Special Sauce: Kenji on Competitive Cooking; Ivan Orkin and Chris Ying on Being Gaijin [2/2]

On this week’s Special Sauce, we take a deep dive into The Gaijin Cookbook: Japanese Recipes from a Chef, Father, Eater, and Lifelong Outsider, the new cookbook from Ivan Orkin and Chris Ying.

We pick up where we left off in last week’s conversation, and Chris and Ivan talk about how this new project came about. They said that while their previous collaboration, Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo’s Most Unlikely Noodle Joint was received well, they decided they’d like to try writing a book that was more focused on cooking. And, as Chris tells me, as they tried to figure out what that book would look like, “I wanted to figure out specifically what it was that made a Japanese cookbook from Ivan and me worth buying or what the perspective was that made sense. We…pretty quickly arrived at this thing that Ivan’s a gaijin. I’m a Chinese guy; I’m a gaijin. We can’t hide that. There’s no pretending otherwise.”

After they figured out an approach, the rest was relatively simple: Ivan supplying the recipes and the anecdotes, and Chris figuring out how to cobble them together into an organized whole. And the result is a book filled with observations about Japan that are incredibly personal, accompanied by recipes and guides for how to enjoy them. For example, here’s Ivan talking about Japanese New Year:

“So, New Year’s food, it’s a little like Shabbos. You cook all day on Friday and then you turn off the stove, you got your cholent on the stone thing and you just eat from that and you relax. Japanese New Year’s, you cook all these things, a lot of the little treats have different meanings about long life and sweetness and bitterness and whatever…On New Year’s Day, you wake up in the morning and…everybody in the country just sits down and watches TV and drinks and eats delicious food.”

In addition to Chris and Ivan, Kenji and Stella pop up in the episode to dispense some advice. Kenji fields a question from Christian Hiller, who’s looking for some advice about competing on the Swedish version of MasterChef. Stella, on the other hand, comes on to talk pie dough, just in time for Thanksgiving, the biggest pie day of all.

Chris and Ivan on Japanese food, Kenji on cooking competitions, and Stella on pie dough? It just might be a perfect Special Sauce episode.


Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce 2.0, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we begin with Ask Kenji, where Kenji Lopez-Alt, Serious Eats’ chief culinary consultant gives the definitive answer to the question of the week that a serious eater like you has sent us.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: What you really need to do to impress a judge is show them who you are and what your cooking is and you have to have personality.

EL: After Ask Kenji, a conversation with our guests, Chef Ivan Orkin, and writer and man about food and media, Chris Ying, the co-authors of The Gaijin Cookbook.

Ivan OrkinKuuki o yomu which means reading the air, and meiwaku which means being obtrusive and getting in people’s way, and that the Japanese… I always say I feel like Japanese people, of course not all of them, but in general, almost like they have an invisible bubble that spreads three feet all the way around them.

Chris Ying: But that doesn’t close them in, but that they’re aware of everything.

IO: No, but that they’re aware, and if their music is a little loud from the headphones, they’ll notice it and turn it down a little bit.

EL: So it’s a semi-permeable membrane.

IO: Yes.

CY: It’s a semi-permeable membrane.

EL: And finally on today’s podcast, a teachable moment in Serious Eats’ test kitchen.

SP: European style butters tend to be a little bit softer, which makes the dough squishy and this is America.

EL: First up, our chief culinary consultant, author of The Food Lab, Kenji Lopez-Alt. And Kenji, serious eater Christian Hiller says, “I’ve been following you for years Kenji now and nothing has influenced and elevated my cooking like you and The Food Lab. Can’t wait for The Food Lab Part Two. Now, I’m looking to compete in the Swedish MasterChef.”

JKLA: Okay.

EL: “What dish would you suggest one making for the audition to impress the judges?”

JKLA: So, first of all we’re assuming right now that you’ve got some pretty good technical chops and that most of the people who are going to make it on the show have good technical chops. So, you have to have personality. It’s like writing. Anybody can put words together and write a coherent sentence, but finding your voice is the difficult part in writing and it’s the same in cooking.

Figuring out what it is that makes your cooking uniquely you is tough, but that’s the kind of thing I think you do need to bring to a competition show. You need to show your personality. Especially a televised one. You need to show your personality, both on screen and in your food.

JKLA: The answer, I think, for how to impress a judge, is to be confident, find a dish that you love to make and that means something to you and that you’ve made many times and that you know is delicious. Even if it’s very simple, just be confident with that choice because the one that means the most to you I think is the one that you’re going to cook most passionately and that’s going to speak loudest to the judges.

EL: And isn’t it also, people tend to want to impress the judges with complicated dishes?

JKLA: More stuff. Yeah, yeah. I’ve fallen victim to this for sure. Yeah, yeah, where you’re like, “All right, I can do this, I can do this, I can do this.” Because in the real world when you’re designing a dish or when you’re writing or something, there’s always time to edit right?

JKLA: My process is generally I just throw a bunch of stuff up and then edit and cut, cut, cut. Whereas on a competition show, especially a timed competition show, and I’ve never seen Swedish MasterChef, so I don’t know exactly what it’s like, but assuming it’s a timed competition show, you don’t have time for those edits.

