Throw Back Thursday: Only in Japan

Only in Japan…

onlyinjapan3

 

…will tortilla chips be referred to as taco chips! ^-^

Really missed this segment? Time to get super nostalgic! Though the old blog was floundering and in need of massive revamping that would’ve taken me a week tops, in reality I am glad to have started this new one. Personal reasons factored into it as well (don’t they always?) and I doubt any of my current followers remember it but that’s why this post is called ‘Throwback Thursday’.

Classic Wasederp aside… this Kanji workshop really was quite helpful >.>”

I am so happy I found this stash and I’m looking forward to seeing what other quirky bits of gold I can unearth this far north!

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English Speech Competition + Creamy Zucchini Soup Recipe

So I bought this gigantic zucchini and it had been sitting in my fridge for almost three days. I’m not going to deny… that zucchini was an impulse purchase. I’m still not used to seeing veg for so cheap O.O Need to stop hording all the vegetables like I did back in Tokyo. As soon as something went on sale I would stock up because I knew that I would not be seeing that price for weeks or months or maybe never to come again. This is the true, sad story of being a broke student in a foreign country… a tale that is not being repeated this time around because thankfully, I (legally) have a job.

Yes, that job mostly mainly consists of teaching proper pronunciation to a student population that may never in their lives need to use it again after high school and I only visit each school once a week (different school Monday through Friday, but only because we’re short staffed). But that doesn’t make me any less of a teacher! My boss admitted that even though he had been studying English diligently since middle school (English language is now just barely becoming compulsory in fifth and sixth grade of elementary school) and continued well into college: he can’t speak a word of it. Which in one part a) it’s his shy nature to admit that he can’t when the opposite is quite true… because… he can get the basic idea across. That’s more than most speakers of a foreign language can do. And for the most part he’s spot on in understanding what I’m saying. Plus b) all he’s lacking is the practical application of the language and not much more as his theory of it is pretty much down pat at this point.

And that’s the crux of the problem: Japanese people are such shy, hard workers that they freeze up at the opportunity to speak English because they don’t want to let anyone down. It’s such a strange dichotomy: on one hand they study really hard to gain the basic theoretics only to stop themselves from gaining full potential because they don’t want to stand out or because they’re quite afraid of failing.

At the moment, none of the kids are in school so my job is to coach the ones who will be participating in the English speech competition. It’s utter madness in a nutshell. The kids are expected to write at a certain level but with language education only just becoming cumpulsory at the lower levels… word on the street is: JETs write the essay and the kids memorize/recite it in their best English (ahem, Rokunohe and Shingo *cough cough*). Not so for Gonohe! We flat out refuse to write any essays for our kids: they do all the work while our main function remains to polish their existing skills. For a JET, this pretty much entails the reading of essays, grammar correction, and creating CDs with the lovely voice of yours truly reading said essays at native speed (to be fair I include two file versions: medium and native speed). I also work with the kids directly, which is a bit trickier because it’s a combination of coach, tutor, teacher, best friend, and personal cheerleader.

So far, though, and mind you I perfectly understand this is perhaps too early to say but I’ll say it anyway: so far… I like this job! Some might say it’s not challenging enough but for my skill level right now it’s 丁度いい or choudoii (otherwise in English: just right) 😀

As I was saying: in comparison to the previous time when I didn’t (legally) have a job, I’ll be making bank. Not to say it’s bank according to my age and educational level, but it’s bank for someone who used to be a secretary at $8/hour. And so going to the supermarket this far up North, where the majority of the produce is grown, I sometimes forget that although a veg might be on sale even the non-sale price is more affordable than Tokyo.

And now we come full circle to the dilemma of the giant zucchini that cost me under a dollar and of which half is still in my fridge. After scouring my spice rack, I came across French Tarragon, which according to my sources goes well with veg. Giant zucchini in fridge and a bag of potatoes waiting to be used, an onion, more garlic than I could use in a month, and salt and pepper… the recipe began forming in my mind. After a few Google searches to make sure I had some approximate measurements for one, I combined two that I liked best and included my own intuitive hand at the spices. I’ve got enough leftovers for another couple of nights so I’d say that this following recipe can serve at least four people and three at the very least.

CREAMY ZUCCHINI RECIPE

INGREDIENTS

1 large zucchini (or 3-4 small to medium-sized ones), chopped

4 small/medium potatoes, peeled and chopped

½ medium white onion, chopped

1 fresh garlic clove, chopped

4 cups of chicken or vegetable stock brought to a boil

½ cup of cream

Oil for frying

1-1½ tsp dried French tarragon

Salt and pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS

1. I like to use the same pot where the soup is going to boil instead of dirtying a frying pan for this step but ultimately the choice is up to you: pour olive or vegetable oil (I used Sarada Oil – in Japan Sarada or Salad Oil is a mixture between canola oil and sesame oil – because that is all I had left but if it were up to me… olive oil would give this soup a great taste). Heat the onion and garlic for a few seconds before adding zucchini and potatoes. Fry for about five minutes or until just softened, add 1 teaspoon of tarragon to season. You do not want to cook the veggies through! Make sure they do not brown.

