Thursday, January 25, 2007

how appropriate. :)

You Are Not a Cook
You know cooking isn't for you, and you wouldn't even consider trying to make a homecooked meal.And this is a very good thing. You've saved all your friends and family from unintentional food poisoning!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

And Now For Something Completely Different...

i promised a "reasons for staying" blog and perhaps it's coming, but right now, i wanted to share with you an article i wrote for the Okinawa YAK. I hope it makes the next issue, but our editor is rather strict and my culinary exploits might not be considered YAK material. :)

meh. am sure he'll print it.

but first, in other food related news! On January 4th, a trusted health TV program in Japan (AruAru Daijiten) that has been on the air for 10 years broadcast a story proclaiming that the health benifits of natto (fermented soy beans) have been linked to weight loss. They introduced two people who have lost weight after eating natto every day for two weeks. The Japanese trust their TV, and this program is very popular and they showed data to prove their statements, so this caused a natto buying frenzy all over Japan! Stores ran out of stock. Manufacturers ran out of stock and had to issue public apologies in newspapers! And of course prices of natto went up. Whereas before a small pack of natto was 100 yen, in less than two weeks it went up to 140 and then 170yen. Pretty spectacular, eh? But not anything surprising. But wait! Here's the kicker! It was just found out (the story hit the newspapers today) that the TV show fabricated their data about the benefits of natto they proclaimed! They LIED and everyone literaly bought it!

i did a quick search and this is all i can find right now in English to summarize the story. Also, click on the "100 natto-related searches" link to get more scoop on both natto and the story.

and now, here's my article for the YAK.

Cooking for Clueless

To be in Japan is to enjoy its food. I have been gladly doing that for the last year and a half. Yet, one of my goals while living here has been to improve my abilities in the kitchen. So slowly, I have been pushing myself and trying to overcome my unexplainable anxieties when it comes to cooking. I am constantly afraid of screwing it up and so I don’t attempt it to begin with. But that’s no way to be, and so I bought a couple of books, and a few essential Japanese ingredients, and have been mixing it up in my most unfriendly to cooking kitchen. I don’t understand why Japanese kitchens lack counter space, but adapting is what we’re here to do, so I do and so far no major disasters.

I’ll share a couple of recipes with you and also some definitions of commonly used Japanese ingredients. Most of these things are coming from two great books I picked up from

Bento Boxes: Japanese meals on the go by Maomi Kijima. I like this one because it’s written using simple instructions perfect for me, has lots of step by step photos, and uses actual Japanese ingredients that I can buy at a local veggie stand or grocery store. Am so going to miss that when I move back home and the book becomes obsolete there.

A dictionary of Japanese Food by Richard Hosking. This one is great if you constantly ask what it’s in your kyuushoku (school food) and then can’t find a translation in your trusty Japanese-English dictionary for it. It’s not a recipe book. It gives definitions for lots of ingredients found in Japanese cooking and gives the names in romaji, hiragana and kanji for easy look up at a grocery store. But of course, if you don’t want to buy one, just give me a shout, and I’ll look it up.

I would recommend buying several ingredients that appear in most of the recipes I have found. They are mirin(みりん), cooking sake, and of course, soy sauce. Mirin is sweet cooking rice wine. It gives a sweet flavor to food and is great for glazes. You can substitute with 1tbsp sake and a teaspoon of sugar. Sake tones down raw tastes and strong smells and improves flavor.

So without further ado, here’s a couple of things I have been testing out in my kitchen.

Sanma teriyaki. This recipe in my book is for mackerel but I thought I’d try it on the slightly cheaper sanma. Sanma is pacific saury, a fish I have never heard of before coming here. It has made several appearances in my school’s kyuうshoku, so I thought I’d try it at home. FYI, both sanma and mackerel are fatty fish.

For this recipe you’ll need flour, soy sauce, mirin, sake, oil, salt and pepper.

I used two sanma fish and cut each one up at an angle into 4 pieces.

Then I combined 4 Tbsp of soy, 4 tsp of sake and 4 tsp of mirin in a bowl.

