Those who’ve been reading this blog for a while know I enjoy and derive a satisfying sense of community from spending my time at other great food websites. Spontaneous Tomato is one such food site that I’m happy to share this month. Created and managed by Allison, who recently answered some eating- and cooking-related questions for us, it embodies all the most appealing aspects of a food blog in a manner that compels me to visit and visit often: enticing food and drink photography, tasty recipes, and was built by a well-traveled food lover with a worldly palate. Come read about why she blogs about food, her food-blogging influences, her time spent eating in other countries, and a lot more.
Flavorful World: You lived in Japan for several years. What three examples of Japanese cuisine would you choose to introduce someone who has never experienced the cuisine to the flavors and food style of Japan, and why?
Allison: This is a great question, and a difficult one to answer! I would choose:
1) Agedashi-Doufu (deep-fried soft tofu in a tangy broth of fish stock with ginger and bonito flakes), because despite the tofu being deep-fried, this restaurant-style appetizer really showcases the flavorfulness of the very fresh, very silky tofu that is so easy to find in Japan, and so hard to find elsewhere! This type of tofu is even delicious when eaten raw (with ginger, scallions, and just a dash of soy sauce); the agedashi-doufu broth is characteristic of the sweet-yet-tangy dipping sauces used with many other Japanese dishes such as zaru-soba, gyoza, and shabu shabu.
2) Sashimi, because this epitomizes Japanese cuisine for me: it’s all about the freshness and simplicity of the ingredients, and the rich flavors of the fish shining through on their own; you really don’t even need any wasabi or a dipping sauce. (Unlike sushi—which involves rice seasoned with vinegar, sugar, and salt—sashimi is only the sliced fish without rice, often served with a light dipping sauce and some grated daikon radish.) If you’ve never tried raw fish before, fattier fish such as sake (salmon), toro (fatty tuna), or aji (a type of mackerel) are good places to start; toro especially can be rich as butter, and will practically melt on your tongue.
3) Okonomiyaki, because this dish is the culinary polar opposite of sashimi, and demonstrates the true range of Japanese cuisine. Okonomiyaki (literally “grilled as you like it”) is a hedonistically large savory pancake with cabbage and scallions, fried up on a steel plate grill and loaded with toppings according to each person’s preference. These toppings include: shrimp, pork, squid, octopus, mochi, cheese, and egg, and—if you’re in Hiroshima—yakisoba noodles. The whole thing is then topped with generous amounts of thick, sweet brown sauce, bonito flakes, and Japanese mayonnaise. Okonomiyaki goes to excesses that many people likely do not associate with the famously healthy Japanese cuisine, and it goes very well with beer, as do many other Japanese foods (like yakisoba, yakitori, and takoyaki).
FW: What is your main objective/guiding philosophy as a food blogger?
Allison: To be honest, I haven’t thought much about this one; I mainly think in terms of what I look for in other cooking blogs I admire, and which qualities I like. I want my blog to be a useful resource to others. I want my own love of all-things-edible to inspire my readers to discover and taste new dishes and try out new recipes that they might not have otherwise. I want my blog to be representative of what I’m cooking and enjoying for myself in my kitchen; yet I also want it to feature a nice variety of dishes that I love from around the world, without leaning too heavily on any particular cuisines or ingredients. I try to share only recipes that I’d look forward to eating again and that I’ve tested out more than once.
FW: As a well-traveled food lover, you’ve been exposed to a myriad of cooking styles and food elements. What is the last unfamiliar food you’ve tasted and loved, and why? What is the last unfamiliar food you’ve hated, and why?
Allison: At the risk of sounding ridiculously pretentious, there have been very few occasions, in recent years, when I’ve eaten something that I considered “unfamiliar” …and most of those foods, I’ve probably liked! The only things that come to mind in particular—both of which I loved—are a Greek dessert called galaktoboureko (a sweet lemony custard baked in phyllo dough) that I recently tried for the first time at a Middle Eastern restaurant in San Luis Obispo, California, and kaassoufflé (a Dutch bar snack of deep-fried melty cheese—what’s not to love?!) that I tried for the first time in the Netherlands in 2011. I honestly can’t think of anything I’ve hated (maybe those are the foods that I tend not to try in the first place), but I didn’t particularly like the chòu dòufu (“stinky” or fermented tofu) that I tried for the first time when I visited Taipei, Taiwan in 2010. It wasn’t too stinky or fermented for me, and I didn’t strongly dislike the taste; I just found it a little underwhelming and not too flavorful for all of the hype that surrounds it—and compared to all of the other delicious food in Taipei.
FW: What has been one unexpected result of your having created Spontaneous Tomato?
Allison: When I first started blogging, I had no idea what a wonderful and welcoming community of food bloggers I was wandering my way into. The supportive food blog culture in general and the encouragement, inspiration, and friendships of other food bloggers have been such unexpected and motivating forces in my work on Spontaneous Tomato. The energy, talent, and positivity of other food bloggers never ceases to amaze me.