2. Once done heating the vegetables, turn off the stove and begin boiling water for your stock. Add in your stock and bring to a nice simmer. At this point you’ll want to add the other half teaspoon of dried tarragon to give your stock added flavor but this is optional. I actually love tarragon and found that seasoning both vegetables and stock to be beneficial towards the flavor I was pursuing. Don’t go above a teaspoon and a half for this recipe, though. Tarragon in excess can overpower with its flavor instead of enhancing the dish. Once brought to a boil, turn off the stove and wait a couple minutes before pouring into pot with vegetables and cover.

3. Bring vegetables and broth to a boil of about two minutes. Lower to a simmer for the next twenty minutes. You might have to blend in batches so be prepared with Tupperware or bowls for this next step: a) you can blend with a hand processor or b) you can use a blender. I only had a blender handy so I blended mine in three batches and used Tupperware to contain the already blended contents until thick and creamy before moving on to the next batch. That same Tupperware is holding the leftovers of my soup so it’s not like I was dirtying unnecessary kitchenware 😀

4. Once soup is well blended, return to pot and turn up the heat to medium. At this stage you will add the cream as well as salt and pepper for taste, checking occasionally to make sure that mix well and that you don’t over or under do it.

5. Can be served hot or cold! Bon appetite!

Summer Time: Cold Soba Noodle and Soup Recipe

Okay. So. It’s time. I’ve been working up my courage to using Japanese ingredients for Japanese recipe purposes instead of using them in my previous fusion cooking recipes. As a cook, I’m proficient enough in Western style meal planning and trust myself not to burn the kitchen or apartment in the process. But when it comes to Asian cooking, particularly Japanese styled cooking, I feel so inadequate as a “chef” (actually I’m more of a baker by nature than a cook hence the quotation marks).

I used to make bentou all the time last time I was here: steamed vegetables, fried sausage, steamed rice, tamagoyaki, nasuyaki… you name it and if I could pack it in a box for lunch, I would and without a second thought. I even participated in Waseda’s Yataimura, a food festival the likes of which I have never seen since. The branch I chose with which to participate? The washoku theme that year (Sakamoto Ryoma was our spirit animal \O/). But when I returned to the States… first off, you can’t find the same level of freshness for ingredients, so already your taste is compromised. Secondly, I couldn’t always find the seasonings needed to pull off a dish. Even in California. Making home-made dashi was nearly impossible if my Asian supermarket didn’t happen to have a certain item or other on stock (I guess I could have bought pre-made dashi… but, yeah, I can be a bit of a foodie – I prefer to make it myself than out of a box). One culinary disaster after another and in the end, my wounded pride threw in the towel and hoisted the white flag of surrender. From there I devolved into a crippled shadow of my former self: the mere mention of anything -yaki would send me into an agitated sweat. Inevitably, over time it just became easier to eat out at a Japanese restaurant than to fuss over it at home.

Such is the life of a walking culinary disaster.

momen

Curses! I will fry you yet… one day… soon >.>”

But now that I’m here again, or rather a bit further north and much closer to the food source, I plan on honing my skills once again… slowly but surely! Last night, I was planning on making miso glazed, fried tofu and either the Japanese cooking gods weren’t feeling like it was tofu night or else I may not have prepped it correctly. Tofu is surprisingly moist and does not fry well under those wet conditions. Thankfully, however, once I realized this wasn’t happening I was able to change gears entirely because my predecessor Michael had left me with what I believe to be a five year supply of noodles: entire boxes of soba, udon, and raamen.

Alrighty then! Soba night it would be!

Soba noodles are made of buckwheat and quite thin. In Japanese cuisine they can be served cold with the sauce apart or hot within their own broth, making them a natural choice as a summer- or winter-time favorite. Restaurants serve the cold variety on a little mat made of bamboo, called zaru, and is served with the dipping sauce (tsukejiru), green onion, fresh ginger and wasabi. It’s probably the cheapest kind you can find on the menu coming in at around ~500 to 550 yen but the varieties of soba are endless as flavorings can be added quite easily into the broth. My favorite kind is tensoba which is a combination of cold soba noodles on the zaru mat but with a bowl of tempura as well!

