Month: October 2014

Seasonality in Cuisine

I deeply respect Japanese cuisine, because I know that the Japanese have a deep respect for cuisine. And, obviously, I enjoy the spectacular results.

Breakfast egg, cooked by my sister

This deep appreciation for food manifests itself in many different ways in Japan- the multiplicity of television shows exploring different local cuisines, the sheer overwhelming number of restaurants (80,000- over 4 times the amount in New York), let alone Michelin-starred restaurants, and the inseparable eating and drinking culture. However, as someone interested in local and seasonal food, I most respect the obsessive featuring of seasonal ingredients.

It is fall in Japan, which means that every single sweet shop features 90% chestnuts, sweet potatoes, and persimmons. The remaining 10% of the sweets are regular traditional flavors, but they are shaped like pumpkins.

Sweet potato, chestnut, and pumpkin flavored Haagan Dazs at the convenience store

So many of my meals here include the fall fish that is only available for two weeks, this or that bitter herb only found in this mountain prefecture in the fall, or the fish eggs that are only sold every other year on the second Tuesday of August. There is an obsession with seasonality, with freshness.

Fall, on Kawaguchiko Lake, near Mt. Fuji

In the grocery store, I am dazzled by the dozens of types of mushrooms, and the enormous tofu aisle. There are more varieties of greens than I ever knew existed.  And despite how much I think I learn about seafood every time I visit, it only reminds me of how much there remains to learn.

Tofu is an entire food group in Japan

Compared to other world cuisines, Japan’s dishes are subtle, with distinct flavors. There is rarely an overpowering spice or a stew of melding aromas. Rather, dishes more often feature obvious ingredients. And these high quality ingredients, usually fresh, within season, and from Japan, should not be hidden under layers of seasoning. This subtlety and separation of flavors respects the ingredients.

While visiting Mt. Fuji a few days ago, my sister and I shared a traditional Japanese meal, which nearly paralyzed me with its diversity and flavors. Notice that there are many, many small dishes, each with a few ingredients. There are all the flavors of Japanese cuisine, each appearing separately, each presented with precision.

Note the persimmon flavored bean dessert, shaped again in a persimmon

 

This meal represents everything that I love about Japanese cuisine- seasonality, simplicity, distinction, clean presentation, and extraordinary seafood. All of these factors are part of a deep and rich culinary history of which I have only ever scratched the surface. Every time I visit Japan, I leave with a greater respect for its culture and people. I am so thankful for the time I spend here.

But, tomorrow, onto Hanoi!

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The Subtleties of a Menu

When arriving in another country, one of the first things that one has to learn is, simply, how to walk on the street. Every country has slightly different rules, and people in every pocket of the world think that their rules are the norm. This is one of the reasons that traveling is so engaging- suddenly, something as simple as walking around becomes a conscious act.

I love walking around Tokyo. I walk on the left side of the street, mindful that cars take left turns into crosswalks. I keep straight while bicycles with carefully balanced children, tiny dogs, and bags in baskets whiz around me- stray the course to do the awkward side-to-side shuffle, and I’ll cause chaos. When I swim through the streams of people in Shinjuku station during rush hour, I occasionally stand off to the side to marvel at the extraordinary efficiency of Japanese public transportation.

This is not all new to me; I have been to Japan before. My older sister has lived in Tokyo for several years. And I love to visit, because she likes to eat as much as I do. Most of our morning is spent making and eating large breakfasts, and her free time in the evenings is spent touring Tokyo restaurants with me.

A full Japanese breakfast, prepared by my sister

When I eat alone here, I am left guessing ingredients, or basing my orders on pictures (Asian restaurants have a lot more images on their menus, or even models of the dish, than American ones. Perhaps their food is more photogenic). I suspect that I will be doing similar ordering for a large part of my travels. This method of eating leads to a few miscommunications, a few happy accidents, and the occasional dish that forever remains a mystery.

