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The chronicle of Kipp's Washoku Project. Here you'll find posts about Japanese food and vulture.

Ramen Suzukiya: A Review

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As you may know, I have been spending the last couple of months telling you about my recent trip to Japan. I'm going to interrupt that flow right now, to tell you about something that happened to me just last week. Ever since I got back to the states, I have found myself missing a lot of things about Japan (Yes, I know I was only there for eleven days, but it was a profound eleven days). Of course, one of the things I miss most is the food. I've been so busy since I got home, I haven't really been able to cook any Japanese food. Another trouble is that there are so few Japanese restaurants around here that serve something other than sushi. I love sushi, but it's never been my favorite aspect of Japanese cuisine.

So, when my sister and I decided to spend a couple days in Portland, "the big city", I immediately went online to see about any good Japanese restaurants. Of course, Portland is the food capital of New England, and it well deserves that title. There are a lot of Japanese restaurants there, and I'm guessing most of them rock. But I wanted something special. I wanted ramen. Not the instant type, which you can buy for under a dollar. That stuff is tasty in one way, but not really anything like the authentic dish. 

I had ramen three times in Japan. Once in the Fukuoka airport, again in Ueno, and last in Asakusa. Each bowl had its own particular specialness, each one was enjoyed thoroughly, and I would give just about anything to be able to eat them now. I wanted to experience that again, so I googled "ramen Portland Maine". There are a number of eateries that serve ramen, but only one of them looked like the sort of place I wanted to go to. That is to say, a real ramen joint. Somewhere small, where they made everything from scratch, and focused on making ramen, the best way possible. I mean, that's what I was hoping I would get, since all I really had to go on was the picture google supplied, and a couple reviews. This restaurant was Ramen Suzukiya, and as it happened, it was right down the street from my sister Chelsea's apartment. 

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Ramen Suzukiya is a small place, run by a father and son. According to their website, Kei Suzukiya started the restaurant after retiring in Maine. The space is small, but cozy, with a very classic appearance. My sister and I sat on the counter that ran along the windows, staring out on a view of Congress Street. Our waiter, a very friendly young man, gave us the menu and I read it with hungry eyes. 

For those of you who do not know, there are several different types of ramen, with many different regional variations. Generally, ramen will either fall into the categories of Shoyu (soy sauce flavored), Miso (miso flavored), Shio (salt flavored), and Tonkotsu (pork bone broth). Ramen Suzukiya serves Shoyu, Miso, and Tonkotsu, as well as a few donburi dishes. Both my sister and I ordered the tonkotsu. While we waited for our food, we sipped on cold brewed green tea, which I was first introduced to in Sendai, and have now fallen in love with. 

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When the ramen dish was set on the table, a marvelous scent rose up and hugged me. It was like being back in Tokyo. Only this time I got to share it with my sister. First I dug my chopsticks into the noodles and pulled up a bite. Not too mushy, not too firm, they were well established in the goldilocks zone of ramen noodles. On top of the soup were several delightful additions, a soft boiled egg, a slice of chashu pork, nori seaweed, baby bok choy, shredded cabbage, and pickled ginger. Each component adding another layer of scent, texture, and flavor. I'm not exaggerating to say that it's the best thing I've eaten since I left Japan. 

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As soon as I can, I will be heading back to Portland to try some of the other varieties that Ramen Suzukiya has created. I give it five very enthusiastic stars. If you're looking for somewhere to go in Portland with amazing food at a very reasonable price, look no further. 

Until next time, ramen up, baby!

If you enjoyed this post, you might like this one, about a restaurant in Bangor. Or perhaps this one, about another dish made with ramen noodles. 

Nihon Day Thirty One: The Thirty One Cultural Pioneers of Japan

When I was a little kid, and I used to dream about the amazing country of Japan, I had a copy of Winnie The Pooh in Japanese. I obviously couldn't read it, but I used to copy out the kanji and kana onto pieces of stationary. This was partly because I've always loved the look of these foreign characters, but I had another reason for doing this. After writing out a whole page of kanji and kana I would fold it up, put it in an envelope, and write my address on it. Then I would draw a stamp on it, something that looked Japanese, and seal everything up. They were my very own letters from Japan. 

At the same time, me and my best friend, Nicole, were avid stamp collectors. Both of us got the stamp magazine and eagerly anticipated the new releases. We bought some stamps new from the post office, but mostly we cut them off of envelopes. There's a tricky technique where you soak them in a shallow dish of water with a little soap in it. After a few minutes you can carefully slide the stamp from the wet paper. Once dry, you have your very own used stamp, without any paper. 

It's been a while since I combed through the mail to find interesting stamps, but I still save anything from a foreign country. For example, a few years ago I bought some decorative paper from Australia. I saved the winter olympics stamps that were on the envelope. Obviously, Japanese stamps would have been the best, but everything I've had sent here from Japan has come in a bigger package, which has different postage than stamps. 

This is where ebay comes in. I discovered that Japan has Beatrix Potter stamps, and of course I needed them right away. Beatrix Potter is my personal hero and I collect the books, artwork, porcelain figures, and anything else I can find. Japanese Beatrix Potter stamps were a must. Plus, Japanese stamps don't just come in the rectangular shape we're used to seeing in America. The Beatrix Potter ones had round and oval stamps as well. Soon I found them on ebay for a reasonable price. 

Looking through the sellers page, I saw that he had hundreds of foreign stamps, mostly from France, but a lot from Japan too. I decided then and there that I must start a Japanese stamp collection. I didn't have a lot of money, but I had enough for one more batch. There were lots of interesting, beautiful, and artistic stamps, but I wanted something that I could use for a blog post. That was when I discovered the series of thirty one Cultural Pioneers. This was perfect, since I could learn history, find out about culture, and enjoy the stamps. 

I ordered my stamps, had them here within a week, and found them every bit as exciting as I had imagined. Now, the fun of the cultural pioneers was looking up who everyone was. Scientists, artist, poets, musicians, from every era, and walk of life. Now for the best part, telling you about them. 

I've split them into groups, so this will be a post with several parts. Without further ado, here are the first six. 

 

1. Katsushika Hokusai (October 31, 1760 – May 10, 1849)

We're starting out with one that should be known to most westerns, if only because he is the artist behind the most iconic Japanese print. It is commonly know as "The Wave" but is actually called "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa". His ukiyo-e prints were revolutionary in their time, focusing on landscapes and the every day lives of Japanese people, instead of courtesans and kabuki actors, the traditional subjects of the art form. 

Hokusai is believed to have been the son of a mirror maker, working for the Shogan. There is some speculation though, that since this man never made Hokusai his heir, his mother was perhaps a courtesan. Hokusai most likely learned to paint from his father, and after working first in a bookshop and then as a woodcarver's assistant, he moved to the studio of Katsukawa Shunsho, a skilled ukiyo-e artist. He was eighteen at this time, and did the typical kabuki and courtesan portraits. When Shunsho passed away, Hokusai began to explore other artistic styles, including some European examples. It must have been difficult for him to find these, since Japan was still closed off from the rest of the world, under penalty of death. 

Hokusai was eventually expelled from the studio by Shunsho's successor. Later in life, he would credit this humiliation with the development of his own style. After a brief stint in another ukiyo-e school, Hokusai set himself up as an independent artist.

 
 

As every successful artist will tell you, talent will only get you so far. Hokusai had the talent, but he also had a certain knack for self promotion. He would grow to be an artist of great renowned for his beautiful landscapes, nature scenes, and other innovations. Hokusai was the first person to publish manga, though they were rather different from their modern namesakes. This books of instruction and random drawing were highly popular in their time. 

In the 1820s, Hokusai had reached fame throughout the entire country. During this time he produced the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, including The Great Wave Off Kanagawa, which is famous worldwide today. In old age, his popularity faded somewhat, but he never stopped painting. On his deathbed at the ripe age of eighty eight he said "If only Heaven will give me just another ten years ... Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter," showing the true spirit of an artist.  

2. Kitasato Shibasaburo (January 29, 1853 – June 13, 1931)

Moving on from the world famous artists Hokusai, we find someone working in a field with far less glamour, a bacteriologist. But, as much as I respect the arts (being an artist and all) I have to admit that Kitasato probably deserves a lot of praise for dedicating his life to the treatment of infectious diseases. 

Kitasato was educated at Tokyo Imperial University, but moved to Berlin in 1885 to study under Dr. Robert Koch. It was here that he became the first person to grow a pure culture of Tetanus bacillus, which was a big deal in bacteriology in the 1880s. Kitasato worked together with Emil Von Behring on antitoxins for tetanus, dypyheria, and anthrax. They were actually able to discover a diphtheria antitoxin serum. In 1901, the first year of the Nobel Prize, he was recognized for this work with a nomination. However, Emil Von Behring alone walked away with the award. 

After five years in Germany, Kitasato returned to Japan and founded The Institute for Study of Infectious Diseases. When Hong Kong had a breakout of the bubonic plague in 1894, the Japanese government sent Kitasato to see what he could do. It was at this time that he was able to identify the bacterium that causes the disease.

If you know anything about science history you might be scratching your head thinking I've mixed him up with the Swiss Bacteriologist, Alexandre Yersin. After all, the bacterium is called Yersinia pestis. Well, Yersin and Kitasato were both working on the same problem in Hong Kong, and they both isolated the bacterium individually. Kitasato discovered it several days earlier than his Swiss colleague, but because of his somewhat vague note taking habits, many historians give sole credit to Yersin. But this didn't discourage Kitasato, who would go on to isolate the bacterium responsible for dysentery four years later (with the help of his student Shiga Kiyoshi). 