Note on noodle eating culture: one word… slurp! While impolite to slurp noodles in Western culture, it’s quite the opposite on this side of the pond. Slurping your noodles (be it raamen, udon, or soba) is considered good manners, which is one cultural norm I wish would take off in the States. Upon my return back in 2012, my first experience with culture shock (apart from the racial diversity) was eating at a restaurant and receiving many stares after slurping up my noodles. My mother was absolutely mortified and I never did it again… until now!

Anyone have a favorite cultural norm that might not go down very well in the States? Share in the comments below!

~COLD SOBA NOODLE RECIPE~

For the Traditional Soba:

1/2 of the packaged soba noodles

Boiling water

(Optional: Salt to taste)

Directions:

1. Pour water into a pot and sprinkle with salt for light seasoning. Bring to a boil.

2. Add the soba noodles and boil for 5 minutes. Test the soba noodles; if not done, continue to boil until they soften.

3. Pour contents of pot through a colander and toss lightly to shake out excess water.

4. Serve on zaru mat for traditional look or just arrange nicely on a bowl like I did.

For the tsukejiru:

I followed this wonderful recipe by Makiko Itoh from Just Hungry and Just Bento. It calls for 1/2 cup of kaeshi and 1.5 cups dashi stock (either vegetarian or non-vegetarian). It will slow down your cooking process as you have to let it set for about an hour. The alternative is to purchase tsuyu or mentsuyu and water it down, which I’ve done as well and tastes just fine.

For the Non-Traditional Page One Adventures-styled nasuyaki:

This is non-traditional nasuyaki.

2-4 Japanese eggplants (the small and thin variety, not the bulbous European/American aubergine)

1/2 tbsp (or less as it is quite salty) of red miso paste (usually, please purchase the white miso, I bought red for soup and didn’t have white on hand for glaze)

1/2 tbsp of sesame or vegetable oil

1/4 cup of reduced sodium soy sauce (usukuchi)

1/4 cup of sugar

1 clove of garlic, coarsely chopped

Directions:

Glaze prep: combine miso paste, soy sauce, oil, sugar, and garlic in a separate bowl

1. Wash and de-stem your selected amount of eggplants. Cut them lengthwise.

2. In a non-stick frying pan, heat the eggplants until they take on a somewhat roasted appearance (bruising but no complete browning).

3. At this point add the miso glaze sauce and continue to stir eggplants in frying pan. Heat to a boil (this will thicken the sauce). Make eggplants are well coated.

My glaze came out somewhat sweet with a salty after taste so red miso paste should definitely not be used (white is lower in sodium and has a better taste for glazing) but it’s all I had at the moment T.T

Normally the traditional method is to mix soy sauce, sugar, and mirin to make the sauce but as I didn’t want to waste the miso sauce I had originally made for my failed stir fry and I decided to use that. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how we learn from our mistakes!

For the Non-Traditional Page One Adventures-styled Roasted Kabocha:

Any desired amount of kabocha (Japanese Pumpkin, characterized by it’s sweet-tasting, orange flesh and vivid green outer shell)

Unsalted Butter for sauteing

Salt for very light seasoning

Directions:

Prep: I bought the kabocha chunks from the supermarket, so all I had to do was wash them before use. If you purchase the entire kabocha, make sure to properly wash, cut lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds before continuing to chop into smaller squarish chunks.

1. Heat butter in frying pan. Once the pan has evenly heated, add the kabocha and season lightly as you saute them until just heated.

2. Place in oven, evenly spaced and check on them in five minutes.

3. Kabocha slices should look somewhat browned on the outside or test them with a toothpick. If the toothpick slides in and out easily that means they are done.

 

Traditional Japanese Mugicha

mugicha

When the heat and humidity get rough in this country, the Japanese make MUGICHA (roasted barely tea). Granted Aomori is pretty cool in comparison to the 70% humidity going on in Nagasaki during the summer (being this far North has its advantages and disadvantages) but for a good two weeks, the atmosphere gets muggy and gross. For those of you who have never experienced humidity: it’s the feeling of just barely stepping outside and sweating all over. ALL OVER. It’s the feeling of needing a shower every three hours or so. In short, it’s unpleasant and dehydrating.

Native Californians have no idea what humidity means. Even on the rare occasion when the winds blow just so, bringing in a bit of moisture, the heat in SoCal is for the most part dry. On an evolutionary footnote, I should be an ideal candidate to withstand humidity (Mexico can get as humid as 87%) but it sure doesn’t feel that way whenever I’m in Japan.

My first summer in Japan, I spent most of my time drinking the mugicha recipe I will provide in a bit. My host mom brewed a whole 2L pitcher of it, told me to drink up because it would regulate my heat temperature, and showed me how to make it in case I ran out when she wasn’t around. Three years later and here I am making it in my own humble apartment to stave off the heat, which isn’t nearly as bad as Tokyo but the taste is quite nostalgic.

Mugicha.

Mugicha.

