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

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!

Nihon Day Twenty Six: Ancient Companies and Adult Adoption

Shitennō-ji, the first temple built by Kongo Gumi.

Shitennō-ji, the first temple built by Kongo Gumi.

In the last Nihon Day post, I briefly mentioned Kongo Gumi, the worlds oldest company, founded in 578. Kongo Gumi started when Prince Shotoku, a dedicated buddhist, brought some skilled builders from Baekje, Korea, to build Shitenno-ji temple. One of those builders decided to stay and founded Kongo Gumi, which would continue on building temples and castles for over 1,400 years. It seems completely crazy that a company could last that long, especially since it has been operated privately and by the same family, that whole time. Of course, we are talking about Japan, where the six oldest companies in the world reside, and has a total of 24 companies that were founded before 1300. These range from hotels, makers of religious goods, sake breweries, metalworkings, tea companies, and a few others. 

There are some other companies in the world today who were also founded before 1300. Like Stiftskeller St. Peter in Austria, the worlds oldest restaurant, founded in 803. Staffelter Hof, in Germany, seems to be the worlds oldest surviving winery, founded in 862. But Japan is definitely the champion of long living businesses, and one of the most interesting things is that most of these century old establishments have been run by the same family since the founding. How can that be possible? Well Japan has always been more liberally minded when it comes to adoption. In Europe, for most of history adoption has either been frowned upon or came with the condition that the adopted person had no real claim to inheritance. Japan, on the other hand, has been practicing adult adoption since the 1300s. 

Adult adoption is the practice of families without a male heir, or with an unreliable male heir, adopting a successor from another family. This is done either by marrying them to a daughter, or simply by taking them in as a son. The adult adoptee will then take on the family name and sever his ties to the old family. This practice came out of Pure Land Buddhism but over the years, and especially with the samurai class of the Edo period, it gained popularity. Europeans might have counted blood as the most important thing (and male blood at that), but in Japan the family name and role in society were deemed far more important.

Kongo Gumi workers

Kongo Gumi workers

Since adoptions usually took place between individuals from the same societal class, it was a good way for second sons to rise up to a first son (without resorting to murder). In Britain, for example, second sons often had to either go into the church or into the military, since they wouldn't split inheritances. In Japan, they could simply be adopted as the heir to another prominent family. The low birthrate among the higher classes of Japanese families probably also contributed to the prevalence of this practice. 

Adult adoption has continued to this day, with Japan having one of the highest adoption rates in the world. Over 81,000 adoptions took place in 2011 and around 98% of all modern adoptions in Japan are for the purpose of securing an heir. Though children or adults can now serve this purpose, it is most common to adopt a childless male in his 20s or 30s. Often the male who is adopted is married to the adopter's daughter, and he becomes the Mukoyoshi, or adopted husband. In the twentieth century, being a Mukoyoshi had become embarrassing to modern males, but as the practice gained popularity in the corporate world, it became a more prestigious role. Today it is a somewhat sought after position, and there are even "dating sites" set up specifically for men looking to become Mukoyoshi. 

What is the role of adult adoption in corporate Japan? Many Japanese companies have taken on this custom in order to keep the company in the family. It is most common when the head of the company has no male heir, their heir is incapable, or their heir doesn't want to take over the business. When this happens the company head will often seek amongst his employees for a suitable heir to adopt. For example, Suzuki Motor Corporation's CEO, Osamu Suzuki, is the forth adopted head of the company. The former CEO adopted Osamu and passed over his biological son, whom he saw as unfit to run the company. While this might make for awkward holidays, the company will probably benefit from the decision, and stay in the family. Imagine if this were the practice of royal families? No more crappy roles on the monarchy dice. I bet that today many more countries would still be using the system. Other well known companies currently using this system include Canon, Kikkoman, and Toyota.

But male adoption isn't only used as a "make your own heir" practice. Perhaps the strangest way that adult adoption has been adapted to modern life is for same sex couples. Since gay marriage is still illegal in Japan, many same sex couples have taken advantage of the adult adoption laws to be able to legally tie themselves together. Since you only need to be one year younger than your protective adoptive parent, for many couples this works pretty well. (Though I'm sure they'd appreciate being able to do something a bit more normal). 

