The S & M International Matsuri-Fiesta-Party-Thing
In the spirit of festivity surrounding matsuri
, we invited a couple of friends over for dinner prior to last night's fireworks viewing. I was having some menu-development issues until Sunday, when our neighbor from across the street came over and passed me some garden-fresh tomatoes through the kitchen window. In possession of this bounty, I did what any right-thinking half-Mexican girl would do.
I made salsa. And built a menu around it.
Menu of chips and salsa, carnitas tacos with avocado (Sidebar: The Japanese word for "avocado" is abogado
. I find this tremendously amusing.) and rice decided, we braced ourselves for the reality of our chip-and-tortilla situation. Chips and tortillas are available here, provided you're willing to accept chips and tortillas manufactured in Belgium as a viable option. Which we were, and were pleasantly surprised to discover that they didn't suck
. What we were not willing to do was pay 1150 yen, or approximately $10 USD, for a six-pack of Corona.
As it turned out, beer was not an issue. One of our friends brought "appropriate food and drink," as she described them when she accepted the invitation. These included edamame, Japanese vegetable chips, grilled corn, and giant cans of Kirin Ichiban beer. Back at the house post-fireworks, another friend introduced us to a snack of cream cheese cubes dipped in wasabi-enriched soy sauce, which was really quite good.
Mexican food and Japanese food: two great tastes that go great together!
It's been so hot and humid in Kitakami for the last week that, most days, we haven't been able to see the mountains west of town. We got a brief respite on Saturday morning, courtesy of a perfunctory downpour from Typhoon Usagi, which had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached us. We also had a little baby earthquake, for anyone who's keeping track of natural phenomena in Iwate-ken.
Because it's so muggy, nothing sounds particularly good to eat. We've been relying on the old Japanese standby, zaru soba
. Zaru soba
is cooked buckwheat noodles, chilled and then served with a dipping sauce. The dipping sauce is based on tsuyu
, a combination of dashi broth, soy sauce, and mirin (sweet seasoning), and flavored as you like with ginger, green onions, and wasabi. Normally, zaru soba
is served on small mat-lined trays, which we currently lack because, well, we have no space for them. Here's a photo:
Incidentally, although we have a vague working theory, we have no idea who Big Stif is, or who the brave person is who did something with him/her.
Nothing says summer like blueberries. Unique to Japan, that means a big katakana
banner heralding the aforementioned fruit.
My language partner and I visited Kitakami's blueberry farm this morning, accompanied by her daughter and a friend. I think this was a first experience for all of us, and speaking for myself, I've been deprived for thirty-two years. Really, it doesn't get any better than popping ripe, sun-warmed, straight from the bush berries into your mouth on a hot summer day, surrounded by beautiful mountains.
There was some competition for the title of "Best Blueberry Experience." In planning for the trip, I offered a lesson in muffin making because another foreigner had told my language partner how great blueberry muffins are, and she wanted to try them. Perhaps less altruistically, I knew she had an oven and I sensed an opportunity to get my bake on.
The lesson was great fun. Channeling my inner Julia Collin
, I explained the steps and did the preliminary mixing and instructed the girls on how to mix wet into dry ingredients, leaving the batter lumpy for light muffins, and gently folding the berries into the batter so they wouldn't break. We all took turns watching the muffins in the oven and barely tolerated the wait to eat them when they came out. It was kind of awesome. So were the muffins. :)
Tonight, I'm busting out the chopstick whisk again to whip cream to serve alongside the otherwise unadulterated berries.
Adventures in Puddingmaking
We were invited to a potluck this evening, which in my old world would translate into the production of baked goods. As you've all heard or read, however, we now live an oven-free life. Our cooking is limited to whatever we can make on a cooking unit composed of two gas burners and a small broiling drawer designed for fish. So instead of a cake, or tart, or cupcakes (mmm, cupcakes), I made banana pudding. I figured it was better to make something tasty from my country and leave Japanese food to the pros.
Store run: Bananas, check. Flour, milk, eggs, check. Vanilla of indeterminate origin, check. Vanilla wafers . . . um. Hmm. Nothing on the shelves appeared to be terribly similar to American vanilla wafers. I was going to pick up a bag of potato chips because they had the same shape, until I recognized the word "po-te-to" written in katakana (syllabary used for foreign words) on the bag. Disaster averted. Because you make pudding with the cookies you have, not the ones you wish you had, I bought a box of what appeared to be simple butter cookies and crossed my fingers.
Back in the 'Bash, the helpful dogs offered to lighten my load by eating the bananas. I rejected their kind gesture and got to work. We've got a rather sparsely appointed kitchen out of necessity, which is how I ended up standing at the cooktop stirring custard with bamboo cooking chopsticks. Also, I discovered that with an ample handful of them (six are better than four), you can whip cream to stiff peaks. It only takes about twenty minutes, or roughly the duration of the first six songs on the second disc of Prince's "The Hits/The B-Sides" box set. These things, I know.
Verdict: The pudding was a hit, even eaten with chopsticks.
I want a cupcake.
Not a crappy Hostess cupcake. A nice, dense, buttercream-frosted American cupcake. You can't find those in Kitakami.
Good sweets aren't hard to find here. There are no fewer than six European-style bakeries in town, turning out delicious cheesecakes, eclairs, and whipped-cream-filled sponge rolls. This is true of many places in Japan, which is one of my favorite things about the country. Among packaged snacks, there's a lot to like -- the omnipresent and overwhelming variety of Pocky biscuit sticks, McVitie's digestive biscuits (Banana Blacks, where are you? Last year, you stole my heart as a result of the twelve-minute dash from the JR Sakamachi Station to the convenience store for snacks and back to catch our train. Now, you are nowhere to be found.), and many other little cookies whose third or fourth ingredient must be crack. The tofu cheese and the gift doughnuts at the local Okinawan joint. Black sesame sweet potato pies from Mister Donut. The black sesame gelato at the Namahaga Coffee Company in Akita City. Mochi. Youkan, if you're into bean jelly.
