Category Archives: cultural differences

French New Year holiday 2017-2018

In between our stay at my husband’s mother’s place in the south of the Netherlands, the three of us took a short trip to Paris for our New Year’s holiday to visit our friends & relatives. We took Thalys, the express train service that runs through Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Two and a half hours after we left Aachen, a small German city bordering the Dutch city where my mother-in-law lives, we safely arrived at busy Gare de Nord.

This time we took a nice Airbnb in an area called Wagram, not too far from Champs-Élysées. It was our first time staying at an Airbnb, and in spite of some reservations we had about the apartment, it was a good choice with great location and ample space for the three of us.

On the New Year’s eve, my best friend and her partner invited us to their lovely home for a special dinner. As is always the case in Paris, we started a pre-celebration at 7:00PM and opened a champagne, munching on foie gras and smoked salmon, which seems to be THE things to eat on the New Year’s eve in France.

img_0682

Foie gras and smoked salmon, the must haves on the New Year’s eve

For dinner, Chef F made this delicious chicken filet with foie gras sauce. And the mashed potato… mmm I can still taste this creamy, sweet mash only a French person can make…  I’m pretty sure he used generous amount of butter, but maybe it’s better not to find out exactly how much… The sautéed mushroom was nutty and hearty, which was a perfect combination with the chicken and mash. Chef F served the same dish sans the foie gras sauce for their son and our daughter, on a small red kids table. Our daughter absolutely loved it, especially the mash. At the age of five she already knows the divinity of the French cooking.

img_0685

Chicken filet with foie gras sauce, with amazingly creamy tasty mashed potato & fried (morel?) mushrooms

By the time we finished the dinner, the four of us finished two bottles of champagne and a magnum red bottle. Embarrassingly enough, I fell asleep before the countdown began. I managed to wake up when they started counting 10, but could hardly open my eyes and collapsed on their cozy sofa hugging their cute little doggy (she was so soft and warm). At 1:00AM we decided to call the night, and we took an Uber home.

On the New Year’s Day, without fail, our daughter jumped on to our bed at 8 o’clock. Dragging ourselves out of bed, we took a hot shower, got dressed and went out. We found out that Centre Pompidou would be open so headed that way. As soon as we got out of the nearest Metro station to the museum, it started pouring, and of course our daughter jumped in to a large puddle. Lucky us… As such we went to a crêperie close by, most likely one of the worst tourist traps you could find in the centre of Paris… We had the crêpe as our early lunch, as we were still quite full from the evening before. Later that evening, Chef F cleverly cooked us some simple pasta to give our stomach some rest.

img_0696

Crêpe avec Nutella

On our last evening in Paris, to return the favour to our host, I cooked some Japanese meal with local ingredients. I loved shopping in a local supermarket and get inspired by all the unfamiliar ingredients. I could easily live in Paris and create locally adopted Japanese dishes… well, in my dreams. For the meal this time though, I stuck with the basics and made ginger pork and hamburg steak with Tokyo rice (that’s how my daughter calls the Japanese sticky rice). I realised, if I have soy sauce at hand, I can improvise many Japanese dishes even without (the very important) dashi broth. Of course it wouldn’t be perfect, but close enough. I used white wine where I needed to use Japanese sake, and honey and/or sugar for mirin. The result? Empty plates at the end of the meal.

img_0767-1

Grocery shopping at a local supermarket. Nice trolly for little kids.

Ginger pork, Hamburg steak with my mum's special sauce, Boiled green Moroccan beans, Fried Aubergine, Iceberg Salad, Tokyo Rice

Ginger pork, Hamburg steak with my mum’s special sauce, Boiled green Moroccan beans, Fried Aubergine, Iceberg Salad, Tokyo Rice

Cooking at their kitchen made me feel at ease. All of a sudden Paris became less overpowering, as if something has planted a seed somewhere deep in my mind that one day we could possibly start our life here.

Well, that would certainly be added to my bucket list.

