Category Archives: cultural differences

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

 

Food for thought – Solids, how it started

While ago, I posted my traumatic experience of breastfeeding. Thinking back, I couldn’t wait to get away from the feeling of guilt for feeding my baby girl the bottles all the time, which was exacerbated by the pro-breastfeeding trend in recent years. All I wanted back then was to start giving her solid food as soon as possible so that at least I can feel I am giving something natural, as opposed to something artificial (very biased I know).

As such, I was always picturing about introducing her solid food after she would turn six months, a common benchmark in Japan. I was thinking about moving forward slowly and carefully to see what food our baby could take or not take, as many of the first timer parents would do. I thought of starting off with rice porridge, which is the very first food to start feeding your baby in Japan. It is culturally taken for granted, and if you say otherwise people may get confused. We just don’t know that other options exist. If you ask any Japanese person, I bet almost 99.9% of us would say the same. Historically speaking, rice has played imperative roles over the years in this country, not only as our staple food but also as alcohol (sake), condiments (mirin, vinegar, etc.), glue (used for dyeing), fertilizer…. there is even this old women’s tale that they would give the watery part of rice porridge to newborn babies if their mothers could not produce enough breast milk. It’s almost like you cannot talk about Japan without understanding the importance of this incredible grain, because rice is our norm and the base of what we are.

So naturally, I thought that is what I was going to do for our baby girl. But isn’t life interesting because there is always something unexpected or unthought of happens in your life? When our baby girl was five months old, we visited our family friends in Hong Kong. It was our first trip abroad with our little one, so we packed (more than) sufficient amount of formula and nappies, being very excited for her to meet our friends and their three girls. We arrived at their beautiful apartment in one of the skyscrapers on the Hong Kong Island, and proudly and happily introduced our baby to the entire family. As common in Hong Kong, they had lived-in helpers who excitedly greeted the tiny visitor and reacted affectionately to every single movement she made. At one point the hostess (the mother of 3), the helpers (two of them combined raised more than 20 children), and I were all gathering at their enormous kitchen, talking about babies, tips on parenting, etc. etc. Then suddenly, our friend asked me how old exactly our baby girl was. I said five months, and she enthusiastically said, “oh, so she’s ready for solids! Would you like to try here? M (one of the helpers) can show you how!” And of course the experienced and confident child minder M was beaming with pride, nodding at me with a big smile for assurance. As for me, a moment of panic was going through my head, thinking I was not ready at all even if our baby might have been ready. For a moment I hesitated and was about to decline their offer, but at the same time as silly as it may sound, I didn’t want to appear to be this overly concerned, overprotected and paranoid parent (which I was, of course). And I knew they knew much better. As a result, I found myself saying “OK, let’s give it a try…”

This was how it started, our first baby food experience. According to M, the guru, the best first food is mashed steamed apple, i.e. apple mousse. That’s right, apple, it’s a fruit, not at all rice… Another panic went through my head, but I shook my anxiety off and tried my best to be my normal self. In the kitchen M took out a beautiful red apple and put it in a small boiling steamer, and carefully mashed it when it was done. I still remember this shiny, juicy, almost golden honey like mashed apple M prepared. And she suggested me to give a small spoonful to our baby girl who was curiously sitting in the lilac Bumbo chair on top of the huge kitchen island. It was going to be her very first bite. I thought, from this moment on, her poo would be different forever. She took it, moving her mouth as if she’s really tasting it, and when I offered the second spoonful, she took another, and then another, and then the small portion M had put on a small plate was all gone. Our baby absolutely loved it.

More than three years have past since then, and a couple of weeks ago our now 4 year old was a bit sick with some minor tummy bug. She didn’t have any appetite but would only eat one thing…. and it was apple mousse. Usually in Japan we give rice porridge to those who are ill, which is very common and is followed everywhere including hospitals. But our girl would not eat rice porridge. Every time I made an attempt to feed her rice porridge during her illness, hoping to give her some energy back, she just made faces and spit it out. She just would not eat anything but apple mousse. This puzzled me a lot, because I thought that the rice porridge was the thing to eat when you are ill, and didn’t know there could be any alternative. But through my daughter I finally realised what I took for granted was only true in my home country. When people are ill they actually eat the food they’d feel most comfortable with or familiar with, and this, I now believe, depends on what you used to eat in your early childhood. In my daughter’s case it’s apple mousse, the very first food she ever tasted in her whole life. It is certainly something I did not foresee prior to starting the solids with my girl, and it surely shook my mindset and made me understand about different perspectives in one of the most basic human behaviors.

My daughter’s favorite apple mousse

Food for thought – First Served First Eat

Have you been in an awkward situation in a restaurant in Japan where you are served your meal first while no one else’s food arrives at the same time? Or reversely, everyone else gets served their meal but your food just does not arrive, making everyone on the table uncomfortable and making you try hard to stay calm and smile outwardly but inside feeling anxious whether the waiter got your order right?

I thought about why this happens.