So you start making things and you’re like, “All right, I already got this going. I have to use it.” Yeah, I’d say that would be one bit of advice I would have for anybody on a cooking competition show is it’s okay to start something and abandon it. You don’t have to finish everything just because you started and putting more components in a dash might be technically impressive, but it’s not what’s going to win the competition.

EL: Absolutely. Christian, we wish you luck. We’ve never seen Swedish MasterChef, but I’m sure it’s the same as the MasterChefs all over the world. I thank you Kenji and I know that Christian thanks you for your wisdom. Kenji Lopez-Alt is Serious Eats’ chief culinary consultant and author of The Food Lab.

EL: Ivan Orkin is the owner of two terrific restaurants in New York City, Ivan Ramen and The Slurp Shop. Chris Ying was one of the founding editors of the late lamented Lucky Peach, an executive at David Chang’s Major Domo Productions. Welcome back, my friends.

EL: Let’s talk about The Gaijin Cookbook. I think the subtitle says a lot. “Japanese recipes from a chef, father, eater, and lifelong outsider.” How did the idea for The Gaijin Cookbook come about? Did you have to fill a contract or… I’ve been around the block a few times.

IO: It’s interesting. The Ivan Ramen book was very successful, I think. We were very happy with it. People received it well, it sold well, and then Chris and I went off in different directions and then Chris, I think, the Lucky Peach thing stopped and he was getting into other stuff. He had some time and I had some time and we stayed close and we talked a lot and saw each other when we could.

IO: Then one day, one of us said, “Maybe we should do another book.” It’s funny because the book really would look nothing like this when we first started talking.

EL: What was it going to be?

IO: It was going to be like another… What was it going to be? Memoir-ish?

CY: No. No, I was not going to write another memoir.

IO: It was going to be the—It was the Chris Ying story with recipes by Ivan Orkin.

CY: It was Ivan telling my story. No, no, no. I know what you’re talking about, Ivan. What happened was the Ivan Ramen book is really more about the spirit of what Ivan did and there’s a very, very true and serviceable ramen recipe and a few side recipes in there, but it was really about Ivan’s story which is so incredibly compelling.

But we made it very clear that it wasn’t a traditional cookbook and yet, it did bother us to some extent that there was not enough stuff in there for you to cook from and it didn’t really speak to home cooks who wanted to recreate or to taste these things or-

IO: It was very niche.

CY: It was very niche.

IO: It was very niche.

CY: So we started talking about, “Can we do a book that’s more about actual cooking?” Ivan and I just started talking but actually we were in Australia together, I think, talking about this and he was talking about home cooking and things like that. I wanted to do it very badly because I had eaten with Ivan so many times, I love the food he cooks.

CY: But I wanted to figure out specifically what it was that made a Japanese cookbook from Ivan and me worth buying or what the perspective was that made sense. We went through all kinds of run arounds, but pretty quickly arrived at this thing that Ivan’s a Gaijin, I’m a Chinese guy. I’m a Gaijin, we got to lean into that and just-

EL: Yeah, you have to lean into your outsider insider status.

CY: Yeah. We can’t hide that. There’s no point in pretending otherwise.

IO: It’s also the fact that you brought up the whole cultural appropriation thing, which I have lots of mixed feelings about but the fact is, is that I have never pretended to be anything but myself and-

EL: I think you and I can both attest to that, right? Can we not? I’ve never seen Ivan stop being Ivan.

CY: I wish you would pretend a little bit more.

EL: First of all, have you ever seen the way he holds a fork? It’s really… He has to do better.

CY: It’s like the first time he’s ever seen one.

IO: But the whole idea of being The Gaijin Cookbook is everything I’ve done, the whole Ivan Ramen thing was really more of just my expression of my love for Japan and everything Japanese and wanting to share Japan with people and yet, Ivan Ramen is not an authentic, traditional ramen shop. It’s my shop. I lived there for a long time.

I know what really good ramen tastes like and I had to make ramen that Japanese people would enjoy, so it leans towards very Japanese because it would’ve been stupid to try to do something that people didn’t understand and that’s how I’ve become a cook and I’ve raised children in Japan and I have a woman that I married from Japan, so I cook food from her country and she’s been my tutor.

We’ve worked together over our marriage to make great food for our kids and to create a Japanese feeling in our home because I think it’s important for her to feel comfortable and to have a slice of her life at home.

EL: Got it.

IO: And so, I think that we started talking about how do we lay this out there and it was a lot of fun because there was a lot of ways to create the structure of the book and we had the recipes. That wasn’t really hard, and Chris really coming up with some really great ways to slot in all these different recipes and all the different vignettes, these little stories of things that happened to me while I was living there.

EL: Yeah. Chris is a storyteller. In another story about you that I read, “I like telling stories about people, whether through food or other lenses. It seems to be what I’m good at and it makes me feel useful to society.” Actually, I now have that over my door because it’s really true and I think you had stories that needed to be told.

You honed in on a specific story, this outsider insider story and then that was your point of departure for The Gaijin Cookbook, correct?

IO: Yeah.

CY: Yeah, I think that Ivan has all these stories to tell and in this case, my only job was to figure out how to organize them. What was the central thing behind the stories and recipes that he used at home. I asked him, I said, “Name for me the five things, the five big takeaways for you about living in Japan, whether or not they’re cliched or original or whatever.” Those things he said pretty much ended up being the way we-

EL: Organized the book. That’s fascinating.

