Archive for the ‘Not About Food’ Category

How to Buy a Japanese Chef’s Knife

December 21, 2012

After learning so much about how to pick a cutting board at Bernal Cutlery, I decided to ask Josh about the basics of choosing a chef’s knife. Bernal Cutlery primarily focuses on Japanese-style knives, but also carries new French knives as well as a selection of refurbished recent, vintage and antique knives from around the world.

Bernal Cutlery doesn’t carry the seven or eleven piece knife sets that are often found in cutlery stores, simply due to the fact that most people will never use seven or eleven different kinds of knives. Instead, Josh encourages purchasing the nicest possible chef’s knife that one can afford, and then building a knife kit around that central piece. If taken care of, a good chef’s knife can last more than ten years.

To the average home cook in search of a good chef’s knife, Josh recommends starting with a Japanese-style 210mm stainless steel blade. The alternative, carbon, requires more upkeep and care, as carbon blades are prone to rusting if left wet or with food on them (just ask Diane who almost cried when hers rusted on the drying rack because she hadn’t wiped the blade down properly). Also, if you are going to cut a lot of food that will cause the steel to react (think peaches, red onions or artichokes), wiping the blade clean during use will prevent the food from acquiring a slight metallic taste.

Many home cooks like myself enjoy the familiar weight of a heavy German knife. Japanese knives, on the other hand, tend to be thin and light, and may feel too delicate and unsteady for people used to more weight. Before testing recipes, I only used German chef’s knives. After using a Japanese-style chef’s knife during the day then returning home to a heavier German knife, I have decided to make the switch. I find that the Japanese knife moves easier, can slice thinner, and doesn’t leave my hand tired. For someone that cooks a few times a week, the difference between a heavy and a light knife may not be important, but for professionals or avid home cooks that spend hours chopping and slicing, a lightweight knife might make a big difference. Additionally, the thin, Japanese-style knives are great for fine vegetable work. The thinner blade does not wedge and crush the sides of vegetables, resulting in vegetable pieces with smoother surfaces, less oxidization and less discoloration. Josh, who encounters many fans of German knives, encourages his customers to give  Japanese knives a chance by keeping a bag of carrots in the store for them to chop to their hearts content.

I asked Josh to recommend four knives for the average home cook, and to tell me a little about each:


Ashi Hamono 210mm Gyuto: Swedish Stainless Steel with Western Handle

This Ashi has an excellent edge life and is very easy to sharpen. Made in small batch production and hand forged from single steel, the Ashi is light and thin, but not as delicate as many similar knives. This knife retails for $220.


Yoshikane 180mm Gyuto: Stainless Cladding, Semi-Stainless Core and Japanese Handle

The Yoshikane above is a high quality, hand forged option that is slightly shorter than the typical chef’s knife. Constructed of three layers of steel: the outside is stainless and the core is more like carbon steel. This knife is easy to sharpen, but it also has a hard center and so it holds its edge well. The Yoshikane is thicker and a bit heavier than the Ashi. This knife retails at $180.


Sakai Kikumori Nihon-kou 210mm Gyuto: Carbon Steel with Western Handle

At $90 dollars less than the higher end Ashi, this Sakai has a similar outline but is a little wider and a little heavier, with a slightly shorter edge life.  This is a good entry level knife with a lot of bang for buck, especially for those planning on using a whetstone at home. They make a stainless steel version of this knife that is slightly thinner. The carbon steel version retails at $130.


Asai Tezukuri 180mm Gyuto: Powder Metal with Japanese Handle

This gorgeous  top-shelf Japanese knife is hand forged and features a powdered steel core with an incredibly long edge life that is easy to sharpen. The beautiful acid etched Damascas cladding breaks up the surface area of the knife and makes for smooth cutting. In case you can’t tell, I’d be beyond thrilled if my boyfriend took the superfluous language in this knife’s description as an indicator of what I would love to see under the Christmas tree this year. Unfortunately for me, this knife retails for $358.

