Barley: the sexy grown-up grain!

In most supermarkets, next to the rice, a curious little bag of grains awaits you. If you’re unfamiliar with them, the contents may look like rolled oats at first. But, oats they are not. This is barley (mugi in Japanese) and you should absolutely be cooking with it.

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Rolled barley.

There are different kinds of barley, but you are most likely going to run into one main type: “pressed barley” or “rolled barley.” As with rolled oats, the kernels have been run through a roller and flattened. This reduces cook time significantly without destroying the nutritional integrity of the grain. And oh, what integrity! Let me sing barley’s praises to you:

Barley:

  • Has a lower glycemic index than rice, meaning it’s better for those with diabetes or insulin resistance problems. It stabilizes blood sugar, whereas other grains tend to spike it.
  • It’s higher in fiber than oats and wheat, meaning it digests slowly and make you feel fuller longer. It’s especially helpful as a weight-loss aid, since you’re less likely to eat if you feel satiated.
  • It’s high protein. In fact, it has twice the protein of wheat. Vegans and vegetarians, take note!
  • Some studies have shown that it reduces cholesterol and blood pressure. I’ll believe it, though I’m fairly sure you can still commission a study to prove gay marriage causes cancer if you know the right people.
  • TASTES F***ING AWESOME. Fluffy yet pleasantly chewy and substantial, barley is that bespectacled nerd whom you never notice until the day you find out he’s actually a superhero from the planet Krypton, has a 401(k), and totally respects women. Yeah, that’s barley.
  • Cheap. I bought an 800g bag for ¥368 at my local supermarket. That’s much cheaper than rice, by the way.
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Kyushu Pride: We can grow barley, too!

Barley can be mixed with rice to make mugi-gohan, a popular sight on many a school lunch tray in Japan. It can also be toasted and strained into a deliciously refreshing tea, mugicha. But it stands up well on its own, too: use it in soups, pastas, salads, stir fries, or plain with a little salt and pepper. The possibilities are innumerable!

And did I mention, you can make it in your rice cooker? Of course, you can also make it in a pan; just stir every now and then to avoid burning.

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Wholesome goodness in about 10 minutes. Ii nee!

What are your favorite ways to eat barley?

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Worst Citrus Ever

Last week at work, several coworkers were “gifted” with large, bulky bags of a mottled yellow citrus fruit.Image

They smelled lovely – an aromatic blend of lemon and grapefruit – so I couldn’t understand why many people were so keen on giving away as many as possible. I ended up with about three jumbo pieces before I started turning away donations.

When I got home, I eagerly cut into my new treasures. Almost immediately I could see why nobody wanted anything to do with these yellow bastards; they are quite possibly the worst citrus ever, with absolutely no redeeming qualities. Dozens of deeply embedded seeds make the fruit difficult to eat like a grapefruit. It doesn’t produce a lot of juice – in fact, I could hardly squeeze a drop without physically digging through the pulp with my fingernails. The pith was thick and fused to the pulp, which itself failed to live up to its smell: my first bite delivered nothing but a punchless lemon flavor dotted by the bitterness of the pith that still clung on for dear life.

A coworker told me the name, but I forgot it. Maybe there are some connoisseurs of incorrigible citrus out there who know? Either way, you’re better off sticking with one of the dozens of other Japanese citrus fruits, like the beloved winter mikan – sadly on its way out of season now.

Other People’s Recipes: Vegan Lemon Bars

Bakin’ with tofu, no longer just for trustafarians!

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While I’m not a big baker – save for one cookie I make every year around Christmas – I’m a fan of the blog Chocolate and Zucchini, run by a lovely French woman named Clotilde (one of those names that sounds exotically beautiful, but that I could never pull it off with my own spawn). Browsing through her archives the other day, I spotted a recipe for vegan lemon bars made with silken tofu and lemon juice. I’m always on the lookout for delicious, butter-free dishes, since butter is prohibitively expensive in Japan (unless you’re in Hokkaido, I suppose). I have a theory this is why macaroons have become so popular in Japan – it’s the one cookie without butter!

