Category Archives: essay

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)

 

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

Kimono – truth unfolded (2)

In Japan today, I regrettably admit that kimono is not worn on a daily basis any more. Kimono has become one of Japan’s cultural symbols and admired by many, but unfortunately it is not included in a part of our normal routine.

Having said that, there are a few special occasions of the year when people do make an effort to put them on, and the beginning of April is one of them, for the entrance ceremony of their child/ren’s school.

Our little one started her kindergarten this April, and there was, as expected, the entrance ceremony held for the adorable little new comers. In the morning of the ceremony, a bright sunny spring day, our daughter proudly put on her brand new uniform with the matching hat and backpack, and hit the road for the new phase of her life to commence. All of a sudden she looked so grown, making it hard for us to believe she was a tiny baby only a couple of years ago.

It was a perfect excuse for me to wear my spring green kimono, with a gorgeous pastel phenix pattern obi handed down from my mum. The ceremony was to start at 10:00AM sharp, and based on my numerous practices with my kimono teacher, I timed it and decided to wake up at 6:30AM. The first thing to do is to put my make up on and my hair up before I start touching the valuable kimono (actually it’s a must, to do these preparations in advance, because we hardly ever “wash” this type of kimono/obi. It’s made of silk, and the contact with any liquid could ruin the fabric. If it gets dirty for whatever reason, we seek professional help, which of course comes with a bill). I was planning to leave our sleeping beauty in bed as long as possible in order to secure ample time to put kimono on, after grabbing a quick bite to eat for breakfast… But don’t things always turn out to be different from what you expected? As ironic as life is, only five minutes after I woke up I heard the click of our daughter’s bedroom door, only to find this cute little exciting face peeking out, already super active, and claiming determinedly, “Hungry!!!” So still in our pj’s and with my unwashed face and messy hair, we had breakfast, along with a grumpy sleepy Papa.

OK, just a small change in the plan, I can still manage it, I thought. So I hurriedly finished eating and excused myself in the bathroom to fix up my face and hair, and finally was about to move onto dressing up in kimono. But don’t things always go wrong at the very best timing? By the time I was done with my makeup and hair, my husband locked himself up in the shower to beauty himself up for also his big day, while placing our girl in front of her favorite TV show (Peppa Pig). Still fine, OK, she can keep herself busy with Peppa and her friends, and I can focus on the long process of wearing the kimono… When our little one watches Peppa Pig, she can easily stay in front of the telly for an hour. Exactly the time I would like to have to put everything on carefully, starting from underwear (hadajuban), undergarment (nagajuban), kimono, and finally to obi belt. Around the time I started working on the kimono bit, only a few Peppa Pig episodes later, our curious munchkin skilfully turned the TV off with the large remote in her two little hands with clumsy fingers, came up to where I was, stating she wanted to offer some help. Oh dear……. a sense of panic ran through my head. I really need to concentrate on straightening all the creases, putting the length right, tightening the strings so that the kimono wouldn’t fall apart during the ceremony, and all the other complicated steps I have to follow to tie my obi. I don’t have time to pay attention to her right now, oh no oh no oh no (started sweating under my armpits by then)… I looked back to check the clock, and the time was ticking. I asked her nicely to leave me alone and go back to her Peppa, but no, she wanted to help Mama. Really? Today of all days? I once again checked the clock with the side of my eyes. Tick tack, tick tack, tick tack… I was beginning to get more and more agitated, and to my dismay, I finally raised my voice and told her to go away… go away… to my daughter, who was willing to offer me some help… The worst thing a mother could do… And her reaction was, rightfully, a HUGE tantrum.

By the time this happened my husband came out of the shower smelling clean and fresh with a hint of his aftershave, steam coming up from his shoulders. Looking at him like that (he looked so satisfied and content), I couldn’t help but yell at him asking why he left her alone with me when I needed him to watch her the most. He said he was watching her while I was in the bathroom doing my face and hair (dah)… but sensing my urgency and devastation, he tried to calm me down and apologised for his shortcomings. Our little girl was still crying her head out, my husband looked at a loss not knowing what he could or should do in a situation like this. There was still half and hour left, and for a second I thought I could make it if I hurried up, but I decided to switch to Plan B – a plain but elegant dark blue dress (and it takes a minute to wear it). Looking at both of them like that, I finally realised how selfish I had been in that morning, focusing so much only on myself and kimono. I was so looking forward to wearing it on our little one’s special day, but at the same time I was almost ruining it.

So right on time at 9:30AM, we left our apartment in our coincidentally matching outfits (blue shorts, blue dress, blue suits) and started walking to our girl’s new kindergarten. Despite her earlier tantrum she looked delighted and enthusiastic, and was enjoying every minute of the walk to her new school with her Papa and Mama. The sun was shining, the sky was clear and blue, and our neighbours and other pedestrians greeted us, everyone with a smile. Our daughter was beaming with pride in her new slightly oversized uniform. At the kindergarten, all the proud parents were taking pictures of their child, all dressed up nicely and moderately. No kimono in sight, which made me think it might have been a good thing that I wasn’t in kimono that day, because in Japan the conformity is greatly appreciated. Not that I don’t value individuality and uniqueness, but the ceremony was, after all, for the children, not for me. It was a perfect day, if you didn’t think about what had happened earlier that morning in our household.

