Writing on Japan this week has sent me on a whirlwind trip through my past. Almost everything I wrote about had a personal connection for me. It was either books I read, movies I watched, an event I attended in Japan, food I ate at someone’s house, a memory of a conversation with a Japanese friend, and so many other cultural points I never got to. In turn, I told these things to my kids, and my daughter was very responsive. She checked out a “how to draw manga” book and did her first manga picture. For a 9-year-old, she certainly inherited her artistic talents from her father as well as my mother and her mother. And now she wants to go to Japan….
|Let's have pancakes for dinner! Yeah!! Gourmet om-nom-nom pancakes.|
I actually couldn’t wait to make Japanese food, so I started early. A couple days ago, I made okonomiyaki. This has been one of my favorites for a long time. I think it literally means “fry it how you like it.” Or something like that. Outside of the batter and the cabbage, the other ingredients vary to whatever you have on hand. I think it was probably a way to use all of the odds and ends and scraps you had available. In a bowl, I mixed together flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder, and then added in a grated sweet potato and some water (or you can also use broth or dashi, a type of Japanese soup base). Then it’s important to let it chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour. After the batter was chilled, I added in some eggs, some crushed rice Chex (in lieu of tenkasu, which are tempura scraps), a little pickled ginger, and some salad shrimp. At this point, I added in the cabbage. I made it easier on myself: I bought a 10 oz bag of cole slaw-cut cabbage. I pulled out my large deep-sided skillet and heated up my oil, dropping in enough batter about the size of my fist. Then I placed 2-3 slices of bacon that had been cut into quarter strips. The key is to cover it and let it cook for 5 minutes, then if the bottom is browned, turn it, and let it cook covered for another five minutes. Once both sides are sufficiently browned, you can take it out and put it on a plate. To go with this, I made the special okonomiyaki sauce that goes with it: ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, grated ginger, and honey. I topped mine with this sauce, a little bit of ebi furikake (seasoning that is supposed to go on top of rice, but I use it on a ton of other stuff), and some chopped scallions. It was so good, and I think the family loved it, too. Many people, like my sister, tops this with Japanese mayonnaise, but I am NOT a fan of real mayo. Sorry, mayo fans. But I did follow this up with novelty Japanese candy: Ramune-flavored whistle candy. The kids loved it, and I was the cool mom for just a few minutes!
|Not only did I give them candy, but I gave them candy that makes noises, and I gave it to them 10 minutes before bed. Trifecta of parenting fail.|
|I think more food products needs to be wrapped in cookies.|
So, today I started with the bread, meron-pan, or “melon bread.” My daughter helped me a lot today. Meron-pan is like a roll wrapped in a cookie and baked. Bread is not native to Japan, so any bread they have was inspired by European traditions. However, if you’ve ever been to a pan-ya (bread store) in Japan, you’ll know how innovative the Japanese are when it comes to bread. First, we had to make the bread dough: we mixed 1 ¾ c all-purpose flour, 2 Tbsp powdered milk, 1 tsp yeast, and ½ tsp salt together. In a separate smaller bowl, I beat 1 egg with 1/3 c cold water and mixed it into my flour mix and kneaded it (well, my daughter kneaded it). Then I added in 1 Tbsp sugar and kneaded it some more. After added in about 2 Tbsp butter and working it into the dough, I kneaded it some more before oiling it and letting it rest for an hour. In the meantime, we made the cookie dough: we creamed 4 Tbsp of butter with 1/3 c sugar together (I had her do this part). Then we mixed together 1 1/3 c flour, ¾ tsp baking powder, and a pinch of salt and added that to our creamed butter and sugar. Adding tiny bits of water here and there, I worked this dough together and formed it into a cylinder/tube shape and put it in the refrigerator until I needed it. After the bread dough had finished resting, I realized it had not risen at all. I think my yeast was bad, so I wasn’t able to yield as many rolls from this as I thought. I did manage to break it into six bread balls. I took my cookie dough from the fridge and cut it into discs, like I was making cookies. Choosing the six largest segments, I flattening it between two plastic baggies. I took these flattened discs and covered each of these bread balls. Then we rolled it in sugar, and I cut a criss-cross design on top of it, letting them rest another 30 minutes. Then I baked them at 350ºF for about 15-20 minutes. I had to leave them in for closer to 20 minutes. I cannot even begin to tell you how good these were. My husband tried to convince me this bread was his dinner. But I told him there was more coming.