Osaka Castle, built with the help of Kongo Gumi in 1583

Osaka Castle, built with the help of Kongo Gumi in 1583

As for Kongo Gumi, unfortunately they ran into some hard times in the early 2000s and had to be absorbed by Takamatsu Construction Group in 2006. The last president was the 39th Kongo to head the company. However, inside of Takamatsu, Kongo Gumi continues to do what it's done for 1,400 years, build things of beauty. 

If you enjoyed this look at the logistics of ancient companies, you might enjoy this post, about one man's struggle to bring the modern candy industry to Japan. Or perhaps this post, about how Nintendo started out hand painting mulberry bark playing cards and ended up becoming the largest video game distributor in the world. 

My question for you today is, what do you think about adult adoption? Do you think the west should adopt (no pun intended) this practice? Let me know in the comment section below.

Until next time, support your local family run companies, you never know where they're heading!

P.S. August 4th is Washoku Day's 1 year anniversary! If you're in the Blue Hill area, stop by Blossom Studio and Gallery between 10 and 5 to get a free Japanese dessert!

Steamed Cheesecake (With Recipe)

As you probably know, I've been teaching Japanese cooking classes through the summer. Every week we make a light breakfast, a lunch with four dishes, and a dessert. While looking for a new dessert a few weeks ago, I came across a recipe for cream cheese puffs, a sort of cheesecake parody. I loved the idea, but the recipe was made in the microwave, which is a problem for me, because I don't have a microwave. So I took some time to change it up for steaming on the stovetop. So far we've made it at two of my classes and it has been a huge hit! Plus, people seemed to really like the pictures I posted on Instagram and Facebook.

Steaming is a great medium for "baking", giving your deserts a very unique texture. Since ovens are still very rare in Japan, you'll come across steaming recipes for things like custard, cakes, and breads. The cheesecake is a perfect match, since as with a baked Japanese cheesecake, these little guys are spongier than their western cousins. The mild flavor is perfectly complimented by the wilted strawberry on top. So, without further ado, here is the recipe for steamed cheesecake!

You will need:

1/4 c cream cheese

1/2 tbls sake

1 tbls heavy cream

1 tbls vegetable oil

Vanilla to taste

2 medium eggs

1/4 sugar

1/2 c flour

1/2 tsp baking powder

4 large strawberries

4 ramekins

A steamer that can hit the ramekins. I used a bamboo steamer set in my wok.

Slice the strawberries several times down the length, but keeping the base together so you end up with a slashed strawberry (see diagram). Sprinkle with sugar, making sure to get between slices, and set aside. The sugar will help to “wilt” the strawberry.

On a double boiler, warm the cream cheese and sake, mixing it occasionally, until you can it becomes creamy. Remove from heat and add heavy cream, oil, and vanilla, mixing well, until it is smooth. 

In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs and sugar together. Sift in the flour and baking powder and mix well. Finally, add the cream cheese mixture. Mix until fully combined.

Divide the batter among 4 ramekins, they should end up half full. 

Place ramekins in a steamer basket and steam for 10 minutes. 

Remove ramekins from steam and allow to cool completely. Top each puff with a strawberry and enjoy!

If you've enjoyed this post and recipe, you will might like Chizukeki: Japanese Cheesecake where I make a more familiar baked cheesecake. Of course it is Japanese, so it's a bit different from western cheesecakes. Totally delicious!

My question for you today is, have you ever made a steamed dessert? Let me know in the comment section below!

Until next time, steam on you crazy diner!

Nihon Day Twenty Five: Nintendo, from Flower Cards to Donkey Kong

A few posts ago, I talked about Pokemon, the video game franchise that is having a major serge in popularity at the moment, with the release of Pokemon Go. While Pokemon has its own company today, it did originate with Nintendo, the Japanese video game company that also brought us such popular franchises as Mario, Metroid, The Legend of Zelda, and Donkey Kong. Today they are the worlds largest video game company, Japan's third most valuable company, and even owns the majority share of The Seattle Mariners. With such an iconic role in today's video games, and with innovations such as the Wii, Nintendo seems like the perfect example of a modern company. However, it might surprise you to learn that Nintendo has been around a lot longer than video games, in fact, they've been around far longer than computers in general, having been founded in 1889. 