In Japan, finding bagged mugicha is quite easy: from local pharmacies to nation-wide chain supermarkets. But if living in the states, you might only be able to find it at the nearest Asian supermarket and sometimes its seasonal availability will be limited to just the summer months. In either case, mugicha is inexpensive and normally comes in bulk!

The tea bags are actually huge, approximately 3.5 times larger than your typical Twinnings. The contents are coarser as well and have an earthy, full aroma and taste. Mugicha can be sweetened with either honey or sugar (considered childish in Japan) but I prefer my teas and coffees without sweetener unless I’m sick, in which case my taste buds need something to let them know that they’re actually consuming something. Not sure how well this type of tea does with cream or milk but I’ll have to give it a try. Mugicha is mostly served cold but there’s no rule in the book that it can’t be served hot as well. You might get a more concentrated flavor but try it cold first to see how well you like it.

MUGICHA RECIPE

Mugicha can be prepared in one of two ways:

Method 1:

a) Fill kettle with water and bring to a boil with mugicha tea bag inside. For every 1L of water : 1 mugicha bag.

b) Pour contents into a pitcher and set in refrigerator to cool. Serve with ice cubes and sweet snacks such as red bean paste manjuu, dango, or filled mochi.

OR

Method 2:

a) Pour room temperature water into pitcher. For every 1L of water : 1 mugicha bag.

b) Set on counter or kitchen table and let the contents diffuse. Once the water has reached a certain level of darkness, place the pitcher into the refrigerator and let cool.

c) Serve with ice cubes and snacks or a complete meal. Mugicha compliments food quite well.

Note: Mugicha has gluten content so if you’re particularly sensitive to this, perhaps watering down your tea might help.

Moving to Japan #1-5, Part I

I totally forgot to add pictures into the last post meant to make the last post into a ‘teaser’ that would later devolve into a mini post series on my first impressions about Japan (from this time around and from when I studied abroad 2-3 years ago),.. ahahaha >.> Yeah, I totally forgot to add the pictures. But here we go!

This mini-series is called ‘The Thing About Moving to Japan’ and will include more explanation than the previous post about my first impressions on moving to the Land of the Rising Sun.

1. We all take language for granted. Then you have that moment when you need to do something simple, like, say: wash the laundry, cook rice, or you know set up a fish tank and this is what you get…

Seriously, taking foreign language lessons before you arrive to your host country will make your stay that much better, but if for whatever reason that isn’t possible due to time constraints/obligations the next best thing is to invest in a smart phone. Smart phones have applications such as dictionaries and kanji readers that will help out in moments like these. My first time here I had one of those granny flip phones (no offense meant!) and I struggled through the experience for the first six months. True, I learned things I will never forget and learning the hard way sometimes makes for the best experience but looking back on it, if given the chance to do things differently, I would probably opt for the smart phone choice.

Very helpful applications that can get you out of a bind and which I’ve personally used:

Imiwa? (iOS devices)

Midori (iOS devices)

JED Dictionary (Android)

Denshi Jisho (this website will save your life and homework)

2. Home ec might have taught you how to fry eggs and boil water but let me tell you: there is nothing more frightening than cooking rice in a Japanese rice cooker for the first time with all the buttons and setting in Japanese. This is where Midori-chan mentioned above came in and saved the day but that wasn’t until long after… as I’m fumbling around trying to find an option for brown rice and accidentally setting it to stew for the next six hours. The end result: porridgy… rice?! Yeah, don’t try to go all “I can do this!” mode if in reality back home you’d still need some auxiliary help.

Gaijin derps aside, I love Japanese utensils (however sci-fi-ish they may be). My only problem is cooking for one. It’s something I am still trying to accustom myself to and forgetting quite often. I’m constantly mentally checking in to ensure I use only 1/4 of the ingredients necessary. Though I haven’t posted the recipe yet, I made tempura about three nights ago. I still have enough for the week, on top of which Mina and her cousin left for a trip to Hokkaidou and left me with extra food from her fridge. What amazing sempai *sniffle*!  I’ve been getting creative with how to pair up tempura with mac and cheese, mashed potato, salsa, and whatever else happens to be in my fridge ^-^

3. Yep. Moby-chan. My fish. There’s something definitely Japanese about him, completely unlike any American goldfish I’ve ever owned… very… fishy… >.>”

mobychan

He tried eating the FAKE seaweed… twice O.O Gave me such a scare I finally had to take it out!