|My forte lies in eating sushi, not making it. Obviously. And I was mad I couldn't find takuan.|
So, next I tried my hand at making sushi. I absolutely love sushi. It’s one of my all-time favorite foods, and I’m always ready for sushi pretty much at any given moment. But I now have a brand new appreciation for it. I had to first make the sushi rice. It called for 3 c of rice, which is more than I ever make. After the rice is done steaming, I heated together rice vinegar, sugar, and salt until the salt and sugar were dissolved. With the help of my daughter, we gently sprinkled the rice with the vinegar mix while we fanned and folded the rice to mix it completely and then cooled the rice. The next step is where it got hard for me. And perhaps I should’ve researched this better. Who knows? I laid out a sheet of nori (seaweed), spread the rice over it, leaving a gap around the edges and spread my toppings (I choose tuna, cucumbers, and shiitake mushrooms). Then I carefully rolled everything up, using a little bit of water on my free edge to act as a glue to keep it rolled up. This part was fine. I just didn’t have a sharp enough knife to cut through the nori, and it kept tearing. So, instead of makizushi, we ended up cutting the nori into smaller pieces and making temakizushi. Whatever works, right? With a little soy sauce, some furikake, and some pickled ginger, it fed my family. I know a lot of people use wasabi, but I ABSOLUTELY hate wasabi. It’s just something I can’t get past. I like hot and spicy things, but napalming my nasal passages isn’t pleasant.
|My version of heaven includes a library that serves unlimited coffee, unlimited books, and unlimited somen soup.|
The other part of what I made was cold somen soup. This is one of my favorite summertime meals, although to be honest, I haven’t had it for quite some time. The somen itself is not hard to make; you can buy it in a package, and it usually comes in 100g bundles. After the water comes to a boil, it only takes a few minutes for the somen to become al dente. I rinsed them under cold water in order to cool the noodles (not sure if you’re supposed to do that or not—the instructions were in Japanese, and my Japanese is a little rusty). The sauce it comes in is a little more difficult to make. First of all, it calls for dashi, which is a little more difficult to procure, especially without monosodium glutamate. So, I made my own dashi. It’s not that difficult; it just takes time. I boiled some water with some nori (you can also add mushrooms, but I forgot) for about 20 minutes and then strained it. (There are many different recipes to make dashi.) Then I added the dashi back into my pot along with some soy sauce, sugar, and mirin (I actually just used chardonnay because I forgot to look for mirin. Close enough, right?). I poured this in a glass bottle I had and put it in the fridge to chill. When I served this, I put the noodles in one bowl with a little bit of cold water and topped it with chopped scallions and a piece of pickled ginger, and I put the sauce in a different bowl. To eat this, you pick up the noodles and dip them into the sauce. My sauce was slightly on the sweet side, but otherwise, it was very good. I don’t think the others enjoyed it as much as I did. I had two bowls—I thought it was awesome. Not as good as my friend Megumi’s mom made when I was at her house in Maebashi, but it was still good. Of course, I served this whole meal with a side of edamame (boiled and salted soybeans in the pods), and the kids were excited that I bought some Ramune, a type of soda drink famous for having a marble inside a specially shaped glass bottle.
|Although it's a little bit of a hodge-podge of all my favorite foods, I was deeply satisfied, even with Sushigate.|
Each item I made has an earlier memory. I remember eating at a sushi bar for the first time in Tokyo. I was completely blown away by the sheer number of choices, especially of cuts of fish I didn’t even know exist, much less know what they tasted like. And the sushi chefs always had a look on their face that looked like they were in the least mood to deal with indecisiveness. They seemed about as likely to smile as customs agents are. And remember—this was before the influx of sushi we have now in Chinese and Asian buffet restaurants. In the 1990s, you were more likely to find pizza in a Chinese buffet place before you’d find sushi. And I remember sitting around the table sharing a gigantic plateful of edamame and just talking with the family. Those were good times. I already mentioned my friend’s mom making us somen for lunch while we sat in the living room watching music videos on TV. I don’t know what she added to her somen, but it was awesome. The power of food to bring back memories is amazing. I hope this blog does this for my children. My food may not always be super awesome, but at least it’ll be memorable.
Up next: Jordan