Category Archives: Japanese

Turning Japanese

Otaru street food: grilled oysters

My friend Karen, while in college, once sang this golden oldie by The Vapors while waiting in line at the college cafeteria. A person nearby (who was not Asian, btw) told her she was offended by the song. This one anecdote tells you a lot about Bryn Mawr College. But very little about Japan.

Since I too can look up things on Wikipedia, I discovered that “Turning Japanese” is actually a song about youthful alienation and becoming something you didn’t expect. Well, if that is the case, many of us are Japanese. And intrinsic to this image of being “Japanese” is the idea — not too far removed from reality in Tokyo, at least — of a life perpetually on the go, snatching sustenance, T. Rex-like, any way one can, greedily and quickly.

That’s the instinct that coaxed ramen from China into Japan. But it’s not the only Japanese “street food” out there. Unlike Thai street food, which is, quite literally, food enjoyed or at least purchased while on the street, a lot of Japanese street food hews closer to the Western idea: portable food that you can eat while walking (Thais hate to eat while moving. Don’t know why, but that’s the way it is).

A good snapshot of this type of Japanese street food can be had on the 200 meter-or-so walk up to Sensoji Temple in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. This walk melds the everything from the expected taiyaki (baked sea bream-shaped cakes stuffed with red bean paste) and senbei (freshly-made rice crackers, often wrapped in nori seaweed) to handfuls of surprising delights like lacquered, grilled chunks of sweet potato and aisumonaka, which are basically ice cream sandwiches. Yum!

Kibidango-mochi are grilled rice cakes dipped in a sweet sesame powder; as with everything that is served on the skewer, you are meant to eat it right there and return the skewer, which kind of ruins my whole point about this type of Japanese street food. Oh well! There is manju (steamed Chinese-style buns stuffed with savory fillings like minced pork) and agemanju (fried buns), in this case usually stuffed with something sweet and for that reason, infinitely more popular — the most popular stand boasts every type of filling from pumpkin to green tea to cherry.

Nothing, however, touches my favorite, the bizarrely-named wazatokowashi, deep-fried, light, fluffy dough cooked in front of your eyes and bearing an elusively salty flavor reminiscent of Cheetos. There is nothing better than Cheetos.

The best thing ever

Hokkaido has its own kind of street food. A good city to sample it is Otaru which, while seen as “too commercial” by my Japanese friends, is at least charming, tourist-friendly and has these mini-stands set up by smart seafood wholesalers catering to people who simply can’t wait until they get home for a taste of the Japanese ocean. The grills are inside, just past the doorway, fronted by tables where diners cluster like hobos over chopsticks and bottles of soy sauce.

For your street food consideration

Yes — not only is that hulking big sea snail thingie (sazae) available, but so are scallops grilled with miso, giant sea crab legs, clams and oysters, cooked in their own juices. It is good, and it is cheap. A shame that it is also freezing.

An unlikely street food that has almost completely obliterated its humble origins is a food that everyone knows and associates with fine dining: sushi. Believe it or not, it started out as a street food in Edo (basically ancient Tokyo), where fresh fish is in abundance and easy to obtain. Today, Edo-style sushi basically refers to nigiri, but not the big ol’ slabs of fish flesh that are so trendy in a lot of sushi bars abroad. What makes sushi such a great experience in Otaru is that it has taken a cue from Sapporo’s numerous ramen alleys and created its own “Sushiya Dori”, a street lined almost completely with sushi bars. Heaven on earth or what?

Otaru omakase (chef's choice) platter

One thing you might find at your sushi bar (but is definitely not a street food): shirako, which I’m told means “white children”. My friend Yukari first introduced it to me when I moved to Tokyo, but waited until I finished my bowl of creamy, cloudy glob drenched in ponzu to tell me what it was. Some other Japanese people (who work in tourism PR, go figure!) then tried to tell me it was not what it was, but guys, I know how to Google. It’s the sperm sacs of male cod. See, it’s hard to pull a fast one on me (if I have an Internet connection).

Luckily, it tastes much better than human sperm. Sorry, humans! Better luck next time.

