Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Tsukiji Fish Market Photos

Work took me to Tokyo last week. Have more to say about the trip, but for now some photos from Tsukiji Fish Market. Didn't make it into Sushi Dai, but knew just looking at the line that they were playing for keeps.

Table full of a scallop-like shell fish. My hosts used the term "shells" to describe all kinds of shell fish.

Never did find out what these were. They were intensely red, I think I saw them being pried out of a bivalve shell.

I was not intimidated by the community chopsticks, but didn't try any of these sea weed salads. Yet another experience any food blogger worth their salt wouldn't have passed up.

I saw two stands selling tofu. This one had great packaging for the soft varieties.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Food Business: A New, Global Oil Quandary: Costly Fuel Means Costly Calories

This week's Saturday NYT article on food A New, Global Oil Quandary: Costly Fuel Means Costly Calories made it to the front page of the paper. In it Keith Bradsher details a handful of factors that are pressuring the global market for cooking oils, especially Palm Oil. Not surprisingly 1st worlders are part of the problem; local solutions across Asia --including subsidies, price caps, and rationing-- have created a gray market for palm oil and, in one case, contributed to a riot that left three people dead. Over cooking oil.

In a nutshell, the demonizing of trans fats here in America (which I'm not opposed to at all, but is no real replacement for a diet with health benefits) and the rising consumption of oil-derived biofuels here and in Europe have contributed to a 70% jump in the price of palm oil over the last year. I take the rising cost of food for granted. It's most visible to me when Arizmendi raises the price of their cheese rolls by twenty five cents, their pizzas by three dollars. A bourgeois data point that, in its banality, smoothes over some pretty rough edges:
The food price index of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, based on export prices for 60 internationally traded foodstuffs, climbed 37 percent last year. That was on top of a 14 percent increase in 2006, and the trend has accelerated this winter.

The article goes on to say that the great thing about oil palms is that they are incredibly efficient producers of oil. In some kind of couldn't make this up crisis of conscience for Whole Foods shoppers, plantation owners in Malaysia are slashing and burning tropical forests to make room for more oil palms, destroying habitats for endangered orangoutangs, and dispossessing the indigenous peoples of Borneo as they go - spurred on by the protein-oriented food demands of emerging middle-classers from China to Africa.

Few things suggest more fully the degree to which the availability of relatively high quality cooking oil is taken for granted here than Rachel Ray's reductive reduction of Extra Virgin Olive Oil to, EVOO.

Least surprisingly, the article paint a very different picture from the fetishized production of local organic olive oils we see here in the bay area. Still, in its locality, this does suggest one course of action.

Photo Credits: 'Oil Palm Nursery' by Flickr user wajakamek, 'Oil Nut Press' by Flickr user raysto, both are licensed under Creative Commons.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Food Business: On 'Curing What Ails Starbucks'

I'd been thinking about regular features I could write for the blog this year, when it occurred to me that the New York Times runs an article about food in their business section most Saturdays. Lest you think I'm some mutual fund obsessed food dilettante, I know this because the business section happens to also be the sports section.

This week's food article is Jose Nocera's Curing What Ails Starbucks. Should be interesting - I'm approaching this as a dyed-in-the wool Peet's fan. I pretty much only go to Starbucks when my wife competes in a triathlon someplace that doesn't speak Peet's. I was given a $20.00 Starbucks card in a white elephant gift exchange and, despite my daily coffee habit, I've used it just once. I purchased a large iced coffee for $2.50.

I had to wait five full minutes to receive my beverage while that automatic espresso machine spit out lattes. The coffee didn't taste as good as it does Peet's, it cost .70 more than it does at Peet's, and it took me at least five times as long to get. I made the switch to iced coffee a few years ago and have not looked back. It's easier on my stomach, less prone to lid issues, and at Starbucks I drink it black. I don't want it sweetened or blended. They have drinks that are sweetened and blended icy things, and they call them something else.

I'll recap Nocera's article this way, the founder of Starbucks hates the fact that they feel like a huge chain operation, so he's named himself CEO to restore the "romance and theatre" of a Starbucks experience that has become "watered down". Nocera's view is that this a bad idea, and that the competitive landscape has changed too much for Schultz to turn the ship around without doing things that he is unlikely to want to do - i.e. compete on price.

Along the way Nocera mentions some old news - apparently Schultz let the Stabucks executive staff hear about his unhappiness last year, in a memo that found its way to Starbucksgossip.com. Schultz writes,"we have had to make a series of decisions that, in retrospect, have lead to the watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call the commoditization of our brand."

The culprits include stay-fresh packaging that prevents Starbucks stores from smelling like coffee, and automatic espresso machines. In addition to eliminating the need for a barista to perform the act of creating an espresso drink, these new machines are tall enough to block,"the visual sight line the customer previously had to watch the drink being made, and for the intimate experience with the barista."

These decisions, combined with the ubiquity of the product, have resulted in Starbucks becoming what non-customers always thought it was - an over priced strip-mall version of an actual cafe where everything costs a lot more. Of course this makes sense to people like me, who think of drinking there as settling. What seems to be keeping Howard Schultz up at night is that is starting to make sense to people like my co-worker who treats himself to coffee there each Friday.

Premium brands and ubiquity don't get on well. This was on Seth Godin's mind last month.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace

This is the second in a handful of posts that will fill in some gaps from last year. Posts that didn't quite happen, thoughts that didn't get expressed. If I was sure there would be 10 of them, I could call them the Top 10 Missing Posts of 2007.

We do most of our shopping for each week at the Grand Lake Farmers Market. Domestic rituals being what they are, this make's it difficult for me to get to the Berkeley Farmers Market let alone the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

When we met friends at the Ferry Building for a September trip to Angel Island, it was the first time I'd been in the building. We got to the Prather Ranch shop, hoping to score some bacon, just in time to see them counting money and avoiding eye contact.

We went back last weekend, a string quartet was playing Eleanor Rigby. We browsed and had lunch at Lulu Petite. My bowl of butternut squash soup was rich and smooth, our green bean salad was heavy on the herbs and vinegar, and a homeless guy sat on the stool next to us muttering angry.