Seriously? Nintendo has been around for 126 years? Yes they have. As far as company lifetimes go, 126 might not be all that long, especially for Japan. After all, the oldest company in the world, Kongo Gumi, was founded in 578 (no I didn't forget a number there, it really is that old). Compared to that, 1889 was, like, last week, but for a company famous for producing video games (sort of a post 1970 thing) it's a little mind bending. But, of course, Nintendo didn't get into the video game business until the 1970s, before that they were a whole lot of other things, starting with the manufacturing of playing cards. 

Playing cards were introduced to Japan in 1549, when Dutch traders brought along a pack of hombre cards. The game was embraced and became very popular over the country, not just for amusement, but for gambling. However, when Japan closed its borders in 1633, the government also banned western cards. Really though, when has banning something ever eradicated it? Cards continued to be used for illegal gambling. New cards were invented and new games, but every time they started to be used for gambling, the government would ban them. This song and dance continued until the end of the Edo period when Hanafuda (flower cards) were invented. The idea behind these cards was that since they had no numbers, only pictures, they wouldn't be used for gambling. 

This is the world that Fusajiro Yamauchi stepped into in 1889 when he opened his first Hanafuda shop, Nintendo Koppai. His cards were hand painted on mulberry bark, a far cry from Donkey Kong. It seems that he had nominal success until the Yakuza figured out a way to gamble with his cards, and then they really took off. Since Nintendo translates to "leave luck to heaven", it doesn't sound like he was against the idea of his cards being used in this way. Soon Fusajiro Yamauchi had to hire assistance to help produce the cards, and then he was able to open a new shop in Osaka. 

Fusajiro Yamauchi retired at the age of 70 and eleven years later, he died of a stroke, never knowing that his company would turn into one of the most successful in the world. In 1947, Hiroshi Yamauchi, Fujajiro's grandson, took control of Nintendo. He was only twenty years old, and had no management training or experience. Still, he took the reigns of the company and ruled in with an imperialistic flair.

He alone decided what products were sold and he fired many old hands who doubted his abilities. Under his leadership, Nintendo became the first company in Japan to import American style plastic playing cards. They were a novelty at first, but when Hiroshi struck a deal in 1959 to sell cards with Disney's characters on them. This was a wildly successful product, selling 600,000 units in one year. Nintendo took up it's place as the number one playing card company in Japan. It went public as Nintendo Company Limited, and Hiroshi became the chairman.

Probably feeling pretty full of himself at this point, Hiroshi decided to go to the US and visit the world's largest playing card manufacturers, United State Playing Card Company. Far from impressing him, Hiroshi found only a small office building and a factory, hardly a glowing example of a flourishing industry. It was then that Hiroshi realized that playing cards had limited potential and Nintendo would have to diversify if they wanted to grow. Most of the ventures that Hiroshi threw Nintendo's backing at seem to have little rhyme or reason to them. A cab service, which failed due to union disputes; a television network; a company that manufactured instant rice; and a chain of "love hotels", where you could rent rooms by the hour, all failed. The same man who had brought Nintendo to the top of its industry almost bankrupt the company with his new ventures. After the 1968 Tokyo Olympics, nobody wanted to play cards anymore and Nintendo's stock dropped to its record low, ¥60 a share (around $0.57). 

One day, Hiroshi saw one of his factory engineers playing with an extendable claw arm that he had designed during his break. Hiroshi was intrigued and told the engineer, Gunpei Yokoi, to develop it into something that could be marketed. This was soon accomplished, Nintendo released the "Ultra Hand" in 1966, and it was an instant success, selling over a million units. Hiroshi shifted the company's focus to toys, setting up a new department that at first was only made up of Gunpei Yokoi and an accountant. Gunpei soon developed "electric" toys such as the Love Tester, which supposedly detected the level of two people's love, and several other light up products. At this point and time, most toys in Japan were still as basic as blocks and dolls, so these new modern toys were hugely successful. 

