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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Five Years after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

Note: I’m now a regular monthly columnist for Discover Nikkei, the multilingual project of the Japanese American National Museum. For years they’ve repurposed my blog posts, but now the tables will be turned: I’ll write something for DN first, then post them afterwards here. This is the first column I wrote for them.

Consul General of Japan at Denver Makoto Ito and his wife Grace make a donation to continuing Tohoku relief efforts. Derek Okubo (right), the Executive Director of Denver's Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships manned the donations table.

Consul General of Japan at Denver Makoto Ito and his wife Grace make a donation to continuing Tohoku relief efforts. Derek Okubo (right), the Executive Director of Denver’s Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships manned the donations table.

I can still remember March 11, 2011, the night of the Great East Japan Earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which devastated a huge swath of northeast Japan, as if it were last week.

It was just before midnight in Denver when I got an alert on my phone. An earthquake had been reported off the eastern coast of Japan. I turned on CNN and watched in horror for the next couple of hours as the footage came in. I saw the tsunami rolling over farmlands and crash into cities, carrying with it buildings and cars and ships. I saw footage of people trapped on rooftops. I saw houses being shoved aside as if they were origami boxes being blown by the wind, before they burst into flames. That was just the beginning; the seven meltdowns at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant were caused by the quake, and the cleanup around that disaster is still ongoing.

The disaster remains the worst earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, and the fourth worst in the recorded history of the world’s earthquakes. The toll was awful: almost 16,000 people have been confirmed dead, and over 2,500 still missing. Almost 229,000 people have been relocated or are still living in temporary housing.
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Is China’s economic domination coming to an end?


I follow news from all over Asia. Primarily, I pay attention to all the news happening in Japan, from the goofy stuff to the serious headlines. But the world is so interconnected these days, that Japan can easily be affected by news developments — political, economic, cultural — in other parts of the globe, and especially Asia. The crazy dude in North Korea, Kim Jong Un, for example, has been shooting missiles into the sea to flex his weak muscle and try to scare Japan and it allies, like the U.S. and South Korea, whenever the U.S. conducts military exercises in the region.

The most important news from Asia is often about China. China is the 800-pound economic gorilla of Asia. A more appropriate description might be a slinky Asian tiger or dragon, but the enormity of China’s outsized impact is like a gorilla: brute strength sometimes flailing about like King Kong beating his chest and romping through Manhattan — Wall Street, to be exact.

For years, China’s economy was growing so fast that it attracted laborers from rural regions (of which there are many) to the cities where good paying manufacturing jobs were available. For years China invested huge amounts in building cities and the infrastructure to reach those cities. For years, China’s growth and spending was a windfall for the rest of the world, which was happy to supply the raw materials and technology to help China become the second largest economy in the world, overtaking Japan.

The whole world got richer as China got rich, and the Chinese got rich too, relatively speaking. A middle class developed in the cities, and China became one of the biggest markets on Earth for cars. Hollywood studios regularly court China’s humongous audience, these days flush with disposable income and able to go see the latest theatrical releases. Luxury goods and Western brands are all the rage with the nouveau riche, and Chinese tourists, who now have the cash to travel all over the world, are visiting Japan in droves and returning with modern rice cookers and fancy heated toilet seats.

The downside to all this growth is captured in the nervous joke that’s been making the media rounds: “When China sneezes, the world catches cold.”
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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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Book reviews: End-of-summer reads about JAs and Japan

When the Japanese Canadian newspaper Nikkei Voice asked me to write about my favorite recent books related to Japan, I realized that I’ve read some books in the past year that I never got around to writing about, and was also finishing an innovative new book, or to be precise, a new ebook.

In any case, I tend to read many more non-fiction books by and about Japan and Japanese Americans than I do any fiction titles, so it’s sort of surprising to me that two of these books are flat-out fiction (albeit based on the author’s childhood for “Kazuo’s World”) and that another is fiction manga based on history and another is history told through a fictionalized manga lens.

Standing Tall: The Extra/Ordinary Life of Mizuko Takahashi Nomura

standingtallThe most recent book I’ve read is “Standing Tall: The Extra/Ordinary Life of Mizuko Takahashi Nomura,” by Sansei artist, filmmaker and film professor Art Nomura. It’s a biography of Nomura’s grandmother, who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s, made as an interactive iBook for iPads, iPhones and Macs. The family history is well written but what makes it special is the chockfull of extra information, side stories, games, clickable images and links to other resources that Nomura includes. The book is a fascinating, well-researched read — though Nomura admits he’s made up conversations and details of his grandmother’s early days in Japan, it’s as detailed and factual as possible. It’s certainly a great look at one Issei woman’s epic life, and the experience is made that much richer with all the extra information Nomura adds, utilizing the iBook format to its fullest. The downside of being on the cutting edge, of course, is that unless you have a Mac computer, an iPad or an iPhone, you won’t be able to read this delightful loving biography.

Still, I find myself reading more and more on my tablets or even smartphone, but none of my other ebooks are native to the digital format. Reading is evolving like everything else in our digitally-connected society, and people like Nomura are taking full advantage of the new technology. Kudos to him!

The following four books are all dead-tree books, though. Graphic novels especially, just don’t translate to digital page:
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