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.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

We go to Sumo!

Everyone has an idea of what a sumo wrestler looks like. Big fat guys, top knot in their hair, wearing some strange diaper thing. But I am willing to bet that very few have actually been to a tournament and seen a sumo match. So that's what made me decide to get us all tickets and head to the sumo tournament last month. After all, you can't live in Tokyo without going to see the sumo tournament at least once.

Not knowing what everyone's reaction to watching sumo wrestling would be like, I bought nose bleed seats. We also went with our friends and neighbors, the Herseys. Their son Dan is a good friend to all our boys.

Sumo tournaments are held throughout the year in Tokyo and other cities throughout Japan, alternating between Tokyo and other cities. January's tournament was in Tokyo at the Kokugikan. The tournament is held over 15 days, and runs all day, each day, from about 8 in the morning to 6 in the evening. It's a long day if you go for the whole day. Most spectators don't go until later in the day, when the ranked wrestlers start their matches.Add Image

We arrived at the Kokugan around 2 in the afternoon - just as the non-ranked wrestlers were finishing. There were sumo wrestlers strolling around outside the arena, and inside as well. One was very gracious and let us take his picture with our boys - I think he was visiting with his family either post- or pre-match.Add ImageAdd Image

The sumo tournament was filled with ceremony and tradition, especially the higher ranked wrestling matches. The wrestlers in the division are introduced and they walk around the sumo ring with ceremonial aprons.(I'm sure it has a proper name, but I am not sure of it.)
Then the matches starts, officiated by a referee in an ornate kimono. The wrestlers demonstrate their flexibility to the audience, lifting their legs high in the air - honestly, how do they do that?Stepping into the ring, they scatter salt - some wrestlers dramatically throwing the salt, other contemptuously tossing the salt at their feet. Then they confront their opponent. They show their strength, they grimace. If they are highly ranked wrestlers, they can do this for quite a while. Then they step out of the ring, wipe their faces, take a handful of salt, and start again.

Finally, they give each other the signal and the wrestling starts. Sometimes it's a fast match and one wrestler quickly overpowers the other, or manages to get a good hold on his opponent at their first clash. Other matches we watched the wrestlers struggle to get a good grip, feet slipping and the match went back and forth until the winner was decided. The winner was not always who you thought it would be.

We saw one huge sumo overpowered by a wrestler who was probably half his size. Another match ended up in the first tier of spectators, who sit on tatami mats. I was told later that if you buy those seats, you are not allowed to carry anything in with you - no bags, no food. The reason for this is that someone was skewered by an umbrella at a past tournament. And no children are allowed in that section either. That I can really understand. If a sumo landed on an spectator, they could be flattened.

There are quite a number of non-Japanese wrestlers in the ranks. Many are from Mongolia, including the 2 highest ranking wrestlers, the yokazuna. Many others are from Georgia, Russia, and Bulgaria. It's very interesting to see them take part in a sport that is so very Japanese.

Finally, the highest ranking wrestlers - the yokazuna - had their matches. A yokozuna, Asashoryo was the overall winner of the tournament, but both yokozuna lost matches to lower ranked sumo, including a very popular Estonian wrestler called Baruto.

However, Asashoryo was compelled to retire this past month after behaving badly. He apparently imbibed excessively and then hit the waiter that was serving him. I guess sports figures can behave badly in any culture, but in Japan, it can end your career.

If you want to explore more, you can visit the sumo web site (in english):

Enjoy! I can't wait to go again!

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Coming of Age Day

My book group chose Confucius Lives Next Door: What Living int he East Teaches Us About the West for our January selection. This is a nonfiction, light sociological book by T.R. Reid, an American journalist who lived in Tokyo about 12 years ago. While some of Reid's work is now dated, there were so many interesting anecdotes about living in Japan and the struggles that westerners have understanding eastern cultures, that I am willing to forgive the dated-ness.

One point that Reid made time and again was that eastern societies have government sponsored public ceremonies and rituals that reinforce social mores. Coincidentally, one of these public rituals happened in January, which was a really interesting way for me to witness the. On January 11, Japan celebrated Coming of Age Day. This is a public holiday when all the young people who will turn 20 years old that year are honored and celebrated. What a contrast to the United States, where the only thing that happens when you turn 18 is (if you are male) you receive your Selective Service card, or when you turn 21 and are allowed to drink alcohol.Add Image

On Coming of Age Day, each city or town government has a ceremony. The young people turning 20 are invited to their local government office or hall for this occasion. The young women dress in kimono, and the young men also dress traditionally or in basic suits. In my city, Shibuya, they arrive early at the hall to catch up with friends and pose for photos. Some of the new adults have not seen each other since high school, so there is a reunion atmosphere.

I can't emphasize enough that this is important to them. Some of the girls get up very early for hairdresser appointments and rent kimono outfits that can cost over $1000 for the day.

After socializing, the young people go into the hall where the local officials congratulate them on their adult status and encourage them to be responsible society members. At age 20, they can drink, smoke, and vote, and they are reminded of both their adult privileges and duties to their neighbors. They are also handed goody bags with lots of information reflecting their new status as adults - taxes and insurance.

My friend Denise and I went to the Shibuya CC Lemon Hall to see all the festivities. It was amazing, beautiful, a little weird, and I am so glad I saw it. Denise and I were in awe of the incredible kimonos and gorgeous hair ornaments. The women were proud and happy, hugging friends and taking photos. The young men were a bit more reserved, but also obviously proud. I think the only thing I was really surprised about was how few parents were there. A Japanese friend explained to me that only the 20-yr olds are invited - especially in the bigger cities - and that families might have a party for them later on.

I think that western cultures have done their values/ideals a disservice by not sanctioning them publicly, and delegating all "values" education to the churches and volunteer groups like the Girl and Boy Scouts. Whether or not the Japanese young adults agree with their cultural rules and mores, they definitely know that their society expects them to be responsible society members with the privileges that come with that responsibility.

Here's a short video clip from the day. More on the Stormtrooper later.

New Postings

Ok, I actually have a lot to say, but was getting discouraged because I didn't think anyone was reading my blog. So, here we are, new year, and I am newly resolved to tell more TokyoTales.