In the early 1970s Nintendo dipped its toe into the budding video game industry, securing the rights to distribute the Magnavox Odyssey console. By 1977 they were designing their own software and had developed the Color TV-Game home gaming console. There were several versions of this console, each with single player games, such as light tennis. Nintendo also went into the arcade game business, producing EVR Race. They had nominal success in this area until 1981 when they released Donkey Kong, designed by video game pioneer, Shigeru Miyamoto. This game was a hit and with its success and the toy revenues, Nintendo had managed to climb back to the top. Donkey Kong also introduced Mario, who would become Nintendo's biggest franchise and mascot. 

Nintendo would go on to invent handheld gaming systems like Game & Watch and Gameboy, and develop many successful and intensely recognizable characters and franchises. They would also develop home console systems like Nintendo 64, Gamecube and Wii. As for Hiroshi Yamauchi, his speculating paid off and his company flourished. By 2008 he was the richest person in Japan, with a net worth of 7.8 billion dollars, though by 2013 it dropped to 2.1 billion dollars. Hiroshi ran Nintendo until 2002, when he retired, though he was still the majority shareholder at his death in 2013. Today Nintendo is worth an astounding 16.505 billion yen, which I'm sure would have blown the mind of Fusajiro Yamauchi back when he was hand painting his hanafuda cards on mulberry bark.

My question for you is, have you enjoyed Nintendo's platforms and games? What's your favorite? Please use the comment section below!

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like this one, where I talk about how Taichiro Morinaga went rags to riches as Japan's first big candy manufacturer.

Until next time, keep on playing!

Ichiban: Restaurant Review

Last night me and one of my sisters decided to head to Bangor, about an hour away from the family farm, to catch a movie. We ended up going and seeing The Legend of Tarzan, which I thoroughly enjoyed for its "sophisticated campiness". After the movie got out we were feeling quite hungry so we decided to go out to eat, and of course, when I am in Bangor, there is only one restaurant that I want to go to. This is Ichiban, not only one of my favorite Japanese restaurants but the first one I ever went to. That's right, this is the place that taught me the power of Japanese cuisine.

When we got there the place was entirely empty, which wasn't surprising since it was a little early and downtown was a total bear since there was a Luke Bryan concert on the waterfront. I noticed right away that since the last time I ate there they had painted the ceiling so that the tiles were a pattern of alternating white and matcha green. One of my favorite parts of Ichiban is the decor, which is understated and pleasing. I adore the cream walls with black highlights, and the mix of artwork on the wall is playful (like the sumo prints in the back of the dining room). A lot of Japanese restaurants will go for the lush look, with fountains and elaborate lighting fixtures, but Ichiban has gone for the simpler look. 

We got a nice table and were soon joined by my sister's boyfriend, who is always an extravagant sushi orderer. Once we had established that we were ordering sushi to share (and Carlos and I had updated each other on the state of our Pokemon Go) we set to work on the menu. I love it when sushi menus are the type you can mark with a dry-eraser marker, I alway forget what rolls I want after the first couple. There are so many different rolls on this menu that I get overwhelmed if I try to read them all, so I stick to my favorites and try and add one new one each time I go. This time we settled on yellowtail nigiri (picture at the top), the alligator roll, Godzilla roll, Hawaiian roll, and two salmon skin rolls. We also got seaweed and cucumber salads, one of my favorite parts of going out for Japanese food. 

By the time we had put in our order the tables around us had filled up with other sushi lovers. Still, it wasn't long before we were enjoying our seaweed salad, and a short wait after that we had our sushi, brought out to us on a giant wooden ship. I always enjoy sushi, but the rolls they serve at Ichiban are heavenly. The balance of flavors is never off and the presentation is superb. Though the rolls that we got weren't exactly traditional, they sure were delicious. I especially loved the Godzilla roll, which was the new one for this trip. The combination of cream cheese, tobiko, eel, tempura shrimp, and spicy tuna should have been over whelming, but it was divine. 

When we were finished with the devouring, I couldn't resist getting my sister to split my favorite dessert. This is something that was a family favorite at a Mexican restaurant that my family used to go to when I was a baby. I grew up hearing about it, but never got to try it for myself until I discovered it on the Ichiban menu. What dessert could possibly be at both a Mexican and a Japanese restaurant? Fried ice cream. That's right, fried. I wouldn't try this one at home because it's a bit tricky. Balls of ice cream, frozen rock hard, are covered in batter (in this case tempura batter) and deep fried until until golden brown. The combination of the deep freeze and the insulating batter keep it from becoming a very oily milkshake, and the results are amazing. I love the contrast of the crunchy crust, the soft batter, and the creamy insides!

