Monday, March 31, 2008

Sweet Seasons / March 2008 - Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival) -

Odairi-sama and Ohina-sama
(Male and Female dolls representing the Emperor and Empress)
by Nishigawaya

Japanese doll festival held on March 3rd is called Hina-matsuri. Hina dolls are traditional ornamental dolls used for this festival only. For more details about Japanese doll festival, see this site.

The hina dolls are supposed to be taken down and put back in the boxes as soon as the festival is finished, because there is an old saying that if you have the dolls on display for too long, the girl(s) in the family will marry late. Now you know the reason why I'm still single: my family was lazy after the doll festival.

I really love these cute wagashi hina dolls. They do look like a man and woman in kimono.

They are in love. ;)

To some wagashi and tea ceremony learners or experts living in and outside Japan:

I’m sorry that I cannot give you, at this point, a decent explanation about what these cute dolls are made with. I’m sure these are made with shiro-an (sweetened white bean paste) based dough, but not sure if it is nerikiri or konashi. Again, I forgot to ask the clerk at the store. I’m not sure what the difference between nerikiri and konashi is in the first place, if there is a difference anyway. Some even say that they are the same thing called differently in different areas in Japan, but others say that they are two different things. Really confusing. I hope I can give you a better explanation sometime in the near future. ;)


Sunday, March 30, 2008

Garden Report - March 2008 -

Blueberry (Sunshine Blue)


Sunshine Blue again

....................................... Spring has come. ..........................................


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

* Happy Birthday to Me *

My Homemade Birthday Cake

Pink has never been my favorite color. When I took photos of my birthday cakes with flowers in previous years, I never used pink flowers. However, I do love the delicate pinkish white of cherry blossoms. I can never fully explain how much I love to see that color in spring -- the season when everything looks fresh and alive.

Usually cherry trees start blooming in late March around here, but I don’t see too many of them around my birthday. That is why it never occurred to me to relate my birthday to that beloved blossoms. But this year, because of the warm weather, some cherry trees in this neighborhood are already in full bloom now. And as I was riding my bike enjoying the view of such early blossoms yesterday, I thought, “Maybe the day I was born was a warm, sunny day like this, and some cherry trees might have been in half-bloom then, if not full-bloom.”

I remember that there were a couple of cherry trees near my parents’ house, including the big one at the gate of our local shrine. I have heard from mom that when she gave birth to me, it was not easy because I was a breech baby. So when I was born safely, someone in my family must have run to the relatives’ house to tell the good news (because we didn't have the phone at that time yet. Ahem!) and visited the shrine to thank God on his/her way home. That “someone” might have looked up the cherry blossoms blooming in the spring sunshine, with the blue sky in the background, and felt rejoiced. When I thought about that, I suddenly felt like making a birthday cake with cherry blossoms.

Actually, using cherry blossoms for baking is not such a crazy idea. Recently I see more and more sakura (cherry blossom) cakes and cookies being sold at the stores as well as their recipes shared on the net. You think we make jam out of the blossoms and use it for baking? No. Usually we use salted cherry blossoms or liqueur flavored with the blossoms. For the cake I made this time, I used the sakura liqueur to flavor the top layer and sank some salted sakura in it. The white layer is the mixture of canned white peach and yogurt set with gelatin, and the bottom is a graham cracker crust. The original recipe (Japanese) is here.

As you can see in the photo on top of this post, the pink layer of my cake was a bit too soft and the edges didn’t turn out as sharp as I wanted. I was too lazy to buy gelatin sheets (leaf) and used regular gelatin powder, thinking that it would turn out firm enough if I refrigerate the cake longer than recommended in the recipe. Wrong! :P Now I know that there was a good reason for using different kinds of gelatins for those layers: sheet (leaf) for the top layer and powder for the white layer.

I tried to hide the ragged edges with whipped cream, but obviously it wasn't a good idea... :P

So I can't say that this was a great success. But there’s something I like so much about this cake – maybe the color combination? – and I'm glad that I chose to make this one for my birthday 2008.
(I might try another sakura cake sometime soon...)

