Girls’ Day 2017 Wrap-Up

Hey Folks,

Just wanted to post a few pictures from our Girls’ Day celebration at home.  This is another doll set that Little Guy made in his Japanese preschool:

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Here is the sakura-mochi we had.  Lately, it’s been harder to find it around here, even at Asian-food markets, so we were happy to find this one.  It was delicious as usual.  I enjoy sakura-mochi once a year, but like the Thanksgiving turkey, or Christmas treats, it’s worth the wait.

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My wife also made a nice clam soup.  I can’t recall what kind of clams these are, but usually we get Manilla clams.  The small colored balls are fu, which are dried wheat balls (naturally colored) that expand in water.  The soup itself is made from shira-dashi, which is like a clarified fish broth (dashi).

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Finally the piece-de-resistance: a large plate of chirashi.  Chirashi is basically sushi rice garnished with sashimi and such.  This is mostly maguro tuna, egg, shrimp, and some boiled spinach on the side.  The rice itself is mixed with shiitake mushrooms and such.

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We played lots of karuta games with my daughter.  The particular game we played was a karuta game based on famous Japanese yojijukugo phrases.  Since neither my daughter nor I am that familiar with them, my wife read the cards for us, while we found the right cards to match.  My daughter won most games, though not without some serious competition.  😉

All in all, it was a great Girls’ Day and looking forward to Easter and Children’s Day next.

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Japanese Home Cooking II: Easy, Healthy Rice

Since my wife is from Japan, we eat lots of rice at home. So much so, that I prefer it over bread these days. :-p

So we cook rice at least daily, if not more so1 which means we have a lot of experience and the way we’ve cooked has evolved over time.  Back in college, we started out with the “Yan Can Cook” brand rice-cooker which costed maybe $40 and was very basic. Later, we eventually moved up to fancier Japanese rice cookers. 

Lately, though we just cook our rice in stainless steel pots or pans from IKEA:

 

The teflon rice pot in our cooker got scratched somehow and started peeling off. We got worried about teflon leeching into our food, so on advice from a Japanese housewife friend we tried stainless steel. It was easier and faster to cook, but also came out surprisingly good. 

Just take some short-grain white rice2 and rinse it in cold water 3-4 times. Each time you do, drain the cloudy water and repeat. Once rinsed, add about 1.25 parts water to 1 part rice. Then, cook on high until it boils over, then turn off and let it steam itself for another 20 minutes or so.

Pro tip: for extra nutrition add barley, millet, black rice and/or other grains to your rice. You can even add a thin slice of dried “konbu” seaweed or a dash of tumeric for extra flavor. We get our grains as a mixed bag at the local H-Mart Korean market along with the konbu. 

Enjoy!

P.S. The previous home cooking article. 

1 Little Guy is now 2 ½ years old and eats a lot of food. He eats more than his 9-year old sister!

2 Brown rice has more arsenic in it and is harder to digest. You can get the same health benefits and more by adding other grains to white rice.

Japanese Home Cooking: Udon

Dear Readers,

After a lengthy dry-spell in blogging I have been more active and focused on the blog lately and decided to try a new series on simple Japanese home cooking. This is not the first post on home-cooking, but I hope to make a series out of it. My wife is a resourceful cook and I have picked up a number of simple, but delicious recipes from her.

However, this is also something I wanted to do for a long time. I noticed that many Westerners interested in cooking Japanese food use recipes thay are too traditional and impractical for everyday eating. Housewives in Japan often use much simpler recipes for home-cooking, so I wanted to show such recipes rather than the high-end gourmet recipes.

Today’s recipe is udon. Udon noodle soup is very popular in Japan and great for people who are ill or recovering from stomach flu.The recipe is pretty easy to memorize too:

  • 1 package of udon noodles, frozen
  • Soy sauce, regular or reduced-sodium.
  • Mirin, or sweetened rice wine
  • Dashi, or powdered fish broth
  • Optional: one egg
  • Optional: chopped green onions
  • Optional: tōgarashi (唐辛子) spice. This is a spicy seasoning you can sprinkle on. It’s a bit hard to find, and certainly spicy, but really good with udon.

Let’s talk about the ingredients a bit:

Udon Noodles

You can find these at your local Asian supermarket pretty easily. Usually they are sold in frozen packs of four or five. Get the ones actually made in Japan if possible, because of the quality.  The best ones are so-called “sanuki udon” (讃岐うどん), where Sanuki Province is an old province of Japan.  Sanuki-Style udon noodles actually aren’t hard to find because they’re so popular, but make sure you avoid Western-knockoffs.  They just don’t taste very good.

