Nippon Gochiso Select at Berkeley Bowl West. Photo: Amanda Kuehn Carroll.
Nippon Gochiso Select is selling its premium Japanese pantry products at Berkeley Bowl West through Jan. 9. Photo: Amanda Kuehn Carroll

A slender woman with a dark sleek bob and large almond eyes hands out white wooden parcels the size of shoeboxes near the door of Nico restaurant in San Francisco. I finish a scrap of black sesame financier from the table before breaking my box’s white and red ribbon. Inside I find a long paper packet of Dashitamago omelet seasoning, a tall slender bottle labeled “Mikawa cooking rice seasoning” and a brown pouch of Kinako (soy bean powder) that looks something like tan-hued cornstarch. I have just finished a five-course Japanese tasting menu and sipped the last few dregs of my toasted rice “coffee.” Although I appreciated the meal’s exotic ingredients and elegant execution, I am clueless when it comes to the materials in front of me.

Japanese cuisine is widely spread across cultures, but has yet to reach the kitchens of American home cooks like me. Something about those unfamiliar terms and mysterious ingredients leaves even adventurous eaters wary of Japanese home cooking. It was this quandary that inspired recipe developer and food educator Ema Koeda to create Nippon Gochiso Select (NGS), a premium line of artisanal Japanese products specifically curated for Western markets. The word “Nippon” refers to Japan, and the term “gochiso” has several meanings related to feasting, hospitality and gratitude. In essence Nippon Gochiso is a reminder to celebrate and appreciate the act of enjoying a meal — a concept that rings true for Koeda, who views food as a connection point between cultures.

Having grown up between the U.S. and Japan, Koeda teamed up with fellow culture-straddler, American-born and Tokyo-based food journalist Melinda Joe. Together Joe and Koeda approached CIA, Inc., a brand consulting company that has successfully launched campaigns for other Japanese brands. Koeda and her team devised a three-part marketing scheme to introduce NGS products to the Bay Area: They would put on a ten-hands pop-up dinner in San Francisco, arrange for NGS menu items to be featured at select Bay Area restaurants, and set up a pop-up shop in Berkeley Bowl West, where all 40 artisan items would be available for purchase.

The ten-hands pop-up

Daikon by B-Dama chef at Nippon Gochiso dinner at Nico Restaurant in San Francisco. Photo: Amana Kuehn Carroll
B-Dama chef Chikara Ono prepared this furofuki daikon dish at the Nippon Gochiso dinner at Nico Restaurant in San Francisco on Nov. 2. Photo: Amana Kuehn Carroll

On Monday, Nov. 2 Bay Area chefs Kyle Itani (Hopscotch), Chikara Ono (B-Dama), Melissa King (Co + Lab), Jason Fox (Commonwealth and Oro), and Laura Yuen (Luce Restaurant) selected their weapons (ingredients) of choice and joined forces in Nico’s kitchen, where they whipped up a five-course dinner that showcased NGS ingredients. As members of the team that helped to curate the NGS line, Itani, Ono, King and Fox were already more than familiar with the products and eager to show them off.

King started the evening with silky smooth scallops, nori and smoked shoyu, topped with crisp salty chicharrón and artfully plated with avocado and microgreens. Having only had scallops that were seared in browned butter, this crudo was a dish I had no aspirations of replicating.

Next came Ono’s hybrid furofuki daikon, a radish steak prepared in an Ichigojiru style. “I was very happy to cook with such a great product,” said Ono. “As the only chef from Japan, I wanted to make a traditional dish that [represented] all of Japan.” Ono went on to explain that while furofuki daikon is popular throughout the country, each of the ingredients he selected came from a different region or vicinity, resulting in a soup that blended several traditional dishes in a very non-traditional way — pearls of rice and delicate uni swimming around an island of steamed daikon in an umami-infused broth. Ono is so proud of his creation he intends to feature it at B-Dama for a limited time.