His other achievements include founding the Kitasato Institute (later Kitasato University) and founding the Terumo Corperation, which is still manufacturing medical equipment today. He also served as the first Dean of Medicine at Keio University. In 1924 he was made a danshaku (baron) in recognition of his achievments. 

3. Uemura Shoen (April 23, 1875 – August 27, 1949) 

There are twenty six years between the death of Hokusai and our next pioneer's birth, but they were both influential artists. Indeed, when Shoen was a young girl she was inspired by the works of Hokusai. In a time when women were often constrained into rigid roles in society, Shoen was growing up in a household entirely made up of women. Her father had died when she was young, and now her mother ran the family and their tea business. 

Supported by her mother, Shoen studied Chinese style, Kano, and Sesshu painting at Kyoto Prefectural Painting School. She would move on to other styles and teachers, but also developed her own techniques. Her work is now remembered for her paintings of women, often inspired by Noh theatre. Her two most famous works are Jo-no-mai and Soshi-arai Komachi, painted in her fifties and sixties, which depict scenes from famous Noh plays. 

Jo-no-mai

Jo-no-mai

Soshi-arai Komachi

Soshi-arai Komachi

Shoen had two illegitimate children, a son and a daughter, who she raised independently, never revealing the father of either. This was certainly a big deal in the late 1800s, but Shoen appears to have been a trail blazer in more ways than one. Thanks to her amazing talents, Shoen became the first woman to be invited to join the Imperial Art Academy, and the first woman to be awarded the Order of Culture. Also, Jo-No-Mai was the first painting by a woman that the Agency of Cultural Affairs deemed an Important Cultural Property. 

4. Umetaro Suzuki (April 7, 1874 – September 20, 1943)

Back from the world of art to the world of science. Umetaro Suzuki was a Japanese scientist, and a contemporary of Kitasato Shibasaburo. However, his speciality was the as of yet undiscovered cause of beriberi.

If you're unfamiliar with this condition, it is caused by a deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1), and used to be very common in Japan. This was because of the reliance on white rice as a dietary staple. But wait, you might be thinking, a few months ago you were telling us how great white rice is! Well, it is, because of all the reasons I spelled out in that post. However, you can easily get thiamine from other sources, like green peas, spinach, buckwheat, and even pork. Good news for those who do not want to get beriberi, which is something you don't want. I'm not entirely sure of the symptoms because I only got far enough into the wikipedia page to find out the is a "dry beriberi" and a "wet beriberi" and that was enough for me. 

As I say, Umetaro Suzuki discovered thiamine, after researching components of rice bran. No doubt, he had become curious as to why people who ate brown rice didn't get beriberi. This was early in the time of modern vitamin research, and that name was yet to be coined. Umetaro called his discovery aberic acid. Due to the fact that Umetaro's article was poorly translated into German, accidentally failing to note that it was a new discovery, Umetaro received no recognition for his discover worldwide. It was instead given to Kazimierz Funk, the Polish biochemist with an amazing name. He succeeded in isolating thiamine two years after Umetaro, and dubbed it a vitamine (vital amino). Jeez, what is it with Japanese scientists of this period not getting their proper credit?

Umetaro was a professor of agricultural chemistry at the University of Tokyo and was also the director of the Division of Chemistry at the research facility of RIKEN. 

5. Kazan Watanabe (October 20, 1793 – November 23, 1841)

There's a bit of a pattern here, for we are moving on to another artist, Kazan Watanabe. But, Kazan was a lot different from Hokusai and Uemura Shoen. For one thing, he was a member of the Samurai class, though from a poorer family. He was a sort of Edo Paradox, both a firm believer in the Confucian principles of Samurai and daimyo (lords) and an enthusiastic admirer of western artwork, science, and politics. 

His artistic style was influenced both by traditional Japanese techniques and western paintings. He painted both realistic portraits and beautiful natural images, such as birds and bamboo leaves. 

 
A resistir portrait of Sato Issai by Kazan Watanabe 

A resistir portrait of Sato Issai by Kazan Watanabe 

The Watanabe family served the lord of Tahara Domain (persent-day Aichi Prefecture), and Kazan served their lord as a senior councilor. However, he wrote two essays, not intended for publication, that could have been interpreted as critical of the Shogan and pro-westernization. Those essays were discarded, but most unfortunately they were found. At this time, Japan was still closed, and it would be for another two decades. Kazan was exiled to Tahara for his opinions, which were never intended to be made public. 

There were conditions to his exile, one of which being that he must cease the sale of his paintings. However, being financially dependent on these sales, Kazan ignored this condition and continued to sell the paintings in secret. This lasted a little while, but he was once again discovered, and this time his punishment was house arrest. Kazan Watanabe was forty eight when he committed seppuku (ritual suicide) to atone for the political embarrassment he had caused his lord. Today he is remembered as a exemplary painter and scholar. 

6. Lafcadio Hearn (27 June 1850 – 26 September 1904) 

While I was sorting through the thirty one stamps, I was interested to find Lafcadio Hearn, mostly because that is clearly not a Japanese name. But also, it rang a sort of bell. A few minutes later, as I read his wiki page, I remembered where I had read about him before. It was during my research for the post about Kaidan, Japanese ghost stories. Lafcadio Hearn was a writer, best known for his books about Japan, and this collections of legends and kaidan. 

In this day and age, it is hard to imagine not knowing anything about Japan. Ever since the twentieth century our countries have been linked. First as allies, then as enemies, and finally in a friendship where we both borrow and evolve each others culture. I would make the argument that Japan has become one of the most well known countries to the youth in America today. But, it wasn't that way for a very long time. After all, Japan spent over two hundred years closed off from the rest of the world. It wasn't until the 1850s, when Commodore Mathew Perry forced Japan at gunpoint to trade with America, that the modern world really became aware of Japan.

Today, that sort of thing would have been covered by all the major networks, and it would only be a matter of days before you could learn as much as you wanted about the newly open country from the internet (disregarding the language barrier). But, information was far slower in the 1800s. To the average westerner, Japan was unimaginably exotic, and a complete mystery. However, Japan's beautiful esthetic began to make itself known in the west, notably at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, where they erected a Japanese pagoda. After that, people in the west were eager to learn more about this fashionable culture. Luckily, though there were still hardly any books about Japan available, they could rely on the works of Lafcadio Hearn. 

Lafcadio was born in the greek Ionian Islands, the son of a surgeon. The family immigrated to Ireland when he was two years old, where he was eventually abandoned by both his parents and left in the care of an aunt. He would remain there until age nineteen, when his uncle purchased him a one way ticket to America. With the instructions to make his way to Cincinnati, where he would receive help from his uncle's sister and her husband, Lafcadio once again immigrated to a foreign country. However, the only help he got from his American connection was a five dollar bill and a "good luck". 

Lafcadio was left to a life of menial labor on the streets of Cincinnati. Perhaps he would have been doomed to continue that life, if he hadn't befriended Henry Watkin, the owner of a printing business. Watkin was willing to give Lafcadio a job, giving him his first in on the publishing business. In 1872, four years into his life in America, he got his first job as a writer, working for the Cincinnati Enquirer. He would work there for three years, until his anti-religious writings would land him in hot water. He was fired by the Enquirer, who sited his illegal marriage to an African American woman as the reason. 

Skipping ahead some eighteen years, during which Lafcadio would divorce, move to New Orleans, work for several news papers and magazines, publish works on New Orleans' culture, and then spend two years in the West Indies and publish two books on the subject. In 1890, Lafcadio was hired to go to Japan as a correspondent reporter. Though the contract was terminated soon after his arrival, Lafcadio was enraptured by Japan. Soon he had a middle school teaching position in Matsue. In a little over a year, Lafcadio had fully committed to his new home, marrying the daughter of a Samurai family, changing his name to Koizumi Yakumo, and becoming a buddhist. 

Lafcadio Hearn and his second wife, Koizumi Setsu

Lafcadio Hearn and his second wife, Koizumi Setsu

In 1891, Lafcadio obtained another teaching position and moved his new family to Tokyo. During this time he wrote "Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan", the first of fifteen books he would write over the next ten years. These books were for quite some time the only peak into the mysteries of Japan for curious westerners. In Tokyo he had four children with Setsu, became a teacher at the Tokyo Imperial University, and became the authority on Japanese folklore. 

Sadly, Lafcadio had only spent thirteen years in Japan, when in 1904 he died of heart failure at age fifty four. Today he is remembered in Japan for his collections of Japanese folktales and ghost stories. On the island of his birth there is a museum dedicated to his life, and in Ireland there is an extensive Japanese inspired garden planted in his memory. The fifteen books he wrote about Japan, a snap shot of preindustrial-Meiji era, are still considered important historical works today. 


I hope you enjoyed reading about these cultural pioneers. This blog post ended up being a lot longer than I had originally intended, and I'm not sure how often I will be able to post about the rest of the stamps in this collection. However, I will do my best to keep telling you about these amazing people, and their contributions to the history and culture of Japan!

Until next time, do your best to make the world a better place!

If you enjoyed this post, you will probably also enjoy this one, where I talk about how one man changed the candy industry in Japan. Or perhaps this one, where I tell the story of a Japanese company's rise to power. 

