Monday, 17 August 2009

Summer Vacation - Berlin Part 1 - FOOD!

A few weeks ago I met an old friend in Berlin for four days. My official excuse was that I was there to see museums (which I did) and interview a contact (who got sick and had to cancel). Between all that, however, was plenty of time for fun. This particular friend likes food... good food... and LOTS OF IT! (She comes by it naturally, her mother is the stereotypical Chinese mother, all but force-feeding visitors huge amounts of delicious food!) I personally blame this particular friend for causing my freshman 5 to be more like a 10 or 15. She was in Montreal at the time, and when I went down for the weekend from Toronto we'd fill it full of cheese fondue, Dim Sum, Chinese noodles, vegetarian Thai dishes, chocolate, delicious ice cream, bagels and cream cheese...

My visit to Berlin, of course, proved not much different! We started off my first night with wurst from the roadside stand near our hotel - yummy and, as her partner called them, "proletarian." Because of my tomato allergy I couldn't try the local specialty - curry wurst (grilled wurst smothered in curry powder and ketchup), but I did enjoy my wurst in a bun with mustard.

Day one started with a big hotel breakfast of bread and cheese and cold cuts and ended with a beer garden - where I had potato dumplings with cream and mushroom sauce, and even managed to find a beer that I actually like (I'm not a beer drinker, I do however love Japanese ume-shu and similar fruity drinks). The beer is Berliner Weisse, which is drunk with a red (raspberry) or green (woodruff) syrup.

Day two started off the same, and ended with Italian, a delicious tomato-less pizza with goat cheese, spinach, and spicy sausage.

Day three actually included lunch - a hearty lentil soup and selection of salads from the delicious cafeteria of the Jewish Museum - and dinner at a Turkish restaurant - where I had lamb, something just not available much in Japan.

Day four had us again eating lunch at a museum - although the Technology museum's food was somewhat disappointing. In the evening we decided to seek out comfort food - Chinese. We lucked out and discovered what my friend's partner said was "the best Chinese restaurant in continental Europe."

Of course most days also included ice cream in a delicious array of fruit flavours, and a whole lot of chocolate (so much so that I needed to check an extra bag on my way back...)

A truly delicious trip!

(stay tuned - more on my trip coming soon!)

Monday, 10 August 2009


I often jokingly remark that despite my brown hair and grey/green eyes, I'm part Chinese - or at least my stomach is! When I was 13 my father married a Chinese-Canadian woman, who happened to be a great cook. For the next 7 years most dinners at our house were eaten with chopsticks and accompanied by white rice. I was spoilt with delicious home-made mapo tofu, spicy eggplant, and basic meat/veg stir-fry. About once a month we'd have dinner with her parents and, if we were eating at their house the menu almost always included potstickers. We would go over hours before dinner and her father would have just about finished rolling out the dumpling skins. We'd all gather around the big dining room table and fold the dumplings - filling them with pork and vegetables, or shrimp, or even crab.

We would often fold a couple hundred dumplings at a time, lining them up on cookie sheets to freeze for later meals. Any that looked a bit funny, hadn't been folded properly, or were about to break open, would go into the soup-pot. The rest would be pan-fried - coming out golden brown and crispy and chewy and juicy and DELICIOUS. We'd bite off the very end, and use a small spoon to pour garlic soy sauce into the dumpling. We'd all end up smelling of garlic - as would the entire house - but it was worth it, a delicious meal and an activity that this teenager actually enjoyed doing with her extended blended family!

So when la Fuji Mama announced that this month's Washoku Warriors' challenge was wafu gyoza (and edamame and proper rice) I was THRILLED. When she offered the added challenge of making the gyoza skins from scratch I knew I had to try it. Since for me making dumplings is a group affair, and because gyoza must be eaten with beer and beer is best drunk with company, I enlisted the help of a good friend for this challenge.

My friend, while very much Japanese, is the daughter of a Taiwanese father who grew up in Japanese-controlled Taiwan before emigrating to Japan as a young man. Her mother's family adopted her father, thus giving him a Japanese name. His palate, however, belied his origins, and my friend grew up eating dumplings, Chinese sausages, steamed stick rice in banana leaves, and other delicacies. We've often gone for Chinese food together - always complaining about the dumplings, saying the skin was too thin and not nearly as good as what we used to eat at home. This challenge offered us the perfect opportunity to make the skins just the way we like them - thick and chewy!

Making the actual dough was easy. The hard part was forming it into circles that were even thickness and actually somewhat close to what is normally accepted to be a "circle." Things did not start out well, but a few ragged triangles later I remembered how my ex-step-mother's father (phew, that's a mouthful!) had held the small rolling pin and rolled in an arc - creating a somewhat concave circle that made it easier to fold (or at least easier to hold more filling!). We swapped back and forth - one rolling out skins and the other folding and as the evening progressed we got better at rolling out circles (although I'm fairly sure the beer hindered us in this respect). We both knew how to fold the dumplings, so that was easy. Frying them was fairly straightforward too, although since we had made our skins fairly thick, however, I did find we had to use a bit more water in the steaming stage and cook them a bit longer than Andoh had called for.

