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

Copycat Chicken Katsu Sandwich

As you may know, I've been mostly writing about my recent trip to Japan and time on the tv show Who Wants to Come to Japan. It's been a little while since I have posted something about food, which is silly since this is supposed to be a blog about food. However, while I've been writing about my trip, I keep having to describe all the delicious food I ate. This is a sort of torture because I can't eat the food. I want to eat the food. So, I've started recreating some of the dishes, to the best of my abilities. I started with the delicious sandwich I ate at the Haneda Airport, the morning after my arrival in Japan…

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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. 

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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