Category Archives: essay

food for thought – my father’s birthday lunch at a unagi (freshwater eel) restaurant

yesterday, my husband and i took my parents to a unagi, freshwater eel, restaurant for my father’s 65th birthday. it was a humble request from my dad to go to a unagi place, because unagi can be a bit expensive for an ordinary middle class family. my dad loves una-ju (うな重), which is filets of char-grilled unagi marinated in special soy sauce-based sauce, placed on top of freshly cooked japanese rice, served in a beautiful lacquered-ware box. the combination of the charcoal aroma on the crispy surface of unagi filets, their texture being so soft inside, the thick, almost pasty savoury sweet sauce on top of fresh shining white rice gives an amazing joy to all of your five senses.

while indulging ourselves to the luxurious unagi meal, our conversation drifted back to our childhood.

when i was growing up, we used to frequently eat una-ju at home, which were delivered from a neighbourhood unagi restaurant. my father used to own a small pharmaceutical business back then, which was quite lucrative at that time and hence we never had to worry about money. whenever we felt like it, we simply made a phone call and the una-ju boxes were delivered at our front door in half an hour. my father, a unagi lover already back then and super busy business man, stuffed only the filets of unagi in his mouth, leaving like a wind, handing over the juicy, sauce-soaked rice to my baby sister (who happened to love the rice bit, rather than the filet bit). una-ju was part of the list of our regular menu, and i shamefully admit that i had never specifically appreciated how lucky we were at that time.

things drastically changed after the japanese bubble economy burst in the early 90’s, and my father had to fold his business completely. we literally lost everything – our home, our lifestyle, many friends, contacts with some relatives – left our suburban hometown and started all over our new life from scratch in a mega urban city.

my sister and i have moved on, finished our education with a help of some money my parents managed to secure for us, our dear aunties and some scholarship, found our own jobs and started our own family. my parents, ever since we left our hometown, have been leading a quiet and very modest life. my parents are still not retiring, at the age of 65 for my dad, and 60 for my mom, as they do not have much savings to support themselves, and their pension is still very minimal.

however, as we ate unagi yesterday, they looked so much fulfilled in life, especially compared to how they used to be 20 years go. my dad appreciated every bite of his unagi plate, not like how he used to swallow it in a rush, leaving the rest of us at the dining table to attend to some business matter elsewhere. they may not be as affluent as they used to be, but i could see that the contentment was in abundance.

the unagi yesterday pulled out our past memories, brought us smiles, and made us happy. the sad incidents have now become a memory, and now we can move on.

happy 65th birthday, papa.

taking a stroll in yukata 浴衣で散歩

it’s been almost 4 months since i started taking kimono lessons. lately, due to an unbearable summer heat in tokyo, my teacher & i came to an agreement that we use a “yukata (浴衣),” a casual kimono-like garment made with cotton, for my practice. those who have been to some japanese “onsen (温泉), hot spring, must know what a yukata is. originally, it is something you put on after taking a bath, in the evening, so is meant to be very casual. nowadays, yukata is very popular and worn frequently for summer festivals and fireworks.

yesterday, i had a weekly kimono (well yukata for now) class in the afternoon, and came home in my yukata i had put on during today’s lesson. as part of the exercise, my teacher encouraged me to go out in yukata to gain my confidence. she even gave me some tips how to walk in such way to make me look as a typical, somewhat ideal japanese woman (“put some weight on your big toes!). so after the lesson, i took my husband along to an annual summer festival at our neighbourhood temple.

at the festival, there were a few food stalls selling “yakisoba (焼きそば),” stir-fried noodles, “kakigori (かき氷),” shaved ice with colourful syrup, “ramune (ラムネ),” sweet lemony soda in a greenish transparent glass bottle, etc… In the middle of the temple, there was a stage where a few people were playing Japanese traditional music with taiko drums for everyone to dance “bonodori (盆踊り),” bon festival dance. it is not a difficult dance – pretty much self-explanatory once you see it – and you can dance in your yukata too. it’s a repetition of several body movements, and you go around the stage in circles, again, and again, and again.


