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.
It's official: Every Davis is a resident of Kitakami-shi, Iwate-ken, Japan. Yesterday, we took Moki and Aki's importation paperwork to the city office and registered them with the city. They're now rocking their Japanese dog tags, written in kanji
, and feeling very pleased with themselves. Actually, they're sleeping because it's really honking hot in the house, which is what happens in the summer when you don't have central A/C.
Speaking of hot, it was hot enough yesterday (and probably today) that the city employees were dressed in their "Cool Biz"
work clothes. The Japanese government began promoting "Cool Biz" in the summer of 2005 as a way to lower energy consumption through reduced use of air conditioning. Basically, when the temperature gets above 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit), some offices encourage male workers who usually wear suits and ties to wear short-sleeved dress shirts with open collars. Everyone is encouraged to wear breathable, moisture-wicking fabric. Essentially, Japan is advocating environmental responsibility through government-sanctioned short-sleeving.
Merchant gift update: Since our last report, we've received another box of tissues and a box of laundry detergent from the cell phone company.
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.
Things to soothe a soul on a gray, rainy, depressing day: an oolong highball, a friendly face, and a new dining venue.
Last weekend, while walking the dogs, Matthew and I noticed the telltale red lantern of a restaurant on the side of a building just slightly out of our normal everyday paths. Reading the menu, it appeared to be reasonable; hearing the laughter emanating from inside, it sounded like a good place to know. It also appeared to be teeny-tiny. We finally made it there tonight, and were greeted by the standard hearty shout of "Irasshaimase!" ("Welcome!") (Sidebar: this tradition can be unnerving the first few times you go into a restaurant in Japan because the first thing that crosses your mind is "Why is everyone in the joint yelling at me?"). Apparently consistent with our previous assessment, it was tiny -- only three tables, and about five seats at the bar, only one of which was unoccupied.
Seeing our disappointment, the proprietress directed us through a curtain to a traditional room in the back, meaning a room with low tables and zabutons (floor cushions for sitting). We took the table next to the kitchen serving window and set about making our dinner decisions -- katsu kare (breaded pork cutlet with curry) for Matthew, yakiniku teishoku (grilled meat set with rice, pickles, and miso soup) for me. A note on the menu directed patrons to ask "Father Hige" something after dinner. We regret to inform our readers that we did not comply with this directive.
Father Hige was the cook, who came out to chat with us personally. He and Matthew bonded over their moustaches before he took our order and disappeared. Matthew and I unwound over shochu (a distilled spirit) and the aforementioned oolong highball -- iced oolong tea mixed with shochu. Dinner itself was fast, hearty, and comforting.
As we were leaving, Matthew and Father Hige had a longish conversation in Japanese. Father Hige gave us a laminated delivery menu (yay!), complimented Matthew on his Japanese skills, and exhorted us to return. We assured him that we would, and wandered off into the night, full of good eats, good drinks, and the cheer resulting from being welcomed into someone's world.
Why? Because I like sunsets, okay?
Moki and Aki are both tired and ready for a nap after their walk this morning. Why? Because it's hard out here for a 'keeter.
Near our house, there's a park along the Waga River where we frequently walk them. This morning, two groups of schoolchildren were visiting the park. Children always attract Moki's attention, and, because of his size, he always attracts theirs. One group of kids spotted Moki and Aki, and began clumping near the path to see them. The dogs headed toward them, anticipating attention.
It was a mutual lovefest. The kids chattered and giggled, exclaiming over the dogs: "Kawaii! Ookii!" (translation: Cute! Big!) They were very excited to meet Americans and American Akita dogs. The dogs happily accepted the petting, stretching out their heads and sniffing at the kids. After a time, we all said our goodbyes, and made to leave. Matthew, the dogs, and I approached the second group of schoolkids, who did not seem as eager to meet the dogs. No matter -- the first group of kids had followed us, continuing to pet the dogs and chatter. I think they would have come home with us, much to Moki's delight, if the teachers hadn't made them stay at the park.
Sometimes, it's just good to be alive.
Typhoon Number 4 headed out to sea last night, so instead of the heavy rain predicted all day, we got partly cloudy skies, moderate temperatures, and a cool breeze. A major earthquake rattled Niigata, but we didn't feel it here.
We took an evening walk with the dogs to watch the sunset.
Sometimes, it's just good to be alive.
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.)
Dog Days of Summer Already?
It's supposed to be rainy season, and although we've gotten some rain, we've also had some hot days. With high humidity and no air conditioner, it can be quite stifling. A second-hand fan helps - except when the dog is hogging it, of course.
In other news, today Aki demonstrated just how poor her manners are. She was eating when I came home from work, so she barked with her mouth full
. We need to send her to charm school, I guess.