Ginkgos roasting on an open fire.

It’s the season when nuts fall from trees, and since there are no squirrels in Kyushu, they end up in enormous bags at the grocers.

I made chestnuts a few weeks ago. I’d never done it, but having heard a certain Christmas song many times, I figured I could just wing it and toss them under the broiler. Big mistake. It sounded like a scene from The Untouchables inside my stove, and I was forced to turn the heat off early for fear of blowing up my house. I checked with Chef Google (phrase adapted from my inventive friend Bethany) and found out that chestnuts should be scored before heating – cut an X into one side of the nuts before roasting.

So now I know. And thank goodness, because I was ready when a thoughtful friend, Kyrsten, handed me a bag of ginkgo nuts. I’d never had them before. “Toast them in oil,” she said, then after a pause, “They can, um, explode, so you might want to put a lid on your pan.”

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I followed the directions and this time I knew what to expect. After about 6 minutes of terrifying pops and pings, the nuts were ready. They were just as she said they’d be – transluscent and green. I added a little course salt and gingerly ate one.

It tasted like bacon. Smoky and unctuous.

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They’re best hot of the stove; I’m sure you could use them creatively, but I did enjoy them as an otsumami-style snack. Apparently you should not eat more than a few ginko nuts a day – poison and all that. I ate 15, maybe 20, and I feel fine. So far.

Tofu Kimchi + everything Korean all the time

I went to Seoul and had such a good time that I spent much of the train ride back from the airport trying to figure out when I could fly back to Seoul. It’s about an hour and ten minute flight from Fukuoka, a scant 348 miles, but oh what a difference.

Right off the subway, Dane and I stopped into one of the first bulgogi places we saw in Hongdae. Turns out we stumbled into a well-known restaurant, “Mountainous Bulgogi,” that serves steaming plates of meat 24 hours a day. We chose a kalbi and tteokbokki soup that was, well, really spicy. I wasn’t sure if Dane would make it, but he made me proud. He even managed to say something about how delicious it was in between gasping noises (I’m likely dead inside so spice doesn’t affect me as much). And check out the banchan (side dishes): salad with black sesame dressing, fermented fish cake, soup, pickles, and of course kimchi.

So spicy I'm surprised the fumes didn't distort the picture.

So spicy I’m surprised the fumes didn’t distort the picture.

In a flight of feverish post-barbecue fancy, I told Dane I wanted to cook nothing but Korean food for the rest of my life. Given the amount of time it’s taken for me to reign in J-food, I think K-nosh will have to come gradually. Luckily, it’s relatively easy to make basic Korean-inspired dishes in Japan, thanks to the proximity of the two countries (seriously, Seoul and Fukuoka geographically as far apart as San Francisco and Los Angeles). A popular “Korean-style” dish here is “buta kimchi,” pork in a sauce of kimchi, onions, and ginger. Here’s my tofu version, which happens to be vegetarian/vegan.

Tofu Kimchi (serves 4)

Ingredients:

  • 2 tbs cooking oil
  • 2 tbs mirin
  • 1 tsp soy sauce
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup katsuoboshi flakes
  • 1 package shirataki konnyaku noodles, drained
  • 1 leek or onion, cut in half and sliced
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 50 g ginger root, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 handful shimeji mushrooms (or your favorite mushroom, I’m not a mushroom authoritarian)
  • 1 whole block firm tofu, diced into 1.5 in/2 cm cubes
  • 3/4 cup kimchi (about 150 g)
  • 2 cups bean sprouts
  • Korean red pepper flakes (gochugaru) or hot red chili pepper

Directions:

  1. In a large frying pan on medium heat, heat the cooking oil until it slides around the pan easily. Add the garlic.
  2. Add onion, carrot, mushrooms, shirataki noodles, ginger, mirin, soy sauce, and katsuoboshi flakes. Sautee 1-2 minutes. If mixture looks a little dry, add a few tablespoons of water.
  3. Add kimchi, tofu, and bean sprouts. For spiciness, add Korean red pepper flakes to taste.
  4. Mix the ingredients together until they are well coated in the kimchi and red pepper flakes. Cover and let cook on medium heat, about 8 minutes or until bean sprouts are soft.
  5. Serve atop a bed of hot rice and drink with makkgeoli, Korea’s alcoholic rice drink, or whatever red wine you found at Family Mart.