P.S. It's funny how sometimes things just work out. I have been planning this post for a while now, ever since I purchased these thirty one stamp. I had no idea that the post would end up being Nihon Day Thirty One until this very moment. So perfect! 

Fusion Cooking: Thai Curry with Japanese Chicken Tatsutaage

This meal started out the way most do. I opened the refrigerator and noticed that there were two packs of chicken hanging out, waiting to be cooked. Usually, I don't have much trouble coming up with things to do with chicken, it is my favorite type of meat. However, this was chicken tenders, which as you probably know are strips of breast meat. I'm pretty much a strictly dark meat person. I'll tolerate white meat, if it's in something, like chicken salad, or a burrito, but I never cook with it at home. I'm not even sure how I ended up with these two packs, since no body in my house likes white meat much. Anyhow, however it happened, I would have to figure out what to cook. 

No trouble, I just went on to Japanese Cooking 101 and went to their "chicken section". This is what I do a lot of the time when I'm feeling stumped on a meal. The very first thing I saw was perfect, Chicken Tatsutaage. This is a lot like karaage(fried chicken), only it's made with potato starch instead of flour. Now, if you skipped right over to that karaage post and read it in between that last sentence and this one (because you're very thorough), you might notice that I used potato starch then too. Well, apparently I was mistaken, and I was actually making tatsutaage, go figure. You learn something new everyday. 

Now I knew what I was going to do, but a plate of tatsutaage does not a meal make, So I still needed something to go with it. I could have gone strictly Japanese, but another idea popped into my head. My sister and her family live out on Nantucket, and I go there for visits pretty regularly. One of my favorite things to do there is to get the mango curry at Siam To Go, a Thai restaurant located inside the ice skating rink. The curry is delicious, but what I really like about it is that you can get it with "crispy chicken", which goes great with the soupy, sweet and spicy curry. I knew that I had stumbled across the right meal when I checked the cupboards and found that I had all of the ingredients to make a yellow Thai curry with mango. 

Galangal

Galangal

I grew up eating Thai curry, thanks to my best friend's mother, and it's still one of my favorite foods. There are three basic types, green, red, and yellow, which you can buy in a paste form, or make from scratch. I like to use Thai Kitchen, because that's the brand I ate in childhood. Thai curry pastes are generally made with shrimp paste, chillies, onions or shallots, lemongrass, garlic, coriander, and galangal (a distant relative of ginger that is common in Thai and Lao cooking). The color of the curry depends on wether red or green chillies were used, yellow curry is red paste with turmeric added. 

Hang on, I didn't hear anything about curry powder in that description, you might be thinking. That's because curry is actually a word for dishes made with certain blends of spices, generally made in a sauce. There are hundreds of different types of curries from countries all over the world. Curry powder was invented in Britain to try and replicate the flavor of Indian curries. It's generally made with a combination of coriander, turmeric, cumin, fenugreek, and chili peppers. Sometimes it also has the leaf of the curry tree, but don't be confused, curry leaf isn't what makes it a curry. If you're really interested in curries, I suggest getting a good curry cookbook that gives you recipes for your own curry powers and pastes.

Japanese Curry ❤️

Japanese Curry ❤️

For this meal, I used this recipe for my curry base, though I left out the extra chillies (because I'm a wimp), and added broccoli, fresh basil, and roasted cashews. It was sometime around now that I found out that my sister and her boyfriend were coming to dinner. It was also at this point that I realized I was out of basmati rice. I had Japanese rice, but even if the chicken was a Japanese recipe, I am very strict about matching the appropriate rice with curry. I'm actually known for it. If you ever come into my house and find me sitting in the corner weeping over a bowl of curry it's because I've been forced to use basmati with a Japanese curry (or, you know, I made the curry too spicy). I was seconds away from declaring the whole venture ruined when I realized I had a bag of sticky rice! 

If you're not familiar, sticky rice is a wonderful rice that is very sticky when cooked and tastes a little sweet. It’s grown and eaten throughout Southeast Asia, but it's also popular in Japan where it's called mochigome. You might also see it called sweet rice, glutenous rice, or (god forbid) waxy rice. I grew up eating sticky rice, and prefer it when it is made the traditional way, that is to say, steamed in a basket. However, since we moved, I have misplaced said basket, so for the first time ever, I followed these instructions, and cooked it on the stove top. I'm not in love with the results. It came out pretty wet, which is not the consistency I like to see in my rice. Next time, I'm not going to bother unless I find my basket. However, the flavor of sticky rice is still to die for! It went perfectly with the soupy curry and crisp chicken. 

I love putting something sweet and fresh in my curries, which truth be told, can be a bit rich. The mango in this curry was perfect, complimenting the yellow curry and creamy coconut base. I especially love how the broccoli absorbs the sauce into the bushy tops, biting into the broccoli sends a torrent of curry over the tongue. The tatsutaage is marinated in soy sauce and mirin before being rolled in potato starch and fried. This gives it a delicious but subtle flavor, that actually accompanied the sweet curry beautifully. Topping this all off, literally, were cashews, which I roasted myself. Their salty, nuttiness and crunch were the icing on the curry cake. This Japanese Thai fusion was a total success!

Until next time, FU-SION-HA! (Dragon Ball Z reference)

If you enjoyed this post, you might like this one, about Japanese curry. Or perhaps this one, about a another type of Japanese curry. 

Nihon Day Twenty Nine: The Japanese Cat (Part One: Introduction)

It's no secret that I love cats. Head over to the Artwork page and you'll see that I spend a good portion of my time painting cats. I pretty much never miss an opportunity to talk about my own cats, like a super proud parent I can't help edging them into my conversations. My instagram account, though it is @WashokuDay, is ninety percent pictures of my three fur-babies. Emrys is a seventeen year old tabby siamese mix, Perine is a two year old calico, and Meredith (Mr. Merry) is an eleven month old ginger tabby. They're the light of my life, especially Emrys, who's been my constant companion since I was nine. Technically, Perine and Merry belong to my mother, but since we live in the same house, I just call them mine. Anyway, enough about my cats and how much I love them, which is a lot, if you didn't catch that. What I wanted to talk about today is cats in Japan. 

Emrys (Em-Riss): Named after Myddin Emrys (AKA Merlin), from The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart. His long time companion and brother, Tybalt (2000-2016), was named after Tybalt "Prince of Cats" from Romeo and Juliet. 

Emrys (Em-Riss): Named after Myddin Emrys (AKA Merlin), from The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart. His long time companion and brother, Tybalt (2000-2016), was named after Tybalt "Prince of Cats" from Romeo and Juliet. 

Perine (Purr-In): Named for an ancestor of my mom's that she discovered while doing genealogy. It's the French version of Petrina.

Perine (Purr-In): Named for an ancestor of my mom's that she discovered while doing genealogy. It's the French version of Petrina.

Meredith (Merry) Pumpkin-Butt Fuzzypants: His first name comes from my mom's eye doctor, and yes, Meredith is a boys name too. His second and third names are self explanatory.

Meredith (Merry) Pumpkin-Butt Fuzzypants: His first name comes from my mom's eye doctor, and yes, Meredith is a boys name too. His second and third names are self explanatory.

Cats are currently the most popular pets in the world, out numbering "man's best friend" by around three to one (source: Cat Sense by John Bradshaw). But still, there hasn't been as much research into their history, genetics, and behaviors, as with dogs, since they are a lot harder to study. Only recently has there been some light shone on the mysterious creatures we share our homes with. The domestic cat evolved from wild cats (Felis silvestris), around 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. Unlike dogs, there are not a seemingly endless array of breeds, and indeed, most cat breeds are pretty modern and a product of the cat show era. However, some cat breeds are older, coming from different parts of the world. Notably, the Asian cat breeds, like the Siamese, korat, and Japanese Bobtail.

It is believed that the Japanese bobtail came to Japan 1,000 years ago. These first cats were brought with a delegation from China as a gift to Emperor Ichijo. Their short tails were a byproduct of a genetic mutation, which was favored on the Asian continent. Soon cats were a beloved pet of the aristocracy and upper class. Cats in general had already found their way to Japan around 500 CE and were valued as protectors of Buddhist temples, keeping the rodent populations in check and thus preserving the sacred scrolls and books. 

Cats with the short bobtails were favored over regular cats. Though these cats can be born with just about any coloring or pattern, the most popular was the mi-ke (mee-kay), or three colored cats. These were white cats with splotches of black and "red" (ginger), artistically placed about their person. This is also called a white calico. This is still the classic Japanese bobtail pattern today.

We know that the cats in China at the time were a more utilitarian animal, since they're depictions in artwork are mostly hunting based. In contrast, the Japanese art work of this period has a lot more in common with my Instagram page. Cats seem to be living it up in high style, leashed, and sleeping on comfy pillows, clearly adored by their human companions. But because of their relative rarity they were too expensive for the common folk of Japan to get to know and love. But all that was about to change. 

As beloved as the cat was, in 1602 there was a wild shift in their fortunes. The government, worried about the vermin that were threatening the silkworms of the spinning trade, made an astounding decision. The cats of Japan were to be set free, kicked out of their sheltered and pampered existence. Owning, buying, or selling cats was suddenly illegal. This is not the only instance in history where the cat's social status has taken a bad turn. Most notably they had a very hard time in Europe during the witch craze. What makes this instance strange is that nobody was deciding that these cats were evil or vermin, but rather very useful and desirable pest control, and therefore they shouldn't be waisted as a snuggle-buddy. So cats were relocated to the streets and farm of Japan.