After sprinkling salt and pepper on each piece, I dredged them in flour. Heated oil in a frying pan and then briefly cooked each piece of fish. By the time I set down the last piece, the first piece was ready to be flipped. They cook super quick, so don’t walk away. After turning the fish on all sides, add the mixture of sauces to the pan and cook over medium to high heat. The mixture will turn quickly into a glaze, so let each piece soak up the glaze for a bit on all sides. And that’s it!

Boro Boro Jushi This is a simple Okinawa dish that I learned from the home economics teacher at my school. For this you’ll need rice and whatever veggies you want to use. Jushi is mixed rice that I’m sure you’ve had for kyuushoku or as onigiri. It usually has thinly sliced carrots, mushrooms, seaweed, sesame seeds and is brown in color. This boro boro variation I am told is Chinese in origin and looks more like risotto because a lot of water is used to make it.

So for one cup of rice, you’ll use three cups of water. This is not cooked in a rice cooker but in a regular pan. Cut up really small whatever veggies you like and are taking up space in your fridge. I am told that this dish is usually made when there are a few leftover veggies that might spoil if not used, and so they’re all chopped up and thrown in. Carrots, shitake mushrooms, konbu (a type of seaweed), and anything else you like should be chopped up and combined with rice. Tiny shrimp would probably work well, but I haven’t tried that. Then add the water and either soy sauce or miso paste and salt and pepper and any other spices you like. Don’t use both soy and miso, however. After the water boils, let simmer for about 30 minutes. Done!

And as a final addition to this YAK, I thought I’d type up an explanation of how to make curry using the solid curry bricks sold in all the grocery stores. I bought a box of “Golden curry” because that’s the mix the chefs at a restaurant I worked at used as a base, but couldn’t bring myself to try and cook with it because I couldn’t read the instructions and I’m not big on experimenting with food when my dinner depends on it.

So I finally asked for an explanation and here it is.

On the back of the box I bought it suggested 200 grams of meat, one carrot, one large potato, an onion, and something called “sarada.” I used chicken, three small potatoes, and also added frozen broccoli and frozen sliced peppers. Cauliflower would be great as well.

So chop up all the veggies. You can fry up the onions before using them, as most Japanese do if you, like them, don’t care for a strong onion flavor in your curry. I don’t mind, so I used them raw. First bring water to a boil. The box suggested 700ml, I used a bit more because of all the veggies I added. When the water is boiling add the meat. Once the meat is cooked, add all the veggies. Reduce the flame to medium. Once the potatoes and carrots are soft, add curry brick. Might help to cut it up into bits before throwing it in. Mix it in as much as you can and then just let it simmer for another 5 or 7 minutes. Mix again and you’ve got curry!

When I made it, I added a bit too much water so watch out for that unless you like the curry more soupy.


In the next article, I’ll hope to share a recipe for a soup and maybe something with udon.

Those are the goals for my own experiments in the kitchen, so if they work out they’ll make an appearance. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

I felt a bit lonesome going into the New Year. It wasn't overbearing. It didn't bog me down and leave me laying on a futon in a dark room listening to Pulp. It was more like a fleck in my peripheral vision--something that only became visible to me when i'd stop and take a look around. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
It's reasonable to say that New Years holiday carries as much weight for my family as Christmas does for yours. It was a big holiday in Soviet Union and is still huge in the former Soviet Republics. Most everyone i know who came from Soviet Union starts preparing for how they'll spend New Years at least a month in advance. Reservations are made at russian restaurants, trips are booked, outfits are carefully decided, and of course, presents are bought. On 31st, most people will take a nap during the day, so that they can party through the whole night; it's reasonable to expect to stay out 'til 6am. New Years' eve is spent with family when one's younger and with friends, when one's older. On New Years day, families get together and presents are exchanged and left over food is eaten. We usually put up a tree after Christmas in my house. We started doing that because years ago my father found out that live trees are given away for free on the 25th. These days, my mom puts up a large, fake tree and all the presents get piled under it. So you see, spending New Years alone was not something I'd have wished on myself, but this year i wanted to spend it Japanese/Okinawan style, and so i had to deal with the fact that midnight was not going to be a big deal and i would have to be alone.
So here's a picture shorthand of how i spent my New Years with Okinawans.

