Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Nijiya Market: Japanese Living on Convoy

I’ve long been a fan of Mitsuwa, formerly Yaohan, on Mercury, off of Balboa in Kearny Mesa. Okay, their produce department is modest, but I enjoy their wide variety of teas, sake, sashimi-grade fish, frozen delicacies and, most of all, the fresh sushi. I’d never really thought about shopping for Japanese products elsewhere until I decided to follow Mineko Takane Moreno around on her tour of Nijiya Market. Years ago, I’d taken a beginning sushi class from Mineko at Great News (alright, I promise to check out other cooking schools in town!) and learned more than the basics from this petite, elegant woman. She is extremely knowledgeable (she’s the co-author, with my old friend Judi Strada, of Sushi for Dummies) and could probably spend days in the market, explaining what’s in various mysterious jars, bottles and plastic bags and how they can be used. In fact, if she’s game, I’d do it again to hit all the things time constraints forced us to miss.

And, I’ll definitely be returning on my own to Nijiya Market. First of all, their produce department is a delight, especially because they sell what they grow on their own organic farm. Here were the standouts:

  • Enormous daikon radish, which I love to eat raw, but is perfect grated as a condiment to accompany fish or other protein (just don’t put the grated daikon in the refrigerator or everything inside will smell).
  • Lanky long onions—at least two feet in length—that can be thinly sliced and rinsed for use as a condiment for noodles and dipping sauces or simmered with beef, grilled with chicken or cooked with duck in udon noodle soup.
  • Mounds of gorgeous kabocha squash, ready for baking, grilling, roasting, deep frying as tempura or pureed as a substitute for chestnuts. Last night, I chopped one up and simmered it with sliced green onions in rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil and a little sugar. It took perhaps 20 minutes and was delicious with steamed rice sprinkled with Shichimi togarashi, a seven-spice chili seasoning combining chili flakes, black and white sesame seeds, poppy seeds, sancho (a Japanese pepper), aonori (a type of seaweed) and Mandarin orange peel.
  • Burdock, an earthy-looking long and slender brown root wrapped in cellophane, enjoyed in stir fries. Peel it and add to roast chicken with other root vegetables.
  • A variety of herbs and leaves, like Chrysanthemum leaves, used in one-pot dishes, tempura, sushi rolls and salad; Ooba, a mint-like herb with antisceptic powers, enjoyed with raw fish, on top of wasabi ice cream or with pasta instead of basil and Kinome, the leaf of Japanese peppers. This has a very strong flavor that can be released if you put it in one hand and smack it with the other.

Be sure to investigate the various mushrooms, taro root, lotus root and Naga-imo, or long mountain yam. Long, straight and a light beige color, they’re displayed surrounded by sawdust. It can be crunchy like jicama, but peel it and it’s a bit slimy. Eat it raw or cooked but just peel the skin first.

I didn’t even mention fruit, but there’s plenty—kumquats, fuji apples, satsuma oranges and amazingly huge and sweet grapes. I swear they tasted like apples.

Okay, moving on. If you enjoy pickled fruits and vegetables, Nijiya Market has a great selection (although Mitsuwa, with its own little room for their pickles, wins this competition). Alongside pickled plums (often placed on top of a mound of white rice to imitate the Japanese flag), there were bottles of Neriume, which Mineko explained is a paste made of Japanese apricot and used like mustard on salmon or in a vinaigrette.

There is a huge selection of different misos—white, dark, saikyo (sweet compared to regular white miso) and even an organic miso. Next to them is a variety of tofu and soy products. You’ll find bags upon bags of rice—avoid the mochi gome, or sweet rice if you’re looking for something for a daily meal. It’s simply too sticky. Mineko enjoys shorter grain Kagayaki California premium rice.

