August 24, 2016

A Gorgeous Little Cafe in Rural Japan

When I visited Japan last year, I happened to meet a nice elderly lady one afternoon. It turned out that she had been very eagerly studying English for many years and we had a nice long conversation about it. I didn’t expect that I would have the chance to meet with her again. However, I when I went to the library the other day I was lucky enough to bump into her again! She took me out for coffee at one of the most authentic cafes that I’ve ever been to. The place is called Coffee Mame, which is a cute name because it actually translates to “coffee bean”.

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They have a whole range of high quality beans that you can choose from, although each day there is a small selection of beans that are specially selected and circled in red on the menu. If you choose one of these, they will actually freshly roast and grind up the beans for your individual cup. It takes a while for the coffee to be made, but watching everything be prepared from scratch is a lot of fun, plus it goes without saying that the coffee is incredible.

Here are some photos of the grinder, the roaster, and the sacks of raw coffee beans. They’re all there out in the open when you first walk into the little café so that you can observe every step that goes into preparing your cup of coffee.

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August 8, 2016

Yakisoba: Japanese fried noodles

Have you ever heard of yakisoba? It’s a super popular street food in Japan, and a staple dish found at every festival you’ll ever visit. The streets will always be lined with food stalls where they have a big flat grill set up, and there’s someone frying up a huge pile of yakisoba noodles using these metal spatulas specially designed for flipping the ingredients.

The most classic yakisoba dish consists of hearty noodles fried together with cabbage, carrots, and onion. It’s then topped off with a savory sauce, shavings of aonori (a type of dried seaweed), and small slices of pickled pink ginger. Recently, some vendors have started to add on some other popular toppings like Japanese mayonnaise.

I don’t usually get to buy yakisoba at food stands because there’s sometimes a bit of meat thrown into the mix, but that doesn’t stop me from making it at home! Lucky for me, it’s fairly quick and easy to put together. I had this for dinner the other night, along with some slices of deep fried tofu that I picked up at the shops and then warmed up in the grill a few minutes before serving.

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July 27, 2016

Pink Mochi filled with Sweet White Bean Paste

I’ve made a few posts before about kashiwa mochi, the amazing Japanese sweet that’s traditionally enjoyed on Children’s Day in Japan. Kashiwa mochi are soft rice cakes filled with sweet red bean paste and wrapped up in a special oak leaf. I’ve also talked about sakura mochi, another popular dessert made of a pink rice cake filled with red bean paste and folded into a salted cherry leaf.

Cherry blossom season is over, and Children’s Day was back in May, but if you go to a traditional sweet shop it’s still possible to get an interesting treat that blends together the best of both worlds…a pink kashiwa mochi!

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I’d been very curious to try this for a while because of one unusual ingredient. Instead of the usual sweet red bean paste which tastes almost like chocolate and is insanely popular, this one is actually filled with a sweet white bean paste. White bean paste itself is fairly common in Japanese confectionaries, but the most interesting thing here is that the white bean paste is flavored with just a touch of miso!

I thought there was a good chance that I wouldn’t like the pairing of sweet and salty, but the miso flavor was so subtle and delicate that it just enhanced the sweetness of the white bean paste. Absolutely fantastic! I still have yet to taste a Japanese sweet that I don’t like. If you find one, let me know!

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July 7, 2016

Fluffy Red Bean Donuts at a Japanese Bakery

That’s right. We’re talking about sweet red bean paste again today…What can I say? It’s one of the best things in Japanese cuisine!

I made a post a little while back on a real old fashioned red bean donut that I bought from a traditional sweet shop in Mito. The shop has been around for over half a century, and a fellow blogger pointed out to me that they even have a handwritten sign in the window saying that they are rumoured to be the best red bean donuts in the city. These traditional style treats were made with a thick cake batter, making the donut dense and incredibly rich in flavor.

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For the sake of comparison (that’s my excuse), I went to a modern upscale bakery and tried out their version of the red bean donut. Instead of using cake batter, they went with a sweet bread dough which they then deep fried and sprinkled with sugar. From what I’ve seen, this style of red bean donut seems to be more common nowadays. It’s a lot bigger and fluffier and tastes quite different, but it’s still awesome in its own way. If any of you have ever tried these different versions of the red bean donut, I’d love to hear what you think. Which do you like better?

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After refueling at the bakery, I walked a few kilometers out to the famous and historical Kairakuen Park. It’s known as one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan, and it’s absolutely massive. There are gift shops and resting areas at the entrance, and once you enter the park there are many walking paths that take you through bamboo forests and a huge grove of plum trees.

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July 6, 2016

Delicious Mochi Rice Cakes

There’s always so much more to learn about Japanese sweets. I thought I knew what mochi was…but it turns out I had no idea. When I’m home in Vancouver, I occasionally buy prepackaged mochi rice cakes from a local Japanese grocery store. They come in partly dehydrated rectangle blocks so that they last a long time on the store shelves. Before serving, you just wet them with a bit of water and heat them in the microwave. Or, you can put them in the oven and grill them until they get all crunchy and toasted on the outside, and all soft on the inside. So, don’t get me wrong, these are really delicious! …But, it’s just that they are totally different from fresh, handmade mochi.

