Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Beko Mochi

July hasn’t been the most blog friendly month, and for that, I’m sorry!  Turns out that getting ready to leave the country to return home, at the busiest time of the school year, has made for less time waxing poetic on the internets.  Please forgive.  I’ll try to get in some last interesting tidbits of Japanese culture and thoughts on leaving within the next couple weeks.  Stay tuned.


Japan, as you might know, is big into sweets.  In addition, Japanese people enjoy several textures otherwise not valued in the Western world.  That of mochi-mochi, hoku-hoku, and neba-neba. (Oh! How I love Japanese onomatopoeia!)  These texture descriptors roughly translate respectively to: springy and chewy (like omochi); technically “not soggy” but I consider it more fluffy (like a baked sweet potato eaten hot with butter); and slimey and gooey (like natto – fermented soybeans – or overcooked okra).  This mochi-mochi aesthetic is very apparent, as almost every region in Japan has their own form or preferred style of making omochi.  Here in Aomori’s Shimokita, they make Beko mochi which is, more than anything, just a way to make something mediocre tasting look pretty!

Mixing the Mochi

Creating the design, part by part

I’ve been given countless gifts of beko mochi in the past year, but I had yet to make it.  Turned out, though, that one of my ikebana ladies is a beko mochi master, and offered to give me a crash course in the production.  Instead of making beko mochi from cooked mochi rice (a sweeter, smaller grain of white rice), it’s made with equal parts mochi flour, regular flour, and then some white sugar.  These ingredients are then mixed together by adding hot water until they form a sticky, heavy lump – not unlike play-dough.  Then small amounts of colored powder are mixed in to create different colors.  These colors are rolled out into logs or snakes (think sculpy) and by way of good memory, mind expansion, and magic are twisted, combined, flattened, and smushed into a cohesive design.  These examples are mostly cherry blossom flowers, but I’ve seen everything from irises, daisies, and cartoon characters.  The final log is then sliced thinly and steamed before being eaten.

Move over best gfs in America - my soulmate might just be this loudmouthed, 60+, Japanese dance teacher with 4 dogs

Wait for it...almost there...

Truth be told, it’s not the most delicious sweet. (A little beko mochi goes a long way in sitting in your belly.) But it’s a pretty cool process and very particular to my region.  I doubt that anyone outside of the prefecture has even heard of it, except now of course, my loyal American audience.

Ta Da!


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Three hours, one in-flight meal, and three-quarters of a movie after departing Tokyo, Ellie and I arrived in Beijing’s international airport on a balmy Friday afternoon.  It took awhile for it to set in, but it became pretty apparent that we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Welcome to Beijing!

Beijing seems to be a city in transition.  Unlike Tokyo, Beijing is a sprawling, smoggy city, built perpetually out out out, rather than up up up.  The streets alternate between wide, multi-laned avenues humming with four- and two-wheeled traffic, and tiny cobbled alleys in the older hutong traditional neighborhoods.  These, too, are teeming with cars and bikes, often impeding pedestrian traffic.  There are Western influenced grand, stone parliament buildings and hotels that take up wide city blocks, McDonalds and KFCs rubbing shoulders with Rolex advertisements, and sharp-looking businessmen stepping into their Audis.  Walk a few blocks and you are dodging bicycles and sidewalk trash, being beckoned from nearby shops with choruses of “Pretty lady, you buy shoes? silk? necklace?”  A few more, and you are in one of Beijing’s stunning parks, watching retirees flow through their Tai Chi exercises, or young Beijingers holding hands and looking amorous (a site not often witnessed in reserved and modest Japan).  The delicious smells of the street-cart food stalls mingle frequently with the public toilet odors in many of the hutongs, assaulting the senses every couple feet.  Beijing may be in transition, but nothing about it is subtle.