As anyone who has ever lived in an area with a feral cat population can tell you, cats are prolific breeders when left to their own devises. The misfortune of loosing their place of luxury actually contributed to their growing numbers. Natural selection brought the cats to a bigger and healthier standard. Now it was possible for more common people to get to know and appreciate the cat. Cats became popular characters of folktales and legends. The Bakaneko was a cat spirit that could transform into any form, and the nekomata was a demon cat with a split tail. (I'll write more on these folktales in another post.)

Cats were also believed to bring luck, the moneki-neko, or beckoning cat, became a symbol that is still popular today. This familiar white calico cat with upturned paw can be seen adorning the entrances of eateries and businesses, not only in Japan, but across Asia and worldwide. (Personally I have one on my art table in my studio). During the cultural renaissance of the Edo period, the now famous art form of ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) emerged. Cats were a popular subject, much as they are now the apple of the internet meme-craze's eye. 

 
 

For the life of me, I could not find any information on when the ban on owning cats expired. But, it did at some point, and in Japan today the cat in a beloved member of many hearts. There's even an entire island filled with a colony of cats, which outnumber the human residence by about six to one. Youtube and Instagram are bursting with videos from proud Japanese cat owners (my favorite is Maru the Scottish fold). Because many of the apartments in Japan will not allow pets, a new type of public space, which sounds like absolute paradise, has emerged. This is, the cat cafe, a place where feline lovers can come and sit with a bunch of happy cats and have a drink and maybe a light snack. 

There are many types of cats in Japan now, though the bobtail is still an iconic favorite. I've never had a Japanese Bobtail, but they sound like very lovable creatures. Some of their breed specific traits are quite compelling, such as the fact that most of them are rather intelligent. Some of them are easily trained to preform tricks, or play fetch (actually Perine loves to play fetch). Their generally very human oriented and are excellent family pets. Many cats dislike living with other members of their species, but Bobtails generally like to have a companion, though they might accept a dog in a pinch. A more vocal breed, the Japanese Bobtail is capable of generating a range of sounds, in fact they're sometimes described as singers. Apparently it is also easier to train them to walk on a lead, rather than with most cats who will simply collapse, letting you drag them for a while before you give in and pick them up. 

Though the Japanese Bobtail is obviously famous for, you know, being a bobtail, the mutation that causes this is actually a recessive gene. This means that if the parents of the kitten in question are both true bobtails, in all likeliness the kitten will have a short tail too. But if one of the parents has a long tail, it's far less likely to produce a bobtailed kitten. The mutation is not a disfigurement, like the Manx's short tail, but simply effects how many vertebrate the tail has. Generally a true bobtail must have no more than three inches of tail to be considered a "true bobtail". If you've ever known an animal with a cropped tail, or maybe one who lost it in an injury, you're probably picturing a little stump which feels weirdly boney, and is perhaps missing a little fur on the tip. The true bobtail is not like that, more like a rabbit's tail than anything. It truly is just a very short cat tail.

Another mutation that this breed is prone to is heterochromia, or having eyes of different colors. Only the Turkish Van is as susceptible to this phenomena, and it's more common in Bobtails with predominantly white coloring. The mutation causes one eye to be blue and one to be yellow, or silver and gold as it is called by breeders. This mutation is pretty neat, but when I look at a cat with it, I always start to feel a bit cross-eyed. 

This has turned into a longer sized post than I originally intended, but I still have more to say on the subject of Japanese cats. Therefore, I will write a few follow ups, focusing on cats in folktales and myths, cats in pop culture, and perhaps a few others. So, I hope you enjoy cats. For those of you who are more doggie people, I might write about some of the Japanese dog breeds in the future. 

Until next time, meeeoooow!

If you enjoyed this post, you might like this one, about the island of rabbits. Or perhaps this one, about Japan's culture of cute. 

Kinoko Nabe: Mushroom Hot Pot

Here in Maine we are experiencing yet another mild winter. Since Christmas I think we've only seen about four inches of snow. This has been almost immediately melted by a combination of unseasonable warmth and rain. However, it's still the time of year that calls for hardy food.  Continuing on with my goal of filling this winter with delicious hot pots, my next recipe to tackle was Kinoko Nabe, or Mushroom Hot Pot. 

I decided on this hot pot because there has been an excellent selection of mushrooms at my local co-op. I was especially aware of this, since I work at the co-op and have been staring at the mushroom display for the last couple weeks. When I sat down with the book Japanese Hot Pots (by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat) to pick my next endeavor, my eye was caught by this simple dish. I ended up making it for my mom's birthday dinner. This meant that it was paired with salmon teriyaki (my mom's favorite) and cucumber sunomono. It all went together smashingly. 

Unfortunately, one of the mushroom variety called for, shimeji, eluded me. However, I replaced it with the king trumpet mushroom, which I had never had before. The other three mushrooms were enoki, oyster, and shiitake. The mushrooms were accompanied with napa cabbage, tofu, and spinach. You'll notice that non of those extras are particularly flavorful on their own. This means that kinoko nabe is all about the flavor of the mushrooms, set off perfectly by the dashi broth.

Each of these mushrooms has its own peculiar flavor and attributes. Enoki had a distinctly "mushroomy" tang and their delicate tendril-like stems make them almost like a noodle. Oyster mushrooms have a pleasantly earthy taste and a softer texture. The king trumpet has a firm, almost meaty texture and a full bodied flavor. And of course shiitake's distinct taste should be familiar to all. 

Since this is a hot pot, it was served right in its pot, in the middle of the table, though this time it was fully cooked when it was placed there. So everyone present could pull whatever they liked right out of the hot broth and chow down. It was great fun with the extra guests we had for our mother's birthday. One of them, my sister's boyfriend, is a budding mycologist (mushroom enthusiast and forager). The whole thing went over wonderfully. 

I've already made another hot pot, but you'll have to wait for a later post to hear about it. I'll just leave you with the teaser that it was my favorite so far. 

Until next time, long live the King Trumpet Mushroom!

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy this one, about sukiyaki (another hot pot). Or perhaps you would like this one, about a white miso nabe. 

Sukiyaki: The Perfect Family Meal

Winter is in full swing. It's chilly, it's grey, and the evenings are long and dark. Though I love this season, it is still sometimes necessary to find some comfort, and what better way than with good, hardy, warm food. Japan is fully aware of this and has ample amounts of special winter food that gives you just the boost you need. Perhaps the most popular is nabemono, or hot pots. This is a style of stew that involves placing a pot on a burner at the center of the table, and adding ingredients to a broth or sauce as you eat. There are many different types of hot pot, but sukiyaki might be the most well known.

At it's essence, sukiyaki is a sweet and savory dish, consisting of thinly sliced meat (usually beef), noodles, lefty vegetables, tofu, and mushrooms. It is cooked in a sauce made from soy sauce, sugar, and mirin, and therefore is somewhat reminiscent of teriyaki in flavor. Sukiyaki became a popular dish in the Meiji period (1868-1912), once the practice of eating beef had been reintroduced by newly welcomed westerners. Sukiyaki became the "go to" method for serving up beef. 

There are two different theories as to how sukiyaki got its name. First, that the suki came from the Japanese word for a spade (farming tool), which was sometimes used for cooking during the Edo period (1603-1868). The second theory is that suki was derived from sukimi, which means thinly sliced meat. The second part is more obvious, yaki is a verb for the process of grilling, and it adorns the names of many Japanese dishes. Fans of pop music of the 1960s might recognize sukiyaki as the name of the international hit by Kyu Sakamoto. As much as sukiyaki deserves to have a hit pop song written about it, the song actually has nothing what so ever to do with food. Its for real name is Ue wo Muite Aruko, but it was called Sukiyaki so that it would have a catchy recognizably Japanese title for the overseas market. It must have worked, because in 1963 Sukiyaki hit number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 list, something pretty rare for non-English lyric songs. 

I've been wanting to make sukiyaki for quite some time now, but I actively began collecting ingredients for this dish a few weeks ago. It's not that the components are particularly hard to find, it's just that some of them are a little obscure for someone living far from Japanese grocery stores. It's not essential to have exactly these ingredients, but I wanted to get as close as I could for my first go.

Traditionally, sukiyaki is made with:

  • Thinly sliced beef,  of a very good cut with fat marbled into it.
  • Ito konnyaku or shirataki noodles. These noodles are a little different from the usual wheat based noodles of Japan. They're actually made from the konnyaku potato, which has a curiously jelly like texture. These noddles are chewy, and have a mild savory flavor. I bought mine on Amazon, though you could also use bung bean noodles or even udon.
  •  Kikuna leaves, which comes from the edible chrysanthemum plant. If you don't have an Asian market nearby, it might be pretty hard to find this one. I actually had to forgo this ingredient and used spinach instead. 
  • Nappa cabbage, which shouldn't be hard to find. It is sometimes called Chinese cabbage. Unlike your standard cabbage, nappa is shapes more like romaine lettuce and is pale yellow. It has a wonderful mild flavor.
  • Naganegi, a type of green onion that is a bit bigger than scallions, but smaller that leeks. Another ingredient that might be hard to find in your standard grocery store. I replaced it with leek, but you could also use scallions. 
  • Shiitake mushrooms, which are pretty easy to find. Most grocery stores carry them, but you can also easily buy dried shiitake and rehydrate it in only a few minutes.
  • Enoki mushrooms, a "winter mushroom" that flourishes in the colder seasons. It comes in bunches, still attached to the root, and is made up of very long, thin stemmed pale mushrooms. It's actually quite beautiful. The flavor is mild, though distinct. They are a popular ingredient of Japanese soups. Enoki are rare in standard grocery stores, but should be available in an Asian market. If you really want to try them, but can't get your hands on them, you could try growing them yourself with this kit. I was actually surprised to find them at my local grocery store (Tradewinds in Blue Hill, Maine). They stocked them for the first time, three days before I was going to make sukiyaki. What are the chances of that? 
  • Tofu, which is widely available. Use extra firm, and either get the seared variety, or sear it yourself. 

