ritual that begins the flow of fresh-cut fish for sushi and sashimi to 200 restaurants in Colorado and surrounding states.

“If you see our tuna, it’s clean-cut, like a machine,” she says. “It’s not just the texture, but the clean cut that matters. If it’s not right, our customers can return the tuna and say ‘this is not the way I want it to be cut.'”

Thai is Asahi Foods’ general manager, and oversees two dozen employees, including the fish cutter as he tosses a headless 70-pound tuna onto an enormous cutting board and first trims off the collar and tail. He guts it from underneath, then hacks along spinal column to slice the fish all the way through. Then he deftly cuts the tuna neatly into filets about equal size, about 15 pounds each. They get gingerly arranged on trays and will be wrapped, labeled and delivered to sushi chefs up and down the Front Range.

Hapa Sushi owner Mark Van Grack was Thai’s first customer when Asahi Foods launched five years ago, although he didn’t realize it.

“But I do remember meeting her when she came in to take some of our fish business, and I really liked her right away,” he says. “I thought she was a lovely, bubbly woman. ”

Since that day, Asahi Foods has been “one of our biggest suppliers.”

Van Grack credits Thai’s commitment to customer service for Hapa’s bond with Asahi Foods.

“One of the reasons we’ve had such a good relationship is that she has the same mentality about her customers that we have for our customers,” he says. “We want everything to be right 100 percent of the time, which is impossible, but it’s what we do when something’s not 100 percent that’s what’s important. Charlene has the attitude of ‘we’ll do whatever it takes to make it right.’ ”

Tokio chef Miki Hashimoto, who serves sushi and ramen from his restaurant in the shadow of Coors Field, has known Thai for years and says he buys from her because he respects her. “She’s loyal and has a wonderful personality,” he says. “I trust her.”

That’s why it’s important to Thai to make sure the fish is cut cleanly — just right for her customers.
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Real ramen is finally coming to Denver, and it’s about time

osaka ramen

My most recent Denver ramen was at the original Osaka Ramen location in the RiNo district. I had the special Miso Ramen of the day with an order of kara age fried chicken.

sobadeliveryjapoan1960sI grew up in Japan when I was a kid, and have vivid memories of bowls of ramen and soba noodles stacked high in bowls or boxes, being delivered by crazy men riding bicycles through crazy Tokyo traffic like the photo on the right. Ramen had been around since the late 1800s in Japan, but it was during the post-WWII years, and particularly in the 1960s, when ramen became the ubiquitous Japanese comfort food it is today.

I loved ramen as a child, and when my family moved to the states in the mid-‘60s I was sad to find that ramen wasn’t sold in the few Japanese restaurants that were available here. But in 1970 Nissin, the company that invented instant ramen in 1958 began selling instant ramen in the U.S. The next year, the company rolled out Cup Noodles.

Several generations of college students have grown up with instant ramen and Cup Noodles since the ’70s. Who can argue when each savory serving can cost just pennies? Lots of people even use instant ramen as a base for fancier dishes by adding meats and vegetables. But I think that’s cheating. If you want to have some “real” ramen, nothing beats going to a good ramen-ya (shop) for a steaming bowl.

The steaming hot soup of a real bowl of ramen is salty and meaty with hints of chicken, pork and fish bathing together like it’s a friendly hot tub of flavor, and the noodles are firm and chewy (though a good ramen-ya will offer the option to have your noodles hard or soft to your liking) with just the right amount of absorption of the soup, and the toppings can be creative but respect tradition. The experience is several cuts above plopping a square of fried dried noodles into a saucepan for five minutes or pouring boiling water into the styrofoam cup and waiting two minutes with the top flap closed (no peeking!). Instant ramen is cheap, but it’s not food for the soul. The noodles are immediately limp, the soup is flavored hot water (though it can fool your brain into thinking you just ate some real food) and out of the box the topping are… well, there are no toppings.
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Growing up with stinky, slimy, altogether wonderful Japanese food

Homemade kimchee, homemade takuan and natto.

