17 Aug 2010

Viva La Salsa!

It's been almost unbearably hot here in Tokyo these past few days and I've decided that the only way to get my appetite working is to give my taste buds the shock treatment. 
I've been having something of a love affair with salsa of late. Mizuki sparked it with her tales of the quirky salsa-natto combination, and believe me, it's quite unconventional: tomato salsa and fermented soybeans?! Though it works, amazingly well. 
An aside: natto was invented here over 1,000 years ago and is known as the "meat of the field"; it's gaining something of a reputation as a health food elsewhere on the planet, but it has a distinctly pungent aroma (think feet) and an off-putting slimy texture (think children's handkerchiefs - it's known as the 'sneeze bean', or okra if you'd prefer a more savory example). It tops the charts of strange Japanese food and is often used as a barometer for acclimatization though lots of Japanese people find the smell/texture objectionable and refuse to eat it, too. Its beneficial health effects include prevention of heart attacks, strokes, cancer, osteoporosis, obesity and intestinal disease caused by pathogens, so get over the goo-factor and try it: if nothing else, the salsa will disguise the smell!

Back to the salsa. This obsession definitely has something to do with the sticky heat that's descended on the city: if I'm going to sweat, I'd rather have fun doing it, and there is nothing like a hot and fiery salsa to make your eyes water, your face and hands sweat and your tongue sing! I'm having it with everything, starting with my morning toast!
The heat of salsas has a purpose: to make the eater break into a sweat. The body cools itself by sweating, and hot, spicy foods have developed in countries that deal with hotter climates, but you want a healthy balance between flavor and pungency: you shouldn't permit an excess of chili to saturate your taste buds or other sensory organs.

A good salsa is all in the vigorous, spirited, vehement, but simultaneously sensual and subtle flavors of the chili pepper. Of course you can buy it in jars, but making salsa yourself from fresh, seasonal vegetables is much more satisfying, healthier, and you can control the spiciness. I've been making it the Mizuki way with tomatoes, red onion, cilantro and jalapeno, and have also experimented with a green version that uses celery and shishito peppers - miniature, sweet-hot, thin-walled green peppers that are native to Japan, instead of tomatoes, and this I serve Italian-style on good bread with slivers of fresh Parmesan. 

The idea for this latest version came from Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a truly inspiring book by Barbara Kingsolver that describes how she and her family embarked on a quest to feed themselves on food grown in their immediate neighborhood - most of it by them on their land, for a year. The book is charming, funny, powerful and illuminating, and it opens your eyes in myriad ways to an old, old truth: you are what you eat. It made me yearn, like Pigling Bland: "I wish I could have a little garden and grow potatoes", and zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumber, figs and all kinds of other wonderful things, but for the moment I'll just do my utmost to buy local. 
The main ingredient is melon, and as the book says: "This melon salsa will bring one of summer's most luscious orange fruits from the breakfast table to a white tablecloth with candles." Don't know about the accoutrements, but the ingredients in this salsa sparkle like jewels and it is refreshing and elegant. The piquancy of the jalapeno is subtle, but it provides the perfect counterpoint to the sweetness of the melon, and it still makes your eyes water! There's an interesting blend of textures and also a delicate, lingering aftertaste of mint. It certainly transformed the salmon fillet I served it with. 
Making it with Yubari melon - Japan's premium orange-fleshed cantaloupe, which are named after the small town in Northern Hokkaido in which they are grown, is something of an extravagance (by all accounts, a pair of Yubari melons fetched 1.5 million yen (roughly $17,500) in the season's first auction this year - wow!): these cantaloupes can be shockingly expensive, but we're at the height of the season so it's now or never, and I figured I deserved a treat (incidentally, I paid 980 yen ($12) for the beautifully proportioned specimen pictured below. 

Melon Salsa
1/2 Yubari melon (please feel free to use a cheaper substitute!)
1 red bell pepper
1 small jalapeno pepper
1/2 medium red onion
1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
1-2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoons white vinegar.

Cut the melon and pepper into 1-cm cubes. Finely chop the onion, mint and jalapeno. Toss with the honey and vinegar, and allow to sit for at least one hour before serving over grilled chicken breast or salmon fillet. 

I don't know that this made me any cooler, but it certainly left me feeling a whole lot happier, and it got the thumbs up from my man: what more could a girl ask for?!

It also works very well with chilled somen noodles - the thin white wheat noodles that are the perfect thing to eat when it's hot and humid and your appetite isn't up to much. I didn't bother with the traditional tsuyu dipping sauce, just used the honey-vinegar and melon juices from the salsa: it's fiery, but delicious. 

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