Thursday, 18 June 2009

A kick in the cooking butt

I love to cook. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to leave the dorm and get back into an apartment of my own, one with some semblance of a kitchen (I may have gotten used to many aspects of life in Japan but I still have serious issues with calling a couple of elements and a sink in the hallway an actual "kitchen"). I really enjoy cooking for my dad when I visit for the holidays, and have started occasionally cooking for friends here in Japan. But I find myself more likely to pick up a quick bento or throw together a basic bowl of pasta or a sandwich than to actually cook myself a full meal. "What's the point? It's only me eating after all!" I think to myself, and throw together whatever is in the fridge.

I read blogs like La Fuji Mama and Blue Lotus and think "Mmm, that looks good! I should try that next time I'm in Canada." But hold on... I have a kitchen right? I may not have copious amounts of free time to make elaborate ten course meals every night (and I definitely can't make it all look as delicious or as easy as La Fuji Mama does), but if I make up big batches of freezeable dishes (as I sometimes do with home-made vegetable soups, various types of curry/stew, and veggie stirfry), then I can enjoy good, homemade food for a number of meals with only minimal effort and time needed any given night. I won't be "wasting time cooking just for me," instead I can enjoy the actual cooking process and get yummy food out of it.

My kick in the pants for all of this was La Fuji Mama's recent call to join her in cooking up recipes from the incredible Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen by Elizabeth Andoh. I read LFM's post and before I knew it I had ordered a copy of the book on It arrived yesterday afternoon and I'm thrilled!

I love Japanese food, and I eat it regularly, but I don't cook more than a few set dishes (okonomiyaki, ozoni, etc). As I found myself explaining to my dad, I blame this on my tendency to cook without a recipe. This works fine for dishes that I grew up watching my mother or stepmother make, but doesn't work so well for the cuisine of my adopted home. I'm going to try to remedy that situation - one recipe/one month at a time. We'll see how far I get (my thesis is beginning to really loom over my head) but I'm excited. And I know my mother, who inspired in me a love of cooking from a very young age, would be proud.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Hangaku bento

I have a bad habit that I am trying to convince myself is actually budget conscious. I picked it up a few years ago, when I was teaching English in the boonies of Chiba. My work days would end at 9 or 10 pm and since lunch time had been at 1pm and I had normally been teaching straight right through the afternoon, I was exhausted and hungry by the time I left my classroom. If I didn't have something in the fridge waiting to be heated up for dinner I'd often swing by the big 24 hour grocery store on my way home, stopping at the prepared food section to grab dinner (many days I was so hungry that dinner didn't make it home in tact, I would munch on it as I walked through the dark streets to my apartment).

Early in the day the prepared food and bento section would be well stocked with a variety of freshly made meals and separate packages of all sorts of different foods - sushi rolls, rice balls, sandwiches, salads, noodle dishes, dumplings, stirfrys (or is that stirfries?), breaded pork cutlets, tempura,... and the list goes on and on. By the time I'd get there, however, the pickings were usually pretty slim and somewhat random. I'd end up with a couple of skewers of yakitori and a caesar salad one night, and a cheese and roast beef wrap and shrimp tempura the next. It was a bit of an adventure never quite knowing what I might find! Given how tired I was some nights not having to make a choice was very much appreciated. The real bonus, however, was the price. At that hour most things were 10% or 30% off, or even half-price.

Supermarket prepared foods have a limited shelf-life. In some stores there is a set time of day when all the remaining foods go on a certain discount. An employee will go around with a sticker machine, affixing bright red and yellow discount stickers to the plastic and styrofoam containers. Often times the employee will be followed by a trail of shoppers who swoop in and grab packages of certain items as soon as the sticker goes on. One grocery store near where I used to live closed at 10pm. At 5pm the bakery counter closed and baked goods went on various discounts. Prepared foods were 10% off after 5pm, 30% after 7pm, and 50% (if anything was still left) after 9pm. At 24 hour places, however, food tends to be prepared at different times during the day, and so the discount stickers will go on items based on how long they've been sitting out. The older the item the better the discount and the more likely it is to be snapped up by an eager shopper.

Now that I am back in an apartment and have a kitchen, I do find myself cooking a lot more than I did when I was in the dorm (when I all but lived off of the discounted prepared foods and bento from a network of different grocery stores). I especially like to make up a big pot of soup or stirfry or stew and freeze individual-sized portions for later meals. But there are also days when I have evening classes and find myself sizing up the discounted prepared foods at my local grocery store...

on the menu for tonight: salad, kara-age chicken with a spicy Chinese sauce

note the big red and yellow sticker emblazoned with "taimu sabisu" or time-service, and a discounted price

and one of my all-time favourites, negi-toro maki (rolled sushi with green onion and tuna belly)
at half-price (han-gaku) how can you go wrong?!!

