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!
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