Voice4Chefs

Real and Raw Japanese Culture & Cuisine with Sam Rongve

October 02, 2021 ChefMichael Season 1 Episode 8
Voice4Chefs
Real and Raw Japanese Culture & Cuisine with Sam Rongve
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode,  meet Sam Rongve. He lived in Japan for over a year and will take us on a journey through the local restaurants and the back alleys.  We'll get up early and join him on a walk through one of the largest Japanese fish markets in the world. He'll take us back to Seattle, Washington, where he worked as a waiter in Kiwami Sushi Bar, local favorite on the east side of Seattle, Washington. 

Visit Voice4Chefs here: https://www.voice4chefs.com/

Support the show (https://www.buymeacoffee.com/MichaelDugan)
Michael Dugan:

In this episode will meet Sam Rongvi . He lived in Japan for over a year and will take us on a journey through the local restaurants and the back alleys. We'll get up early and join him on a walk through the Tsukiji market, one of the largest Japanese fish markets in the world, he'll take us back to the States, where he worked as a waiter at a local sushi restaurant called Kwami, on the east side of Seattle Washington. Sam, I want to welcome you to Voice4Chefs and thanks for being our guest today.

Sam Rongvi:

Thank you very much for having me.

Michael Dugan:

Sam, why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about Japan.

Sam Rongvi:

Yeah, So I went over there yeah in Tokyo in a Tokyo, wow what was the food like. I think the flavors would be very pronounced and unique, but I don't know because I've never been to Japan. Why do you think that is? I routinely saw some of the best neighborhood called Nishi Ogie Kubo, which is immediately next to a very prominent neighborhood called Kichijoji, which is very frequently ranked like one of the top places to live. And I think all of Japan, but certainly Tokyo just because it's you know it's hip it's got all the restaurants and stores and stuff so. And that was just through sheer luck that was just brand I have ever seen at places As they were labeled patisseries the company that employed me, you know, they said we're gonna send you over the apartment I said great, and that was just where they put me. So I lucked out in a very big way, especially considering that I became a recognizable regular at least three restaurants within walking distance of my house because they were so fantastic. I love it. Yeah, I felt quite a bit like Frasier, you know, I was like I felt appreciated, all around Tokyo like fantastic bread. This is French Style? And, you know, welcomed. But also, like, very different than everybody else who is there.

Michael Dugan:

What's the service like?

Sam Rongvi:

So the service is very different than here? And I think part of that is cultural and I think part of that is, you know, our culture like tipping and is not a thing over there and so I don't want to say there's no motivation to do a better job but there's certainly no motivation to hover over, French style a lot yeah. customers, and like, kind of chat with them and all that which is something I really enjoy as part of my I remember with my wife. We went to Italy because she believed that she's Italian and Another way it's her passion for the food from the culture of friends and She took me to Italy and I can't remember where we were. It might have been Florence and I was shopping just shopping for a T shirt, a really nice t shirt. I remember buying the T shirt leaving the store and I didn't try it on. She said you should have tried it on. I said why she goes you won't be able to take it back and I tried it on the street. It didn't fit. So I walked back in and I tried to take it back, and they said no, you can't do that. So a totally different culture of service very Interesting so Tokyo. Wow, what was food like? To me I think the flavors would be very pronounced and unique but I don't know because I've never been to Japan. I mean the flavors of the Japanese food. Tokyo is one of the largest, most metropolitan cities in the world so pretty much anything you want. You can find especially when it comes to food. I ate myself silly when I lived there one of my favorite neighborhood places was a yakitori joint you know you go down the stairs and into this wood panel bar that had a charcoal grill you would order chicken heart, chicken skin, chicken liver, anything you want thats on the menu. By the skewer and the grill it up right there. I was there. Once, twice a week I ate sushi as much as I could financial manage. Some of the best Chinese food I ever had in my life. You know literally anything you want is available to you Usually at a fairly high Quality. Probably make some people mad by saying this but uh from what I understand. From what I've heard other people say the Japanese to French cuisine. Just as well or perhaps even a little better than a lot of french chefs do. Why do you think that is. You know, I don't know. That book I mentioned to you mentioned touches on a study. There's a culture of what's i think is called shikonin which is perfection through the details I think would probably be a good way to mention it. You know when when they want to create read something there there's a lot of attention paid to the detail I really couldn't tell you one good answer. Why that is I will say, I routinely saw some of the best brand I have ever seen at places As they were labeled patisseries all around Tokyo like fantastic bread. This is French Style ? French style a lot yeah No, I mean, I mean again there was other places that were other kinds There was just one thing that stood out to me and it's a cuisine. I don't know super well, but I do know other people who know it better than I have also said that sentiment to me.