CY: It had nothing to do with food actually. He would say, “Oh, I found everybody to be so courteous and thoughtful and it speaks to this thing called…”

IOMeiwaku o kakenai.

CY: Yeah, which is just reading the air around you and understanding, if I’m sitting on the subway and I man spread, it’s going to bug people and I shouldn’t do that.

IO: The two ideas. Kuuki o yomu which means reading the air and meiwaku which means being obtrusive and getting in peoples’ way and that the Japanese… I always say I feel like Japanese people, of course not all of them, but in general almost like they have an invisible bubble that spreads three feet all the way around them.

CY: But that doesn’t close them in, but that they’re aware of everything-

IO: No, but they’re aware and if they see garbage on the floor, they might pick it up.

CY: Right.

IO: If their music is a little loud from the headphones, they’ll notice it and turn it down a little bit.

EL: So, it’s a semi-permeable membrane.

IO: Yes.

CY: Semi-permeable membrane.

EL: Let’s talk about the organization of the book. Each element, right? The first one is eat more Japanese.

CY: Right.

EL: Where’d that come from?

IO: I mean, it’s healthier a little bit. Not to go too extreme, but it’s on the lighter side, right? Japanese food and…

CY: That chapter had its own sort of break down of… It’s funny because it’s a little side ways reference to Lost In Translation where you’ve got Bill Murray’s character sitting in this hot tub and he’s calling home and he’s in Japan and he’s like, “I just want to eat more Japanese when I get home. I just want this lifestyle.”

CY: What does that mean? What does that mean to eat more Japanese? It seems so silly. I think the average American would say, “I guess that means more raw fish, more sushi or something.”

EL: Greater use of chopsticks.

CY: Greater use of chopsticks.

EL: How old were your kids when they knew how to use chopsticks?

IO: Oh my god, six or seven maybe.

EL: And your child is…

CY: My kid’s turning three and she started eating some rice with chopsticks but is mostly getting closer to stabbing her eye with them than getting food in.

EL: Sounds like a three year old.

CY: Yeah, yeah.

EL: So eat more Japanese really-

CY: What it really boiled down to us was these other things. It’s this attention to detail, these little things of how do you make a pot of rice properly. I should focus on that. There are these kind of essential core flavors to a lot of the dishes. It’s things that Americans really love already. It’s salty, sweet, umami, smoky. That’s barbecue, right?

EL: Right.

CY: We love those flavors inherently and so do a lot of… It forms the core of a lot of Japanese cooking. There’s umami and this understanding of umami and how to use it and it’s not just about putting as much umami as you can, but how it plays with saltiness and fat and sweetness and things like that.

CY: Then there are some core dishes and ingredients and things like that, but that first chapter was just… A lot of it was based on Ivan’s memories, revelations he would have about how certain flavors would show up over and over again and it really informed what his particular notion of eating Japanese started to mean.

EL: Got it. But I love the fact that only Chris Ying by the way, can I say this, would’ve taken something that Bill Murray said in Lost In Translation and put it into a cookbook format.

CY: Well, he’s like the classic image of the Gaijin.

EL: Yes.

CY: Bill Murray walking around Shibuya.

EL: That movie’s all about that. The next one is open to anything. Is that a Japanese concept or is that a concept that you just wanted to talk about? How did that come about?

IO: I think it’s funny that the Japanese are open to anything as long as it’s exactly the way they want it.

CY: It’s funny, right? That was a thing that Ivan taught me about was, God, everyone thinks that Japanese culture is so impenetrable and closed off, but Ivan would be like, “That thing you’re eating, that curry or that menchi katsu or whatever, you know that’s not originally Japanese.”

CY: Ivan’s saying that because… How do you put it? You talk about, they are so open to outside influence and then they will bend it to their will.

IO: Yes, yes. They’re very, very open to taking something.

EL: Is that going to be on your tombstone?

IO: It’s funny, but you know what? All cultures are interesting. Sometimes when we start looking at other cultures, we tend to be terribly critical because it’s not like our own but we’re all basically the same and we all have the same desires and hopes. I think the Japanese are not necessarily that much different than the Americans.

EL: Chris wrote an entire book about this issue, right?

CY: It’s true.

EL: What’s it called?

CYYou and I Eat the Same, and that was the central tenet was, we are all similar in our desires and even our preferences and the only thing that makes it seem different is this packaging. Like I said, teriyaki sauce is delicious for the same reason that barbecue sauce is delicious.

IO: And the Japanese… I think people don’t realize how many things that they think are purely Japanese are just so not.

EL: Yeah, much more universal.

IO: Yeah.

EL: Yeah, interesting. The next one, and this is the most cosmic one, is empathy. It’s particularly resonant in 2019, given our current political climate, not just-

CY: What do you mean?

EL: … in the US, but all over the world. I’m serious.

CY: No, for sure.

EL: I’d like to blame it all on our current president, but it’s happening all over.

CY: Absolutely.

EL: Talk about how empathy relates to a cookbook.

CY: Well, it’s what Ivan was just talking about. When I asked you about the things that stuck out to you, you talked about this semi-permeable bubble around everybody and how they were aware of everyone. Look, you can tell me this is a stretch or not. Ivan certainly never said it was a stretch, so we went with it.

But man, some of the most delicious comfort food in the world is Japanese, whether it’s donabe stuff like the rices and soups and stews cooked in these clay pots or tea or dashi, ochazuke over rice. These things just make you feel good.