Let me add a little more about the aroma of the cherry blossoms. It’s kind of tricky. I don’t think that the blossoms themselves have such a distinctive fragrance like roses or plum blossoms do. When most Japanese smell things like incense, soap, cologne or sweets with “cherry blossom fragrance,” we are not associating it with the smell of the blossoms on the tree; actually we are associating it more with the smell of a Japanese wagashi called Sakuramochi. The smell of sakuramochi comes from the salt-preserved cherry leaf wrapped around the rice cake, and according to some scientific websites, the smell is caused by a substance named “coumarin“ which is contained in the cherry leaves. They say that the substance does not produce the smell while in the live cherry leaves, but does so when the leaves are salt-preserved. Interesting!

Now, many Japanese kids hate sakuramochi because of its smell, and I was one of them, too. I don’t know how to describe the smell… it is somewhat sweet, but different from typical floral fragrance. It’s more… how shall I say… starchy? I don’t know… Anyway, I would say that whether you love sakura-flavored sweets/drinks really depends on whether you can truly love the smell of coumarin or not. (I’ve read that Polish vodka called zubrowka has the coumarin smell, too. So don't be surprised if a Japanese who smelled zubrowka would say, "Gosh, this smells like a cherry blossom rice cake!")

Now, being an adult, I don’t hate that smell of salted cherry leaves any more –- I even love it. But let me warn you… If you are interested in trying out some cherry-blossom flavored sweets/drinks, don’t feel too discouraged if you find them quite different from what you expected. ;)


Friday, March 21, 2008

Photogenic but...

Sea Bream Carpaccio

I think this carpaccio looks pretty healthy and maybe tasty, too? But the truth is that it didn't taste as good as it looked. My mistake was using a buntan for this dish. Yes, the citrus fruit from my dad's garden. As I wrote in my previous post, buntan looks like grapefruit but its flesh is firmer and dryier tnan that of grapefruit, so when we (my family members) eat it, we usually tear and open up each segment like this photo below and bite the flesh off from the membrane. And we call the opened-up segment "baby chick." Cute, ha?

Anyway, for this carpaccio, I made a simple sauce with olive oil, vinegar, garlic, salt and black pepper. Then I added some freshly-squeezed buntan juice, thinking that citrus juice would give a refreshing kick and go well with the sea bream. But I was too lazy to take the flesh out of the segments and squeezed the flesh and white parts together, so the sauce turned out a little bitter because of the bitterness from the pulp(?).

I also added some chunks of buntan flesh to the vegetables. Actually this was not a terrible idea, I would say. The sauce and the citrus chunks tasted pretty good together. But I just thought the buntan and the sea bream would definitelly taste better when eaten separately, and couldn't see any reason why they should be mixed together like this. Hahaha...

Nevertheless, they look nice together in these photos, I think... ;)
Oh, BTW, this sea bream is not the one in the photos in my last post. I bought a pack of sea bream sashimi for this carpaccio.


Monday, March 17, 2008

The Supermarket Chronicles - Part 2 -

Here in this southern city in Japan, spring comes rather suddenly. It seems like yesterday when I posted about my “high-tech” underwear, but now-- in the past couple of days -- it has been as warm as late April. Yep, NO MORE HIGH-TECH UNDERWEAR! :D

It’s been a little more than a month since I started working at this supermarket, and I guess I’m gradually getting used to the work there. Yep, the “work” there, but not necessarily the “people” there. ;) Actually there was some “personnel change” there, and I have a lot to tell you about that, but I’ll post about it some other time.

Anyway, so far my main task there has been packing and labeling seafood. But I knew from the beginning that they were going to teach me how to fillet different kinds of fish. It is partly because some fish are big and need to be properly cut before being packed and displayed on the shelves, but also because the fish section of this supermarket is more like a good-old fish store.

