Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Free range and other eggs in Japan - vocabulary, ethics and sources

To pick up a thread I started in this post about the ethics involved in supplier choices, today I got cracking on some further egg research. (The Japanese vocabulary is about halfway down the post.)

Organic free range eggs, with farmer's photo

Japanese people eat a lot of eggs, estimated over 300 a year per person (compared to Australia's 213 and Mexico's 365). The demand for eggs and egg products in Japan is greater than the domestic supply and so Japan imports a considerable amount, and does not export. The chart on this page shows that in terms of whole-shell egg production, Japan is closer to self-sufficiency than for many other food stuffs, importing generally less than 10%. Higher percentages of dried egg and liquid yolk and albumen are imported however. Japan's overall food self-sufficiency is low, reported at 40%, meaning 60% of food consumed in Japan is currently imported, and so it was a nice surprise to see an area where Japan appears to be faring well. Most of the whole, shell-eggs you'll see in supermarkets here then will be domestically produced.

There are quite a few interesting small domestic farms taking great care to produce eggs with the aim of superior quality and often also via humane methods that aren't possible in larger enterprises. This article estimates that just 6-7% of Japanese egg output is automated. (If all these statistics are correct, then over 34 billion eggs are being produced domestically, by non-automated methods...) Some of these small farms sell directly to the public and businesses online, as well as in your local supermarkets. I'll include some links at the bottom of this post.

You might notice a strange obsession of those farms with the fact you can pick up the yolk by its membrane using your fingers, or stand toothpicks up in it and it doesn't break like regular yolks, something I've only ever seen extolled on Japanese sites. Have a look :) Though I wonder if this could be more to do with the freshness, as all eggs start off firmer and denature over time, becoming more runny (good for making macarons!).

Above - a further 3 free range egg brands

Here's some Japanese terminology for those looking for help to make informed decisions in the Japanese supermarket.
  • The two main terms used to describe free range are 平飼い / hiragai and 放し飼い / hanashigai.
Hiragai translates literally as 'flat kept' and hanashigai is like 'let lose'. Though these terms are used interchangeably by many people, in 2004 the Japan Free Trade Council requested that an official agreement be made regarding the labelling of eggs to reduce confusion for consumers. Hiragai means that the chickens are not caged and can walk around freely. Whether they are kept indoors or have access to outside is not specified by this wording, it seems that neither is the brood density.

Hanashigai means that for most of the day the birds have access to the outside - density of birds also not specified in this wording. The modifier 特定飼育卵 / tokutei shiiku tamago / specially raised eggs - means that from when the chickens were 120 days old, they are guaranteed to have been kept in a condition no more restrictive than 5 birds per square metre. This is likely to be a more expensive egg, but avoids yarded free range eggs, in which hens do have access to a restricted outdoor space but can still be densely populated which can lead to stress, cannibalism and disease. In the EU there has been a similar fixed categorisation of eggs based on their production methods since 2004.

As in many other countries then, simply having free range on the box doesn't mean that the image you have in your mind of happy hens running about in the fresh air is necessarily the case for the company you're buying from. Most companies have websites with information on how the birds are kept, if you want to be sure.

Other handy egg carton terms are:
  • のびのび / nobinobi - relaxed and carefree, often used to emphasize the lifestyle of hens in a conventionally understood 'free range' context, though not legally defined ;).
  • 自然 / shizen - natural. Not a particularly precise term in relation to eggs.
  • オーガニック / oganikku - organic.
  • JAS 認定 JAS nintei, or use of the JAS green leaf symbol - certified organic according to Japanese agricultural standards.
  • JA 全農たまご / JA zennou tamago - eggs produced to Japan agricultural cooperative standards, that monitor hygiene and aiming to improve Japan's food self-sufficiency. Usually caged hens so that safety consistency can be guaranteed at a competitive price.
  • 有機栽培 / yuukisaibai - organic farming methods.
  • 有機卵 / yuukitamago - organic egg.
  • 鶏舎内 / keisshanai - inside the coop.
  • パック日 / pakkuhi - day the eggs were packed into cartons.
  • 採卵日 / sairanbi - day the eggs were harvested.
  • 国産 / kokusan - domestic.
  • 自由に歩き回る / jiyuuni aruki mawaru - walk around freely.
  • 生食用 / namashoku you - for eating raw.
  • 生 / nama - raw.
  • 低温殺菌 / teion sakkin - pasturised.
  • 卵白 / ranpaku - egg white.
  • 卵黄 / ranou - egg yolk.
  • 賞味期限 / shoumi kigen - best before date.
  • 温泉たまご / onsen tamago - soft boiled egg, not raw!

