Category Archives: cultural differences

Kindergarten bento – Behind the scenes (18/Sep/18)

Today’s bento: Hamburger steak, Tomato omelet, Simmered carrot, Boiled broccoli, Shirasu (baby sardine) rice, Apple for dessert.  

I love my daughter’s kindergarten. It is a great school inside out, with kind and highly competent teachers, thoughtful educational philosophy focusing on Japanese culture and seasonality, and it even comes with the beautiful garden with a lot of green and soil on the ground instead of concrete (very rare for Central Tokyo). Apparently the bento is also part of their education, so that the kids would spend their important first few years of their lives, always eating healthy home-cooked meals prepared with love.

But there is no such thing as a perfect school, is there? Out of all the positive aspects of my daughter’s school, there is one characteristic that I just cannot overlook: they do not encourage women to go back to the workforce. They wouldn’t stop you from working (they can’t), but the head teacher publicly made the statement that they provide childcare, not for mothers to go back to work, but for the well-being of our children. They believe the physical participation of the parents (and in this context usually targeting mothers) is crucial during school hours, involving various events and activities organised by the Parents Association. Want to work full-time? Oh, it would be difficult if you want to send your kids to this kindergarten… etc., etc. How backward, my super liberal Dutch husband would lament. We knew this before enrolling our daughter, but both of us had this wishful thinking that this might change, or perhaps we could make a change…

What makes it difficult to do so, I came to realise, is that some fellow mothers are totally against working mothers as if to say working is a vice. Some mums voiced that “work” cannot be an excuse to miss school commitment, that there would be no special treatment, because kindergarten in general is not for people who wish to work.

In good old Japan we had a common understanding that women should protect the household and spend time with their children. Poor kids if mothers have to work. This is slowly changing but is still followed by the great part of the society. With my semi-international background I always have a slight sense of guilt for not working full-time, but now I have another layer in my guilt for working at all. Work, or not work, it surely isn’t an easy place for a person like me, and this, reflects the modern but undeveloped Japanese cultural state in my opinion.

Yet, I still love my daughter’s kindergarten. I can’t think of a better place for her to be despite the struggle. A part of me wants to make a difference and fight it, while the Japanese part in me just wants to conform or escape. I go back to my daily bento making, daydreaming that one day, some miracle happens to change people’s mindset for the better.

Kindergarten bento – Boiled egg failure (Friday, 25/May/18)

Our daughter loves half boiled egg served in egg stand. That’s how her Dutch grandmother (Oma) prepares it, and our daughter calls it “Oma Egg”. She loves cracking it horizontally at the top with a knife, and eating gooey golden egg yolk with a sprinkle of salt using this tiny egg spoon. It’s a whole pleasurable ritual for her.

Now back to our kitchen in the morning, while preparing bento, I went auto-pilot, boiled an egg for 5 minutes, peeled it, cut in half and saw the shiny yellow egg yolk spilling out of the egg white. Only then did I realise it was meant for her bento and needed to be fully cooked. As is always the case it was the last egg in the fridge, and as being Friday I had no other ingredients to fill up the bento box. Panicking, I put the halved egg into a small bowl of boiled water, but nothing really happened. I then put the bowl of egg into the microwave, being afraid it might explode, so ran it for 10 seconds, check, and repeat. After five times of pathetic efforts, it finally solidified, and with a feeling of relief I packed it into my daughter’s bento box.

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Kindergarten bento – Yakitori-don guilt (2/May18)

Is it only me, or maybe anyone who grew up in the same/similar culture as mine, who feel a slight sense of guilt for cooking something too quick and easy? As a good cook in the Japanese society, you are supposed to (or trained to) devote a great deal of time in the kitchen, to make elaborate dishes. In fact, when we visit my parents’ place, my mum hardly ever sits down with us. She spends most of her time cooking in her kitchen, focusing on serving freshly made dishes one after the other, right from the stove. And she does it with great pleasure. She is very proud of it.

I know this is quite the reverse of the modern thinking, and I’m not saying at all that this is how things should be. I hate it, to be forced into the framework of becoming a stereotypical ideal woman, and try hard to push the pressure away always. But on the other hand, this sense of guilt always comes with it. No matter how much I am exposed to the feminism movement, I just cannot change the way I instinctively feel. It is ingrained in my bones, having grown up in the society with high expectations for girls to become a good mum/wife/woman. The society expects it, and your fellow female peers expect it to a certain extent, still in the 21st century.

Well, it takes about three minutes to make this yakitori-don if you already have your rice ready. I bought pre-cut chicken thigh (guilt), don’t even have to marinate it (another guilt), stir-fry it and quickly season at the end. Voila, it’s done (within three minutes). I just boiled egg rather than make omelet (guilt), packed it with unseasoned vegetables (guilt). On top of this, I packed frozen apple mousse and mashed sweet potato from the freezer for dessert (see, I am now officially guilty).

Recipe for the three minute Yakitori donburi:

Ingredients (for 2 servings):

  • Diced chicken thigh (100g)
  • 1 table spoon of Japanese sake (or white wine)
  • 3/4 table spoon of soy sauce
  • 1 table spoon of mirin (if you don’t have mirin, just a sprinkle of sugar instead, with a bit more sake)

Directions:

  1. In a medium sized frying pan on medium heat, quickly stir-fry the chicken thigh. No oil needed
  2. Once the chicken becomes golden, add the sake until it starts evaporating
  3. Add the soy sauce & mirin and cook it until the sauce thickens – this takes about a minute or so, depending on the heat
  4. Serve it on top of freshly cooked rice with sliced nori seaweed

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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