Home stay is a wonderful way to integrate yourself into a culture and make lasting connections with people from your host country but if that family has pets it also shows you the ways in which how people from around the world treat their pets. My host family had Pooh-chan (yes, named after Winnie the Pooh), a scruffy little poodle mix that I would torture ceaseless with affection. He was quite literally a member of the family and strictly trained, I might add! Even his meals were regimented, although I find that Japanese life is in general much more scheduled than the American one. He had a free reign of the house except for certain areas and at night Pooh-chan was expected to sleep in a kennel. From their interactions with Pooh-chan, I learned dog-speak (so to speak) in Japanese (sit became ‘osuwari!’ and such) and I noticed that the family also didn’t play tricks on their pet (I hide Kenji’s ball all the time or pretend to throw it and then hid it behind my back ahaha) which made Pooh-chan irritable when I did it. Pooh-chan, so honest and adorable!!!

4. If you are not a vegetarian, are a culinary adventurer, and open to trying the following: raw fish/salmon eggs, raw or cooked horse meat/ intestines/heart, squid, eel, raw egg yolk/whites, wasabi, all manner of seafood sauces and dishes, fermented beans, mayo on just about everything, deep-fried vegetables, etc…. Then Japan is the place for you! I personally do not eat raw egg yolk (guck!) but raw salmon eggs and raw fish are absolutely no problem for me. I will eat anything at least once, no matter how vile looking or foul-smelling because otherwise how will I ever find out what tastes good and what doesn’t, right? I mean, you could chicken out and live off of Subway and McDonald’s but you will find yourself in a foreign country only so often: might as well make the most of it while you can!

That’s exactly how I found out that wasabi, raw egg, and nattou are the three most evil things invented in the history of forever. Seriously not a fan. But I had to sacrifice the taste buds at least the once to know for sure what not to ask for at restaurants. Horse meat is surprisingly almost beef like and I would eat it again. You read that. I WOULD EAT HORSE AGAIN. Be a little bit more spontaneous with your foods, you might be pleasantly surprised!

5. Spice rack. It be intense! I don’t think I’ve ever once been able to afford saffron in my life (and probably never will) so I don’t quite know what to do with the little that has been bequeathed onto me… and I need to Google search half of what my predecessors and sempai have been giving me for free (also looking up recipes that require these specific types of spices) but I love culinary adventures almost as much as the travelling kind.

intense

“The spice must flow!!!” Although laughing matter aside, Japanese people do not like spicy food in general so this was a pleasant surprise to find!

The Thing About Moving To Japan…

1. Your instructions for the basics are completely in a foreign language that you speak like a toddler. Ever tried reading instructions for how to wash your clothes and you’re not quite sure if that’s the kanji for whites only? Those moments.

2. Your cooking utensils might look like they come straight from a sci-fi/futuristic film. Rice pot cookers. Period.

3. Even your pet is a little bit off… and can only understand said foreign language.

4. Your new favorite foods make your PETA loving friends block you from social media: raw sushi, fish eggs, horse meat… the list goes on!

5. Your spice rack be like, “I’m too intense for you! Bwahahahahahahaha!!!”

6. It’s no longer a TRASH can and a RECYCLE bin. It’s more like: one bin for burnable trash, one for non-burnable trash, one for special items like appliances, another for dangerous appliances like razors and such, and then there are the five different types of recyclable bins (paper and cardboard, plastic, PET plastic, glass, and cans).

7. You may have even drunk apple juice with the mayor on the sole merit that you’re the only foreigner in the town.

8. The food tastes real. Your American life has taught you nothing about the real taste of fruits and veggies. Suddenly even the food you hated back home has a pleasant taste.

9. Conbini is not only an experience to be had… it is a way of life. The convenience store is your second best friend of all time: it was there for you the day that you spilled coffee on your button up and you needed a quick change of clothes (neckties sold separately), it was there even when your significant other broke up with you and all you needed was chocolate ice cream at 2am, and it will forever be the beacon of light to which you gravitate while on road trips and in need of one or all of the following: cash from an ATM, a cheap meal on the go, smokes, alcohol, light bulbs, and any other number of daily toiletries/school supplies/emergency groceries.

10. Vending machines sell cold AND hot drinks. Mind blown.

Breakfast with Chopin + Vegetable Frittata Recipe

breakfastwithchopin

This morning hour is dedicated to the delightful music of Frederick Chopin and a simple vegetable fritatta recipe adapted from the more traditional tortilla española. The most classic of breakfast foods with one of the most romantic composers makes for a perfect rainy morning. For me, classical music has always been a source of great comfort: it’s what is left after there are no more words in any language to describe the strong emotions that remain. Compositions are moments frozen in time and immortalized in written form that bridge the gap between the past and present. It’s quite sad that most people think of classical music as dull… at one point this music was quite revolutionary and exciting! It was fresh, bold and daring!

As a musician and amateur composer, I can’t help but feel connected to the composer as well as to all the other musicians who have played the same piece, whether I perform it myself or listen to it for the first time. The same can be said of any music, really, though for me I feel that connection more strongly in classical music. Perhaps it’s because as a classical music enthusiast it’s so rare as it is to find someone as excited as I am about this genre… we’re a dying breed.

