Tag Archives: Japan

Fall Weekends and Apple Cider Cream Pie

The first time I went apple picking was at a tiny orchard outside Matsumoto, a city in Nagano prefecture in the northeastern part of Japan. I distinctly remember how the Japanese farmer had carefully laid aluminum foil underneath his well-trimmed apple trees so that the sunlight bounced onto the underside of the ripening apples, giving them a uniformly red hue. In a country where grocery stores wrap each apple in a soft Styrofoam net, and customers buy a single apple for the price of a full meal at a decent restaurant, I suppose it makes sense that farmers would be concerned that each apple’s underside had been properly warmed by the sun’s rays.

I don’t know if it’s due to the experience of growing up near farms as a kid or just my incessant desire for the freshest produce, but I plan weekend trips to nearby Virginia farms at the start of every growing season: strawberries in early spring, cherries in late spring-early summer, and peaches and blueberries in the summer. Each season offers incredible fruit, but with the crisp air and brilliantly colored foliage in the low mountains surrounding the orchards, apple season is by far my favorite. Read more…

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Visit the Tsukiji Fish Market… But Not in Late December

Even though I spent many years living in Japan every time I visit I still find random, fascinating aspects of the culture and country that I hadn’t noticed before. Instead of creating one long blog post I’ve decided to turn it into a series where each week I share one or two observations from my most recent trip. 

If you love seafood and/or food markets you really can’t leave Tokyo without spending one of your mornings gawking at the dizzying display of colors, smells and sounds at Tsukiji fish market. It is one of the most famous fish markets in the world, and where most of the really good sushi restaurants—all over the globe—buy their fish. I visited Tsukiji on December 30th, the last business day of the year for this popular market. Do not follow my example.

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Unfortunately It Is Possible to Get a Bad Meal in Japan

Even though I spent many years living in Japan every time I visit I still find random, fascinating aspects of the culture and country that I hadn’t noticed before. Instead of creating one long blog post I’ve decided to turn it into a series where each week I share one or two observations from my most recent trip. 

It pains me to admit that but it’s true. I’ve been guilty of hubristically proclaiming that it’s nearly impossible to get a bad meal in Japan. And while I will say that your chances of finding good food are higher than many other countries, it doesn’t hurt to do a little research beforehand. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

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It’s Possible to Order at a Restaurant in Japan Without Speaking or Reading a Lick of the Language

Even though I spent many years living in Japan every time I visit I still find random, fascinating aspects of the culture and country that I hadn’t noticed before. Instead of creating one long blog post I’ve decided to turn it into a series where each week I share one or two observations from my most recent trip. 

I attribute this to three factors. First, many restaurants have plastic replicas of menu items outside their establishment, making it easy to see what they serve just by browsing the window displays. Once you spot a plastic model of something that looks good walk in, get a table and order it. Think of it as buying an outfit right off the mannequin.

Second, food photography in Japan is ridiculously good, prevalent on menus, and the food comes out looking pretty damn close to how it did in the photo. This goes for fast food joints as well. The lettuce is just as green and frilly. The beef patty is just as shiny. Everything is assembled with such exactitude you would think all the employees carried rulers.

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Technologically Advanced Toilets But Sinks Dispense Water The Temperature of Melted Ice

Even though I spent many years living in Japan every time I visit I still find random, fascinating aspects of the culture and country that I hadn’t noticed before. Instead of creating one long blog post I’ve decided to turn it into a series where each week I share one or two observations from my most recent trip. 

Japanese toilets are notoriously difficult to use with intricate, complex instructions (written solely in Japanese of course) attached to the wall of each stall. Frankly, in a country where you have about a 50/50 shot of hitting the button for “bidet” instead of “flush” I’m surprised we don’t hear about more foreigners bursting out of toilet stalls, arms flailing wildly, their half soaked pants wrapped unceremoniously around their ankles. In Japan you would be hard pressed to find a toilet seat that isn’t electronically warmed. Not hot, just a comfortable temperature that spares your butt cheeks that initial shock of a stone cold throne. Hotels, restaurants, dive bars, even public restrooms on the street—all warm. However, once you exit your technologically advanced toilet stall your hands will be greeted by water so cold you may be tempted to rush back to the toilet push the “warm pulsating wash” or “blow dry” button just to bring back the blood to your fingers. I couldn’t help but think that instead of spending all that scientific manpower on figuring out the ideal distance between vulva and anus jets or the preferred temperature for the pulsating butt wash, they could look into adding a hot water faucet to the bathroom sinks.

But then again, maybe my priorities are just different.

Looks simple enough…

But open the panel and tad da… don’t read Japanese? Good luck!

A very uncommon sight, I found this extensive English user manual in a department store bathroom in Kyoto. Could a past unfortunate experience with a foreigner have prompted the posting of these detailed English instructions?

