Foods I Miss (now even more after writing this).

A paean to Kaldi Foreign Foods Store (Adrian Mole style):

Kaldi. Photo credit dannychoo.com.

O Kaldi, my Kaldi, caldera of overpriced corn chips,
Hearth of horseradish, bastion of bleu, mecca of marzipan.
“Coffee farm” though you claim to be, not a single barn in sight,
Only free samples, proffered by chirruping store clerks,
With mechanical smiles.

We replenished our coffee store at Kaldi yesterday, as we’d run out and being out of coffee in the R-J household may well be a contributing factor to the destabilization and deterioration of the universe. While I was there, I also picked up some Clabber Girl (sayonara to the ridiculous 5g packets sold at our local grocer), instant yeast, and some Thai green curry paste to use with a can of coconut milk I inexplicably purchased a few weeks back. The prices are nothing to be proud of, but every expat knows well how scarcity and nostalgia will quickly warp how much we’re willing to pay for a jar of olives or a bottle of good wine.

Today during my adult English class, my students and I spoke a bit about the foods I miss. The funny thing is, I often miss foods I would have turned my nose up at and completely pooh-poohed just last year, when they were so widely available. This seems to be common with many expatriates.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I moved to Japan for a reason, and that reason did not involve eating Mexican food. I’m fully aware of how awesome it is that I can bike 30 minutes to an abandoned train car on the beach and eat the freshest sushi I’ll ever have in my life. But it’s both human and humanizing to reminisce, to stoke the fires of longing for the land I’ve temporarily left behind. Would you deny Proust his madeleine?

Here are foods that I definitely miss (and ate frequently in Denver):

  1. Peanut butter, almond butter, and really any nut butter. A doll-sized can of Skippy is about $6 here. I don’t like Skippy that much. My mom sent me some Adam’s from the States and every now and then I eat a spoonful the way mortals are supposed to eat ambrosia.
  2. Olives. Available at specialty shops, but again, I can’t justify the price for low-quality manzanillas.
  3. Fresh milk mozzarella, Swiss cheese, pepperjack, chevre . . . All cheese really. Since pizza and Italian has a relatively strong foothold in Japan, “shredded cheese” is available at the supermarket. The fact that it has to advertise how much it tastes like “natural cheese” should be a clue to the fact that it isn’t.
  4. Black licorice. Japanese people hate it, say it tastes like medicine.
  5. Toffee. My favorite confection is nowhere to be found, supplanted instead by mounds and mounds of “chou cream” puffs and fondant-filled chocolates shaped like Hello Kitty.
  6. Raw nuts. I like toasted nuts too, but sometimes an almond should just be an almond.
  7. Grape Nuts cereal. Along with oatmeal and cream of wheat, these form the trifecta of breakfast cereals for me and are much missed.
  8. Oatmeal. I couldn’t face a winter without oatmeal, so I ordered 8 pounds from Foreign Buyer’s Club. Dane perhaps doubted me, but in 4 months I have managed to eat nearly all of it.
  9. Real granola. Hard to make your own without oats and a proper oven, though we’ve had some minor successes.
  10. Mexican food. Even all of its insipidly American versions; I don’t even care at this point. If I stumbled across a 24-hour Taco Star in Japan I’d probably run inside and dump the entire contents of my wallet all over the counter while screeching demands for every burrito, tostada, enchilada, chimichanga, and churro they had in stock. And the entire horchata/tamarindo machine too. No cup necessary; just a funnel.
  11. Cuisines from other Asian countries. The insularity of Japan means that people aren’t clamoring for pho, pad thai, and dim sum the way those of us in much more geographically distant countries are. The exceptions seem to be Korean and Indian food, which are easily found and often pretty good.
  12. Spicy red wine with a decent body. Good wine is very hard to find (though sake and plum wine are excellent). And for the love of god, don’t give it to me chilled!
  13. Craft beer. From Mountain Sun/Vine Street pub, please. Specifically the Annapurna Amber ale.
  14. Medjool dates. This is a snobby food wish, but I do love them.
  15. Whole grain bread. Whole-grain pasta I have found (for a price). Whole grain bread is elusive; I found a place that serves hard, dense little loaves for about $7.00. From time to time the price is right.
  16. Falafel. And all those little pita fast food places that serve it up hot, crispy, and cheap.
  17. Indie coffee shops where I can plop down at a scratched table, strew my books and computer around me, and alternate cups of drip coffee and chai until my eyeballs feel like they’re about to pop out of my head. I don’t want a goddamn 500 yen tiramisu latte at a Starbucks in the middle of an AEON mall, especially when the Starbucks and the mall are playing 2 different music channels at the same volume as a cheery woman reminds me that I’m welcome to a sale at this store or that store over the loudspeaker every 15 minutes. Puhh!
  18. Breakfast/brunch restaurants. With eggs benedict, home fries, and mimosas.