In terms of knife care, Josh says there are three main culprits that cause a large percentage of the knife damage he deals with:

  • The number one knife no-no is the dishwasher! Even though some manufactures state that their knives are dishwasher safe, don’t subject your knives to the high heat and caustic water of the dishwasher. Interestingly, stainless steel is a bit of a misnomer; this material stains less, but is not impervious to staining and rust.
  • In terms of at-home sharpening, Josh recommends learning to use a good sharpening steel or a whetstone, and cautions that using a diamond steel or a pull through sharpener (especially two carbide blades or disks that shave the metal off the knife) can be very damaging.
  • In terms of knife use, scraping on hard surfaces or wiggling and bending knives (such as cutting through a large squash) can do significant damage to both the blade and the knife’s edge. Using knives deliberately and making sure your cutting surface is soft enough to protect your knife’s edge both can go a long way to keeping your blade in good shape.

How to Choose a Cutting Board

December 18, 2012

In our search for a good knife sharpener, we stumbled across Bernal Cutlery, a charming small business in San Francisco that specializes in Japanese whetstone sharpening and carries an impressive array of knives, nearly all of which you can’t buy anywhere else in the Bay Area. After meeting Josh Donald, the owner of Bernal Cutlery, I knew that I had found my long sought-after knife-sharpening service, knife store and information resource for all things sharp.

The knife sharpener at work

The knife sharpener at work

I recently decided to replace my old plastic cutting board and thought Josh would be the perfect guy to talk to about what a home cook should look for in a food prep surface. I headed down to his cool communal space in Bernal Heights and learned about the most important things to look for in a cutting board.

331 Cortland Ave. in Bernal Heights, home to: Bernal Cutlery, Paulie's Pickling, Spice Hound, Eji's Ethiopian, Anda Piroshki, and Big Dipper Baby Food.

331 Cortland Ave. in Bernal Heights, home to: Bernal Cutlery, Paulie’s Pickling, Spice Hound, Eji’s Ethiopian, and Anda Piroshki.

Considering Josh is a knife-obsessed dealer and sharpener, it should come as no surprise that his number one priority when considering a cutting board is protecting the knives that will cut on it. If you share that priority, then a wood cutting board is the way to go. While many government and food safety organizations require the use of plastic cutting boards in commercial kitchens, significant debate exists on the topic. Ultimately, the decision to go with plastic or wood is a matter of personal preference; if you won’t be able to sleep at night without putting your cutting board through the dishwasher, then you should probably get a plastic cutting board and plan on getting your knives sharpened a little more often. Most importantly, unless you have a serious crush on your local knife sharpener, do not use your knives on serving plates or cutting boards made out of glass, marble, super hard or super soft plastics.

For those of you ready to make the switch, there are several types of wood used to make cutting boards, and each have unique advantages. Typically, wood cutting boards will be presented as hardwood or softwood, and then there is bamboo. Though bamboo is actually a grass, bamboo cutting boards share some characteristics with their wood counterparts and are popular enough to be worth addressing. Common hardwoods used for cutting boards include maple, hickory and walnut. Softwoods used for cutting boards include cedar and cypress.

Hardwood and bamboo can be used as either length grain or end grain, and softwood boards always use length grain. The hardest (too hard, by Josh’s standards) and least forgiving on knife-edges would be length grain bamboo, followed by length grain hardwoods.  Mosaicked, end grain bamboo and hardwoods create a more forgiving surface than the length grain, but still allow for the knife to slide easily. For those who prefer a little more stick to their cutting board, some of the softer length grain softwoods are a good option.

Bernal Cutlery carries two types of cutting boards. The first is a dense but soft North American cypress similar to the traditional Japanese “hinoki” wood used for cutting boards and aromatic baths. Josh sources the wood and then has pieces finished to specification by local craftsmen. The second is a smaller Umezawa–brand cutting board made out of Japanese “sawara” cypress.

