Category Archives: food for thought

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

Holiday-Bazaar bento (5/Dec/16)

Today and tomorrow, I am out during the day to exhibit at a charity bazaar at an international school near by. I don’t know if I’d ever mentioned here, but I promote Japanese art and craft as my part time job. At the bazaar this time, I am representing a Japanese ink artist, and we are selling some of her accessories such as scarves and greeting cards, along with a few artwork pieces from her accessible range of collection. 

Anyway, it’s Monday today, but my daughter’s kindergarten happens to be closed as a substitute holiday for this “art exhibition” they had had at the kindergarten on last Saturday. I totally missed this important piece of information when I registered for the bazaar… Oops. What do I do with her while I’m out? I can’t take her to the bazaar as I wouldn’t be able to focus on the sales, and I cannot put her to daycare because it costs a fortune. The same for babysitters. My husband of course has to work, and my mum (the most reliable person when it comes to babysitting my daughter) couldn’t change her work shifts. After a moment of panic I surrendered and called my dad for help. He is semi-retired and has plenty of time free, but he is an old type and has almost no capability to take care of a child, let alone our super active 4 year old, and himself also perhaps. But I considered he should be able to spend a few hours with a little girl if I prepare everything for them in advance. I’m sure nothing disastrous would happen. I’d just have to accept some chocolate and icecream stains on my little girl’s sweater later today.

So here it is, I made a bento for my daughter on a holiday along with a bento for my dad so that they wouldn’t starve during my absence.

Menu: Grilled sawara fish marinated in saikyo-miso, Tofu omelet, Stir-fried spinach & bacon, Boiled green beans, Cherry tomato, Rice

Apple for dessert to share

* Just to give my dad some credit, he successfully completed his first mission to babysit his granddaughter. Thank you Jiji (‘grandpa’ in Japanese)!

Kindergarten bento – Artwork (2/Dec/16)

Today, there was an “art exhibition” at our daughter’s school first thing in the morning, presenting all the artwork made by the children for the past ten months. In our daughter’s class, there were a number of mushroom-shaped paper canvas on the wall with colourful dots and hearts painted by the children, their pictures of a large decoration cake with their own illustration (our girl painted the cake pink, purple & yellow, drew 3 candles on it and above the cake 3 people with smiling faces, representing her family. *sigh*), etcetera, etcetera…

Among all of their hard work, the biggest achievement of all was….THIS.


They each made a bento box. It had two onigiri balls, tamagoyaki (omelet), cherry tomatoes and some lettus leaves. My daughter made her onigiri balls triangle. Some of her friends made round ones or even square ones, but she made triangle onigiri balls, because I always make them triangle. Because that’s what she knows and what she eats. In the classroom, Miss N thoughtfully prepared a table with a pretend table cloth and pretend chopsticks so that the children can “eat” their own bento artwork with their mummies and daddies. The table was immediately occupied, with the children so proud of their own achievement and thrilled to share their great creation with their touchy-feely parents. My daughter also excitedly pulled my hand to her bento art and presented it to me. I picked up an omelet and pretended to eat, while my little girl was anxiously waiting to hear what I’d have to say. I opened my eyes wide and said, “Oishii!! (Good)!”, which of course brought her a shy but very large smile on her face.

After the art exhibition (lasted only half an hour or so), the parents were excused, and the children resumed their routine of another normal day. I wonder what my little girl thought, at today’s lunch time, about today’s bento I prepared for her after sharing her art bento with me. Coincidentally it contained omelet and cherry tomatoes (well, I put them almost everyday actually), with the same colour codes. I wonder whether it came across to her mind that the tiny detail of her bento resembles mine, just like my bento appear to resemble my mum’s. After all, she looks at it, tastes it every single day at school. The colours, taste, smell, ingredients, presentation… all of these must affect all of her senses although it is not very obvious right now. I remember my mum’s bentos she made when I was a little girl. I was always proud of her bento, because it was not only tasty but also beautiful with cheerful colours, the type of colours reminding me of flower fields. I hope that my daughter also looks forward to opening her bento everyday, feels happy every time she opens the lid and has the first bite. The joy of bento making is the expectation of making someone happy. I’m sure one day my daughter will also prepare a bento for someone else, and I hope she will remember my bentos fondly, just like I do my mum’s.

Menu: Shirasu (baby sardine) donburi, Corn omelet, Stewed potato/hakusai cabbage/chicken in milk, Boiled green beans, Cherry tomatoes

Kaki persimmon for dessert

Spy any resemblance?

Kindergarten bento – Open Day (8/Nov/16)

Menu: Hijiki rice with scrambled egg, Aji (horse mackerel) cutlet, Cucumber & tomato salad, Boiled green beans

Mandarin mikan for dessert

There was an Open Day at our daughter’s kindergarten, where the parents are invited to witness how the children play, tidy up, get ready for the next activity, and in doing so how they interact with their friends and teachers. It was the third Open Day for us since the school started back in April, and it was very interesting to see some changes in the behaviors of the children after seven months. They started to play more with others rather than on their own, act more maturely (in an age appropriate manner of course), and be more aware of the social boundaries they’d been learning at school. All the children were super excited for this special occasion with all the grown ups staring at them, and jumped up & down and ran around, while laughing out loud and squealing in delight. It was such a pleasure to see your child develop this way, in an environment where she truly enjoys, is surrounded by great friends and teachers, feels secure and protected, and gets stimulated everyday.

After the Open Day, the school opened up a large activity room for those parents who wish to mingle and talk over lunch. I thought it would be nice to spend some time with other mummies (no daddies this time but there are a few regulars – hurray, Japan is changing for the better at last!), so I brought my own lunch and participated. My packed lunch had exactly the same food as my daughter’s, just in a bigger bento box. It was funny and kind of ticklish to think I was tasting what my daughter was tasting, as we say in Japanese “Ofukuro no Aji,” the Taste of Mother’s.

My & minime bento

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)