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While visiting a park in Japan, I came across an outdoor market and there was one tent where a lady was selling mochi and dango prepared that day. I treated myself to a package of mochi smothered in sweet red bean paste. It was incredibly soft and delicate, unlike the stretchy texture of the mochi that I am used to buying. And, since it had been pounded by hand, the mochi was uneven and still had little pieces of rice in it which gave it a lot more character.

I took some of the mochi home to use in oshiruko (a sweet soupy dessert). The mochi started to melt the second it touched the hot water, and I realized just how incredibly different it is from the packaged stuff. I feel so lucky to be finally able to see how these Japanese sweets were originally, before they started being replicated in big factories!

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July 4, 2016

Imagawayaki: Japanese Cakes with Sweet Filling

Imagawayaki are a classic Japanese treat that I have loved ever since I was a little kid. They are a staple item at festivals and fairs, although you can also find them pretty easily at other year-round food vendors and small sweet shops. Unlike a lot of other traditional Japanese confectionaries, imagawayaki are actually made fresh right there in front of you and you can usually buy them while they’re still piping hot.

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I’ve tried buying imagawayaki (or something that looks a lot like them) back home in Canada a few times but they tend to substitute with pancake batter so the flavor and texture is way off. I don’t know exactly what they use for the authentic batter here in Japan, but real Japanese imagawayaki are unmistakably different. Nowadays, you can choose a variety of different fillings like custard, chocolate cream, and sometimes even local varieties like sweet potato, but I always go with the good old sweet red bean filling. These are so satisfying!

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July 2, 2016

Gourmet Chocolate Doughnut at a Depachika

On another visit to Mito, I ended up stopping by a large department store. In Japan, the bottom floor of any department store is called the depachika, or in other words, it’s the food floor! Here you can buy a whole assortment of beautifully decorated and luxurious sweets, bento lunches, gift boxes, local specialties, and souvenir snacks. You can also usually get high quality fruits and vegetables. The depachika is loads of fun and it’s always my most favorite section of any Japanese department store!

On this visit, a gourmet doughnut stand caught my eye with its line up of free samples. In Japan, if you’re lucky you can find doughnuts made out of okara, or the soy pulp left over from making tofu. I prefer them to regular ones, as I find that they have a rich flavour and are very crispy on the outside. If you ever find an okara doughnut, definitely give it a try!

I got to sample a matcha green tea doughnut and a salt doughnut. The man also had a whole bunch of other interesting flavours like tiramisu, roasted soybean, strawberry, and black sesame. I settled for a good old fashioned chocolate coated doughnut. The amazing thing about this shop was that instead of using chocolate icing, he actually used pure melted dark chocolate.

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June 17, 2016

Soba Noodles and Pesto for Dinner

Here’s what a typical dinner can look like for me while in Japan. You can of course easily buy regular spaghetti noodles here, but I’ve found that using soba (buckwheat noodles) as an alternative is so amazing!

Soba is usually eaten in the traditional Japanese style with a soy sauce based broth. So, serving them the way I do is unconventional, but I find that the nutty flavor of the buckwheat goes perfectly with pesto. In addition to the pesto, I usually throw on some fresh basil leaves and other veggies. This time, I topped it with a salad made with tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, daikon radish, and black beans.

Not only does soba taste good, but it’s actually an incredibly healthy alternative to white spaghetti noodles, as it’s much higher in protein and fiber. Buckwheat also contains no gluten, so if you can find soba noodles using 100% buckwheat flour, it’s gluten free as well!

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June 6, 2016

Fresh Yomogi Bread with Red Bean Paste

On Friday, I had a bit of free time and took the chance to catch up on some grocery shopping. There is a really tempting bakery along the way to the grocery store and every time I walk past, I always think that I would love to buy bread there sometime but I’ve just never gotten around to it. This time though, I really couldn’t help it…just as I looked over, a lady was bringing out a tray of freshly baked yomogi buns filled with sweet red bean paste.

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I’ve talked before about yomogi, which is known in English as “Japanese mugwart” (or, Artemisia princeps if you want to get technical!). It’s been used in Japanese sweets for centuries, being incorporated into mochi (gooey rice cakes) to give them an emerald green colour and a pleasant grassy flavour.

Using yomogi in bread seems to be a newer trend, though, that I’ve noticed here and there while in Japan this time. The grassy flavour and green color are not as strong when baked into bread rolls, but there’s just enough to give it that distinct yomogi character. I’m really happy to have discovered this and I’m looking forward to trying out other yomogi breads!

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June 4, 2016

They Hatched! Baby Black Swans at Senba Lake

Yesterday, I went out to the famous Senba Lake in Mito. It’s lined with a soft path, making it a popular place for running and cycling. (Or, as I do, just walking very slowly and stopping often to gawk at all the stunning birds.) There are so many neat species of birds busily doing their thing by the lakeside. The most impressive are the whooper swans and the black swans, but there are also all sorts of ducks, song birds, and other waterfowl.

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Every season, there is something different to admire about this spot. Earlier this spring, the main attraction was the countless fluffy pink cherry trees surrounding the lake. Now, there’s a much more subtle (but cuter!) attraction.

When I went to Senba Lake a few weeks ago, most of swans were either building their nests, or had already laid their eggs. People here leave the birds alone so the birds have a very relaxed attitude toward humans. They don’t even flinch if you walk right up to them, and they will trustingly go for a swim in the lake and leave their eggs out in the open right there along the walking path!

It struck me that if I went back there again this weekend, the eggs would probably have hatched by now, so that’s what drew me back again yesterday!

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