Now, it is not a strict requirement that you cook it on the table and eat as you go. It can be cooked on the stove and then moved to the table. But doing it the traditional way is fun, easy, and very satisfying. If you have a tabletop burner, good for you. Otherwise, you might want to get a simple electric frying pan, like the one I used. Prepare the raw ingredients before hand (cutting them into suitable sizes and such) and carry them to the table and set next to your pot. In Kansai, the western part of Japan, they add sugar, soy sauce and sake as the food cooks. In Kanto, the eastern part of Japan, they use a sauce made from soy sauce, sugar, and mirin, and pour it over the ingredients. I went Kanto style for ease, mixing the ingredients together in a glass measuring cup. Make sure each person present has their own chopsticks and a bowl of rice with black sesame seeds.

The beef gets cooked a little first, then pushed to the side. Each ingredient is then added, making sure that those that take more time to cook go in first. Then the fun begins. As soon as anything is cooked, take your chopsticks and have at it. Careful about drips, I used my rice bowl to catch any. As the food gets eaten down, you can add more! In fact, make sure you have plenty of beef to go around and also plenty of greens, which cut the rich flavor nicely. 

This style of cooking and eating is so much fun, and is perfect for a family dinner or having guests over. You can also use other vegetables as well as those listed. I added baby bella mushrooms, which went great with the flavors. Some people use udon and mochi at the end to soak up the sauce. Another common practice is dipping your food in raw egg whites before eating it. I couldn't quite bring myself to try that one. 

I enjoyed making and eating sukiyaki so much, and this is only the beginning. I plan on trying more hot pots this winter, so stay tuned!

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy this one about salmon miso soup, or this one about different types of Japanese vegetable. 

Until next time, don't forget to have lots of family meals!

Recipe Used: Japanese Cooking 101

Manzen Post: The Mystery of Mam Osuimono

One of the things about writing a blog about Japanese food and culture is that once the word gets out, people love to give you random things to do with Japan. I've had people give me Japanese vegetables that they grew in their garden, books on folding origami napkins, charms bought in shinto shrines decades ago, and other various items. I love gifts in all forms, but I especially enjoy these samplings of Japan. However, since I'm often getting them second hand and I do not yet speak Japanese with any kind of useful proficiency, sometimes I am a little at a loss as to what something is. 

This was the case a few weeks ago when my mother brought home an item given to her by a friend who reads my blog. The only explanation that came with it was that she wasn't sure if it was still good. About the size and shape of an engagement ring box, and the same weight and color of a fortune cookie, it appeared to be an eatable good. The only clue I had was the label, identifying it as Mam Osuimono. The word osuimono did ring a sort of bell, and brought to mind soup. Then I remembered that this was a type of Japanese soup that has a clear broth (as opposed to miso). 

As with any modern mystery, my first move was to do a quick google search. This brought up a couple of Japanese websites, a cryptic entry on Amazon for an out of stock item, and much more helpfully, this image:

 

(Well, thank heavens they used English to identify the step numbers, or this could have been very confusing.)

 

Okay, seems pretty straight forward. It appears to be a soup (which makes sense), that is dehydrated and stored inside a rice cake(?). Without further ado I opened the package. 

Beautiful, trust the Japanese to make the most elegant dehydrated soup in existence. There was also a flavor packet, which was pictured nowhere in my instructions. So, after preserving the beauty in a few photos, I put the flavor packet in a bowl, poked a hole in the top off the cake with a chopstick, and boiled some water. 

You know those packing peanuts that dissolve? when I was a kid we used to love those, running them under the tap and watching the crispy foam become floppy and squishy and then becoming nothing but a soggy, slimy something. Making this soup was remarkably like that, only more appetizing since the flavor packet sent off an amazing savory scent. I watched the rice cake slowly loose its crispness, collapsing, and then, out of figging nowhere, out pops a couple little flowers and some seaweed. Success!

I now had more or less the same thing as step three (though I don't know where their rice cake ended up). It took me a little while to figure out what the flowers were made of, but now I'm pretty sure they were dried tofu. The flavor of the soup was magnificent, full of umami and tasting strongly of dashi. The rice cake was perhaps a little slimy, but it still tasted good. All in all, a most delightful experience! A very special "Arigatou"to Catharine for sending me this mysterious soup!

My question for you today is, have you ever had to decipher mysterious packaging before? Tell me about it in the comment section below. 

Until next time, try something new and enjoy the mystery!

P.S. I swear that this wasn't there the first time I looked, but while researching this post I found a link to a place where you can buy Mam Osuimono in a pack of six. It sort of seems like they might be a souvenir thing. 

If you enjoyed this post, you might like this one about the building blocks of Japanese flavor. Also, check out the last Manzen Post, about Japanese tattoos on western royals. 

Manzen Post: Royal Tattoos

George V of England and Nicholas II of Russia (who are important to this post, I promise).

George V of England and Nicholas II of Russia (who are important to this post, I promise).

Hello, my dear readers, whom I envision as having been chomping at the bit for me to get back to the blog. Welcome to the first Manzen Post, a new format I'm trying out. As you might have guessed, if you have been following the blog and noticed my absence this fall, I sometimes have a difficult time fitting Washoku Day into my busy schedule. This has really become a problem over the last several months as I remodeled a house, moved, started a new job, and took an online class. What is the saying? When it rains it pours? Apparently my motto is, when it rains I shall voluntarily chuck my umbrella in the garbage. I'm so very sorry that my blog sank to the bottom of my priority list, but I promise to make a more dedicated effort, now that I have a roof over my head and have settled into my new job. 

So, what is a Manzen Post? Well, to put it succinctly, they are brief blurbs about subjects that I don't have enough material to write a full length post about. The idea came, as many of my ideas do, from my sister. In our daily lives, I will often mention something that I read about Japan or a new type of Japanese snack I encountered, or something of the kind. Her usual question is whether I will write a blog post on it, and my usual reply is that I can't really write a whole post about a whatever it is, because it's only a tiny random bit of information. However, as I am struggling to put out full length anything right now, a blurb on a random bit of information sounds pretty good. So, here it goes, my first shot at a Manzen Post. Manzen roughly translates to Random or Pointless, though that does not mean they shall be boring. In fact, I aim to make them quite diverting. Now, I shall stop rambling, and tell you about this very strange piece of information I just stumbled across. 

People who know me well (you know who you are) are doubtless aware that one of my greatest passions in life (aside from Japan) is World War I. That is not to say that I have an unhealthy obsession with that dark and gruesome chapter of history, but that I have a very healthy interest in that dark and gruesome chapter of history. I find it fascinating how WWI is the exact end of the old world, and really the cause of its destruction. Life would be unrecognizable without it. If you're ever talking to me, and you're tired of participating in the conversation and wish instead to listen to a lecture, tell me that you don't understand what started Word War I. Feel free to let your mind wander as I excitedly talk nonstop about Gavrilo Princip, the irascible Kaiser Wilhelm, Moltke, and the Schlieffen Plan. 

But what does all this have to do with Japan? Nothing really. Japan participated in WWI, but not in a very dramatic way. Japan comes into this story in an entirely random and unimportant way. I am absolutely fascinated by the royal families of this period, since many of them are the last of their great monarchies. My special interest is the Romanov family and their tragic end. But I was not reading about the Romanovs or Japan when I stumbled across this intersections of interests, but was in fact reading about the history of tattoos. This was where I found a passing reference to the Japanese dragon that Nicholas II of Russia had tattooed on his arm. Picture me doing a double-take. 

Apparently the Tsar of Russia got this ink done when he was visiting Japan in 1891. Photographs from this era are grainy at the best of times, and royalty back then didn't generally hang around in t-shirts. However, the Romanovs did take many family pictures (it's one of the reasons why they're so tragically relatable). In a few of these pictures Nicholas II has his sleeves rolled up, and you can just spot a shadow of a dragon thereon. 

Ummmm, I guess...

Ummmm, I guess...

Oh, okay, yeah, sort of...

Oh, okay, yeah, sort of...

Nicholas II wasn't alone. He might have gotten the idea from his cousin George V of England, who had gotten a dragon tattoo during his visit to Japan in 1881, when he was just the Duke of York. If you're thinking that this was a radical rebellious action from the young prince to piss off his old fashioned royal father, you would be wrong. Edward VII had several tattoos of his own, though he got his done in Jerusalem. In fact, Edward VII had instructed the tutor of George and his brother to take the boys to get tattoos from the master artist Hori Chiyo. After this, many wealthy young britons took the trip to Japan just to emulate the Duke of York. I one hundred percent think that this should be a mandatory experience for all royalty.  

