Category Archives: essay

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.)

food for thought – pregnancy 

it took us a a while and quite some effort getting pregnant with our little one. so when i finally got pregnant, i was naturally, maybe a little overly, cautious about what to eat. i read some articles about what to and not to eat during pregnancy, and heard about friends’ experiences and diligently followed those advices.

surprisingly enough to some people, i ate sashimi, raw fish, every now and then during my pregnancy amongst other seafood. the japanese guideline states that pregnant women can eat raw fish occasionally as long as they are fresh (fresh in the japanese context, which means “super” fresh in the global standard i believe). i avoided eating large-sized fish from sea water such as tuna and sword fish, as they allegedly carry certain amount of mercury. also i avoided shell-fish, since i thought there was higher risk to get food poisoning, but this is not backed up with a clear scientific research.

my hong kong chinese friends told me that in chinese culture you are not supposed to eat any sort of seafood during pregnancy, raw or cooked…. hah, i’m so glad i wasn’t in china while pregnant. i love fish and seafood in general, and it would have been a torture if i couldn’t eat any of it for months. actually, there appear to be a lot of food you are not supposed to eat in the chinese culture during pregnancy, including seafood, many types of fruits, certain types of tea, and not even cold water since it is considered to lower your body temperature. woah, very strict!

in italy, i learned they don’t encourage pregnant women to eat cured ham, such as prosciutto, salami, etc., as well as certain types of cheese because of some bacteria they carry. well, if you think about it, it makes sense. just like avoiding raw eggs for salmonella i guess.

another friend (american/italian) told me that they avoid eating salad leaves. as far as i remember, it was because the water used to wash salad leaves may be contaminated…? well, this makes sense if you live in developing countries where tap water is not potable, or even in japan when we had nuclear meltdown scare… but it didn’t really occur to me during my pregnancy, and i ate salad on a daily basis. i am glad that i did not find this out before i delivered my little one!

but the most rewarding and interesting for me to learn was when i was in south of france for summer holiday visiting my best friend and her partner during my pregnancy. we were having dinner at the back garden of the house we were staying, and the host served us the famous and luxurious “pata negra” ham from spain for appetizer, along with a glass of rosé, the popular summer drink in the region.   ….and of course i wasn’t touching any of it. i did explain why not, and the host (a bit reluctantly) accepted the reasoning. however, as they drunk a bit more wine and got more tipsy, my friend’s partner started to explain us about his frustrations with the theory of this food restrictions for pregnant women. they said in france anything can be accepted if you eat in moderation, and the most important thing in pregnancy (or even in general) is to enjoy food rather than being scared or worried about it. this goes to wine also, it doesn’t harm if you have a sip (or probably he said “glass”) or two. he claimed, “what is there to enjoy, if you can’t enjoy food and drink in life?”

i know there are people who would go totally against the french way, but considering all the stories i’ve heard and learned, i realised there is no right or wrong answer to this – the best thing is to follow what you feel most comfortable with. otherwise, you’d get lost in the flood of information and different beliefs which vary in each culture. just trust your gut feeling, and enjoy.

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…