There were a few noteworthy modifications made. I’d recently been gifted the Worst Citrus Ever, so I grated some of its fresh peel right into the filling mix until it took on a pleasant smell and a yellow tinge. I also added some powdered yuzu, because why not, we’re in Japan! I hate measuring, so the zest was added “to taste.” I also added a pinch of nutmeg to the filling and reduced the sugar by about 25%, and it still came out sweet as hell. Finally, for about half the bars, I pressed a single raisin into the center of where each bar would be before baking. Dane (mah life partner) said the raisin bars were better than the plain ones.

Instead of coconut oil, I used regular canola oil for the crust. It’s a crumb crust, and Clotilde recommends that the crumbs be “pressed loosely” into the pan. I pressed them a bit more firmly. Even then, the crust was a bit thicker than I would have liked, though the texture was wonderful. In the future, I’ll probably reduce the sugar from the crust, too, and maybe add a bit of flax meal if I’m feeling saucy.

All in all, these bars were outstanding, easy, cheap, and vegan. One caveat: despite the presence of tofu, they abound with sugar and carbs . . . so cut those pieces small and make your coworkers happy with a lemon bar giveaway.

While mixing up the batch last night, I remarked to my neighbor, Kay, that I bake more in Japan than I ever did in the States, which is hilarious because I don’t have an oven.

Chikuwa

Whatever you think this is, it’s probably not what you think it is. You dirty thing.Image

Chikuwa is a processed Japanese phallus fish cake made from a fish paste called surimi. Surimi itself is usually made from white fish Foreigners most often come into contact with surimi in the form of fake crab (krab!) or kamaboko, a popular udon garnish – often in the form of an unnaturally pink half-moon shape. In Japan, kamaboko, chikuwa, and other fish cakes are used in a variety of dishes – in fact, I once ate a kamaboko course meal on a company trip. (After the kamaboko nigiri and the kamaboko nabe, I was pretty much done with the stuff for the next few months.)

Chikuwa is something I buy every so often. I first encountered it in my school’s daily kyushoku, where it’s been in everything from soups to salads to an interesting main dish topped with an oily seaweed-cheese-gratin. Easily identified by it’s hollow tube shape, chikuwa is made by wrapping the surimi mixture around a bamboo pole and then cooking it until the outside blisters. The texture is chewy and a little rubbery, though not elastic or glutinous like mochi. This makes it perfect for boiled dishes, because it won’t disintegrate. Maybe this is why chikuwa is most visible in the winter months, when people like to add it to oden and noodle soups. If you live in Tottori, there’s a good chance you eat chikuwa quite a bit – according to Wikipedia, consumption is significantly higher there (I’ve never been to Tottori, but I’m guessing this means that chikuwa is a “Tottori specialty!” pushed at omiyage shops). Most of us, though, just walk right on by it at the store, as it’s usually in the Aisle of Mysteries, which is what I like to call the refrigerated row adjacent to the produce in Japanese supermarkets – where you’ll find the natto, the pickles, a million types of tofu, and fermented god-only-knows.

But unless you’re vegetarian, you should try chikuwa. Here’s why:

  • It’s low-fat.
  • It’s high-protein.
  • It’s pre-cooked. Just add it to whatever you’re cooking so it can absorb the flavors.
  • It’s cheap. During winter, I was buying 100g for ¥100. Prices have gone up lately. Yesterday I bought 130g for ¥168. The stick in the picture is about 33g, a little more than an ounce.
  • It’s relatively healthy, depending on how you feel about certain ingredients. I’ve often thought about the processed aspect of fish cake. To be honest, it’s not something I know much about. The basic ingredients are ground fish, egg white, some sort of starch, and – yes – MSG. I’m not as worried about MSG as other people, so this isn’t a dealbreaker. If you’re trying to stay MSG-free in Japan, my advice would be to learn the kanji and check all labels and then, I don’t know, probably starve because that sucker’s in everything.

