Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Mixed up rice.

My rice isn't confused, it's just mixed up.

Bibimbap is a dish I fell in love with in when I was living in Korea. Beloved of schoolchildren and English teachers across the country, it's a one-bowl dish of rice topped with various vegetables, beef, gochujang, and a fried egg. It can be served in a stainless steel bowl or a stone crock that's been heated on a burner - in which case it's called dolsot bibimbap. In Korea, the town of Jeon Ju is famous for it's bibimbap, for reasons that are currently obscure to me.

If you haven't tried Korean food before, I urge you to start with this dish. A traditional Korean meal includes rice, kimchi, a stew (such as deonjangjigae) and several side dishes (panchan) that are seasonal, and prepared on the whim of the cook. These panchan are often made in advance, and kept in the fridge for several day's worth of meals. The rice and stew are made fresh as needed for meals.

Bibimbap, on the other hand, is much simpler to prepare and serve. You can use almost any vegetables you have on hand, and while beef is traditional, there's no reason you couldn't use ground chicken or pork either. If you can't find gochujang, you can use any thick chili sauce (sri racha comes to mind) ; or, if you're afraid of the spice, barbecue or tonkatsu sauce could be used. There's a bit on bibimbap history here, but I suspect its current popularity as a dish in Korea is due to its usefulness in using up all the odds and ends of panchan lurking in the fridge.

Traditional bibimbap includes vegetables that might be hard to find outside of Korea (fern brake, anyone?), so I make it with whatever vegetables are on hand and cheap. Last night, that included carrot, spinach (100 yen a bunch! practically free!), enoki mushrooms, and bean sprouts. Since I didn't have several Lock and Lock containers of panchan in the fridge, I prepped the veg and meat individually while the rice cooked. All told, it took about a half hour to put together - and about ten minutes to eat! There were enough leftovers to make a bento for lunch the next day as well.

You'll need: (for two people, plus maybe a bento leftover)

1 bunch of spinach, cleaned and trimmed.
1 big carrot, peeled and julienned.
1 bunch of enoki mushrooms, bottoms trimmed off (or about 1 cup of sliced mushrooms)
1 bag of bean sprouts, rinsed.
200-300g of ground beef/pork/chicken, depending on how much you like meat. (or make it vegetarian by using more veg - why not?)
3 cups of cooked rice.
4 Tbsp. gochujang, plus some rice vinegar for thinning.
Sesame oil, chopped garlic, soy sauce, chili flakes to taste

First put your rice on to cook. While it's bubbling away, get out your fry pan and heat it up. Add some (1 tsp-ish) sesame oil, and then your carrots. Fry over med-high heat until you think they're tender enough, then tip them out onto a big clear plate you've kept to the side. Push the carrots into a pile (tongs help for this), and put the pan back onto the heat. Next, add some more sesame oil, some chopped garlic and spinach, and saute until the spinach is wilted. Tip that out next to the carrots, and add the bean sprouts to the pan. I usually add a tablespoon or so of soy sauce and chili flakes to my bean sprouts, but this is optional. When they're limp, tip them out next to the carrots and spinach, and cook the mushrooms similarly. When the vegetables are all done, cook the meat with another tablespoon or so of soy sauce and sesame oil. By the time the meat is well browned, your rice should be nearing completion.

To assemble the dish, you'll need two deep bowls - one for each person. Add a cup or so of cooked rice to the bottom of each bowl, then top with the meat and vegetables, each in its own little pile around the bowl. Then, in a smaller bowl, thin the gochujang with 1-2 tablespoons of rice vinegar - this will make it easier to mix around in the bowl. Dollop a good spoonful of the thinned gochujang in the middle of your bibimbap, so it looks like a red sun in the middle of a vegetable sky. (If you like it more spicy, add more; if you like it less spicy, add less.) At this point, you can top it with a fried egg and flakes of nori, but I usually leave it here, as the meat is good enough for me.

Then you take it to the table, and stir it all in together, ruining your fine arrangement.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Bento Stand-by

Because I make bentos practically everyday, I've come to rely on a few stand-by recipes for when there aren't any leftovers to remake. Two of my favourites are ginger chicken and corn on rice, and miso stir-fried noodles.