As for cooking, though, the technological revolution in mass communication has made it even easier in the past few decades alone to disseminate a world of culture and tradition with a few clicks of a mouse. Someone’s authentic Italian, passed-down-through-the-generations recipe for Spaghetti Bolognese might end up on my dinner table here in Japan one night. Metaphors and poetics aside, it is quite beautiful to feel that human link and know that somewhere out there someone might just be serving your version of apple tarts for a dinner party and so on, that a little bit of you could touch someone else’s life if even for a moment 😉

Here’s to good food, good music, and to the human connection! Cheers!

SIMPLE VEGETABLE FRITTATA

INGREDIENTS
3 eggs
4 small potatoes, sliced into thin rounds (with or without skins)
1/2 small onion, chopped
1/2 clove garlic, chopped
One small bunch of kinoko mushrooms, chopped
Olive oil
Dried rosemary for seasoning
Salt and pepper to taste
(Optional: 1/2 cup cheddar cheese for garnish; Julienne bell pepper slices; sun dried tomato; fresh basil, chopped)

DIRECTIONS
1. Heat the olive oil. Fry the potato slices in batches until they turn gold. Salt and season well on both sides as you fry, make sure they are well cooked through before transfering the fried potatoes to a separate plate and pat dry the oil off. Take three eggs, beat them well to form egg mixture. Add a dash of black pepper for seasoning and some salt to taste. Keep on standby in the fridge.

2. Once completely done with frying, the next step is to heat the garlic, onion, and mushroom until soft but not completely cooked through. At this point, quickly arrange the potato slices in scalloped tiers.

3. Pour the egg mixture over potatoes. Make sure to tilt the pan so that an even coating will cover the potato tiers. Cover the pan and cook on high for five to ten minutes. Flip the frittata face down to brown the top. This should take about three to four minutes. Use your spatula to gently push down against pan.

4. Transfer to plate, face up, and serve immediately. Goes well with home made tomato salsa or creamy guacamole (neither of which I made this time around but it tastes amazing on its own as well). The optional veggies all taste so well when combined in this recipe but I don’t have access to them at the moment. Living in a small town has its down sides: fruits and vegetables are not always available as consistently as they are in markets in bigger cities, where demand pushes availability.

frittatanflowers

Dinner with Murakami + Recipe

It’s time for a recipe! Eating on the cheap is no joke in Japan but this is a meal that cost me 590 yen and I didn’t use up all the ingredients, which means I can make another meal on that same amount.

When in Aomori, eat all the vegetables! This prefecture may not be as convenient as more financially prosperous ones but it sure has some damn fine veg. Although still quite expensive by American standards, it’s still a very far cry from the grocery expenses I racked up in Tokyo. So what’s a girl to do in a hard-boiled wonderland filled with all the veg she could want and an insatiable love for reading?

Simple. Dinner with Murakami night! Tonight’s specialty is a hearty vegetable soup with a side dish of roasted potatoes and the wonderful company of Murakami’s novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Also, this serves as cooking practice for when the one and only Michelle comes to visit next year! A staunch vegetarian and vegan Monday lover, Michelle made sure to give me her favorite vegetarian broth in a jar just before I left for Japan.

WARNING: Depending on the kind of vegan you are, check for a Better Than Bouillon label that does not include honey. The kind that I used has honey listed in the back but it only says vegetarian friendly though I’ve heard this company has all sorts of bouillon substitutes. I’m sure they have a vegan one, it’ll just take some Googling.

BETTER THAN CHICKEN SOUP RECIPE (Vegetarian and vegan friendly version)

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 cup chopped carrots
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2-1 cup of chopped potatoes, washed and peeled
  • 1/2 tsp dried rosemary
  • 1/4 lotus root, three round slices and julienne the rest
  • 1 quart of vegetable broth (water + Better Than Bouillon added)
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • Freshly squeezed lemon juice (optional)
  • (Optional veggies: tomato, mushroom, broccoli)

DIRECTIONS

Prep/Notes: Wash all vegetables well, make sure to chop them ahead of time to save time. When slicing the lotus root, try to keep it at about 1/4 inch thickness. You don’t want them to be too thick or they won’t cook thoroughly but too then means that it will break apart when boiling. Begin simmering water for vegetable broth a pot large enough to accommodate vegetables as well. When using Better Than Bouillon make sure to taste the broth regularly. I started with a teaspoon and worked from there. Make sure it dissolves completely before adding more.

1. In a large frying pan, pour some extra virgin olive oil and gently heat the rosemary to infuse it with flavor. Next, stir in the onions, lotus root, and garlic. Saute them for about five minutes or until you see the onion becoming transparent. Add a pinch of salt.

