Tag Archives: Japan

TCKs: Sibling #3 Requests Mochi with Butter and Sugar

Staring out of the car window at the rolling green knolls, tall aluminum silos and herds of happily grazing animals on my way from Milwaukee to Green Lake, I seriously debated pulling up to one of the picturesque farms and asking if they’d be willing to let me milk one of their fat cows. And when I saw a woman walking to her mailbox with a lamb by her side I knew Wisconsin would be the place to live out my fetch-a-pail-of-milk-with-a-bonnet-on-my-head fantasy.

Damn, that would’ve made a good blog entry.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t drag myself out of bed for a 5am milking after lying around on my friend’s dock, swimming in the lake and stuffing my face with fried cheese curds. Luckily for me my toast-and-milk-loving brother saved my lazy ass with the following text. “Holy shit, I just remembered my comfort food… mochi with butter and sugar… that shit is bananas.” (Yes, that’s really how my 28 year-old brother talks).

If you’ve never had mochi before, a brief explanation might be in order. Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made by pounding glutinous rice till it forms one sticky mass. After this, it is divided and shaped into squares or little mounds, and eaten savory or sweet.

As kids we used to join our neighbors for mochitsuki, mochi pounding, a ritual that is part of the Japanese New Year celebration. It was riveting to watch the process. Two volunteers, one pounding the rice with a heavy wooden mallet, the other quickly folding and flipping the hot mass lying inside a mortar between mallet strikes. As you can imagine, timing is everything. I was always relieved by the absence of accidents. But my two brothers, who had been so excited for the possibility of seeing a hand caught under the mallet, were continuously disappointed by the lack of gore. Once the mochi was ready we’d line up for a serving of that warm, slightly sweet, stretchy goodness.

Personally, I love mochi nice and Asian, with seaweed and soy sauce. But—in genuine TCK confused fashion—my younger brother prefers his with a pat of butter and sprinkling of sugar.

I could use this space to talk about the long painstaking process behind mochi. I could tell you how to soak and steam the mochi rice. Pound, shape and dust the pieces with rice flour. But why risk pancaking a finger with a wooden hammer when there are perfectly made rice cakes sold in stores? Look for mochi at your local Asian grocery store (I purchased mine at Hana the Japanese grocery store on U St. in Northwest Washington, DC) and simply follow the cooking directions on the back of the packaging. I simply throw them in the toaster till the exterior is shatteringly crisp and the inside is warm and gooey. Mochi is good no matter what you decide to top it with. Soy sauce, seaweed, red beans, white miso, sesame paste… or even butter and sugar.

Examining the Mixed Up Minds and Palates of Third Culture Kids

In her book According to My Passport, I’m Coming Home author Kay Branaman Eakin describes a Third Culture Kid as, “someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture.”

Educators and psychologist who study Third Culture Kids (TCKs) have found that, among other things (really I’m only sharing the good stuff), they have a lower divorce rate, communicate well, and tend to be more welcoming and understanding of other cultures. TCKs are more likely to earn a college degree in their 20s, and many go on to earn advanced degrees. However, after graduation it is unlikely that they will enter the same career field of their parents (which tends to be missionary, military, or government).

My siblings and I are all TCKs. We have a Canadian father and a Filipina mother. Two of us were born in the Philippines, one in Macau, five in Japan and two in Taiwan. I’m the only one who speaks Japanese, but two of my brothers can understand a bit. Four of us girls can flip to Chinese if we ever want to gossip about you in front of you. But our youngest sister is the only one who can say anything in Tagalog that isn’t a cuss word.  Only the oldest two (my older brother and I) have ever lived in the Philippines. Interestingly, we are also the only two who have never lived in Canada.

The 3rd culture we’ve created is a mix of Japanese and Chinese culture, with a sprinkling of Canadian-ness here and there. In other words we remove our shoes when we enter the house but there aren’t tiny slippers designated solely for the bathroom (I am not exaggerating here, Japanese really do have a set of slippers used just inside the bathroom). We can’t spend two nights together without pulling out the karaoke machine and belting out cheesy 90s ballads, our song choice reflecting the slightly dated Americanized pop culture we were surrounded by while growing up in Asia. In the late 80s-early 90s the most popular English songs sung in Japanese karaoke bars were the hits of the 70s sibling duo The Carpenters. So the song choices could be worse. Although perhaps I’d prefer my 11-year-old sister know the lyrics to Touch Me When We’re Dancing rather than enthusiastically sing along to the salacious I’ll Make Love to You by Boyz II Men.