I follow Elizabeth Andoh's recipe for Gingery Ground Chicken, from Washoku. The recipe calls for simmering ground chicken (or in the picture to the left; pork) with chopped fresh ginger, soy, sake, and mirin. It's then used to top rice, along with another colour component, like corn or dry-scrambled eggs. It's incredibly delicious and easy to make, but a bit hard to eat if you're not really proficient with chopsticks. In Washoku, Andoh writes that this dish is used to help Japanese schoolchildren increase their dexterity with chopsticks - learn or go hungry. Hmmm. Enough said, I think. In this box, I've also included mini pajeon, (Korean green onion pancakes), and broccolini gomae style. Gomae is a delicious dressing for vegetables made from ground sesame seeds - here I used black sesame seeds, because they're what I had on hand, but I think white sesame seeds are more traditional. The carrots are cut into sakura shapes because I didn't have time to cook them, and if you're going to have to eat raw carrots, isn't it better if they look like something interesting?

The second stand-by is something I came up with on the fly one day - Miso noodles. Since some people, who will remain unnamed, don't like rice every day in their lunch, I'm always trying to work non-rice dependent recipes into our lunch boxes. Here, I've taken some fresh udon noodles and stir-fried them with some vegetable strips, ginger, garlic, miso, and mirin. (I'm sure there's a real recipe for a more sophisticated version out there somewhere, but I usually wing-it when I'm in emergency lunch preparing mode.) Throw some salt salmon, steamed spinach, and takuan pickles on top, and you've got a great, reasonably healthy lunch quickly. It's also great as a one-dish meal if you add some chicken or pork strips.

They beat peanut butter and jam sandwiches, at least.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Tofu and Tomato


The word was a bit of a joke when I grew up. I first heard it on an episode of MacGyver. After saving the day with no more than a piece of chewing gum and some spare ricin, our hero retired to his boathouse for a nice tofu casserole he'd made (no doubt with a knife fashioned from re-purposed steel from downed b-52's, or similar) before all the action began. His friend, Pete, refused an invite, and I wondered why tofu was funny.

Once I moved to Asia, where tofu is not a joke, I discovered its silken charms.

In Korea, I was often presented with a square of soft tofu drizzled with sesame oil, sesame seeds, chili powder, and minced green onions as one of the many side dishes (or panchan) required to make a Korean meal complete. It was a nice filler, something to distract from the other fiery dishes, and its custardy rich texture made it stand out from the other dishes at the table for its subtlety. Our friend Buffalo Dan campaigned strongly every time we went out for lunch for us to try sundubu, a molten hot stew topped with soft tofu. I could have been persuaded, but my husband is avowedly ambivalent about tofu, and thus we always ended up looking for more grilled meat.

My love affair with tofu began when I moved to Vietnam and was presented with a dish that is truly more than the sum of its parts. Tofu and tomato, simply titled and simply made, appears on the menus of most Hanoi traveller's cafes. Because it was so obviously there to pander to all the vegetarian-hippy types that beset Southeast Asia, I dismissed it as beneath my notice for a full year before trying it.

I was a fool.

It appeared in front of me at one of those big communal dinners, where dozens of dishes are ordered, and where the vegetarians start to fret because all of the dishes are coming out of the kitchen with meat on them, oh my god. The sort of situation that used to make me crazy and cranky, because as an omnivore I never had a shot at the french fries with butter that also make a brief appearance before the vegetarians, casting pious glances at the meat-eaters, would edge the fry plate closer to them and say, "Well, I can't have any of that meat dish.." The tofu and tomato was slopped unceremoniously in front of me, and, as it escaped the notice of the herbivores, I decided to have my revenge. They ate my fries, well, damn them, I'd eat their tofu.