At many supermarkets here in Kochi, the seafood section is no different from other sections in the store; you just silently take packed products from the shelf and go to the cash register. Usually they have filleted fish only on display so that customers won't need help. But the seafood sections of some supermarkets are more “interactive” – you can talk to the staff in the small kitchen behind the showcase. You can take a packed whole fish -- relatively small ones-- from the showcase and ask the staff, “Hey, can you fillet this?” or “Can you descale and gut this fish? I want to simmer it.” It’s something unique about fish section, I think … You know, in other sections of the supermarket, customers may ask questions about the products, but they won’t ask something like, “Hey, can you peel these potatoes for me?” or “Can you seed these lemons so that I can squeeze the juice out of them easily?” Right? ;)

About two weeks ago, my boss taught me how to cut and slice octopuses. It was the easiest one … maybe it was Preparing Fish 101. Now, this time it was PF 102: preparing small tai (sea bream) for simmering or grilling. What I have learned was how to remove scales, gills and guts from small sea breams so that they can be grilled like this or simmered like this. My boss gave me five small ones left from the previous day and told me to practice on them.

Now, big sea breams are very expensive fish which are used for various celebrations, and preparing them for celebration feasts require real professional skills because their bones are extremely tough and some have poison in their fins. It would be quite a while before I start practicing on such big ones, but for now I’m happy with being able to prepare these small ones.

After the work that day, I bought two small sea breams and reviewed, in my kitchen, what I learned. I took these photos then. Yes, I'm working on a new project, too. I want to become able to take beautiful photos of fish and other seafood -- not just the fish/seafood dishes, but including fresh fish and seafood themselves. I think sweets are very photogenic, and so are some vegetables. But fish and seafood can look quite plain or even grotesque sometimes, so for me it's harder to take good-looking photos of them. Now I'm going to practice and experiment this and that in order to capture the beauty of those friends from the ocean. It must be an enjoyable challenge.
Wish me luck.


Thursday, March 13, 2008

Susan's Tofu Quiches

Tofu Quiches

It was more than a year ago when I read about this creative tofu quiches on Fatfree Vegan Kitchen, and I finally tried it out the other day.

Unfortunately I couldn't get nutritional yeast over here. (Actually I had absolutely no idea what it was. I was almost going to use regular active dry yeast, and I'm really glad that I didn't.) So I used good amount of shredded cheese, thus my quiches were by no means "fat-free." But I really loved them. :)


Thursday, March 06, 2008

Udon Dashi (Tsuyu)

Tsukimi Udon (Udon noodles with an egg on top)

If you like Japanese food, or have made Japanese dishes yourself, you probably know or at least heard of dashi broth. The word dashi usually means unseasoned stock made by boiling things like kelp, bonito flakes, dried baby fish or mushrooms. Sometimes it can mean seasoned broth for noodle dishes, as in the title of this post, but maybe the word tsuyu is more commonly used in that case.

As some of you may know, in Japan, the region covering Tokyo (capital) and several surrounding prefectures is called Kanto, and that covering Osaka and neighboring prefectures is called Kansai. And broths of udon noodle dishes in Kanto and those in Kansai are distinctively different. The Kanto version and Kansai version have been considered as two major types of udon broths in Japan, and (I suppose) udon broths in other regions have been roughly categorized in either of those two. The difference? Well, take a look at this website of a popular Japanese TV show. What’s in those bottles are udon broths collected from different regions in Japan. (A staff rode a west-bound bullet train from Tokyo and ate udon to collect broth samples at the stalls on the platform at the major stops. :D) The bottle at the far right is udon broth from Tokyo, and it goes west as it goes to the left. You see the color difference?

It is said that in Kanto, they use mainly bonito flakes to make the dashi stock, and then season it with generous amount of regular soy sauce which makes the broth dark brown. On the other hand, in Kansai, more kelp and even dried baby fish are used to make stock in addition to bonito flakes, and often their bonito flakes are not the thinly shaved ones usually used for Japanese traditional clear soup.