Don't buy onsen tamago for baking :)

I found an interesting contrary point of view in this series of posts that discuss the relative pros and cons of the 3 main ways of producing eggs in Japan: free range, regular caged, and caged in a windowless poultry system.

Keeping in mind that the company uses the windowless method and so wants to extol that system's virtues, they suggest that free range is hazardous because wild animals can have contact with the chickens and introduce disease, that it’s hard to check and be sure that all the birds are healthy, and it's impossible to control what they eat to ensure hygiene and consistency. Of conventionally battery caged hens (in a large coop with walls that get opened in the summer) they say that although it’s easier to keep the droppings away from the eggs, it gets too hot for the birds in the summer and the droppings ferment quickly causing other health risks. They suggest the regulated temperature of the windowless battery solution they use allows for the most consistent and hygienic product - as long as there are no power outages. Animal welfare isn't discussed as being a primary concern for them.

To combat the wild animal contamination risk with some free range situations, one of the farms from the links below has implemented a HACCP-compliant system including a netted area for the chickens to roam in.

The images below are of more conventionally farmed domestic eggs, not free range but with various features such as the feed used, meeting ZA zennou standards of hygiene and quality, and displaying the "face of the farmer" in front of what looks like a windowless poultry system.

Something else you might see on egg packages is 有精卵 / yuuseiran / fertilized eggs, or 無精卵 / museiran / unfertilized eggs. When a Japanese farm describes the benefits of fertilized eggs over unfertilized, they often emphasise the stress-free, close-to-natural social system created by having a cockerel with his own harem of hens, with the idea that this results in a better tasting egg.

Some sites go as far as to say that the 'spark of life' in fertilised eggs make them taste better, but I've also seen it stated (pdf) that unfertilized and fertilised have precisely the same nutritional profile. Perhaps the marker of fertilized egg is most useful at giving an indication of the likely to be more humane type of free range condition in which the chickens are kept. The down side would be that you have to ensure the eggs are kept refrigerated at all times, to avoid them becoming chicks!

Numerous industry sites emphasise the impact on the flavour and quality of the egg that comes from the food and water given to the hens (some go as far as saying that these are the only things that impact the flavour, with animal welfare irrelevant to taste) – so for the best tasting egg, look out for details on the package about the nutritional profile of the feed, and perhaps the fact the farm makes their own blend.

Another interesting character in the world of Japanese poultry is the jidori / 地鶏. In Japan this is a legally defined type of chicken, used mainly for meat, which must have a genealogy of over 50% of Japanese "indigenous" breed of chicken (defined as from at least before the Meiji period, that's an interesting link by the way), be over 80 days old, and be reared with fewer than 10 birds per 1m² from 28 days old. It's an offense to market something as jidori which doesn't meet JAS specifications. There are some places selling eggs from jidori birds.

The main types of jidori chicken are Nagoya cochin / 名古屋コーチン, Satsuma jidori / 薩摩地鶏 and Hinaidori / 比内地鶏, along with the gamecock Okukuji shamo. I was interested to learn that the term jidori is now trademarked... in the US! An enterprising US businessman Dennis Mao, started producing chickens in California in the jidori-style, and his business now supplies many of the famous restaurants who want "jidori" on their menu.

Here are just a few places to try ordering free range eggs in Japan, if you don't find them at your local super.

I'd very much like to pay a visit to one or two of these farms and learn a bit more about how humane egg production works in Japan and what the legal definitions of more of the terms are.
If I get the chance to do a field trip, I'll report back!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Traditional sourdough spotted in Shilin night market, Taipei

Being slightly jet-setty at the moment, I recently made a weekend trip to Taiwan to meet a friend in Taipei. I tried airbnb (it was a good experience) for the first time, and the apartment we rented for the weekend was close to the famous Shilin night market, so we went for a wander.

Look what we found! A bakery, open to the street that specialises in sourdough.

I think I was charmed first of all by the "green onion little cake" and the bean-filled breads that are probably the precursor of the Japanese anpan, and then I noticed it said sourdough..

The sign just outside the bakery explains in three languages that the "sour dough practice" is a traditional method of raising dough, from their ancestors.

I'm embarrassed to admit that I hadn't thought much about ancestral bread leavening practices in the far east. I must have been swayed by the national conversation in Japan about bread vs rice which generally deifies rice over bread as being more traditional and healthier, with possible slight undertones of bread being a dirty modern import (rightly so perhaps, have a look at this fascinating tale of the US's role in the increase in wheat consumption in Japan since the 1950s) Incidentally, it seems that bread is currently winning the battle in Japan with 2011 being the first year Japanese households spent more on bread than rice.

China however does appear to have a long tradition growing wheat and also of using sourdough culture to raise wheat products. The traditional Chinese characters used by the Shilin bakery (see below) were almost the same as the ones they used in the Japanese portion of the explanation.