Michael Dugan:

So they had like boulangeries there which would be a French Bakery?

Sam Rongvi:

Yes, I lived pretty close to I live next to a I don't know if it was quite a French bakery but it was a bakery that did do some French things. There was a line literally like from the door back around the building almost every weekend.

Michael Dugan:

Wow That's so interesting. I definitely wouldn't have expected that. I have a different vision of Japan.

Sam Rongvi:

I think actually that the French and Japanese are the only two Unesco recognized World Heritage cuisine. I think but I'm not Sure but like you said, all the different flavors because there's so many. There is Izakaya's that do some of everything in restaurants, The restaurat I went to that did Yakitori. You know, there was no sushi there was no tempura. It was much more specialized and there was probably like a 12 person seater restaurants and that's one of my favorite things is a lot of these restaurants are very small run by the owner and maybe one or two other people very frequently I would eat at restaurants that were 15-20 seats or smaller.

Michael Dugan:

How quickly did In turn of seats?

Sam Rongvi:

It depends on the Kind of restaurant and again, this is kind of a big cultural difference a Japanese restaurant is not going to kick you out like an American restaurant. A lot of the mentality seems to be you know. You stay until the customers are ready to go home. Not until the restaurant you know until the hours our closed.

Michael Dugan:

How do they make a profit?

Sam Rongvi:

I think couldn't tell you I know a lot of neighborhood restaurant have a lot of regulars. And again, you know people who are staying after a lot of the times, they're drinking or consuming and so it's not like they're sitting in an empty table With you know, the staff leaning on the bar waiting for them to go home so they can wipe down. Tokyo is a real city that never sleeps. I mean, I mean all the bars are until like eight or nine in the morning. If you missed the last train of the evening you can just stay out and until the first train at the bar and the bar yeah. Which you know, I wouldn't necessarily recommend but have done. That is a big difference. I think I mean we don't give people the old heave ho here but we're also less than subtle about when it is time to go.

Michael Dugan:

Do they have markets down there? Can you describe those markets?

Sam Rongvi:

Their is a market near my apartment was in a building and all the fruits and vegetables everything were tabled kind of outside the building on the sidewalk and the streets. It looked a lot like almost what you feel like when you walk through Pike Place Market, you know it's these big bins of fruits and vegetables with a big price tag on it and the guy in an apron standing there you pick what you want and you just go pay the guy. I used to go get a sushi breakfast every so often up Tsukiji market which was up until they moved the biggest fish market in the world. What's a sushi breakfast? The sushi you eat for breakfast, but Tsukiji market is where all the restaurants source their food from the fishermen bring

their food in at 3:

30 - 430 in the morning and there's a lot of restaurants that are in what's called the outer market. The inner markets is all the fishmongers and the middleman and people buy and sell the fish. The outer market is shops and restaurants and all that and so they'd be open, you know, seven, eight or morning and I'd go and have a big bull of Chirashi for breakfast. Tell our our listeners. What is Chirashi? Chirashi is one of my my favorite more common ways of serving sushi. It's a bowl of sushi rice that has been covered in sashimi. Generally speaking a pretty wide variety of fish although a lot of places will also do you know, only Salmon or a very popular one is called Unagi Don which is the broiled eel that's used as Nigiri over rice.

Michael Dugan:

Yes sashimi sashimi is raw fish?