And now for the food I suddenly crave but never really ate back home. Mostly meat and junk food.

  1. Root beer and Dr. Pepper. Again, Japanese people say they taste like medicine. I can’t say I want to slam an A&W yet, but give me an IBC root beer float any day.
  2. Meatloaf. My mom’s. I’m sorry we all complained about it, mom. It was pretty good.
  3. Buffalo wings and barbecue. I ate them every now and then, but rarely, and then I became a weight-conscious vegetarian. I plan on touring around the South for excellent barbecue shortly upon returning.
  4. Philly Cheese Steak. I like it. Should have eaten it more, but again, the veg phase forced me to totally avoid the delicious-smelling cheese steak pit on Capitol Hill.
  5. Macaroni and cheese. Dane always makes it with canned peas, and though I know the Kraft version is as nutritional as a box of sawdust, I’m convinced a bowl would do us both good right now.
  6. Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup. Same reasons as mac’n’cheese. Yellow salt broth and tiny dehydrated chicken bits with white noodles that bloat and disintegrate after 5 minutes. For the soul.

And, it’s not food related but – I really wish someone would have told me that it’s impossible to find a bathing suit for less than $90 here. Yeesh.

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I made yogurt. I feel like God.

I really did. I feel like Jesus must’ve when he turned water into wine.

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This was lunch milk 12 hours ago.

Lately I’ve been a bit obsessed with fermentation and cultures. I’m this close to preparing a nuka pot to make my own nukazuke pickles. I had a kombucha culture started but, since our apartment isn’t heated, the temperature in the kitchen was so low that mold actually grew in the culture. Foiled. For now.

But, last night was a breakthrough. I heated up a liter of milk, stirred in a few spoonfuls of store-bought Meiji Bulgarian Yogurt, and by morning – fresh, creamy yogurt! I can hardly describe the feeling of joy I got when I peeled back the dish towel to reveal a solid, quivering mass where just hours before had been a pool of milk.

In terms of thrift, this project isn’t going to save you much money. I found it to be only slightly cheaper than buying a 450g container of Meiji. A quart of milk costs about 188 yen, but after the straining process, you’re left with about 600g or so. But you do get superior taste and freshness, a bunch of whey (here are some ideas for how to reuse it), and the satisfaction of knowing you have broken just one more link between you and the consumer machine.

And, it’s Friday, which means the school fridge is full of unwanted whole milk containers. I plan to take about 10 of them home to make even more yogurt with tonight. That means this batch will be mostly free!
Update: I made more yogurt with kyushoku milk, and some ricotta cheese, too. It will now be a weekly activity.

If you’re interested in doing the same thing yourself, here are directions:

Materials:

  1. One to two liters/quarts store-bought milk. For best taste and texture, use whole milk (3.5%). For proper consistency, I’m not sure if you should go lower than 1.6%. I used Midori milk, but you can use anything that says “100%牛乳” or has only milk listed on the ingredient panel. Avoid milk that boasts that it is “ESL” (Extended Shelf Life), as it has been ultra-pasteurized.
  2. A few tablespoons of “starter yogurt” from the store. The yogurt should have live cultures, so the extra-processed sugary stuff won’t work. I used regular Meiji Bulgarian Yogurt. Since you are essentially cloning your starter yogurt, I would use the most premium, delicious stuff you can find.
  3. A thermometer.
  4. (optional) A large thin white cotton dishcloth (clean) for draining the yogurt.
  5. Damp dish towel.
  6. Large mixing bowl.
  7. Large saucepan.
  8. A “warm” place to keep your yogurt bowl overnight. As Jennifer Reese says, “Don’t obsess too much about the warm place.” Inside your oven or microwave is fine.

Directions:

  1. Scald the milk: Heat the milk in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring now and then so the milk doesn’t stick to the pan. When the milk just begins to simmer, remove from heat and pour into mixing bowl. Insert thermometer.
  2. Let the milk cool to somewhere between 105 – 115 degrees F (41 – 46 C). Then, stir in two or three spoonfuls of starter yogurt.
  3. Cover the bowl with a damp dishcloth and put into a warm place for the night. I turned the oven feature of my microwave on for 5 minutes, then turned it off and put the bowl inside. (I’d be willing to guess that the kitchen table is fine during Japanese summer – just secure the top so bugs don’t get in).
  4. Go away for several hours; how much seems to vary. At least 8 and as much as 24. I personally like 12.
  5. Come back. Remove the bowl and behold the magic of yogurt! Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 10 days.