Dutch Christmas holiday 2017

Over the past Christmas holiday, we visited my husband’s family and relatives in the Netherlands. After about 18 hours since the departure, we safely arrived at my husband’s mother’s place in the south of the Netherlands, two days before Christmas, where the year-end chaos back in Tokyo felt like distant past. I love the quiet, serene, family focused and heartwarming atmosphere of European Christmas, which is quite different from what we have in Japan (more commercialised with strong attention to romantic setting, in some cases involving expensive jewelry and an overnight stay at a luxury hotel). The following day on Christmas eve, we were ready to kickstart the festive season to begin, only to find out our poor girl got some tummy bug somewhere along the way and had to give a miss to all the Christmas celebrations. Luckily, a few days later she was fully recovered, and all of us resumed to enjoy our time-off.

After our rather miserable Christmas, the three of us were invited by the mother of my husband’s Dutch friend, who lives in the small village close to the city called Tilburg. The farm house where she lived was filled with holiday atmosphere with handmade Christmas decorations all over the place. Our daughter’s eyes widened with excitement as she walked into the front door. The house was warm, kind, and sparkly, just like an old house you’d see in a fairly tale. In her lovely kitchen there was a large pot heated in the gas stove, and whatever inside it gave an amazing and appetizing aroma of winter dish along with the heaping steam coming out of it. The candles were lit, the dinner table was perfectly set, we were all seated, and it was time for the dinner to be served… And I was dumbstruck when the lid was opened – I just didn’t expect how it would look like, and I couldn’t resist myself taking a photo. Voila, this is as hardcore Dutch as it can be – the famous Dutch “Stamppot.”

img_0594

This was followed by delicious vegan Rhubarb Crumble, which apparently was not necessarily a traditional Dutch dessert. Nevertheless, it was absolutely divine. I wish I didn’t eat the second potion of the gigantic sausage so that I could eat more of this amazing dessert.

img_0595

Talking about the traditional Dutch delicacy, they have this pudding like, or maybe more like custard type of dessert called Vla. To me, it’s like eating vanilla (or cocoa) cream that usually comes with spongy cake, but any Dutch people I’ve met strongly insist Vla is not cream nor pudding, but is Vla. OK then, it is Vla. Well, our half-Dutch daughter loves it, especially when mixing vanilla & chocolate Vla before eating. During this holiday, she’s had it numerous times, including her last cup of Vla 10 minutes before leaving her Oma’s place back to Tokyo.

img_0918

Kindergarten bento – Toshi-No-Se (15, 18, 19, 20, 22/Dec/17)

In Japan, it is said that “toshi-no-se,” the year-end, is bound to be busy, as everyone starts acting somehow anxious to finish off things prior to the fresh start of the new year. As mentioned before, the new year is a big deal in this country, and we do everything to make sure the new year to be quiet and special. 

This year was no exception for me also, and I was running around like a headless chicken without any time to stop and take a big breath… until we left for our Christmas holidays in the Netherlands to visit my husband’s family. Hesitantly we dropped unfinished errands, hurriedly packed our suitcases, left beautiful & sunny Tokyo, and arrived in the equally beautiful, but quite dark Netherlands yesterday. It is Christmas Eve here in the Netherlands, and things already seemed to have slowed down, and people are starting to relax for the festivity to begin. The sense of rush I was feeling in Japan is nowhere to be seen here. It’s an interesting realisation what a huge difference there is depending on which culture you’re in.

Looking back at the bento photos I didn’t have a chance to upload before our departure, I can vaguely remember how I managed all these bento making during my busy schedule. It’ll resume in the new year, but for now I’m relieved that I won’t have to do it for the next two weeks.

Happy Holidays!