Like at 99 Ranch Market and Mitsuwa, I was overwhelmed by the selections of soy sauces, ponzu sauces, rice wines and rice vinegars (not to mention the various spices, noris and other packaged products). All I can say is take a tour with someone like Mineko to learn the distinctions. The choices here are amazing and picking just the right type, whether it's light or dark soy sauce or light or dark rice vinegar, can make a big difference in the dishes you prepare.

I was delighted to find a gorgeous display of meats and fish, although naively I was shocked at some of the prices. Sashimi-grade toro goes for $80 a pound as do geoduck clams; blue fin tuna for $70. They sell a long, iridescent fish called sanma, which I’ll try in the summer so I can grill it whole. The market has a wonderful display of freshly made sushi and bento boxes, as well as fish cakes, spring rolls, croquettes and tempura and they have an in-store bakery that sells large boxy loaves of white bread.

While my idea of the perfect day touring Nijiya would end with a return to someone’s home to go cook up our purchases, we did the next best thing—ate a homestyle lunch at nearby Sakura Restaurant. Our group of 20 enjoyed shrimp and assorted vegetable tempura, miso-marinated grilled salmon with grated dikon, tofu and wakame miso soup, sweet and salty root vegetables, a salad and mochi ice cream. I recommend Sakura so out of kindness, here’s how you find this unmarked eatery: It’s located on Convoy in the same strip mall as the Original Pancake House. Look for the doorway under the brown awning next to the Army recruiting office. That’s it. Why there’s no sign, I’ve no clue, but people know it’s there because it was packed on Sunday afternoon. I plan to return on an evening when owner and chef Kazuya Maeda serves sake with “tapas”-style treats.

Finally, at lunch I asked Mineko to recommend the best Japanese cookbooks around. She offered three, which I found available on Amazon.com:

  • Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen by Elizabeth Andoh
  • Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji
  • The Japanese Kitchen by Hiroko Shimbo

Nijiya Market is located at 3860 Convoy St. in Sunrise Towne Centre. It’s just north of Aero Drive.

Sakura Restaurant is located at 3904 Convoy St.

Have some thoughts about Nijiya Market or other Japanese markets in San Diego? Add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

Monday, March 19, 2007

Ker & Little India: The Spice of Life on Black Mountain Road

Last week I was introduced to the charm and wisdom of Shital Parikh. A maven of Indian cooking, Shital taught the class “Indian Delights” I attended at—yes—Great News, but she also teaches at the Balboa Park Food and Wine School, Kitchen Witch and Sur La Table. And, she’s working on a cookbook.

My criteria for taking a cooking class is to make sure I’ll learn either new techniques or the mysteries of an unfamiliar cuisine—or, even better, both. Shital taught me how to make ghee (clarified butter), a staple of Indian cooking, and a variety of lovely dishes, like Khamman, a savory steamed yellow cake made with besan flour; Kadhi Chutney, made with yogurt, besan flour and spices and Massor Dal, a red lentil soup combining onions, tomatoes, ginger and spices. I was intrigued by Asofetida powder (which smells strongly of garlic and onion), black mustard seeds and pappad, a flat dry spicy tortilla-like bread that can be roasted or fried.

All this is by way of saying that while I’ve always enjoyed the occasional Indian meal, Shital enticed me into exploring Indian food in a way I’d never much considered—and sent me off the following day to Ker & Little India on Black Mountain Road, just north of Miramar. Ker & Little India is one of several markets and restaurants that make up the Little India Center. It’s a huge warehouse, a grocery store, but with the added attraction of video, clothing and toiletry sections. And, a vegetarian restaurant that also does catering. This is where Indian ex-pats come to shop from all over San Diego County.

And, no wonder. I imagine that anyone from India feeling homesick for the familiar takes comfort seeing shelves filled with bottles of Thums Up and 20-pound burlap bags bulging with basmati rice, the air itself fragrant with cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, dhana jeera powder (a blend of coriander and cumin), turmeric and chillis. There’s an entire wall lined with freezers and refrigerators stocked with prepared foods, yogurt, paneer and butter. You can find a variety of teas, masoor and other lentils, beans and a variety of produce, including tiny round purple eggplants, cucumbers, okra and bitter gourd.

