I seem to be on a bit of a legume kick lately! First, I made lentil curry, which was soon followed by hummus, vegan chickpea “tuna” salad, and then chana masala. Today, though, it’s all about soybeans.
In traditional Japanese cuisine, beans are used very differently from in the west. In Canada and America we probably find them most often in things like chili, burritos or canned baked beans. But in Japan, beans are commonly used in sweets or in savory side dishes meant to accompany a bowl of rice, while soybeans in particular are used for making tofu, miso paste and natto.
Beans are also much pricier in Japan and are thought of as something of a delicacy to be enjoyed in small quantities, in contrast to the cheap image of beans that we have in North America. But on the other hand, the quality of the beans produced domestically in Japan is incredible. Each bean is often large, perfectly plump and bursting with flavor. I understand why they don’t choose to cover up the taste with garlic, spices and other heavily flavored ingredients!
In Japan, it is also not at all uncommon to buy precooked pouches of beans instead of the typical canned beans that I’m used to back home. I was recently gifted two such packs of soybeans so I decided to try my hand at making a Japanese-style side salad.
For this dish, I mixed together the following ingredients and let sit for a little bit before enjoying over a bowl of fresh rice.
one pouch of cooked soybeans (50 grams)
thinly sliced carrot
finely diced sweet Mayan onion
thinly sliced homemade pickled napa cabbage (optional, but adds a great crunch)
shichimi togarashi (a lightly aromatic Japanese mixture of spices, seeds and orange peel)
If you could only have one type of cuisine for the rest of your life, what would you choose?
I’ve been asked this a bunch of times, and my answer often depends on where I am at the time. If I’m traveling in South Asia, I tend to seek out Japanese foods. When I’m in Japan, I crave Indian spices. And, when at home in Vancouver my diet tends to gravitate towards the Mediterranean side of things. I’m not sure why…maybe I just enjoy the challenge of hunting for obscure ingredients!
So, how about you? What would you go with?
The other day, I went to another Indian restaurant. Every time I go for Indian food in Japan, I tell myself that I won’t go again. Don’t get me wrong, the food is usually quite good, but I always think that I should make the most of my time here and experience Japanese cuisine to the fullest. And yet…I always find myself wandering into every Indian and Napalese restaurant that I see. There’s something that’s just so irresistible about the aroma of roasting spices, especially after relying for so long on soy sauce and miso as my main seasonings.
I tried out the vegetable curry, daal, naan, and mango juice. The daal was unlike any I’ve had before. I’m used it being a soupy dish made with brown lentils, but this daal was very thick and made with big split yellow peas. The mango juice was so syrupy, almost more like mango nectar than juice. All in all, it was an incredibly filling and generous meal.
Like most Indian restaurants in Japan, they offered unlimited free refills of fresh naan, but the servings were so massive that I was more than satisfied with just one!
I’m back at it again with more Japanese sweets. (I swear I don’t eat like this all the time…but I mean, who can resist!) I recently came across another curious, but delicious sweet called sakura daifuku. It’s made of a thin gooey layer of mochi on the outside, with a sweet white bean paste filling, delicately flavored with salted cherry blossoms and cherry leaves. The result is a soft, aromatic dessert with a subtle sweetness and just a hint of tang from the cherry leaves. It’s not at all like western cherry flavored candies, and it doesn’t even taste like actual cherries…it really is in a class all its own, and the skillful balance of flavors absolutely stunning!
Cherry blossoms and cherry leaves are seasonal ingredients most commonly used in Japanese sweets during the springtime, but they are still available year round for people like me who just can’t get enough of them. There’s even a cherry blossom tea, where you put a few of the little preserved flowers at the bottom of your cup and pour hot water over them. The blossoms open up and look like they’re blooming right there in the water, and the fragrance is incredibly calming.
One of the many things that I love about traveling in Japan is the huge number of affordable, relatively healthy restaurants. If you want to go for yōshoku (their take on western food), which is basically dishes centred around meat, cheese, or egg, that’s a totally different story. But, if you wander into one of the Japanese noodle joints frequented by locals, it’s pretty easy to fill up on good quality delicious veggie food for five or six dollars. I also find that the atmosphere can often be more rewarding than dining at a formal restaurant. At these sorts of places, you get to sit shoulder to shoulder with high schoolers and businessmen, and there’s a lot more interaction with the customers and staff. You get a feel for Japanese food culture and etiquette…and honestly, that’s one of the best parts about eating out anyways!
I was walking through Mito train station looking for somewhere to stop for lunch, and I found this place advertising their salad udon. Usually, udon noodles are served in a hot broth along with something like green onions, deep fried tofu, or tempura. But, these noodles were topped with lettuce, bell peppers, carrots, okra, and crispy pumpkin sticks. I was so stoked to find this. Another lunch success!
Remember that nice old lady who I bumped into at the library, and who took me out for the best cup of coffee ever? Well, amazing person that she is, she came and picked me up in her car and took me to a local art exhibit. It turns out her husband is an avid artist and sculptor so they have a lot of interest in this type of thing. The little figurines were so adorable! Their expressions, their clothes, their body postures…all the little details made them so much fun to look at.
After that, she took me to a folk museum that was displaying all sorts of household goods that were in common use during the early to mid-1900’s. So, this means that she would have been using a lot of these things as a child and young adult. I love this sort of museum because it gives you some insight into what everyday life might have looked like back then. Looking at the treasures and fineries of the aristocracy is of course fascinating, but getting some small glimpse of the life of the average person is somehow so meaningful to me.
A lot of these items look quite different from what was using during the same era in the West. Can you tell what everything is? Some are easier to guess than others!
On a weekend visit to Hitachi city, I happened to stumble across a festival right outside the main train station. It was an afternoon event with food stalls, live music, and stand-up comedians. There was also a performance put on especially for the kids, featuring characters from a hugely popular cartoon series called Crayon Shin-chan. (I totally forgot about this show. I haven’t seen it in years!)
Hitachi city is well known for being the home of the huge multinational company, Hitachi Ltd., and the festival was actually hosted by them as a way of thanking the company workers and their families for their constant dedication and hard work. The main goal of the event was to give everyone a place to gather together and relax (not to make money), so everything was ridiculously cheap and laid back. Almost everything was $1…even the beer!
For lunch, I enjoyed a bowl of miso ramen topped with corn, cabbage, and green onions. After hanging out at the festival for a couple hours, I walked down the street to see a performance by a local high school band. I had originally just planned to head to Hitachi to do a bit of shopping, but I guess I got really lucky!
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”.
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.