The fried texture of the tofu was comforting, like really good paneer or cottage cheese, and the oiliness had bled out in cooking to make the surrounding tomato sauce faintly rich and thick. The tomatoes themselves were scented with ginger and garlic, and specked here and there with thinly sliced green onion. I went on a mission to order it whenever I could. Of all the places I ate it in Vietnam, the best was in a small cafe in Hoi An. It's their version that I set out to replicate. My friend and coworker Angela advised me to approach it as I would making an Italian tomato sauce, but with Vietnamese flavours, and to use the best tomatoes I could find. I followed her advice, and am quite happy with my version.

My husband remains ambivalent about tofu, and I only make this for myself, when I'm eating alone. Since I mostly cook to make others happy, tofu and tomato seems like a selfish luxury - cooking something only I will eat; a hug to myself.

In such a simple dish, the quality of ingredients really matters. If you don't have fine fresh tomatoes, use canned tomatoes from Italy, preferably from San Marzano. Since the dish is about the flavour of good tomato, using a bad tomato will only yield a disappointing dish. The tofu should be fresh, and of good quality as well. The best place to find fried tofu is in an Asian market - when its fried, it'll be puffy and golden looking on the outside. Using canned tomatoes and pre-fried tofu makes this dish quick enough to prepare in the time that you steam your rice.

You'll need:

1 small can of good tomatoes (13 oz can) or an equivalent amount of chopped fresh tomatoes.
1 package or 6 to 8 1-inch cubes of pre-fried tofu.
2 tablespoons of tomato paste
3 green onions, finely chopped
1-inch knob of ginger, finely chopped (or more, to taste)
2 cloves of garlic (or more, to taste)
1 tablespoon of vegetable oil
salt, to taste

Heat the oil in a hot pan. Add the chopped green onion, garlic, and ginger, and saute briefly, enough for the lovely smell of ginger and garlic to come out, but not so much that it turns brown and starts to burn. I find I have to keep the flame low, and toss it all about vigorously in the
pan to avoid this fate. If it does burn, toss it all out and start again. When the aromatics are nicely aromatic, add the tomatoes and tomato paste, and cook together for about five minutes. Then add the tofu, shake it all about to coat the pieces in tomato sauce, and cover it. Let it cook for at least another five to ten minutes, until you see the tomatoes start to turn slightly orange from the oil that the tofu has let out. Taste it, and adjust the salt. Sometimes I cheat and add a little sugar, if the tomatoes warrant it. Serve with steamed rice while watching a re-run of MacGyver.

Bento Remake:
Not a remake, really, just poured into a thermal container for the next day, topped with Biggie's patented rice lid method. It held up really well, and made for a filling lunch.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Getting it Together

Biggie, over at Lunch in a Box, is having a blog event on bento organization. I'd thought I'd weigh in on how I keep my erm, bits, together.

I hit the Daiso recently, since things were getting out of hand on the shelf over my sink, where I keep everything and do lunch prep. I bought a couple of divided bins for 100 yen each, nothing revolutionary, and sorted my accessories by function - a tall bin for chopsticks, forks, and spoons; a long wide bin for the bento that's not currently in rotation (since my boxes are either in bags on their way to work, or in the sink waiting to be washed); and a small long bin divided for small containers, silicone cups, and dipping cups. The long bins suit my small Japanese apartment shelves perfectly (not pictured; they're backlit), but I'd like to eventually upgrade to stacking bins to take more advantage of the unused vertical space. I have my eye on some stacking shelves at Muji, but I'll have to wait a few paydays for that.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Ddalk Galbi

One of the first dishes I ate when I landed in Korea for the first time was ddalk galbi, a spicy mix of chicken and vegetables cooked on a hot plate at your table. Ddalk galbi restaurants are a big hit with the young people in Seoul, and most of the entertainment districts downtown have several spots where you can sample its greasy, spicy charms.

The name means "chicken ribs", and it consists of chicken stir-fried with a mix of cabbage, leek, carrot, sweet potato, and rice cakes (ddeok). It's all held together with a fiery sauce made from sesame oil, Korean red pepper paste (gochujang), garlic, chilis, and a little bit of soju, a popular Korean liquor. Like many Korean dishes, it's cooked right in the middle of your table, and the potential for collateral damage to your clothes is so great that many restaurants provide their patrons with all-over aprons. Nothing like heading out for a night on the town with the scent of chicken fat and chili in your clothes!