Now completely stuffed, and entirely happy, we made our way to the counter to pay, where I enjoyed looking at the merchandise they have for sale. It's a bunch of cheep Japanese nicknacks, but I always appreciate it. This time I even bought a pair of "learner chopsticks" (attached at the top by a rubbery rabbit), which I thought might come in handy for my classes

All in all, it was a wonderful evening, and I would recommend Ichiban for anyone looking for a good meal in the Bangor area. 

Where is your favorite Japanese restaurant? I'd love to know! Use the comment section below for your personal recommendations. 

Until next time, seriously, leave the fried ice cream to the professionals. 

Nihon Day Twenty Four: A Guide to Pokemon

Unless you live under a rock (no judgments if that's the case), you have probably heard a barrage of news about Pokemon over the last week, due to the release of the mobile game, Pokemon Go. If you aren't tuned into Pokemon you might have thought something like "Pokemon? Didn't that die out in the early 2000s?". In which case, hell no it didn't. Or, if you have never been tuned in that direction you might have thought "What the heck is Pokemon?" Well, this post is for both of you, or for people who just like Pokemon, because I hope they enjoy it too.

Let's star by going way back to 1989, the year that the Japanese company, Nintendo, released the Game Boy, a handheld video game device. This was a pretty big deal back then, though I can't attest to that from experience, since I was still two years away from being born. No longer would you be tethered to the screen in your home, you could play video games wherever you wanted. No more boring trips to the grocery store, no more uneventful car rides. They were an instant hit. There was a demand for games and the video game designer Satoshi Tajiri had a pretty good idea for one. When he was a boy, he had enjoyed the hobby of insect collecting and decided to work from that concept. After years of development, in 1996, Nintendo released Satoshi Tajiri's Pokemon Red and Green.

These two NPGs (Role Playing Games) took place in a fictional universe where the world is populated by Pokemon. These animals came in a variety of species, a total of 151 in the first games. The goal of the game was to catch as many of these Pokemon as you could and to train them to fight. That sounds pretty intense, but it's actually super adorable and not terribly violent.

The name Pokemon came from Pocket Monsters or Poketto Monsuta, but Pokemon are usually as monstrous as real animals. From Pidgee, a small bird type Pokemon, to Rhyhorn, a large rhinoceros looking creature, many look familiar. Others, like Chansey, are just cute, while Grimer and Muk are just blobs of purple slime. All Pokemon have powers, usually based on what type they are. Pikachu, an electric Pokemon, can shoot lighting bolts, Squirtle, a water Pokemon, can shoot bubbles. When a Pokemon reaches a certain level they will often evolve into a different type of Pokemon. For example, Pikachu evolves into the bigger and more powerful Raichu. 

Pokemon Red, Green, and then the expanded Blue, were hugely popular in Japan and soon an anime was created around the story, and a trading card game. By 1998 the new Pokemon Red and Blue (based on the Japanese Blue) were released in the US, and soon Yellow which tied in both with the anime and the thee available colors of the Game Boy. If you were alive during the late 90s, and knew any children at all, you surely noticed the Pokemon craze. It was everywhere, children were obsessed, and I should know because I was one of them.

Now I didn't go to grade school (proud homeschooler) and I had recently moved back to civilization from the Alaskan bush, so this was my first real introduction to pop culture. And I LOVED it! My best friend, Nicole, and her brothers discovered it first and soon they had inducted me into the Pokemon universe. I didn't have a Game Boy and I didn't get cable TV, but I could get the trading cards. Like every other kid in America, I found these collectable cards highly addictive and would pester my mom for packs every time we left the house. I also discovered that you could rent VHSs of the TV show at our local Video Rental (ah the 90s) and this was my first introduction to Japanese cartoons. (Actually I had seen Totoro before that, but this was the first Japanese TV show I saw).