A busy, commercial district

A quiet, residential hutong in a different part of the city

As for sites, we did all the required ones: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, and a few other “lesser” temples and parks.  The largest public square in China (…maybe even the world?), Tiananmen Square was the seat from which Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic in 1949, and is also, apparently, the most heavily guarded and patrolled site in China.  We arrived at sunset, along with countless other Chinese who were enjoying their evening strolling around, flying kites in the wind, and snapping photos of Mao’s iconic portrait.  The Forbidden City, which lies directly north of Tiananmen Square took up an entire morning of ambling.  Although we tried to go on a Saturday, we discovered crowds so thick and hectic (due to the weekend being one of China’s national holidays), that we were forced to return later in the week.  When we did return, however, it was worth the slog through the other tourists.  The Forbidden City is huge, and fascinating.  Long ago the seat of power for the emperors and empresses of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, it houses temples, squares, public receiving halls, gardens, as well as rows upon rows of low-roofed, brightly-shingled buildings that housed the royalty, and all those employed under the crown.  For years it was off-limits to the inferior citizenry.

In the summer months, when the heat of the city became unbearable, however, the royalty would escape to the Summer Palace, on the shores of a mandmade lake in the northwest of the city.  While the architecture and the grounds of the Summer Palace were extraordinary (it includes a man-made island in the middle of the lake to which the Empress banished the Emperor, like some lavish order of sleeping on the couch), I found it difficult to appreciate it to its full extent.  It was as crowded as the L train on a rainy Monday morning.  As packed as an outdoor music festival during the headlining show.  As teeming as the crosswalks of Shibuya on a Saturday night.  It was a mess.

Mao, above the Gate of Heavenly Peace - one of the entrances into the Forbidden City

In the maze of the Forbidden City

Summer Palace - don't let the relative calm of this photo deceive you. This place was teeming.

Impressive though these aforementioned sites were, the Temple of Heaven was my favorite.  In the southeastern quadrant of Beijing, the Temple of Heaven is exactly as the name suggests: a Temple for communicating with the Heavens.  The temples themselves are ornate and beautiful, but the draw, for me, was more in the grounds and the people using them.  Perhaps a boon of communism, but Beijing’s retirees seem to live a life of leisure and luxury.  Free admittance into anywhere in the city for those over sixty, the Temple of Heaven was the hot-spot for the mature crowd.  They gathered to play any number of games I’d never seen or heard of (variations of hacky-sack with a ‘birdy’ with rings and feathers; toss involving rings and landing them over your partners’ neck; Tai Chi groups or singles undulating among the trees) and solitary old men writing Chinese calligraphy with walking-stick sized paintbrushes and water along the sidewalks.  It seemed to me everything that a Chinese park should be.

The Temple of Heaven - in ancient Chinese times, circular shapes signified Heaven, while squares symbolized Earth

You can see the funny birdy in the bottom right corner. I brought one home with me, and plan to spread the craze to America soon.

Solitary lady flowing with her Chi

Other highlights of our trip included renting bikes for a day and cruising around the city.  Because Beijing is so flat and laid out in a straightforward grid pattern, navigating was pretty simple.  Dodging traffic and potholes, on the other hand, proved to be a bit more nerve wracking.  We were also able to check out the Confucius Temple and the Imperial College, lesser tourist attractions and therefore delightfully peaceful after a crazy day biking.  On the other end of the architectural spectrum, we made a point to visit the famous Bird’s Nest arena, built specifically for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  The whole complex (Bird’s Nest, pool, waterfront, nearby hotels and accommodation) is truly staggering.  It is new, clean, bright, big, and streamlined.  A subway line – albeit four stops long – was built specifically for the Olympic games.  We chose to visit at night and were rewarded with a much cooler ambiance that what I would expect during a blazing hot day with no shade.  And lest you think what squares we are for doing all the typical tourist stuff, we also spent a great afternoon at the Midi Festival, Beijing’s kick-off summer music festival, showcasing mainly Chinese bands and DJs but also a few lesser-known names from Europe and the US.  It was fun getting to experience the Chinese youth and subculture, with everyone rocking out their best festival wear.

A view of the main building within the Imperial College, which sits adjacent to the Confucius Temple

Que Olympic song....now.