The Duke of York getting some ink done.

The Duke of York getting some ink done.

Another day, when I have more time, I shall write about the history of tattoos in Japan. It is a fascinating subject, but that is a job for another day. In the mean time I hope you enjoyed this random story. Manzen Posts will most likely be shorter than this when I don't have to explain where I've been or what even a Manzen Post is. 

My question for you today is, do you have any tattoos? I have four myself. You can tell me all about them in the comment section below. 

If you enjoyed this post, please check out more posts in the Archives

8 Tips for Healthier Japanese Cuisine

For over a year now I've been touting the health benefits of Japanese food. And in general it is one of the most healthy cuisines out there. However, here are eight ways you can up the healthy ante a bit. Think of it as the pro level of healthful cooking.

1 Avoid Fish That Are High In Mercury

Obviously fish is a very important component of Japanese cooking. It's also very good for you, in general. It’s low in fat and high in protein, provides minerals and vitamins that humans have trouble producing, and can lower the risk of heart disease.  White fish in particular is a wonderful low fat option, but the real superstars of the sea are fatty fish, like salmon. They are absolutely bursting with omega-3 fatty acids, a wonderful substance with all kinds of health benefits. 

However, there is one blot on fishes great health record, and that is that some fish can be high in mercury, a pretty undesirable addition to any dinner table. The trouble is that mercury gets into the water via pollution and once it is there, it gets into the bodies of all the ocean's inhabitance. Small stuff eats mercury, bigger stuff eats the small stuff and so on (you don't need me to explain the food chain to you). Once big fish, like tuna, are getting their meals, the concentration of mercury is getting pretty bad. 

Luckily for me, and you, Arizona State University conducted a study and ranked fish by mercury contamination and sustainability. The fish were grouped into green for low mercury and high sustainability, grey for fish that were one or the other but not both, and red for those that had high mercury levels and low sustainability. I provide the green and red here so you will know what is safe and what is most certainly not. 

Green choices: Low mercury, high sustainability
Pacific herring* (B.C.)
Red king crab (Bristol Bay)
Pacific cod (Alaska/B.C.)
Tanner crab (US Bering Sea)
Atlantic pollock (Northeast Arctic/New England)
Alaskan pollock (Eastern Bering Sea)
Atlantic mackerel* (Northeast Atlantic)
American plaice (New England)
Canary rockfish (US Pacific coast)
Black rockfish (US Pacific coast)
Yellowfin sole (Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands)
European anchovy* (South Africa)
Rock sole (Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands)
Pacific Ocean Perch (Alaska/US Pacific Coast)
Ocean perch (Newfoundland)
Alaska plaice (Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands)
Flathead sole (Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands)
Skipjack tuna* (Central Western Pacific)
Arrowtooth flounder (Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands)
English sole (US Pacific coast)
*Indicate good sources of omega-3 fatty acids

Red choices: High mercury, low sustainability
Bluefin tuna (Eastern Atlantic)
Yellowtail flounder (Georges Bank)
Swordfish (Mediterranean)
Spanish mackerel (US South Atlantic)
Gag grouper (US Gulf of Mexico)

Note that skipjack tuna, bonito, is on the green list, which is wonderful news. By the way, bonito has been shown to have all sorts of benefits such as improving blood circulation, lowering blood pressure, heightening concentration, reducing depression and anxiety, improving decision making ability, and reducing oxidative DNA damage. 

One fish that I was surprised to see was missing from this list was salmon. However, I found several other lists that did include wild caught Alaskan salmon, confirming my suspicions that it is low in mercury and sustainable. I was happy to read this, since salmon happens to be my particular favorite. Especially wild Alaskan salmon, which is so much more tasty than atlantic salmon, of course I may be bias.

2 Buy Organic Whenever Possible

Let's not even get into the ridiculousness of dousing something you're going to be eating in poisons. Suffice to say that many studies suggest that the toxins that build up in your body from all the chemicals and pesticides that you eat can cause a lot of harm. But there is another reason why organic is better, and that is that the fruits and vegetables that are grown without pesticides may actually be more nutritious. Studies show that it is possible the absence of pesticides and chemical fertilizers makes it easier for the plants to produce the vitamins and antioxidants that we want in our food. Eating organic might just give your food a little boost that makes it that much more healthy. 

But hey, I know how things can sometimes be, organic food is expensive and conventional food can be pretty cheap. I get that, and I sometimes have a hard time buying all the organic food I want. Luckily, some nonorganic foods are safer to eat than others, maybe they're grown with fewer pesticides and chemicals, or the plant has a thicker skin that helps lessen the ill effects. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) calls these the "Clean Fifteen", and they are as follows:

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet Corn
  3. Pineapples 
  4. Cabbage
  5. Frozen sweet peas
  6. Onions
  7. Asparagus 
  8. Mangos
  9. Papayas 
  10. Eggplant
  11. Honeydew
  12. Grapefruit
  13. Cantaloupe
  14. Cauliflower 

And, of course, some fruits and vegetables are particularly bed to eat nonorganic, since they use more pesticides or are more likely to absorb it. The EWG calls these the "Dirty Dozen" and this is where you should be paying more for organic. 

  1. Strawberries
  2. Apples
  3. Nectarines 
  4. Peaches
  5. Celery 
  6. Grapes
  7. Cherries
  8. Spinach
  9. Tomatoes
  10. Bell Peppers
  11. Cherry Tomatoes
  12. Cucumbers

They also note that hot peppers and kale are particularly not good. I would like to add that conventional citrus farming does a lot of harm to the water table, so it is better to go organic there too. 

3 stick with White Rice

"What?" you might be thinking, "Everyone knows brown rice is better for you!" Well, that simply isn't the case. You probably know that the difference between brown and white rice is that brown rice still has the outer bran, while white rice has been polished smooth. In most cases unprocessed whole grains are more healthy since they contain more nutrients, but with brown rice they also contain some anti-nutrients. These are the plants natural defense against pests and are probably not very healthy for human consumption. One of these anti-nutrients is phytic acid, which has the unfortunate habit of binding the good nutrients in our guts so that they aren’t even absorbed properly. This means that while brown rice has higher nutrients the phytic acid is preventing us from reaping the benefits. 

This is very interesting, but not a scary as the next fact about brown rice I found. In recent years it has been discovered that rice can have high levels of arsenic in it. Over time regular consumption of arsenic can lead to major health problems like cancer. Arsenic can find its way into many different plants, but rice is particularly at risk since it is grown in water which can absorb arsenic from the atmosphere. This means that the level of arsenic in rice varies depending of where it was grown. At this time rice grown in the southern United States, for example, has higher arsenic levels dew to the residual arsenic from the cotton trade. Californian rice on the other hand has lower levels.
Due to the removal of the bran, white rice, especially that grown in California, has fairly safe levels of arsenic. This can be reduced even more by washing the uncooked rice until it runs clean, which is the traditional method in Japan anyway. I recommend the company Lundberg for safe white rice as their rice consistently tested well below the safe limit of arsenic decided on by the EPA. 

However, most brown rice products, which are labeled as health foods mind, had shockingly high levels of arsenic. In fact in most cases brown rice has 50% more arsenic in it than white rice. So you should definitely eat brown rice rarely, or avoid it all together. 

4 Throw Out your teflon 

Many people cook with teflon pans because they're pretty inexpensive and they're nonstick. Teflon has been around since the 1940s, and is actually a name, trademarked by DuPont, for Polytetrafluoroethylene ( not surprisingly shortened to PTFE). Pots and pans that are nonstick are usually made from aluminum and are coated in PTFE, making them pretty resistant to adhesion. That's all well and good, but teflon is also known to emit toxic fumes when it is overheated. Though these fumes are considered harmless, they have been known to cause "flu like symptoms" or "Polymer fume fever". If that doesn't sound bad enough, these fumes have been known to kill pet birds. The EWG has conducted experiments that show that while teflon producers claim PTFE is safe at low temperatures, it actually takes relatively little time for these fumes to be produced. 

Stainless steel and cast-iron might be a bit more expensive, but I believe that they are the way to go. Plus, if treated right, cast iron is pretty stick resistant. I started my collection of pans with one medium stainless steel pot ($6.00), a medium cast iron skillet ($21.00), a carbon steel wok ($30.00), and a large enamel dutch oven ($60.00). This was what I cooked with for several years before getting some all cads and several various sizes of skillets. I realize that you can get a set of teflon pans for half that, but do you really want to cook with pans that cause "flu like symptoms" if you stand over them? 

Another aspect in which teflon finds its way into Japanese cooking is from rice makers, which are usually equipped with a teflon pot. Recently I was able to track down a rice maker that uses a clay pot. This also gives it a very mild earthy flavor. 

Oh hey, I also found a great replacement set of enamel pots for only $51.05!

5 While your at it, chuck the plastic

While you might not cook with plastic, most kitchens are still full of the stuff, from plastic utensils to food storage containers. Why is that bad? Well, many plastics are made with additives that we simply do not know enough about. These chemicals are known to leach out of those plastics into food or water. According to Dr. Anila Jacob, a scientist formerly working with EWG, "There is very little published research on the potential adverse health effects of chemicals that leach from plastic food containers, so it's difficult to say they're safe with any degree of certainty, especially with long-term use..."