a scene from the festival

to my surprise, it was extremely crowded at the temple. kids were running around, people dancing, eating and drinking, boys and girls fishing for their potential dates… many people dressed in their traditional costume, myself included, and i strongly felt unaltered elements of traditions, through its music, noise, smell, crowd, lights, steamy air, heat…. in the heart of this modern, cosmopolitan city, i thought as if we had time-travelled to a different era.

in yukata, i felt good. wearing it gave me an amazing emotional comfort, and to make my teacher very proud, more self-esteem for who i am. i’d love to keep trying to preserve this. to the next generations, for years and years to come.

food for thought – relativity of beef stroganoff and raspberry muffins (recipes at the bottom)

for humans, blood relationship can be stronger than any other relationships you can have. even if you look totally different or act entirely opposite, you are connected, deep down with your roots, with an unavoidable biological fact – you share the same blood.

my dear little sister and i can be the perfect example of this theory. we have the same parents and background and grew up together. however we don’t really share anything in common when it comes to our personalities – our interests, our behaviours, our thoughts, our values, our expertise, our ideologies and what have you… my sister has never been abroad, whereas i have been all over. she is a loving mother of 2 children, 8 and 6 year olds, has rarely exposed herself to the competitive world of capitalism. i, on the other hand, was quite focused on my professional career, and had never really thought of starting a family until i got married recently.

i am wondering if this theory can apply to food as well. as one of many examples, i would like to propose a bond between beef stroganoff and raspberry muffins.

who would ever think that they share something in common? in reality, they actually do share 4 ingredients, namely:

– sour cream
– butter
– sugar
– flour

last night i cooked beef stroganoff for dinner, which required sour cream as kind of like its taste enhancer, and was left with quite a portion of sour cream unused. after the dinner, i looked up some recipe ideas ferociously on the internet, and decided to bake raspberry muffins so that i wouldn’t have to waste the sour cream. not to mention this experiment resulted in a big success, fulfilling the sense of pride in myself (that i did not waste anything) and the appetite of my husband with a sweet tooth.

as odd as it may sound, in my mind the beef stroganoff and the raspberry muffins from last night are blood related brother and sister, who turned out to be very different in their appearances and tastes, but make me happy nonetheless. to some degree, to be a parent must be quite similar – you love your children no matter what, no matter how different you are or how different you look. i know my parents love my sister and i equally, however different we are. after all, we are their creations, who are inevitably connected with their combined histories.

beef stroganoff 2011
(in january, i posted a recipe of my easy beefstroganoff. this time the taste came out better than before, so i am re-posting a upgraded recipe)

ingredients:

350g beef slices (the leaner, the better) – seasoned with salt & pepper, then with 2+ table spoons of flour
1 table spoon of unsalted butter for beef
3/4 onion – chopped
1 table spoon of unsalted butter for onion
6 fresh shiitake mushrooms – 3 of them chopped, 3 of them sliced
3 cups of water
1/2 cup of white wine
1 beef bouillon block
3/4 cup of milk
a half lemon squeeze
1 table spoon of sour cream
salt & pepper to taste
a sprinkle of brown sugar

1. in a frying pan, melt the butter and stir-fry the beef slices until brown
2. pour the beef into a cooking pot, along with the water & white wine and the bouillon and put on a medium heat
3. once the water starts boiling, lower the heat, put the lid on and simmer for 40 minutes or so, removing any scum on the surface
4. while waiting for the beef to be nicely cooked in the pot, in the same frying pan which the beef was fried, melt the butter and put the chopped onion. cook until the onions became opaque
5. add the shiitake mushroom in the frying pan and stir-fry further
6. pour over the onion & shiitake into the pot
7. add salt & pepper to taste, and cook for another 10 minutes or so until the liquid become thicker in texture.
8. add the milk and the lemon juice, cook for another 5 minutes or so
9. sprinkle the sugar over the sauce and mix
10. mix in the sour cream and stir before serving
11. serve it with brown rice

raspberry muffins

dry ingredients:

2 cups of flour
1 tea spoon of baking powder
1/2 tea spoon of baking soda
a pinch of salt
1/4 tea spoon of cinnamon

wet ingredients:

100g of unsalted butter
1/2 cup of brown sugar
2 eggs (large)
150ml of sour cream
sprinkle of vanilla extract

1+ cup of frozen raspberries

directions:

1. sift the dry ingredients into a large bowl
2. make a hall in the centre
3. in another bowl, mix the butter until creamy and add the sugar and mix well
4. add an egg, and mix well, and then add another egg, and mix well again
5. add the sour cream and vanilla extra, and mix well
6. pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, and quickly mix all the ingredients with a wooden stick
7. add the raspberries and mix quickly
8. fill the mixed ingredients into 12 muffin tins (lay paper cups beforehand)
9. bake in 180C oven for 20 minutes or so.
10. rest for 5 minutes, and remove the muffins from the tins on the rack to cool down
11. (optional) sprinkle the powder sugar on top

escape

for the past weekend, due to my husband’s work, i had a chance to go along with him to shimoda, the southernmost point of izu peninsula in shizuoka prefecture, south west of tokyo. his (and his partner’s) architectural office has been commissioned to work on a resort development project down there by the shore. after a 3-hour train ride from tokyo main terminal, we arrived in the small town of shimoda, where all the chaos we encounter in our everyday urban life seems to be nonexistent.

while they went for a walk-through on the site with the client, i went alone to an almost deserted beach nearby. at the off-season beach, there was hardly anyone except for a few surfers, despite the lovely weather with amazing sunshine and gentle sea breeze. it was literally a paradise and a perfect get-away to me.

sitting alone on the white sand, looking at the waves, feeling the breeze softly touching my cheeks and hearing the sound of ripple in the back of my head, i started remembering how much i had craved for being where i was that day.

i grew up in a small inland city of japan where the city/prefecture boarder did not touch any ocean. the city is surrounded by the mountains, which creates a quite protective mentality in its inhabitants. naturally people are very conservative, and they don’t seem to know that you can have different views. mostly because of it, i always felt captured and oppressed, wanting so much to escape to somewhere out there, with more potential in life, with more exposure to the outside world. in some place yet to be seen, i used to think, there must be a perfect location where i completely fit in. by being close to the sea or a river or a metropolitan city, i believed that i could get out anytime, to anywhere i wanted to go. by the time i hit my adolescent period, the feeling got stronger and i often dreamed of putting myself to a bigger scale of the world, hoping that such place would exist, where i would feel fully satisfied at last.

with a twist of fate i left my suburban city shortly after that, and from then on i moved around the world. in america i lived by the atlantic ocean, and in australia i lived next to the tasman sea. in the u.k. i lived in london which is considered to be one of the biggest cities in the whole world. in italy i was in milan, where i had an easy access to travel freely to anywhere in europe. in theory i had a perfect environment, but i am not sure if i can truly admit that i was entirely happy and that my life turned out to be the one i had always wanted. because wherever i went, wherever i traveled, i always, without any failure, started missing my family and longed for intimacy. what i had thought was an escape became a torture, and every time that happened i resigned to my emotional craving and came back to my comfort zone.

my mind drifted back to the deserted beach when i heard my husband’s footsteps, and i realised what a pleasure it could be to have a place to escape, when you knew for sure that there was a place you could go back to, to something real and truly genuine. after all it is not a physical location which makes you feel fulfilled. i can say it now that it is more of an emotional well-being which dictates the level of your fulfillment.

a vast landscape of the ocean extends in front of me, but i don’t have any desire to escape now – i love my life now, and i know it for sure.

being japanese

2 months have past since the Tohoku/Kanto earthquake on 11th of march 2011. the terrain seems to have calmed down finally (at least in Tokyo), and our life is almost back to normal. i still get a bit sensitive from time to time, whenever our furniture makes some squeaky sound or the apartment gets vibrated slightly from a truck passing by our street. when that happens i get tense for a second, but resume my daily life right after. most of the time i spend a day without thinking about the threat from the ground, which is a great relief.