Bernal Cutlery custom Port Orford Cedar cutting board (bottom, $78-$98) and                                             Umezawa Japanese Sawara cutting board (top, $42)

Bernal Cutlery custom Port Orford Cedar cutting board (bottom, $78-$98) and Umezawa Japanese “sawara” cutting board (top, $42)

Josh keeps his cutting boards in top shape by wiping them clean immediately after use, periodic cleanings with salt and lemon juice, and treating them every so often with walnut oil. There are many products such as mineral oil, beeswax, almond or coconut oil on the market to treat and protect wood. Ultimately, cutting board treatment is a personal preference. Wood cutting boards should never be put in the dishwasher or soaked in water, and should be wiped dry after use and cleaning.

Holiday Gift Guide for the Korean Food Lover & Cook

November 28, 2011

This is a totally shameless ploy for traffic but I couldn’t resist. And honestly, it can be a pain in the ass to get the right equipment and ingredients for Korean cooking, which means if you go to that extra trouble, you will be extra-appreciated.

Some of the items below are linked to Amazon. The others are linked to various other stores. Unfortunately, I’ve never ordered from them, so I can’t vouch for them. If you have a Korean grocery store of any serious size in your area, though, you should be able to find most of these items there as well.

Rice Cooker

A great cook should be able to make great rice with a pot and a stove, but when you’re juggling pots and pans on all four burners, it really sets my mind at ease to know my rice is cooking away perfectly, without a care in the world. I’ve never owned a super-cheap rice cooker, but I’ve been served good rice made with ones that look like this, and it’s still better than hovering over a pot on your stove.

If you want to splurge and get a gift that is hard to get yourself (if you are not me), it’s worth getting a fancy one that can make brown rice, rice with barley, rice with beans, etc. Zojirushi is the BMW of rice cooker makers, well-regarded and expensive. Somewhat cheaper, though still pricey, are the ones made by Sanyo. I can’t compare the two brands because I’ve never had a Zojirushi, but I cannot imagine living without my 10-cup Sanyo. 10-cup is better than 5-cup if you anticipate cooking for more than 4-6 people at a time.

Good Knife

As our recipe-testers have learned, Korean cooking requires a lot of knife work. All that chopping is infinitely more enjoyable if you have a good knife. There are others who can speak more intelligently about different kinds of knives, but for me, when you need to cut into giant Korean radishes and heads of Napa cabbage, the heft of a German-style 8-inch chef’s knife is the way to go. My mom bought me a Henckels knife similar to this one over 10 years ago and it is still going strong. That said, a knife is a very personal thing, so it might be best to get a gift certificate for $80-$100 at a nice kitchen store, and have the Korean cook in your life go and try holding different ones. This will also avoid the bad luck Chinese people believe you incur when you gift a knife.

While you’re at it, get a cheap honing steel as well, and if you’re feeling particularly generous, a knife skills class.


A mandoline is not an excuse for not developing knife skills, but man does it make your life easier! It will transform your feelings about making any sort of Korean salad that requires you to cut hard, rooty vegetables into thin matchsticks. The Benriner is cheap, sturdy, and does the job.

Korean Clay Pot

As much as I love a good dolsot bibimbap, or mixed rice and vegetables in a stone pot, the stone pot is not must-have home equipment since it’s really only good for that one dish. A clay pot is much more versatile. A small clay pot full of spicy tofu stew, or kimchi stew, or soybean stew bubbling away on the stove is really a beautiful sight. (Mmm, how about a lovely, jiggly steamed egg custard?) You don’t have to have a clay pot to make a good Korean jjigae, but it’s traditional and it’s practical since it means you can move the stew straight from the stove to the table. (Given how many dishes you have to wash after a Korean meal, one less pot is important!)

Large Wide-Mouthed Glass Jars

If you’re serious about making your own kimchi, you need some proper equipment. My mom says that kimchi made in a traditional clay jar, aged outside in the cold air of late fall/winter really does taste the best. That said, she uses giant plastic containers that fit perfectly into her kimchi refrigerator. I don’t make kimchi in such huge quantities, but if you’re going to make some, you should make more than a tiny jar for two reasons. One, the kimchi tastes better when it’s ripening in a large quantity, and two, it’s just too much work to do for so little output.

