Sunday, May 25, 2008

Ofuna Market

A mini typhoon blew through last week, but that didn't stop us from getting out and going to the street market at Ofuna Station. When we first moved to Shonan, friends in Tokyo mentioned that this area was famous for its cheap produce. Every week, on Saturdays, Peter works at Ofuna station, and his co-workers confirmed that the market there was just the place for good deals on vegetables and fruit. So, rain and wind notwithstanding, we packed our market bags up and went.

Street markets like this one were common when we lived in Vietnam, of course - supermarkets being the exception to the rule there- but even most neighborhoods in Korea still had a local market. Not so here in the Tokyo area - at least as far as I've seen. Going to the market is a great chance to practice basic speaking in Japanese as well, so we thought it would be fun.

I had some recipes I was dying to try out from "Harumi's Japanese Cooking", so we stopped at the sakanaya (fishmonger's) first. I bought some beautiful plump sea scallops for 500 yen, to eventually turn into "Scallops with Miso Cream Sauce". I can't recommend this dish enough - although it's meant to be served on watercress, I used lettuce instead, and turned it into a kind of warm scallop salad. Served with bread, it was fantastic, and I even talked Peter into trying some. Drench seafood in enough cream and garlic, and you can convince anyone to eat it, I guess.

We went through a few of the vegetable stands, where they were offering a much wider range of vegetables than the local supermarket - zucchini, for example, which I hardly ever see. The prices were unbelievable - a half kilo of garlic for 200 yen; red and green peppers for 100 yen each - easily half the price of the supermarket.

The flower stand - people take their flowers seriously here, and flower-arranging is a popular hobby. If my Japanese ever gets good enough, I'd love to take a class. I bought some beautiful pink peonies.

Fruit, which is usually so expensive that I hardly ever buy it - for example, one apple can cost 200 yen; melons 1,000 yen; strawberries 500 yen. Usually each week the supermarket will run a special on something, like 100 yen bananas, and I'll get some, but the days of having three or four kinds of fruit in one day are over for us. Sometimes I really miss Vietnam! The market, however, had these lovely champagne grapes for 300 yen, so I indulged.

We also found an incredible wine shop in the back alleys, with a full range of Japanese microbrews that we love - the Hitachino series. I love their owls, what can I say? We've had the white beer on tap in pubs in Tokyo, but this was our first chance to sample their weizen - I was lovely, warm and spicy, reminding me of Leffe Blonde, but with a fuller, richer taste. We had gone into the shop to get some Chinese wine for cooking, but when I asked after it, the clerk suggested we sample some aged sake - some discussion with his mother yielded the information that it was from 1984. It was a golden amber colour, and was heavy without being sweet. In retrospect, I wonder if it wasn't mirin - the conversation was in Japanese, and he called it "nihonshu", which I usually interpret as sake, but now I wonder.

It was a heavy slog, getting everything back from the market, but it was worth it. I've been cooking from Harumi's book all week, and I can see that her fame in Japan is justified. Every recipe I've tried has been well received by my food critic, and has been easy to make. I'm looking forward to cooking my way through the book.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sanja Matsuri, Asakusa

Sunday was warm - a perfect day for a festival! Peter and I went into Asakusa in Tokyo, an older area home to Senso-ji, a large Buddhist temple.

We took the Odakyu line from Fujisawa, taking a little longer than we normally do, but saving 200 yen in the process - that sort of thing really adds up in Tokyo. We got into Shinjuku at about 2 pm, and took a brief detour to check out the Kinokuniya book store, where I picked up a couple of books that you'll see me cooking from in the coming days - "Harumi's Japanese Cooking" and "2-dish Bentos " by - and this is my best guess, apologies, Wu Wen, a Chinese take on bentos. We took another quick detour to Tokyu Hands to stock up on bento necessities for Canadian Bento.

That made us pretty hungry, so we went into the basement at Takashimaya Times Square to look for lunch. Normally we would have just eaten somewhere in the station, but it was such a pleasant day, I thought we could sit out in the little park by the station with something out of the fabulous food shops below the Takashimaya. It's so overwhelming down there - there's literally something for everyone, and it's hard to make a choice, but I settled on a beautiful chirashi sushi that looked as bright as I felt.

After recharging, we got on the Chuo line over to Kanda, and then changed onwards to Asakusa, to see the Sanja Matsuri. When we arrived, the sun was setting beautifully over the Sumidagawa. The main street was roped off, and everywhere, bodies were slumped over drink machines and in alleys. People had the air of quiet, happy exhaustion that spoke of hours of drinking that had begun before noon. We popped into the nearest Family Mart for a beer, and thrust ourselves into the crowd.