Mirin

Japanese cooking frequently uses rice wine, just as European cooking uses wine. However there are two general kinds: sweetened and regular

Mirin (みりん) is the sweetened kind and the easiest to find at your local Asian supermarket. You can use regular rice-wine (料理酒, ryōrishū) but then you have to add sugar anyway. Plus it’s a bit less common.

Long story short: just stick with mirin.

Soy Sauce

Again, easy to find. Note that soy sauce flavor varies more than you think between countries, so for this recipe stick with a Japanese brand if you can find it.

Reduced-sodium (減塩, gen’en) options exist for people who want to cut back. We often buy those and they turn out fine.

Dashi

This is the hardest one. A good fish broth makes a huge difference in the outcome of your Japanese cooking. A cheap one might just ruin your dish.

There are common mistakes here:

  • People buy the cheap, common brands like Ajinomoto. They’re ok but use MSG and otherwise aren’t that great.
  • People try to make their own using konbu seaweed. This can work but takes lots of practice. If you cook too long or too hot, the flavor quickly turns bitter. Cook too short and your soup has no flavor.

So try to follow some simple rules when shopping for dashi:

  • Stick with powdered dashi because it’s easier and good brands do exist. Preferably buy a brand that comes in little teabag-like pouches. Usually one “bag” per meal is enough. 
  • Look for either katsuo (bonito fish) or ago-dashi (flying fish) flavors. The latter is our personal favorite but the former is more popular and accessible.
  • Try to find nicer, organic brands or at least without MSG.  If there are no such options, dont worry too much. 
  • Try a couple brands to see what works.

Even then you may still find a brand you dont like as much, but it should suffice.

Preparation

Thankfully this is the easy part. First, start with the udon soup:

  1. Boil a sauce pan of water. How much simply depends on how much soup to make.
  2. Add a pouch of dashi or a teaspoonful. After it cooks a bit, taste it. If it is too thin, add a little more. If too strong, add a little water. The broth should be just slightly cloudy and have a rich taste without being too heavy. You will know what’s best. 
  3. Once you have a good broth, add some soy sauce and mirin in roughly equal measure. The broth should be fairly dark but not black. Try adding only a modest amount of each, let cook, taste, add more as requires.
  4. Let the soup cook for medium heat for a few minutes to help the flavors blend.
  5. Now you can crack and egg and drop in the yolk. Give it a few minutes to cook under medium-low heat. Other options include:
    • Chicken
    • Carrots
    • Tempura
    • Fried Tofu
    • Japanese curry
    • Fish cakes –  these are darn good in udon.
    • Wakamé seaweed
  6. Finally, add chopped green onions. The trick is to let them cook a bit so they are not raw, but not overcooked and mushy. 

Once the broth is done, boil the udon noodles in a separate pot until they are al dente, drain the water and then put the noodles in the bowl you want to eat from. Add the soup to your bowl and you are ready to serve!  If you have access to tōgarashi (唐辛子) powder, which is a bit like a spicy pepper spice, sprinkle some of that on too for some zest.

Enjoy!

P.S. Thanks to reader “Hangtown” for helpful feedback. 

1 In early November I had a really bad stomach flu for 10+ days. i lost a lot of weight and depended a lot on udon toward the end just to keep going. Finally, one day I woke up and it was just gone. It was the sickest I have ever been.

Chinese Characters in Korean Cuisine

Hi guys,

Since my second child was born, my Korean language studies have all but completely stalled.  However, my wife really loves Korean food and likes to cook it often, while I enjoy reading the packaging.  This is a package of ramen noodles, or ramyeon (라면),1 that we bought recently.

If you look carefully there’s a mix of Korean letters (hangeul) and Chinese characters. Although Korean culture doesn’t really use Chinese characters much anymore, they still often appear in advertising and other such things. The Chinese characters, which I happen to be able to read thanks to study of Japanese language (which does use them), are 中華麺 which just means “Chinese-style noodles”. To the right of that, in smaller letters is the Korean chung-hwa myron (충화면) which just says the same thing.

Also on the upper-right in green is the Chinese character 生 which in this context probably means “fresh”.

Anyhow, just something interesting I wanted to share.  🙂

1 These are not the cheap dried noddles either. These are genuine ramen/ramyeon egg noodles. You can make a pretty close approximation by boiling regular spaghetti noodles in water and a little baking soda. I wouldn’t recommend doing that too often, but it does actually come out pretty tasty.