Homemade kimchee, homemade takuan and natto.

I’m a foodie. Everyone knows this. I write about food, I take photos of food everywhere I dine, I love to cook, and I love food from everywhere. One of my personal rules has always been, if someone somewhere in the world eats something, I’m willing to try it… at least once.

So I’ve had chocolate covered ants. Fried grubs. The meat of some strange animals that you wouldn’t think humans ought to eat, like rattlesnake brats.

In a way, I was prepared for this gastronomic open-mindedness (open-stomachnes?) by growing up Japanese. I was raised in Japan until I was 8, but even lifelong Japanese Americans know what I mean when I say that Japanese cuisine — although hailed today as the epitome of high culture and is accepted as mainstream with commonplace dishes like sushi, ramen, tempura, sukiyaki and teriyaki – can feature some nasty stuff.

Foul-smelling, slimy and icky-textured. Food that’s best swallowed quickly, without chewing or thinking about. No savoring the flavor, just pop it in and send it down the chute.

A lot of people probably would disagree with me, but I feel that way about oysters. I think they’re gross. Keeping my personal rule in mind, I’ll eat them if I’m at a nice restaurant in a town like Boston, where oysters are de rigeur. But I won’t seek them out and suggest an oyster bar for a night out.

It’s ironic, then, that people who would slurp down an oyster at a moment’s notice would probably themselves grossed out at some things I love: Raw eggs mixed with soy sauce and drizzled on hot rice; natto (fermented soy beans) mixed with soy sauce and mixed with hot rice; crunchy takuan; oden, an odiferous winter stew.
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Nagomi Visit introduces Japanese culture to visitors through home-cooked meals

Nagomi Visit

Travelers are treated to home-cooked Japanese food when they book a meal with Nagomi Visit. (Photo courtesy of Nagomi Visit)

There’s no getting around it: One of the most reliable ways to generate international friendship and cultural understanding is through the stomach.

Diversity in dining is a reflection of an evolving society. Just think of a typical American culinary palette of the 1950s: Pot roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, spinach boiled to drab green mush, creamed corn. Your plate was all white and tan, with maybe a green highlight or two (it helped if you had an iceberg lettuce salad on the side). The one bright spot, color-wise might have been a jiggling red blob of Jell-O for dessert.

I’m oversimplifying, of course. Depending on where in the U.S. of A. you lived in during the decade when I was born, you would have grown up having Italian food, or Jewish food, or maybe Mexican or Americanized Chinese food. But Middle America — the land of Better Home and Gardens Cookbooks — was all about red meat and multiple kinds of carbs. Don’t get me wrong — I love white and tan food. Except for that over-cooked spinach, which is a crying shame, I love that typical ’50s meal, including the Jell-O.

But for 2013, I’m sure glad that Americans have a much wider appreciation for ethnic cuisine, from Italian and Mexican to Chinese, Korean and Thai.

I grew up eating Japanese food, naturally. My mom cooked Japanese food for herself even if she cooked spaghetti, or steak, for the rest of us. In fact, we had rice every night, even if we had pasta, mom made rice and I often had a serving on the side alongside my noodles. But mostly, my brothers and I grew up eating my mom’s home-cooked Japanese food. Whether it was basic like teriyaki chicken or grilled salmon, or fancy and more “ethnic” dishes like oden (a traditional winter stew) or chawan mushi (a hot savory egg custard), we knew we were always getting a true authentic taste of Japan, because that’s what my mom grew up with.

A lot of us love to travel to Japan so we can have authentic Japanese cooking. Eating in restaurants in Japan, whether expensive high-end eateries or funky hole-in-the-wall joints, can be a satisfying way to hook into Japanese culture. But imagine the awesome experience of having a home-cooked Japanese meal, in a Japanese home.

OK, so you don’t have relatives that you can mooch off, or friends who you can crash with who’ll cook for you.

No worries — there’s a brilliant service called Nagomi Visit International through which you can set up a home-cooked lunch or dinner during your travels in Japan, and make new friends while you’re at it.
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