The containers need to be airtight. Plastic works fine, and I own a couple of big rectangular containers with lids that lock down. But glass looks better, and although I might be imagining it, I think it tastes better, too. I normally ferment two to three pounds of cabbage or radish at a time, and if I want to pack all the kimchi in one container, I need anything from a half-gallon to one-gallon container. These hermetic glass jars aren’t perfect, because the mouths are a little narrow, but they’re the best ones I’ve found so far in the U.S.. The 2.1 quart and 3.2 quart jars are probably most versatile.

Giant Bowl

It’s practically impossible to salt vegetables and add seasoning in a normal-size mixing bowl. I have a very broad, flat bowl that holds 22 quarts or so that I bought at a Korean grocery store for $15. It doesn’t fit in any of my cabinets so it sits upside-down on top of my refrigerator. It’s ugly, I don’t care. That’s how much I need it.

I have no idea what these bowls are like, or how reliable the online stores are, but it looks like restaurant supply stores are a good place to find 20-quart broad bowls if you don’t have a large Korean grocery store near you.

Plastic or Rubber Gloves

I find this image weirdly terrifying, and plastic gloves are the most unromantic gift possible, but they are so useful. I had a hell of a time finding them in regular grocery stores. I should probably just recommend that you buy a pair of rubber gloves.

Korean Ingredients

I can’t really recommend that you buy some fancy gochujang or soy sauce because even though the quality really matters, it’s not like you’re going to be able to find anything really special outside of Korea. Still, if you know someone who has no idea how to navigate in a Korean grocery store, it would be sweet to get a tub of gochujang and put a red ribbon on it! This was our favorite from our taste test. Other key condiments and pastes: doenjang or fermented soybean paste (this one is the same brand as our favorite from our taste test), Korean dark soy sauce, and Korean soup soy sauce. Maybe you could make a little starter Korean cooking set!

I would be pretty happy if someone bought me some fancy, expensive Japanese rice. Or if you want to be creative, how about a bag of black rice? If you add half a cup of black rice to 2.5 cups of white rice, you end up with gorgeous purple rice with a subtly new and exciting flavor. You can get a 2-pound bag for $8 at a Korean grocery store, or you can pay over $20 for 15 ounces of “forbidden rice” from Lotus Organic Foods. I am not pooh-poohing the organic stuff, which I have never tasted — it might be worth it!

Awesome Korean Mini-Series About Royal Palace Cooking

I lost a good chunk of my life to watching all 54 episodes of Dae Jang Geum, an epic Korean mini-series set in the 15th and 16th centuries. It follows a young girl who struggles between the need to avenge her parents’ death by becoming the Royal Kitchen Lady and the desire to follow her own dreams, including the possibility of romance with a young scholar who is so attractive, he looks good even in those traditional hats with the mesh screen across the forehead.

It’s melodramatic and riveting, with expansive scenes of hundreds of royal kitchen maids preparing elaborate and luxurious meals. The show was popular all over the world — just look at the names of the people posting to this Facebook group. (Serra Ozgiray, Paula Fernandez, and Devina Patel on the first page!) I think it actually says something about how universal her struggles are, especially to people in cultures that value collective traditions but who also yearn for greater individual freedom.

You can find it here, but do not only buy Volume 1. You will kick yourself when you get to the end of it and the next DVD is not ready to pop into the player.

Stocking Stuffers

If you don’t want to spend $100 on all 3 volumes of Dae Jang Geum, you could get a stocking stuffer or two.

Standing Rice Scoop

This is just genius. All nice rice cookers (see above) come with a little pocket on the side of the machine to hold the paddle. But if you don’t have such a wonderful machine, you end up putting the paddle down and the rice gets all over the counter. This standing paddle avoids the mess.

Japanese Grater

Most of our recipes call for grated, not minced, ginger. It imparts nicer and juicier flavor. I don’t own this one or this one, but I wish I did.