At the big stage of the Midi Festival, about to hear some (mediocre) band from Russia

And how can I talk about a trip to China with no mention of food, yet?  Well, I can’t.  Where to even begin?  Let me start, though, by saying that Ellie and I truly lucked out.  Rather than left to fend for discovering everything ourselves (which we did pretty damn well I must say), we were hooked up for a day by a friend of Poppa Seltz and got the local’s tour treatment by his nephew and his lovely wife, two cool kids our own age.  Not only did they show us around the Temple of Heaven, but also introduced us to a typical Beijing breakfast of pastry-type breads and some foul-smelling fermented soy bean soup, and to real, honest-to-god, delicious Szechuan cuisine.  I have never tasted better shrimp and peanuts, or cubed and fried chicken cooked with mounds of red chillis in my life.  Peking Duck, treated by Poppa Seltz’ friend Mr. Li, also lived up to every expectation I had.  Did you know that the crispy duck skin with it’s juicy, buttery layer of fat should be dipped in sugar first?  It changed my opinion of this fowl forever, and I was already a fan!  Street food, too, pulled through when we needed it.  Cold, spicy, sesame noodles on a hot day; mini, steamed pork buns for breakfast; a pineapple or a coconut full of coconut water for a quick pick-me-up; a beansprout and cabbage filled burrito.  And there were still so many things left to try!

Scorpions and seahorses on a stick: Next time!

Ellie waiting for some noodles from a street vendor

An authentic Szechuan feast with our new friends Si Si and Zhongyuan. (Si Si would know, she's from Szechuan province!)

I’ll leave you here on that tasty note.  Check back soon for Part II: our Great Wall trip, and for a more cohesive wrap-up on this last little excursion of mine.

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The Month of Brownies

Gift giving is an well-meaning, complicated, and rewarding obligation cultural practice here in Japan.  But just sometimes, it can get you into a spot of trouble.

A month or two ago, I brought a pan-full of Ghiradelli Brownie Mix brownies to share with my Ikebana class one night, which anyone who has tasted a Ghiradelli brownie knows, was a huge success.  It was/is particularly momentous for those individuals who are unaccustomed to the amazingness that is the quintessential American “brownie.”  When told how delicious they were, however, I made the mistake of playing off how easy they were to make, which, obviously, 2 eggs and a 1/2 cup of vegetable oil later, they were.  But, the more my ikebana ladies fawned, the more I knew I had dug myself into a deep hole.  A hole filled with butter and sugar and cocoa powder.  Weeks later, what had started as harmless requests for the recipe, soon turned into more forceful pleas for me to pick a date for them to come over to learn how to MAKE the brownies.  And thus commenced The Month of Brownies.

Like many people I know, up until a month ago, I had never made a batch of brownies from scratch.  I envisioned long recipes with fancy chocolate, thermometers, constant stirring and melting temperatures hovering just below burning.  But, not to be uncovered in my lie, I made it my goal to find the perfect, most delicious, home-made brownie recipe ever made, using the easiest of tactics.  (As a side note, I cook.  I don’t bake.  Baking generally requires a knowledge of math and ratios, which annoys me, and following recipes too exactly, which I shun on principle.)  However, four recipes and six pans of brownies later, I discovered a brownie so perfect, so moist and chocolaty dense on the inside, so crackly and crisp on the crust, so balanced between the sweetness in the sugar and the slight bitter earthiness of the cocoa that all other brownies pale in comparison.  I have found my signature brownie recipe.  And damn, it’s delicious.

And so it came to pass that this Saturday was Judgement Day.  My ikebana ladies arrived, or rather, descended upon me, hoisting far too much food (sweet, sticky rice with beans and chestnuts; hijiki seaweed salad; pork and sweet potato stew; whole marinated baby squid!) and proceeded to don their aprons and stand in my kitchen expectantly.  They took careful notes as I explained measurements (which I had calculated into metric grams for them) and the order of mixing.  They tasted and felt consistency and texture.  They asked me what the recipe would be without chocolate.  Well, it certainly wouldn’t be a Brownie, now, would it?

One of my goals for myself was to befriend the old(er) ladies in my town, and seeing them in my living room, I can say that I have been succesful in that endeavor.

In the end, I passed with flying colors, and am perhaps a better person knowing how to make Brownies from scratch.  So, to add to my list of mix CDs, homemade chili and cornbread, and girls who exercise for health (more on that in another post), I’m doing my job of internationalizing rural Japan one sweet, chocolate-filled day at a time.

