Category Archives: food for thought

Kindergarten bento – Childhood (18/May/18)

A few days ago, I mentioned about the bright colours I tend to use in my daughter’s bento, which I naturally inherited from my mum. I kept thinking why my mum’s bento involved so many vivid colours, especially considering her strong preference on subtle, understated hues when it comes to her clothing (which I also naturally inherited). Thinking back, I’ve never seen her wearing bright red, yellow or green that we both use in our bento’s.

Then I remembered about my conversation with my mum while back, when I was still living at my parents’ place, maybe over a cup of green tea after dinner sitting in Kotatsu*. She told me the story of her bento, reminiscing her childhood memory. She said, growing up, she was always embarrassed with her bento her mother (my grandmother) made for her. During lunch time at school, she always hid the contents of her bento, covering them with the lid of her bento box, so her friends would not see what she was eating. She said her bento was always filled with only very basic ingredients, usually just rice with an umeboshi (pickled plum), pickled veggies and nori seaweed dipped in soy sauce. Sometimes, maybe omelet if their chickens lay some eggs in the morning. Her memory of bento was colourless and somber, despite the fact it wasn’t her intention to put her mother down. It was not so long after the war, so there was limited amount of food supply. They lived in the mountains, and most of the time they depended on their own rice and vegetables they grew in the fields. Moreover, her mother had six children to take care of, on top of working in their rice and vegetable fields and silk farm. Simply put, she did not have luxury of making colourful bento.

This seem to have significantly influenced my mum on how she prepared bento for her daughters (my sister & I). She wanted to make visually cheerful bento with vibrant colour palette, so that we didn’t have to go through what she had gone through, and she could give us different experience surrounding what’s inside this tiny box . I remember being always proud of my mum’s bento. I never had a slightest thought of hiding it from my friends. It was quite opposite for me, I always wanted to boast how pretty my bento looked. All these years I never thought about what was behind my mum’s bento. And now, more than ever, I sincerely appreciate my mum for her beautiful bento and embrace all the amazing history that comes with it.

* Kotatsu is a low table with a heating device under the table top, with one or two layer/s of blanket covering the table under the table top to preserve the heat

Instagram:  https://www.instagram.com/smalltokyokitchen/

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

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

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

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

Recipe for the three minute Yakitori donburi:

Ingredients (for 2 servings):

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

Directions:

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

 

Instagram

https://www.instagram.com/smalltokyokitchen/

French New Year holiday 2017-2018

In between our stay at my husband’s mother’s place in the south of the Netherlands, the three of us took a short trip to Paris for our New Year’s holiday to visit our friends & relatives. We took Thalys, the express train service that runs through Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Two and a half hours after we left Aachen, a small German city bordering the Dutch city where my mother-in-law lives, we safely arrived at busy Gare de Nord.

This time we took a nice Airbnb in an area called Wagram, not too far from Champs-Élysées. It was our first time staying at an Airbnb, and in spite of some reservations we had about the apartment, it was a good choice with great location and ample space for the three of us.

On the New Year’s eve, my best friend and her partner invited us to their lovely home for a special dinner. As is always the case in Paris, we started a pre-celebration at 7:00PM and opened a champagne, munching on foie gras and smoked salmon, which seems to be THE things to eat on the New Year’s eve in France.

img_0682

Foie gras and smoked salmon, the must haves on the New Year’s eve

For dinner, Chef F made this delicious chicken filet with foie gras sauce. And the mashed potato… mmm I can still taste this creamy, sweet mash only a French person can make…  I’m pretty sure he used generous amount of butter, but maybe it’s better not to find out exactly how much… The sautéed mushroom was nutty and hearty, which was a perfect combination with the chicken and mash. Chef F served the same dish sans the foie gras sauce for their son and our daughter, on a small red kids table. Our daughter absolutely loved it, especially the mash. At the age of five she already knows the divinity of the French cooking.

img_0685

Chicken filet with foie gras sauce, with amazingly creamy tasty mashed potato & fried (morel?) mushrooms

By the time we finished the dinner, the four of us finished two bottles of champagne and a magnum red bottle. Embarrassingly enough, I fell asleep before the countdown began. I managed to wake up when they started counting 10, but could hardly open my eyes and collapsed on their cozy sofa hugging their cute little doggy (she was so soft and warm). At 1:00AM we decided to call the night, and we took an Uber home.

