Sunday, January 14, 2007

Iron Chef

Watakushi no kioku ga tashika naraba
'If my memory serves me correctly'

I am a fan of the Iron Chef TV show. The original Japanese one. They carry the show's absurd premise to the necessary extremes, with The Chairman's extravagance, rival factions, and localized haute cuisine. The American version is okay sometimes, but does not quite manage this. Alton Brown's nerdiness is better suited to his own Good Eats than as its version of the erudite Dr. Hattori. Still, my wife is a regular reader of Jeffrey Steingarten's Vogue columns and books, so his appearance as a judge is a highlight for her.

It has been some time since the show ran here. There is a petition to have the Food Network release it on DVD, but I frankly doubt that has much effect. In any case, this makes it likely that I misremember some details. So rather than repeatedly qualifying everything I have to say, I am putting this whole post under The Chairman's signature slogan at the top. If you remember something better, please do leave a comment.

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The name of the show is 料理の鉄人 ryōri no tetsujin; this appears on the screen with a whooshing sound effect before commercial breaks. The Wikipedia entry points out that this means 'Ironmen of Cooking,' which is literally true but makes it sound stranger than necessary. 料理 ryōri is 'cooking'; 料理人 ryōrinin is 'cook; chef'; 鉄 tetsu is 'iron; steel' (cf. Shinnittetsu.); 鉄人 tetsujin is 'iron man; strongman.' 料理人 + 鉄人 = 料理の鉄人. It's often hard (for us foreigners) to produce the right particles, but they're easier to understand. Iron Chef seems like a fine idiomatic translation, not a rebranding. Often the iron chefs are referred to as just tetsujin; it's easy to hear this when The Chairman announces that the Iron Chef has won at the end.

The version shown on Food Network is dubbed, which some say is part of its deliberate comic appeal. Some episodes subtitle The Chairman while dubbing the rest, which allows us to get a little more of the Japanese. For example, this reveals that the formula for introducing the challenger includes saying how old he or she is, which is completely ignored in the English.

The show is also a source of the occasional cultural tidbit. For instance, Japanese children hate green bell peppers, for which the French piment is borrowed as ピーマン pīman. They think that they taste bitter and smell like grass. This is parallel to what American kids think about, say, Brussel Sprouts. Traditions like this are interesting because they pass from one generation of children to the next by a combination of means. Adults outgrow their dislike, but still believe that children will not like them, and so send mixed messages when they try (and universally fail) to get their children to eat them a few times. Slightly older children pass the meme along in the same way as schoolyard rhymes. Yellow and red sweet bell peppers are all right. The proverb for show #45 was 緑は、キング。赤は、クイーン。黄は、プリンス。midori-wa, kingu / aka-wa, kuīn / ki-wa, purinsu 'green for the king, red for the queen, yellow for the prince,' manly bitter green, feminine sweet red, just-right yellow. That is why Kaga bites into a yellow pepper in the show's opening. Grownups occasionally maintain their childhood preference. This happened in the same episode, where a judge, a well-known writer, admitted that he still avoided green ones. Again, this is just like Bush 41 and broccoli.

The preparation skills and techniques are fascinating and the presentations quite artistic, but the meals themselves are a problem for a vegetarian: everything has meat or fish or both in it. So far as I know, only one challenger ever prepared a vegetarian menu: 藤井 宗哲 Fujī, Sotetsu, in show #47 of 9/23/94. Fujī is a Buddhist monk, 住職 jiyū-shiyoku 'Chief Priest' and 典座 tenzo 'Head Cook' of 不識庵 Fushiki-an Temple, and author of a number of cookbooks, some coauthored with his wife, who also has a book in English. This style of cooking 精進料理 shōjin ryōri 'devotion cooking' is at base vegan monk's food. As served to temple visitors, it has evolved an elaborate presentation, and is therefore actually considered rather extravagant. The challenger lost to Iron Chef Sakai, who did not himself prepare vegetarian dishes; the judges evidently found Fujī's bland.

Plant food words can be tricky. They can be regional and make distinctions of variety, size, shape, maturity, preparation and even intended use that botanists do not recognize. Dictionaries, even larger ones, often do not have enough space to reconcile taxonomist with greengrocer or homemaker. Translations rarely line up: two foreign terms can be translated by a single English term, of which there are several choices with different source sets. And it gets even more complicated as more languages and their respective translations are introduced. Of course, translation is not done without an intended target context as well as language. A word could mean one thing in the context of Italian food and another in the context of Korean food. But the simple distinctions like Chinese grocery or Ethiopian restaurant have been challenged by mega-supermarkets with worldwide produce and chefs producing pan-fusion cuisine. In particular, Iron Chef is a Japanese take on eclecticism. Sakai is the Iron Chef French. The obvious Japanese stamp on everything prepared is not qualitatively greater than when American cooking shows interpret food from everywhere.