How to Eat It

I’ve only begun to scratch the springy surface of the fish-cake world, but here are a few ideas:

  • Chop the tube up into rings. Add it to your soup while boiling.
  • One of my favorite ways to eat chikuwa is to simmer it with vegetables in dashi as a bastardized version of nimono, which is the word for vegetables boiled in broth.
  • I also – shockingly – add it to stir fry as a source of protein.
  • You could even stuff the holes with filling before heating them in a pan or microwave. If your filling of choice is cheese, may I suggest plugging each end with a tiny piece of carrot to keep the cheese from melting out.
  • You could also chop it into half-rings, boil it with greens, drain and cool. Then top with sesame seeds and a little rice vinegar. Voilà, a salad!
  • Chop it up, sautee it with yaki-sauce, and put it on top a bowl of rice or sauteed noodles.

Suggestions? Do you regularly eat chikuwa? Did you mistake it for churros and swear you’d never touch it again?

Simplicity and thrift: two nicer words for “lazy” and “cheap.”

This post should be subtitled, Oh God I’m Turning Into My Mother.

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Doling out Domino’s pizza at my birthday party. Note the industrial-sized Amway dish soap in the background!

The queen of simple, thrifty meals, my mother was serving salads for dinner long before the monomaniacal paleo crowd decided “power salads” were cool. Her greatest trick was cooking a large batch of stew on Sunday and serving it all week – until it was gone, rancid, or we couldn’t take it anymore. She had many standbys: Cold macaroni noodles topped with sliced tomatoes, pepper and salt. Marinated cucumbers. Crock pot everything. She was a paragon of overworked 90’s moms, complete with curled bangs, and yet we never once had to resort to Hamburger Helper (whose commercials with their cute little talking rubber glove really enticed me as a child, but which she labeled “crap” and refused to buy). I have as many fond memories of my mom, glass of Franzia in hand, kicking me out of the kitchen for “pestering” as I do of her teaching me how to beat eggs or simmer giblets for gravy (“Watch. Like this. All there is to it. Now out!”). As it should be – leave that cloying mother-daughter stuff to Hallmark, I say! My mom was real and she knew that sometimes the best way to teach is not to say anything at all while your kid experiments with lumpy pancake batter in the wrong kind of pan.

So, on that note: Welcome to the Lazy Beggar’s Guide to Cooking in Japan! I’ve come several years and 5,000 miles from my mom’s cluttered kitchen to a tiny town in Fukuoka prefecture, Japan. Almost immediately upon arriving last year, I developed an interest in the curious new world of the Japanese market, and have taken every opportunity to discover and experiment with what’s available. The results are (usually) pleasing. So, I’ve created this blog as a resource for those of us who want to eat well in Japan while saving our money for the more important things, like all-you-can-drink plum wine and impromptu trips to the Philippines.

The two main principles here:

Simplicity. What’s cooking about? Impressing your friends with elaborate dinner parties? Posting photos of your meals on Instagram and Pinterest? Cooking new, exotic dishes every night of the week? Maybe some of the time, but trying to cook like a Top Chef contestant every night is a recipe for burnout. Cooking, in my opinion, is first and foremost about feeding yourself and those you love. It’s not always a “special event,” it’s a daily routine of fulfilling a basic need. Navigating Japan is hard enough – cooking can be simple while also being healthy and delicious. That being said, if you want to cut carrots into blossom shapes, who’s to say you can’t!

Thrift. I thought Lazy Beggars sounded better than Lazy Thrifters, but thrift is really the heart of the blog. Many people complain that groceries in Japan are pricey – and on some levels, that’s true, especially if you’re only relying on foods you were used to in your native country. But it’s certainly possible to eat copious amounts of yummy food – without resorting to cup noodles – if you shop flexibly. This grew easier as I familiarized myself with the strange, new ingredients in my local markets and slowly branched out from the old familiars I’d relied on in the U.S.

I’ll try my best to feature foods that can be easily found in Japan (or at least my part of Kyushu), for which you won’t pay out the nose, and that don’t require exhausting amounts of time to prepare. I’m not Japanese, so if you’re looking for traditional Japanese recipes, or if you’re some sort of washoku purist, this blog is only going to piss you off. I find Japanese food to be inspiring, and sometimes I attempt my own miscegenated versions of Japanese dishes, but often what I make wouldn’t be claimed by any culture. Yet the meals are fresh, healthy, and tasty – that’s good enough for me.