The magic's in the metal pan

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Funori Tori

“Please come to school by 7:30 tomorrow.  And bring rain boots.  No, you don’t have rain boots? [Pause.] What did you do all winter? [Pause.] No, rain boots. They will get wet.  What size are your feet? Okay, we will arrange something. [Pause.]  Okay. See you tomorrow.  Goodbye.”

The phone rings again: “Oh yes, and bring gloves. Yes. Bring gloves, and dress like it’s winter.”

Everyone preparing to divide and conquer

Thus commenced my foray into the foraging of funori, a type of carageenan seaweed that is described as a “jelly seaweed” when googled.  It grows on rocks off the shore of northern Japan, and therefore is a specialty to this region.  As you can see from the photos, it varies in color from dark purplish brown to bright orange, and can be short and skinny or long and balloon-fat.  It’s particularly tasty added to a miso soup.

Lone little obaachan in the shallows

I arrived at school extra early on Thursday to get to the pickin’ site with the other teachers, and with enough time to set up a big fire barrel for the purposes of cooking our delicious ‘picnic’ lunch, and to wait for the students.  Every year, the elementary schools in my town have a funori tori (picking) day, where students and parents alike volunteer.  All the seaweed collected is cleaned and then either sold fresh or dried, with proceeds going to the school, typically raking in between $2-3,000.  Think bake sale, but not.

A close-up of some long, orange specimens

The day was cold.  In fact, it even snowed a bit.  (Hello? April?) But the weather here moves so quickly that we were able to enjoy a few moments of sunshine now and again as we tromped around the shallows, scraping the rocks bare with our gloved hands, and shoving fistfuls of funori into baskets or large sacks tied around our waists.

Look at this cool new friend I found!

Potato and pork stew on the beach for lunch

After a hearty and delicious, warm lunch, the kids and most of the parents were sent home, while the teachers and a select few of the funori tori veterans went on to the processing station at the port in my town.  There, we dumped in big cargo baskets of the funori into ice-cold water and washed it “clean” with rubber-gloved hands.  Post-soak and -strain, we picked through it manually looking for bits of other seaweed, trash, or errant snails.  In total, over the coarse of several hours, we harvest 350 kilograms of funori from the coasts of Kazamaura, destined for shops around the prefecture, and perhaps beyond.  If anyone fancies a taste, for a small fee, I have considered starting an exporting business to broaden the plump little reaches of funori fingers the world over!  And how delectable!

Washing/picking through the sea gifts

The end result

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This past week, and up until Wednesday, is Spring Break in Japan.  On Wednesday, the new school year begins.  Instead of taking paid vacation leave, I elected to stay in town and have a low-key, quiet week of work returning emails, studying Japanese, and preparing for the new semester.  Turns out, that was a pipe-dream.

1: Day off

4: Days at the Nursery School

There are few things in the world cuter than a Japanese little girl

3: Bloody noses to deal with on the first day

5: Kanchos* all week

14: Portraits drawn of yours truly

That's me, on the left

89: Times I’ve had to say “Please stop pulling on me.”

95: Times I’ve had to say “Okay, I’ll be right there.

15: Easter eggs dyed, decorated, and consumed

Easter egg dying with the Panda Class (pre-1st grade)

1: Time given a shoulder rub and kissed on the cheek

2: The total number of foreign people Gin-kun has ever seen

6: The total number of times I’ve been informed of this

12: Times I’ve thought to myself how amazing it is that these women have the energy to do this every day for work

8: Minutes during lunch time I listened to a 5-year old tell me how cool smoking cigarettes is (disturbing)

6.51: Hours of sleep I’ve averaged

16: The number of home-made gyoza I ate at a Gyo-Pa (Gyoza Party) with some of my fellow teacher lady friends from one of my Elementary schools

3 different types of gyoza: Regular minced pork & veggie, Minced pork with shiso & cheese, Minced pork with celery & shrimp

11: Hours of driving to see friends and go skiing (over the course of 3 days)

Last couple runs of the season at Mt. Hakkoda

60: Minutes of karaoke we sang at 1:30am on Saturday night

40: Minutes it took me to drag myself out of bed the next morning

13: Degrees Celsius that the weather topped out at yesterday (read: Spring has sprung!)