This festival involved several portable shrines being toted around on the backs of hordes of happi-clad men, all shouting and stomping together in unison. The smell of sake and beer was heavy in the air. After wandering down a few alleys so Peter could snap some photos, we rounded back towards the temple in time to see one of the shrines being presented. The main lantern that usually hangs over the gate had been raised so the shrines could be carried through. The men stomped and heaved their way towards the gates, with one leader who seemed to direct the movement of the shrine by whim. A few shouts and hand twirls, and the men would heave left. A quick glance and a realization that the crowds were too thick for movement from the head shouter and the men would heave right. The mass of people ebbed and flowed in and out of their way, toddlers and mobile phones aloft to see and capture photos.

Several beers and bare-arsed photos later, we paused for dinner - we had some thought of trying to find an Indian place that a friend of ours had recommended, but the maze of streets around the temple proved too much to navigate, even for Peter. A conveniently located Gyu-Kaku beckoned.

Gyu-Kaku is a chain restaurant which serves yakinikku - a Japanese take on Korean barbecue. Although it kills me to pay for lettuce and kimchi, I know Peter loves it so much that I couldn't say no. We ordered our favourites - squeaky pork (hancheongsal - fatty pork neck), beef galbi (a rib cut), and Peter's ultimate fav - Kalmegisal - cut from the beef diaphragm - it sounds different, but it's incredibly tender and flavourful.

It's all best grilled over hot charcoal, and served with garlic roast in sesame oil, wrapped up in lettuce with a smear of lemon mayonnaise, miso, and a tall, cold draft beer. I thought of my friend Dave, who always says that Japanese draft beer is like "Angels pissing on your tongue", which really sums it up, I think.

After we lurched out of the restaurant, clothes and hair saturated with lovely beef-fat-smoke, we took a turn around the temple grounds, lit up by the lights of festival food booths put up for the occasion.
Roast corn and fish, steamed buns, baked potatoes with butter, yakisoba, okonomiyaki, candied apples and cherries, and chocolate-dipped bananas. We couldn't manage another bite, but cold beer was being sold from deep chests filled with ice, so a couple of Ebisu Golds were dessert.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Renkon Lunch

My lotus root (renkon) pickles were a hit - they really brightened up our lunches this week. They have a great texture - kind of a cross between raw potato and water chestnut. And apparently they're high in fibre, so - bonus! My Saturday lunches are always kind of a use-up-what's-left-in-the-fridge amalgam, and this one's no exception. Since I'm earning a reputation as a cook amongst my students, I'm beginning to little gifts for cooking - one of my ladies brought in a 2 kg cabbage that I pickled, and also shredded for a quick Friday night meal of okonomiyaki. I also have a bottle sanbaizu for making vinegar pickles, and a few photocopied pages of an old Japanese cookbook with tsukemono and sunomono recipes. Very exciting. I topped some leftover rice with some frozen corn I keep in the freezer for the end of the week, and some chicken-ginger soboro. I mixed the renkon pickles with some standard pink curry pickles (anyone know what those are called?) for a colour contrast, and the clickety container has some indispensable tonkatsu sauce. I couldn't pack it up without anything green, though, so I added a few edamame as well. Everything went surprisingly well together.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Side Dishes We Are Enjoying

In an attempt to finish off my giant daikon, I somehow slipped into making panchan for our meals - and we've been loving it! Panchan are traditional Korean side dishes that are served along with rice, kimchi, and jigae at meals. They're popular, too, in Japan, although the name for them escapes me right now - at any rate, they're a delicious way to round out a meal, and since most of them feature heavily seasoned vegetables, they're happy to sit in containers in the fridge for a couple of days, waiting to be taken out and stuffed into a bento, or put down next to dinner.

First up, mul kimchi - a kimchi that eats like a soup! Instead of being covered in a thick paste of chilis and garlic, cabbage, carrot and daikon are suspended in a cold, gingery spicy soup. It's incredibly refreshing when it's hot outside. I keep this in the fridge, and depending on my mood, just pick out the vegetables for a less spicy option, or have a whole bowl with plain rice.

I still had some daikon hanging around, so I dispatched it completely with two different dishes:

First, Japanese-style pickled radish with soy sauce and lemon peel. It's meant to have yuzu peel instead, but I also had the end of a lemon lurking in the fridge that I used instead. That took us from last Sunday to mid-week.

By Friday about a quarter of the daikon was defiantly holding on, so I googled one of my favourite radish dishes from Korea - daikon pickled with vinegar and chili flakes.