Sam Rongvi:

When people say sushi thier generally referring to one of two forms which would be either sashimi which is the fish sliced by itself. Also the original form which is the Nigiri which is the fish with a small bit of wasabi in between it and the rice. That's what traditional sushi is Nigiri and also sushi.

Michael Dugan:

I have a hard time imagining having sushi for breakfast I could see myself doing that.

Sam Rongvi:

I mean, we're especially when it's as good as what you can get over There's just really never a bad time to wake up.The market I imagine that the fish is very, very fresh. And what kinds of fish are we looking at the market? Everything you can imagine the tuna salmon fish. I probably don't even know about a like I said until it moved to a new site. The Tsukiji market was not biggest fish market in the world you can I imagine. Get almost anything But was extremely interesting is this isn't true for all restaurants but I know several of the restaurant owners I talked to and I've heard this for other high level sushi restaurants as well is they'll go to the market without menu in mind because they the ideas they need to find out what fish is good before they can plan on what they're gonna make because if they commit to a certain kind fish and then that fish that day is not up to standards, you're still committed to serving that fish.

Michael Dugan:

I equate it to Pike Place. I think there's a difference. I think the quality is a lot Better. That's my feeling is.

Sam Rongvi:

The quality is a lot better and it's a lot less. I don't want say necessarily like touristy but it was a lot more productivity or It was a lot more oriented towards the working nature of the market. Whereas Pike Place still is a working market but it's not an industrial site right? I mean Tsukiji is a center for a lot of other things that has the stuff around it. Seafood is a huge part of Japanese cuisine. So of course, you know, there's marketplaces. All over where people can go and source their seafood but the crown jewel of it all is my one of my favorite places actually is called Tsukiji unfortunately, it since been closed down the innermarket that is. So Tsukiji in its day was the largest market in the world. It consisted of the inner market. Which was where all the fish mongers and the middle man and all the guys who did you the selling and the buying of the fish did their work And the outer market was jammed full of restaurants and smaller markets for individual people who wanted to buy fish or vegatable. It has since been moved to a new site, the outermarket and all those restaurants are still there. But the inner market is gone. If you're interested, there's It's a fantastic documentary I love called Tsukiji Wonderland that gets really into the history and this story of this place I used to go there 8 in the morning to get a big bowl of sushi for breakfast. Years ago the first time I visited Japan, I managed to take a tour very very early in the morning where you got to watch the tuna auction. Which is something they stopped letting you do for a while. Before they moved, but you just stand around at five in the morning watching all these dudes yell and bid on what has got to be an 800 pound fish.

Michael Dugan:

Wow and what is something like that go for?

Sam Rongvi:

I don't know the average price I do know that this year, the first tuna of, the beginning of 2020 which is considered to be an especially lucky buy went for, I think $1.2 million.

Michael Dugan:

Oh my gosh. I can't imagine.

Sam Rongvi:

Somewhere around there. So it is very expensive because it's, you know, one of the most sought after fish, and they're huge. I mean it's a full grown tuna they're 800 - 900 pounds and so you do get a lot of meat with that, but it is very expensive.

Michael Dugan:

So you mentioned sushi for breakfast. Is it different than sushi for lunch or dinner?

Sam Rongvi:

No it's is the same stuff and you can order I don't know that I've ever been to a place that had different menu save for breakfast. For lunch, it's just that these places are open very early. And so you can go eat sushi for breakfast.

Michael Dugan:

Well I know my wife when we're in France. She used to love having sardines for breakfast. That didn't that didn't quite for me, I'm more of a pastry person.

Sam Rongvi:

Yeah, I like the variety of flavor in the morning. I don't know that I could do only one kind of fish for my breakfast but a good mix Chirashi Bowl does the trick for me very nicely.

Michael Dugan:

What other kinds of fish or seafood are at the market?