Ddalk galbi conjures up a lot of great memories for me of meals eaten with friends, the table littered with green soju bottles, piles of creamy salad and yellow pickle on the side. Since the restaurants were popular with young people for both the dish and the price - never more than about $6/person, depending on how much soju you drank - the places that sold it were often dives of the first order, with gas lines running above the floor, precarious plastic stools tangled around stainless steel tables that were little more than loops of steel around a gas hose, and a haze of red-tinted chicken fat born aloft on a cloud of charred chili-paste smoke.

We had ddalk galbi on our first night in Korea, when Andrew and Terra dragged our jet-lagged corpses into Bupyeong for the first time. We had it in Chuncheon, the purported home of the dish, with Annette, on our first trip out of Seoul, the first winter we were there. We had it in its short-lived curry incarnation with Dan, and I remember him asking the waitress to add more mini hotdogs, because we loved them so much. I remember having it with my parents in Jongno, meeting Dave just before he fell down the stairs in the subway breaking his ankle in three places. I remember Jo filling up on creamy salad, because of her rules about not eating anything red. And I remember Evan showing us his favourite ddalk galbi place in Yongin, on a winter day so cold that we couldn't even bear to go to the folk village.

It was also the final meal we had with all of our friends together in Korea, and with memories like that, how can I help but want to make it whenever I can? When I happened across a small display of Korean ingredients at the La Zona shopping spectacular in Kawasaki, I was thrilled, and immediately got everything I needed.

My recipe is simple, and feeds two generously with leftovers available for lunch the next day.

You'll need:
  • 500g of chicken, preferably boneless thigh meat, although breast is okay as long as the skin is left on.
  • 2-3 tbsp. of sesame oil
  • 2 tbsp. of soju (or sake, which is what I use in Japan)
  • 2 tbsp. of soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp. of mirin
  • 2/3 cup (roughly) gochujang
  • 2-3 heads of garlic, crushed
  • 1/2 head of cabbage, sliced in about 1 inch width strips
  • 1 carrot, sliced thinly into rounds
  • 1 sweet potato, sliced thinly into rounds
  • 1 Japanese/Korean leek, sliced into 1 inch pieces
  • 3 or 4 perilla (ganeep) or shiso leaves, cut in half
  • 1 cup ddeok ( optional)

First, marinate the chicken in the soy sauce, garlic and soju for 15-30 minutes.

Heat a large wok or frying pan, and add the chicken. Stir-fry briefly, then add the ddeok, sweet potato, carrot and gochujang. Let this cook together for about five minutes, then add the cabbage, leek and shiso.

At this point, you can add mirin to taste, as well as a little more sesame oil, depending on how greasy you like it. I have added as much as 1 cup of gochujang without affecting the success of the dish - it depends on how spicy you like it. You can also make this a little more spicy by adding one whole Korean chili, sliced thinly, and a tbsp. of Korean chili powder (gochugaru) to the marinade stage. Cook everything together until the cabbage is limp and the chicken is firm - maybe another ten minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently to keep the gochujang from burning.

You can serve this right out of the pan at the table for an air of authenticity, with lettuce leaves for wrapping pieces of meat in to cut the heat. You can serve it over white rice, if you're more comfortable with that, but my husband and I like to eat all the big bits out of the pan first, then add two cups of cooked white rice to the leftover sauce, and return it to the heat to make fried rice at the end of the meal, just like back in the day. For the ultimate Korea nostalgia experience, serve with macaroni salad or coleslaw and yellow radish pickle (takuan) on the side, and try not to trip over the gas line on your way out.

Better than Leftovers - Kareiraisu

Part of the magic of bentos is the way they can make leftovers seem just as appetizing as the first time round. I've done my fair share of reheating leftovers in the company microwave, and I know how tedious it can be. Inspired by "Leftover Remake", over on Lunch in a Box, I've been casting a critical eye over my dinners to see how I can save money and time by re-working elements from dinner for the next day's lunch.