Better than you think

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Filed under Asia, fish, food, food stalls, Japan, Japanese, restaurant, seafood

Working for it: Sapporo

Smart people avoid generalizations, but I’ll just go ahead and wade on in there. Japan is a country of serious foodies. And it’s not just about the massive clusters of fine restaurants — Japanese, French, Czech, what have you — that lurk, barnacle-like, in every other basement or third floor in every big city in the country. It’s the Japanese commitment to all levels of food: the telltale chairs that stand outside popular eateries that don’t take reservations; the astronomically priced produce, swaddled like newborn babies in the supermarket; the long queues snaking through the department store basement, stacked with gourmets awaiting the next great fresh cream cake.

Sure, there is the strange-smelling beef bowl at Yoshinoya, cheap conveyor belt sushi and the bizarre affection for KFC for the holidays — but for every one of those things, there is the dazzling aging-beef display at the Tokyo Mitsukoshi, four different kinds of obscure Kentucky bourbons on sale, and mammoth albino strawberries the size of a child’s fist. Food in Japan is like Manolo Blahniks to a Carrie Bradshaw: aspirational. As with all aspirations, you have to work for it. This stuff doesn’t come cheap. And if it does, it doesn’t come easy.

Hokkaido in February for me is a whole different brand of Working For It. I don’t take to chilly temperatures; here, it’s -12 degrees Celsius in the daytime. The sky periodically drizzles snow — so much snow, in fact, that the sides of the roads loom skyscraper-like above the pedestrians, threatening avalanche at any moment.  Food, any kind of food, requires trekking out in that weather in your most unattractive snow boots, a balaclava shoved over your head to keep your nose from falling off your face.

But in Sapporo, there is plenty to make up for it. Big vats of nabe — DIY stews bristling with the freshest seafood or gently cooked slices of meat, studded with cubes of tofu and enoki mushrooms and crackly greens that somehow end up soft and sweet. One of the easiest kinds of nabe to obtain here is one featuring kani — snow, hairy or king crab, which hails from the region and is a genuine treat.

Crab and co., ready for the nabe pot

Restaurants specializing in crab — marked by a giant crab above the entrance — are scattered all over Japan, but the one we found in Sapporo, chosen solely on its proximity to the train station, was luckily also delicious: Kani Honke, which claims to be the first in Japan to focus solely on the mightily yummy crustacean. The many course menus are pretty epic: crab served as sashimi, in sushi, atop grated mountain yam, in stew, simply steamed, and finally, butter-roasted and grilled atop a hot stone. Best of all, the leftover broth from the nabe is eventually added to rice and reduced until a thick, sweet congee is formed — the best possible way to end a delicious crab menu.

Kani Honke's crab congee

Crab is not the only thing Hokkaido is famous for. Sapporo is also the lucky, lucky home to not one, not two, but THREE “ramen alleys” — small walking streets lined by all manner of ramen shops, which offer, in Sapporo at least, the ultimate street (or alley-side) food: quick, warming, filling and relatively cheap. You can get your very interesting ramen history here, but if you are like me and think clicking is far too onerous a task, I will attempt to summarize: ramen is delicious. Just kidding. Adapted from a Chinese noodle dish in the early 20th century, Japanese ramen has since branched out into basically three main types — the tonkotsu, or pork bone-based cloudy broth of Kyushu, the clear soy sauce-based broth populated with thick noodles, and the miso-based broth of Sapporo. We visited the original “Ramen Yokocho” (Ramen Alley) and found it charming, with just about any type of ramen on offer.

Inside Ramen Alley

Of course, we were there for the miso ramen, and so opted for a shop featuring a relatively basic menu of miso, soy sauce, salt, tonkotsu, spicy, extra pork or butter (with a miso base) ramen. You can probably guess which one I went for:

A bowl of butter ramen

It turns out I’ve found a new love. Few things are better than that extra-creamy Hokkaido butter. I will be searching for it in all the Japanese supermarkets I can think of in Bangkok.

 

 

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Filed under Asia, fish, food, food stalls, Japan, Japanese, noodles, restaurant, rice porridge

Brazilian Days, Vol. 2

Ever feel like you’ve been through some sort of time warp, doomed to a Bill Murray-like existence living the same day over and over again? That is what this interminable trip is starting to feel like, despite the loveliness of the setting and friendliness of the people.