Sam Rongvi:

Almost anything you could imagine I've seen you know crabs, clams. I've seen tuna salmon, hamachi and yellowtail. I don't think it was a sunfish but it kind of looked like a sunfish. It was a Hawaiian fish. It was enormous. I can't remember what the gentleman who had a called it. Tsukiji it's the Tokyo of fish markets is so big you can find pretty much anything you'd like provided your way to look hard enough.

Michael Dugan:

Interesting, it sounds a little bit of like Pike Place Market in Seattle but I think Pike Place is a little bit.

Sam Rongvi:

Just a little bit this place bustles. There's small forklifts, but they're one man mobile pallet jacks almost and they are zipping through the crowds of tourists faster than you think you would safe. And honestly, I think it's because the guy that drives them are so sick of having to maneuver around all these people. They're just trying to do their jobs.

Michael Dugan:

Wow sounds like a lot of fun though. I I wish that I wish that I could be there. I definitely want visit Japan. Can you tell us a little bit more about your experience in Japan, I know you live there for a little while, but did you travel around Japan?

Sam Rongvi:

Yes, so I lived there for a year almost to the day and I was very lucky I got to travel quite a bit on holidays. Then just for fun I went to Osako which is one of my favorites. places I know a lot of places and it's called colloquially Japan's kitchen, Kyoto. Sapporo up in Aokido, Hakone, Ezu a lot of places I was very lucky.

Michael Dugan:

Can you tell us about like, what asako what what type of food was there was it different than Tokyo or I was a similar?

Sam Rongvi:

So I mean a lot of it was similar the two things that are not unique to Osaka but take special pride of place in Osaka. Are takoyaki and Okonomiyaki. Takoyaki is a piece of octupos meat rolled in batter fried with sauce and fish flakes on top is really good originates from a Osaka. Okonomiyaki is vegetables and meat all thrown in a batter which is then cooked on a griddle, almost like a pancake. Which is your favorite between the two. I don't even know that I can pick they are two of my absolute favorite things but gun to my head. I probably pick Okonomiyaki because I can make that at home without too much fuss. And good Takoyaki, I've not yet attempted they're both fantastic and originate from Osaka. They do them very well their.

Michael Dugan:

So Osaka What about the other places you traveled anything different in there cusine?

Sam Rongvi:

Okonomiyaki is a little bit similar to BBQ in America in that, there's a few different permutation that are regional based and there is a fair bit of heat as to which one is the best. I like Osaka style which is the mix in the batter. But there's also Hiroshima style Which is later with noodls. Interesting so even though technically it's the same food. The food's very different. And also I also enjoyed a trip up to Sapporo, which has a specialty known as Genghis Khan. It's almost like Yakiniku where you go and grill your own your own beef, but the differences is they use a special grill that ostensibly is shaped like a Mongol Warriors helmet because when the Mongols were on campaign they could only cook in their helmets because they were always on the move. You grease up the grill which is conical and around the base of the cone. You put a bunch of vegetables and on the top you grill your mutton and cooking that the fat runs down and cooks the veggies.

Michael Dugan:

Oh I see. So the oil or grease from the mutton flavors the vegetables.

Sam Rongvi:

Yeah It's very good and again is like that vein of Yakiniku you know grilling your own meat. I'm a big fan of that sort of cuisine as well.

Michael Dugan:

We do that a lot here. I Enjoy it as well. My wife does to.

Sam Rongvi:

You guys would probably be very big fans of this. I feel comfortable saying. Maybe our listeners are too. Hopefully food alone is reason enough to visit Japan if you're ever on the fence about it. I have never eaten so good and consistently in my entire life and my whole family are good cooks.

Michael Dugan:

Is there any Other highlights that you can think that you'd like to share about Japan?

Sam Rongvi:

When you go to a Japanese ballgame, you can get a draft beer at your seat because they have vendors with a mini kegs strapped to their back and a sheath of cups on there hips. They'll pour you a draft beer right at your seat and that is if you If you're planning to visit Japan, even if you're not a sports fan do yourself a favor and go to a Japanese baseball game. It is all kinds of fun.

Michael Dugan:

That sounds like an incredible experience. So moving forward what is your favorite restaurant In the world?