The TV show centered around Ash Ketchum, a boy who, like his viewers, has an insatiable desire to catch every single Pokemon. Once each Pokemon is capture, they become like friends to him and he trains them to fight other Trainer's Pokemon, so that he can win the "Pokemon League". Along the way he meets Misty, a girl obsessed with water type Pokemon, and Brock, a boy who wants to be a Pokemon breeder. Together they travel across the country (with no parental supervision) and collect Pokemon. The TV shows and later movies were a lot of fun, full of family friendly jokes and cartoon violence.

The Pokemon phenomenon may have lost some of the initial craze, but it is still the second most lucrative video game franchise in the word (the first is Mario). With every new Video Game that comes out there is a new generation of Pokemon, which means that at this point there are 729 known species. As someone who obsessively learned the names and evolution of each Pokemon for the first three generations, I find it disarming that there are so many that I've never heard of now. It seems that a lot of the original fans have been in the same boat as me, still holding onto their old card collections and fond memories, but a little out of the loop.

But that all changed when Pokemon Go came out last week, bringing Pokemon back to the millennials. If you haven't heard, Pokemon Go is a new mobile platform game, where in they use your actual GPS location to allow you to catch and train Pokemon on your phone. This is brilliant and I'm sure I'm not the only one whose inner child is going absolutely bananas. Suddenly twenty-thirty-somthings are talking about Snorlax and Psyduck again, their comparing catches, talking about the new "Hot Professor Willow", and throwing around the old pro jargon. The game makers seem to be catering to these nostalgic adults because they've gone ahead and only released the original 151 Pokemon so far.

I can imagine that this may be a bit bamboozling to non-initiates, so if you are one here are a few terms you might hear thrown around.

Pokedex: This is a devise that every Trainer in the game is given so that they can collect information about each species they find and catch. Trainers may be fighters, but they are also scientists. Pokedex is also sometimes used as shorthand for the lexicon of Pokemon species in general.

Poke Balls: This is a little round ball, usually red on top and white on the bottom, that is used for capturing and containing your Pokemon. This way you aren't walking around with a whole zoo of animals following you.

Starter Pokemon: These are the three Pokemon that you get to choose from at the beginning of all the games. It changes with every generation, but the original three were Bulbasaur, grass; Charmander, fire; and Squirtel (my favorite), water. The starter Pokemon are always from these three elements.

Gyms: These are places where any Trainer who wants to move up in the League can go to battle Pokemon Masters. In Pokemon Go there are a bunch of Gyms in towns where I believe you can fight other players. I'm not entirely sure how they work though, since I'm not at a high enough level yet.

Evolve: This is the process with which the Pokemon metamorphosis into their more mature forms. For example, Bulbasaur evolves into Ivysaur and then Venosaur, Charmander into Charmeleon and then Charizard, and Squirtle evolves into Wartorle and lastly into Blastoise. Usually each evolution makes the Pokemon bigger and more powerful. Evolution is permanent.

Attacks: These are the special abilities or moves each Pokemon has, usually somewhere around two or three per Pokemon. They depend on the type or element of the Pokemon and change with evolution. Most of them are pretty funny and cute, but very effective, like a paralyzing lick.

That's pretty much the basics of Pokemon, and I hope that this will help you navigate the new world in which Pokemon Go is a thing. Personally, I love the idea, though I don't really have the time to dedicate to it. However, I still love my trading cards and have started collecting again. For most of us, it is a fun memory from our childhood that has been brought back into our lives. It is very exciting, so don't judge people too harshly for suddenly reverting to their childhood.

My questions for you today is did you play Pokemon, and/or collect the cards? Who is your favorite Pokemon. Is there any other Pokemon jargon you'd like me to explain? Let me know in the comment section!

Until next time, good luck catching those Pokemon!

P.S. If your interested in the ins and outs of Pokemon card collecting, this is a great guide. 

Japanese Dry Curry

It is no secret that I love curry. I grew up eating the Thai version, but have since branched out to just about every sort of curry there is. One of my favorite things about the dish is that you can make it with just about anything, adjusting the recipe as you go, depending on what's in the fridge. Curry is a great weeknight dinner, easy to improvise and quick to throw together. One of my favorites is, of course, the Japanese version, which is a sweet stew served over rice. I eat it a few times a month, but it is more of a production than a lot of the other curries I make. Well, imagine my delight when I was browsing Japanese Cooking 101 and found a Japanese curry I had never heard of.