15/Dec/17 – Grilled cod in saikyo-miso

18/Dec/17 – Simmered sword fish

19/Dec/17 – Nikudon-don

20/Dec/17 – Macaroni genovese 

22/Dec/17 – Chicken soboro 

Kindergarten bento – Tanabata festival (7/Jul/17)

Menu: Grilled salmon mixed in rice, Boiled egg, Boiled asparagus, Corns & cucumber salad

Grapes & banana for dessert


Today, 7th July is the day to celebrate Tanabata festival, where traditionally we put up our wish on a piece of rectangle paper and hang it on bamboo branches along with other colourful decorations made with Origami papers. It is the festival to celebrate a once-a-year rendezvous of this married couple, Princess Orihime & Prince Hikoboshi, who were derived from the stars (Vega and Altair) and separated by the Milky Way.

At our daughter’s school, they celebrated it by singing a Tanabata song and eating watermelon, one of the seasonal fruits in summer and very typical for summer festival, after their bento lunch. I totally forgot about it and packed grapes & banana for dessert… Oh well, lucky her to have extra dessert today!

Click here for more details about Tanabata, from Wikipedia.

Here is my daughter’s wish. It reads: I WISH TO BE A PRINCESS AND TRAVEL TO SPACE

Kindergarten bento – Takenoko rice (8/May/17)

During the so-called Golden Week holidays at the beginning of May (one week of consecutive public holidays), we took a short trip to up in the mountains in Gunma prefecture where my aunt and uncle live. Every spring we enjoy visiting them at their beautiful traditional wooden house, built entirely by my carpenter uncle, and going for Takenoko (bamboo shoot) digging in the mountain at the back of their house.

This was only the second year to do Takenoko digging for our daughter, but she was very comfortable and enthusiastic going through the woods to find the small signs of bamboo shoot emerging from the ground.

The hardship of Takenoko digging is worth every sweat. The eating bit afterwards is a great pleasure. This year, I cooked Takenoko rice in an earthen pot for a Sunday brunch with our good friends after coming back from Gunma, coupled with the white asparagus dish inspired by my Dutch husband’s roots. For those who are interested in the recipe of the Taeknoko rice, click here for the one I used.

The leftover Takenoko rice was packed for my daughter’s bento the next day. Last year she could not eat Takenoko, but this year the bento box came back empty!
Takenoko, bamboo shoot

Dutch lunch party (Sunday, 9/Apr/17)

My daughter’s school has been closed for spring break for the past two and a half weeks, and it will finally start again tomorrow. In Japan the new school year starts in April, so it’s kind of a big deal for children as well as their parents/caretakers in order to bring our mindset back to the new school routines.

To finish up the last day of the spring break in style, we threw a small lunch party at home, inviting a few of our daughter’s best friends and their parents from the kindergarten. Since we wanted to put some special touch to it, we went for a Dutch theme (my husband is from the Netherlands).

We started off with the appetizer of Dutch sandwich. I said to him it might be better to cut them into small pieces, but he said this was the Dutch way. Yes, very bold.

(Photo in courtesy of T. S.)

My husband is from the region called Limburg in the south, bordering Germany and Belgium, where the culinary culture is more elaborate  compared to the north. In Limburg, they use this incredibly divine yet underestimated paste-like syrup made from apples called Appelstroop. They spread it on a thin slice of bread (with butter underneath it usually), and place either sliced Gouda cheese or sliced ham on top.

This is the Appelstroop we use from the brand called Timson Rinse.


The texture of Appelstroop is like world-famous Veggie Mite or Marmite, but its taste is sweet and rich, a bit like thick honey but with more fruity aftertaste. It’s high in iron (and sugar), and is a great match when paired with something salty. According to my husband, they put a bit of Appelstroop in the rabbit stew they eat for Christmas in the Limburg region. They also use it as the spread for the pancakes just like Nutella or fruits jam.

We love Appelstroop so much we personally import it from the Netherlands. If you are interested, here is the link to the shopping site called Holland For You that we use regularly.

After the simple but fulfilling appetizer, the main course is what we call “Sweet Sour Chicken,” inspired by Indonesian cuisine. Just in case you are wondering, Indonesia is a former Dutch colony, and there are many Indonesian ingredients and recipes still available all across the Netherlands.

