Japan 2015

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An area of “wishes” at a shrine in Kawagoe, Japan.

In October I was lucky to be able to travel back to Japan for work.  I lived there for 3 years many, many years ago.  The experience affected me in many ways, but it had significant impact on my cooking and eating.

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Tokyo Tower as seen at night from the hotel room.

For one, although I’d always like to cook, I was really cooking in Japan.  I was responsible for all of my own meals and many of my favorite convenience foods were not available.  I asked my parents to send me a basic cookbook and I used it to teach myself how to make some basics that I would crave now and then.   I had a rare, small oven in a country where at that time it was not at all common.  My most basic “banana bread” became sophisticated “banana cake” for my friends who had to mostly buy their desserts at pastry shops.

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A moving float (dashi) at the Kawagoe festival.

Secondly, one of the families I got to know well invited me to start meeting monthly to exchange cooking ideas and techniques.  I had to up my game to be able to teach someone else how to make “American” food and I learned a lot about Japanese cooking.  Another family often invited me to eat with them so I got to experience new dishes and then the father of the family helped me learn how to make fresh udon noodles.  I got a lot of street cred, once back in the U.S., showing international students how to make fresh udon…

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The emperor’s palace.

My neighbor also cooked a lot so I got to observe her ideas.  She was also game to try new things, so in knowing me, she became a fan of unusual vegetables like zucchini and sweet peppers and she mastered several yummy pasta dishes I still make now and again out of nostalgia.  At her table, I developed deep friendships that feel like family and ate some of the most incredible food.

Japan also cured me of the need to always have everything super hot at the table.  Many times dishes are served after they’ve cooled for a while or even at room temperature.  Sure, there’s hot food in Japan, but after a while, I realized nobody is super obsessed about it.  Things can be prepared in advance.  And sit around a bit.  And still be delicious and awesome.

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Some of the many buddha statues (no two alike) in Kawagoe, Japan. I like these two talking/listening.

I also ate real rice.  We were not rice eaters since my dad doesn’t like it and the closest I came to it was instant rice.  I was exposed to lovely rice in my daily school lunches and in restaurants and with my friends.  I began to experiment with my rice cooker and now I can make very good sticky rice.  I pushed the envelope for myself and my friends by experimenting with “orange rice” (mostly butter and orange juice) in my rice cooker, but  we all agreed the plain stuff was the best.  I didn’t need the soy sauce drizzle that I might have wanted back at home.  I love it plain.  I craved it.   Still do.

I also got over eating vegetables slathered in butter, cheese, or dressing.  Japan gave me plain, clean vegetable flavors.  Not always, but often.  I learned to appreciate different flavor profiles where citrus or soy might feature more prominently than oil or other fat.  I stopped needing butter in order to eat corn on the cob.  I hardly put cheese on anything — partly because it wasn’t so available where I lived and partly because I didn’t seem to need it any longer to enjoy broccoli or cauliflower.  Things just got simpler.

I am sure my ever evolving veggie obsession and appreciation for local things was spurred a little by my experiences as an eater and as a home cook in Japan.  In this way, it was fun to go back and experience some great and not-so-great food again in Japan.  I wasn’t able to eat all of the foods I craved, but we ate well.  I realized again that every culture has its “fast food” that isn’t exactly home cooking but that even when eating fast, you can still eat pretty well in Japan.

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A yuzu “tea” from a restaurant in Tateyama — they basically make marmalade from the peel and the juice and then stir it into water. Super delicious and refreshing!

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A hearty dinner of “nabe,” tofu salad, and sausages!

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My ‘nabe’ dipping bowl with yuzu sauce for flavor

Best, however, was a dish I loved from my “long ago life” that my friend Atsuko made for me this time: nabe.  It’s such an easy concept.  You put whatever meat and vegetables you want into a pot and boil them until they are cooked.  You then put the whole pot in the center of the table.  People then ladle out small amounts into small personal bowls.  Some eat it “as is” and some use dipping sauces to add just a little flavor to the mixture.  I like ponzu which is a sauce made with soy, probably a bit of fish broth, and a citrus called yuzu which is a very unusual citrus (maybe a mix of lemon, lime, and orange but the smell and taste is super unique).  It adds just a little bit of flavor the lovely combination of things like chicken, cabbage, and the most delicious tofu!  Our U.S. tofu cannot compare!!

It wouldn’t be totally accurate to say we ate our way through Japan.  That said, boy did we eat!

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Traditional veggie and fish in broth. Our “free” appetizer.

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Japanese pizza — one with egg and bacon and the other “margherita.”

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Green tea soba noodles served cold (room temp) with dipping sauce.

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The smorgasbord at the hotel’s breakfast buffet.

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A lovely Japanese bento lunch box: a little of this, a little of that, all eaten at room temp.

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A “mixed sandwich” snack while out and about (ham and egg salad sandwiches)

 

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An amazing platter of sashimi!

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“Fast food” Chinese food (I love mabo dofu, bottom right, but this was not the best I’ve had…)

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Indian food (with enormous naan bread) in Kawagoe, Japan

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The American breakfast at the business hotel.

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The Japanese breakfast (mine!) at the business hotel.

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Quick “pasta napolitan” at a train station cafe.

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A green tea welcome to a traditional hotel.

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The traditional hotel’s breakfast spread!

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Teriyaki chicken in Narita

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Unagi (eel) — the traditional dish of Narita!

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Delicious tempura with dipping sauce or dipping salts

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This was my first time seeing dipping salts offered with tempura. Delicious!

 

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Corn soup! I loved this and was happy to eat it again.

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More pizza. This one was crispy and hot and more delicious than our other pizza.

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A sushi assortment and boiled peanuts — local agriculture!

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My friend Atsuko had a new nabe (pot) for cooking rice. Delicious rice!

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Ta da! The rice!

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The best leftovers ever: simple cabbage salad, a mixture of beef and onions, and niku jaga (pork and potato stew) for eating with the rice.

 

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The ‘nabe’ was loaded with mushrooms, chicken, long onions, and tofu!

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The small bowl for serving our own portions of the nabe ingredients…and cold beer!

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“Hamburger steak” at a local restaurant with a mushroom sauce and lovely plain rice.

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I went all yuzu — yuzu iced tea and yuzu-flavored chiffon cake.

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Atsuko’s tempura!

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Kazumi’s delicious “pasta napolitan” — much better than what I ate at the train station!

 

One thought on “Japan 2015

  1. Oh my gosh. If you’re going to visit Japan, this is the way to do it. Looks amazing. I’ve been in Japan for just over a week now, but haven’t been dining out much. I’d better step up my game!

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