Scallops by Melissa King at Nippon Gochiso dinner at Nico restaurant in San Francisco. Photo: Amanda Kuehn Carroll
Scallops with avocado, nori and smoked shoyu by Melissa King at the Nippon Gochiso dinner. Photo: Amanda Kuehn Carroll

Fox followed with an avocado and nori salad sprinkled with popcorn and black sesame, all sitting atop a light yet creamy sauce made with NGS yuzu kosho milk (a subtly sweet product I’d happily experiment with myself).

Itani took on the entrée: petrale sole prepared with Sendai miso, traditional lacopi white beans, kinako rice cracker croutons and spare spots of citrus gratiné. “I love doing events with other chefs that can be that intimate,” said Itani. “Usually, events [involve] dozens of chefs serving hundreds of people. This was a very nice change of pace.”

Yuen rounded off the evening with kinako flan, a subtly sweet custard made with bean curd powder, sweet potato caramel sauce and candied almonds. The recipe for this particular dish was developed by Koeda and is included in the booklet she created to help home cooks work with NGS products.

Although the ten-hands pop-up was a one-time event, the dishes served provide a preview of what diners can expect to find popping up on the menus of local partner restaurants.

Eating out

Kyle Itani and Jenny Schwartz of Hopscotch. Photo: Hopscotch/Facebook
Hopscotch, in Uptown Oakland, is one of two East Bay restaurants serving dishes made with Nippon Gochiso products. Pictured above are chef Kyle Itani and general manager Jenny Schwartz. Photo: Hopscotch/Facebook

On a staggered schedule from November until mid-January, select Bay Area chefs will add NGS dishes to their menus. B-Dama, located in Oakland’s Swan’s Market, will feature the unique take on furofuki daikon that Ono created for the ten-hands pop-up. Ono feels the dish will suit B-Dama beautifully, and provide an affordable option for experiencing regional Japanese cuisine. You’ll see it on the menu for at least a couple of weeks.

Itani has selected several dishes to feature at Hopscotch, including somen noodle salad with gulf shrimp, konbu, nori and a brown rice vinaigrette; oxtail nikujaga (stew) made with NGS shirataki noodles; and kabocha risotto made with NGS black garlic and walnut pesto. While the somen salad will feature on the lunch menu, the other two entrées will appear at dinner. “We always have one vegetarian option on our menu, and I wanted to make sure that I used some of the NGS ingredients for that dish,” said Itani. “Kabocha risotto is perfect for the season and will highlight the black garlic, which is best when it can permeate a dish.”

In addition to the Hopscotch dining room, the oxtail nikujaga will be also be available for delivery through Caviar. “The shirataki noodles hold up very well when exposed to heat and don’t change texture like a ramen or udon noodle would, making it great for traveling to peoples’ homes,” Itani said.

Hopscotch’s featured menu items will be available Dec. 12 through Jan. 17.

Pop-up shop and products

Nippon Gochiso products at Berkeley Bowl West. Photo: Amana Kuehn Carroll
Forty different Nippon Gochiso products are available in the produce section and aisle 11 at Berkeley Bowl West. Photo: Amana Kuehn Carroll

As a food-centric region that is home to many adventurous eaters, the Bay Area was a logical option for NGS’s U.S. debut. If you’re ready to try your hand at Japanese cooking at home, or if you’re already an expert looking to “up” your game or ingredients, Berkeley Bowl West is the place to go.

From now through Jan. 9, Berkeley Bowl will host a special NGS pop-up kiosk in the produce section, along with dedicated product sections in aisle 11. All 40 NGS products — most of which aren’t available elsewhere in the U.S. — are available. They include everything from umeboshi honey picked plums ($5.90) and caffeine-free roasted brown rice “coffee” ($15.65), to boutique rice vinegar ($18.54) and gagome kombu (a form of dried seaweed) ($5.30). Carefully curated from predominately small, family-run businesses using traditional methods, the products are additive-free and ethically sourced.

“The ingredients are really top notch,” said Itani. “I travel to Japan every year and the quality of the food is so much higher than the Japanese food here in the states. For whatever reason, most imports to the U.S. are not that great of quality.”

