Thursday, 31 December 2009

from Tokyo, 2009

Christmas is really a commercial event in Japan. Money-spending often goes on here and there; grown-up couples love fine dining with silky champagne, friends enjoy food and booze in scruffy-but-vibrant restaurants, boys and girls plan a romantic time in Tokyo Disney Land or other hot spots, and Santa parents rush into toy shops for their kids gift.

The 25th is no holiday though we’re nationally off on 23 December because of the Emperor’s Birthday. Restaurants, shops, business and transportation run normal. Coupled with Christmas light-up as well as winter sales, I saw many people hanging around the street this year as well. The difference from past years during this festive week was, however, that Tokyo was “economically” quiet without the shopping craze... Alas!

My Chiristmas? Well, it was relatively simple. While Mom cooked stress-free roast beef which was marinated in a soy-based sauce for twenty four hours (not so strict as Jack Bauer time), I made snowy potato gratin for its accompaniment. A bottle of daily wine somewhat gave a festive finish, but that was weekday dinner, anyway.

Today is oh-misoka (New Year’s Eve) and we’re still straddling between Christmas and New Year. In Japan, to celebrate the New Year is more family-oriented with a traditional feast at its centre. Each household thus dedicates this transitional period to not only cooking but cleaning up every corner of their houses. It’s also time to say farewell to Christmassy decors. With manpower of 120 million Japanese, all the places of the nation are changed into the formal and crispy ambience to welcome the coming year. Ture.

... Well, time to go back to my kitchen. Happy New Year!!

PS (long)..
I almost forgot to mention the Japanese equivalent to British “Christmas Pudding” or French “bûche de Noël” on Christmas day. Thaaat’s ”Shortcake”!

Inspired by American strawberry shortcake, the Japanese version is made of a light, soft sponge crammed with strawberries. Being all covered with fresh cream, it’s surmounted by a crown of strawberries.

To be honest, this cake is available throughout a year, also recognised as sweets classic since my childhood. Plus, many other puddings from traditional bûche de Noël to the latest developed by imaginative chefs appear voguish in recent Decembers. However, as long as the colour hue of shortcake looks like symbolising ho-ho-ho Santa Clause flying over snowy mountains, it will remain Christmassy, I believe.

Friday, 18 December 2009

yam is yum

Potatoes, sweet potatoes and yams... All are familiar root vegetables in Japan too, but my favourite is “yamaimo” literally meaning “mountain yam”.

Yama-imo (or called yamato-imo locally) is a fist-shaped yam which has been consumed in Japan since its pre-historic period. To fully enjoy the extreme stickiness as well as soupiness in texture, we often “grate” the yam, a bit diluted with dashi (fish broth) and traditionally eat it pouring over boiled rice mixed with barley. The yam is digestible enough to be eaten in raw, thus, plays a supporting role in need of another quick savoury in the kitchen. Nice.

Cooked yamaimo is also tasty as represented by “isobe-age” (deep-fried yamaimo wrapped with dried seaweed), one of popular menus served in “izaka-ya”, a Japanese gastronomic pub. Though I like the flavour myself, my family finds fried seaweed smells fishy, so the following recipe is my twist for minimalists. No matter who you are, that’s easy-peasy to cook.


* Makes around 15
150g yamaimo (available in a Japanese grocery. Frozen? I don’t approve, really)
Vegetable oil
Salt or soy sauce, to serve

1. Peel yamaimo and soak it in lightly-vinegered water for 10 minutes to eliminate the bitterness.

2. Grate the yam in a bowl. I don’t recommend using a food processor because the yam gets watery. Go with a hand grater for this small portion.

3. Take a teaspoonful of the yam dough, then place it on a tray. Repeat with the remaining dough until you have around 15 pieces. This is definitely a two-teaspoon job as the grated yam is so sticky to handle with a single utensil.

4. Heat the generous amount of vegetable oil in a frying-pan. When the oil is hot, drop the pieces on the pan with an oiled spoon (or spoons), and fry them turning a couple of times. When they’re browned and crisp, lift them out of the pan and drain on kitchen paper.

5. Serve straight away, accompanied by salt or soy sauce.

1. Don’t skip the process of #3. To avoid burning, the dough should be neatly divided before frying.
2. The cooked yam gets rubbery when cool. Serve while hot!

You’ll enjoy the dual texture: elastic inside yet crispy outside. Plus, it tastes like a freshly-made rice crackers. This yam is real yum. No joke.

FYI, on this photo is “yamaimo”, usually available in vacuum-packed at a supermarket. We also have “naga-imo” (long yam), which not only sounds but also looks similar with yamaimo. Being more watery as well as lighter, it’s good to be eaten in julienne.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

more Asian!

This morning, a book parcel just arrived from Amazon EU. Ordering foreign cookbooks (written in English) is my regular activity on a monthly or bimonthly basis. To unpack such a heavy box from abroad is a therapeutic ritual to air my life in Tokyo with extra-exotic breeze, which now became a little piece of joy!