This week I was able to incorporate almost all of our dinners into the next day's lunch, something which really helped stretch our food budget before payday! This isn't always possible, because sometimes dinner doesn't really lend itself to being eaten at room temperature the next day (like pasta, for example), and sometimes we're so hungry that nothing survives the feeding onslaught.

The first success I had this week involved a bit of planning, but yielded a really delicious and filling lunch. I decided to make chicken kareiraisu from Elizabeth Andoh's "Washoku", a recipe which calls first for pan-frying marinaded chicken with curry powder before turning it into a thickly-sauced curry.

Curry rice is an extremely popular dish here, and one thing that I associate strongly with Japan is the smell of warm curry floating through the air at lunchtime. The most common way for curry to be made at home is from a roux, which can be bought in boxes in the supermarket. They usually come in a range of flavours and heat levels, but I find them a bit bland, too salty, and a bit heavy from the fat needed to make the roux thicken properly. When I saw the recipe for making it from scratch, I knew I had to try it. Although it took a bit more work and time than a boxed version, I was able to control the seasoning and oil myself, and it resulted in incredibly tender and flavourful chicken. I added a bit of fresh garam masala to the S & B curry powder, which made for a warm, ever so slightly sweet curry crust on the chicken. At this point, I set about a third of the chicken aside, to be put into the next day's bento.

The kareiraisu recipe calls for cooking cubed potatoes and carrots separately, before adding it to the pan-fried chicken together with some stock to make the final curry dish. I deliberately cooked more than was needed, and before adding them to the other ingredients, I set some of them aside to be mashed with mayonnaise (Kewpie, of course!) and a bit of minced onion for a potato salad. Creamy salad seems to find its way into a lot of bentos at the conbini and supermarket. While I doubt they're a traditional bento ingredient, I enjoy potato salad, and I knew the creaminess would provide a nice contrast to the spicy chicken.

By the time I was done, I not only had some pretty fabulous kareiraisu on the table, I also had two things ready to go for the next day's bento.

The next morning when I got up, I reheated some plain rice from the night before, sauteed some asparagus, and added the chicken and the potato salad, and lunch was made, with only the smallest resemblance to dinner the night before.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Boxed Lunch: An Introduction

I take a traditional Japanese boxed lunch to work every day - a bento. I do this for a couple of reasons:

First, lunch meat and decent bread aren't exactly thick on the ground here, and when you do find them, they're usually quite expensive. A Japanese-style lunch is usually the most economical. I could buy a pre-made bento from any of the national conbini chains for a reasonable price, but I worry about the amount of packaging that is used, and the general non-recyclability of those materials. Also, the food in them tastes bad. If I make my own, it tastes delicious, and I can re-use the box and chopsticks over and over.

Eventually, when I'm on more stable financial ground, I can do what everyone other than myself and junior high students do, which is eat at any one of the thousands of really good restaurants surrounding - well- pretty much anywhere. Until then, my budget runs more to around 300 yen/lunch (compared to the 1,000 yen that a non-fast food lunch would cost) and bentos easily fall into that range.

The most important reason that I make bentos, however, is that they're filled with miniature food, and that means they're killer cute.

Kawaiiiiiiiiiiiiiii desune?

Bento-making is pretty much the bane of most regular Japanese people I talk to, because unlike sandwiches, which can be made the night before, bentos have to be prepared fresh from hot food in the morning, and cooled down in time to be packed into everyone's tote bags before they have to run for their train. Rice cookers with timers make it fairly easy to have fresh hot rice in the morning, but the rest of the box should be made up of some combination of veg and meat dishes. This means the 5 am bento call is a real bummer for most busy mums and dads.

There's a lot of thought that goes into the make-up of a bento. Boxes are sold in particular sizes matching a person's age and calorie requirements. When filled in the correct ratios, the bento is perfectly nutritiously balanced. Ideally, the bento should be visually attractive as well, featuring different colours, textures, and cooking techniques.

Some parents go completely overboard, and create what's known as the kyaraben, a character-themed bento, meant to look like popular children's cartoon characters. Who knows how they taste when they're finally opened at school, but I guess everyone needs a creative outlet. I attempted a fairly amateurish kyaraben myself, to help mark myself and my husband's visit to the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka last year.