Chopstick Rests

Chopstick rests are pretty useless, but they can be so fun. I got these “peas in a pod” chopstick rests for Diane last year. As a Korean who loves Korean food, she can attest that she loved them!

The elephant in the room, of course, is the question, “What is the best Korean cookbook?”

Diane and I wholeheartedly hope and believe it will be available next year!

Gourmet’s beautiful, sincere portrait of food in Korea

August 21, 2009

Korea Gourmet

If you haven’t seen Gourmet’s Diary of  Foodie’s episode in Korea, it’s well worth watching, all 26 minutes of it.  It’s old news, from January 2009, which makes me think I really should get a TV.  I can’t embed it, but the link should work.  (Thanks for the tip, Nancy!)

At one point, Ruth Reichl shows up in a Chinese jacket to make Korean-style tofu.  This, especially after Gourmet’s Korean food spread that featured beautiful Asian hipsters lounging around chinoiserie furniture, is pretty ridiculous.

But Gourmet otherwise got so much right.  I loved that they highlighted Jeonju as an important center for Korean food, which is where Diane and I ate perfect bibimbap and had a spectacular 30-course meal.  The grandmother who shows her granddaughter how to make bindaetteok and naengmyeon, North Korean specialties, is adorable and wonderful.  The glee on her face as she flips her mung bean pancake made me want to laugh and cry at the same time, it reminded me so much of home.  You hear echoed over and over how much love and care are crucial in Korean food, from the man growing organic pyogo mushrooms to the woman certified in royal palace cooking.

It makes me so happy to see the food I love portrayed with warmth and sincerity.

(I was also secretly happy that there are Korean Americans out there speaking Korean with even worse accents than mine.)

I just have to say, though, the word “foodie” rubs me the wrong way.  I think Michael Ruhlman says it best:

I must here make a distinction that surely will be debated.  Since we are unlikely ever to get rid of the unfortunate term “foodie,” I would be grateful if we could separate people who like to cook from foodies.  I have nothing against foodies, I hope it’s clear.  But we should recognize that they are a distinct species, and some people are both foodie and cook.  Foodies are the first to hit the newest restaurant, or to plan a trip based on restaurant destinations; they’re are the first to order the coolest new ingredient and make sure you know it.  Foodies love to talk about food and cooking. Foodies watch food television with their pants around their ankles and buy The French Laundry Cookbook for the pictures.  Foodie is a social distinction, not a judgement.  Cooks, on the other hand, cook; they like to cook, they enjoy the work and like feeding others and take pride in various successes in the kitchen, whether it’s their first mayonnaise or a Rachael Ray recipe, and they are not daunted by failure.  (There is a third species, someone who does not like to cook, but loves to eat.  This is called being human.)

Curry curry pizza!

August 19, 2009

Remember the curry powder in the dakgalbi?

It seems curry flavoring is riding a wave in Korea.  Apparently, Mr. Pizza, a Korean chain, is rolling out “curry curry” pizza, so desired that a prince has traveled from India to try it.

I know, I know, Koreans aren’t at all uncomfortable with ethnic stereotypes.  But funny, no?

Due to technical problems…

February 26, 2009

We arrived in Chuncheon, a smallish city in Gangwon-do, today.  Unfortunately, the hotel’s wireless internet requires you to belong to some Megapass network, so we’re stuck with the terminal in the hotel lobby and my iPod which will not function like a USB stick, no matter how hard I try.  And I really had so much to say about the soybean soup I had last night!

In the meantime, here’s my new favorite dance video. Doesn’t it just make you happy?

It’s totally irrelevant to this blog, but at least he’s Korean-American!

One Fork, One Spoon has moved

February 7, 2009

When I started this blog in 2007, I saw it as a semi-public place for me to practice writing. I never expected any of my friends to read it regularly, and I certainly didn’t expect any strangers to find it. I’m really grateful and amazed that I had any readers. Ah, the wonders of the Internet!