given the impact of the disaster, the earthquake and the incidents occurred around it have been and are still, quite naturally, the main topics at the dinner table. for the past couple of months, i have noticed cultural or maybe personal differences in a variety of occasions. it is not about right or wrong, but just different. there are too many examples to tell, but these things can be summed up to the very basic ideas of human behaviour as follows:

– a virtue of perseverance vs. a spirit of survival
– compassion towards the problems, or discrimination against the problems
– surrender vs. confrontation
– acceptance vs. denial
– conformity vs. individualism

under the extreme circumstances of the disaster, i have witnessed these fundamental differences in people’s mindset, and realised how much influence we are prone to get depending on where you grow up, how you are brought up, and whom you grow up with.

as mentioned earlier, i believe there is no right or wrong in whichever you react. it’s just the differences in mentality and values which are built on years and years of history around the world. one thing i can say is, being a native of a mono-cultural society, we are expected, by our fellow country people, to act in certain ways to conform to what the society believes in. in such environment, sometimes it can be hard to have differences in opinion, especially when you are exposed to a multitude of ideas and are surrounded by a diversified group of people.

being among different cultures, ethics and ideologies, sometimes it gets pretty confusing in regards to what i should or want to have faith in. of course i am proud to be japanese and love our culture dearly, but on the other hand there are certain ideas that i do not agree to, but i find it hard to voice it. i am afraid of not being accepted, and am scared of being regarded as a traitor. perhaps this characteristic itself is the most japanese quality that i possess and try so hard to disguise.

i don’t know how to finish this essay, as i guess there is no relevant answer to what i am questioning. ok, i sign off here, will let it lie and observe…

wow blog – FXcuisine.com

last night i was trying to look up some recipe on the internet for an italian dish and came across this amazing blog called FXcuisine.com by a swiss gentleman. the blog is about food & cooking – the theme may not be so unique these days (well, mine included), but his blog is something totally special from any other food blogs that i have ever encountered.

what is so special about it? perhaps it is the diversity of his recipes, the quality of all the photos (his kitchen looks like a photo studio), his nice & beautiful kitchen utensils, the attention to details, the preciseness of his explanations, the fact that the recipes are translated into 4 different languages (my gosh), his passion and interests to different types of cuisines, the consistency of his themes, etc. etc…. browsing through his blog, i realised that he’s even been here in japan, enrolled in a cooking class for soba noodles, visited a craft centre for japanese knives, went shopping at a famous kitchen tool street called 合羽橋 (kappabashi). and he is not even a professional cook, but is working in finance/legal sector… just incredible.

going through his blog, i felt as if i bumped into a long lost friend, with whom i used to share my childhood in the past. maybe it is because we share something in common, even if it is over the cyber space. it is funny to get caught by this feeling of nostalgia from someone i have never met.

a newcomer – water from canada

due to the ongoing problem of the nuclear reactors in fukushima, there have been some concerns on contaminated water and food products also in tokyo. taking precautions, we have hired a water dispenser and are buying gallons of spring water from a company called canadian springs (its distribution agency happens to be located in our neighbourhood in tokyo).

we are using the spring water for drinking mainly, and sometimes mixing it with the tap water for cooking. it is a little more expensive than japanese mineral water, but we wanted to avoid buying the water locally so that the locally supplied water can go to those people who are in need much more than us (small babies and children, pregnant mothers, etc.).

until now, neither my husband nor myself ever thought of having the water delivered at home from a foreign country. in fact, i would have thought that it was such a ridiculous idea to buy water from overseas, have i not experienced the threat of radiation from the nuclear plant. however, the presence of the water dispenser filled with clean, safe water at home is definitely reassuring under the circumstances.

i am still a bit sad though. the water in japan used to be extremely clean that we never had to face the danger of using the tap water. natural spring water in the countryside being so clean that it could be drunk directly from the stream. i believe it still is clean in most of the areas except for the proximity to the affected areas and metropolitan areas, but what if it is not? the risk is there.

i wonder how long it will take for the threat to be vanished. a year? 2 years? 10 years? or it could be a lifetime.