The most well known of these chemicals is probably bisphenol-A (BPA), which is present in many plastics used for food storage and water bottles. BPA does a number on our hormones by mimicking estrogen and messes with your thyroid hormone receptors. Not all plastics contain PBA, but of course, there are many other additives like  bisphenol-S (BPS) and bisphenol-F (BPF), which might be just as bad. 

It might not be completely practical to avoid plastics all together, but wherever possible, try to replace them with ceramics, wood, metal, cloth, or glass. I personally only use glass storage containers, cloth produce bags, and carry my drinking water in a mason jar with a drinking lid

One area where this effects Japanese food in particular is in bento boxes. Many of those adorable containers are made from plastic, but you can also find a variety of metal, glass, or even wood, alternatives. 

For more information on avoiding harmful plastics, check out the EWG post about it. To learn more about BPA and the other products it lurks in, go here

6 adopt the multiple plate system and use chopsticks

As I mentioned in the post about dining customs, a Japanese meal is traditionally served with each dish in it's own plate or bowl. Though it is possible to eat Japanese food on a single plate, American style, I encourage you to use the multiple plate system. This might seem strange, but there is a very healthy reason for this. Using multiple small dishes encourages smaller portions. Even getting two helpings of a small rice bowl is usually still less than I would put on my plate. A rice bowl should hold about 1 cup of cooked rice.

As for using chopsticks, it's easy once you get the hang of it, and it also slows you down while you're eating. This can help you eat less because your brain has time to register that you're full. Also, it makes you more mindful of what you're eating and how much. I think that this leads to a more pleasant eating experience and a happier digestion. If you're having trouble mastering chopsticks, this video might help. 

7 keep an eye out for msg

MSG or monosodium glutamate, is a chemical component that is found naturally in many foods, like tomatoes and cheese. It was identified and named in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, as part of his study of umami (one of the five tastes). Monosodium glutamate is only one of the glutamate salts that produces umami, but it is the easiest to replicate. In 1909, Ikeda patented a process for producing MSG for the food industry. It was originally marketed as Aji-no-moto or "essence of taste", and was used to enhance the natural savory flavor of food. Since then the use has exploded, and today it is used in a lot of processed foods.

There is a lot of debate about whether MSG is dangerous or not. Personally, I grew up being told that it was bad, and so it's not a stretch for me to accept this. Others see that as nothing but hippy propaganda. Well, there frankly hasn't been many studies on the subject, but some recent work has been done with disturbing implications. Just to be clear, no one is saying natural monosodium glutamate is bad for you, just the type that is processed. 

A lot of people have reported that they feel poorly after eating food with MSG in it. Headaches and skin rashes are the most common complaint, but there is also stomach upset, limb weakness, and a sensation of burning in the mouth, head and neck areas. Though you might be able to pass that off as here-say, some independent double-blind testing has corroborated this. It isn't every person who reacts this way, but since MSG has an accumulative effect, the more you eat it, the more likely it is that you will have these reactions. 

But a headache isn't the worst thing MSG can do to you. Studies have shown that MSG can destroy retinal cells, cause brain damage, and cause nervous disorders. Hormones are also badly effected by MSG. Rodents injected with it become inactive and obese, and heres the thing, humans are 5 times more sensitive to MSG than rats. For more information about the dangers of MSG (and the sources for these studies) you can go here

If you're doing Japanese food right, you should be cooking mainly with fresh and natural ingredients. However, when you're using different types of sauces or seasonings, you will want to check the labels thoroughly. MSG can be hidden in many clever ways, since it may be an ingredient of one of the ingredients. That link up above will also give you a list of the ingredients to avoid that contain MSG. Be especially careful with the brand of soy sauce that you're using. Always avoid hondashi (dashi granules), as they are mostly made up of MSG. 

8 Leave out the sugar

We've all heard that sugar is the devil, and of course, it is. It's also America's favorite food. The daily recommended amount of sugar is 35g for men and 25g for women, but on average Americans eat over 150g a day. The best thing to do is to stop eating it, but for most people, kicking the sugar habit can feel almost as hard as kicking a drug. In fact a recent study undergone by Princeton University has found that sugar can act like a drug for some people, releasing dopamine in the brain and even causing addiction and withdrawals. Luckily it doesn’t seem that everyone is wired to be receptive to this addiction, but unfortunately the human brain is already wired to love sugar. This is because our bodies run on sugar, it’s like the gas that powers the whole machine. 

This was fine when we were hunter gatherers and the only sugar we got was from fruits and vegetables, but in the modern age when sugar has been added to every food, far more than is good for us, our love of sweet is becoming a danger. Too much sugar has been linked to tooth decay, liver disease, metabolic syndrome and diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. And of course, it also makes us fat, contributing to the obesity epidemic

Okay, so, how does this apply to Japanese food, other than the obvious need to not drink soda and eat dessert. Well, a lot of Japanese recipes call for a little added sugar. I had been getting around this by using maple syrup, which is made from fructose, so is a little better than sucrose (table sugar). However, recently I decided that sugar was my nemeses and that I needed to cut ties with it entirely. Luckily, the Japanese food I have cooked since then has been just as good as it was before. I therefore conclude that the added sugar is unnecessary and can be left out without damaging the flavor.

There is one sweet ingredient that is not leave-out-able though. That is mirin, the sweet rice wine. The sweetness comes not from refined sugar, but from the fermentation process changing the starch into a natural sugar. At least, this is the case if you use traditionally brewed mirin. Check the label, because a lot of brands add sugar or corn syrup (gasp!). I've only been able to find one brand that didn't do this dastardly switch, and that is Eden. It's a bit more expensive, but if you're looking to give your food a touch more health, it's worth it. To make up for leaving out the sugar, I add a teeny more mirin.

Conclusion

So there you have it. With just a little extra effort and perhaps a bit more money, your Japanese food can be the healthiest! 

By the way, this is all information that is in my up coming ebook, The Seven Pillars of Washoku. It will probably be out by the spring. If you want a free copy of that book, when it's finished, make sure you're signed up for the newsletter. 

If you enjoyed this post you might like this one, about the building blocks of Japanese flavor. 

Nihon Day Twenty Seven: Digimon

The other day I was reading something about Pokemon Go, and though I enjoyed the article, I was struck by a throw away reference they made to Digimon and how uncool it was. It seemed ironic to me that in this stirring defense of Pokemon they felt free to bash Digimon, but then I remembered that this has been the status quo since the late 90s. I'm pretty sure that my friends and I were the only children of our generation to genuinely love both franchises. In celebration of that love, I decided I had better write a post about Pokemon's less popular contemporary. 

In the late 1990s and early 2000s Pokemon ruled children's programing, games, and pass times. No self respecting child couldn't list every Pokemon by sight and millions of allowance dollars went to the trading cards and video games. But there was another Japanese franchise that had worked its way into American pop culture, one with a very similar name, Digimon. Contrary to popular belief, Digimon is not a knockoff of Pokemon, they just happen to both be named after monsters, (Digital Monsters and Pocket Monsters). Digimon was born from the tamagotchi craze of the mid 90s. If you aren't familiar, tamagotchi were small, egg shaped devices that held a digital pet, which you had to care for. Though they were popular with both boys and girls, tamagotchi were seen as being inherently feminine (for unknown reasons). Therefore, the company that made them, Bandai, created a masculine counterpart called Digital Monsters. 

Tyrannomon, the first Digimon,  in his original pixel and trading card forms

Tyrannomon, the first Digimon,  in his original pixel and trading card forms

The basic design was the same as tamagotchi (raising the monsters, feeding them, cleaning up after them etc.) but there was also the added fun of being able to connect to your friends devises and battle. Because the monsters would be rendered in a highly pixelated form the first monsters were designed to be simple and cute, many of them were inspired by dinosaurs. But as the franchise gained popularity and Digimon expanded into a trading card game, the art was handed to Kenji Watanabe, an artist who was a fan of American comic book art. This gave Digimon their characteristic cool and tough appearance. They broadened from their dinosaur roots and ranged from animal like forms to human like forms, with a lot in between. 

Angemon and Angewomon

Angemon and Angewomon

In 1999 the franchise was brought to theaters with its first movie, which was expanded into a television show. This was how I was introduced to the franchise and is my main interest to this day. So, here is a crash course in Digimon, as they are presented in the original two series and the first two movies. Digimon are creatures who live in the "DigiWorld", an alternate universe that was created from the real world's use of digital communications. These monsters come into being from Digi-eggs, and grow by way of Digivolution, wherein they take on new and more powerful forms. Unlike Pokemon's evolution, this is not a permanent step, as the Digimon will devolve into a lower level when they run out of energy or are hurt. In the television show (the english dub) these levels are baby, training, rookie, champion, ultimate, and mega. 

The plot of the anime was centered around a group of kids who find themselves transported into the DigiWorld. There they are each paired with a Digimon partner and are informed that they are the DigiDestined, who, with the aid of their Digivices, allow their Digimon to be able to Digivolve. Basically it was a whole lot of Digi. Digimon are very intelligent, most of them being able to talk and more or less showing the same emotions and intellect of their human counterparts. This gave much more scope to the series for emotional development. Unlike Pokemon, Digimon were not pitted against each other for sport, but only fought if there was an evil Digimon trying to do harm. Often these "evil" Digimon were simply victims of a virus or had their data otherwise corrupted. 