*A kancho for the uninitiated, means ‘enema’ and is a shockingly invasive attack on your rear end.  Kids will clasp their hands together, index finger pointed menacingly and aim at the unsuspecting victim whilst gleefully shouting “Kancho!” It’s real, and it’s happened to me.

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Today, March 3rd, in Japan is Girls’ Day, called Ohina Matsuri.  It’s a celebration of girls and daughters, especially for their health, growth and happiness over the coming year.  In a country that is sometimes fingered for being a *little* misogynistic, I am happy to give credit and respect where it is due.

Seven-tiered Ohina-sama set - definitely the bigger the set, the more of a status symbol it is. Also, many Japanese homes are so short on space that only the Prince and Princess are purchased and/or laid out yearly

From the top: the Prince and Princess, Maids-in-waiting, Wise men/Body guards, Court Musicians

As a little girl, we had one of these beautiful sets given to my mother from her mother (as is the custom).  Unwrapping the delicate dolls every year, their porcelain faces each painted so differently from one another, their clothes so sparkly and tactile, I remember being mesmerized – and not a little unafraid of doing damage to their fragile hands.  They each came with their own miniature hats, musical instruments, kendo swords or archery bows, and tea ladles.  Like Christmas probably was – and is – to other young children, the house during March always seemed magical and festive.  I was happy to see the sets around here this year, and that my awe and general impression hasn’t changed much since I was seven.

To celebrate, last night I attended an Ohina-sama Party at the house of my ikebana sensei.  Presented in her beautiful and spacious genkan (foyer) was a gorgeous vase of peach blossoms, the official Ohina-sama tree.  (You might remember this from last week’s ikebana post.) Yet again, the youngest by about forty years, the ladies gathered to marvel at our Sensei‘s dolls, eat sushi, and drink ama-zake (sweet, unfiltered sake.)  The evening kicked off with everyone singing an Ohina-sama song and what ensued was general gossip, ruckus, and merriment, as at any ‘Girls’ Night Out’ the world over.  As I’m constantly reminded in small and unsmall ways, some things are different.  And some things are the same.

Ohina-sama Party crew! And check out the spread. Yum.

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Obento Mama

This blog is not a food site.  Neither is it an obento site.  I’ll leave that to the many, many other blogs out there on the interweb.  However, being in Japan, and loving food as I do, it’s nigh impossible to spend a year without mentioning the glory-praise-on-high that is the Japanese obento.  While Japanese food in and of itself is pretty dericious, the obento is a great example of Japanese cooking gone right…or at least can be.

A traditional Japanese obento is made for lunch, and probably was conceived at 5am by the overworked and under-appreciated matriarch of the household.  They sell cute little obento sets everywhere, but mainly they are comprised of two sections: a starch section (read: rice) and an okazu section (read: sides).  The stress is not only on the food inside, but on the placement and aesthetic of the food.  Portions are small – pretty much sample size – and almost exclusively placed in little mini cupcake wrappers to separate them from one another.  The outside package is also subjected to scrutiny, wrapped in furoshiki, Japanese all-purpose cloths, or in obento specific bags.  Online, there are numerous web sites devoted to the obento, and in Japan, there are cooking shows on TV, as well as cookbooks and cookbook authors who focus solely on this portable lunch meal.

I, the heathen American that I am, rarely bring my lunch in such cute obento forms.  I prefer the previous night’s meal in a tupperware or a sandwich when truly lazy.  However, the lucky heathen that I am, at one of my schools I have somehow managed to work my way into the heart of the school nurse, who has become my “Obento Mama.”  She says that it’s because her son is all grown up and it’s lonely to make obento for one, but I personally think that she enjoys seeing if I’ll eat some of the “weird” Japanese stuff she puts in. Regardless of the reasoning, I will graciously take and happily eat any food she sends my way!

On my desk in the morning....hmmm....what's this?

Oh look, another cute wrapping!

The Obento Box - the epitome of Japanesey with bunnies and cherry blossoms

Cha-ching! What you see here: below, Rice topped with funori (a form of seaweed that is special to Northern Japan), above, from left to right: sweet pinto beans, gobo (burdock root in a spicy, sesame sauce), strawberries, croquets, squid, and an egg salad

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