2. Add the lotus root (round and julienne slices), carrots, and potatoes and continue to fry on medium heat. Once the potato and carrots begin to turn soft, transfer to the vegetable broth and boil on medium to high for thirty minutes. Sprinkle 1/2 teaspoon or less of pepper to taste. Stir occasionally and check the flavor every once in a while. Adjust broth/salt/pepper levels as necessary.

3. Serve immediately and squeeze some fresh lemon juice for an added kick! Let cool before eating.

ROASTED POTATOES WITH ROSEMARY

INGREDIENTS

  • If using three small potatoes as depicted, measure out about a 1/2 to 1 cup of the chopped potatoes for your soup (some people prefer to use less potato and more of the other veggies, so depending on your tastes), use what’s left for this recipe.
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp dried rosemary
  • Salt and black pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS

1. Pour olive oil in frying pan. Warm the garlic and rosemary. Once heated add the chopped potatoes and sprinkle salt and black pepper to your taste.

2. Serve once all potato chunks have cooked through and are golden brown on the outside

3. Pour yourself a glass of grape juice (or wine), set out your favorite Murakami novel and enjoy the tastes of a vegetarian friendly meal with all the comfort and taste of home.

This meal cost me about 590 yen, or about a six dollars, and serves anywhere from three to four people (depending on appetite and how likely you are to go for seconds). It might also be more expensive depending on what you have to buy (for example, I inherited a massive spice rack and olive oil from my sempai) but if you don’t have something, McCormick’s at Walmart/Target work wonders. For the lotus root, look for it in an Asian supermarket.

Enjoy!

The Aomori Blues, Part II

Summer time in Japan is unlike any other in the world. This is a time for hanabi (fireworks) and yukata (summer version of the kimono)… and of course matsuri!

Matsuri can occur at any time of the year (for example, Hokkaidou is famous for its winter Yuki Matsuri, or Snow Festival) but for Aomori, the time to come is generally in the summer. The best part: anyone can participate in matsuri! So long as you have the appropriate wear, of course.

Up above you’ll find two example of matsuri-wear, both known as yukata although they serve different functions. The first two are a front and backside shot of summer yukata, which I borrowed from Mina who was also kind enough to help me into it. Yukata can be put on in one of two ways: alone and with great difficulty or with friends who will help you get the job done faster but with more fun! If you don’t want to participate in the local matsuri but would like to experience wearing the traditional Japanese summer wear, there are a stores in larger cities that rent out yukata for a couple of hours at a time. They also help with the dressing and undressing but yukata can be quite cheap to purchase plus make great souvenirs from a trip abroad. Ultimately it’s up to you though they are by no means mandatory to wear if your plan is just to attend as a bystander.

The third picture, however, is of a shorter yukata that is mandatory for participation in the Nebuta Matsuri. Dressed participants will join in, jumping and dancing rhythmically to the chant of: ‘Rasse-ra! Rasse-ra!” Although it’s difficult to see in the third picture, there are small bells attached to the costume. According to popular legend, if all your bells fall off during the dancing then that is very lucky. The only way to make the bells fall? Dancing even harder, of course! Frenzied dancers are oftentimes encircled by their peers as the chant climaxes ever louder and more excited until it finally dwindles down. One of the new JETs had the honor of experiencing this and we were surprised at the extent to which her energy infected the group. Japanese people are almost always excited to find that foreigners love and are more than willing to participate in their culture if only given a chance.

So what goes down at a matsuri? Pretty much the same eat, drink, and party-esque atmosphere that you can find the world over. Amazing street food stalls line the roads, Nebuta floats are dragged through the blood/sweat/tears of children and adults alike, and of course where there’s a party, there will be alcohol.

I apologize for the video. My phone wasn’t sending the important files so you only really get a concise sense of the crazy-ness of matsuri time. It’s actually a quite vibrant and exciting time to be in Japan. Not going to lie though: it’s as humid as the first eight circles of Hell and no joke about it. The further north you go, the shorter the amount of time that the region remains humid. In Tokyo, the humidity levels begin to kick in around late May to early June and only dissipate with the autumn season, which begins around mid October. According to my boss, Shinbori-san, Aomori only really experiences three weeks worth of humidity. On the downside, it gets cold fast… in late September. From there the inevitable but sure progression of autumn to winter commences at an alarming rate. The fact that I’m from California seems to have gone around town at 299,792,458 m/s. It seems as if the first thing people ask me, after inquiring how well I like the region, is this: “So for winter… will you be okay?”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the nice way of saying: “You are oh so very screwed, my friend.” Because in Aomori, winter isn’t coming… it’s arrived before you know it! Take that George R.R. Martin! 😉

Finally we have the absolute most adorable airport mascot in the world: IGUBE THE SEA CUCUMBER! I think he might a bit of a celebrity (similar to Little Sebastian from Parks and Recreation) because my JET colleagues freaked out in the same way the citizens of Pawnee flipped a table over their favorite miniature horse ❤ To be fair, he is this pudgy little sea cucumber with tiny arms and no legs: what’s not to love?! ^-^

Una Sera di Tokyo and The Aomori Blues

Okay, so I’ve kept my audience of one hanging in the air (hello, mum) in regards to arrival in Japan. Yes, I am finally here. In my new apartment, the only place with decent free WiFi. Common misconception about Japan: there is no free WiFi anywhere. Why else are internet cafes so huge, eh?