And if I can add just one more answer… it’s not something food-related, but I never expected my food blog to be the means through which I came out as a lesbian to the entire internet. (I had already been out to friends and my immediate family before starting the blog.) I did not intend to write too much about my personal life on Spontaneous Tomato—I’ve always wanted to keep the focus primarily on the food—but if I’m writing about what I’m cooking at home and who I’m cooking for (and with), then of course my fiancée, Paula, is an important part of that story. She’s the one who encouraged me to start the blog in the first place, and now I often write about meals we’ve cooked for each other—or she writes guest posts about her adventures in baking—so I’ve infused a bit more of my personal life into the blog than I was expecting to, but the feedback has all been positive, and now I wouldn’t change a thing.
FW: Poet Robert Browning is credited with the quote “If thou tastest a crust of bread, thou tastest all the stars and all the heavens.” Insert a food/dish of your choosing in place of “a crust of bread” that reflect your personal taste preference and tell us why you chose that food or dish.
Allison: You’d think based on the title of my blog that I’d answer “a ripe heirloom tomato at the peak of summer” (and now that I think of it, sweet summery tomatoes are definitely near the top of my list of food that tastes of “all the stars and all the heavens”), but I think a better answer would be very fresh salmon sashimi; it’s one of the things I most look forward to eating after a long hiatus between visits to Japan, and it’s actually brought me to tears on more than one occasion. (The third thing that came to mind was a perfectly poached egg—I guess I have a weakness for umami flavors!)
FW: I have a leftover bit of Bordeaux wine, some kimchi, a package of stew pork, one whole starfruit, and some penne pasta. How can I utilize these to produce a cohesive meal? (feel free to incorporate other ingredients as needed)
Allison: This is such a tough one (especially since I don’t eat pork, and don’t really know what “stew pork” is…), but here’s what I’d do: The kimchi/pork combination immediately made me think of Korean mandu (dumplings, which can be steamed, fried, or tossed in a soup). So I’d make dumplings stuffed with ground pork, chopped kimchi, shredded cabbage, and some other seasonings. The penne pasta is just about the right size and shape as Korean rice cakes called tteokbokki, so it might be fun to cook that up in the traditional kochujang (chili paste)-based sauce along with some actual tteokbokki rice cakes, some onions, and some thin fish cakes, served with a hard-boiled egg to cut the spice. For dessert, I would make Korean pat-bingsu (shaved ice with sweet azuki beans), and I would cook the starfruit down into a sweet compote-like topping for the pat-bingsu, and add some other fresh fruit and a little sweetened condensed milk (i.e., basically a starfruit-flavored snow cone). That’s everything but the wine! I suppose a dash of it could go into the dumpling filling, but is it cheating to say: just drink it?
FW: What would you say was Spontaneous Tomato’s greatest achievement in 2012? What is Spontaneous Tomato’s chief goal for 2013?
Allison: If a blog’s successes are measured in terms of site visits and activity, then the day that my “Thai Iced Tea Popsicles” recipe got Freshly Pressed by WordPress was the best event of 2012. But the real reason I still think of that day as a turning point is because it’s when I decided to start posting on a regular schedule, when I started trying to improve the quality of my photos, and—probably not coincidentally—when the blog began to consistently get some new followers every day. Since that day, I’ve worked hard to post regularly and was proud to have kept up the twice-a-week postings through the end of 2012, so I’d say that was my own personal greatest achievement of the year.
In 2013, my goal is to continue to find a bigger audience for Spontaneous Tomato. I’d also love to hear from more readers who have tried out my recipes—nothing makes me happier!
FW: Excluding the name of any of your pre-existing blogs, websites, or print/online personas, tell us what name you would give to your memoir about your culinary exploits.
Allison: “Travel, eat, repeat” has a nice ring to it (I actually wanted that to be the title of my blog before I came up with “Spontaneous Tomato,” but I Googled it and realized it was already taken). Another blog title I was tossing around at one point was “Kuishinbou,” a Japanese word for someone who loves eating and who often eats too much.
FW: When you aren’t cooking and/or eating delicious foods, how do you most enjoy spending your time?
Allison: I enjoy traveling, whenever I get the chance; spending time with friends, family, and my fiancée; studying and speaking other languages (I’m studying language flashcards for Japanese, Korean, and Arabic); working as a teaching assistant for first-year Japanese language students; going wine-tasting in Santa Barbara wine country; and reading novels (and cookbooks).
*Note to Readers: If you’re still hungry for more of Allison’s Tomato-based Spontaneity, then visit Spontaneous Tomato here, and visit often. Save the url in your bookmarks like I have (I promise no one will call you a copycat.) The site also has a Facebook page and an active presence on Pinterest, both of which you’ve hopefully already abandoned reading the rest of this sentence to rush off and follow at once.