As for sports there’s really no debate—here Canadian-ness shifts from a mere sprinkling to a heavy dousing—hockey is king. When hockey season is at its peak my family living room is filled with shouts, squeals, nerves, tears, jubilation and disappointment on par with the backstage of a Baby Beauty Pageant. While my brothers dabble with other sports, true worship takes place at the altars of Mark Messier, Joe Sakic, Jaromir Jagr and Markus Naslund.

Perhaps one day I will pay a shrink thousands of dollars to dig around in my TCK head. No doubt he/she will tell me how my childhood is to blame for my taste in music, my incessant need to de-clutter my apartment and why I struggle to select cheese at Western grocery stores—seriously why does there have to be 150 different types? But that is not now, and definitely not here.

Here, I will focus my linguistically and culturally confused brain on doing a little experiment involving TCKs and food. Specifically, if nostalgia plays a key role in a person’s perception of what constitutes as “comfort food” then did growing up in various countries influence each of my siblings’ tastes differently?

When I feel ill, all I can think about is a big bowl of tonkotsu ramen. Sibling #4 craves Chinese congee. While sibling #3 told me that his idea of comfort food is buttered toast dipped in milk. (I shudder to think how many loaves he’s consumed trying to ease the pain of his beloved Canucks losing the Stanley Cup Final last week.)

I have asked each of my siblings what they crave when they are sad, sick, or just looking for something that reminds them of “home”. Over the coming weeks, I will share their answers on this blog, as well as a recipe for each dish. I fully expect to be cooking up a lot of Taiwanese street food, but I’m also ready for a possible poutine or tuna casserole from the more Canadian among us.

As for the toast and milk request from my younger brother—maybe I’ll write a post on how to milk a cow… ‘cause that’s a hell of a lot more interesting then a piece on how to turn on a toaster.

Kara-age: Japanese Fried Chicken

I have an insatiable appetite for fried chicken. If I spot it on a menu, at a street fair, or night market it’s just a matter of time before it ends up in my mouth. I’m not overly finicky about how it’s prepared, but I do have one rule: don’t strip it of its skin and fat. I want a brown crackling exterior and juicy meat that tastes like it spent some time soaking in good brine or marinade. In order to accomplish this you essentially need two things—skin and fat.

Japanese enjoy this simple fried chicken with their after-work beers, alongside a bowl of ramen, or tucked inside a bento box. Traditionally potato starch is used for coating the chicken but I find that when used alone it can be a bit powdery on the tongue. Rather, try using a mixture of flour and potato starch; you’ll get a crisp exterior without the dusty flakes.

 

Once I debone the chicken thighs I like to pound each piece until it’s an even inch across. I do this so that each slice has a good skin-fat-meat ratio. You can cook the thigh as one uniform piece, or cut it into strips before dredging and frying.

My hubby believes that food is simply a vessel for sauces, so I serve this chicken with Japanese mustard and a spicy mayo (a mix of sriracha and Kewpie mayonnaise). But the traditionalist in me is satisfied with a simple squeeze of lemon and a cold Kirin beer.

 

Ingredients
6 chicken thighs, deboned with skin on
2 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 Tbsp. mirin (or sake)
1 Tbsp. grated ginger
1 cup potato starch
1 cup flour  
1 tsp. curry powder
½ tsp. salt
White pepper for dusting
Lemon wedges

  • Place the boneless chicken thighs between two sheets of plastic wrap. Pound till about one inch across. Cut into one-inch strips.
  • Mix the soy sauce, mirin and grated ginger together in a bowl. Add the chicken. Toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes but no longer than 45min.
  • Place a pan (preferably cast iron) over medium high heat and fill two inches deep with neutral (sunflower, peanut, canola) oil.
  • Mix the potato starch, flour, curry powder and salt together in a shallow dish. Coat the chicken in the mixture. Shake off any excess.
  • When the oil has reached 325° gently lay the chicken into the pan, taking care not to overcrowd. (If you don’t have a thermometer test the temperature with a little piece of chicken. You want to see tiny bubbles quickly rising with the meat. The oil should not be smoking)
  • Cook for approximately 5 minutes per batch. If you’re frying the thigh as a whole piece rather than strips cook each side for about 4 minutes.
  • When the chicken is a deep golden brown remove and drain on paper towels.
  • Dust with finely ground white pepper and serve with wedges of lemon.