There is plenty of both in Gramado, a Southern Brazilian town famous for its German and Italian communities, Swiss-style buildings and ludicrous number of fondue restaurants for a town of 30,000, a minute fraction of whom are actually Swiss. We are here for Marcelo and Renata’s wedding, joining 298 others in a heavy-duty bash (in case this is news to you, Brazilians like to party) incorporating an all-you-can-drink caipirinha bar, 40 bottles of whisky, 40 bottles of vodka and a whopping 220 bottles of champagne. Win and I, old farts that we are, battle valiantly to stay up past midnight. We make it to 12:30am, failing to outlast Marcelo’s 10-month-old cousin and 80-year-old grandmother, who is still out on the dance floor when we skulk out of the ballroom, pretending to make a call.

When it comes to food, however, we do our part, gorging on bottle after bottle of the local Merlot and sparkling wine and a uniquely Brazilian version of fondue bourguignone that doesn’t actually involve any fondue — a hot plate is coated with salt to keep the beef from sticking, and it is accompanied by a dizzying array of dips ranging from the usual (rose and tartar sauces, garlic-parsley butter and curry mayonnaise) to the, uh, unusual (wasabi, caramelized onion, candied pineapple, strawberry jam). Alas, the 9:30-10:00pm dinnertimes render me a gassy menace to society, snarling my digestive system and making me a deadly weapon in enclosed spaces like cars (sorry, Marcelo’s brother).

So despite the absolute loveliness of Marcelo’s and Renata’s families and promises to visit each other’s respective cities, it is with a certain sense of relief that we are left to our own devices in Sao Paulo, where no one is stuck with me but my husband and I can eat dinner at 7pm like any other tourist. Called the “locomotive of Brazil”, Sao Paulo is nearly everything Rio is not — fast-moving and unwieldy in a way that recalls Bangkok, but way more efficient; where two kisses is a common salutation in Rio (and three in Gramado), in Sao Paulo you get away with only one (time is money, after all). Sao Paulo is also way bigger than Rio: at last count, its population totaled 40 million.

It’s not much of a surprise, then, that Sao Paulo is also home to the biggest Japanese population outside of Japan. After what feels like months of going without Asian food, I insist on trying both ends of the spectrum of Japanese food in the city: slick and high-end vs. “authentic” everyday.

Kinoshita's crispy salmon

At Kinoshita (Rua Jacques Felix, 405, (11)3849-6940) you will get plenty of slick (minimalist, expensive decor, smooth service) and a whole lotta high-end (65 reals for a glass of Hungarian Tokaji). Food — with the exception of a nifty gazpacho with shrimp roe and sea urchin, some nice seared fish eggs with a dollop of wasabi and salmon drenched in ponzu and topped with tempura dribbles and ebiko — stands at the intersection of Mundane Avenue and High-Concept Hotel Dining Street. In other words, it’s the culinary equivalent of an Aman Resort: pretty and well-designed but somehow similar to somewhere else. Of course there is a foie gras course, cubes of it pan-fried and set atop cushions of Kobe that are only seared, so that the marbled fat in the meat isn’t activated. Why bother then?

More satisfying (and easier to do) was the ramen at Lamen Kazu (Rua Thomaz Gonzaga, (11)3277-4286), in the “Japan town” known as Liberdade. The menu is simply a succession of ramen variations: miso, salt, shoyu, with the usual varieties of toppings. All the same, I enjoyed my “Hokkaido” (corn, seaweed, pork, spring onion and a pat of butter) despite getting hangry (hungry+angry) and scaring the waitress and our neighbors at the table next to us.

"Hokkaido" ramen

In the end, we find we’ve explored only the tip of the iceberg that is Brazil. There is still the gorgeous green expanse across the north, and the awe-inspiring forest known as the Amazon. And imagine the food that remains uneaten! It would take weeks and weeks to do the country justice. We’ve only just started.

All the same, I feel like I’ve been on the road for a long time. The memories seem minted long ago: dining on a tableful of oysters at Kaufhaus des Westerns (KaDeWe) and rifling through stacks of scarves and evil-eye jewelry at the Turkish market in Berlin; stumbling through icy streets in Denmark and Finland on a bellyful of schnapps; discovering delicious cream-filled semla buns in Stockholm.