春 spring、桜 sakura

sakura, cherry blossom, bloomed to its peak over the past weekend in tokyo. the city is embraced with baby pink petals floating in the air so gently, landing onto your shoulders, onto grounds, filling up street surfaces with its sweet pink carpet. couples walk hand in hand, small children with their parents and grandparents, friends gather giggling while taking pictures with their mobile phones. walking along the path of sakura trees, it inevitably brings everyone a huge smile, and every single smile is filled with contentment. the spring is here.

the life of cherry blossom flowers is about a week or so. because of the frail nature of its short life, we take in its incredible beauty as much as possible while it is alive. whether it is true or not, this year’s sakura appears to be exceptionally pretty and compassionate, as if to cheer our troubled minds and help us keep our chins up. everyone is encouraged somehow, by the sakura’s universal beauty, its friendliness, which is a great excuse for an annual outdoor spree.

i am grateful, to be in japan, to see the sakura blossom in my own eyes, and to feel the sweet touch of soft, warm spring air.

———————————

as i was writing this post, another big earthquake hit (at 5:17pm) – this time it was M7.1. and scale 6, at its seismic center in fukushima.

our apartment in tokyo shook quite a lot too (scale 4 according to the news report), with the sound of glasses rattling on the kitchen shelf. actually, it has been exactly a month since the powerful earthquake & tsunami hit our country on the 11th of march, 2011.

the earth is still shaking, as if it is trying to tell us something, as if it is exploding with rage for something we have done in the past.

i wonder if this is ever going to end.

sunny saturday – 2 weeks after the earthquake

it is 26th of march 2011. it is a beautiful sunny, a little windy saturday in tokyo. i’m sitting at our dining table as i write this diary, thinking how calm and peaceful the city feels. looking out the window, i see the bright sunshine shining through the windows, warming up our apartment, my body, my skin, my soul.

japan update:

– the relief aid is ongoing in the north. all over japan, many families have volunteered to host the affected people at their own home.

– people are very cooperative for saving the electricity usage. it is quite dark wherever you go, such as shops, restaurants, metros, etc., which reminds me of my time in europe. i think japanese people finally realised how much energy had been wasted in the past.

– the nuclear reactor issues are still unresolved, but are continuously monitored and handled by the brave workers risking their own lives.

– the contamination of food, water, milk, etc. around fukushima remains to be a major concern for us. i read the news somewhere saying that the government is considering to buying out all the contaminated food from the affected farms to protect their business.

– thankfully the guideline to warn not to give tap water to infants has been lifted by the government. i am drinking tap water.

sitting in the quiet apartment on my own, it makes me feel that it is another normal, peaceful saturday. tonight, instead of checking news on the internet or on tv, i will play some music as i cook chinese for dinner (麻婆豆腐, mabo-tofu), then take a hot bath, then watch a film on our cable and stay in.

just like any cozy saturday evening could be.

invisible threat – water

it is 24th of march 2011, 14th day since the earthquake. we came back from hong kong 3 days ago, and have been feeling an aftershock quite frequently since then. sadly enough, we are used to it by now, and what scares us more is the continuous threat from the nuclear reactor.

yesterday the japanese government announced that the tap water in tokyo was found out to be contaminated with radioactive iodine. according to the news report, the level of radiation in the city water does not affect the adults nor children, but may affect infants who drink formula or eat baby food made with the water. as soon as the news was released, the bottled water in shops disappeared (which i think is a quite natural human reaction, being part of a self defense mechanism).

opening the tap in our kitchen today, a beautiful stream of transparent water started to flow.

growing up in a super modern & developed country like japan, it is hard for us to believe that water may be dangerous to you. the threat is totally invisible. no strange colour, no weird smell, no odd taste. how can we explain to small children that the water is threatening without scaring them too much? or should we just go ahead and scare them and teach them that the potable water is no longer potable because of whatever the difficult explanation of the nuclear power which even grownups like us can’t understand? is that a consequence of our cutting-edge technology?

the ceaseless problems occurring from the nuclear power plant are simply sad and mentally exhausting.