The yogurt will be slightly thinner than you’re used to, because it’s full of whey (the liquid by-product or milk culturing); it’ll thicken up slightly in the fridge. If you like runny “Australian style,” then you’re done. But if you’re into thicker Greek stuff, you need to drain the yogurt like this:

  1. Line a strainer with cheesecloth or the large white dishcloth. Position the strainer over a larger bowl or saucepan so that the bottom is suspended.
  2. Pour the yogurt over the cloth. You can tie the ends up around it into a little bundle if you like. Let the yogurt sit like that to drain until it is as thick as you’d like – anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours is the norm.IMG_0663  IMG_0647IMG_0664

The longer you let the yogurt drain, the thicker it becomes. You could even let it drain a full 8 hours and then squeeze it until it becomes the consistency of soft cheese; this is sometimes called labneh.

As for me, I’m going to enjoy my delicious yogurt in some salad dressing tonight, and with some oatmeal and fruit tomorrow morning. Or maybe in some Indian curry soup. The supply, for now, looks to be never-ending.

Aburaage, the pita pockets of the Orient.

Dane’s parents came to Japan last week! We did Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Kobe in a whirlwind before heading down to beloved Fukuoka, where we sat in front of the sea and ate the most delicious sushi any of us had ever had – including the infamous live abalone, still squirming on its roll. The whole experience had me wondering whether or not it’d be possible to make sushi at home, so last night I hacked and huffed my way through my first vegetarian makizushi roll. It made for a nice breakfast this morning, but photos and description will not be posted until I improve my skills and invest in a knife that won’t mutilate nori like Ted Bundy.

Inarizushi: Sushi Wrapped in Fried Tofu

Misconception-banishing TRUTH BOMB: Sushi actually just means vinegared rice, not fish! This is why inarizushi (named for the Shinto god Inari), which is merely sushi rice wrapped in fried tofu, qualifies as “real sushi” every bit as much as a tuna belly nigiri. I have to admit, I was disappointed the first time I bit into a a pocket of inarizushi, hoping to find a center of fish or meat or at least pickles. But no. The Japanese love their rice, whether as a complement to another ingredient or by itself.

Inarizushi. Photo credit: lets-make-sushi.com

Though the plain inner contents failed to impress me, the tofu exterior did. It’s a thin skin of fried tofu known variously as aburaage, sushiage or sometimes inariage. To make it, one cuts tofu into thin slices and deep fries them twice, causing the tofu to puff up into a little pouch (think of it like a tofu beignet or tofu pita). The pouch can then be cut and stuffed with the desired filling.

That sounds like a pain in the ass, so it’s a good thing that nowadays most everybody buys their aburaage pre-made. The cheapest pack of 8 costs about 100 yen. Depending on what you fill it with, 2 or 3 stuffed pouches is a meal. One pack will keep in the fridge for a long time, so don’t feel like you need to make ’em all at once. That’s gluttony, man.

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The cheapest pack of aburaage from my local HalloDay “Food Hole.”

Before You Stuff . . . Blanch!

One thing to mind when cooking with aburaage is its oiliness. Abura as it turns out, means “oil,” and age means “fried.” Thus you are buying “oil-fried tofu.” (Sounds so much less romantic in English, doesn’t it?) Fittingly, this product is, gram-for-gram, high calorie – but an actual pouch probably weighs less than 20g, so I wouldn’t worry too much. To remove the oil, lightly boil each pocket for 1-2 minutes before stuffing. I put that in bold because it’s important, and because if you’re anything like me, you ignore recipe “suggestions” that involve unnecessary extra steps. But really, I implore you to boil them first, if not for health then at least for better texture.

Filling the Pouches

All right, your aburaage are boiled. Now what? Well, you could cut them in half, either lengthwise or diagonally before stuffing them. Or, you could cut a slit into one side and stuff the whole pouch. That’s what I did.

I had leftover stir fry (barley, chikuwa, and vegetables) in the fridge, so I quickly re-heated it in a pan before generously spooning it into each pocket. Then I secured the ends with toothpicks inserted like dress pins.

It’s only proper to make a few “get stuffed” jokes during the process.

Secure the slit (while continuing to make obscene remarks about slits).

The most common way to cook stuffed aburaage is probably to boil it in some sort of dashi-based broth or soup, but I think you could get creative here, especially if your choice of filling is pre-cooked. I pan-seared mine, as they still had quite a bit of oil on them. However, it’s possible to grill, roast, steam, or even bake them if you have one of those microwave/oven/broiler devices that are so popular over here. (For those of us without a roasting pan or a fancy microwave, Daiso sells very cheap “grill pans” that can be set inside a regular pan on top of your range.)

