Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | food & dining
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Mmmmm. Chinese food. Just thinking about Lao Wang Noodle House in Denver, which I swear serves the best dumplings in the universe (it's where the photo above was taken) gets my mouth watering. It's a tiny hole-in-the-wall tucked into a tiny strip mall along the South Federal Asian strip of mostly Vietnamese eateries. It's run by an elderly couple who...

I recently returned from a fantastic trip to Japan, with my wife Erin Yoshimura and my mom. We flew first to Sapporo in the northern island of Hokkaido, where one of my uncles lives, and then traveled to Nemuro, my mom's hometown on the easternmost tip of Hokkaido, where another uncle lives. Then we flew down to Tokyo for a...

WendyWhile we're on the topic of pronunciation, I've been meaning to write this for a while, since Wendy's began airing TV commercials for their new Premium Fish Fillet Sandwich. The commercials seem to have stopped, but the sandwich is still available at select locations across the country. The commercial got Erin, our son Jared and me all riled up every time I saw it because it mispronounced "panko" whenever it was mentioned. Panko is the traditional Japanese breadcrumb coating for fried food, and it's become something of a hip ingredient in American restaurants and kitchens. So it's cool that Japanese food (starting with sushi a couple of decades ago) are catching on in the US and becoming mainstream. However, it irritates me that so many Americans, including the guy on the TV commercial, pronounce the word as "PAN-koe," like "pants." The Japanese pronunciation is "pahn-KOH," with the first part more like "pawn" -- almost like "punk" -- and the second like Homer Simpson's "DOH!" Here's a caveat about this rant of mine: Language evolves, and as cultures merge and are assimilated, words and pronunciation patterns change and are re-invented. I'm sure the British still think Americans are buffoons for mangling their language, mispronouncing words and using "incorrect" words like "trunk" for a car's "boot" or hood for a car's "bonnet." I'm the first to admit that I don't follow my own rules about Japanese words for other languages. I don't walk into a Taco Bell and order a "bu-RRRIT-toh." I don't order a "kwassahn" at the bakery when I want a croissant. I say "kraw-sahnt." Servers at Thai restaurants snicker when I ask if I pronounced "yum nue" (spicy cold beef salad, truly yummy) correctly. Vietnamese servers guffaw out loud when I ask if I've said "bun dac biet" (combination grilled meat over rice noodles) right. Amazingly, I always think I've nailed it, but the guffaws come anyway. And by the way, when you go to the Vietnamese restaurant for a bowl of "pho" noodle, it's NOT pronounced "foe" or even "fuh." A server explained to us that you have to add a slight upward lilt to the end of the word, as if you're asking a question. So it's, "Hi, can I have a medium bowl of fuh?" Erin and I may not get it exactly right, but the point is, we're aware of our inadequacy at pronouncing other languages, and we always try to learn and say it correctly. On the other hand, let's face it, people in other countries aren't any better at pronouncing English, so turnabout is fair play, right?

We had dinner last night at the venerable Denver Press Club with Jennifer 8.Lee and learned about Chinese food. The dinner was Chinese takeout, of course, from a DU-area eatery called "Hong Kong Cafe." It was pretty good. The dinner was organized by John Ensslin, president of the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The unfortunately small gathering was treated not only to good food and conversation, but a wonderful and entertaining presentation by Lee, a New York Times Metro reporter who has just published her first book, "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles," which is a peek at the cross-cultural pollination that Americans think of as Chinese food. First of all, change your idea of Chinese food. What most people in this country consider Chinese food is really Chinese American food. To underscore the point that Chinese food is more American than apple pie (as Lee asks, how often do Americans eat apple pie, and how often do they eat Chinese food?), the presentation begins with a startling fact: There are more Chinese restaurants in this country than McDonalds, Burger King, Wendy's and Kentucky Fried Chicken combined.

Hot stuff: Orochon Ramen lets you choose your level of heat. I opted for #3 and it was pretty damned warm.

When Erin and I were in LA last month, we ate dinner with her cousin Lisa Sasaki and her brother Eric and his wife Leah, at a very popular ramen shop, Daikokuya. The restaurant is one of several that specialize in Ramen on a block of First Street in Little Tokyo, just down the street from the Japanese American National Museum. The joint is hopping at all hours, with eager clusters of (mostly non-Japanese) people patiently waiting to enter, thanks to a couple of rave reviews including one from the restaurant critic from the LA Times, whose article is posted in the window. Luckily, we didn't have to wait too long to be seated. Lisa loves the combination specials: choose a ramen, and get a half-order of another entree, from tonkatsu pork cutlets and gyoza dumplings to fried rice. The fried rice was good, all right. Erin and I both thought the ramen itself (we ordered the chasyu ramen, topped with slices barbecued pork loin) was good but not awe-inspiring. The place was so popular and raucous, though, that it was simply a fun experience.

Erin and I went out to eat tonight at Thai Basil, a very popular restaurant in southeast Denver. We had eaten there a couple of weeks ago with friends and enjoyed the food, so we decided to give it a shot on our own. The food was fine once again -- we had chicken coconut soup for starters, and Thai curry lime beef and sesame tofu for entrees. But during the meal, it occurred to us that aside from one woman at a nearby table, we were the only Asians dining in the packed room. The servers were mostly Asian, but on the way in this time, I noted that the owner and much of the staff is Chinese, not Thai. These observations maybe are unimportant if the food is great, but I started wondering about the importance of authenticity in ethnic cuisine. First of all, does it matter what ethnicity the staff, owners and even maybe the chefs are, if they can make great Thai food, or Chinese, or Japanese or Korean? Shouldn't the end quality of the food be the measure of a restaurant's quality? Yes. And... I've had various ethnic cuisines served up by people not of the ethnicity and had the food fail the taste test. Even years ago in New York City, when I was in college, I was so desperate for Mexican food that I went into a Mexican restaurant in Greenwich Village, only to be served enchiladas with spaghetti sauce -- no lie -- poured over them. That's why that Pace Picante tagline works so well: "...from where? NEW YORK CITY?"

Glico caramels

In the U.S., snack food manufacturers in recent years have become creative, and come up with a variety of flavor combinations beyond the old barbecue-flavor potato chips or the nacho cheese flavored Doritos. Now you can get black pepper and olive oil Triscuits, or chili-lime flavored corn chips. But American palates probably aren't ready for some of the flavors that are available in Japan.

We ended the week with a flurry of shopping at the famous Flea Market at Aloha Stadium.
Sat. Sept. 22 It's our last day in Honolulu, but we're now slowing down. It's jam-packed, with a trip to the fabled Flea Market that Erin has been raving about since we've been planning the trip. It's a sale that's held every Wednesday and Saturday at Aloha Stadium near the airport, and it's truly a treasure trove of inexpensive omiyage – gifts to take back to the mainland. There are vendors with t-shirts as cheap as eight for $20; ties for $5; aloha shirts for under $10. It's a shopper's delight, and a negotiator's training ground. Everyone haggles for a better price. In my case, I was proud to have talked a woman down on her Hawaiian print ties, only to find a vendor a few booths down who had them even cheaper. C'est la vie.