But cupcakes . . . I got nothing. When I worked in Southwest DC, I could run over to the closest Starbucks (which is to say the one two blocks away, rather than the one three blocks away) to pick up a drink and a cupcake to enjoy in my office. The closest Starbucks now is in Morioka, which is an hour north by train and may or may not have cupcakes (and, being a Japanese Starbucks, carries the inherent risk that its cupcakes will be, say, melon. Not a bad thing per se, just a thing.). They weren't the best cupcakes in the world, and the chocolate ones were infinitely better than the vanilla, but man, do I miss those cupcakes right now.
Matthew's craving, incidentally, is equally insatiable: scrapple.
Oh, elusive cupcake. Can't make you, can't buy you, can't get you out of my mind.
Many people in Japan have vegetable gardens in their yards. One of our neighbors sometimes shares produce from hers with us -- young snap peas, a summer spinach-like thing. Yesterday, she gave us a bunch of Japanese cucumbers, which have a smaller diameter and fewer seeds than American cucumbers. I can't bake anything because I don't have an oven, so I'm not sure how to reciprocate. Maybe I should show up with cocktails in the afternoon.
I've now got my special ingredient for the foreseeable future, since we can't let any of that natural, neighborly, cucumbery goodness go to waste. I don't claim to adhere to the "use secret ingredient in every dish" principle of the show, but we will eat things that involve cucumbers until they're gone. Yesterday, I made quick pickles using vinegar, sugar, and ginger. Tonight, I made this dish dressed with dashi, vinegar, soy sauce, and salt:
The cucumber is accompanied by young Japanese ginger and reconstituted wakame
, a kind of seaweed. It's really pretty, and was really good.
We also had this simmered dish of lettuce (who knew?) and young sardines:
Doesn't it kind of look like something that, if served in a restaurant in America, would get a kitchen closed down for health code violations? Which would be too bad, because it was awesome. Good gravy, it was awesome, all savory and crisp -- perfect for a cold mountain evening. I'm now ready to put the baby sardines in just about anything. (Note to CFA Division: your future is sardines. Just saying.)
The flavor of Tohoku - it's Hello Kitty nattou
Tonight, we made okonomiyaki
for dinner. Okonomiyaki
is, in a word, awesome. It's a frittata/pancake-like thing made from an egg, flour, and naga-imo
(Chinese yam) batter. Mix in some cabbage and whatever fillings you like (we had shrimp and white "slice cheese"), toss on the griddle and cook like a pancake. Once it's done, serve it up and top it with okonomiyaki
sauce, mayonnaise, shaved bonito flakes (the heat makes them wave around, which is either cool or freaky, depending on how you feel about your food moving), and pickled ginger. Tabemashou
! Let's eat!
8:00 am -- Wake up to sounds of small city life, including clanking and machinery from nearby cement plant.
8:30 am -- Breakfast. Sometimes we have toast, eggs, or cereal (Japanese cornflakes + Iwate milk = awesome). Other days, we eat rice topped with umeboshi (pickled plums that look like brains), seaweed, or natto (fermented soybeans that have the texture and viscosity of warm Rice Krispie treat matter).
Okay, sometimes Matthew has natto. I fear the natto.
We also use mornings to catch up on American news and our respective newsgroups and food boards, since much of what happens happens while we're merrily snoozing away.
11:30 am -- Put futons away (only sometimes, I confess), iron, go to dry cleaner, decide whether we'll have lunch together. Matthew suits up for work and cycles off, messenger bag slung over his shoulder. He's adorable. :) I do laundry in the Jetsons washing machine, or clean up the teeny-tiny kitchen, or deal with paperwork.
Somewhere around 1:00 pm -- Lunch! I bike over to Matthew's school, and we seek out a mealing venue. There's a good, cheap takoyaki (grilled octopus balls, by which I mean balls of octopus meat) joint near his school that serves lunch specials of takoyaki (obviously) or tasty, tasty yakisoba (grilled noodles), onigiri (seaweed-wrapped rice balls stuffed with something like spiced roe, salmon, or brains), and a dessert (most recently, melon custard -- mmm). The people running the place are very friendly and chatty.
2:00 pm -- Deetsing around on some combination of errands, exploration, grocery shopping, and the inevitable WTF? moment. Here's today's:
I finally acquired an apron today. It makes me look a bit like a miniskirt-wearing short-order cook.
Sometimes, my travels take me to the "WellYu" building, home of the Kitakami International Assembly Hall and a tiny, excellent art museum. KIAH is where Matthew first learned about The Moustache's reputation from a fellow Amerika-jin, an exchange student from Florida whose father had seen them around.
Somewhere around 5:00 pm -- return home and unpack goods. Feel relieved to have blood flow restored to hands if I overestimated how much I could reasonably carry on my sketchy bike, as I did today. Study Japanese, or surf the net, or catch up on email, or go for a bike ride.
7:00 pm-ish on days when it's not raining -- watch sunset.
8:30 pm -- make dinner. I've been cooking a fair amount of Japanese food, including fish, and had quite a bit of success. Fish is tricky, but for some reason, seems very easy to do here. On Tuesday, I made salt-broiled whole aji (horse mackerel), including gutting and de-gilling. There's no stopping me now...
9:30 pm -- Cocktail time! Matthew gets home from work around 9:10 most nights, changes, and makes drinks while I finish dinner. We eat and speak some Japanese before doing our last internet stuff and going to bed.
11:00 pm -- get out futons, go to bed. Listen to frogs communing along the Waga River.