The New Years is a major holiday in Japan. It's a time for families to gather and relax together. For this purpose, the special New Years food, osechiryouri, is prepared in advance so that the females of the family can also relax and join everyone in celebrating the holiday. On the 31st families relax together by going on outings, playing games at the house, watching TV, visiting relatives' homes, etc. New Years is not a holiday that celebrates the one moment when the old year becomes new; the holiday is celebrated over a period of several days during which New Years food is eaten, people don't work, and children are given envelopes of money as presents.
Follow the wiki links for more info on Japanese New Years' Eve, New Years and osechi-ryouri.

On the 31st, the Taira family picked me up and we went to play park golf in Kunigami. This is Mr. Taira who is the Ogimi BOE's superintendant, his wife, their youngest daughter and their grandson. Park golf is not quite mini-golf, because there are no funny obstacles, but it's played with giant balls on a mini version of a regular coarse. It was my first time and so naturally, i came in last. There were quite a few families on the coarse; it was a clear day and really lovely.
After park golf, we went to the Taira house and had a simple lunch of miso soup and rolled mochi. The mochi was sent to Mrs. Taira from a friend in the Sendai prefecture in the north of Japan. On New Years, friends, and collegues send each other presents that are usually drink or food. It is customary to send a present like that to your elder, senpai, or a higherup at work. So mrs. Taira received quite a few presents, so did grandmother Taira, but Mr. Taira didn't get as many because he works in the public sector and so it could be construed as bribary and is not done.

This is Kai, the son of the eldest Taira daughter. See if you can spot a giant caterpillar near him.

After lunch, Nao, Mr. Taira, Kai and i drove to the aquarium in Motobu. Even though i've been there 3 times already, it's still a nice place to walk through, and i noticed that they change up some of the smaller tanks. The aquarium was packed with mainland tourists, foreigners (by that i mean US military), and Okinawans. It was a bit cloudy and gray, and Kai fell asleep on the ride there and back. It was the first time that we were given a break from his rendition of Mr. Ozma's "Bounce with me" song. Unfortunately Kai could only remember a small and very repetitive bit from the song, but he cracked everyone up every time he'd do it, especially if he had space and freedom to combine the song with dance.

This is the Taira family gathered around a dinner spread on the 31st. We made our own sushi hand rolls, which so incredible delicious, i can't even begin to describe my happiness with it. One of these days i'll have to throw a sushi temaki party at my house. It'll be great.

After dinner we sat around and chatted and played games and watched NHK's "Red vs white concert" which is a staple of any Japanese household on New Year's Eve. Famous Japanese bands and singers perform popular songs and it's a competition between men and women. At the end of the evening, the audience gets to vote on who's won. I didn't actually get to see won that evening, but more about that in just a moment.

This is Saori, the eldest Taira daugher. I taught her how to play backgammon online that night. We were playing a children's board game called sugoroku which in the electronic dictionary translated to "Japanese backgammon". It looked nothing like backgammon to me, just your simple boardgame with obstacles. So i showed Saori the backgammon i'm familiar with and it got her hooked.