Hamburger, Hambagu, Hanbagu… Who Cares? It’s Smothered In Sauce and Delicious.

Denny’s in Japan is not the home of the grand-slam breakfast, chicken fried steak, early bird specials and caloric overload. It is a place to go when you’re in the mood for yoshoku or Japanized Western food. Favorites such as “American” club sandwiches, crab spaghetti, grilled winter vegetable curry and hamburger steaks are served to diners in the mood for something “Western”.

Slide into one of their booths in the morning and you won’t be offered stacks of chocolate chip pancakes, skillets of hash and burritos the size of a serving platter. But perhaps you’d like to order the Choose a Salad Morning. Your choice of a salad accompanied by a stack of small pancakes, toast or rice. For the Japanese breakfast lover, there is Denny’s Balanced Japanese Breakfast: rice, miso soup, an egg and a tofu salad. Unfortunately the Grand Slamwich—egg, cheese, ham, bacon AND sausage busting out from between two slices of bread and served with hash browns—is nowhere to be found. However, you can try to satisfy that craving with the vegetable and egg sandwich to be enjoyed with a bowl of yogurt and fresh fruit.

If you’re an expat desperately needing a greasy American breakfast to dilute the alcohol in your system, your best bet is the Denny’s Morningone slice of toast, two eggs, one slice of bacon, a small sausage and a salad. You may have to order two or three of these to obtain the desired results.

As a kid in Japan I often ordered the Japanese version of a hamburger patty. Served with rice, pasta or French fries but never between sesame seed sprinkled buns. Other than the shape, they are pretty different from what Americans think of when they hear the word “hamburger”. If you order off the kid’s menu your patty comes adorned with toothpick flags. I don’t know why there are flags or what sort of marketing tests recommended them, the idea probably originated in a posh Japanese office filled with old men. Over the last 20+ years the flags have migrated from the hamburger to a the nearby rice but they are still present.

The Japanized hamburger or “hanbagu” is enormously popular. Variations make up an entire section of Denny’s Japanese menu. Below is my version of this yoshoku classic. Try to buy ground beef containing at least 20% fat (health freaks, it’s the fat that keeps the patty moist).

Feel free to celebrate successfully conquering this dish by stabbing a flag of your choice into the succulent mound of meat.

Hamburger Patties:
1/3 cup bread crumbs
1/3 cup milk
¼ onion, minced
1 pound ground beef
1 egg
salt and pepper

Mushroom Sauce:
½ onion, diced
10 shiitakes, stems removed and caps sliced
½ tsp. of salt
2 tsp. flour
1 cup mushroom stock*
1 cup beef stock
1 Tbs. soy sauce
1 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. ketchup
1 Tbs. tonkatsu sauce (or Worcestershire sauce)
1 tsp. mustard
1 tsp. sugar

  • Preheat the oven to 375°
  • Pour the milk over the bread crumbs. While that softens, mince ¼ onion.
  • Place the bread crumbs, onion, ground beef, and egg into a large mixing bowl. Season generously with salt and ground pepper. Mix with your hands until just combined. Shape mixture into four hamburger patties.
  • Heat a skillet over high heat, add oil and sear the patties on both sides. Transfer to a plate. Add the onions, mushrooms and ½ tsp. of salt to the hot beef grease. Sweat for three minutes over medium heat. Sprinkle in two teaspoons of flour. Cook altogether for another minute.
  • Add the beef and mushroom stock. Stir. Add soy sauce, ketchup, tonkotsu sauce, mustard and sugar. Let it come to a boil while you continue to stir. Turn the heat down and let the sauce reduce by 1/3.
  • Place the hamburger patties in a deep baking dish and pour the sauce on top. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes.
  • These hamburger patties can be served with rice, potatoes or pasta so long as they’re plated up with a generous spoonful of the mushroom steak sauce.

