June 4, 2008
While in New York last month, Maxence and I had lunch at Ippudo, a ramen place that's the first American outpost of a popular Japanese chain. The decor was super sleek and the ramen excellent, but what really got me excited was the sesame mill that was propped on our table, keeping the shôyu company.
It was a simple thing, really: a plastic see-through container filled with toasted sesame seeds, mounted with a red cranking wheel and an open mouth at the top. To work it, you flipped the mill upside down, you turned the wheel by its tiny handle and, with the most delicate scrunching sound, out came a sprinkle of golden flecks.
It was the first time I'd seen anything like this. It was red, it was adorable, it was Japanese; I had to have one.
We enquired whether the restaurant might sell one to us* but, however amused they seemed to be by this strange case of love at first grind, they said no. My heart lying in shards on the floor, I let Maxence pry the mill from my clenched fingers.
Our waiter did point us to a nearby Japanese grocery store where they might stock them, but we came out empty-handed. And thus began my quest, in which I combed through every utensil and/or Asian store on my path, asking whether anyone had seen a short, cute, red-headed sesame grinder.
I very nearly found the object of my desire at Bowery Kitchen Supplies, in the Chelsea Market building: the remarkably friendly lady knew exactly what I was talking about, but they were all out, and waiting for a new order to come in. I was so crushed, she almost gave me a hug.
Fortunately, the quest was brought to a successful end on the other side of the continent, in Portland, Oregon, where I'd been invited to do a reading at Powell's. My media escort** in Portland, Sandra, an enthusiastic cook herself, was kind enough to drive me around to several places of interest in my free time, and places of interest included a cooking equipment store that did not carry hand-cranked sesame grinders, but where the owner recommended we visit Anzen, a family-run Japanese store that's been around for decades.
And sure enough, there they were, on a shelf, not one but two different models of sesame mills. None were the same as the one I'd test-driven at Ippudo, but I was in no position to be choosy, so I simply picked the one that felt the sturdiest. It was also the most expensive -- a whopping $4.99, as I recall (and, get this: no! sales! tax! in Oregon!).
I carried it with me down the West Coast for the rest of my book tour, then brought it home to Paris, where I introduced it to its new pals, the single-thumb pepper grinder and the callipygian nutmeg shaver, and marveled at how well it matched the color of my couch.
Now filled with toasted unhulled sesame seeds, it is my new favorite toy, and I wield it with abandon over grated carrot salads, pea pod soups, and sliced strawberries. When it's empty, I will refill it with a mix of sesame seeds and sea salt to make gomasio (I use a ratio of 4 tablespoons toasted sesame to 1 teaspoon salt).
Oh, and if you're of the party-pooping mind that a gadget serving only one purpose is a waste of space, I'll have you know that this one can also be used to grind flaxseed. So there.
* I would never ever have asked in a French restaurant, but this was America, the land where it's okay to have business sense.
** In the publishing business, a media escort (chuckle all you like) is someone who acts as the publicist's local agent and takes care of authors who come from out of town for events and media appearances. (Read more book tour stuff if you're curious.)
Ippudo / map it!
65 Fourth Avenue, New York, NY
+1 212 388 0088
Bowery Kitchen Supplies / map it!
460 W 16th St., New York, NY
+1 212 376 4982
Anzen Hiroshi's Inc. / map it!
736 NE Martin Luther King Blvd, Portland, OR
+1 503 233 5111
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