Well, that link gave me the idea for cucumbers, which Peter loves in any form, so while I was doing the radishes, I made the cucumber recipe as well - lightly pickled cucumber with sesame oil.

On Monday, one of my students came in with a 2-kilo cabbage that she had bought at her local farm stand for me, so I knew we'd be having ddalk galbi for dinner tonight - Korean food is always an excellent way to go through volumes of cabbage. But you've got to have creamy salad to go with ddalk galbi, to kill the heat, so it was an excellent excuse to make Japanese potato salad from Just Hungry! It sounds exotic, but it isn't really, it's just creamy and good. It's fairly expensive in Japanese supermarkets - something like 200 yen for 100 g, so I've been wanting to make it at home for a long time, but I couldn't figure out how they got the cucumbers so crispy.

I've also been trying to add one new vegetable to our rotation each week, and this week I felt like playing with lotus root. I used to see it for sale a lot when I was living in Vietnam - ladies would have big dripping baskets full balanced precariously on the back of their bikes. They'd sit in the shade of the trees next to the Temple of Literature and sell bags of it to people whizzing by on the back of motorcycles. I had no idea what to do with it, but there were a few recipes in Washoku, so I decided to be brave and give it a try. Lotus root is blanched and then soaked in a sweet and sour syrup overnight in a glass jar - hopefully it'll be nice for lunch tomorrow.

Since I was making Korean food, it was a good excuse to make chili bean sprouts with sesame oil - Peter ate most of it at dinner, but there's still enough of it left to put in his bento for tomorrow.

As for the cabbage...I've still got about a kilo of it left. I put some aside for making okonomiyaki later this week, but it looks like I'll have to do some more pickling.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Iced tea

It's sufficiently warm enough here now that when I wake up in the morning, I want a cold beverage before I face the day. Juice and iced coffee, my go-to cold drinks when I lived in Vietnam, are now out of the question. Fruit is scandalously expensive here - and so is coffee.

No, the thing to drink when you're in Japan, obviously, is tea. If you go into any convenience store in Japan, you'll find cold drinks taking up 2/3 of the wall space - but don't be fooled. Instead of the cornucopia of cold drinks this implies, you'll find only one thing in the bottles - tea. Green tea, mostly, but some roasted tea, and some Chinese Oolong tea; some English-style "red" tea, some "red" tea with milk, and my current favourite, Jasmine tea. I'm hoping someone will introduce cold Indian Chai - that will be a dangerous day. There are whole ranges of fruit-infused teas from France, and there are also herbal teas and "health" teas made from various grains and beans, but for me, real tea has to actually involve a tea leaf. There are a couple of sad little rows of other beverages - one row of real coke, never any diet; some Fanta; some Mitsuya cider, a kind of melon-flavoured clear pop; and maybe, maybe, some Pepsi. There are a few fruit juices as well, but they're mostly sugar and water.

So I'm drinking iced tea from here on out. It's incredibly refreshing when it's humid, and since most teas on the market are calorie-free, it doesn't induce that much guilt. Except for the environmental impact of all those PET bottles. And the fact that flavoured water is going for 150 yen a bottle.

Whenever I have a crisis about saving money or the environment, I immediately go to Muji, because I know that they have the product that will help me feel better about myself. (How can you not love a company that improves your self esteem?) I use their shopping bag every time I go out, to reduce the plastic bag blight in my house (you can't use them as garbage bags here!) and I knew they'd have just the thing to solve my tea dilemma. I got on my bike and rode straight to their giant store in Fujisawa, and got myself their tea jug (small size). It's the best tea-related 800 yen I've ever spent. Now, every morning when I wake up, I have a cold, refreshing glass of tea waiting for me.

Next on my shopping list: the Muji thermal flask, for taking the tea to work.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Making Lunch Out of Nothing at All

I'm on a tight budget this week, coming off of a vacation with a week left to go before payday. I've got to make the most out of my groceries, so everything is being streeeeeeettttccccchhheeeedddd.

Remember that daikon? I shredded some to make those noodles? Yeah, I had to peel it first - and guess what? If you scrub the thing first, those peels are edible. I had some carrots lurking in the back of my cupboard, and I knew they had to be dealt with as well, before they went off. So I multitasked.

Along with the chopped end of cabbage I found loitering with the carrots, I made some mul kimchi, and set it aside to bubble. That'll be great for the end of the week, when there's nothing left in the fridge to go with rice after work. I'll post on how to make that later, it's one of my top five favourite Korean dishes, and it's so refreshing for the summer.