CY: I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that a culture and society that’s based around awareness of others and their feelings would be super good at making food that makes other people feel comfort.

IO: Also, it’s interesting because even just going back to the whole Bill Murray thing, part of all this is just getting people to wake up a little more and notice Japan more and encourage them and say you really can have all those Japanese flavors. I’d say the most unsophisticated person in this country still knows the basic flavors of Japanese food, but they’ve never really thought about really being able to make them at home.

IO: Whenever someone I know goes to Japan and they’ve been waiting years and years to go, they finally go and they come back and they’re just, “I’m already planning my next trip. I can’t wait to go.”

EL: Everyone says that.

IO: Yeah, and it’s like that. Japan is so addictive, because everything there is so thoughtful. It’s all been thought out so carefully and it’s all been laid out and when-

CY: Like you said too, a lot of your personal comfort points became Japanese and I think that happens for a lot of people and that’s what this chapter is about too. You go and you’re like, “This thing that I thought was so foreign to me actually has become…” You get a sense of home from eating this food.

EL: Yeah, probably a lot more things as a Jew who grew up in Long Island, you couldn’t imagine these Japanese flavors becoming comfort food, that these associations are of comfort food, right?

IO: Yeah. Although in my case, it’s more of a mother who didn’t nurture me, so I had to find my own comfort.

EL: I’m sorry. Can we get a couch in here? We have to stop now, Ivan. All right, and by the way, I do have to bill you now.

IO: It’s okay, I’ll pay you in dumplings.

EL: The next one is otaku?

IO: Yeah.

EL: Which in parenthesis, you guys have “geeking out”.

IO: Geeking out, yeah.

EL: Again, in a way like empathy, geeking out is also a universal.

CY: Totally.

EL: Right?

IO: Yeah.

EL: Talk a little bit about what you mean or what you meant by geeking out.

IO: Well, in a way, otaku’s probably one of the concepts that most people that have even a passing interest in Japan know about. This whole sort of otaku for anime and for things like that. In the cookbook case, we’re sort of saying, “Hey, here’s some…” We’re trying to give you these recipes that are really fun and easy for you, but we’re going to also give you some recipes that take a little more effort.

But we wanted to really put it in a separate area. We bombarded people in our first book with this 40 page recipe, so we really wanted to say, “Look, most of this book is something you could really do without putting too much energy in and be shocked at how delicious food you could make. But, we’re going to throw you a few crumbs and we’re going to show you a couple of recipes that you could put a little more energy into and feel a little bit more of a sense of accomplishment and make your own dumplings”, which for Chris and I is actually not that big of deal because-

CY: No matter what, even if you’re good at it, it takes time.

IO: It still takes time. You still have to make the filling and you still have to crimp every one of those little things.

EL: Right. You sort of have to geek out when you’re making dumplings even if you know what you’re doing.

IO: Yeah.

CY: Absolutely.

IO: But the fact is that I know that when I cook, I totally geek out. Especially when I’m cooking something new and experimenting and I’m just in heaven, I got music going and I’m moving around the kitchen and dancing and I’m feeling a really good head space. I think there’s a lot of good people who cook that feel that way.

When they cook, they feel liberated and they feel joyous and cooking doesn’t have to be a drudgery and I think, for many people, it’s not. It’s something that they do to relax.

EL: Right. Yeah, I think some people hear geeking out and it’s like, “Who wants to geek out for eight hours?” One of the things that I think you guys are saying in the book is that you can’t think of geeking out in terms of time. Geeking out is if you’re in it, you’re not even going to be aware of the time that’s going by, right?

CY: I think that, I’m not blowing smoke here, I really point to Serious Eats as inspirational for this book in a couple of ways. One is what you and Kenji did with food was to make geeking out this thing that people saw and admired and wanted to also be a part of. There are other people who do this, but the deep dive thing.

IO: Yeah, but also showing them that it doesn’t have to be daunting and that’s the one thing, because I’m a professional cook, so I don’t get as overwhelmed because I know all the little tricks and I know about mise en place and I know how to lay stuff out, so I feel more comfortable. A lot of people can’t, but that’s our job. That’s your job at Serious Eats, it’s Chris and my job when we write recipes to say, “Look, just stick with us.”

Write really great head notes that really assure people of all the little things they can do that’ll make… Because people get so nervous. It’s like, I checked every single item on Amazon and except for the spicy cod roe eggs, you can get it all on the internet. Let’s put it that way.

EL: Then the last two things are good times and I assume it’s not a reference to Jimmy Walker, but maybe it is. I don’t know. But what was that all about? It seems like it was a sense that you wanted to share what a good time in Japan was like for you.

IO: Yeah, woohoo.

EL: That was a really muted woohoo.

IO: There’s so many fun things to cook and have fun with, you know?

CY: Eating in Japan, eating and drinking in Japan is just completely intertwined and not only with each other but with just the notion of having fun, every gathering. This is obviously for a lot of people but I realize that it’s not obvious for everyone that…

CY: The way we talk about it in the book is here’s a classic conversation that would happen in the States, maybe slightly less so now would be, “Oh, we’re going to this place tonight. Do they have food? We should grab a bite beforehand.” That’s sort of the extent of whether or not we’re going to go eat.