I had a long list of ingredients I was searching for, based on Shital’s recipes. I found those and more. Like the packaged fresh methi tepla, which looks like a thick yellowish tortilla. All you need to do is heat them up in the microwave. With no ingredients listed on the label, I had to guess what they were made of and was convinced they were based on chickpea flour but Shital later told me they are a combination of whole wheat flour, turmeric, salt, sugar, sesame seeds, garlic, ginger, methi (from the fresh leaves of the fenugreek plant—often used as a digestive aid and to fight infection). I figured they'd be good with yogurt, so I mixed about a cup of yogurt with a couple of tablespoons of a spicy red garlic chutney I found on the shelves. That was delicious, but Shital sent me a recipe for Cucumber Raita to accompany methi tepla that she has kindly allowed me to publish here:


Cool and soothing yogurt that complements spicy Indian food.

About this dish: Yogurt is used in the daily diet almost all over India. Though this dish is more popular in the Northern and Western regions, variations of seasoned yogurt can be found in all regions of India.

Difficulty level: Beginner

Preparation time: 10 minutes

Mixing time: 5 minutes

Serves as a side dish in a meal for 6


Plain Yogurt - 1 cup, whipped

English cucumber grated – 1 cup packed. Peel and grate.

Roasted Cumin powder – ¼ tsp

Pepper powder – 1/8th tsp

Yellow Mustard powder – 1/8th tsp

Sugar – 2 tsp

Salt – ¾ tsp or to taste


Mix all the ingredients. Refrigerate until serving.



Canola Oil – 1 tsp

Fresh curry leaves – 4

Serrano Chili – ¼ , sliced into thin rounds

Black Mustard seeds – ¼ tsp


Heat the oil in a small pan. Add the black mustard seeds when the oil is hot. They will start to crackle and fly about. Turn off the gas. Add the Serrano Chilies and curry leaves. Restart the gas to a low flame. Cook for a minute or until you can smell the flavor of the chili and the leaves. Add to the cucumber yogurt mixture and refrigerate until serving.

Serve cold. Refrigerate until serving.

Reprinted courtesy of Shital Parikh

I also discovered the snack section. The choices were astonishing, but I selected a bag of Charkri/Muruku made by Surati. This is an extruded flour twist, coiled into a crunchy round the size of a dollar coin, made with flour, green chilli, sesame seeds, ginger, salt, chilli powder, turmeric and caraway seeds. It’s got a bit of kick to it—always a plus for me.

When I wandered over to the produce, I was struck by the unfamiliar—to me—bitter gourd, long and bumpy with a little twirling string at one end. Fortunately, I found someone to ask about this strangely shaped fruit.

Nita, with her adorable little girl Parishi, stopped to explain that bitter gourd—also known as Karela, Balsam pear or bitter melon—is native to South Asia. Nita slices and fries them with salt and pepper. They are bitter, of course, when eaten raw, so I learned that the gourd should be peeled lightly, have the ends trimmed and a deep slit sliced into it lengthwise. Sprinkle it generously with salt and let it exude the bitter juices for an hour or two before rinsing it thoroughly and drying before cutting. Then, they can be fried as chips, made into pickles, stuffed or stir-fried. A good resource for bitter gourd recipes is bawarchi.com.

All this marketing can lead to a grumbling stomach. I purposely didn’t buy anything that would spoil so I could walk over to Ashoka for their buffet lunch. Buffets can be a disappointment, but Ashoka offers flavorful food on the line. I had a taste of a dark, rich lamb curry, heavenly Tandoori chicken, a mushroom masala and for dessert, a bowl of kheer, a sweet rice pudding. With that comes a large basket of nan.