With that in mind, what was the theme ingredient? The Japanese page 料理の鉄人1994 ryōri no tetsujin 1994 gives a table with battles for that year and Tetsujin confrontations record and とろろいも対決 tororo-imo taiketsu give detailed summaries; they all agree: とろろいも tororo-imo. 芋 imo is 'tuber'. とろろ芋 tororo-imo is translated by WWWJDIC as 'yam.' Tubers in the names of the dishes are 長芋 nagaimo and 山芋 yamaimo. Iron chef : The Official Book and the Food Network page also give 'Yam.' Iron Fans Online has a page for Battle Yam, which I imagine is based the English broadcast; it names the two varieties of yam used as "Nagaimo (Long Yams) and Ichiaimo (Knuckle Yams)." The 1994 table has an English version, IRON CHEF 1994, which says "grated yam." That is easy to clear up: とろろ tororo is 'grated yam'; とろろ芋 tororo-imo are the tubers you make it from, thus 'yams' (maybe even "grating yams," like "pickling cucumbers," but no one says that).

In America, yam usually means some variety of sweet potato. When qualified as true yams or something like that, it means those that come from Africa, such as are used to make fufu. (We got a bag of fufu flour from an African market up the street in Brighton; sadly the store did not last for long. They also had a good selection of palm oil, which carnivorous friends who wouldn't hesitate to eat a fried steak rebuked as unhealthy when they saw we had some.) Of course, in this context, since it is clear we are talking about native Japanese food, we know that they are Asian yams. At times when the show needed to be specific, they did dub in 'yam potato' and Dr. Hattori sometimes mentioned 'mountain yam.'

A trip to one of the local Japanese markets in Cambridge finds bulk sweet potatoes and taro, labeled さといも "taro potato", that is, 里芋 sato-imo. And slices of yam wrapped in plastic with no particular signs. Well, it is midwinter. A bigger market is needed. Search finds an online version in 野菜通販.com yasai tsūhan 'vegetable mail-order' and its 山芋 yamaimo section. (Of course, online there is no one to ask, "What is this called?" or "What is the difference between x and y?") Most are of the long variety, variously labeled, but mostly 長芋 nagaimo. It even has, for those in a hurry or planning a trip to space, フリーズドライ 山いも粉末 furīzu-dorai yamimo funmatsu 'freeze-dried mountain yam powder.' In another similar place is a picture showing three varieties of 山芋 yamaimo: bulbous, long, and hand-shaped.

The Japanese Wikipedia page for 卵かけご飯 tamago kake gohan has a link in the toppings subsection labeled とろろ芋 pointing to ヤマノイモ yamanoimo or 山芋 yamaimo, which gives the name of the plant as Dioscorea japonica. This plant is not listed on the English Yam page; but Dioscorea opposita is, whose own page has 山芋 yamaimo. This page points out the important fact that this species of yam can be eaten without cooking after a brief acidic bath, which is consistent with some of the preparations on the show.

Good Food from a Japanese Temple, an English-language book on shōjin ryōri, has an entry in its Ingredients chapter, yams, mountain (yama no imo, Yamato imo) … species Dioscorea, with the type best suited for the recipes called, variously, Yamato imo, itchō imo, te imo, Busshō imo (botanical: Dioscorea esculenta), etc. … shaped like a large hand or ginkgo leaf, … sweeter, … somewhat harder to find and less expensive than the long yam (naga imo; D. batatas) and an accompanying line drawing of Yamato imo and naga imo.

The handy A Dictionary of Japanese Food by Richard Hosking has an entry yamanoimo やまのいも  山の芋  薯蕷 yam Dioscorea japonica, … with cultivated varieties nagaimo and ichōimo 銀杏薯 (shaped like a ginkgo leaf), … also called yamaimo やまいも  山芋、薯蕷. The nagaimo entry says ながいも  長薯 Chinese yam Dioscorea opposita. Given the evident contradiction, it is worth noting that, in the Introduction, this book sagely observes, "My experience writing this book suggests that scientific names are the cause of more headaches than anything else in this world!" I assume that the purpose for giving three different 'plant' Radical Kanji for imo is to show all that the reader might encounter, although they are not laid out in any way that might suggest this. I don't think it's that uncommon for a native Japanese speaker to not know the Kanji for some foods and to have only seen them in the store in Kana. (After all, American stores are full of creative spellings of some foods.) These particular yams are common, though.