Eating and hanging out and drinking are separate things. We’re going to go to this club. Oh, we should get a burrito after or whatever. That’s just not how it would happen in Japan. Thanks to restaurants and a growing food culture in America, it’s becoming more and more like this.

You go and even if you go to a karaoke bar or something, you’re snacking the whole time, you’re drinking beer and-

EL: It’s much more of an organic-

CY: Totally, and that’s the thing, just like this whole section is just about trying to recreate this seamless connection when you’re entertaining at home between snacking and drinking and maybe a more substantial meal at the end or a bowl of noodles. The best thing that we learned when we were most recently in Japan together, Ivan went to a sushi restaurant and when they were sending them on their way, they gave him a food omake, a giant sushi roll for a gift.

IO: Really good.

CY: We’ve sort of adapted it into, “Hey, when you have a house guest that just won’t leave, be like, ‘Here’s your parting food omake. Time to get the hell out of my house. Go eat this at home.'”

EL: I like this. I might use this. It could work in any culture.

CY: Totally, 100%. Everybody’s got annoying house guests who just keep drinking your beer.

IO: I forgot about that. That was really good too. That was a super fancy sushi place. I made a friend with the sushi chef dude and he invited us to go and that thing weighed like a pound. It was so good. But it was-

EL: Then the last one is New Years which I have never figured out a way to have a good time and you say when you were in Japan, Ivan, that’s where you learned to have a good time.

IO: My first real memory of New Years in America was my parents went out of town and I had a party. I had about 100 people in my house and don’t worry because I removed every piece of furniture, carpet, everything.

EL: I’m seeing risky business here.

IO: I put it all in a separate room, the house was empty and everybody’s having a great time. The clock strikes 12:00, they’re popping Champagne, it’s splaying on the wall, they’re kissing me and I’m like, “Everybody out.” I don’t understand what is the big deal about New Years.

EL: Right.

IO: It’s all lip service.

EL: Right.

IO: I’m going to quit smoking and then three days, I’m like, “I thought you quit smoking.” Eh, whatever. You’re like, “Okay.” But then I moved to Japan and New Years, while it’s not religious, there’s a whole thing. People start cleaning sometimes even a month before the end of the year. They start emptying out the closets getting rid of stuff they don’t need, they start dusting and getting everything ready for the end of the year, to start fresh on New Year’s Day.

In Japan, similar to America, people work really, really hard. They don’t take a lot of holidays but New Years is the one time of the year… Around the 27th, 28th, businesses start to shut down and they all shut down on the first and almost nobody opens until the 4th or the 5th.

EL: Wow.

IO: It’s just the one time of the year in Japan where everything just stops and people relax. I really have a lot of respect for my friends and neighbors in Japan and they work so hard. I ache for them because they’re just exhausted and I see them around New Years and they look so happy and relaxed.

So, New Years food, it’s a little like Shabbos. You cook all day on Friday and then you turn off the stove, you got your cholent on the stone thing and you just eat from that and you relax. Japanese New Years, you cook all these things, a lot of the little treats have different meanings about long life and sweetness and bitterness and whatever, all that stuff.

Then you also have opulent fun things but on New Year’s Day, you wake up in the morning and you start drinking and you watch, they have variety shows on TV all day long and everybody in the country just sits down and watches TV and drinks and eats delicious food.

EL: It sounds so ritualized.

IO: It is, but it’s lovely and I’m not a religious person, I’m not particularly spiritual so I have difficulty with all these different holidays. I love being Jewish, but I don’t care about religion necessarily and this was something that I can really embrace as an outsider because I’m just sort of watching it and I’m seeing it and I’m like, “Can I be a part of this?”

Now that I’m the father and I’m the guy in charge, I run everything. I do all the cooking. I’ve learned how to make all the little snacks and treats. I do it all.

EL: Really?

IO: I have certain dishes that I’m known for, not just by my family but other people and they’re like, “Could I come on New Year’s Day and have that thing you make?” And I’m like-

EL: Can I come on New Year’s Day?

IO: Absolutely. I make some pretty badass–

EL: All right, so we had Adam Chandler on Special Sauce who wrote a great book called Drive Through Dreams. I don’t know if you guys are aware of it, but it’s really good. It’s sort of a sociopolitical history of fast food. He talks about the KFC Christmas Day thing. Is that real?

IO: In Japan?

EL: Yeah.

IO: Oh yeah. Oh yeah, man. Colonel Sanders is dressed up in a Christmas hat, he’s got a Santa hat on.

CY: What?

IO: Oh yeah, every year, every year.

EL: You know about this?

CY: I’ve never heard of this.

IO: And they have chicken, special boxes of Christmas… Christmas is huge in Japan, but it’s not religious. It’s just that the Japanese love any reason to celebrate. Any opportunity to have balloons and streamers and sell stuff.

EL: And you have to order your KFC like a month in advance for Christmas Day.

IO: Not me, because I ate KFC when I was 17, I haven’t had it since.

EL: Right. But I mean, a lot of people in Japan-

IO: It’s a big deal.

EL: So, it’s a thing.

IO: It’s a thing.

EL: Wow, okay.

IO: Yeah.

EL: Give me three recipes that you really want people to cook from the cookbook.

IO: I’ll steal one from Chris because he’s going to say the same thing but the tamaki party, I think both of us it’s our favorite.

EL: Explain what a tamaki party is.