Kimono is beautiful. I have fallen in love with its glamour and gracefulness and am determined to learn more so that I can pass my knowledge to the next generation. However, I also learnt the downside of it, well I learnt it the hard way. Behind the scenes it requires a great deal of attention, time, effort, concentration and peace of mind. I failed on the latter two this time. You need to have a good balance of these elements; otherwise it would end up like what happened that day.  After coming home from the charming ceremony, I attempted to put the kimono on once again while letting our daughter help me. This time, I was relaxed and focused, and finished the entire process within half an hour or so. Our daughter, also a mini kimono admirer, marvelled how beautiful I looked. And this time, I asked her to offer me one extra help. Our little big girl took pictures of me, standing up high on her big girl’s step.

Photo by M. H. K.

Le Creuset Steamer

For almost 10 years, I used a regular cooking pot and a stainless steel strainer for steaming. Our kitchen is small with limited storage space, so I avoided buying any additional cooking equipment with material dimensions (growing up, my mum used to use this gigantic three layered steamer made in aluminum, which I definitely didn’t want in my kitchen).

But a few month ago, I finally decided to buy a steamer that is small enough to fit in our tiny kitchen as well as visually appealing. This steamer from Le Creuset was a perfect choice for us. It can be fitted to my existing Le Creuset Cocotte Ronde (a great wedding gift by my dear friends eight years back), and tucked away nicely in the same manner. As simple as steaming can be, it basically works the same way as my DIY steamer mentioned earlier, but much faster with presumably stronger air pressure due to the better heat circulation in the pot, which can be seen in the amount of steam escaping the lid. Because of this, the differences in the outcome are quite significant; the cooked food results in much richer in taste,  nutrition, and colour. It also makes me happier to get to use my Le Creuset more often. Who doesn’t enjoy having this beautiful French pot on your stove while cooking?

Le Creuset Steamer

Coupled with Le Creuset Cocotte Ronde (mine is 22cm)

Large enough to steam a few different veggies at the same time

Set it up like this

Done!

 

food for thought – breast feeding crisis

Breastfeeding… I won’t hide it. I had a very tough, miserable, agonizing time with it… My imagination for a blissful motherhood collapsed at the moment my baby sucked my breasts for the first time a couple of hours after she was born.

Prior to giving birth, I took breastfeeding for granted. I have a younger sister who had her first child at the age of 25 and the second one two years after, all the while I was still searching for my better half. She breast-fed her kids entirely, saying she was grateful because it was much more economical than buying formula (she was quite indifferent about the method of feeding – whatever worked, worked for her). I remember being literally stunned at the sight of my sister’s super engorged breasts (they looked like a couple of gigantic grapefruits), and her babies going into breastmilk coma after voraciously sucking their mommy’s breasts for (only) a few minutes. Her breasts were the best tools (or sometimes in Japan we refer them as “weapons”) for her kids’ development and their well-being. I thought it was totally normal for mothers to produce breastmilk like my sister. And she was MY sister. We have the same parents, grew up together eating the same food, and have the most similar genetic characteristic in the whole wide world. During my IVF treatment, it even came to my mind that I’d ask her for her eggs if mine were not good enough (but the thought quickly dismissed because of the restrictions under the current Japanese law). So when I gave birth to our little bundle of joy almost a decade later, it was only natural to me that I would expect the free flow of breastmilk. How could I not?

The hospital where I delivered my baby was pro-breastfeeding (later my husband called them “breastfeeding nazis”), and offered me handful advices on what to do. They taught me how to let the baby suck my breasts by tightly holding her delicate newborn head and fiercely pushing her face onto my breasts. They told me to have the baby suck my breasts as much as possible, whenever she cried, wherever there was a chance. No routine, just let the baby guide you. For the next few days I strictly followed their instructions and did all my best… but the milk didn’t come, maybe a teeny-tiny bit but not enough at all. As a result she not only lost more than 15% of her birth weight, but had a high fever due to dehydration. By the fourth day after the baby was born I was exhausted and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. With my tearful and my husband’s angry protest, the hospital finally agreed to give her a bit of sugar water. The next day, after another round of emotional protest from the distressed first-timer parents, they decided to let us feed her some supplementing formula, but not from a bottle but a glass, in order to avoid nipple confusion. I never forget the sight of my newborn baby girl crying tirelessly for milk with her excruciating voice with her face so red and wrinkly, while i was helpless, pathetic and completely at a loss. It was utterly different from my earlier image of happy motherhood. By the sixth day and the last day at the hospital (I stayed there longer because of my C-section), the baby regained her birth weight with the help of supplementing formula, and to my relief we were finally discharged. With the memorable kick start of my breastfeeding experience, the agony continued. By the time we settled back home I was totally brainwashed, with the thought that I was a complete failure being unable to feed my baby entirely with my own breastmilk. I was sad, lonely, angry and exhausted. Thinking back, I was on the edge of postpartum depression, and it took me a while to truly connect with my baby girl.

