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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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 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!
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.
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!