IO: A tamaki party is… Well, ta is your hand and maki is roll. It’s a hand roll, but it’s a fold over, a flip, whatever you want. It’s totally relaxed. It’s pieces of nori-

EL: It’s a Japanese make your own burrito party.

IO: Yeah, make your own burrito party. Seasoned rice, you can season it or you don’t have to if you don’t have time.

EL: Okay.

IO: You can do all kinds of raw fish if you live near a great market and you want to or you could do only half raw and some cooked stuff.

EL: We might have to have you come do one at Industry City at Serious Eats world headquarters.

CY: I think this is a game changer honestly. For anybody in the world who has ever had the horrible idea to serve sushi at home to their friends, you understand what a pain it is to-

IO: Trying to roll and there’s rice stuck to your fingers. Everybody’s having a great time and you’re sitting back there going, “Why did I do this?”

CY: But everybody wants to do it.

IO: Right.

CY: Everybody gets their own pile of nori, there’s a bowl of rice and you just make your own rolls. Nobody has to slave away in the kitchen. My in-laws now, who are…

IO: We did the photo shoot at… His in-laws have a beautiful home and they welcomed us to do the photo shoot there. Chris said, “My mother-in-law, she loves…” She brought back a bunch of raw fish because they were going to have it. I said, “Well, let’s do the tamaki party.”

CY: Yeah.

IO: We just put it together-

CY: Every single Friday night.

IO: But they used to try to roll it and it was really stressful but they loved eating it, then we showed them, no, you can just make it like this.

EL: So, what about you, Chris? What’s one that really sticks out?

CY: Well, I’m a relatively new dad and I cook dinner every single night now. Again, this is the first book I’ve ever made that I actually truly cook from. I’ve always been very self-indulgent. With everything I’ve ever done, I’ve just made recipes you can’t use and how to be cool and difficult and inaccessible and then Ivan and I started talking about Japanese curry.

CY: We started talking about it and I said, “Okay, are we going to do a recipe for homemade curry from scratch, none of the curry blocks?” And he said, “Sure, but the curry blocks are better”-

EL: I noticed you said that in the book. Curry blocks, it’s hard to improve upon curry blocks.

CY: You just can’t, except-

IO: Because it tastes exactly the way it’s supposed to.

EL: We should explain what a curry block is.

IO: A curry block is basically a roux… I mean a roux is fat and flour blended together and in this case, it has an addition of curry powder of some type.

CY: You buy it at almost any Asian market. At least in San Francisco where I’m from, you can buy it at your local Safeway or whatever. It’s pretty ubiquitous now but it’s a packaged thing you throw into broth with meat and vegetables and it becomes a perfectly rich and thick and glossy curry.

The improvement that we’ve made and the thing that Ivan taught me that has made a tremendous impact in my house is over the weekend, you braise five pounds of pork shoulder in dashi. You cook it until it’s completely tender and then you split it into three quart containers and you put it in the freezer.

Three Tuesdays from now, you defrost it, you add a little bit more water, add some vegetables and throw your curry blocks in and suddenly, you have a perfect braised pork curry in less than 15 minutes.

IO: And it’s homemade and you can throw your veggies in the microwave and soften them quickly and saute them up a little bit. You pour the meat and the broth over it, you bring it to a simmer, you drop in the curry blocks, you mix them around. You make sure they’re all melted, otherwise it’s not good and then you have dinner.

The one thing I try to tell people is they always think, “You’re a chef, so…” I’m like, “No, I’m just the same as you. I sometimes come home and I got 20 minutes and I got boys and they’re like, ‘Dad'”. Lately, they’ve just been like, “Dad, I’m starving. I’m going to eat a cookie.” I’m like, “No cookies. I got this. I promise, give me 20.”

Literally, it’s the truth. True story. I’m racing around to get something on the table and sometimes, it’s like… If you stay at my house, I could serve curry two or three days of the week and they’ll just be like, “Yes.”

EL: Chris, by the way, Chris might not know this Ivan, but he can’t serve pork curry on Shabbos.

CY: That’s why I said you cook it and then you serve it on Tuesday. I will say to wrap up the conversation we were having last time just about the shame that I felt growing up and having these kind of intense smells and things to the food I ate.

I had this really beautiful moment a couple weeks ago. I went to a preschool potluck for my daughter and I made this whole point of making Japanese curry, the exact curry from the book and bringing it to this potluck, thinking it’s really important to me that my kid have… That she not be ashamed of the food that we eat at home.

So, we brought it in there and the minute I got to this preschool, all these crazy childhood feelings came flooding back. I was too scared to put this curry on the table. I actually had my wife do it, who’s white and doesn’t have these feelings of shame. I couldn’t. It was horrible.

I was at this crazy low because I thought I had overcome this and it was my daughter now and I brought this curry to the table. Then on the table, it’s pizza and pasta and then weird curry on the side. My little two-and-a-half, almost three year old walks by with her plate and just takes a look at the pizza and just walks right by and goes to eat curry.

It was just the best moment.

EL: That’s a moment!

CY: Yeah, it was pretty incredible and that’s why that recipe from the book… And I said this to Ivan in the acknowledgments, but my kid is growing up eating these recipes really and I can’t ask for more than that.

EL: So, even if you can’t overcome it-

CY: Hopefully my daughter can, yeah.

EL: Exactly. That’s what we all live for.

CY: The girls are all stronger anyway.