Pillow Girlfriends Really Do Exist: Random Observations about Japan

Japan is a country that caters to the fantasy and even the fetish. Hostesses pour drinks and entertain businessmen in bars. Young waitresses wearing French maid outfits or dressed up like popular manga characters serve food and play games with customers at Maid Cafes. There are even bars where the female hosts wear suits and act like men; their patrons are not gay, but mainly straight women. In light of all that, perhaps the fact that some men enter into relationships with body pillows adorned with the image of their favorite anime, video game, or manga character isn’t too surprising.

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New Year’s In Japan Part 3: Visiting a Temple and/or Shrine

I’m not Buddhist, nor do I practice Shintoism but if I’m in Japan at the dawn of a new year I always visit one (or several) of the temples and shrines scattered throughout the country. I love the beauty, serenity, history and traditions associated with each site.

In Tokyo the very popular Meiji shrine is my favorite. Surrounded by a forest, the shrine is a quiet oasis in the middle of the busy city. If I’m in Kyoto, I refuse to leave without a visit to the Inari Shrine, easily one of my top ten places in the world.

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New Year’s in Japan Part 2: Where To Nurse Your Hangover

Every few years I head back to Japan to ring in the New Year. While most Japanese go home and spend New Year’s Eve with their legs tucked cozily under a kotatsu, (a table with a heater underneath and shrouded with a thick blanket) eating soba (buckwheat noodles) and various other symbolic dishes with their families, I do my best to wrangle up a few good friends for a night of debauchery. I’m not a drinker. I’m not a smoker. Simply put I have no vices. But if I’m in Tokyo on New Year’s Eve I’m the girl in the corner of a smoky bar at 5am with a martini in one hand, cigarette in the other, and a line of empty shot glasses in front of her.

This may explain why I don’t drink the other 364 days of the year.

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Eggplant with Spicy Miso Sauce

We’ve all tasted poorly prepared eggplant—a gray, bitter mushy blob so unpleasant that it left a scar on our food subconscious. I’ve sent back eggplant dishes at otherwise fantastic restaurants because their bitter eggplant brought me the same pleasure I imagine sucking on a metal popsicle would. True, it can be a challenging vegetable to work with, but when cooked correctly, eggplant can also be a thing of beauty.

There is a popular dish in Japan called nasu no dengaku: essentially, broiled eggplants with a miso, sake and sugar glaze. While delicious, I find the purely traditional form to be a little too sweet for my tastes. Even so, I love how the skin gets lightly charred and smoky while the flesh turns creamy under the intense broiler heat.

My version of nasu no dengaku came together after a dinner at Kaz Sushi Bistro in downtown DC. Chef Kaz Okochi has the most amazing spicy broiled New Zealand mussels on his menu. The sauce on this dish is incredible. In fact, I loved it so much that I went home and tried to replicate the flavors. Now I’m sure Chef Okochi’s secret is far more complex than combining three ingredients in a bowl, but to be honest my version tastes SPOT ON. Best of all you can easily whip up the sauce in under a minute & it partners beautifully not only with mussels* (see Cook’s Note), but with eggplant and a variety of fish as well.

Miso, a fermented soybean paste, imparts a deep salty flavor. The mayonnaise makes the sauce luscious, and keeps whatever you spread it on moist. As for the Sriracha… do you really need a reason to invite the ever-popular “Rooster” hot sauce to the party?

I prefer to use Chinese or Japanese eggplants because they lack the bitterness of other varieties. But if you want to use other types try curing them first.

1. Cut the eggplant in half lengthwise.
2. Score the flesh. (Tiny cuts in a crisscross pattern)
3. Sprinkle generously with salt and allow the eggplant to sit for 45 minutes to an hour.
4. Rinse and dry the eggplant halves before cooking

Or you can use baby eggplants which typically haven’t had a chance to develop that infamous acrid flavor. Last Sunday I picked up some gorgeous French and Turkish baby eggplants at the Dupont farmers market (I recommend the French ones). I split them in half lengthwise, scored the flesh, spread the miso sauce over them & popped them in the toaster oven. Twenty minutes later I pulled out a visually stunning and deliciously earthy autumnal side dish.

Serves 4

Ingredients
1-quart baby eggplant or 2 Japanese eggplants
Neutral oil
2 Tbs. Kewpie mayonnaise
2 tsp. miso paste
1 tsp. Sriracha
Chives or scallions, thinly sliced (optional)

• Preheat the oven to 350°

• Mix the mayonnaise, miso and Sriracha in a bowl (spice lovers, there’s nothing wrong with adding a little more Sriracha).

• Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise and score the flesh, taking care not to cut through to the skin. Drizzle with a little oil.