Tastes better the next day reheated or in a cold lunch box. Enjoy!

Other People’s Recipes: Laurie Colwin’s Spice Cake

There are two famous, somewhat similar cakes on the internet: David Liebowitz’s gingerbread cake, which I have made in Japan and can only rave about (it requires molasses, which is tough to obtain in Japan and therefore renders it inappropriate to the reach of this blog), and Laurie Colwin’s spice cake, which is delicious and sticky and which contains ingredients that are easy to find. So today, let’s make the latter.

Ms. Colwin was a food writer who died before her time, but her warm and sisterly recipe books live on. The story behind this cake is cute in itself, and some people have taken it for an updated version of an older Syrian nutmeg cake. I’m not sure if this can be corroborated, but I like the idea. Incidentally, I switched out the yogurt for cheaper tofu and it was still quite delicious.

Photo credit: thecookiescoop.blogspot.com

Here’s the recipe as I modified it:

Spicier Spice Cake

Ingredients:

  • 1 stick cold butter
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1.75 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 4 tsp nutmeg
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 tsp allspice
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 block (200g) silken (the softest you can find) tofu
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • about 1/2 cup chopped nuts

Directions:

  1. Line a round 10in/25cm or square 8x8in/20x20cm cake pan with parchment paper. This step is important; even if you oil the bottom well, the crust could possibly stick and become a crumbly mess. I suggest oiling the sides of the pan as well.
  2. Cut the butter up into tiny pieces and mix it with the sugar and the flour. Using a spoon or, preferably, your hands, mix together until you have a fine crumbly mixture.
  3. Take 2 1/2 cups of this mixture (there will still be some left over) and press it firmly into a layer in the bottom of the lined, oiled pan to make the shortbread “crust.”
  4. Add the spices to the remaining crumbly mixture and mix well. In a small separate bowl, mix the tofu and the egg together  until they are smooth, then add to the dry ingredients. Mix well.
  5. Sprinkle the baking soda on top and mix this in, too.
  6. Pour the mixture on top of the crust layer. Sprinkle the nuts liberally over the top. Bake for 55 minutes in at 350˚F/175˚C.

—I had a picture but I’m updating my computer and it might be lost to the annals. But if I make it again . . .

Guide to buying inexpensive fruit in Japan

One of my favorite things about buying produce in Japan is seasonality. As many food writers have pointed out, most people have completely lost touch with the seasons and phases of food. We no longer set our schedules by planting and harvest times, and a grocery store without year-round apples seems strange. I’m not going to romanticize rural Japan to you – grocery stores import produce from the southern hemisphere to add to their variety, and there are plenty of city kids who wouldn’t be able to tell you when to plant your seeds any more than they’d know how. Yet, Japan always seems to have one gloved hand on tradition while the other grasps at the present, and I do find it easier to eat with the seasons here. My favorite fruit is the fig, which is just rounding out its peak season and can still be bought inexpensively.

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No Newton necessary.

There’s a philosophical benefit to buying with the seasons: the appreciation of rarity. I enjoy figs more when I know I can’t have them every day. I buy the plumpest, juiciest summer grapes and I eat them slowly. There’s always something to look forward to – just the other day on a morning run, I saw the first persimmons hanging from my neighbors tree, little orange bulbs blushing green with newness in some places. Ripe, earth-grown produce contains more nutrients, and buying locally obviates the need for expensive and environmentally unfriendly shipping across the globe. Oh, wait, you’ve heard this before? I know, me too. (You all have permission to kill me if I ever start wearing my hair in long braids and tweeting under some name like la_vida_locavore.)