Recommended Fillings

Sky’s the limit.

  • Rice (ha! haha!), barley, or a mixture
  • Finely chopped cabbage and radish, seasoned with red pepper and a little soy sauce
  • Thin strips of pork marinated in miso, ginger, and ponzu
  • Scallions and a raw egg (drop into boiling liquid to poach)
  • Left-over stir fry
  • Mushroom, spinach, scrambled egg, and cheese. Breakfast!
  • Get really Japanese and go with a mixture of seaweed, gobo, soy beans or thin pounded beef, and okara.
  • Natto, ginger, and scallions or cooked onion
  • Onion, potato, and green pepper with lots of paprika and pepper
  • More tofu!!

Do you cook with aburaage? What have you put in it?

The Aisle of Mysteries

Sounds like a Harry Potter title, doesn’t it? Yet there are no basilisks or dementors here – though I have a feeling some of the contents may be just as terrifying to certain crowds.

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Did you know there were so many types of tofu?

This, my friends, is what I like to call “The Aisle of Mysteries,” the refrigerated aisle found in every Japanese supermarket, usually across from the produce. I have spent many a moment parked in front of it, quietly lifting and examining its contents in awe. I’ll be honest with you – I still don’t know what everything is or what it’s used for, but I’ve come a long way since last August, when a bold obaachan took a cell phone picture of the confused look on my face as I examined a pack of konnyaku (which is “devil’s tongue jelly” in English, though that really doesn’t help).

Most foreigners, I suspect, walk right on by the Aisle, either because they don’t know what the hell anything is, or because they do know what it is and find it repulsive. I’m not here to change anyone’s mind about stinky, fermented beans – but if you haven’t before, you should give this area a few minutes of your time, as it’s filled with cheap, fresh, healthy, and often ready-to-eat foods.

Each week, I’ll devote at least one entry to an ingredient that can be found in the A of M.

  • Tofu and its many permutations like aburaage, yakidoufu, okara, atsuage, and gomadoufu though it’s not actually tofu.
  • Ganmodoki
  • Satsuma age, chikuwa, and kamabako
  • Natto
  • Kimchi
  • Tsukemono (pickles) and its many permutations like nukazuke and umeboshi
  • Natto
  • Konnyaku and shirataki
  • Namamiso
  • Cooked, ready-to-serve beans
  • Soft noodles like udon, champon, ramen
  • Fresh gyoza and dumplings

Looking forward to it!

I make mistakes all the time. Then I keep cooking.

People are always surprised I can cook; I can only attribute this to my general ineptitude in other areas of life. I firmly believe that anybody with two forearms and a stomach can learn to cook well, but many people do not believe this. During conversations, sometimes the topic of cooking a certain food comes up. Granola, for instance. “It’s easy,” I insist. Suddenly, eyes narrow and turn shifty, heads are cocked. “Really? It’s easy?” Yes, it is! I swear, if it weren’t easy, I wouldn’t say so. And I wouldn’t make it as often as I do.

But most people have reason to be skeptical. How many times has some smug back-to-nature-type D-bag insisted that “growing /making/brewing/breeding/milking your own ____” is a cinch, when you know – YOU EFFING KNOW – it is neither a cinch nor anything short of a huge, time-consuming hassle. Should we be made to feel like bad people because we’re not juicing our own fruit or milling our own flour? I don’t think so. Furthermore, these people are part of why most people eschew cooking. Telling someone how “easy” something is, and pretending like you didn’t have to work to mastery, is setting them up for failure. Why not be honest, mofo? You know what makes things a cinch? Practice. Effort. When I first started waiting tables at 18, I was a mess. I sucked. Two months in I still mostly sucked. Four years later, I could do it with my eyes closed (and if you’ve ever been a server, you know that, unfortunately, you often WILL do it with your eyes closed – in the form of “wait-mares”). And nobody likes to hear this, but that’s how it is with most professions and pursuits.

So, that said, it hurts to show you what I’m about to show you, as I have spent most of the past 25+ years trying to smooth a sheen of pure perfection onto everything I touch. By degrees, I’m learning to get over that. If nothing else, consider this a therapeutic endeavor.

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Don’t forget to stir your barley, dudes. This took a good 10 minutes of scrubbing that could have been better spent looking up celebrity gossip on dlisted.com.

(By the way, this is my second saucepan in 6 months. I had an oil fire in the first one. Fail number 2.)