So I hope you’ll continue to read me at the blog’s new location at I’ll be blogging about a new project, a Korean cookbook that I’m working on with my friend Diane Choo. The book will be published by East Rock Publishing, a new publisher focusing on East Asian culture, sometime in 2010. I’m really excited about it, and especially about our upcoming research trip to Korea. Regional specialties, learning from master housewives, it’s my dream come true!

One nation, indivisible

November 7, 2008

In all the news coverage following the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, one small blip involved Oprah Winfrey talking on her show about the middle-aged white man she had been leaning on, literally crying on his shoulder, during the celebratory rally in Grant Park, Chicago. Everyone called her, asking, “Who was that man?” And she confessed she didn’t know who he was, that he was simply Mr. Man. But of course, because she is Oprah, Mr. Man was soon identified as Sam Perry, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Obama campaign volunteer, and he appeared on her show.

It’s such a small thing, Oprah leaning on the shoulder of an unknown man while she cries listening to President Obama’s speech, but the more I think about it, the more it encapsulates what I saw in this campaign.

We won this together. We won, not just with friends and family we cajoled, but with complete strangers across the country. We won with Oprah, media mogul and superstar, and with my friend Mimi who had never volunteered for a campaign before. We won with Shaddai, a lawyer from Brooklyn, and with Joe, the union dry-wall finisher, who stood outside our polling site with me all day. We won with Chung, the woman my mother’s age who made phone calls to Korean-American voters for hours, and if you are not impressed, it’s because you don’t know what it takes for a Korean person to call strangers. We won with the stream of men and women who came into Childs Elementary School in South Philly to vote, African-American mainly but also white and Vietnamese-American and Chinese-American. I had never seen any of them before in my life and will probably never see any of them again. But like Oprah, we felt a connection to each other that moved us to hug each other, cry together, and celebrate together. Even three days after the election, as I walk around my Brooklyn neighborhood, I smile at strangers and they, miraculously, smile back.

Obama didn’t just declare that we are one nation, we are one people. He made us feel it and know it in our hearts as well as our minds. I thought I had always loved my country and the ideals on which it was founded, but now I know, this is love.

“So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other.”

The last dessert

June 2, 2008

Despite all my complaints, there are several things I’ve enjoyed as an immigration lawyer. My clients, for the most part, have been wonderful people with stories I feel truly privileged to hear. Winning, of course, always feels great. But almost as much as winning, I’ve loved the opportunities I’ve had to eat with my clients. I’ve eaten Dominican food at the home of the warmest Dominican family. I’ve been given cooking tips by an Egyptian caterer. I’ve tasted a crumbly and sweet anise-scented Palestinian dessert that is such a homey item, you can’t buy it in stores. This one case took over my life in the weeks leading up to the trial, but I ate very well, the Middle Eastern food that I love, culminating with the amazing strategy meal I had at Assayad Restaurant in Clifton, New Jersey.

But now the hearing is finally over. There’s still a written summation to write and the judge won’t render a decision before September, but four days of testimony have been completed. And I am no longer a lawyer. It may not be the last case I work on, but it is for the foreseeable future. So it seems like a good time to end this blog as well, for the few of you who were still expecting something new to be posted. I’m hoping to have other opportunities to write now, including working on a book on regional Korean food with a good friend of mine. But thank you to everyone who faithfully or even sporadically checked in. It was nice to have an audience!

Lucky pig

March 18, 2008

Remember when I was forced by Mexican airport security to leave my molcajete behind in Oaxaca?

It’s now at home with me in Brooklyn!

My friend Katherine, who lives in Oaxaca and was coincidentally on the same plane as me that day, heard the whole story and decided to check if the airline had kept it when she flew back home. The airline official weirdly accused of her lying about being my friend and being on that flight, as if she had the nefarious desire to steal a Mexican mortar and pestle. But he did give it to her and this week, she emailed me to tell me she was coming to NY and did I want my molcajete!

I never imagined I would ever see this little pig again. It must be a sign. I’m not sure of what, but something good, don’t you think?