Ninja Food

Hi Folks,

As this week is Golden Week in Japan, this week’s post will be more light-hearted and fun. 🙂

Today’s post was inspired by a book my wife bought me long, long ago when we first dated. That was almost 15 years ago. 🙂 This is a book, translated into English, which contains teachings by a modern master of Ninjutsu, The art of the ninja, named Hatsumi Masaaki (初見良昭, born 1931). The book is interspersed with teachings about ninjutsu and his own experiences as a student, etc.

I haven’t read the book in years but recently I was moving books around and was flipping through pages when I found this section on “The Ninja Diet”:

…When undercover, Ninja might spend long periods unable to soak up the sun, and they would therefore also train in being “night owls.” Ordinary people tend to regard such unorthodox lifestyles as indicating failure, but the Ninja were in control of their own lives, and their spiritual powers of endurance helped them perfect the skills needed to transform the unconventional into commonplace activities. Whenever I travel around the world giving guidance in Ninpō Taijutsu (the art of the ninja, 忍法体術), I never have any problems with jet lag or unusual food. Unlike many, I actually relish such experiences.

On a more practical note, he also explains the recommended diet for students of ninjutsu:

Having a healthy everyday diet is still the foundation of which one should build the kind of body which will help one’s Taijutsu grow. Above all, I recommend eating plenty of vegetables. The Ninja Kihon Happō (the basic 8 directions of the ninja??) diet consists of brown rice, tōfu, sesame, miso soup, no salt, no sugar, uncooked food, and colored vegetables….The other important thing is to eat everything, without preference or fussiness. Moreover, you should enjoy your food—and chew it well. This is useful for recovering from mental and physical fatigue.

What Mr. Hatsumi describes here is essentially the Macrobiotic Diet, which was popularized in Japan in the 1800’s. However, it is also not limited to the ninjas-in-training. I found a similar entry in my bi-lingual book on Zen about monastic food:

Speaking from experience, monks usually eat a mixture of barley and rice and rarely partake of white rice, meat or fish. Such foods would be hard to digest during long periods of zazen. Moreover, meat is too energy rich, making it hard to control your body and mind.

I have to admit after reading all this, I am kind of intrigued about the diet advice, though I am not sure I can follow through on it. Then again, at the age of 37, I am getting older and probably should anyway. Time will tell. 🙂

Girls Day 2015 Wrap-up

Hello Everyone,

Just to wrap up Girls Day, I wanted to post some photos of our dinner. I left work a bit early today so I could be home on time for dinner. Because it is Girls Day, a Japanese traditional holiday celebrating young ladies, my wife made a nice, traditional dinner. Here is the chirashi:

Hinamatsuri Chirashi

This is sushi rice, topped with Bluefin Tuna (maguro), boiled shrimp, cooked egg, and ikura or fish eggs. She used a round cake pan to make the shape, which was clever. 🙂

She also made a nice boiled Manila clams:

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We also had some clam soup made with shiradashi (白だし), which is like regular dashi-fish broth, but has a lighter flavor and comes in liquid form, not powder. Thus the soup is often clear with a lighter, less salty flavor. Really nice, traditional soups often seem to use shiradashi.

Little Guy is too young to eat any of this, so he got his own special meal of rice balls, spinach and a little bit of Chirashi:

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This is Little Guy’s favorite plate because he loves the cartoon Anpanman. His favorite character is Baikinman (the purple character at the top). When he sees Baikinman, he grunts really loud because he’s trying to imitate Baikinman’s voice. I will make a video of it someday, hopefully. It’s really funny.

Princess was a little spoiled today. She got to have extra treats, drinks she likes, etc.

Finally we ended the evening by dancing in the living room to CNBlue’s song “L.O.V.E. Girl“. Certain ladies in the house are all fans of Jung Young-hwa.1 😉

Both Princess and Little Guy like to sing in microphones or dance silly. Little Guy is still too young to stand up and walk, so he just sits and wiggles his arms when he wants to dance. I do silly dancing for the kids and wife, which everyone enjoys.

Anyhow, it was fun family evening.

Hope you ladies all had a good day too.

1 Actually I like CN Blue also because they’re a good Korean rock group, but also not too corporate either. More recent songs like Hey You are quite fun to listen to.

Buddhism and Vegetarianism According to Venerable Sheng-Yen

Hi guys,

I just wanted to share this video from the famous Chinese monk, Sheng-Yen (聖嚴, died in 2009) about Buddhism and vegetarianism:

I liked this video because it was pretty balanced. He lays out some good, valid reasons why some Buddhists are vegetarian, but he also lays out reasons why some are not. A lot of it depends on which Buddhist tradition, and also the circumstances in your life. It’s a voluntary, pious practice, but not required in Buddhism (unless you belong to some monastic orders).

Anyhow, enjoy!