Knowing my frustration, my family and close friends gave me many tips in order to boost my supply. My mom. She advised me to eat white rice, especially the sticky one, as well as root vegetables, because her mother, my dear grandmother, did so, and believed this helped her fully breastfeed six children including my mom and on top of that wet-nursed some babies in the neighbourhood. My sister. Her advice was to drink a lot of mixed vegetable juice (like a 1000ml everyday), which she learned from the hospital where she gave birth to her two children. My best friend. She said it had worked for her to pump her breasts every time after feeding, because the body thinks it needs to produce more, and hence more milk production. As gullible as I was, I even bought (check this) an “electrical” pump to do so. With the level of my supply it was a total waste of money, but I tried desperately. To me all of these suggestions seemed convincing at that point of time, because after all these women succeeded in breastfeeding their babies. I followed the advices, ever so painstakingly, for my baby girl. The only thing I could do was to give it a try. If you try hard, you usually get a (good) result, which I had learned while growing up. As such, I forced myself to eat, drink, rest, breastfeed, supplement with formula and pump. The outcome? No difference whatsoever in my breastmilk supply, but an increase in my weight and waist line (wait, was I not supposed to loose them after childbirth?), my face turning embarrassingly orange due to the mixed juice I drank everyday (one of its main ingredients was carrots), and the not-at-all-useful electrical pump tacked away in the cupboard. When I noticed what had actually happened, I was disappointed, furious, and most of all, unhappy.

Even so, as brainwashed as I was, I kept combo-feeding my baby for the next five months and went through all the other possible ways for improvement, including frequent visits to a lactation consultant. She kept saying my supply would improve so no need to increase the amount of supplementing formula, but my poor baby girl was not gaining her weight. Her weight was always around the bottom or out of the lower percentile. Whenever I met up with my fellow glorious breastfeeding mothers I felt inferior. They innocently commented on my baby girl that she was so small, most likely thinking it had something to do with the baby’s inability to eat well. No, that wasn’t it. The fact was I wasn’t giving her enough food, either breast or bottle. It hurt me and made me feel discouraged and shameful. I should have stopped that nonsense and just switched to fully bottle feeding, but with my brainwashed state of mind, I stubbornly kept trying in vain.

It was when she turned six months, one day, all of a sudden, my little girl refused my breasts. She screamed her head out by arching her small body up and down, kicking and wriggling vigorously whenever I tried to let her suck my breasts. She had enough of it and was righteously fed up. It was just ridiculous, especially to her. So this time, I gave up. Sticky rice, veggie juice, electric pump and lactation consultant. Dumped them all. A hint of sentiment passed my mind to give up something I’d committed for months, but I was relieved. I felt emancipated, somehow triumphant and strong. I felt so powerful that I stopped breastfeeding all at once, even pumping also. It was high time I was released from the six months of misery, and now things were supposed to turn into the start of a new, happy phase of my motherhood. And what did I get? I got mastitis! Had no idea one could get mastitis even without enough supply. No one ever told me that…

OK, time to move on… there are other great things out there you know… like… solids!

bento for sakura picnic (31/mar – 2/apr/16)

 
2nd april 2016, aoyama cemetary

as many people may know by now, japan is obsessed with sakura, cherry blossom. sakura is considered to be the national flower of japan that blossom splendidly around the end of march to beginning of april. the entire country gets flourished with the colour of delicate baby pink, which is the sign for the start of a brand new, exciting, fun season. this coincides with the new financial and school year, which lifts everyone’s spirits to the highest. everything becomes sakura this and sakura that, from sakura flavoured latte to sakura printed/shaped plates spread all over town. it feels a bit overdone in recent years, but i guess they do it because people fall for it. japanese take seasonality seriously, and make the most of it whenever possible.

  

so, what do we do? we go for picnic with our packed lunches and picnic mats, and this is called “hanami (hana = flower, mi = to look at”).

this is the bento i prepared for a sakura picnic (2 adults + 1 little one + 1 littler one who does not eat yet – the mini onigiri and assorted deli lunch on the right are for my LO). what i made is nothing special, but i prefer bringing homemade food because it brings me a sense of nostalgia from my childhood, and i want to give my little one the same feeling.

having said that, of course i get lazy and buy sandwiches or commercial bento from time to time…

one day, i’d love to make a bento packed beautifully in layered lacquer boxes and stuns everyone present, but i think it’ll take a while to realise that mission (have to buy the lacquer boxes to start with!)…


31 march 2016, yoyogi park (the image by courtesy of my dear friend L.G.)