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J-TOWN BEAT: Name That Dessert


(Published May 20, 2017)

“You are soooo lucky!”

I hear that a lot when it comes to my husband Eric. He has many talents and one of them is baking. Pies, macarons and cheesecake are all things that he loves to make and I am very fortunate to be his number one taste tester.

Lately he has been working with Leonard Kim at Cherrystones in Gardena, helping out on caterings and also brainstorming new items for the menu. They both share a love of cooking and the way that food brings people together. Talking story, laughing, sharing food and wine: those are some of the best things in life. So when it came to coming up with something sweet, Eric has been putting his baker skills to the task.

So far he has come up with some tastes and textures that work together: the sweetness and color of seasonal fruit, a crispy homemade piecrust and a creamy filling. He made a few and shared it with our friends, and also prepared one for me to share at Rafu.

He tells me he is still experimenting and if it passes muster, Leonard will one day feature it on his menu.

A fresh fruit dessert tart — or is it a fruit pizza? — created by Eric Hayashi. (MARIO G. REYES/Rafu Shimpo)

But what to call this dessert? It tastes like a tart, looks a bit like a fruit pizza, but I’m not sure if that sounds quite right. What something is called can make a big difference.

That’s why it’s calamari on the menu and not fried squid or you’ll see orange roughy but never slimehead, another term for the deep-sea fish. I also think that applies to Japanese dishes. Sanma sounds better than saury pike and I would always laugh at my grandmother’s literal translation of natto as “rotten beans.” Although either term doesn’t sound so tasty to me.

What Eric and Leonard come up with for dessert, we’ll just have to wait and see. Hopefully folks will be able to try it for themselves one of these days.

* * *

Years ago when Tin Sing on Redondo Beach Boulevard closed its doors in Gardena my dad had one request: go order up some almond pressed duck. He ate one order right away and kept the other in the freezer, savoring those last bites that brought back memories of family dinners.

For me, almond duck, more than hom yu, is the dish I remember growing up. It seems so incongruously delicious: fried, bready and nutty with a rich brown gravy, the best is when the patty is still a little crispy. And then there are the stray soggy bits of lettuce at the bottom of the plate. Is that a tiny concession to the health-conscious? A way to sop up the grease?

I’d be curious if chef John Nishio recreates almond duck during his Far East feast fundraiser for Grateful Crane this weekend. If he could recapture that taste, I think he’d have some Nisei and their Sansei kids lined up out the door.

Far East Cafe-style almond duck prepared by John Nishio. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

There are fewer and fewer old-school Cantonese restaurants these days and not many places still make almond duck, which takes a long time to prepare. Paul’s Kitchen here in Downtown is one and it feels like stepping back a few decades in time every time we go there. Hong Kong Garden in Carson is our family’s go-to Chinese restaurant, and judging by the other Japanese Americans there, it is one of the closest nearby to the food we remember growing up.

It’s definitely not a dish for the age of Instagram where food is meant to be looked at as much as it is to be eaten. I’m admittedly one of those annoying people who take photos of my food when we go out to eat, but I think in doing so we’ve lost touch with the soulfulness of cooking. A plate of food can be plain and homely and still taste good. In our desire to frame all of our food so perfectly, we’ve conditioned chefs to prepare meals for social media, not social dining.

Thanks to my friend Glenn Higashi I’ve been introduced to the almond duck from Chinese Garden in Montebello. It definitely has that old-school flavor that is increasingly hard to find.

Gwen Muranaka, English editor-in-chief of The Rafu Shimpo, can be contacted at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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