 
 

The first Digimon series, known as Digimon Adventures, was followed by a second series  that took place in the same fictional universe, three years after the end of the first series. It introduced four new DigiDestined and their Digimon partners, and also a new form of Digivolution. This new type was known as Armor, and came in many different forms. Mostly this was a clever way of including the first generation as advisers, but since their Digivices could not use the Armor technique, they could not participate in the new adventures. This was my personal favorite series, and when me and my friends pretended to be DigiDestined, these were the Digimon we used. 

After Digimon Adventures 2 there were four more series, but none of them dealt with the same exact universe and had none of the same characters. That is until this year, when the series was rebooted, for the 15th anniversary, as Digimon Adventures Tri. The whole series isn't out yet, but I have watched the first two parts and am pleased to say that it delivers on every aspect that made the original show great. We join the first generation of DigiDestined (the second generation having mysteriously disappeared) three years into the future. The once children are now high school students, complete with new teenager troubles. Along with a somewhat more sophisticated anime style, Tri introduces a slightly more adult look on life. 

One of the best parts of Digimon is the more in depth characters and plots. The Pokemon anime might have been more popular, but Digimon was edgier and certainly had a superior plot. You really cared about each and every character and quite a few times you were brought to tears by their sacrifices and bonds. However, this was a kid's show and had plenty of humor and fun to go around. Of course, I'm not knocking Pokemon, which I also love. I can't for the life of me see why these two franchises can't live in harmony. They both have a lot to bring to the table and are different enough and similar enough to co-exist. With the resurgence of Pokemon Go I have seen quite a few negative remarks about Digimon and I can only hope that Tri will bring my fellow Digi-fans out of the shadows. 

If you're interested in trying Digimon, the first two series are available to stream on Netflix. Digimon Adventures Tri is available to stream on Hulu and Crunchyroll. If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy this one about Pokemon. 

Until next time, live on Digimon!

Kamaboko

Even before I began to cook Japanese food I was fascinated by the subject, but more in a visual sense. Loving the presentation of Japanese food, I would often look at pictures and drool over them. Often things were pretty easy to identify, (there's some daikon radish, that's a carrot, some form of grilled fish), but at other times I was completely at a loss to figure out what something was. This was how I felt about the slices of smooth white and pink something that were often in soups and bento. It was too uniform to be something in its natural state, so it must be processed. It wasn't until much later, when I was reading a cookbook, that I found out what it was, kamaboko.

Kamaboko is a type of fishcake, made from whitefish paste. Simple enough, but since in modern times it is most often a processed food that you buy in the store, I couldn't find a way to try it myself. Fast forward to a few days ago and you find me at Ichiban, scanning the menu for something I haven't eaten before. That is when I noticed an udon soup which listed kamaboko as one of the ingredients. I almost never order soup at restaurants, but I didn't need much persuading when I saw that I would finally get to try this. Ordering the soup paid off, even if there were only three pieces of kamaboko in it. With a delightfully mellow flavor and a firm texture, I can see why these cakes are so popular in Japan. 

Illustration of kamaboko from Heian period.

Illustration of kamaboko from Heian period.

No one is entirely sure how long kamaboko has been around, but the first record of it is found in a book from the Heian period. In this instance, kamaboko is shown on the end of a bamboo skewer, which explains why the name means cattail-spear. The book tells us that the kamaboko was being served at the nobleman Fujiwara no Tadazane's feast to celebrate his moving house. This happened in the year 1115 AD, which is why November 15th (11-15) is now Kamaboko Day. 

The more familiar form of kamaboko, that which is steamed in a log shape on a cedar plank, was developed during the Edo Period. The old bamboo type was called chikuwa kamaboko (bamboo ring kamaboko) and the new type was called ita kamaboko (plank kamaboko), but eventually the original type was shortened to chikuwa and the new kept the old name, kamaboko, which no made no sense as it in no way resembles a cattail. 

Early Kamaboko was made from freshwater catfish and was a delicacy. It was therefore a special feast food or a very generous gift. However, even more rare and expensive was the sea bream, a fish prized in samurai culture for its red color, that represented luck. Sea bream was an essential item for wedding feasts, but since not everyone could afford it, an imitation sea bream was used, made with kamaboko. This is still practiced in some parts of Japan today. Much like the original purpose of wedding cakes in the west, "saiku kamaboko" in decorative shapes is given to members of the wedding ceremony to take home. They then slice them up and give them to their neighbors as a way of announcing the wedding. 

There are many different types of kamaboko today, for example, kanikama (imitation crab), which you've definitely eaten if you've ever had a California Roll. Another well known kamaboko is narutomaki, the round kamaboko which sports a pink spiral in its center. You see narutomaki a lot in pictures of ramen, and also in anime and manga. In fact, the thing that first got me wondering what it was was a scene in Ranma 1/2 where Ranma flicks a narutomaki at someone to challenger him to a fight (it makes more sense if you read the manga). In fact, Ranma 1/2 uses narutomaki in a lot of the artwork, so I was really interested to finally figure out what the heck it was. 

All these different types of kamaboko are certainly interesting to look at, though I gather they all taste pretty much the same. However, the classic shape, and the easiest to make at home, is the half-moon with a white interior and a pink ring around the outside. And I was very excited when I found this recipe. Exactly one day after trying the kamaboko at Ichiban, I made my own. The recipe is easy to follow and more of less involves making paste out of white fish and a few seasonings. Like in the recipe, I used tilapia, but I recommend using something with less of a fishy flavor, like haddock or cod, if you're looking for a more authentic flavor.

Once I used the food processor to get a thick and sticky paste (which was a total pain since my food processor is a piece of junk), I formed it into a log. Since I didn't have a cedar plank I had to improvise with a piece of parchment paper. The pink ring was achieved with a little food coloring. I cooked the log in a bamboo steamer and then soaked it in ice water to chill it completely. Kamaboko is intended to be eaten chilled, unless it's in a soup. We ate it with hot rice, soy sauce, and wasabi. I think the recipe needs a little bit of tweaking, since it isn't quite the same as the processed variety, but I am completely willing to try and perfect it. So look out for updates. 

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this one, where I make the sort of soup this would go great with. Or this one, where I review the restaurant I got my first kamaboko at. 

My question for you today is, have you ever had kamaboko? Let me know in the comment section below!

Until next time, enjoy the fish!

P.S. Another interesting piece of kamaboko fact, which I forgot to add to the post, is that the oldest kamaboko company was founded around 1550. It's still operating in Kanagawa prefecture. It doesn't quite make it into our list of super old Japanese companies, but it's still pretty impressive.

Happy Birthday Washoku Day!

That's right, yesterday was a very special day, the first year anniversary of starting this blog! Hooray! 

Washoku Day has been a wonderful addition to my life. Has it always been sunshine and roses? It has not. Some days I really had to force myself to cook or to write, but those were really the exception. Mostly it's been fun, fun to make the food, fun to take the pictures, fun to shoot the videos, slightly less fun to upload the videos with my dodgy internet, and lots of fun to write the posts. I never doubted that I could last a year, I can be very dedicated, but the scope of the project was something I had never fully grasped. It's already turned into classes, a book (which I swear will be done soon), and plans for a trip to Japan. And hey, this is the 75th post, not bad at all!

To celebrate this momentous birthday, I spent a day making a blue million steamed cheesecakes and gave them away at my sister's gallery. Tonight, I'll be back there again for First Friday, this time with Japanese sweet breads and melon pan. There will also be Japanese cocktails, made with sake, juice, and fruit! (If you didn't know about the giveaways, like my Facebook page and join the mailing list.)

I also wanted to celebrate at home, with my family, who has been very supportive over this year. They've known how important this blog is to me and have done everything they can to help me (of course a lot of that is getting to eat all this Japanese food). But whether it's my mother allowing me to completely take over her kitchen, or my sister endlessly promoting the blog and everything else I do, I couldn't thank them enough. So I put together a dinner of shrimp and vegetable tempura. If you remember, that was the dish that made me fall in love with Japanese cuisine in the first place, back when I was a small child.

And what's a birthday without a cake? I just so happened to have gotten a new cookbook,  Okashi: Sweet Treats Made With Love by Keiko Ishida. It's full of recipes for french style, Japanese desserts, the sort of treats that you would find at a bakery in Tokyo. Recently I've been watching the new season of The Great British Baking Show and the idea of making a fancy dessert appealed to me. So I tried a recipe where you make a soufflé sponge, the sort that you roll up, but instead of laying it on it's side like a swiss roll, you set it upright and frost it like a cake. Rolled up inside was lemon curd and whipped cream. I'm no great shakes at cake making, or decorating, but if I may say so, this cake came out great!

Okay, so, Washoku Day has a year under its belt. What next? Well, I'm not planning on quitting any time soon. I've got plenty of recipes still to try and I'm continuously learning. However, there are some things that you can do to help Washoku Day grow. Have you liked the Facebook page or joined the mailing list? Those are both big helps, especially if you share them with your friends. There is also the Instagram, where I post a lot of pictures that never make it onto the blog. Something else, which I absolutely love, is getting comments on my posts. It makes me feel really happy, and like all of my hard work is worthwhile, when I get to hear from my readers. But of course, the best thing you can do is tell all your friends and family about Washoku Day. 

Thank you so much for reading over this last year! If you're in the Blue Hill area, I hope that you've been able to enjoy the birthday giveaways, if not, I can only thank you by continuing to write. Now, on to another year of delicious foods and more!

Until next time, thank you for reading!