So, now to check on the next class Shital teaches…

Ker & Little India is located at 9520 Black Mountain Road.

Ashoka is located at 9474 Black Mountain Road.

Both are in the Little India Center on the west side of Black Mountain Road just north of Miramar near the I-15.

Have some thoughts about Ker & Little India or other Indian markets in San Diego? Add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Foodstuff Miscellany

  • With spring upon us gardeners, it's time start hitting up Starbucks for their free used coffee grounds. Sunset Magazine sent a batch to a lab for analysis. They learned that the grounds offer phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and copper and release nitrogen into the soil as they decompose. Sunset suggests digging or tilling the grounds into the soil to a depth of 6 to 8 inches. They're also great to add to compost for a nitrogen boost. If you go to Starbucks on March 15 between 10 a.m. and noon, you can get a free 12 oz. cup of their premium drip coffee. Yes, free!
  • The talk of Point Loma is the new Trader Joe's in Liberty Station. It's a big barn-like store with wide aisles much easier to navigate than my haunts in Hillcrest and La Jolla. It's just off Rosecrans at Womble Road.
  • Next time you're at Great News for a class or to buy cookware, head to the back of the store and check out the oils, vinegars, rubs, spices and chocolates. I couldn't resist a bottle of the Stella Cadente Blood Orange Oil, made with cold press extra virgin olive oil (the meyer lemon version is also amazing). I love to roast shrimp, so I sprinkled it on the shrimp along with a little salt before roasting the shrimp at 425 degrees for six minutes. Stunning. I also picked up a bottle of 30-year aged Columela sherry vinegar. If you want one even older, try the 53-year aged Amontillado by La Espanola. On the shelves is also Ina Garten's line of Barefoot Contessa products.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Con Pane: The Rise of Dough in Pt. Loma

There's dough and then there’s dough, and Catherine Perez is an expert at both. An Illinois native, Perez arrived in San Diego 20 years ago to attend San Diego State and became a financial analyst. Several years ago, however, Perez decided she wanted to start her own business. What it would be she had no firm idea. Before Hillcrest’s Bread and Cie had arrived, it was her personal quest for a good loaf of bread in San Diego that led to her first “aha” moment and the birth of her Point Loma artisan bakery, Con Pane Rustic Breads & Cafe.

She regularly checked out artisan breads on her travels and studied baking with a French master baker in Minneapolis. Then came her second “aha” moment. On a bike ride with a friend through Point Loma, she took in the charming homes and feeling of neighborliness and realized that it was the perfect place for her gestating business. After scouting locations, she set her sights on the former Wells Fargo Bank at the corner of Rosecrans and Cañon. Some intense negotiating in the form of bread tastings won some interest from the new owner; what sealed the deal, she says with a smile, was her now signature Turkey Cobb sandwich.

Con Pane opened in June 1999. Perez lured her best buddy, Emanuel Burgin, from Prague, where he was writing a book, to help her out. His first project was to paint the large airy space, and help put together the 10-ton oven imported in pieces from France. Then Perez taught him her baking skills and she says he’s become quite the baker himself.

Con Pane now has five bakers who produce more than two dozen varieties of bread—everything from traditional French baguettes to olive bread, challah, ciabatta and Cranberry Orange Walnut.

Among the favorites are the Gruyere & Chive bread (made Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday), the daily-baked Point Loma Sourdough, and her Portuguese Sweet Bread (made on Sunday). But, she also bakes hamburger buns and pastries like scones, brioche cinnamon rolls and outrageous Milk Chocolate Chunk and Walnut, and Butter Toffee Peanut Butter cookies. Con Pane also makes and sells luscious sandwiches, and coffee. The space is filled with tables and chairs for dining in, but everything, including box lunches for concerts or picnics, is available for taking out.

The breads are Perez’s own recipes. “I’ve taken the European way of baking bread, and added American taste,” she explains. “We like to add things like cheese and herbs and nuts.” And, she adds, she even makes her own yeast.

