Today’s Ingredient: Merchandising

It seems to be food week at the Bog. [For those readers who haven’t been with me through the multiple name changes on this site, please note that this journal is no longer called “the Bog.”—Ed> My original plan was to write briefly about one photo. A short note featuring one of Japan’s celebrity chefs. Unfortunately for my wrists, I wrote a lot more than intended.

Here’s the photo:

the Delacroix of French cooking

Guest appearances are great for the bottom line but what better way to leverage your status as a master of French cuisine than to appear in vending machines all across Japan?

Iron Chef Sakai's corn potage in a can

Corn potage in a can. Coming soon to a street corner near you. Actually, that’s a lie. The corn potage was available during the winter of 2003-2004 but I didn’t see any this past winter. It must have been discontinued. When it was in season I didn’t have look very hard for it. They sold it in the vending machine up the hill from us, along with cans of green tea, hot coffee, and cold Pocari Sweat. Among the many other sightings, Sakai’s lovely mug smiled from one of the machines in Lia’s school cafeteria until late spring last year.

The very brief backstory on this is that vending machines are ubiquitous in Japan. “On every street corner” is only a slight exaggeration. In the winter you can get hot and cold drinks. And soup, apparently. In addition to drinks, there are machines specializing ice cream, snack foods, cigarettes, condoms, and various other products.

How is Chef Sakai’s corn potage? I didn’t really like it. I found the taste a bit metallic and somewhat disharmonious. Besides, I’ve never been one for cream-based soups or corn. And there wasn’t a herb garnish. Yeah, I keep going on about herbs. Jarrod certainly enjoyed the potage. I’m not sure how much of that was the fame factor, though. When biting into a new food he’s been known to exclaim an enthusiastic “yum!” based on the concept, before it even hits his tastebuds, followed quickly by gagging. Sounds like a lot of contemporary art. But that’s a topic for another day. Anyway, being a corn lover, Jarrod would occasionally request the Sakai special if he happened to notice it in a vending machine as we walked down the street.

Apparently there is a better way to trade on fame than the local vend-o-matic. Especially if you’ve got a smile that says “I’ll be laughing all the way to the bank. Creamy Clam Fry? Hah! It’s crunchy frog with a makeover.”

Iron Chef Sakai's TV dinners

Here’s the menu, clockwise from top-left: Creamy Clam Fry, Cheese Cream Spaghetti, Shrimp and Cheese Doria, Seafood and Crab Pilaf. By the way, what the heck is a doria?

Along the top it says:

Monsieur Sakai presents a unique and innovative menu drawing on his extensive experience and techniques, surpassing the traditional boundaries of French cuisine.

And below that, just above his name—which, incidentally, is in larger type than the product name—is this:

Taste the unsurpassed creativity of Monsieur Sakai, to your heart’s content.

The price? 368 yen each, which is mid-high for similar products in the Spina Mart freezer, regardless of celebrity endorsements.

We haven’t tried any of them yet. After the corn potage experience, my expectations aren’t high. I bought these primarily so I could get them to pose for my camera. I’ve taken individual shots of each package—front and back—but no nudes yet. Jarrod will want to try one of the shrimp concoctions tonight so I’ll let you know if they’re any good. As for photos of what’s inside, I don’t think I’ll bother. After all, an email with a subject like “New Pictures: watch me unwrap and heat up these gorgeous French dishes” is just asking for misinterpretation.

And just so you don’t have to ask: I haven’t seen any of the other tetsujin pimping anything. In fact, in the freezer compartments of three out of four supermarkets within walking distance of our apartment, Chef Sakai is the only person with his picture on anything. I haven’t checked out the fourth shop as I’m a bit leery of walking into a store called “F Co-op.”

No sign of the Chairman anywhere, either. But Hattori—the white-haired commentator—has popped up on TV, including the in-flight entertainment on our trip to Thailand in December. Given how often I watch broadcast TV (rarely) and how often I see Hattori when I do turn it on (usually), I’d suspect that he’s got something close to a food media monopoly happening.