Sam Rongvi:

My favorite restaurant In the world I'm going to tip my hand here a little bit called in english anyway It's called crashvie. It's that yakitori place I told you about that was really near my apartment and I went there once or twice a week. I was there until three in the morning, the day I left to come back to America.

Michael Dugan:

So you mean to tell me that I've tried all over the world and you you live in Japan and your favorite restaurant was literally just down the street.

Sam Rongvi:

It was so good. I just I loved it and I love to find good places. If you asked me you know what's your favorite sushi restaurant probably have another answer because they didn't do sushi. You know if I had to pick one place that's the place.

Michael Dugan:

On top of that you didn't do sushi. That's, that's fascinating to me. Very interesting. What about your favorite restaurant in Seattle other than you own?

Sam Rongvi:

Other than my own it is actually a Japanese place called Issian. It's down in Wallingford and it is an Izakaya. Which is a Japanese pub or bar and they have a wide variety of foods, including some items see a lot of other places like Koji Katsu which is deep fried skewers of like pork or chicken, they do grilled squid. That was the reason I originally went and is a huge part of the reason I keep going back baby octopus. They have all this sorts of stuff in addition to a lot of very good more recognizable things such as temporary and sushi and all that. The atmosphere is is fantastic. The food's amazing. And it's all his authentic place as I've found in the United States. It's family style so you can get a bunch of stuff with your friends or your wife or whoever and try a bunch of different flavors and share it all. I've never had a bad experience is great.

Michael Dugan:

Sounds like an amazing place we are fortunate to have a lot of great restaurants in the Seattle area. Oh yeah. So talking about Japanese cuisine I come from place where I studied European cuisine and back in the 1900s We had four essential core sauce Would you say that there any staples or any mother core sauces from Japanese cooking?

Sam Rongvi:

I don't know that It goes so far as to call them sauces and make cuz I've seen them used in the A variety of ways, but a lot of Japanese cooking restaurant miso, mirin, soy and doshi for a lot of its flavors or base. And a lot of people you know are familiar say miso soup which combines miso and doshi its used in almost everything.

Michael Dugan:

Can you describe the most probably know about miso, but what about others that you just mentioned?

Sam Rongvi:

People know miso and people of course know soy sauce. Mirin is a rice vinegar that's used in cooking and so it's it's pretty similar to a lot of substance I think people have worked with before. Dashi is made from what I believe is Katsuobushi. Which is a dried fish and then is used to make Dashi is actually a fish based ingrediant which is why miso soup is actually I think it's technically vegetarian. But it's not vegan because it has that doshi in there as part of the base.

Michael Dugan:

Now I know you worked for Kiwami which is in Kirkland, Washington. Right on on the Waterfront in downtown Kirkland. How did Kiwami pivot during the pandemic to stay successful? Because part of the reason that Voice4Chefs was formed was to help people in these really difficult to get the word out about their restaurants and what's going on.

Sam Rongvi:

We are fortunate we have you know a great location. We have great customers, a lot of regulars who still come in. We have the benefit of we do a kind of food that a lot of people can't replicate or at least can't replicate very easily at home. It makes us I think, a more desirable choice. If you're going to go out and get some food, you're going to want to get something you know you can't make yourself.

Michael Dugan:

I see that definitely makes sense and you have take out available right now?

Sam Rongvi:

Yes, we takeout and delivery to all others. Normal, you know meal delivery options.

Michael Dugan:

And that's because right as we're recording. We're not I wouldn't say we're fully in lockdown we're in that process where It's I would essentially say takeout or outside seating. Yes. What would they experience When they came to your restaurant or when they teach tasted your food. How could you describe that experience?

Sam Rongvi:

Well, I hope from my end personally and the rest of the staff. I hope they feel overwhelmed with friendliness that something I've always tried to make people feel when they come into our restaurant. As far as the food goes, I think. We have awesome fish I think the quality of our food stands by itself. Come on in it and try it's that good. I don't need to say anything is stands on itself and I think that's something we've taken a lot of pride in at our restaurant. We serve good food, we're not fast food. We try to do things as quickly as we can. Of course quality is always been our top focus and I think that shines through in a lot of our menu.