Semla at Vete-Katten in Stockholm

I love exploring the world through my stomach, and I can’t believe I’ve been lucky enough to actually do it for a month. But home beckons, finally. What’s for dinner?

Peppers at the Turkish market in Berlin

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Filed under beef, Brazilian, fish, food, Japanese, noodles, pork, Portuguese, restaurant, seafood

Glutton Abroad: Tokyo Drift

Hanging in Tsukiji

I love Tokyo. Unlike Madame Bangkok — always striving to keep up with the Lees, obsessed with what the “neighbors” might think — Tokyo is unself-consciously, unabashedly itself: scruffy in patches, unafraid to be a little seedy, but always surprising in the best kinds of ways. It has its glam side, its traditional “Nihonjin” side, its gaijin side. But you have to look actively for all of it. And at the center of all this, the spirit of the city somehow remains the same, never-changing. Of course, the flip side to this is that Tokyo can also be crushingly lonely. Alienation is also very “Tokyo”.

Well, you may not know it, considering the inexplicable fondness harbored by the Japanese for KFC, but Tokyo is a food town. The great friendships I have made here started out of food or drink. A tranche of sweet white fish simmered in soy sauce at a cooking class; a mentaiko/mayonnaise dip with snow peas before that week’s showing of Paris Hilton in “The Simple Life”; a brimming shotglass of something quick ‘n vile at Geronimo’s — these are all ageless reminders of a specific person.

As is the incredible bounty at Tsukiji fish market. Also known as the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, this is the biggest wholesale seafood market in the world, handling more than 2,000 metric tons of seafood a day (according to Wikipedia). The market has been doing this daily since 1935; it, like much of the rest of Tokyo, remains constant.

Mollusks on display at the market

Aside from the seafood for sale, there is a cluster of sushiya on the far end of the market that we would visit on a regular basis for a quick breakfast before heading off to work. Turning right at the kooban (police box) into what looks like the parking lot for a football stadium, walking about 200 m and turning left into an alley leads you to “aisles” 5 and 6, where the most famous sushiya in the market are located — most with the kanji for “dai” (big) in some part of their names. The most famous of these is “Daiwa” — where the hostess conscientiously ensures you are lined up properly before heading inside — but there are others, all with their own unwieldy, intimidating queues. Inside, you might get something like this:

Unidon at Tsukiji

Also in season is shirako, a collection of creamy, mild coils that someone had once told me was fish sperm. Later, a group of Japanese people would tell me that this was not true; someone was pulling my leg. And then after that, I would look up shirako in the Japanese-English dictionary and discover that shirako is “milt; fish semen”, usually taken from the cod, anglerfish, or fugu (pufferfish). So there you have it. Shirako is not fish sperm. It is, as one kind Japanese waitress explained, “man eggs”.

Shirako for sale at Tsukiji

Somehow, that did not turn me off of this seasonal delicacy. Another popular way to have it is simmered gently in a nabe, a sort of catch-all term for anything that is served in a hotpot, like shabu shabu or sukiyaki. Or this, served as part of an incredible eight-course “washoku” menu at tempura specialist Uofuji in Ochanomizu (+813-3251-5327).

Helmed by a husband-wife team (the husband cooks, the wife is hostess), this is one of many husband-wife restaurants serving “washoku” (traditional Japanese cuisine) across the country. But the search for this unassuming restaurant is worth it: the tempura is light and fluffy and the menu changes daily, depending on what the husband has found in Tsukiji. On that particular day, there was sea cucumber in a pool of ponzu, freshly made shiokara (fermented squid innards), a single gigantic miso-glazed oyster. And while service is a little bit slow, the waitresses sure are free-handed with the sake samples and “tastings”. Leaving the restaurant that evening remains a blur; I believe Kiguchi-san had to escort us to the taxi herself, God bless her.

But it’s hard to pry me away from the sushiya for long, especially one where a meal can be an elaborate string of yummy fish-based mini-dishes. Sushiya no Yoshikan in Gakugeidaigaku (+813-3793-6261) is well-known for their otsumami (appetizers), which they continue serving you until you indicate to them you are ready for the sushi. We managed five: shirako, grilled this time with a salt crust; tuna “shabu” in a sweet miso sauce; poached sea eel in a pickled plum sauce; an oyster in a sabayon; and best of all, a freshly-grilled scallop in a “sandwich” of nori seaweed.