At 11pm. Mrs. Taira prepared a New Year's soba dish. Eating of the long soba noodles symbolically says goodbye to the old year while welcoming the new. It's a tradition from mainland, as most that are observed in Okinawa on New Year's are, but in Okinawa the buckweat mainland soba is substituted for the Okinawa kind. Yum. After eating the soba, we watched the concert for a few more minutes and around 11:45pm Mr. Taira politely indicated that it was time for me to return home. Actually i wasn't their only guest that evening; the man in the above picture oposite me is a good friend of Mr. Taira's who came over around 9pm and brought sake with him. I was home with 10 minutes 'til midnight, so i opened a bottle wine, poured myself a glass and decided to take a picture of myself at midnight. By the time that all got set up, it was midnight already and fireworks coming from Okuma resort started off outside. I ran out and to the road and watched them with a glass of wine in hand. Fireworks, wine, a great feeling of serenity from having spent a day with lovely and goodhearted people put me in a wonderful New Year's mood. Nothing to dread afterall.
On the 1st, at 11am i was back at the Taira house for osechi-ryouri. If you followed the wiki link above, you already know that the food is served in large stackable boxes and is not just an everyday Japanese fare. Each dish in the osechi box has a deeper meaning that has to do with the New Year. Red and white are majestic colors that can be found in major Japanese celebrations, and of course in their flag, so certain foods are arranged to show off those colors. Other foods carry messages of fertility, prosperity, abundant harvest, and health. I think that's one of the amazing factors about being in Japan is the constant reminder of how traditional and deeply cultural the people's lives are. It's a modern society with all the comforts that that can afford, but it's still very firmly rooted in very concrete and all enveloping cultural ideals and principles.
I haven't told you about Kai's greatgrandmother yet. Grandmother Taira is an extraordinary woman. She has been named Japan's National Treasure and for good reason. This woman singlehandedly brought back the nearly lost art of Okinawa bashofu weaving. In the 60's and 70's, she organized the women of Kijoka into a bashofu workshop and it is now the only place in the world where bashofu cloth is woven. At nearly 90 she is still an integral part of the tradition. She goes to the workshop every day and has a room for weaving set up in the house where she sometimes works with Mrs. Taira and Saori. She participates in and supervises every arduous step of bashofu weaving, and her indigo stained hands show it. A wonderful story from a little village where i live. After eating, i went back to my apartment to call up my family and friends on their New Years eve. Later in the afternoon, Mr. Taira and the usual crew picked me up for a leisurely drive through Kunigami. A nice and relaxing conclusion to my New Years with the Tairas.

This is my supervisor's wife and their dog, Candy at a shrine in Naha on the 2nd. We went to a shrine called Naminoue. It is one of the biggest on Okinawa and a popular spot for those wishing to make their first visit to a shrine in the New Year. At the shrine we threw in a coin and clapped our hands to wake up the gods so that they could hear our prayers. After that we walked past several stalls that sold amulets for the new year in form of prayers sown into decorative pouches, beautiful arrows to display in the house, representations of various gods, etc. It is traditional to receive New Years fortune at a shrine as well, so we each paid 100yen and picked one out of a box. They have some with english translations as well. I read my fortune and tied it to a rope as did every one else. My fortune for the year is "very good," so let's hope that's right. There are several degrees of fortune ranging from "excellent" to "poor".
After walking to a Buddhist temple next to the shrine we bought some yakisoba at the food stalls and ate. This is a photo in the park next to the shrine; a family enjoying a lunch after their shrine visit. I just thought it was a perfect way to show you what Okinawa is like during New Years. Gorgeous, peaceful, and all about the family.
Here's a giant stalagtite that hangs in a cave in Tomagusuku. After the shrine visits, my supervisor drove us to a Ryuku culture park that was initially built to show off a nearly kilometer long cave. It took nearly a half hour to walk through the cave, which in parts was decorated with christmas lights in a no longer surprising to me Japanese fashion. There was even a giant, lit up Shisa near a beautiful display of stalactites to provide a fun point for a picture. On top of the cave, the park is an exhibition of traditional Okinawan arts, crafts, dance, and food. There is also a small museum about snakes, specifically the poisonous habu that live on Okinawa. We even watched a show with live snakes. A ferret was also involved. No worries, no animals were harmed during the show.

So here i am near a giant Chinese shisa in the cave park. Happy New Year!! Sorry this post took so long in the making and turned out to be exceptionally long but hopefully not too boring.

In the next post, i might get up the bravety to try and explain why i've just signed my recontracting papers for a 3rd year on JET. Although, after seeing the pics and reading the stories, some of the reasons are quite evident, no?

Monday, January 01, 2007

С Новым Годом!!!
Happy New Year!!!
Akemashite Omedeto Gozaimasu!!!