Saturday, September 18, 2010

More Fun with Food in Japan

Japanese cucumbers are the best tasting, non-burp inducing cucumbers on the planet. They are slim and very dark green, with very few bumps on the skin. In Japanese, they are called kyuuri, or きゅうり。(Please let me know if I wrote that incorrectly, nihon no tomodachi.)

What I didn't know is that Japanese cucumbers, when fresh, have a delightful little magic to them. My good friend Tamie-san told me she was watching a cooking show on NHK that said when cucumbers are extremely fresh, you can break them in half by hand and then stick the cucumber back together. Doesn't that sound like a fun thing to try with your kids?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Italy meets Japan in the Kitchen

This is called tatsoi. Oishiikatta ne.
If we are acquainted, you probably know I am a little bit of a food nut. Ever since I read Michael Pollan's books, The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food, I have tried to really pay attention to the food my familly is eating. I buy local and/or organic produce whenever possible, and try not to buy processed food at all. I found an organic grocery delivery service - Radishbo-ya and I get a box of seasonal produce every week. Sometimes I am completely baffled by the vegetables I receive, as you can see by this photo.

It's been a great adventure, and a fun topic of conversation with my Japanese friends, who have helped me figure out how to cook these new vegetables. I still don't like the slimy mushrooms though, and I'm happy to pass them on to anyone who wants them.

Full disclosure: I admit, I'm still buying granola bars, senbei and pretzels.

In my pursuit of easy recipes using whole, unprocessed ingredients, I found a magazine over the summer in the US called Clean Eating, which subscribes to many of the principles that Michael Pollan outlines in his books. Trying new recipes keeps me from being bored in the kitchen, so I am always looking for something new to test on my family.

Well, this recipe from Clean Eating was a winner on all fronts. Tasty, easy to make, and good for you! I did need to substitute my local Japanese ingredients that were readily available rather than make it as written. So here is my version of an Italian favorite, risotto, taking a delicious detour through Japan.

Risotto with Kabocha and Edamame

Winter squash - I used 1/2 of a pretty big kabocha. I guess it was about 3-4 cups cubed. The original recipe calls for butternut squash.
1/2 cup Edamame, cooked and hulled
4 cups chicken broth
1 medium onion, diced
1 big clove of garlic, minced
1 cup arborio rice
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried sage
1/4 cup parmesan
olive oil

Step one: Cube and peel the squash. Toss the squash with a little olive oil or mist it. Season with salt and pepper if you like. Spread on a baking sheet and bake at 425° until tender, about 25 minutes. Stir from time to time. It's ok if it gets a bit brown - that will help it hold together when mixed with the rice. Set aside.

Step two: Heat broth in a saucepan on the the stove and keep warm.

Step three: Saute onion in 1 T olive oil until a little soft, add garlic and saute for one minute more. Add rice and stir to coat with oil and veg.

Step four: Add 1/2 cup broth to rice mixture, stir until absorbed by rice. Continue adding in 1/2 cup increments. Check rice when you've added almost all the broth. Rice should be tender but firm, not chalky. Continue adding broth until you only have 1/2 cup left.

Step five: Add thyme, sage, edamame and cheese with last 1/2 cup of broth, stir until cheese melts. Gently fold in squash. Serve.

Vegans could make this with vegetable broth, and skip the parmesan. It was so creamy before the cheese was added, and it wasn't that much cheese to begin with.

Sorry, I don't have any photos. This was soooo good and was eaten very quickly. When I make it again, I'll post a photo. The box of arborio rice that I found was 1900¥ - about US$23. So I'll definitely be making this again and not wasting any of that arborio rice! Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Weird Food & Beverages

In the local conbinis (convenience stores), there's always a new snack or drink appearing. Sometimes the new food is a seasonal offering - like sakura flavored KitKats during sakura season. Sometimes it's a new product being marketed. I am not sure what category this new drink fits into. I saw it at my local Lawsons when I went to pay the phone bill yesterday. It has been so hot and humid here, I am willing to try a new drink, especially if it sounds refreshing. However, this new drink just seemed strange.

Apple, Milk and Lemon? Wouldn't the milk curdle if you tried this at home? It makes you wonder about how they've stabilized it. Well, since I can't read the details on the ingredient list, I am not going to worry too much.

So I bought the Apple, Milk and Lemon, and offered it to the boys, who all sampled it. Here is Chris' reaction:

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Me and Danny Choo

Oh Danny Choo, oh Danny Choo,
Without you what would I do?

This is my thank you letter to Danny Choo.

Dear Danny Choo,

Whenever I am in a tight spot in this crazy town, I go to my computer and search the internet for answers. Inevitably, your blog turns up in my search.

Looking for places to take my 16 year old niece from Hong Kong? Danny, your blog was a treasure trove that told us just where she needed to go to see all that otaku culture! Although her parents weren't thrilled about the maid cafe...

And then there were my trials and tribulations over the Japanese driver's licensing procedures. I had insomnia, I worried, I fussed. Everything online was doom and gloom and I thought I would never pass the exam. And then your blog turned up, light and funny, and I relaxed. I also passed my test on the first try - your photos were a terrific help to understanding how the whole crazy procedure worked.