On the New Year’s Day, without fail, our daughter jumped on to our bed at 8 o’clock. Dragging ourselves out of bed, we took a hot shower, got dressed and went out. We found out that Centre Pompidou would be open so headed that way. As soon as we got out of the nearest Metro station to the museum, it started pouring, and of course our daughter jumped in to a large puddle. Lucky us… As such we went to a crêperie close by, most likely one of the worst tourist traps you could find in the centre of Paris… We had the crêpe as our early lunch, as we were still quite full from the evening before. Later that evening, Chef F cleverly cooked us some simple pasta to give our stomach some rest.

img_0696

Crêpe avec Nutella

On our last evening in Paris, to return the favour to our host, I cooked some Japanese meal with local ingredients. I loved shopping in a local supermarket and get inspired by all the unfamiliar ingredients. I could easily live in Paris and create locally adopted Japanese dishes… well, in my dreams. For the meal this time though, I stuck with the basics and made ginger pork and hamburg steak with Tokyo rice (that’s how my daughter calls the Japanese sticky rice). I realised, if I have soy sauce at hand, I can improvise many Japanese dishes even without (the very important) dashi broth. Of course it wouldn’t be perfect, but close enough. I used white wine where I needed to use Japanese sake, and honey and/or sugar for mirin. The result? Empty plates at the end of the meal.

img_0767-1

Grocery shopping at a local supermarket. Nice trolly for little kids.

Ginger pork, Hamburg steak with my mum's special sauce, Boiled green Moroccan beans, Fried Aubergine, Iceberg Salad, Tokyo Rice

Ginger pork, Hamburg steak with my mum’s special sauce, Boiled green Moroccan beans, Fried Aubergine, Iceberg Salad, Tokyo Rice

Cooking at their kitchen made me feel at ease. All of a sudden Paris became less overpowering, as if something has planted a seed somewhere deep in my mind that one day we could possibly start our life here.

Well, that would certainly be added to my bucket list.

Kindergarten bento – At home (27/Apr/17)

After the emergency call from our daughter’s teacher due to some allergic reaction from whatever she had eaten for breakfast (as I wrote on my post yesterday), I rushed into her school to pick her up in the morning, not too long after my husband brought her there on his way to work. As a result, the bento I had made for her in early morning was still in her backpack, untouched. 

We went to the doctor, got her medicine, and came home in time for lunch. Our daughter was hungry despite her rashes, so I suggested her to eat the bento. As soon as she heard me say so, she took her bento box out of her backpack along with other items, almost in an auto-pilot mode, and placed them nicely on the dining table. Doesn’t it look cute? Apparently this is what they’ve been trained to do at school on their own. It’s really nice and endearing to see her do it at home, too.

Menu: Niku-jaga (stewed potato with pork), Grilled kanpachi fish (amberjack), Green beans & spinach goma-ae, Rice with black sesame sprinkle

Grapes & kiwi for dessert, which I ate due to our daughter’s potential kiwi allergy 

Bon appétit!

Kindergarten bento – Colours (17/Mar/17)

Menu: Grilled salmon flakes & boiled komatsuna mixed in rice (with sesame on top), Plain omelet, Steamed pumpkin, Cucumber sticks

Kiwi & banana for dessert


As I was sprinkling sesame on top of the salmon rice as the final touch after packing my daughter’s bento this morning, I had a flashback of the colour matching I was doing last night with my kimono. I was trying to achieve a springy look, struggling to see which colour of string should be added to make it look most fresh, cheerful and elegant. 


Only a tiny bit of difference, but I think they do make different impressions to its viewers. The same principal also goes to bento making in my opinion, especially considering the fact we have many traditional colours derived from food and plants. 

Ha! I have never thought of that!

Kindergarten bento – Cheese on top (18/Jan/17)

Menu: Fusilli bolognese with grated Parimiggiano Reggiano on top, Steamed sweet potato, Cucumber sticks, Cherry tomato

Kiwi for dessert

The grated cheese on top of the pasta. By the request of my daughter’s class teacher, the graceful Miss N.

To be honest I prefer putting the cheese separately so that the amount of cheese can be adjusted as I eat. Like mother, like daughter, our four year old also likes to have a control over this kind of thing. At home she loves scooping the fine powdery cheese with a small spoon and sprinkle it as she shakes her entire body. And naturally, once for our daughter’s bento, I put the grated cheese in a plastic wrap, twisted the top and placed it on the side of the pasta, expecting her to enjoy  sprinkling the cheese by herself as she ate. But according to Miss N, a disaster apparently happened that day. Our girl’s clumsy fingers bursted the plastic wrap open, spreading the whole grated parmiggiano around her neighborhood… Miss N told me that day as a matter of factly that the school, focusing highly on building up children’s self-confidence, believes that the cheese should be pre-sprinkled on top of the pasta going forward. As diligent as I am… voila! The cheese, is now on top of the pasta.

 

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