The Perennial Plate could give you wanderlust really quickly, at least if you're curious about food. The weekly, online documentary series follows two people who travel the world learning -- and filming -- how people really eat in their home countries.
The duo, chef Daniel Klein and camerawoman Mirra Fine, find their way into home kitchens, onto farms and fishing boats. And they have a goal: 12 countries, in-depth, in 18 months. On the first leg of their trip, they visited China and Japan.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: What stands out in your mind about China?
Mirra Fine: We found this woman named Ms. Young. She's 32 years old and she lives in Kunming, which is in the Yunnan Province. She grew up in a village and left to go to school and to be in the business world.
She decided after being in the business world for a while and learning more about food that she wanted to create a restaurant that was focused only on local food that was organic. She created this restaurant in Kunming and gets most of her produce and her meats from her family in the village 2 hours away.
Daniel Klein: She found in the business world that she was quite unhappy and unfulfilled. She was living her life in this dream that her parents and many Chinese parents apparently have for their children, which is that they get away from the farm. She actually found that she didn't like that life that they had hoped for her. She wanted to come back and even maybe farm. It was shameful if she would move back.
LRK: Her parents were ashamed?
DK: Their neighbors would be like, "Why? Why would your daughter come back to the countryside to farm?" Struggling with that, she decided that opening a restaurant and supporting her parents through buying their produce would be a good way for her to reconnect with her roots without bringing shame or bringing this backwardness to her family.
When we asked them what they thought of their daughter opening this restaurant and supporting the community, they weren't really talkative. But they said if they could say one word, they would say "support." They supported their daughter in what she was doing, and also shared that they had been making a lot more money since working with their daughter to sell produce.
MF: The other really interesting thing about this story I think is that the restaurant in Kunming is this beautiful restaurant in this beautiful space that she's decorated really elegantly. Then we went in this van with her and drove 2 hours to her village. It's just this huge dichotomy in this very poor, small village. It's just a very different environment.
DK: We made tofu together, which as a chef was fascinating. I had never made tofu before directly from the beans. We ground them, made the soy milk and cooked it. Each home in China in the countryside has a fire with a huge wok. This is where they do all their cooking and cleaning, everything out of that one thing. We were served lunch, fried pork belly and all these different things, then they cleaned it out and cooked the soy milk in the wok. It was so much better than any tofu I had ever had.
MF: It was cool. I don't know if you've seen this before, we saw them all over China: They take the head of a huge sunflower that is sun-dried, and they just put it on the table. You pick out the sunflower seeds. We sat there, sitting on the floor with this huge sunflower head, eating the sunflower seeds and drinking warm soy milk while we were waiting for the rest of the soy to coagulate into tofu.
LRK: What did you find in Japan?
DK: Japan is a culinary wonderland. It was fascinating for me to eat there. We had a wonderful experience with a gentleman who grows his own wheat and buckwheat to produce udon and soba noodles in a small town outside of Tokyo.
He was really about preserving the culture of this area that he grew up in. It's a farming area and he didn't want to lose that. There are these beautiful community gardens and beautiful farms. You can see the city starting to develop in this area. There's a big mall that has been built up near his home.
He wanted to preserve that, but just by growing wheat, he couldn't make enough money. He had been learning about udon and soba since he was a child because his parents made it. He found that by opening a restaurant and sharing these traditional ways, he would be able to sell it by adding value. He was able to preserve this farmland that he had and that his family had for all these years.
LRK: I understand the making of those noodles is considered high craft.
DK: It is. Mirra has a funny story about making them.
MF: I was filming and Tetsuo Shimizu-san, the man who we were filming, came over to me and said, "I'm about to make the noodles. Do you want to see me make the dough?" So I said, "Okay." He was making this dough, which is just wheat, water and salt. Then he put it on the floor in a bowl, put a plastic bag over it, and stepped in the bowl and started marching in a circle.
I didn't realize that happened. I later found out that is a very traditional way because using your feet helps create an elasticity.
LRK: It makes so much sense when you think about it: You can achieve with your feet and the weight of your body a kind of kneading that you can't achieve if you're just using your hands.
DK: Exactly. He had Mirra actually do it as well.
MF: It's hard to keep your balance.
LRK: What did the noodles taste like?
DK: It was summertime, so in summertime you serve the noodles cold. In wintertime you serve them hot.
They swell in the water when you cook them. You want this soft texture on the outside and then a bite in the middle -- sort of equivalent to al dente, but they're much more chewy. They have more of a bounce back to them. You dip them usually in a dashi, in a broth made with katsuobushi or soy sauce, and serve them with various local vegetables.
LRK: Mirra, you're a vegetarian. How did this trip work for you?
MF: Going into the trip, when I would tell people about it, they would say, "Japan will be great. Good luck in China." It was actually just the opposite.
In Japan everything is made with dashi, with fish or with meat in some way -- dashi is the Japanese broth. But I was able to find certain things that I did like, which I later found out were made with dashi as well. Tsukemono are the pickled things they have at the beginning of every meal in Japan. They usually have the daikon radish, which is pickled. One time they had this hot pink, shiso, pickled garlic, which I just fell in love with. It was amazing.
As for China, I was so surprised because yin and yang is a very important philosophy in China, especially when it comes to food. Yin foods are foods that tend to bring the body temperature down, that's what they say, and they are usually vegetables. Yang foods are foods that bring the body heat up, which are meats. Except they did say that yin includes donkey, and yang also includes garlic.
DK: Donkey is delicious, by the way. We had donkey sandwiches and donkey dumplings.
MF: By we, he means that he did.
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