To try to help clear up the botany, there is the seriously cool Multilingual Multiscript Plant Name Database. Non-Roman scripts use images and Japanese only gives Kana, but it's usually clear from a dictionary. Dioscorea batatas has synonyms Dioscorea japonica, Dioscorea opposita and Dioscorea oppositifolia. Chinese: 山药 shan1 yao4, 薯蓣 shu3 yu4; English: Chinese yam, Chinese-potato, Cinnamon vine, Cinnamon yam, Common yam, Japanese yam, Long Chinese yam; Japanese: 長芋 nagaimo, つくね芋 tsukune imo, とろろ芋 tororo-imo, 山芋 yamaimo; Malay: Ubi. There is also an entry for Dioscorea esculenta: Chinese 甘薯 gan1 shu3; Japanese トゲドコロ togedokoro. That is not the vegetable in question, although it was mentioned by one of the books above. Also one of its English names is Chinese yam, illustrating an earlier point. If only the M.M.P.N.D had a Unicode version, and more Kanji.

I have not been able to find "Ichiaimo" online except on the fans' page, I assume it is the same as ichōimo; hapax legomena are still not unheard of in Google, so this is not conclusive. Interestingly enough, there are no other hits for "Knuckle Yams," either.

Anyway, how about this? Theme ingredient: Japanese Mountain Yam; specific varieties Long Japanese Yam and Ginkgo Yam. Here are some Google Image searches: 山芋 yamaimo 'Japanese Mountain Yam'; ながいも nagaimo 'Long Japanese Yam'; イチョウ芋 ichōimo 'Ginkgo Yam.' I don't know of a way to do multi-word or searches in other scripts, so I have chosen whichever got more hits between Kanji and Kana.

Here is the menu, based on the detail pages linked to above, with a few annotations.

  • 山芋飯 yamaimo mesi — Yam Rice
  • すいとろsuitoro (some way of preparing grated yam) — Muscat and Watershield in grated yam
  • 吉野和えyoshino-ae — Yoshino Salad
  • 長芋のゆば包み揚げ nagaimo no yuba tsutsumi-age 'long yams wrapped in beancurd-skin and deep-fried' — Fried Yam in Yuba (Prawn Imitation)
  • かまぼこもどき (蒲鉾擬き) kamaboko-modoki 'mock fish paste' — Grilled Yam

The proverb for the battle? 山薬は人肌 yama kusuri ha hitohada — “the mountain Medicine should be kept at body Temperature”: serve yams not too cold and not too hot; plus a bit of Buddhist μηδέν άγαν.

I imagine that some of the Valentine's Day chocolate all-dessert battles had vegetarian offerings by accident. The only other dish that I recall being consciously vegetarian was in show #42 8/19/94 with challenger 小林カツ代 Kobayashi, Katsuyo. Kobayashi had her own TV show and is also the author of a number of cookbooks. Her specialty is simple Japanese housewife cooking. The theme ingredient was another tuber, ジャガ芋 jagaimo 'potato.' The dish in question was 畑のつみれ hatake no tsumire, fried balls of potato and tofu. Normally, tsumire is made with fish. (Though Hosking does mention the yam and tofu variation in the tsumire つみれ  摘入 entry.) When one of the male judges (politician 栗本 慎一郎 Kurimoto, Shinichiro or Rosajin scholar 平野 雅章 Hirano, Masaaki) complained that there didn't seem to be any fish in the dish, Kobayashi replied that she had intentionally made one dish "Monk's food" (精進料理, I assume, although all I have to go on is the dubbing), adopting the "I know what's best for you" tone that mothers everywhere use on their sons no matter how old or how powerful. She easily defeated Iron Chef Chen, who developed a reputation for (only) losing to women.


L said...

And I thought it was just me getting into tangles over the tubers used in okonomiyaki.
Thank you for your explanations, I found them very useful.
Anyone know of any cheap sources in London (other than the Japan Centre... not so cheap). I have a bit of an okonomiyaki fixation.

Bill Mak said...

Thanks! Indeed I prefer the fresh nagaimo than the dried ones you can get from Chinese stores. I used to like the dried ones a lot in soup but it seems difficult to get good ones these days since they are often bleached with sulphur and they taste acidic afterward.