Taste the difference for yourself. Representatives from NGS will offer product demos and evaluations from 1-5 p.m. Nov. 9-13; Dec. 1-5, 8-12 and 14-18; and Jan. 4-9. NGS representatives are offering a small gift in exchange for filling out an evaluation of your tasting experience. The representatives are also incredibly helpful when it comes to making recommendations and finding all the items you need to make the recipes compiled in Ema Koeda’s NGS cookbook.

And for those of us who are more interested in the outcome than the process, Berkeley Bowl West will be featuring select NGS ready-made food items in their deli kiosk from Dec. 1-5.

Japanese for the home cook

Chikara Ono and TK prepare a demo at Berkeley Bowl West. Photo: Amanda Kuehn Carroll
Janet Sanders (left) and chef Chikara Ono prepare a demo at Berkeley Bowl West. Photo: Amanda Kuehn Carroll
Janet Sanders (left) and chef Chikara Ono prepare a demo at Berkeley Bowl West. Photo: Amanda Kuehn Carroll

When Ema Koeda explained to me that NGS products were for the everyday home cook as much as they were for the expert, I was a little skeptical. Though I can find my way around a kitchen, I have never aspired to preparing Japanese cuisine, making me an ideal candidate to trial a few of the NGS recipes, all of which can be found on the NGS website.

The recipes offer what Koeda terms “modern takes on Japanese home-cooking classics,” and include sencha green tea brownies; umami pasta made with black garlic, shoyu and dried shiitake chips; and dashimaki tamago, a traditional Japanese omelet flavored with dashi and served with grated daikon. The recipes, which are illustrated with stunning photographs and include step-by-step instructions claim to be “simple, tasty, and quick to prepare.”

The largest obstacle I ran into was my ignorance of Japanese ingredients and their equivalent terminology. While hunting through my stash of NGS products for the theree tablespoons of “mentsuyu” I needed for my gagome kombu salad, I didn’t realize that this term was synonymous with the “noodle soup sauce” on my counter. The same goes for the “shoyu” that was labeled as “Yamaki soy sauce,” neither of which were listed under the ingredients for the salad, though an indefinite amount of the substance was called for in step two.

Measurements also threw me for a bit of a loop, as most of them are given in ounces rather than in cups or by count (though this varies from one recipe to the next). Some specific steps also seem to be missing. For example, while following the recipe for the kombu salad, I was instructed to slice and salt my cucumber, but was given no insight on what to do with the okra, aside from adding it in step four when I combined all of the ingredients together. Minor flaws, I know, but for a newbie like myself, step-by-step is essential.

Ingredients for Nippon Gochiso kombu salad. Photo: Amanda Kuehn Carroll
Ingredients for gagome kombu salad made with Nippon Gochiso products. Photo: Amanda Kuehn Carroll
Ingredients for gagome kombu salad made with Nippon Gochiso products. Photo: Amanda Kuehn Carroll

Still, my dishes were tasty, even the simple package of ramen that I chose to prepre without the beef soboro. The notoriously salty envelope of “chicken-flavored” seasoning that you would find in a package of Top Ramen was replaced with a slim silver pack of concentrated soup, which oozed from the pouch as I squeezed it into the wavy long strands of noodles in my pot. Even without the miso egg and steamed spinach additions, it was a perfect way to curl up at the end of a long, chilly day.

NGS’s products are premium, and carry the premium price tag that often accompanies higher-quality products, as both Ono and Itani were quick to point out. “I don’t think there would be any additional challenge to cooking with these products,” said Itani. “If anything it’d be easier as the quality is so high.” He did, however, suggest that newbies to Japanese cooking start with lower-end products while practicing and perfecting, only moving onto the premium grade when they’re ready to pay for the difference.

Personally, I like the feeling I get knowing that so much thought has gone into bringing me small-batch, custom-curated products. Perhaps this thought is overly optimistic, but I like thinking of the small businesses I’m benefiting over in Japan and the cultural connection I’m making through my culinary experience. I don’t mind paying three times the price for a package of authentic ramen. Then again, I also won’t be making it nearly as often as I did back in college.

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Freelancer Amanda Kuehn Carroll is originally from the cornfields of Nebraska, but she has spent most of her life wandering and wondering, often getting lost in the process. She is fascinated by the complexity...