To make the mul kimchi, I sliced and punched out the carrots with an attractive vegetable punch. But I had all of the trimmings left over, which I didn't want to waste - so they got chopped up and thrown into a little plastic container I keep in the freezer. When I'm making fried rice for bentos later in the week, I just spoon out some into my frying pan - no chopping, and the rice gets instant colour.

The rest of the carrots got julienned, along with the daikon peel. I threw them into the frying pan for kinpira. Kinpira can be made with any vegetable bits you have lying around the kitchen - it's a great way to use up scraps. It's traditionally made with burdock root, but carrots and radish peels work wonderfully as well. Slice everything up into matchsticks, and throw into a hot pan to sear them. When they start to brown, I drizzle in some sake, sesame oil, and soy sauce in equal measure. Then, when the vegetables are tender, I add chili flakes and sesame seeds to taste. I've made this successfully with broccoli stem, and it's just as good. It keeps in the fridge for a few days, and is great warm, cold, or at room temperature in a bento.

I wasn't finished with that daikon yet, though. I bought the one with the tops still on. After a good soak in the sink, I blanched them and dressed them in sesame-miso dressing. I drained and cooled the stems, then ground up sesame seeds in my suribachi. I added a few tablespoons of white miso, and a tablespoon each of soy sauce and mirin, and tossed the greens with the dressing. It had a faintly peanut-buttery taste, which Peter loved. I was hoping to have some leftover for lunch the next day, but we ate it all.

Even after all that slicing and dicing, I still have half a daikon yet. I'll have to pickle it.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Udon Noodles with Daikon

Following a recipe from Washoku, I grated a largeish hunk of my daikon, and chopped some green onions. I threw some udon noodles on for a brief boil (98 yen for a three pack! Perfect for pre-payday meals!), and then drained and rinsed them in cold water. I tossed them with some bottled ponzu sauce I was happy to have an excuse to use, to help vacate more fridge real estate, and topped them with the radish and green onion. It was lovely, and cool, and refreshing. The noodles had more heft to them than somen, so I felt like I was actually eating something. The radish and ponzu had a sharp, slightly hot taste that kept the whole thing from being bland, like the hiyashi chuka I made last week. A success! I'll be making this all summer.

Monday, May 5, 2008

My First Daikon

I bought my first daikon today. You'd think, having lived and cooked in Asia this long, I'd have bought one before, but the truth is; I haven't. I find their size and mystery intimidating, just like the radish spirit from Spirited Away.

Stay tuned to see what I do with it.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Save money; lose weight eating French pastry

There's nothing worse (or better) than finding yourself in a new taste bracket. You know - once you've tasted what the $20 bottle of wine tastes like, it's hard to go back to the $8 bottle. I made the mistake once of buying a (non-vintage) bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne, and now can never go back to Spanish sparkling wine again. It's a cruel progression. Of course, the upside is, since I now know how good the good stuff is, I rarely buy the bad. And I hardly ever buy the good, but when I do....well, it's really good.

In the last few years, my love of chocolate has gone down the same perilous track. It started when I moved to Asia, and regular old milk chocolate became unavailable for a while. After about a year of having no regular contact with North American milk chocolate, and completely unable to eat the brown wax Ghana and Crunky bars in Korean conbinis, suddenly my old friends Hershey's kisses became available in shops. Our reunion was not a happy one; after a year of not eating it, I realized that North American chocolate was barely above the brown wax I had been sneering at all along. Then, when I found it in the basements of luxury department stores in Seoul, I started buying Lindt - not the best chocolate in the world; granted, but certainly better than Hersheys. A few years down this road, and I now I can only eat small squares of Belgian dark chocolate. Peter has a standing order to snap up the excellent Bouchard napoleons in dark chocolate and mint whenever he sees them at the local Seijo Ishii shop. When I'm being exceptionally good, I can make a bag last a whole week. Now, that bag is roughly 700 yen - but over a week, that's only 100 yen a day. In the past, I could have easily gone through that buying crap, unsatisfying chocolate, and eating much higher volumes of it. With chocolate, once you go Belgian, you can never go back. Now I find myself staring at the stacks of Michel Cluizel bars at the Dean & Deluca, and trying to justify paying 1500 yen for 200g of dark chocolate. I haven't succumbed yet. I wonder if I could make 200g of chocolate last 15 days?