And then on Coming of Age Day, I wanted to go to Shibuya's CC Lemon Hall to see all the fun. I didn't know what time - so to the internet I went. There was nothing helpful on the English language Shibuya city website, but your blog had information from last year and I made it.

And then, there you were! Notice my cheesy grin?

I know all the otaku fans love you, but I am sure you never thought you'd have a middle aged expat American mother as a cheerleader.

Thank you!


You can visit Danny's blog too!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Baking in Japan

I like to bake. I enjoy it, and I am pretty good at it - or at least I used to think so. I have had more baking flops the past year in Tokyo than I have had in the previous 10 years in Delaware.

Cookies, cakes, cupcakes, brownies, name a baked goodie and I have butchered it horribly in Japan. Cupcakes don't rise. Loaf cakes overflow the pan and burn on the oven floor. Cookies spread to three times their intended diameter, and then stick to the pan. Brownies don't cook and it's chocolate sludge, not a brownie. Although I have to admit, no one complained about that last mistake.

I have a number of theories about my surprise return to amateur hour.

First, I blame it on the flour. Most of my American/western recipes use all-purpose flour. Here in Japan we have cake flour and bread flour. So unless I am willing to pay around $20 for an imported bag of Gold Medal (I'm not), I have had to figure out the best way to approximate all- purpose flour. There are a number of substitutions on online recipe websites, and I have tried them. A neighbor told me she just used half bread flour, and half cake flour, and everything turned out fine. So that has been my latest technique.

Next, I blame the fat. I have no idea what the difference is, but Japanese butter behaves differently. It melts differently, it cooks differently, and nothing turns out the way you expect. Perhaps American butter is full of chemicals that stabilize it? I don't know. I have started buying something called "margarine for cake" at Costco that performs better when baking. It's probably full of trans fats, but since I can't read the label, I have managed to keep my guilt feelings at bay.

Lastly, I blame my problematic, unintuitive, and overly hot gas oven. I had never baked using a gas oven regularly until this year. Frankly, give me an electric oven any day. The gas is about 10-20 degrees too hot and there's a significant hot spot at the back of the oven.

Enough blame! I have finally, by trial and error, managed to find recipes that work best here and I am happy to say I have not had a (significant) baking error in months.

Here is a recipe for chocolate chip cookies that really works in Japan:

Modified from a recipe in The Search for the Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie by Gwen Steege.

Chocolate Chip Cookies with Oil (I gave up on butter with cookies)

3 cups flour (1/2 bread flour, 1/2 cake flour)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup vegetable oil (do not substitute butter or shortening)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups chocolate chips (or MandMs as I did today)
3/4 cup chopped nuts (Sam's class is nut-free, so I never use them now)

Combine flour, baking soda and salt; set aside.

Combine both the sugars and oil thoroughly using an electric mixer. Add eggs and vanilla and beat well. Add sifted ingredients to creamed mixture, 1 cup at a time, beating dough well after each addition of flour. Stir in chocolate chips and nuts. The dough will be very stiff.

Place heaping teaspoonfuls on ungreased baking sheets. Bake at 350°F for 7-8 minutes. Yields about 4-5 dozen.

And here's some food for thought about Japan: Did you know that there is no word for "bake" in Japanese? There's an approximation of the word bake that is used since the introduction of Western baked goods, but traditional Japanese cooking did not include baking. (Thank you to Elizabeth Andoh for that piece of trivia!)

Monday, February 22, 2010

Setsubun Festival in Tokyo

Setsubun took place on February 3rd. Setsubun marks the change of season in Japan, welcoming spring. This is a really fun festival that the children had a taste of when we moved to Tokyo last year that we were looking forward to this year.

For Setsubun, we cast the demons out of our homes by throwing roasted soybeans at them, saying, "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" or "Demons out! Luck in!"

Sam's class made oni (devil) masks and threw soybeans at each other. I did the more adult thing and went with friends from my neighborhood to Zozoji temple, which is near Tokyo Tower. Zozoji temple is famous for its Setsubun festivities.

The man in the photo at left brought his own little onis with him. He enjoyed the attention, but I am not so sure about his dog!

At Zozoji, there is a parade of monks from the temple, dressed in festival finery. Then the children from the local school parade in, and then people from the neighborhood who are born in the current zodiac year - the year of the tiger. After the parade, the festivities - for the audience - begin.

Local dignitaries and famous people throw small bags beans at the crowd. I guess this is much less messy than loose beans. I was in the crowd with my friends, trying to catch the beans. They also threw mochi rice cakes, snacks, candy and more soybeans.

There were specially labeled beans
that could be redeemed at a stand for
special prizes of restaurant meals, sake, and hotel stays. None of us were that lucky, but I did catch a bag of hard candy.

Then, men dressed as onis took the stage, and the children from the local school threw beans at them and chased them off. The kids were very enthusiastic! There were more snacks thrown, and mochi rice pounding onstage. All in all, very fun and festive.