It may sound unusual to keep collecting foreign cookbooks while the same kinda books written by Japanese authors are easily available in nearby bookshops. They not only help my English, but draw my huge attention, providing all the culinary sophistication from the cooking presentation to photography (..well, apart from the bulky bookbinding tech). This is the point that Japanese counterparts can hardly achieve, I view.

My current read is "Nutmeg & Custard” by Marcus Wareing, who is a British Michelin-starred chef at “Marcus Wareing at The Barkeley”, London. (For your further info, he’s also well-known as an ex-protégé of Gordon Ramsay.) His book covering a variety of cookery scenes together with global ingredients and spices, the “ORIENT” chapter is amazing me in particular. As epitomised by Marcus here, I really like non-Asian chefs are enthusiastic about developing Asian cooking based on their distinctive senses that I’ve never had as Japanese.

For example, cooking marriages found between soba (buckwheat noodle) and greens for salad, tuna sashimi and pickled ginger for marinade are seemingly familiar in Japanese food. For us, however, they’re something “likely-but-unlikely” otherwise too close to be harmonised in the Japanese kitchen. They still fall into a range like “nouvelle” or “experimental”, albeit delish.

Anglicised recipes make Asian food “more Asian” in your country? Strange, but true...

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

something in between

In Tokyo, nothing happens on Thanksgiving Day. No feast! That’s because our oven is too small to roast a turkey, or we’re just busy going out for early Xmas lights. December appears the quietest wintry month for Japanese, who loves parties and get-togethers in every ceremonial occasion, ignoring its religious and historical background.

Anyways... today, I want to introduce a basic “wafu (Japanese-style) dressing”. This effortless recipe gives a Far Eastern finish over your daily salad. Below is the sample measurement:


* Makes for one large bowl of salad
1.5 tsp Japanese soy sauce (Kikkoman’s will do in your country)
1.5 tsp rice vinegar (Japanese is preferable, but use cider/campaign vinegar if not available)
1/2 tsp sugar
2 tsp grated onion
1/4 tsp salt and paper
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp sesame oil

Whisk all the ingredients together in a small bowl. That’s it!!

1. Add a pinch of grated garlic and one/two teaspoonfuls of roasted sesame seeds if you prefer richer flavour.
2. This dressing makes the best friends with tomato and avocado. That’s the culinary trinity!

Adding sugar is an important action in cooking Japanese savoury dishes. Your taste buds will find two extremes; sweetness of sugar and saltiness of soy are coexisting, for example, when you’re eating typical Sukiyaki (beef hotpot), Teriyaki (glazed, grilled fish/meat) or Yakitori (char-grilled chicken). I believe this is the culinary form to express Japanese “ambiguities”. We mention neither “yes” nor “no”, “black” nor “white”, “high” nor “low” and “rich” nor "poor”. To choose something in between -- that’s “Japaneseness” whether you accept.

These days, a large number of ready-made dressings with different flavours (Japanese, American, French, Italian, Chinese, Korean...whatever) are available in Japanese supermarkets. Some are non-oiled which is favoured by female weight-watchers. You can try them as a practical travel souvenir, but, don’t forget that those bottled items may have stodgy sugariness due to MSG. My family, thus, hasn’t bought any...

“Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet“ in Southeast Asia?? Well, “Salty & Sweet” is a key in Japanese cuisine.

PS. This book is my refuge when escapism is necessary. Works better than a cuppa!

Saturday, 28 November 2009

time flies...

Although my family moved out a while ago, I was born and grew up on Omotesando Street in Harjuku, that was originally an approach to Meiji-jingu Shrine through the Aoyama area.

This highest street in Tokyo is now known as the “Champs Elysees” in Far East, the epicentre of shopping and fashion trends. In the pre-booming period of a couple of decades ago, however, the atmosphere had a different face. According to my mom, she hardly passed her neighbours when taking an afternoon walk with me in buggy. Low-rise buildings and houses were dotted around, and our apartment was located next to a birds-singing garden attached to a big Catholic church. All were in peace and tranquillity, but, those days have gone...

If you say that giant metropolises like London, Paris or New York are changing “monthly”, Tokyo is changing “minutely”. So, it happens that your Tokyo guide book (even Michelin's) is turned into rubbish easily. Beware!

In my childhood, eating out was still a special activity because the food-service industry was limited in variety such as sushi restaurant, hotel dining, ramen (Japanese-born Chinese noodle) bar, Korean BBQ, coffee shop (not chichi cafe yet) and some McDonald’s & KFC outlets. It is quite recent phenomenon that Japanese became fussy for international cuisines with incomprehensible words of “patisserie”, “boulangerie”, “gelateria”, bla bla bla.

My sweet reminiscence is traced back to American 70’s style “Olympia Diner” on the ground floor of Coop Olympia Apartment near Harajuku station. (Obviously, both were named after Tokyo Olympics in 1964, when the building was founded.) We used to stop by there before or after shopping at the supermarket in the basement. For me, that's such a grown-up space to offer “decent Western foods" including burgers with chips, coleslaws, sugary doughnuts and chocolate shakes. The diner has gone too, though.

Today, my burger recipe is a homage to the diner’s chef.

Thursday, 26 November 2009


Hot lemonade saves my body and soul around this time of year when Xmas is almost upon us.

