Kinako, black sesame spread, and fruit = ambrosia

Kinako is a toasted soybean powder that tastes pleasantly nutty. You’ve probably had it dusted over mochi, which is all I’d ever really had it on as well. But then one of my adult conversation class students – who is probably about 85 years old and still “shreddin’ it,” as the kids say – told me she eats kinako in her yogurt every morning. So, in my quest to live forever genki, I tried it.

Just one spoonful is all you nee-ee-eed.

Whoa. Delicious.

The whole experience got me thinking; what else could I put kinako in or on?

So I put it in pancake batter. Amazing.
Sprinkled kinako, cinnamon, and sugar on my toast. Earth-shattering.
Dusted it over a plate of apple slices. Seriously, someone please stop me, I’m out of control.

Here’s a picture of the apple before I devoured it too quickly:

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The black dots are sesame seeds. When I made this snack again, I made a paste of black sesame (kurogoma 黒ごま) and honey – 1 part black sesame to spread to 2 parts honey. If you don’t like apple, it goes especially well with pineapple and orange. When making this paste, a little goes a long way, as black sesame has a stronger taste than its white counterpart. Or, you can just pick up the pre-made kurogoma spread at your local Kosumosu; this is the lazy beggars’ guide, after all.

But if you forgo the sesame, at least try a bit of kinako on your next bowl of fruit. That’s going to be my mantra from here on out, like the Portlandia “Put a Bird On It” thing: Put Some Kinako On It!

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.

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.