In case you don't recognize the character, it's Totoro, from My Neighbour Totoro.

I usually make two bento each day, one for me, and one for my husband. They're almost always the same, but sometimes I prepare slightly different things, depending on our tastes. What I generally try to do, since I'm as pressed for time as anyone, is try to plan my meals such that the main dish from the evening's meal can be remade into the next day's bento. This is fabulous, because not only do I prevent myself from either scraping the extra food into the garbage/eating it out of the pan and gaining weight; I also save money and time on buying and preparing separate things for lunch. Most recipes are meant to yield enough for four people; so the extra goes right into the bento, along with leftover rice (reheated in the microwave in the morning) and one or two vegetable dishes that I make and keep in the fridge as the week goes on.

I've learned most of what I know about making bento on-line, from such exhaustive sites as Lunch in a Box and Just Bento, please check them out if you're interested in making your own bento, they have lots of recipes and practical advice. You don't need a special box or accessories to make your own bento, and they can be adapted to western-style ingredients, as my friend Canadian Bento is so good at doing.

Coming up, I'll explain how a dish goes from dinner to bento.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Hina Matsuri

Here in Japan, it's Hina Matsuri - a festival held on March 3, and involving girls and dolls. I'll leave it to Wikipedia to flesh out the details, but traditional foods for Hina Matsuri include coloured puffed rice, clams (the two shells joined are meant to evoke, ahem, devotion and fidelity), and one of my favourite dishes, chirashi-sushi.

Chirashi-sushi, often translated as scattered sushi, is a layer of su meshi (sushi rice) topped with a variety of things, usually some sort of roe, dry-egg omelette strips, fish, and nori. You can buy chirashi sushi in most supermarkets ready to take home and be eaten, but I decided to make my own, because who doesn't love getting up early and making sushi rice first thing in the morning?

Actually, I would have just bought some, but I knew I wouldn't have time to go to the supermarket before work, and I didn't want to risk missing out if my supermarket was sold out by the time of my afternoon break.

I chose smoked salmon for my fish, and tried to make the dry-egg omelette, but alas it was too thick to pass proper muster. It tasted okay anyway, but looked nowhere near as elegant as proper dry-egg strips. For a green accent, I used radish sprouts, which also added a nice peppery note to the fish.

I love this dish because, like most great dishes, all of the separate ingredients combine to form more than the sum of its parts. The faint tang of the sushi rice cuts the oiliness of the salmon, and the sharp green sprouts give a little heat to the otherwise cool dish. The egg provides colour contrast and softness. Every bite is a little different, as each element comes to the forefront and recedes, depending on the luck of the chopsticks. And as with most Japanese dishes, the look of the dish is just as important as the taste. The pinks, yellows, and greens remind me of Easter eggs - in colours, but as well the eggs and sprouts as ingredients evoke Spring and renewal.

Sunday, March 2, 2008


We decided to eat lunch at a restaurant yesterday, which was daring and ambitious - for two reasons.

First, we're still broke, and dinner in a sit-down, non-fast food restaurant in Japan means 1,500 yen a head, on average. It kills me, as I know I can produce a reasonable meal for much less myself. But we had no food in the house, and we wanted to do something other than get groceries with the nice weather on our day off.

Second, in the past, when we've decided to eat out, it has usually devolved into an argument on a street corner, people streaming by us, on what we would eat. This would usually end in crankiness on both ends and culminate with us staring at each other over Big Macs.

The problem? I'll eat anything, but I'm not blessed with a spouse who'll do the same. Although he's come a long way in the years we've been married, there are still lots of things that are a no-go for him, comestibles-wise.

Sushi, no. No fish at all. Noodles -boring. No onigiri, can't eat nori. Curry rice only acceptable with katsu on the side, and no more than once a month. Ramen and yakitori are okay, but yakitori is generally served in pubs that open at night. It was lunch. Ramen is a lunch food, so possibilities there, but it was a weekend, so most of the ramen-ya around the station were shut. I began to get cranky around the edges.