The above photo is the thinly shaved bonito flakes usually used for traditional clear soup. But I heard that they use much thicker bonito flakes for Kansai udon broth and even mix flakes of a few different kinds of dried bonitos. And the most important seasoning ingredient is LIGHT soy sauce. Yes, it's got to be light soy sauce.

Now, have you noticed that I kept writing “it is said,” “they say” and “I heard” in above passages? Here’s my confession: I had never made udon broth from scratch until this time -- I always used instant udon dashi mix. And my mom did so, too. Even though I have lived in Kansai region for apx. 20 years, I never knew exactly what they used for making udon dashi there.

Thus, what's in the photo below are the udon broth ingredients I bought this time, based on the knowledge I have gained from the Internet. :P

See how thick the bonito flakes are?

Well, the broth I made with these ingredients and the seasonings in the recipe below tasted pretty close to the udon broth I had in Kansai and here in Kochi, so I think I’m on the right track.
Now, thanks for your patience. Finally, here's the recipe I came up with by conbining a couple of Kansai udon broth recipes on the net.

Udon dashi (tsuyu) recipe, Kansai type

* For making the stock (for 2 to 3 servings?)
1700 mL water
20 g dried baby fish
30 g dried kelp
30 g bonito flakes (thick type, mixture of different kinds, if available)

Put 1700 mL water, dried kelp and dried baby fish in the pot. Leave for more than 30 minutes. (Remove the heads and guts of the dried fish beforehand if you want the broth milder.) Heat over low heat for 10 to 15 minutes and take out the kelp before it starts boiling. (DO NOT boil the kelp, or the slimy stuff from the kelp will really ruin the flavor of the broth!) Turn the heat to high and add bonito flakes and boil for about 5 minutes, if used thick bonito flakes (and maybe 3 minutes if used thin bonito flakes). Drain. * The photo shows how I drain it. --->

* For making udon dashi broth (for 2 to 3 servings?)
1000 mL dashi stock
1 teasp. salt
1+1/2 Tbsp. light soy sauce
1+1/2 Tbsp. mirin

Heat dashi stock, add seasonings. Add boiled udon noodles and cook for a couple of minutes. Serve with your favorite toppings such as minced green onions, wakame kelp, slices of kamaboko or sumaki (steamed fish cake products), tempura, tenkasu (tempura batter flakes) and shichimi pepper.

* If you are interested in making udon noodles yourself, see this website.

Now, as some of you readers have brought up in the comments, there is another place that you cannot miss when talking about udon culture in Japan. It is Kagawa prefecture known as Sanuki in olden days, and their thick-n-chewy Sanuki udon noodles are made by putting the udon dough in plastic bags and stepping on it to knead it with heels. And the key ingredient of their udon broth are dried baby sardines called iriko and their local light soy sauce.

Those facts were already known (at least, among some people) in other areas in Japan, too, but what really made Sanuki udon -- as well as the udon culture in Kagawa prefecture -- popular throughout the country were probably this book, "Osorubeki Sanuki Udon" and this recent(?) movie called “UDON.”

Thanks to the media attention, recently some people even dare to add a third category, "Sanuki udon broth" to the big two, Kanto and Kansai versions, and say that Sanuki version is a bit saltier and lighter-colored than Kansai broth.

Unfortunately I have never had a chance to eat udon in Kagawa, but rumor has it that there are more udon noodle shops than traffic lights over there, or Kagawa natives only eat udon for lunch, or local people bring their own udon bowls and chopsticks to local udon noodle manufacturers (small, mom-and-pop type places) and enjoy old-fashioned good udon dishes which are not available at regular restaurants, etc. etc. And the place I’m interested in the most is this hilarious udon school where they teach you to dance on the udon dough to knead it. I’m not kidding. Believe me. Lucas of Nihon no Ryori actually gave it a try there. And here is another post about the udon school. Looks like a lot of fun, right?

But even before they wrote about it, the taste of Sanuki udon must have been already introduced outside Japan, because someone picked it as one of “The Top 50 things every foodie should do” in 2005.
How flattering. ;)