Perhaps not the best way to ensure a healthy balanced meal, but still a cheap way of getting a quick and yummy late meal (or breakfast, if you dare to defy the eat-before time stamp and save a couple of things for the next morning - I've done so a number of times and lived to tell the tale!)

Monday, 15 June 2009

Smile of the day

I got off the crowded train at my station and began my usual practice of crowd weaving as I made my way around slow moving grannies and tired salary men. I came up behind a young guy, who was walking very slowly. As I was about to pass him, he looked back over his shoulder, expecting to see his girlfriend. When he saw me instead of his petite, short-skirted, high-heeled girlfriend he jumped quite noticeably. I couldn't help but giggle to myself. He turned quickly to the other side, and his girlfriend who took his hand and teased him for his mistake. He had noticed my grin, and was doubly surprised - "Hey! She's laughing too!" he remarks to his girlfriend. Really laughing then I looked back over my shoulder, but the pair was lost in the sea of home-bound train-goers.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Doctor Doctor

I can tell something is wrong with my friend. She's not her usual boisterous self. She doesn't dig into the meal with her usual abandon. (Despite her small size she has a reputation for being a big eater)

I'm not the only one who notices and when we question her she whispers that she went to the doctor for her annual check-up and was told she needs to watch her weight.

I couldn't believe it. She was told WHAT?!?

Sure she's a big eater and she always has to have a big bowl of rice to finish her meal and she likes sweets. But watch her weight??? This is a girl who is far from overweight. She may not be stick thin like so many Japanese women, but she's in her mid-20s, actually has muscle, and is one of the few of my Japanese female friends who doesn't get sick at the drop of a hat.

As more dishes arrived and we began chatting my friend slowly began to relax. When it came time to finish off the fried rice she did so with her usual gusto, and promptly ordered redbean-filled sesame balls for desert. My friend was back to normal, but I couldn't help but worry about the effects of Japanese doctors on those with less self-confidence than my strong friend.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

took the words right out of my... language

The ability of Japan to mangle the English language is well documented. Engrish is a never-ending source of amusement. At times equally amusing and bizarre is wasei-eigo.

I remember in the very first lecture of the Intro to East Asia course required of all East Asian Studies majors at my university, the prof (a Japan guy) told us all about the reason why he had gotten hooked on Japanese - he loved loan words. Pretty much the only thing I still remember from that class was one example he had then proceeded to tell us - sutopu-rukku which came from the English "stop" and "look." It referred to a bikini so skimpy that it caused males to stop and look.

More recently a couple of my friends were talking about their research topics. We had been talking about the importance of selling your topic in grant proposals. I said that there were some topics that were "sexy" (in a whole different way from the sutopu-rukku!) One of my friends agreed, saying that when she had chosen her topic she thought she had chosen one that was naui, but after doing some research she had discovered it wasn't. I looked confused, so my friend explained that naui is an adjective meaning new or fresh. The i at the end being the basic equivalent here of "-ish," having been tacked on to the English word "now." Right, so her topic is passe, not now-ish.

In Japanese a honeymoon is a shin-kon ryoko, literally a "newly wed vacation." But the English term has also found its way into Japanese in a somewhat altered form. I saw a travel advertisement the other day aimed at older couples, suggesting they go on a furu-mun ryoko. If a honeymoon happens at the start of a marriage, then by the time you've been married for a few decades it's time to go on your full moon trip... Makes sense in a way that languages rarely do!

Tuesday, 9 June 2009


I'm... well... (I just can't resist saying it, I'm trying, but can't help myself)

I'm in a bit of a jam.

You see, half of the things in my fridge are jars of jam. None of which I actually bought for myself, I'm not really a jam eater, you see. There is the jar of delicious and presumably pricey top-end apricot jam that my professor was given a few weeks back. He gave it to me, insisting it was delicious jam and not even waiting to hear my response to the question "do you like jam?" There is a mini jar with about two servings of a much more processed apricot jam that was part of a birthday present. There is a cheap jar of blueberry jam that a friend bought for a brunch party she held at my house. The jam didn't even get opened (neither did the box of tea, the second bag of ground coffee, the two cakes, the two packs of eggs, the three bags of rice crackers, a package of shredded cheese, a package of cream cheese... yeah, she bought lots of extra food, I'm still eating my way through it!). There is a half-eaten jar of fig jam that another friend brought for a different party. There are also three jars of specialty jam (one "desert blueberry," one "desert raspberry," and one "cream cheese strawberry spread") given to me by another friend as a very belated birthday present.