Recently, Con Pane has started selling their breads wholesale. So, if you dine at 1500 Ocean at the Hotel Del Coronado, Jordan Restaurant in Pacific Beach’s Tower23 Hotel or The 3rd Corner Wine Shop and Bistro in Ocean Beach, you’ll enjoy Con Pane breads with your meal.

Yesterday, I picked up a big bagful of baked goods, starting, of course with the Gruyere & Chive bread. I went home and used it in a veggie sandwich with home-roasted red peppers, romaine lettuce and a slathering of roasted garlic humus. With the idea of eating more healthfully, I also bought a loaf of the Artisan Multi-Grain. A good choice since the bread has a deep, rich flavor, both nutty and earthy, completely unlike the processed whole wheat breads you find in the supermarket. It will be perfect for a turkey sandwich or simply toasted with a little honey spread on top.

I can’t wait to try the Gorgonzola, Red Onion & Walnut Focaccia that was fixedly staring me in the face on the top of the counter.

I admit, I also picked up a couple of the cookies and an Apricot Spice scone. The scone is moist with bursts of plump dried apricot; the sanding sugar topping provides a nice crunch. The cookies speak for themselves. Chocolate chips and walnuts are my perfect combination for a cookie and Perez does it more than justice with a very sophisticated milk chocolate. The sweet butter toffee in the peanut butter cookie is the perfect foil for its salty nuttiness.

By the way, a nice end note for Peres that customers should know is that all of the breads that are unsold at the end of the night are donated to St. Agnes Church, which distributes them to area shut-ins and St. Vincent de Paul’s Homeless Shelter.

Con Pane is located in the Point Loma Village at 1110 Rosecrans St., Suite 100.

Have some thoughts about Con Pane or other artisan bakeries in San Diego? Add to the conversation by clicking on comments below:

Saturday, March 3, 2007

99 Ranch Market: Thrilling to Asian Foods

It’s the Chinese New Year and I thought it would be a perfect time to tool around 99 Ranch Market on Clairemont Mesa Blvd. for the makings of a robust stir fry and pick up some of my favorite treats. Okay, I’m not especially fond of larger supermarkets—and 99 Ranch Market is certainly that—but it offers an entirely different selection of products than you’d find at your local Ralphs or Vons. In fact, it’s one of the largest Asian-American supermarket chains in the U.S., catering primarily to Chinese Americans, but you’ll find products exported from the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, Japan and Thailand. (Surprisingly, I also found cases of Manischewitz “kosher for Passover” concord grape wine—so they must have figured out that they have some Jewish customers. I picked up a bottle for my annual harosets seder contribution.) And, with its live fish counter, a meat/poultry counter filled with such delicacies as duck and chicken feet, goat legs and pork snouts, along with more traditional fare, it’s actually a fun place to bring young kids and introduce them to new flavors. Their reward? A stop at the bakery counter for a sweet or their choice of an unusual package of candy from Japan.

On this trip, I met my parents for a leisurely lunch at 168, the little restaurant that fronts the market. Then we found a green cart and headed for the produce department. My mother has initiated a new game there. She stands in front of a bin of fruit or veggies unfamiliar to her and then engages a fellow shopper to explain what it is and how to prepare it.

Yesterday, her first stop was in front of delicately wrapped pale yellow yali pears. Unsure of the rules of engagement with this fruit, she discovered a willing translator, a middle-aged woman who explained that while they need to ripen, yali pears should be eaten when they get just a little yellow. My mom excitedly passed on the fact that when ripe they have the texture of juicy watermelon.

Taking her cue, I headed over to the bamboo shoots. To be honest, I had a slight advantage over my mom because I’ve taken a fabulous class through Great News. Allison Sherwood, Great News' Cooking School Director, leads a Saturday morning tour of 99 Ranch Market, followed by dim sum at Jasmine over on Convoy near Balboa. Allison is wonderfully knowledgeable and with the help of a handout she’s prepared, you can go fearlessly into 99 Ranch and conquer the produce and condiments without too much trouble. Since my tour, I have never again touched a canned bamboo shoot or water chestnut.

