RARELY DO I have an opinion about who should win an Oscar at the Academy Awards, because rarely have I seen many of the movies.
But this year is different. This year I am dangerously close to being "with it." Not only am I championing one of the contenders, Lost in Translation, I am also pushing the food in the film.
I shabu-shabu. That means I cook thin slices of beef in a hot liquid, just as Bill Murray did with co-star Scarlett Johansson during a scene shot in a Tokyo restaurant. OK, so we didn't see the stars actually eating the dish, but we did see them ordering it by pointing at a picture of raw beef on the menu. And, OK, so they might not have relished it, because Murray said something in a following scene about its being "the worst lunch" of their lives.
But I don't want to get weighed down with tacky little details here, people. Rather, I want to soar to the big concept. I want to go for the oeuvre, for the experience of partaking in a very current cross-cultural cooking style. That is what my man Murray (a lock for best actor if there is any justice in Tinseltown) did on the big screen.
Shabu-shabu, I happen to know, is very big on the West Coast. I happen to know this because a publicity person from Los Angeles who was trying to drum up press interest for Lost in Translation said so. So it must be true.
New York, as might be expected, has an active shabu-shabu scene. I know this because when my wife and younger son were visiting New York a few months ago, they were taken to a Japanese restaurant in Greenwich Village - not far from New York University, which has a big film school - where everyone who was anyone was dipping raw beef in boiling liquids.
As for me, I shabu-shabued in the privacy of my own home one Saturday night. This ancient cooking style started in China and moved to Japan after World War II. To pull it off in my Baltimore kitchen, I had to make a few adjustments. I did not have a donabe, the clay pot that traditionally holds the cooking liquid.
Moreover, I took a few liberties with the cooking-liquid recipe, which calls for boiling dried kelp in water, then removing the kelp and tossing in some bonito flakes. Instead, I used a recipe for shabu-shabu-style soup that calls for boiling the liquid on the stove, then pouring it into bowls.
Earlier in the day I had to run around town gathering items, such as a cup of bean spouts and jar of orange marmalade, that went into the boiling liquid. This cooking technique, while fresh and daring, did clash with my old-ingredient lifestyle and larder.
A primary ingredient was a pound of beef tenderloin sliced "paper-thin." For that, I went to my butcher, Henry Reisinger at Fenwick's Choice Meats in the Cross Street Market. I thought the idea of slicing up a pricey tenderloin might get a rise out of Henry, but he went to work as if he did it every day. One of his customers, an elderly woman, regularly used to request thinly sliced tenderloin, he said.
Did she shabu-shabu with it, I asked. No, Henry replied; she made cheesesteak sandwiches.
The translation of shabu-shabu is swish-swish. This refers to the swirling action used to cook the slices of beef in liquid.
Swish-swish was not the answer I gave to the boys behind the butcher counter when they asked me what I was going to do with the meat. "Soup," I said. "It is going to go into a soup I saw at the movies."
Once I had chased down the ingredients or given them a local translation - Thai basil became basic, grocery-store sweet basil - I started cooking.
The concept is pretty simple: You make a highly seasoned, boiling liquid - containing everything from chicken stock to ginger and orange marmalade - then you pour it into bowls over the raw beef slices, the basil leaves and a shot of lime juice, and top it with bean sprouts.
It is like fondue, except you are cooking meat with broth, not oil.
All the ingredients in the soup bowl swirled around and influenced each other in subtle ways. The characters that Murray and Johansson portray, a middle-aged actor and a neglected young wife both stranded in Tokyo, have that same swirling-around-each-other action going on in the movie. They talk a lot about the meaning of life. They part as friends, not lovers.
Some people think the flavor of the soup and the story line of the movie are vague. They want more definite flavors and more resolution in the plot.
I can understand that. I am usually uncomfortable with ambiguity in my meals or my movies. But for some reason, this shabu-shabu-Lost-in-Translation thing worked for me.
True, the tenderloin was a bit bland, but the broth had good flavor and I liked the idea of meat swimming with exotic ingredients. And I liked the relationship between Murray and Johansson, two very different characters swimming through different stages of life.
So Sunday night, as I watch the Oscars, I will be enjoying the delicate flavors of my shabu-shabu, and rooting, in a subtle sort of way, for my man Murray.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons finely shredded ginger
2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic
2 tablespoons orange marmalade
1/2 cup fresh lime juice (divided use) plus 2 limes cut in half from top to bottom
1/4 cup tamari (soy sauce)
4 1/2 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1 pound beef tenderloin, all exterior fat and nerve trimmed off and sliced paper-thin
20 whole fresh Thai basil (or sweet basil) leaves, plus 10 leaves roughly chopped
1 cup bean sprouts
Warm oil in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add ginger and garlic and saute until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Stir in orange marmalade, 1/4 cup lime juice, tamari, chicken stock and hoisin sauce. Increase heat to medium-high and cook 10 minutes. Season to taste.
Pile the beef slices in 4 large bowls. Place 5 basil leaves in each bowl. Reheat broth until it is boiling hot, add 1/4 cup lime juice and chopped basil, and fill bowls with broth.
Garnish each bowl of soup with small mound of bean sprouts and serve lime halves on the side.
-- "Flavor" by Rocco DiSpirito (Hyperion, 2003, $35)
Per serving: 368 calories; 34 grams protein; 18 grams fat; 5 grams saturated fat; 19 grams carbohydrate; 1 gram fiber; 72 milligrams cholesterol; 2,070 milligrams sodium