And For My Next Trick: Langoustine dans la Foule*

the Delacroix of French cooking, going lobster crazy

*You may be wondering about the French. So am I. Various online dictionaries tell me that lobster translates to French as langoustine. But going back French-to-English gives crawfish so I’m not sure what to think. And foule supposedly means crowd. The intent was “Lobster in the Crowd.” I welcome corrections or a better translation.

In January this year, there was an International Food Fair in Kokura. We got a little flyer with the apartment block news, and then saw an ad in one of the community newspapers that appeared in our mailbox. Talk about grassroots media saturation. 500 yen to get in, and Iron Chef Sakai will give cooking demonstrations at 11am and 3pm. Or times close to that. I don’t have the ticket stub handy to check. I went with Jarrod. The particular Sunday in question may have been one of Lia’s kimono-scavenging days. Our bus got us there just in time for the start of the show. Unfortunately it was really crowded and we had to stand. Even though the Japanese ladies weren’t tall, Jarrod had trouble seeing. See my earlier post about bobbleheads. Eventually some of them noticed and were kind enough to move their big heads out of his line of sight.

Here’s a photo of Jarrod at at the Kitakyushu Food Fair, with Iron Chef Sakai in the background. Sakai is in the centre, between the cameraman and the sous-chef.

photo of Jarrod hoping the lady in front of him will move her big head out of the way, with Iron Chef Sakai in the background

Sakai enjoyed playing to the crowd and kept flirting with the young woman co-hosting of the event. He was quite impressive to watch in person. The hour-and-a-half session went by quickly. Watching the Iron Chef in action made me realize just how much stuff they leave out of the shows. One time-saving tip I learned from just watching—I couldn’t understand most of the all-Japanese presentation—was to heat water/stock in a separate pot, and then pour the hot liquid into your soup.

Here’s Sakai in action.

Iron Chef Sakai in action

And here are the finished dishes. The one on the left is some sort of fancy lobster construction. On the right are a pair of pan-fried scallops (in green Japanese breadcrumbs) on zucchini in a tomato-based sauce. Sorry for the blurriness—the pictures are from video monitor—the cameraman was zooming in when I took each photo—and with the jostling crowd it was next to impossible for me to hold my camera steady.

the finished dishes

Other highlights of the food fair were repeatedly being called “brother” by the Indian man at the curry stand in the food fair canteen, and practicing my Chinese with the trade delegation from Taiwan. I have an open invitation to go for coffee with a mushroom dealer—no, not that kind of mushroom—from Taichung.

I have pretty big news to announce tomorrow, so stay tuned.

5 thoughts on “Today’s Ingredient: Merchandising

  1. disharmoniousc? Is that some sort of Slavic instrument? (hee hee! I found a spelling mistake!)

    And just for the record, I was at SUPER KABUKI with a friend the day of the food fair. The show featured a giant cat, a house that sunk into the stage and tilted, and a big box that flew into the air, then opened to show one of the actors. Of course, all of this had professional drag queens in kimono and LOTS of funky makeup.

  2. Hi Ed!

    We’re sitting on the couch, having just finished viewing an episode of Iron Chef: America, which is really Iron Chef: Alot Crappier. Anyway, I’m jealous that you two boys had actual contact with Sakai! Chen Kinichi is my favourite, he comes across as very humble man in the English translation.

    btw, Sakai’s corn soup looks like something Lola eats. It also looks like something Lola poops too.

  3. Lia: Drat! I’ve fixed it now, along with a couple of other things. I also fixed the html in your link.

    Chris & Shauna & Lola: I watched an episode of Iron Chef: America (the post-Shatner edition)—I think it was Flay vs. Sakai as challenger—and haven’t bothered since. I mean really, “secret” ingredient? Give me a break.

  4. I friggen love sakai, im getting an iron chef sakai shirt on the iron chef website. He is the best.

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