Traditional Chinese for sourdough

How the bakery wrote it in Japanese 

老麺 / roumen these days in Japan is usually written in katakana and refers to the noodle soup dish of Chinese origin: ラーメン / ramen! Taken literally, the kanji above would mean old noodles, or perhaps 'old dough' if the word now used for 'noodles' (麺 / men) used to be a generic term for wheat dough used for any old purpose. Indeed, the second character includes the kanji for wheat (麦 / mugi) squeezed up in there on the left hand side. Perhaps this also means that various wheat-based Chinese doughs were traditionally raised by the sourdough method, including noodles. Wow a new synapse formed in my brain, I felt it! (In case you're wondering, sourdough is usually referred to as サワードウ / sawadou or 天然酵母 / tennen koubou in Japanese.)

We bought our "sour dough green onion breads" and ate them out of little paper bags walking round the market, trying to avoid the stalls selling stinky tofu. The bread was salty and delicious, with spring onions spread through the middle. When I go back sometime I'll have to try the sweet bean buns. A lovely discovery!

I don't have an address for the bakery, but it was on the outside edge of the market, along a main road, rather than inside the labyrinth of stalls. You'll come upon it soon after walking up to the market from the direction of Jiantan MRT station.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

UCC coffee seminar - espresso and cappuccino intensive class, Ikegami

Last week I attended an intensive coffee seminar run by UCC academy at Lucky Coffee Machine's showroom in Ikegami, Tokyo. The workshop was from their specialist course selection and was called ‘espresso and cappuccino fundamentals’ (エスプレッソ・カプチーノの基礎講座). It is intended for baristas, but is also good for people interested in coffee or business owners wanting to learn more.

Welcome to coffee school!

Since there may be a small café element to my business at some point I wanted to start to learn what kinds of things are important for good coffee and work out whether it would be prohibitively expensive to include it in my plan – semi automatic espresso machines seem to start from just under 300,000 JPY and go as high as you like. I’m also just a big geek for any opportunity to learn and this sounded like a fun afternoon.

Classroom funiki

Any trepidation about being a swot back in a classroom setting vanished upon being asked by a friendly gentleman if I’d like a cappuccino, latte or espresso while waiting for the class to start – there was no coffee at my school! It arrived decorated with a tulip, and I wondered if we might have time to touch on that unimportant but delightful part of the current business of coffee – latte art.

The gentleman was our teacher and the 4-hour class began with an espresso history lesson. The espresso maker was invented in France and refined in Italy. We were told how the fairly fixed methods of Italian coffee making evolved somewhat more freely in 3rd and 4th wave American coffee businesses and then came to Japan as a mix of the two countries' styles, often including a fair amount of guess-work and imitation. Here he sighted the Japanese early カフェカプチーノ/cafe cappuccino which looks like an Italian cappuccino but is often made with siphoned coffee and whipped cream rather than espresso and milk.

The courses at UCC aim to bring the fundamentals of good espresso (and espresso-based beverage) making back to a defined set of standards that once understood can be employed or not as the business owner sees fit for their purposes. Italy has the 4 Ms of proper espresso making, which are:
  • miscela / the blend of coffee beans
  • macinato / the correct grind
  • macchina / the machine
  • mano / the person making the coffee
  • To these UCC adds a 5th which is 'maintenance' of the machines.
We were also given definitions of various standard coffee drinks, their milk-to-espresso ratio as dictated by use of the proper sized cup and in the case of a cappuccino, filling it to the brim.

Effect on flavour of roasting

Next came the coffee chemistry lesson. Roasting the beans was likened to making caramel with the temperature and length of roasting taking the flavour from sour (green beans) to sweet (light brown) through to bitter (dark brown beans). Once roasted the beans are ground, and for espresso it needs to be a very fine grind.

A fine grind

The key here, we were informed, is that the beans are particularly perishable once ground. The flavour compounds, the oil and the volatile aromatic gasses in the grounds dissipate over time and so for the most flavourful espresso the ground coffee needs to be used soon after grinding. (And I would always buy ready-ground coffee in an Illy tin and keep it for months at home, oops. Although, David Lebovitz's post from visiting Illy indicates that their pre-ground coffee might be best one to choose if you do buy ready-ground stuff.)

Interestingly our teacher described espresso an emulsion, with the oil and flavour compounds being forced into the water through steam pressure, whereas brewed and drip coffees are more like infusions where much of the oil etc. will stay on the filter paper and gasses evaporate. A French press or cafetière will press out some of the oil into the coffee but it will not be an emulsion.