(Photo in courtesy of T. S.)

According to the recipe passed down from my mother-in-law, she uses this ready-made Pineapple Curry sauce for her Sweet Sour Chicken. Due to the difficulty to obtain it in Japan, in lieu of the sauce I use fresh pineapple, curry powder and yogurt, all mixed in the blender like smoothie. This time I forgot to put yogurt, but it tasted all right. She also uses so-called “ketjap” sauce which apparently is the Indonesian spicy soy sauce. Instead, it was replaced with Japanese soy sauce blended with some balsamico vinegar.

The dish tastes a bit like mild chicken curry with some tomato sauce as its base, and the excellent mixuture of sweetness from pineapple and sourness from vinegar at the same time. If anyone is intrigued, have a look at the recipe here. Sweet Sour Chicken goes very well with Jasmin rice or Brown rice.

After the nice long lunch with a few bottles of wine for grownups and Mugi-cha (barley tea) for kids, I think we are fully ready for a fresh kick-start of the new school year tomorrow.

 

Happy New Year bento – Osechi (1/Jan/17)

For the kids

…and for the grown ups

Happy New Year!

Did you know that in Japan what we eat on the first day of the year is bento? This has a special name, “Osechi.” Actually I didn’t have any idea why it’s called that way, so I did a quick research. Apparently Osechi is a simplified expression for “Osechiku(御節供)/ Osekku(お節句),” which is the term to describe special food prepared to appreciate the harvest.

New Year’s Day, usually referred as “Oshogatsu(お正月),” is one of the most important days of the year for Japanese people and is celebrated among family members and close relatives. It is a formal event involving proper table setting, rather than a casual fun party that is common in the Western society. I always explain to my Western friends that Oshogatsu in Japan is like Christmas in Europe and Thanksgiving in North America. We (are forced to) stay at home (if you are young and live on your own, you usually go back to your parents’ place to celebrate), have the celebration within the family (quite unusual to visit your friends on the New Year’s Day), and repeatedly eat & rest. We (usually women – no offense, it’s tradition…) prepare Osechi dishes a few days in advance so that we don’t have to work so much on the New Year’s Day itself. Osechi dishes mostly consist of preserved food and hence can last for a week or so.

Traditionally, every dish we put in Osechi has some auspicious meaning or appearance. For example, the combination of red (pink) & white is the colour of celebration in Japan. Kamaboko, the red & white fishcake slices in the centre of the box above, are the symbol of rising sun and is considered to be the most important dish for Osechi. Also the colour of yellow & gold is the sign of prosperity – see the creamy chestnuts in the bottom right corner, which is compared to the golden treasure. The egg cake roll in the top left corner is the sign of preciousness, signifying the hand scrolled documents where we used to store important information. Black beans apparently are the symbol of health. Kazunoko, the herring fish roes, also yellow & gold in colour in the centre of the box, are the sign of prosperity (for descendants), etc. etc. And adapting to the modern living, most of these dishes can be purchased nowadays at any grocery stores. As for me, I cooked a few dishes but bought some as well. All I had to do was to pack everything beautifully, gorgeously and efficiently, which, I’d like to emphasize, requires some skill 😉

This year, my parents joined my Dutch husband, our daughter and myself for the New Year’s celebration at our small Tokyo apartment, and our small family invited our very close friends, a lovely Portuguese family who live in our neighborhood in Tokyo, so that they could have a glimpse of our unique tradition. Eating Osechi all together and having a laugh with our cross cultural conversations, we were able to recreate this special, ceremonious feeling of Japanese New Year that we used to have with my grandparents back in good old days. It has become one of the most memorable Oshogatsu for me this year, sharing it with people I love with my first ever hand-packed Osechi.

 

References:

Kibun:

https://www.kibun.co.jp/knowledge/shogatsu/osechi/iware.html

Ii Nippon:

http://ii-nippon.net/日本の風習/1166.html