IO: It’s so fun because Chris, he would be like, “Dude, have you been doing any recipes?” I’m like, “I’m planning on it.” He’s like, “You can’t plan on it, man. You got to do it now.” Every once in a while, like, “You got to do it now.” I’m like, “Oh God, Chris is going to bust my balls.” I’m like, “Okay, I promise I’ll do it.” So, I would bang out 10 or 15 recipes and I would send them to him. Then for the next two weeks, he would cook some of the recipes-

EL: I love it!

IO: And he would call and he’d say, “I just made that recipe. It actually came out…” And it’s also really important to me. I think Chris is a good cook, so-

EL: You needed that—

IO: I’m always a little nervous that he’ll call and say, “Dude, what were you thinking? This doesn’t work.”

CY: I called once or twice and said-

IO: Once or twice, he did, he said, “I think there was a little bit too much meat or there was too much water, so I fixed it.” I’m not thin skinned, so he’d say, “I fixed the water,” and I just assumed if he fixed the water, I made a mistake with the water. But it was a lot of fun and I think that way too for Chris, he started working with this recipes in a really natural way because I was just sending him recipes.

CY: It’s a super personal book for—

IO: Yeah, it was really fun.

CY: It’s really what we eat.

EL: That’s a perfect way to end the discussion about the book. You’re both Special Sauce alums, right? You’ve done the whole Special Sauce all you can eat buffet, so I’m going to only ask you two questions each. Chris, who’s at your last supper? No family allowed, no people you know. Could be living or dead, could be writers, poets, artists, musicians, athletes, doesn’t matter. I just need four people.

CY: Four people! This has gone up.

EL: Yeah.

CY: This is crazy.

EL: Come on, man. This is Special Sauce 2.0.

CY: You know what’s insane is last time I did Special Sauce with you, I had slept for two hours. You asked me this question and it’s been a huge regret of mine ever since that I blurted out-

EL: So, you got a chance to make it right.

CY: I blurted out Helen of Troy and I had never thought of her since or before then. I just completely, completely blanked.

EL: We’ll go back to Chris. You ready?

IO: Jerry Garcia.

EL: Jerry Garcia.

IO: Groucho Marx.

EL: Groucho Marx.

IO: Charlie Parker.

EL: First of all, this is an awesome party. A little male heavy.

IO: I was going to say James Cagney.

EL: All right. Give me a sub for James Cagney.

IO: Hopefully she’s in a good state of mind but how about Billie Holiday?

EL: That is one of the most awesome last supper tables ever. Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker.

IO: Jerry Garcia.

EL: Jerry Garcia.

IO: And Groucho Marx.

EL: And Groucho Marx.

IO: Groucho Marx was a pistol.

EL: That’s awesome, and what are you eating? What is that august company eating?

IO: Well, I figure they’re sort of mid-century types so maybe we’d eat some kind of really killer roast. Maybe we’d have a 38 petras or something. Maybe they’ll be a little too young, depending—

EL: I like that and of course, Cherry Garcia ice-cream.

IO: Cherry Garcia ice-cream, yeah and then maybe something with mushrooms.

EL: All right, Chris, man, you’re not getting off the hook.

CY: Oh my god, I had stopped thinking about it because I thought I was off the hook. I would have David Foster Wallace, who was my literary hero.

EL: That’s awesome.

CY: Rihanna because she’s so beautiful.

EL: Mm-hmm.

CY: Four people?

EL: Yeah.

CY: Ivan Orkin.

EL: No, forget about that. Nope, no Ivan Orkin.

CY: No, I quit. I can’t name four people.

IO: Biggie Smalls.

CY: West Coast, man.

IO: Oh, sorry.

CY: Tupac.

EL: Tupac. All right.

CY: This is a weird table, man.

EL: It is. Tupac, Rihanna. This is awesome.

IO: How about Allen Ginsburg?

CY: Yeah, sure. Ginsburg. No, Ruth Bader.

EL: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

CY: She’s alive.

EL: That is an awesome table. It can be alive or dead though.

CY: Ruth Bader, Rihanna.

EL: I like this. This is perfect. This is awesome. All right, this is a question that we didn’t even have the last time you guys were both on. It’s just been declared Ivan Orkin Day all over the world.

IO: First of all, I can say that’s a very, very good decision.

EL: What’s happening on that day?

IO: What’s happening on that day? Well, first of all, The Grateful Dead is playing around the world only.

EL: Okay.

IO: Only. We’re all eating ice-cream sundaes.

EL: Okay.

IO: Right?

EL: Okay, I like this.

IO: The ice-cream sundae has followed a meal of everybody’s favorite choice and somehow they’re able to have whatever it is that would be their favorite thing to eat.

EL: I like this. All right.

IO: So that they’re just absolutely in their zone and then they’re like, “I don’t know why we’re all eating ice-cream,” but they are.

EL: Yeah. It’s interesting there’s nothing Japanese in there.

IO: Well, it doesn’t need to be. It’s funny because that’s the whole thing about the Japanese thing. It really isn’t who I am, it’s just part of who I am.

EL: Yeah, for sure which is one of the things the book communicates.

IO: Yeah.

EL: Chris, what’s happening on Chris Ying Day?

CY: Most of the day is just taken up by an airing of grievances.

EL: Wait, that’s Donald Trump Day.