Marbled crema, a sign of a good espresso

I also asked about the stove-top espresso moka pots with the water canister that screws into the jug and also uses steam, but was told that it’s unlikely to produce a good ‘crema’ layer of foam or much of a complex flavour. These moka pots use 1.5 bars of pressure whereas espresso machines use 9 bars. Espresso machines also extract coffee at a slightly lower temperature 92-96°C vs. a stove-top pot's 100°C which also impacts flavour.

Next followed a demonstration and a couple of hands-on practices each at making espresso. We were taught about the importance of evenly packing the grounds and tamping with sufficient pressure in order to make sure the hot steam wont just escape through one weak spot but be forced through the entire cake of coffee, which will give you the most and most balanced flavour from your blend.

My espressos!

We then learned a little about milk. We were told that foods are more flavourful when slightly warm rather than ice cold (English beer!), and that the optimal temperature for milk is around 60°C, at which point it will taste slightly sweet. Dutifully, we tasted a little of the steamed milk handed out and by George he was right.

Milk, sweeter at 60°C

The pleasure of a cappuccino comes in the creamy mouth-feel of finely frothed milk, sweet from being at the right temperature, bringing out the sweetness of a medium-roasted coffee. You want a cappuccino now don’t you? I did, by the time we’d had all this explanation, and fortunately there was going to be chance to get tired of them as the latte art section was up next!

I guess this should be called cappuccino art really as the proportions of milk to coffee and cup size made it a cappuccino. It’s usually called latte art because bigger latte drinks have more scope for detail which must be useful in competitions, but we were just here to practice the basics.

Demonstrations (in order of difficulty) were of a heart, a bear, a rabbit, a tulip and a fern. It’s quite tricky! One or two people got it straight away, and I wonder if they weren't first-timers, but most of us needed (still need) lots of practice. Here are my 1st, 2nd and 3rd attempts:

The milk needs to be smooth enough (pour off the first bit of foam, then bang out the large bubbles by tapping the jug on the table top and swirling), then the general idea seems to be pour from a slight distance into the middle of the cup (speed, milk drives under the surface of the coffee?), then bring the jug down close to the cup and tilt the jug forwards to create a white circle (slower pour, more foamy milk from the back of the jug, rests on surface of the coffee?), and finish by dragging a final thin drip of milk through the circle to make a heart. Other images are variations of this basic technique, and it’s probably going to be best to watch a video to see how it’s done and then practice.

It was supposed to be a heart.. I poured from too high up

Latte or cappuccino art is a whimsy, even a bit silly maybe as it doesn't effect the quality of the drink (unless you take forever and the coffee gets cold), but it can produce a delightful effect that might make someone happy and since you have to pour the milk in anyway and it doesn't cost any extra.. yes I think that I’ll have to have another go at this :)

Here are some of the other student's slightly more successful attempts at hearts:

The course is delivered in Japanese and this particular one was 10,000 JPY. UCC offer longer courses for various purposes, details of which you can find on their site.

I understand their head office and main school is in Kobe, but that they may be opening up an academy in Tokyo.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Field Trip LA! - Farmers Market in Santa Monica

series of posts from visiting interesting little (and large) cafes, food-related establishments and other places of inspiration.

If you are in LA on Wednesday mornings this Santa Monica farmers market at Arizona Avenue and 2nd street is the place to be. Larger than the market that opens on Saturday mornings in roughly the same spot, Wednesdays are more of a trade day, with restaurant staff from the area coming to stock up on what's in season.

The colours were amazing

I'm used to farmers markets in Japan like the one outside the UN University with comparatively small amounts of produce arranged very neatly, and much of it processed into jams, juices and pickles already. In California the mountains of herbs, root vegetables, corn and brassicas roughly piled up in their raw state was quite a sight to behold. I fear I may have been a bit snap-happy but everywhere I looked was beautiful or interesting, or both!

Kale chips ahoy!

There was quite a variety of interesting businesses selling at the market - from raw milk, freshly squeezed juice, to famous sourdough, Japanese vegetables, hair relaxers, lavender and sprouted beans.

Many of the stalls had samples to try, so you could compare the different olive oils and nuts etc. These strawberries from Harry's Berries were so good that I ended up buying some despite having no intention to when I took the sample.

Even better than Japanese strawberries!

The fact it was a thriving trade market lent something to the atmosphere. It wasn't as passive and strolling as the Saturday version (I went back!), people were very actively hunting for the best stuff, stock was shifting off the shelves at a pace and being topped up before eventually selling out. There was quite a community feeling about it as well, people from the nearby restaurants catching up and passing on tips on what was good that day. It all came full circle when we ate at a local restaurant on our last night in LA and “Farmers Market” was used as an adjective on the menu to sell the fresh tomato tart.

I left the market with a huge bunch of sunflowers, Belgians bread, some Californian olive oil and 3 packs of Harry’s Berries strawberries. My advice – take a big bag with you when you go!