Luckily, water chestnuts were in season when I was there yesterday, so I bagged a batch of them before heading over to the bamboo shoots. All you need to do with water chestnuts is select those that are firm, and then use a sharp peeler to take off the gorgeous mahogany colored skin before popping them in your mouth or slicing them for a stir fry. If you need to store them for a day or two, fill a bowl with water, place the peeled water chestnuts in the water and then refrigerate. The bamboo shoots, as Alison explained and the young man shopping for them yesterday offered as well, need to have the outer bark peeled off (just grab each layer and yank) and the base and remaining tip cut off. After that, preparation depends on the dish you’re making. I’ve been told to boil the peeled shoot for about half an hour until it’s soft, then slice to add to a stir fry. My handsome new friend said that really wasn’t necessary, but I still plan to boil the one I bought yesterday.

Meanwhile, my mother was over at the Chinese broccoli, looking a bit confused. An older man bounded over and asked if she wanted to know how to prepare them the way you get them in restaurants. Mom was giddy. First trim the bottom and peel some of the tough stalk away on thicker pieces. Boil them briefly in water—say, for two minutes or so—and then drain and arrange on a platter. Heat some oyster sauce with oil and drizzle over the broccoli. That’s it. We’ll see. Tonight, my plan is to do a stir fry with chicken, Chinese broccoli (trimmed and briefly blanched) and sliced shitaki mushrooms flavored with garlic, baby ginger and a little sesame oil. At the end of the cooking process I’ll take the wok off the heat and add the bamboo shoots, sliced water chestnuts, sliced green onions and pea shoots, stirring them together. Then a couple of dashes of oyster sauce. This will be great with rice, of course, but an unusual rice combo I found at 99 Ranch Market—8-Blend Whole Grain Rice, produced by Mogami. It comes in a five-pound bag and is embarrassingly expensive. But it’s utterly delicious and filled with nutritious fiber from short and long grain brown rice, black rice, maple rice, red rice, red wheat and barley.

Fresh produce is by no means the only attraction at 99 Ranch Market. Fresh (and by fresh I mean live) fish and seafood is available and can be cleaned on the spot for you.

Prepared fish salads, like salted herring roe and cuttle fish, seasoned webfoot octopus and seasoned chukka salad are packaged nearby.

Packaged fish heads for stews are available and some sashimi grade fish. Snacks are abundant and my new favorite is garlic flavor peanuts both in the shell (Farmer Brand) and in a shelled store-packaged version that you can find on the top of the prepared food counter (in fact, they may go in my stir fry tonight, too). I discovered the in-shell packages a few weeks ago as I was walking by on my way to the fish counter. A woman rolled up her cart behind me and started filling it with bags of the legumes. I turned and gave her a curious look and she exclaimed that they were completely addictive and her husband and sons live on these while watching TV. Good enough for me. I bought a bag, found she was right and returned for more. But, of course, you have to love garlic.

Peanuts not your thing? How about those amazing custard tarts you can get at dim sum? 99 Ranch Market’s bakery sells them—and they’re larger by a third than what you get at Jasmine or Emerald. And really delicious. You can also get birthday cakes, marble cake, elephant ear puff pastry cookies and sesame balls. Next to the bakery is the takeaway food counter, filled with dim sum delights and other tempting dishes.

I haven’t covered the half of it. There’s plenty to discover and I highly recommend touring the market with Allison Sherwood to reduce the intimidation factor. Or, do what my mom does, and chat up a willing shopper. Maybe you’ll even get invited to dinner.

99 Ranch Market is located at 7330 Clairemont Mesa Blvd., just east of the 805 freeway.

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