Since my "kitchen" is actually a number of cupboards, a sink, fridge, and two burners, all located in the hallway, we didn't have a lot of room to spread out. And since we had decided to double the recipe and were faced with a seemingly endless amount of dumpling dough and filling, we decided to start by making a dozen dumplings that we would then cook and eat before tacking the next round. The first round was gobbled up immediately (accompanied by both Andoh's rice vinegar and soy sauce dipping sauce as well as my family's garlic soy sauce) and then we were back into the kitchen for round two. Since we both love the gyoza's more strongly flavoured Chinese sibling, we added salt and pepper, along with some chopped garlic to the dumpling filling mixture. We found this gave the dumplings just a bit more zip. Having taken the edge off our hunger with the first batch of gyoza, we were able to take our time over batch two along with the other challenge items and a daikon radish and cucumber salad with pickled plum dressing.

Having eaten our fill we returned to the kitchen (which was by now entirely covered in a thin layer of flour and smelling strongly of garlic) to finish making the dumplings. Since I don't have an oven and thus don't have cookie sheets, we had to be a bit creative (adding to the feeling that we ended up using just about every dish I own), but we ended up freezing another meal's worth of gyoza. We chatted and joked as we rolled and folded, both agreeing we would have to do this again sometime. As we finished my friend asked me what time it was - she was wondering how soon she'd have to leave to catch a train home to the other end of Tokyo. Apparently, however, we'd been having far too much fun, as it was at least an hour past the time she'd have had to leave to catch the last train home. Out came a hotel toothbrush, a spare pair of pajamas, and the extra futon. Not too long after we were both fast asleep - with sated stomachs in an apartment that while the layer of flour has been removed, still smells of garlic!


Here's the photographic evidence for our gyoza-making, be sure to check out the other tales and photos over at La Fuji Mama's!

kneading the dumpling dough

rolling out "circles" (and in some cases that's a VERY loose term for the resulting shapes!)

the filling

perfectly folded

browned and then steamed

thick chewy skin with juicy meaty inside - topped with garlic soy sauce (left) or rice vinegar and soy sauce (right)

the complete meal (minus the one I had bitten into to show the filling for the previous photo and then had to finish off... and minus the rice that for some reason didn't make it to the photo shoot

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Obituary for Louise

I spotted her as I stumbled blearily to the bathroom this morning.

It was hard to miss her, she was dead afterall! Lying on her back, multiple legs in the air.

No more scuttling off into hidden cracks for her. She had the consideration to die right beside her grave - all I had to do was turn on the tap and down the drain she went. A few minutes later she was buried in coffee grounds and I sipped my morning latte and thought about her hard life.

For despite the fact that I had found her belly up, Louise had been a fighter. She had to be. Her husband George had been brutally taken from her, leaving her to parent their 214 children all on her own. Despite the daunting task, she persevered. She worked tirelessly but still had to face the heartbreak of loosing a number of her children. Periodically she would come across one of them, lying stricken and flattened on the cement walkway in front of the apartment building. She had a hard life, but she is at peace now, reunited with the love of her life and the children she lost.

At the risk of sounding irreverent, here's to hoping the rest of her children - and their children too - join her soon!

Friday, 7 August 2009


When I (re-)started knitting last winter it was because of a seemingly harmless Christmas present given by a friend. Since starting my habit she has continued to foster it - picking up yarn for me from exotic locations around the world (the Grand Canyon, Paris, London, Montreal...). This year for Christmas she followed my not so subtle hint and ordered me a lovely set of blocking wires. The deal was that I promised to make her something using them. I finally got around to doing so - and had great fun playing with some fun yarn in the process! (the red is a cotton/paper blend I've knitted with before and the multi-colour is a funky cotton/acrylic mix that is variegated and wrapped with thread for added colour and texture change)

I was even able to give the scarf to my friend in person - when we met up in Germany (yes, she does travel, doesn't she?!) after not having seen each other for four years. My whirlwind trip to Berlin was incredible, and I do intend to write it up at some point, but first here is my friend with her new scarf.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009


A few weeks ago a friend and I ventured out to the fabric district, Nippori. We chatted a bit over coffee and then headed out for the purpose of our trip - my friend had volunteered to make me a curtain/noren for the doorway into the main room of my apartment. My friend's offer to make me one was the perfect solution to the problem of never finding quite the right thing in stores. We found a few different fabrics that we thought might work, but in the end we were able to agree on a beautiful green fabric similar to traditional fabrics from the Aizu region.

Within a few days of having bought the fabric (and the equally carefully chosen bamboo buttons) my friend had whipped this up for me...

I'm very happy with my new curtains, and the fact that it was made for me by a friend makes it even better - I love having crafty friends!