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*Mushroom stock: when you bring shiitakes home from the market remove the woody stems and put them in a pot with 3-4 cups of cold water and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain and put in a container. You now have mushroom stock for stews, sauces, and anything else that calls for vegetable stock.

Why I Love to Cook

I can’t remember the first time exactly. Rather than one instance, the memory is more likely a combination of several—a quiet house, the mellow morning sun glowing from behind Japanese paper doors, the clean woodsy smell of the soft bamboo mat flooring. As a child I would silently slip out of my warm bed, taking care not to wake any of my sleeping siblings. Tiptoeing down the narrow hallway, I’d make my way towards the kitchen. The light clanking of metal and the tic, tic, tic of the stove pilot light would tell me that my dad was putting the kettle on for his morning cup of coffee.

With ten children, my family can be accurately described as shockingly large. Our house was always filled with friends, visitors, sleepovers, and play dates. Naturally two things were in short supply and in constant demand—a peaceful room and the undivided attention of our parents. Maybe that’s why cooking became so important to me; it was a moment in which my dad or mom focused on me. Was I holding the knife safely? Cutting the vegetables the right size? Rinsing the rice correctly? The kitchen before everyone else rose for the day became my place to find parental attention and complete calm.

It was here that I learned to make my very first dish: scrambled eggs, a dish with the ability to be utterly pedestrian, or worthy of a place on the menu of a 5-star restaurant.

As a kid I remember the horror of showing up to my friends’ breakfast table, and seeing a pile of something that vaguely resembled food. A rubbery, overcooked grayish green mass where bits of whites and yolks could still be differentiated in the pile. A papery burnt film shuddering atop an oozing undercooked section. I recall being mystified as to how someone could both burn and undercook eggs at the same time.

Maybe it’s the adoration of a little girl towards her father, but I still believe my father’s scrambled eggs were perfection. He moved slowly, methodically through the steps. He would crack the eggs into a large bowl. Then slide the bowl over, allowing me to whip the eggs. He preferred to use a fork, but sometimes the volume of eggs would be too much for my little wrist and he would hand me a whisk. He showed me how the addition of a little milk would make the eggs creamy and fluffy, and the importance of salting them before cooking so that they didn’t taste of salt but rather fresh, rich eggs. A careful constant stirring over medium heat resulted in the fluffiest, most savory plate of eggs this little girl had ever tasted.

We would probably only have thirty minutes in that quiet kitchen—me intensely stirring the eggs, while my dad sipped his coffee and buttered slices of whole wheat toast to accompany them. By the time everything was ready, the house would be coming alive with the sounds of people eager for breakfast.

Last week at the 5-star restaurant where I now work, I learned how to make the ultimate upscale version of my childhood breakfast food. A few professional secrets elevate this simple dish—extra egg yolks are added to enrich the flavor, crème fraiche replaces milk and the eggs are cooked slowly in a saucepot, stirred constantly with a small whisk and finished with a round spatula. Of course, cooking them in truffle butter and garnishing with a generous shaving of white truffles from Italy doesn’t hurt. When it comes to the table the pungent earthy aroma of the truffles envelopes you and for a few blissful moments you are lost in the luscious, savory, buttery eggs. Simplicity elevated.

However, for me no amount of truffles, caviar, or smoked salmon will ever elevate anyone’s scrambled eggs over my dad’s. The simple joy of spending time with him, cooking in our tiny Japanese kitchen while the rest of the house slept. Quiet moments like this didn’t occur very often, making the times that they did all the more memorable.

If I close my eyes I can still feel the warm morning sun coming in the small window above the kitchen sink. A little girl is standing at the stove, dad close by—wisps of steam disappearing off the top of his mug, filling the room with the robust and faintly sweet aroma of freshly brewed coffee. For her, this is the best moment of her day and the most perfect plate of food she will ever eat.

When I tell people that I have started a new career in the food world the common reaction is a head tilt and an inquisitive “why?” Why? Simple—it makes me smile. Sometimes the quiet, simple moments in life resonate the loudest and the longest.