Big In Japan

Someone once told me that I have a habit of speaking with exclamation marks at the end of my sentences. Known for being extremely open minded for constructive criticism – I decided on the spot to embrace his words and use them in the best possible way to improve myself – I immediately exiled them to “Siberia’s Gulags” coordinates within my brain’s gray matter.

When I started to write this blog – I asked my brother to review the posts I wrote. He came up with a lot of helpful tips – and one very annoying observation – “there are a lot of exclamation marks in your posts. I personally don’t like it but …” – yep – apparently my writing was also exclamation mark oriented – as if I was trying to make a point …

A few days ago – following WordPress.com’s advise – wondering around the wild west of blogging territories – reading posts published by other recognition seeking souls – I stumbled upon this post – High Spirits – The Awl – describing it’s author’s experience while visiting Japan.

A little long – a little tedious – but so well written. Cynical, full of accurate observations, presenting a lot of criticism yet glowing with love for human beings. Every paragraph was making a point without using even one exclamation mark. I got SOOOOOO jealous.

So here is an attempt of writing my version of a Japanese experience without using any exclamation marks. Wish me luck.

The second adventure of my expedition took me back to Japan. I decided to try a recipe from Nobu’s vegetarian cookbook.

I bought this book soon after returning from our visit to Japan last spring. Japanese cuisine is notoriously famous for not being vegetarian friendly – to say the least. Just google the words “vegetarian” and “Japan” together – and get your party pooper reading list. Lists of “can eat” dishes will make you want to cry when compared to the rich and mouthwatering dishes tagged with a big “NO NO” sign. Ramen broth is based on pork bones, everything is sprinkled with Bonito flakes (dried Tuna fish), Dashi is the base for everything – and yes – in most cases it gets its Umami taste from … Bonito flakes. Even those Yuba (Tofu skins)  skewers are dipped in a yummy – yet very fishy sauce. Ask for a vegetarian dish and they will happily serve you a delicious plate with absolutely no flesh of any previously living being on it – its just those noticeable rich flavors that reveal the truth of what’s actually in there – use denial – or eat Onigiri (basically stuffed rice).

That is why a known chef devoting a whole book to vegetarian Japanese cooking earned my immediate attention and my utmost respect.

Flipping through this book’s pages I realized it encapsulates Japan as we experienced it : Efficiency – Minimalism – Aesthetics (I just realized I can use bold instead of an exclamation mark). There are no stories nor personal philosophies or life changing revelations. Lists of ingredients are short – instructions are straight to the point. And the plates presented in the photos – No decoration except the natural dish ingredients … No “quenelles” of anything, no “paint brushing” with your sauce, no countless elements, no use of edible flowers to add color. Use your vegetable’s colors, play with contrasting colors to achieve this WOW effect, keep it clean – tidy, use symmetry – align everything …  and the result – I’ll let you judge by yourself.

Traveling to Japan had some additional warning signs attached to it. Everyone hearing about my plan bothered to warn me about this “crazy” place – those “strict” people – how hard it will be to manage without the language – how big and intimidating are the train stations … Some suggested to use local guides – almost everyone thought hiring a car was the wrong decision … Stubborn me – I stuck with my plan as if my life depended on it.

For us – the Japanese experience was actually a revelation. There was a different way of doing things – and guess what – judging by the outcome – it was obvious who’s methodology was superior.

Not long after we landed – everything about Japan already made sense. The polite and helpful young assistant near the train tickets vending machine at the airport – the spotless and quiet train that took us to Shinjuku station (for the first time since the invention of the iPhone – we did not participate in someone else’s one sided conversation). Shinjuku station – 36 platforms, over 200 exists – enormous waves of people in constant movement – all focused on their mission – from somewhere to another somewhere. We took 3 minutes for orientation based on the clear signs above our heads (Letter & Number – can’t beat this system) – and there we were – right out of the station – at the exact direction we needed to reach our hotel by a 5 minutes walk.

We were overwhelmed by the size of everything, by the unknown language, by the masses of people, by the trains circling in dedicated lines above the city buildings. We felt as if we were participating in some futuristic movie – in which we obviously were the heroes. At some spots we just stood for a few long minutes – like tourists – just staring at the rhythm of this incredible city. Shinjuku at night, Harajuku on a Sunday morning, Ginza buildings on a light rainy night, Sakura blossom in Kyoto – pure magic.