CY: Well, this is my turn. Donald Trump’s first in line and he takes up three hours of the day in which I air my grievances and they just sit there. It’s like the inverse of a celebrity roast where I will just roast everybody. There’s a huge audience of people who are all in agreement with me and they’re all laughing.

EL: There’s a huge group of people all over the world agreeing with Chris.

CY: I mean, it’s Chris Ying Day worldwide. Everybody is in agreement with me. I am airing my grievances about people-

IO: See how different ours is? Mine, I’m offering sustenance and joy.

CY: Well, look, mine’s realistic unlike my last—I air my grievances and after I finish with each person, they all thank me and say one nice thing about me. Then we have dinner somewhere, whatever. Not with those people, but with Rihanna again.

EL: Okay. Well, thank you both so much for sharing your special sauce. This was awesome.

CY: Yes.

EL: Ivan, thank you, thank you, thank you.

IO: Awesome.

EL: Chris, thank you.

CY: Thank you.

EL: You guys are awesome and so is The Gaijin Cookbook: Japanese Recipes from a Chef, Father, Eater, and Lifelong Outsider. You can get it wherever books are sold, on or offline. Now, it’s time to head over to the Serious Eats test kitchen.

Stella Parks: Welcome to the world of Baking with Stella, and that’s where a rainbow goes.

EL: Details of Stella Parks’ recipe are at seriouseats.com.

SP: Today, we’re going to be making my favorite pie dough. It involves equal parts flour and butter put into a bowl and smushed together with your hands. That’s it. You don’t need any fancy ingredients, you don’t need special technique. You cannot make a dough like this in a food processor because the food processor blades are going to cut up the butter into small, tiny pieces that are going to be nothing like these big flaky chunks that are going to make this pie crust so flaky and delicious.

This pie dough is really great for any type of intricate lattice design because we’re intentionally cultivating gluten so that the pie is strong and sturdy. You guys, all I’m trying to say is that this pie dough is really good and you should trust me.

I love you. I want you to succeed, but that means you need to listen to me, okay? Let’s do this. I’ll just be like, “Now, we’re making pie dough.” Flour, salt, sugar. The thing about sugar is that it does not make the pie crust sweet, it just helps with browning. Then we’re going to whisk them up. This takes longer than you think.

For this recipe, I’m going to use American style butter. This pie dough is nearly 50% butter. We don’t need any extra fat, so if you use a European style, it’s just adding way too much fat and also, European style butters tend to be a little bit softer which makes the dough squishy. This is America.

I’m going to cut it into about half inch cubes. I cut them basically into four long sticks, then I come through and just cut them at approximately half inch intervals. Err on the side of slightly larger pieces rather than extra small pieces because the small pieces will incorporate too much and make the dough a little sticky.

Just kind of toss the butter and the flour together, then just break them apart a little bit. I’m going to start working the butter into the flour. Find a cube of butter, smash it in your hand, and set it aside. That’s all you’re going to do. We want the butter to be cold from the fridge but not frozen, so if you’ve seen some kind of pie dough tip about freezing your butter, don’t do that. I didn’t tell you to do that.

This is so satisfying. This is my personal bubble wrap. Toss it around a little bit and make sure you didn’t miss any. Phase two, adding the water. Just going to add it. This is just cold tap water. We don’t need ice water and we don’t ever, under any circumstances, need to add more water or less water. The amount of water is fixed.

If the dough seems too dry, it’s probably too cold. If the dough seems too sticky or wet, it’s probably too warm. I finish kneading it together by hand. When it’s mostly together, I turn it out on the counter and then I’ll knead it for another second. That’s all it needs.

I’m just going to roll it into a large rectangle. Don’t be afraid to use as much flour as you need to keep it from sticking. All the extra flour can be brushed off in the end. About, say, halfway through, hit it with some more flour and then flip it over.

At this point, I’m going to do some folding to the dough and that’s going to create some layers that will help make a super flaky pie crust. If you see any places that are really rough and uneven, you can kind of cheat the dough over to even up a little bit.

From there, you can start rolling for that. It is rectangular and the pie plate is clearly circular, however it’s really hard to preserve a very rectangular shape unless you’re working towards it, so it’ll all kind of work out in the end.

The dough is extremely flexible. It shouldn’t crack or tear. Sling it into the pie plate and then just push it down and that’s great. I’m going to throw it in the refrigerator. It has to be refrigerated for two hours in order to firm up the butter that’s softened and relax the gluten that we’ve developed.

If you make the dough in advance, pop it in the fridge and then come to roll it out, you’re still going to have to let it relax for two hours, so I like to just shape it right away.

It’s usually got this super flaky, buttery crust like wild blueberries and lemon, little hint of coriander or something in there. Pumpkin pie, what’s up with that? Chocolate cream pie. I mean, flaky butter crust, whatever. Chocolate custard inside. Toasted meringue on top. Who wants that?

Do you know what the best way to ensure you get the entire pie? Cough directly over it. No one else will take it from you after that. Pro tip.

EL: Again, details of Stella Parks’ recipe are at seriouseats.com. More from our test kitchen next time. That’s it for today. Next week on Special Sauce, Kenji will be back to answer with his usual scientific precision your culinary question of the week. Do send in those questions to specialsauce@seriouseats.com. All this and a special guest on next week’s Special Sauce. So long, serious eaters. See you next time.