What I took away from all this, however, was the ever-present fact that I am getting old. I couldn’t keep up with my friends at the sushi counter — too soon afterwards, I was signalling for the soup (apparently osuimono, or clear broth soup, is what traditionalists say goes with sushi best, although everyone prefers miso nowadays). What can I say? Some things do change.

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Filed under Asia, fish, food, Japan, Japanese, markets, restaurant, rice, seafood

Caught in the culture wars

 

Thai food: a focal point of the culture wars

 

I vowed never to talk about this again, but Sunday’s “Bangkok Post” opinion piece about the state of Thai cuisine drove me, once again, to the keyboard (I don’t have many interests, and nothing else to talk about). Like a Katherine Heigl movie, it starts out reasonably enough, and then somehow turns crazypants somewhere in the middle.

The basic premise is, modern Thai food has atrophied as a result of the culinary shortcuts commercial cooks take today, resulting in processed dreck that bears little resemblance to the dishes they are supposed to be (while this is very true, it sounds a little to me like running into a McDonald’s and complaining, “Why do they only use cheap ingredients? Why is everything so poorly made? Where is the care and thought put into my hamburger?”)

The media also deserve blame for the commodification of Thai food, concerning themselves only with “tasting this or that dish” and on “atmosphere and decor rather than offering any real knowledge concerning the food” (Because NO ONE cares about that stuff! Silly journos. Tell me once again about how the Indians and/or Portuguese inspired coconut milk-based curries).

Because of these shortcuts, Thais DESERVE to lose their mastery of their own cuisine. Because we’re so stupid! Now David Thompson has blown into town and his place is packed and that sucks, because our lives suck and so his should too! But we’ve done this to ourselves, because we bear witness to culinary crimes like this:

“…pizza with a dry version of gaeng kiew waan luk chin pla or with dry tom yum goong. These combinations are a slap in the face to both the Thai and Italian cooking traditions.”

First of all, what’s with all the slaps in the face? Is there no other way for writers here to convey getting insulted? No tug on the ear, perhaps, or maybe a kick in the pants? Get a new rhetorical device!

Secondly, well, I am no fan of crap-topped pizza either. That said, I’m sure someone probably thought tossing spaghetti with pla kem (salted fish) and dried chilies was once a daft idea, too. Now you wouldn’t bat an eye seeing this dish on a menu. And how did Thais take to the first bowl of khao soy, a “fusion” creation of egg noodles and coconut milk said to be invented by cooks in Chiang Mai from a dish originated by the Chin Haw Chinese-Muslim minority group?

 

Khao soy at Khao Soy Islam

 

(photo by @SpecialKRB)

I was lucky enough to get the chance to help work on the first English-language cookbook by Thai TV chef McDang (“The Principles of Thai Cookery”, in case you’re interested — it’s very good! Not that I’m biased or anything …) In it, Chef McDang discusses quite clearly how all the different parts of a Thai meal fit together (a minimum of five elements: a clear soup, a curry, a fried dish, a stir-fried dish, and a kreuang jim, or chili dip with vegetables), why Thais use forks and spoons (in order to kluk, or mix the different elements of the meal together to your liking), and how all the ingredients in a Thai dish are supposed to interact. That’s why traditional Thais get all crazy about substitutions like onions for shallots, or adding spring onions instead of coriander leaves.

That said, Thai cuisine is also the beneficiary of a number of foreign influences that have seeped in from interaction with the rest of the world over the course of Thailand’s history. In the Sukhothai period (1238-1438), we were scarfing down fish, fruit and wild boar on rice flavored with peppercorns, cilantro roots and palm sugar. And then, in the Ayutthaya period (1351-1767) the Portuguese came along, and gave us this:

 

"Golden threads" and "golden drops": traditional Thai sweets that are also Portuguese

 

They also introduced us to eggs, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and sugarcane; co-introduced us to savory uses for coconut milk; and showed us a crazy new way to flavor our food with these things called “chilies”. They also found a way to form a curry custard by mixing fish and egg and steaming it; the result was called hor mok:

 

Steamed seafood curry at Aor Thor Kor

 

(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

And then there were the Chinese. What to say about the Chinese? Without them, Thai food would not be “Thai food”. From them we got: shrimp paste, fish sauce, the use of duck meat in cooking, pans, stir-frying, and frying. Another innovation: an interesting alternative to rice in the form of long, thin strands of rice flour (and sometimes egg-based flour), which can be served in soup, blanched, fried, or even in desserts. They are popular in Thai street food, so keep your eyes peeled for this rare, strange delicacy:

 

Bamee at Sukhumvit Soi 38

 

So sometimes fusion isn’t so bad after…..zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzOh, sorry, you’re still here?

Thailand is at a point in its history where its future — like that of the rest of the world — is uncertain. Maybe people are unsure of where they stand and so long to return to a time when things seemed more secure. Food serves as a convenient stage on which to act out this current identity crisis. But that doesn’t mean we should shut out foreign influences, or, for that matter, a foreigner who is doing the exactly same thing as us.

 

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Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, celebrity chefs, Chinese, curries, food, food stalls, Japanese, noodles, Portuguese, restaurant, rice, Thai-Chinese, Thailand, TV chefs

Iron Chef hits Bangkok

Whose cuisine reigns supreme?

Chef Hiroyuki Sakai of “Iron Chef” fame (the one who cooked French food, as opposed to the “Chinese” and “Japanese” Iron Chefs) came to Bangkok to bring his love of delicate flavors and vegetable flans to food-loving Thais. Last night, he held the second of three dinners at Maduzi Hotel (full disclosure: my husband’s family owns this hotel, but that didn’t save me from having to shell out the 7,500++ baht like everybody else.) Needless to say, I was excited; this is the closest I will probably ever get to Iron Chef without donning a poufy wig and cape.

"Seriously, guys--is there something in my teeth?"

And Chef Sakai totally delivered. His persnickety attention to detail, illustrated by his high hygienic standards (the kitchen was cleaned after every single course), was reflected in a series of perfectly turned-out dishes despite his having to cook for 60 covers. This somehow didn’t affect the pacing of the dishes, which reached perfection at around the end of the meal.

It kicked off with a completely smooth crab flan, reminiscent in texture of Japanese chawanmushi (egg custard), paired with a deep-fried crispy scallop and wasabi sauce to cut the fattiness.

crab flan with leek and courgette soup, deep-fried scallop and wasabi sauce

A parcel of foie gras came encased in a mashed potato shell and deep-fried into a golf ball, served atop a pool of truffle sauce and topped with a parmesan tuile.

foie gras croquette with truffle sauce

Sakai’s “signature” dish turned out to be a Thai freshwater prawn tail (the Brittany langoustines shipped to the hotel for the event were unfortunately not up to snuff) wrapped in threads of blanched zucchini, braided Bottega Veneta-style over the lightly poached flesh. 

Langoustine wrapped in courgette

After that, grade 9++ Wagyu beef (apparently the highest grade there is, although I don’t understand why you can’t just suck it up and say “grade 10”) was smoked in the hotel kitchen and arrived to the table wrapped in bamboo skin like a Christmas present. 

Lightly smoked Wagyu beef baked in bamboo skin

Finally, a mango custard came layered with a green tea foam and accompanied by a salty chocolate crepe, garnished with a pinch of candied orange peel.

Mango blanc manger and green tea espuma with chocolate crepe

But the best part of the meal, for me at least, was a cold hors d’oeuvre initially described in a preliminary menu as a dreary-sounding “turnip mousse”. What came out of the kitchen was a beautiful mixed custard of Kabu turnip and sea urchin, topped with Alaskan king crab, abalone, fan lobster and scallop chunks, ringed by turnip rounds and topped with a dollop of caviar. It was among the best dishes I’ve had in a while.

This dish is the bomb.

Final verdict? Totally worth it, even if I have to snack on streetside noodles for the rest of the month. I mean, that’s what I’m supposed to be here for, isn’t it?

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Filed under Asia, Bangkok, beef, celebrity chefs, food, French food, Iron Chef, Japanese, restaurant, seafood, Thailand, TV chefs