Chocolate and wine aren't the only taste brackets I've upgraded - I was foolish/clever enough last fall to hunt through the luxury hotels of Tokyo to find a branch of Parisian patissier Pierre Herme, in search of his famed macarons. One taste of his "Isphahan", a concoction of rose-flavoured macarons, sandwiching lychee puree, rose ganache, and fresh raspberries, and I swore off inferior pastry goods forever. It seems stupid to waste calories and money on anything that doesn't taste as good - in fact; in "French Women Don't Get Fat", the author suggests that this very strategy is how French women stay so thin in a country awash in chocolat chaud and full-fat Brie. Only eat it if it's the very best. This seems like an incredibly sensible diet regime to me, and so easy to follow where I live; since I only get monthly access to any really caloric western indulgences like French pastry, and the rest of the time am surrounded by sensible raw fish and microgreen salads, I have already lost 5 kilo.

(As an example : Yesterday, while we were window shopping in the Marunouchi Building, I found some Diptyque candles in the Terrence Conran shop - now, I can tell you, I really miss shopping with women, because I pointed them out to Peter, who then said, loudly, "Well, I hope they're good candles, for 6,200 yen each," and I sighed heavily and rolled my eyes, and made him smell them. To which he then said, "These candles smell better the way good food tastes better," I suppose that the easiest way to sum up the difference between mass-produced and quality. Things that are more expensive aren't necessarily better; but things made with real ingredients with care are often worth the extra expense and are true luxuries.)

When I do come across the real deal, I make sure I take the time to eat it. Today, when looking for the Prada shop in Omotesando (to take a picture of; sadly, I have not yet gone up a taste bracket in clothing; I've been spending all my money on Belgian chocolate) we stumbled across Pierre Herme's Bar Chocolat. Since we were already being so very healthy by walking from Shibuya to Omotesando, we agreed to have a small indulgence. (Actually, I saw the shop; gasped; and left Peter on the sidewalk outside and was drooling over the displays before he could say anything.)

The thing is, Pierre Herme's macarons are; in my opinion, pretty much the best you can do in the cookie world - I guarantee that they're better than any other cookie you've ever put in your mouth, and I'm including in this assessment the Double Coat Tim Tam; classic Oreos; and Viva Puffs. But he was selling them for - and this is criminally low! 230 yen a piece! Starbucks in Tokyo charge 260 yen for their crap, palm-oil based cookies! Pierre Herme is using only the best ingredients. Real butter, cream, vanilla beans - you can't imitate those flavours with inferior ingredients. I can never buy another one of those Starbucks cookies again, knowing that for less than the price of that cookie, I could be eating a rose-lychee macaron. God, if Starbucks ever starts stocking them, I'll be dead for sure. For now, though, eating Pierre Herme will remain viable dieting and money-saving strategy for me.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

More Noodles

Summer is cold noodle season in Japan, and while it's not quite summer yet, 7/11's and Family Marts across the region have rolled out their cold somen and soba offerings. There's a recipe in Washoku that I've been wanting to try, for a wheat noodle salad called Hiyashi Chuka, and while I was in the supermarket this week, I noticed the kits to make it were on sale. With all my time off this week, it seemed like a good opportunity to experiment.

The recipe offers two dressing alternatives; creamy and brothy. I love both styles of dressing, but the creamy called to me.

The dressing is made with white miso, dashi, soy sauce, and ground sesame seeds. Fresh ramen noodles are boiled briefly, and then run under cold water to cool down. A quick toss in some sesame oil, and they're ready to be dressed.

The toppings called for reminded me of a Chef's Salad - sliced ham, egg, tomato, and cucumber. Soy-simmered mushrooms were also listed as a topping - these were a bit of work, but I made a largeish batch and put some aside for a bento later on. Once everything was prepped, I tossed the noodles in the chilled dressing and arranged the toppings bibimbap-style. I have to say, I thought the ingredients called for were a strange mix - a bit jarring, really. The ham, egg, and tomato seemed so Western to me, and the mushrooms so Japanese - would they go together? But I'm a big believer in following a recipe straight up the first time, so I persevered.

After taking a pretty picture, I tossed everything together . On tasting it, I found the whole thing a bit, well, meh. I was actually glad for tomatoes, as they added an acid counterpoint to the otherwise bland flavours of the dish. The creamy dressing and ham had strong salty flavours, but there was no spice or other sharpness to balance it. I guess I was hoping for something more flavourful like Korean bibim naengmyeon, a noodle salad which gets its spice from slicks of hot chili sauce.

I think I'll try this recipe again, but with the brothy dressing, which calls for Japanese mustard and thus should have a sharper bite. I'll also downgrade the toppings to cucumber and ham, or perhaps smoked chicken, since the additional toppings added extra work to the dish without adding a lot of flavour. This dish would make a great bento, though - topppings, broth and noodles, packed separately, and tossed together at the last minute. I'll just have to remember to wear a patterned top in case of noodle drippage.