The simple combo between freshly squeezed lemon juice, pure honey and hot soft water gives me warming, relaxing and soothing effects. The sourness of lemon, at the same time, kicks my dozing brain in the lazy afternoon. What a winter magic!

Winter lemon is good indeed, for its skin becomes so thin that more juiciful flesh is expected against its summer stony version. (So is in your country?) I often encase each quarter of a whole lemon juice in a teeny plastic container and keep them in a fridge to cope with any urgent use.

Honey. Well, there’s four bottles of honey in my cupboard. American bear-shaped SueBee Clover is my daily company while French Les Abeilles Amandier (Almond flower) is pricey one in case that I need more kitchen therapy. Chestnuts flavoured Italian honey rich in herbal-like aroma isn’t a close friend with the lemony tang, but, goes fine with buttered toasts. French Hediard All Flower Honey, I don’t know yet.

In her dictionary, Nigella L defines the “soothing, pure, would-be restorative food” as “Templefood”. Lemonade is “Templedrink” in mine, accordingly...

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

not apple, but soy

Without fail, “soy sauce” (shoyu) is a desert island item for Japanese. Miniature bottles of soy are our standby in travelling abroad. Amazing.

There are always 20 to 30 varieties of soy lined on supermarket shelves in Japan. Most are from the giants while some are locally produced, matured in taste like Italian aged balsamic vinegar. If..if you’re a soy virgin and confused which to choose, try Kikkoman’s “Premium Soy”, which is my family’s regular. That gives not only a proper quality, but friendly price for daily use.

I felt so proud to find Nigella Lawson on TV sprinkling her Kikkoman over her simmering middle-eastern lamb stew to give depth of flavour in place of salt. My action was nearly to call them to sponsor the international domestic goddess... Soy could have taken its throne in the seasoning kingdom!!

As well as Chinese counterparts, Japanese soy is very briefly categorised as two groups; “dark-coloured” (koi-kuchi) and “light-coloured” (usu-kuchi). The first soy is referred to as what is called “soy cause” used for both cooking in the kitchen and seasoning dishes as you like at the table. We, on the other hand, use the second soy to add saltiness without colouring a lot “in cooking”.

Japanese also has “tamari” soy originated in Central Japan, with more robust flavour suitable for sushi and sashimi, but for long, I haven’t seen anyone interested in tamari in Tokyo. Although sweeter version of soy is totally a stranger to me, it seems standard in Southern Japan. Well, family members of soy are countless.

Do you know “murasaki” literally meaning “purple” is the sushi terminology for soy? If you ask at a sushi restaurant in Japan, “please pass me murasaki”, your server will treat you as a gastronomic traveller, I promise...probably 80%.

Soy is rich in vitamin B, amino acid, mineral, etc. One teaspoonful of soy a day keeps the doctor away?? Maybe, we don’t need an apple.

PS. I personally think Kikkoman’s export soy doesn’t work well as it once required far more quantity than expected in my cooking. So, try to get the domestically-circulated bottle in a Japanese or Asian grocery. Final tip!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Beaujolais, Beaujolais, Beaujolais

The release day of the freshest French wine has come!

It is odd enough that Japanese can’t wait for this foreign-made alcohol every year, but, thanks to TD, Japan is the first guest to be offered Beaujolais Nouveau in the world. So, we deserve it.

At midnight on the third Thursday in November, some locations in Tokyo are turned into party venues to celebrate the arrival of the French beauty, with celebrities smiling and holding up ruby glasses. From the day on, wine shops, department stores and Seven-Elevens are busy selling them out through their tasting campaigns. This festive mood seems calming this year due to the severe recession, but, has still been marked as a must-have winter event before Xmas since the golden “bubble” era in the 80s.

In a spa complex called “Kowaki-en” in Hakone, Kanagawa pref, more surprisingly, one large bath is filled with spring water and real Beaujolais Nouveau so that bathers can enjoy its colour as well as aroma (some might taste… alas!). Hope… hope that French is not peeping my blog.

Well, my family pre-ordered three bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau Château de Boisfranc (JPY 3,600 per bottle) from “Mavi”, the pioneering organic wine shop in Tokyo. They’re already at hand and just a minute to go with supper. Oops! don’t miss a toast to “2009”, which is the best grape producer in 50 years.

Cool or uncool, everyone adores something jolly on cold winter days, right?

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

about me

Tokyo is a huge capital with the population of nearly 13 million. People come in the city from every corner of Japan, and they never leave… because the sleepless city is full of temptations; theatres, galleries, hotels, clubs, fashions, restaurants, swings of jazz, and all other indulgences. Who cares the bad economic climate???

Is the life of real Tokyoite, then, fancy enough?? I was born and grew up in the centre of Tokyo as the third generation of Tokyoite. I work, sometimes drink out, but often cook at home with fresh ingredients. Daily eating is "simple" as well as healthy even in the “gastronomic crucible”.

“The lacquer spoon” is to deliver the simple lifestyle of one Tokyoite focusing on its food culture. It opens tips which guide books don’t speak up. No fancy words here, really.

the lacquer spoon x
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