• Place a generous smearing of the sauce over the top of each eggplant

• Lay the eggplants, cut side up, on a lightly oiled sheet pan

• The total length of cooking time will vary depending on the size of the eggplants you are using but begin by placing them in the oven for 20 minutes. Keep a close eye on the sauce; you don’t want it to burn. If it starts to get too much color cover the sheet pan loosely with foil.

• Check for doneness by squeezing the eggplant. When it’s ready it’ll be soft and give easily.

• Just before removing from the oven blast the eggplant under the broiler for 30 seconds.

• Top with sliced chives or scallions and enjoy immediately

Cook’s note: For the mussel version of this dish scrub and debeard the mussels. Heat a little stock or sake on the stove in a wide skillet. Once the liquid comes to a boil add the mussels and cover tightly. The mussels will open in 30 seconds–1 minute. Remove from the heat and pull the shells apart. Spread the sauce on top of the side containing the mussel. Place the mussels on a sheet pan and under a broiler set to high. Blast for 30 seconds-1 minute. Sprinkle with scallion slices and serve.

The Palettes of TCKs: Sibling #4 Requests Chicken Wings

Sibling number four is my very beautiful sister Janai. In addition to the usual identity crises associated with TCKs Janai has had the added complication of having a foreign name. In Chinese her name (pronounced jen-ai or ren-ai) means “true love” but unfortunately, in Japanese ja-nai means “am not” or “is not”. Thus Janai spent many years of her life reluctantly being called by her second name, Clare. Guess what my darling husband jokingly said to her when they met in Taiwan? “Clare? That’s a fat girl’s name.” Thank you John Hughes and The Breakfast Club!

However the shy girl grew up into a sassy lady who often renders men speechless when she extends a manicured hand and introduces herself, often repeating her exotic name several times for the bumbling gentlemen that can’t seem to get it right.

Janai sent me the following response to my comfort food inquiry, “Remember how we used to bake all those chicken wings?? Made our own marinade with soy sauce, mustard, ketchup, and any spice we could find? That’s what I crave…basic yet delicious…it’s what I remember as ‘home’.”

Ah, I remember those chicken wings well. They were the frequent stars of our dinner table because wings were cheap and the sauce was composed of just about every spice in the cupboard, and every condiment in the refrigerator door.

We’ve been making chicken wings in my family for years, but my relationship with them wasn’t always amicable. In Japan we would cook the wings in a skillet on the stove since we only had a very small oven (most Asian kitchens aren’t outfitted with large ovens; toaster ovens are usually used for baking at home instead). Just about everything in our kitchen was stainless steel and our cooking utensils were metal, which was great for cleaning. But when the pilot light in the stove shorted (and it did, ALL THE TIME), you got a free lesson in electrostatics. Question: What happens when you happen to touch the stove with metal tongs while your other hand is resting on the metal counter? Answer: The electrical currents have a play date in your body! To this day my body tenses in preparation for a jolt whenever I smell soy sauce and sugar caramelizing.

But we left that house, and eventually Japan. Somewhere along the way we found ourselves in a bigger kitchen, and we transferred the wings from the skillet to the oven. Nowadays I bake the wings first with just a little salt, pepper, lime juice and oil, (you could add other spices like Chinese five spice or chili powder) and then glaze the wings with the sauce right before I throw them under the broiler. With this method the meat is nicely seasoned and the sweet-salty sauce gets deliciously charred and sticky under the intense broiler heat.

Hopefully your kitchen is in compliance with safety codes, so making these simple Asian wings won’t leave you permanently traumatized.

Ingredients:
1 lb. chicken wings
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. white pepper
½ tsp. lime juice
1 Tbs. neutral oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch piece of ginger, minced
1 half medium sized onion, diced
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup water
1 Tbs. ketchup
1 tsp. mustard
1 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. Sriracha

  • Mix the first 5 ingredients together in a bowl. Set aside to allow the chicken to marinate and temper (come up to room temperature)
  • Preheat the oven to 400°. When oven reaches desired temperature place the chicken wings on a sheet pan and into the oven for 10 minutes
  • While the wings are baking sweat the onions, garlic and ginger in a small saucepan over medium heat.
  • Combine the soy sauce, water, ketchup, mustard, sugar and Sriracha together in a bowl. Mix well.
  • Once the onions are translucent (about 5 minutes) add the liquid mixture to the saucepan. Simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Strain. Pour the strained liquid into a large bowl.
  • Add the semi cooked chicken wings to the sauce and toss to coat. Return the chicken wings to the sheet pan and place them under the broiler (turned to high) for a couple of minutes. Remove and flip the wings. Return to the broiler and sear the other side of the wings (1-2 minutes).
  • Remove when you have the color and caramelization you want.

Can be served as is….

Or with a sprinkling of chopped cilantro…

Cilantro and extra Sriracha…

Or with a dusting of shiso furikake—shiso, the popular Japanese herb (also called beefsteak plant), flavored rice seasoning… salty, tart and slightly floral.