The kids were overwhelmed by this

The clean streets made sense – the way this was achieved took us by surprise – missing trash bins and missing benches – even we understood the hidden message after a while – you are expected not to eat (or not expected to eat) in the street – not to smoke on the street – take your minimal produced garbage with you. One cannot escape the non-existing resemblance to our local streets (spotted with endless empty trash bins – overlooking trash covered concrete pavements).

Japanese people made sense too.  We get it – the huge smiles taped on any customer attending employee are part of their job definition and in many cases artificial – but hey – i’ll take that over all the angry/bored/annoyed  (pick you favorite) faces staring at us with indifference every time we try to get minimal attention from their colleagues in our glorious land. Bowing in gratitude to customers leaving your shop makes sense – especially if their hands are loaded with countless bags of new purchased overpriced clothes. Being polite beats being rude – every time – no exceptions. There is no glory in managing a mess – you should see the efficient queue in that little “cotton candy” shop in Harajuku – pick you colors while you wait – arrive to the counter ready – give your order in a 3 word sentence – get exactly what you wished for. That’s how you make many little people happy – so many of them in such a short time …

A few days later – even those lovely young ladies in the middle of Kyoto made complete sense – they just did.

Technology wise – we resemble the Neanderthals when compared to the Japanese. But its the simplest technologies that actually capture your attention. Warm toilet seats … not required in our roasting oven part of the world – where a cold feeling on your bottom does no harm (it only indicates a previous male visit to the lavatory) – but you, cold winter challenged people, what’s wrong with you ? why aren’t you adopting this simple yet brilliant solution ? Is it lack of knowledge ? Is it the price ? Is it national pride ? Did you know those Japanese remarkable toilets come with a small appliance that plays music while you do your thing … no – its not intended to keep you company but rather to avoid embarrassment – how clever is that ? enough said about toilets (in a food blog).

One last story.

After visiting Tokyo for a few days – we headed north in a rented car. Mid April – beautiful spring – unreal Sakura blossom- constantly changing weather … we were caught by light snow on the road to Matsumoto.

Accidents are always sudden – that’s their nature. Happened right in front of us – a car and a small truck were involved – looked pretty bad. All traffic stopped immediately – cars moved to the side of the road (clearing space for the rescue teams that were clearly going to arrive soon). My husband did the same – and then got out of the car running towards the accident scene in order to help the people trapped in those cars. Took us a few moments to realize … he was the only one out there. Everyone else was sitting in the calmest possible way in their cars – putting their trust on the “system” to handle the situation (can you imagine) . I will never know what thoughts flowed through their minds while watching him climbing the upside down vehicle and trying to open the locked doors. All I can testify is that a few seconds later – they started stepping out of their cars – taking of their jackets – laying them tidy on the back seats … and running like Ninja worriers to join the effort.

Rescue teams arrived within minutes – injured people were evacuated in ambulances – the car and truck were towed from the road – the road was cleaned from all smashed glass and grease spots. Then came the accident investigators. They walked on the road over and over – measured the distance from everything to everywhere – made notes – discussed them – measured again … we set in our car for 3 endless hours. Needless to say that during the whole time not a single horn blow was heard. No self-appointed expert interfered with the “system”s processing of the event (OK – I admit – we did open our window and pointed them to a grease spot they missed – but they actually missed it – they did).

Everyone who is familiar with our “non-culture” can imagine how this scene would have looked like in our chaotic, sizzling, irresistible piece of land – not a pretty sight – not calm – nor quiet. But – to our defense I must state – it would have been a much shorter episode. Would have required 2 volunteering 4 wheel drive vehicles – a lot of improvisation – some team work – but traffic would have continue to roll within 30 minutes.

We arrived to Mastumoto at 22:00 – the small town was all dark. We were starving – but could not find any open restaurant. So we headed back to our hotel – planning to eat some leftover snacks from the journey. The young guy behind the counter took one glimpse at us and understood everything. He stepped out from behind the counter – and started walking outside – we followed. We walked into a tiny alley near the hotel – where he open the curtains on a little room which apparently was a restaurant. The elderly couple managing this place smiled at us – and served us the only option on the menu – Soba noodles … Hot or cold they asked in very clear Japanese … hot we answered in our broken English – obviously hot – it was snowing just a few hours before.  Those Soba noodles were the best meal we had during our visit to Japan – agreed by all. I used a lot of denial – was worth every bit of remorse my conscience forced upon me the next day.