First of all, in the Japanese dining culture in general, we don’t have a strict rule to wait for everyone’s meal to arrive (except for high-end restaurants I would say). Of course it’d be better if everyone can start eating at the same time, but if other’s food doesn’t arrive, let’s say after a couple of minutes after yours did, you’d probably get encouraged to go ahead and start eating, and they’d probably say something like “you should go ahead before it gets cold”. And when people say this they are serious, not just being polite. In a way we put more emphasis on food itself rather than following table manners, in order to appreciate food at its best state. For that reason (so I assume), we are not trained to wait for everyone to be served in the way Westerners are (diligently hold on until everyone’s plate arrives), and this understanding also applies to people working in the kitchen. My mum is the same – she always stays in the kitchen to finish up one last dish to serve after putting other food on the table for us, while urging us to start eating without her. She did the same thing when my Dutch in-laws came for dinner during their visit to Japan. Her main aim was to serve all the dishes at their best condition for the guests to enjoy, rather than her presence at the dinner table which was totally secondary in her mind (and this, ironically, made my mother-in-law uncomfortable and puzzled, who, unlike my mum, makes a painstaking effort to finish preparing all the dishes by the time everyone sits at the dining table).

I noticed this tendency when I was working for a multi-national company and had many occasions to go for lunches with my colleagues from different parts of the world. In central Tokyo where I worked, there are many good restaurants serving amazingly reasonable lunch sets, so we used to get out of the office and go for a warm meal on a regular basis. I quickly leaned, in the Western culture, you are supposed to wait until everyone at the table gets served, then start eating all together. Most Japanese restaurants, oblivious to this international norm, try very hard to bring whatever is ready first as quickly as possible. At many occasions I suggested it was all right to start, but most of the time my colleagues said it was ok for them to wait, and so they did, purposefully yet restlessly. I remember the perplexed looks we got from the restaurant staff, supposedly wondering why this foreign customer was not touching his/her hot meal. For them, it can be confusing and annoying that you don’t start eating, because the chef prepared the perfect dish for you with the right taste, temperature and texture (especially soup noodles where the texture means a lot. As you wait, noodles get soggier and soggier, and it’s a no-no in the Japanese context). They may think, “is something wrong with what is served, or is it the wrong order?”

So everyone, next time you come across this culturally awkward moment in Japan, do not hesitate to start your meal before others, once you are encouraged to do so. You can say “Osakini (I’ll start before you)”. It is not rude. Well no, not at all, most of the time, it actually makes us feel at ease.

ramen
(photo from: http://photo-zemi.jp/web_seminar/training/practice/food/foundations/foundations_08.html

 

(N.B. Don’t start your meal though if no one has suggested for you to go ahead – start eating without anyone’s acknowledgement is a bit rude here also)

 

Kindergarten bento – Leftover parade (24/Jun/16)

Menu: potato with bolognese sauce,  Hijiki, Boiled egg, Spinach & jako (small semi-dried fish) rice, cucumber and cherry tomato 

Watermelon for dessert

 
This morning I prepared our little big girl’s packed lunch, making the most of our leftovers in the fridge. Bolognese sauce from last evening, hijiki from two evenings before (usually it lasts for a good few days given all the seasoning).

I’m sure my mother-in-law in the Netherlands would dismiss this leftover bento immediately with her strong preference to eat up all the food she cooked within the same day: another possible cultural difference in our lifestyle, or maybe just another usual in-law battle 😉

Food for thought – Potato is vegetable!

Did you know in Japan potato is considered as vegetable? We eat potato just like any other veggies and serve with other carbs, such as rice, noodles or bread. We have dishes like niku-jaga (potato & meat stew),  yakisoba (stir fried noodles with veggies & meat/seafood that can come with potato as one of its ingredients), and potato salad sandwich among many others.

Niku-jagaimg_7411
Potato salad sandwich (from http://sandwich1118.com/ポテトサラダ/)

Growing up in Japan, I never considered potato as staple food, since it always comes with another, more ‘prominent’ staple like rice or noodles. We also eat other root vegetables in the same manner as potato, from lotus root, burdock root, carrot and to Japanese daikon radish. The way we Japanese look at potato may be comparable to how Western people treat carrot. They are both root vegetables, and Western people don’t eat carrot as staple food just like we don’t eat potato that way. Always as side dish, salad, or ingredients in soup or stew; the same for us with potato.

In fact, if potato is served in lieu of rice or noodles it could become almost a torture for me after a few days, which always happens in Holland when we go visit my husband’s family. I don’t dare say this to my mother-in-law (better not to offend your in-laws, right…?), but my poor husband always gets nagged by me, because I start craving for rice and noodles really badly, and that becomes the sole thought in my head. Why? Because in my mind potato is vegetable, and I need to eat ‘proper’ staple food to satisfy my appetite.

Growing up in Holland on the other hand, my husband loves potato as his staple food. One evening, maybe one year into our happy marriage, I served niku-jaga for dinner, along with rice and miso soup. I still remember his puzzled facial expression, looking down at his bowl of shiny freshly cooked rice, not knowing what to do with it. He was enjoying the best dish ever from his loving wife, potato & meat stew a.k.a. niku-jaga, that reminds him of his content childhood (despite a bit different flavour I suppose). After a while he finally asked hesitantly, “why do you have rice on the table…? We are eating potato tonight, so don’t need any rice, do we…?” At the beginning I didn’t understand him, but then he told me that niku-jaga for him was like niku-don (pork on rice) for me, eating meat and staple at the same time and no need for another staple to be added to it. His explanation made such good sense, so he kept on enjoying his niku-jaga by itself while I ate my rice with a bit of niku-jaga as a side dish.

And that was when the cultural difference in our eating habit first emerged on a surface, and it has been continuing to this day.

 

Our compromising tofu hamburg steak dinner the other day