More practicallyl, peak-season fruit tends to be cheaper. I get the sneaking suspicion that people who complain about expensive produce in Japan are people who walk into a grocery store, grab the first familiar fruit (a bubble-wrapped peach, for instance), and then balk at the price upon checkout. You’re on an island chain in Asia.

But, you know, sometimes you want a damn tangerine, and I would never belittle anybody for that. We are privileged people living in amazingly advanced times, and one sign of that is being able to enjoy a piece of citrus from 5,000 miles away. You can’t wear the hair-shirt all the time. But if you want to get the best deal on fruit, I suggest the following:

  • Shop around. Scout multiple groceries. At the risk of sounding totally mental, I go to different grocers for different kinds of fruit and vegetables. A bunch of bananas here for ¥100 less, apples on sale for ¥77 there, and this one place used to sell boxes packed with kumquats for ¥200 yen, whereas everywhere else was selling them for ¥800.
  • Buy from the “not-so-fresh” rack, which contains produce that is, yes, not-so-fresh by Japanese standards, but usually totally fine by anyone else’s; it’s usually just past its ridiculously short sell-by date. “Old produce” in Japan is still pretty much “farm fresh!” in America.
  • Find out what’s being harvested right now in your area. Apples are always going to be expensive in Kyushu because the bulk of them come from northeastern Japan or from overseas. But your neighbors probably can’t even give all their backyard persimmons away.

And with that, I’d like to present you with a table of fruit by season, at least here in Kyushu. In addition, I’m providing a highly subjective list of reasonable prices one might pay. (“It’s a banana, Michael, how much can it cost? $10?”) No price means I don’t buy them often enough to be able to give a good estimate.

Fall

  • Persimmons (6 for ¥300)
  • Apples (1 for ¥80-100)
  • Grapes (1 package/punnet for ¥250-300, local)
  • Figs (6 for ¥300)
  • Kiwi (1 for ¥80)
  • Nashi (Japanese pear) (1 for ¥100-130)
  • Young mikan (Mandarin orange)

Winter

  • Mikan (Mandarin orange) (8 for ¥300)
  • Kinkan (kumquat) (20 for ¥300)
  • Yuzu (lemon-like citrus)
  • Random local citrus (some good, some not so good)

Spring (the worst time for fruit)

  • Strawberries (1 punnet for ¥250-300)
  • Cherries in late spring (1 punnet for ¥400)

Summer

  • Biwa (loquat) (8 for ¥300)
  • Cherries (1 punnet for ¥400)
  • Grapes (1 package or punnet for ¥250-300, local)
  • Peaches (1 for ¥150)
  • Watermelon (1 quarter for ¥200-250)
  • Pineapple (1 medium for ¥200)
  • Kabosu Limes
  • Other expensive-ass melons I’ve never tried, regrettably

It’s worth noting that bananas are not grown in Japan and are usually imported from Vietnam or the Philippines; it’s also worth noting that they tend to be far cheaper per unit than Japan-grown fruits. (Many people will chalk this up to quality, which certainly can’t be denied, but it probably has more to do with protectionist policies and farm subsidies. Read: Pro-TPP article and Anti-TPP article for further research, if you’re interested.)

Growing up in Colorado, we used to look forward to Palisade peaches each summer – huge spheres of juicy flesh the size of a baby’s head. It’s impossible not to get sticky when eating a Palisade peach, but in Japan, fruit is always peeled and cut up before being eaten to avoid any chance of messiness. I often find myself hoping this is just a showy display of refinement put on in public, and that many people secretly enjoy the primal gnash and slush of biting into a fruit that is much too big for their mouths. But that may just be wishful thinking.

Lazy beggar + cheap fruit = 4evr <3

Lazy beggar + cheap fruit = 4evr ❤