Sunday, August 13, 2006

Where's the Capital of New Jersey?

For weeks we'd been hearing, through my mom, that there's an even better Asian market in the area than the one we usually patronize.

This information came from two of Mom's Chinese students. We heard about better products, superior produce, a finer seafood counter. We had to find the place. We set out on one of New Jersey's most "Jersey" roads, a tricky-to-negotiate east-west extravaganza peppered heavily on both sides with Pier Ones and Home Depots and White Castles. We were looking for a place called Capital, and our eyes were peeled.

We found nothing of the sort.

We drove through town after town, and I was pretty sure we had somehow missed the place. And then we saw a big sign: Asian Food Market. As I pulled in, I noted to Margy the absence of the word Capital, but then again there were a few Chinese characters on the sign, and maybe they said Capital.

So we bought some stuff like ginger candy, Chinese eggplant, Japanese cucumbers, and, of course, shrimp with the heads on, one of my favorite staples of the Asian seafood counter. The squid looked nice, so I got two of those as well. Margy saw some heat-and-eat udon in the refrigerator case and suggested we grab a package. A meal was beginning to take shape.

Inspired by last weekend's Japanese feasts, I thought I'd whip up a bowl of dashi, the broth made with kombu seaweed and bonito flakes that is the foundation of so many different Japanese dishes. It might be blasphemous, but I threw some shrimp heads in with the seaweed just to let some of that nutty flavor seep into the stock. I left the heads on about twelve shrimp and peeled the rest. I cleaned the squid -- something I hadn't done before -- and I have to say I enjoyed the process. It was much more pleasant than cleaning, say, a chicken. The little quill just popped right out, and the guts were quite innocuous. I opened up the bodies and cut them into large pieces, which I scored with a knife on both sides so the pieces would stay more or less flat on the grill.

I marinated the squid and the heads-on shrimp in soy sauce, sake, and sugar, adding a blast of chili sauce to the squid for a change of pace. Then I grilled it all. Meanwhile, I had the stock strained and simmering, and a few minutes before serving I added the peeled raw shrimp, the squid tentacles (all two of them), and the udon noodles. Once the shrimp were cooked through, I ladled broth, noodles, shrimp, and squid tentacles into bowls and arranged the grilled shrimp and squid on top.

I'll admit I felt proud of myself. The precooked noodles left something to be desired, but the rest was pretty magical. The smokiness of the bonito flakes in the broth was bolstered by the char on the grilled shrimp, and the tinge of heat from the squid was a fun little surprise now and then. We might not have found Capital, but the Asian Food Market proved a worthy substitute.

Postscript: But where is Capital? It doesn't exist. I did some serious detective work, starting with Google results that suggested there's no market by that name in the area. Then, after calling my mom ("You went to the wrong place, but I've never been to Capital, so I can't tell you exactly where it is") and getting even more frustrated, I found out that the place I was looking for is actually called Captain something-or-other, and I'm almost certain Margy and I passed that one on our quest. Next time, we'll be stopping in.

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