Fortunately, we were at Ofuna station, with a large department store. Before I came to Asia, if you said the words "dining at the Department store" to me, it would have conjured blurry memories of eating soggy french fries covered in packet gravy and ketchup at Sears. Now, of course, I know that the department store is the only place to go if you're looking for a decent meal at lunch.

A lot of helpful people will tell you that while in Japan, to save money, you go to department store basements to get food. I am not about to offer you this advice. This is crap advice. As a matter of fact, department store basements are fabulous places to buy food, including all sorts of amazing french pastries, sushi sets, yakitori sticks, korrokke, rich salads...you name it. They are, however, really shitty places to eat anything. If you buy something here, it'll be packed up most marvelously for you, chopsticks included, in a lovely plastic bag, which you are then expected to take home to eat. There is nowhere on the premises to eat this food. Don't try it for lunch, unless you like eating out of a plastic bag, furtively, standing in the corner of a stairwell by the exits. (It is a great option for something cheap at the end of the night, if you're going back to your hostel or hotel - a lot of it gets marked down as well. Just don't leave this trick for too late - everyone else is out there snapping up these deals as well, perhaps thinking of what they can stuff into the next day's bento. You'll be microwaving mayonnaise spaghetti at the 7/11 with the rest of us slowpokes.)

Department store roofs, on the other hand, are a great place to find reasonably priced sit-down lunch options. I say roof, but actually, I mean the top floor. Here we found six or seven potential places. It was lunch time, so they all had lines (Does anybody eat at home in Japan? I wonder.) There was shabu-shabu, sushi (*sigh), soba noodles, a western fusion place - lots of seafood pasta and sausages, don't ask me where they come up with these menus-, and a tonkatsu place. We agreed on the tonkatsu, and that's what we ate, and it was good. We even managed to negotiate the questions the server came up with, including the kind of rice we wanted with our set (mixed grain) and what ice we wanted for dessert (matcha ice cream for me; some obscure fruit sorbet for Mr. Fussy).

But all this fuss, and sighing, and rolling of eyes, and stomping about made me miss food courts. I'm not talking about the Manchu Wok and A&W kiosks of my youth, but of the fabulous range of fried rice, noodle, hotpot, hot plate, meat profusions of ...Korea. At the top of the department stores as well, but instead of sit-down restaurants, just small stalls, a large bank of plastic food displays, a giant sprawling mess of plastic chairs and a cold water machine in the middle. Go up to the cashier, tell her your number, and get a ticket. Wait for your number to some up, and go get your food.

The food was almost always crap, especially if you strayed beyond the Korean triumvirate of food-court mainstays - jjajangmyeon (black bean udon noodles); Kimchi Bokkumbap (kimchi fried rice) or Popeyes. Never, ever, order the tonkatsu at a Korean food court. Stay away from the Japanese food altogether, as a matter of fact. But I could almost always find a reasonable dolsot bibimbap, which is always good, even when it's bad. And Mr. Fussy could eat Popeyes, and we'd avoid the whole twenty minute meltdown. Occasionally, I'd get the sushi platter, and marvel at home much it would suck. I longed for better food.

If only I could marry the convenience and the choice of Korean food courts and the quality and deliciousness of Japanese department store lunch restos.

Then I'd have the hawker stalls of Singapore.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Izakaya Night

After a crap day on Thursday that culminated with me wandering the streets of Hiratsuka, randomly asking strangers if they knew the address for the school I was supposed to be teaching at - thank god for all those Japanese lessons! I did eventually find where I was supposed to be, (Snaps to the handsome young officers at the Hiratsuka Koban; no snaps to me for forgetting my map. And phone.) but the psychic toll meant the bottle of sake I was saving for izakaya night was finished ahead of time. Oops. Right, so I made salt yakitori, and sauce yakitori on my fish grill. I wished I had proper long skewers, but I'm trying to use up what I already have in the house, so toothpicks it was. A green salad with that great sesame dressing from kewpie - what is that stuff called, anyway? Until I get that great suribachi from Muji, it'll have to do for goma-e. Carrot kinpira, and rice to fill up....It would have been a lot better with the sake, frankly.