I will not presume to draw any conclusions from this story. It was just a “clash” between very different civilizations (I usually don’t honor ours with this title – but I think we earned some good points during this event – so i’ll make an exception). No right or wrong – no better – no worse – just very different.

Onion “Steak” with Teriyaki Balsamic Sauce

The following sentence –  “It almost puts beef to shame” – marked this recipe as a top candidate for my research.

The Teriyaki Balsamic sauce calls for Kombu Dashi stock – so I started by preparing it.

I use a lot of vegetarian Dashi (based on Kombu & Shitakke)  in my cooking – it just adds this rich and “meaty” flavor that is so hard to achieve without animal proteins.

I usually prepare this stock by placing Kombu, shitakke and water in a jar – and letting it do their thing for 24 hours. Being eager to learn – I decided to follow Nobu’s instruction instead.

Placed my Kombu and mushrooms in a small pot. Added water – and warmed to 60 degrees. I used a thermometer to keep the temperature for another 50 minutes – then strained the stock.

Next – I had to reduce some Balsamic vinegar over low heat. Nothing too exciting (except the sticky amber colored syrup you end up with).

Time to prepare my onions. I cut my “Steaks” out of the middle of each onion – and placed them on a tray with those long beautiful sweet peppers.

I used the tops and bottoms of the onions to create very thin stripes of onions to be used for the garnish. The onions needs to be put in ice water for 10 minutes – then drained carefully and deep fried in oil. The fried stripes should be kept in a hot spot for 2 hours to “crisp” up. The process was easy – but I realized a little late that I should have used my mandolin to achieve even stripes. Using a knife resulted in some stripes being thicker – and not cooked enough when I took them out of the oil (thus not crisp enough when cooled). Should have known better … but I still managed to get enough crispy and very yummy onion garnish.

I entered the onions and peppers to the oven for roasting (recipe instructs to cook for 7 minutes – I knew this will not work – so I just tested them until they were fully tender and nicely colored – about 20 minutes).

While waiting for my “Steaks” to roast – I prepared the sauce.

Placed the Mirin in a sauce pan and heated to evaporate the alcohol. Added the Dashi stock, sugar and soy sauce and simmered for 5 minutes. I mixed some Kudzu starch (“Kudzu powder, is a starch powder made from the root of the kudzu plant. It is traditionally used in ChineseJapanese, and Korean cuisines mainly for thickening sauces and making various types of desserts.” – thank you Wikipedia) with water – and added it to the sauce to thicken it. Finally, I added my reduced Balsamic vinegar – and the sauce was ready.

I placed the thick sauce on a plate – put my roasted onions and pepper – and added some crisp onion garnish on top … here is the result :

 

And the verdict : It was delicious – everyone loved it – but I kept wondering … WHERE IS MY STEAK ????

This dish felt like the side dishes you would serve beside your steak. When I cook steaks on the grill I usually put some onions, peppers and eggplants to grill too – and serve them on the side. There was one big white elephant missing on that plate …

The sauce was good – but the Balsamic vinegar overpowered the Teriyaki. I should have known this would happen based on the amount of Balsamic used – next time I will prepare it with much less Balsamic.

Will definitely use this Kudzu stuff again to thicken sauces – you should give it a try.

On my next post – I challenge myself to avoid the use of my so loved “…” – stay tuned … (had to)

4 thoughts on “Big In Japan

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  1. Fantastic story – you brought back so many wonderful memories from my trip to Japan in 2017. The train stations, the food ordering kiosks, cleanliness of the streets, and of course the toilets. Keep telling the stories in such a vivid way, it helps put the reader in your shoes.

    1. Thanks you Shawn for taking the time to read – and for your kind words. Japan was such a great experience – we are already planning another visit in the future.

  2. את אלופה!! תמיד עפתי על הכתיבה והיצירתיות שלך!!! על כל שורה בערך יש לי מה לנהל איתך שיחה!!! תמשיכי!! ותלמדי אותי להגדיש כתב וככה גם אני אוכל להיפרד מסימני קריאה(-:

    1. תודה רבה – תמיד שמחה לנהל שיחות 🙂 אני נפרדתי מסימני הקריאה באופן זמני בלבד – מתגעגעת אליהם …

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