Did I mention I'm not a regular jam eater?

My prof's apricot jam is delicious, however, and I've been happily putting it on pancakes and toast. I think the thing is that I like jam, I just don't like coloured jelly substances that have little relation to actual fruit. Jams like the yummy apricot one, or the delicious home-made jams I used to get from my aunt, are a different manner.

When I opened up the most recent jam gift (the giver was not present) I groaned as soon as I realized what it was. I rhetorically asked why it was that suddenly I was being showered in jam. My friend (who had brought the fig jam) said that people think I'm a jam eater. I've never been told this before (either in Japan or elsewhere), but I'm guessing it has something to do with a Japanese belief that foreigners (non-Asian foreigners, that is) don't like rice. Since I am not Asian my main staple is bread. So I need something nice for my bread. Thus jam is gifted to me. The problem is that I don't put syrup on my pancakes because I find it too sweet (I prefer just butter/margarine, but will put maple syrup on breakfast sausages) and was one of the only children I knew who didn't like the famed pb&j. I'm going to have to learn to like jam in a hurry, however, as it is rapidly taking over my fridge!

Oh, and if anybody has advice on how to tell my friends that I'm not a jam fan while managing not to give them the impression that I dislike the gifts they gave me, I'd greatly appreciate it!

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Just Another Manic... Wednesday?!

Lots going on but can't seem to actually put it into coherent sentences... perhaps trying to get more than four hours of sleep a night on a regular basis would help?

1 ) Final final final preparations are underway at the museum for the special exhibit that opens to much fanfare on Saturday. I've been involved with planning and translation for the exhibition, but not the actual layout so I have little clue as to what it will actually look like and am rather excited. We have a full day of festivities planned for invited guests on the day of opening, particularly meetings with a large number of museum professionals and experts from around Japan as well as the US, Europe, and China. These are aimed to get feedback on the exhibit but also to provide the first step in the process of redoing our regular exhibition. I'm particularly excited as professional simultaneous translation has been hired (for both English and Chinese) so I can actually enjoy listening to the discussions!

2) Ever since I moved into my apartment in the fall I've been jokingly complaining to friends that I could hear the snores of one of my neighbours. Nobody believed me. Over the past few days two different people have not only believed me, but said they could too! (one said it had been a major reason for her decision to move!) I feel vindicated and somewhat relieved to know that I'm not just imagining things.

3) I am guiltily relieved by the frequency of classes being cancelled. It has seemed that just about every week one of my classes is cancelled - often because the professor has other committments that take precedence - like university administrative meetings. Yup. Apparently administrative meetings trump classes, I think that tells you just about everything you need to know about universities in Japan!

4) Four. Yes, four. That is about how much sleep I've had both of the past nights. I'm working on a presentation on non-profit organizational law in the US, to which I'm adding the comparison of Canada. The text is in Japanese and I'm quite convinced that if it were in English it wouldn't make much more sense. If I was ever in any doubt, neither economics nor law are fields my brain seems capable of comprehending (at least when said subjects overlap and are in Japanese and my brain is sleep-deprived).

5) With the rainy season just around the corner fears over the new flu epidemic seem to be disappearing here. This hasn't stopped the museum from putting bottles of hand sanitizer at both the staff and pubic entrances to the building. All those entering the museum are encouraged to use the hand sanitizer so as to stop the spread of the disease.

6) Any suggestions for uses of eggs that don't require an oven? My mind isn't going much beyond omeletes, scrambled, and Japanese rolled egg. Although a friend did suggest doing soft boiled eggs for and adding them to a salad. Any and all suggestions are welcome as I have 14 eggs sitting in the fridge - leftovers from a brunch party at my place this past weekend (we had pancakes but never got around to making the scrambled eggs).

Swirly Whirly 2

This was actually the first of the two corkscrew scarves I knit, needing the near instant gratification of a smaller project and the mindless simplicity of garter stitch. I had a few issues with running out of yarn before I had fully finished, so I had to rip back and rework a few things, but eventually got it figured out.

The recipient is a friend from school, a year ahead of me she graduated this past March and has now been working for a few months. She says she enjoys it but wishes she were back at school. Although to me it sounded more like she missed the social aspect of school than actually taking classes! She made me promise we'd soon go for green tea lattes at our favourite tea shop near campus.