What would you guess this rice ball contains? The answer is salmon, as I correctly guessed it would be- it’s in the small victories

I can always find a way to feed myself, but to eat with someone who understands the subtleties of a menu completely changes the experience. I aim in my travels to share meals with people who know more about the cuisine than I do. This is how to learn the most.

Monday night, my sister and I shared a meal at her favorite restaurant in Tokyo. I was not given a say in what was ordered, which made each new plate even more sublime.

We started with slimy seaweed soup flavored with ginger, and pickled and fried daikon. Next, raw tuna, flounder, and shrimp that was so fresh and sweet I almost lost my mind. Then, mushroom tempura served with salt infused with matcha, or powdered green tea. Of course, the meal was accompanied by sake, which only intensifies the flavors of Japanese food.

Raw shrimp, tuna, and flounder, which tastes even better than it looks

But the final course, fresh hand cut soba noodles (video) made in the restaurant, was what this establishment was known for. Soba is made from buckwheat flour, and in Tokyo, the noodles are long and thin. Dipped in a creamy sesame sauce, the cooled noodles had a nutty, earthy flavor. After finishing the noodles, the broth from cooking is poured into the remaining sauce and drank as a soup.

Fresh hand cut soba noodles, with wasabi and green onions to add to a creamy sesame sauce

Before this meal, if you had asked my opinion of soba, I would have said that I love a bowl of soba, because it is a good, filling meal that you can grab for $5 in the train station. After this meal, I would have said that I wonder why anyone would ever leave Japan when there is food like this to be eaten.

As I celebrated my birthday last Sunday night in a bar, listening to a roomful of Japanese people sing along to Joe Simon`s Happy Birthday Baby in my honor, I experienced a moment of pure joy (that was soon to grow, thanks to some more drinks of smooth Japanese whiskey). I feel so incredibly lucky to be here, to eat this magnificent food and spend time with these amazing people, on the first stop on my travels. To Japan, kanpai!

Happy Birthday to me!

Departure

My favorite kitchen in the world is in the house I lived in for a few years in college. It is a tiny, cramped kitchen with two people; but regularly, five to ten people would be cooking and eating dinner at the same time. The counters, with most available space taken up with jars of dried beans and flour, and the stove top, with its propensity to catch on fire, were never left idle. The kitchen was full of “excuse me”, “behind you”, “oops sorry”, and “are you done with that?”. I loved being in the thick of it, rubbing elbows and borrowing teaspoons. The house could be completely unoccupied, and but the kitchen was always full.

I’ve been home in Indiana with my parents for about a month now. I’m cooking in the kitchen in which I grew up- I have memories of watching my mom knead bread, begging for a blender to make milkshakes, and baking batch after batch of Christmas cookies. It is nice to return; a few years have passed since I’ve been home for such a long stretch of time.

And yet, cooking doesn’t feel the same. Both of my parents work, and without a car, I find that I spend most of my days home alone. I have projects that keep me engaged, but sometimes I lack the motivation to cook. I instead graze and scavenge around my house, waiting until my mother comes home from work to start dinner. When I do cook, I habitually turn on talk radio, or run through a list of friends that I could call (I also spend more time talking to the dog than would be considered “normal”).

Cooking and eating have always been, at their core, social activities for me. I don’t remember meals eaten alone, and I never cook something that I keep to myself. I don’t love food alone. I love it with people. Food’s meaning is clear to me: it brings people together. That social aspect of talking about cooking, or sharing my plate- that is what gives authenticity and significance to my experience.

I am about to leave the country for a year of solo travel around southeast Asia and eastern and western Europe. With the exception of Japan, I have never been to any of these countries. What will happen when I arrive in these new places?

The answer is a big “I don’t know”, but I do believe that sharing food will be my means to get to know people and places. So as I leave, I tame my nerves and think about the amazing meals I am about to eat in southeast Asia.  Searching out the food first seems to be my instinct in life anyway, but I also believe that food brings people together. I see the potential in food to create connection, and that idea is at the core of my travels.