Michael Dugan:

Going along with quality. I've had your food and the fish is very fresh, the seafood is very fresh. How do you maintain that? Are there specific vendors is there is there a technique to get your food fresh?

Sam Rongvi:

So we have a variety of vendors as you can imagine and we get multiple deliveries throughout the week as required. Almost every other door, you can open in our restaurant is some form of refrigerator. We use lots of cold and fish doesn't stay long but it does got to be kept well when it is there. Also the law a lot of fish, especially salmon. needs to be frozen before it can be be served to make absolutely certain that there is new possibilities of parasites.

Michael Dugan:

I understand your focus is on the very high quality, not just fish and seafood, but ingredients and I did some research and discovered you really value vinegar and rice for the sushi. Tell me why I wouldn't go out make my own sushi go to a local grocery store and buy the cheapest vinegar and the cheapest rice?

Sam Rongvi:

Because sushi is epecially when it comes to the Niguri is just as much about the rice as it is about the fish. The first job any aspiring sushi chef gets when they join up is wash the rice and this period can last sometimes even a year or two. When you eat Niguri technically you're meant to turn it over and dip it into soy sauce and put it in your mouth fish side down. So as to not compromise the integrity of the rice, I would say the reason you would come to us is because our chefs have studied this, they've practiced this. We have that kind of harmony and quality of ingredients. You can get at home but you're not going to get it on your first try and you're not going to get it with using the cheapest ingredients. If you want to practice you im sure you could but it's definitely not something you know someone can just pick up a knife can do or even. I don't think I could do and I made sushi. I can't charge people for it but I made it.

Michael Dugan:

What would you say are your top three cookbooks,

Sam Rongvi:

My top three cookbooks so my number one food book isn't a cookbook cookbook. I'm going to lead with it because that's how I am about it. Oh yeah, it's called rice noodle fish. It's not written by Anthony Bourdain, but it was under the auspices of his publishing it is a very in depth, regionally organized guide to Japanese cuisine. Every time I read it, I have to stop myself from buying a plane ticket for, you know, five minutes from then. So that would be that would be my number one. After that I actually quite like it's just so it's a little similar cookbook called Donburi Mania . Donburi just means over rice. There's a lot of different recipes for rice bowls. When I was College man it was my savior you can stretch things along the way once you're just putting it all over rice. That would probably be my second favorite and my third favorite I hate to say it, it's not an accessible one. When I was in high school, I took cooking class and the teacher of our cooking class was Mrs. Akita I think 90% of the recipes we made were Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai. At the end of the quarter she compiled a cookbook for us out of everything we made and I still have it. It's a great little cookbook but unfortunately it's not one that I think people can't get their hands on.

Michael Dugan:

It sounds like that might have the the real passion that you have for Japanese and Asian cuisine?

Sam Rongvi:

So that's part of it. The other part when I was growing up my aunt lived with us and my aunt is half Japanese her mother's from Gifu. I was eating Japanese and using chopsticks from a very early age. I can't remember not knowing how to use chopsticks, and so we ate sushi from when I was a little kid. So that was also a huge influence on me and actually the first time I ever went to Japan was a high school graduation present my aunt took me and my father and we went to Japan for about a week. And that was the first time I'd ever gone there. If people are interested or like to try the food we serve at Kiwami. We're right smack in the middle of downtown Kirkland. We're online at kiwamisushi.com Come on down. We're a bunch of friendly folks. We've got a lot of great food.

Michael Dugan:

Sam I want to thank you for sharing your experience in Japan and sharing your passion for Japanese cuisine and culture.

Sam Rongvi:

Thank you very much for having me. It's been a wonderful time. It's been a lot of fun.

Michael Dugan:

Thanks for joining us today. Follow us on Facebook like us comment. You can also go out to our website Voice4Chefs.com and stay tuned for the next episode of Voice4Chefs.