But, yeah! Two years to the day since last I left my beloved Waseda days behind and I still felt genuinely at home despite some minor culture readjustments. Had a great dinner at Tari-ya (a legit Bangladesh curry restaurant located next to Waseda University) on the 28th to mark that two years to the day anniversary. Tari-ya was also my breakfast/last meal before leaving Japan two years ago so it seemed that on a literal and metaphorical note it was the best meal choice to make. After three days of orientation, teaching seminars, training, and meeting some pretty cool people, we got put on planes (or trains depending on our destination) and flown to the ‘Blue Forest’ of Japan. The kanji for Aomori denote ‘blue’ and ‘forest’ but the actual meaning of the word from the indigenous Ainu is thought to mean something more like a ‘protruding hill’. The sounds for the word happened to fit closer to the Japanese ‘AO’ and ‘MORI’ better, hence the adoption of the kanji for ‘blue forest’.

As a whole, the prefecture is known for ranking as one of the poorest, least populated, and on average its citizens also have the least amount of post secondary education. But, it is one damn beautiful prefecture. Rice fields for miles, picturesque farms, and forests that look like they came straight out of a Miyazaki film: between the concrete jungle and convenience of Tokyo or the wild daishizen (great nature) of Tohoku, so far I’m enjoying Tohoku. However, there is one drawback: if you don’t have a car, you’re not going anywhere. I wouldn’t go so far as calling it the Kansas of Japan but it’s getting there.

One very important thing to remember about Japan is that there are two kinds of cars: Yellow Plate and White Plate, or otherwise known as Kei-Car and Regular. The Yellow Plate (Kei-Car) is known for it’s unrivaled fuel efficiency and cheap tax rate, however it comes with significant disadvantages as well. Less powerful than a regular White Plate car and more expensive in upfront costs, Kei-Car will still get you around town. The Kei comes from the Japanese pronunciation of the letter K from the word ‘karui’ which means ‘light weight’.

Mass transport system between districts in Aomori is few, far between, and quite expensive. Gonohemachi actually has no trains and only a few bus lines ergo I need a car. The nearest mall is 30 minutes away. The nearest big city is an hour’s drive. To meet other JETs in the area, my only other option would be to spend a fortune on bus tickets as they run a bit higher in price than Tokyo. My predecessors each bought their own cars (second hand, of course) but they guarantee that I would be delusional to think I could enjoy the Aomori experience without one. They’ve all been so helpful giving me the necessities to move in comfortably. So many JETs are leaving this year so they’re dumping their alcohol, left over foods and goods on my JETs. In turn, after making some choice selections, my colleagues are dumping the majority of it on me, which explains why my house looks like a grocer’s and a UNIQLO all rolled into one. So far, I love my colleague Mina, a Cali-esque native of Michigan who has been teaching for the past two years and I’ll be sad to see her go once her contract for the third year is up in summer 2015.

The person from whom I inherited this gem of an apartment, Michael, was the longest JET that Gonohemachi has known, coming in at a 5 year residency and teaching stint at the local elementary and junior high schools. The adventures so far in Aomori have been limited to the city’s bank (where I now have my new swanky account), meeting the mayor (and drinking apple juice with him), visiting Misawa Air Base, having dinner with the man who can make things happen in the city, frequenting a nice bar owned by Yacchan and his Philippine wife, and in general just getting towed around by car so I can acquaint myself with the surroundings.

Currently, I’m scheduled to teach the first English lesson at the community center for adults. It’s extra work that earns me extra vacation days (which I will gladly take over money – my salary is pretty good to begin with and I need time to travel more so than money). Wow. I can’t believe I just wrote that. Normally I’m used to having all the time in the world and not enough cash. But anyway I digress. The work at the elementary and junior high school is what I am paid but I’m more than happy to get to know people, especially the adults (most of whom I assume will be the parents of the kids), and have conversations with them.

And that’s a wrap for now. In the next post I’ll talk more about Japanese summer traditions and cultural events like matsuri (festivals), for which this region is famous. Mexicans understand what I mean when I say: each region has it’s festival and the party doesn’t end!

Over and out 😀