Cold Ramen and Life in Tokyo

Hi everyone! It has been quite a while. The last time I posted, I was still living back in my apartment, but since then, I have actually moved to Tokyo! I have been here for 9 and a half months now, working as a high school English teacher on the JET Programme (Japan Exchange Teaching Programme).

It was an incredibly long and challenging process settling into my new life here, and at times I was not even sure if I made the right decision coming here. But now that I have it all figured out, I am positive that my time in Tokyo will be one of the greatest experiences of my life.

It has been very hot in Tokyo lately, at an average of 32 degrees celsius! So, for lunch the perfect option was cold ramen noodles. You can buy a ready-made package in the grocery store, so all you have to do is boil the noodles, cool them with ice, prepare your toppings, and add the sauces that come with it. Very refreshing on such a sweltering day!

As with all of us, I can’t say the the whole COVID-19 ordeal hasn’t had a large impact on my life, but during times like these, I’ve learned that it is crucial to keep a positive mindset and seek out things that make you happy and active.

Even when we were recommended to keep out of crowded areas, it was still fine to go to wide open natural spaces, and despite being one of the most urban metropolitans in the world, Tokyo fortunately has a lot of beautiful nature. Last weekend, I headed to the Meiji Jingu Shrine, near Harajuku Station. It was the first time I had been surrounded by trees in a very long time, and it was incredibly refreshing. It’s amazing what a little nature can do for the soul!

People all over the world have been picking up new hobbies — baking, reading, blogging…I even have one friend who started writing a movie script just for the fun of it.

A friend and I both enjoy making things, so we recently started experimenting with different crafts. First, we started experimenting with making clay figurines, then we moved on to making resting earrings, and recently, we have settled on making earrings using shrink plastic sheets, with a varnish and resin finish.

Each set of earrings a long creative process, from beginning to start, but coming up with quirky little designs and seeing them come to fruition has been such an enjoyable experience. Get out into nature, find a new hobby…it’s a beautiful world!

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Turmeric Hummus: Possibly the Healthiest (and tastiest) Hummus!

If only medicine could come from purely natural ingredients and taste like rich, creamy hummus…Oh wait, it can!

We are all familiar with turmeric as one of the most standard spices in Indian cuisine, but did you know that it has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine to promote a whole range of health benefits? It stimulates digestion, boosts the immune system, detoxifies the liver, and may even be effective at fending off cancer and depression. When paired with black pepper to help the body absorb curcumin (the main active ingredient in turmeric), it is also has powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties.

Plus, it’s just delicious.

Knowing all this, I’m always looking for different ways to incorporate turmeric into my diet, and here’s a great one! Chickpeas are already quite the superfood, with their high levels of iron, protein and fibre, but combined with turmeric, this hummus is incredibly good for you.

I already had a batch of my homemade hummus in the fridge, so all I did was mix some turmeric power and a bit of black pepper into it.

But, just in case you want to make everything from scratch, here’s the whole recipe below.

  • 500 grams of dry chickpeas (soaked overnight, then left to simmer until soft)
  • 3 tbsp tahini
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice
  • 3 large cloves of garlic
  • 1.5 tsp salt
  • crushed chili peppers
  • turmeric (I just kept adding it in and mixing until everything was a rich yellow colour)
  • black pepper

Everything just goes straight into the blender, and that’s all there is to it! For a bit of added flavour, some paprika or cumin also gives it an extra kick.

Japanese Soybean Salad

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.

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On the package, it says “Naturally rich in calcium. Good for your bones. Non-GMO. Grown in Japan.”

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)
  • shredded kombu
  • thinly sliced carrot
  • finely diced sweet Mayan onion
  • soy sauce
  • 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)

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Irresistible Indian Cuisine in Japan

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.

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veggie curry

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daal

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huge, fluffy naan

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mango juice

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!

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Sweets with Cherry Blossom Filling

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!

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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.

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Visiting a Folk Museum in Japan

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.

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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!

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Festival in Hitachi and Miso Ramen Lunch

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!)

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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!

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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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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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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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