Sauteing the vegetables and meat

Sauteing the vegetables and meat

Dry curry is a popular homemade dish in Japan, many families eating it once a week. It has the main curry quality I love so much, that is to say it's totally customizable. It's vocal features are that it is made with ground meat (either beef, pork, or both) and minced vegetables. Some other optional ingredients are tomatoes, raisins, and hard boiled eggs. Since this was my first time making this dish I followed the recipe faithfully, aside from the the raisins, because they are sad grapes. It was a wonderful start, but I can already tell I'm going to have some adjustments.

True to its name, this curry is more dry than others, but it isn't devoid of moisture. The recipe describes it as the consistency of chili con carne, which seems to be the case. The flavor (achieved with curry powder, Worcester, soy sauce, and a few others), is mildly spicy, and totally crave-able. Matched with Japanese rice and the hard boiled egg on top, my god, I think I have my new Monday night staple.

I was talking to a couple of people the other day and they told me that they don't like curry. I was like, "GASP! That's possible?", and then nearly fainted. Apparently it is possible, and if you're one of these curry haters, I encourage you to give this recipe a try. It is mild enough that you don't have to worry about being over powered, but it is still has plenty of flavor.

My question for you today is, do you like curry? If not, how come? If so, what is your favorite kind? Please leave your comments below!

P.S. I am now teaching Japanese coking classes. They're every Wednesday July-September. If you're interested, check out the Classes page.

Nihon Day Twenty Three: The First Nine Emperors, Fact or Myth?

Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan

Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan

Last week, while telling you about the Kofun period, I wrote a little bit about the beginning of Japan's imperial family. I told you how this is the same family that sits on the throne today, and that it is the oldest continual monarchy in the world. However, there is a discrepancy in the start of the line, since there is little evidence to suggest that the first nine emperors existed. They are, as it were, legendary figures. However, they are still present on the list of emperors, the official date of Japan's foundation is still 660 BCE, and Emperor Jimmu is still venerated as the first emperor of Japan. So how can we reconcile these two lines, the verifiable facts and the mythic history?

 

The Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) is a document written around 712, in the Nara period. "Hey, we haven't gotten to the Nara period!" I know guys, it's cool, the Kojiki tells us about the legendary and ancient times, including the Kofun. This document is the oldest source for many Japanese historical events, along with the Nihon Shoki (721). The Kojiki is broken into three parts, starting with the Kamitsumaki which deals with the age of the gods. Among other things, it tells how the gods (or kami) came into existence, and how Ninigi-no-Mikoto, the grandson of Amaterasu (the sun goddess), came to Japan from heaven.

According to the Nihon Shoki, Amaterasu gave her grandson three items to prove that he was her descendant. These were a sword (Kusanagi), representing valor; a mirror (Yata no Kagami) representing wisdom; and a jewel (Yasakani no Magatama), representing benevolence. These items were to become the regalia of the Imperial Family, for which Ninigi-no-Mikoto was the progenitor.

This is what they might look like, but then again maybe not.

This is what they might look like, but then again maybe not.

With the exception of the sword (which was lost during a battle in 1185 and reforged), these original regalia are still used in the crowning ceremony today. However, these items are only ever viewed by the Emperor and a few special priests, so we don't know exactly what they look like. In fact, according to legend, in the same battle that the sword was lost, a soldier tried to force open the box that contained the jewel and was struck blind. So, you know, I wouldn't risk it. Traditionally they are said to be housed in three separate locations, the sword at Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya, the mirror at the Three Palace Sanctuaries in Kokyo (the Imperial Palace), and the jewel in the Ise Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture. The last time they were brought together was for the enthronement of Emperor Akihito in 1993.

Oh jeez, I haven't even gotten to the first emperor, this is going to be a long post. I didn't realize that the Imperial Regalia were so interesting...

Jimmu with his long bow

Jimmu with his long bow


The second part of the Kojiki, The Nakatsumaki, records the years between 660 BCE and 310 CE. It begins with the story of Jimmu, the first emperor of Japan. Not only was Jimmu the great grandson of Ninigi-no-Mikoto (and therefore a direct descendant of Amaterasu), but also the great grandson of Ryujin the sea god (a dragon). That is quite the pedigree. Jimmu was the last of four sons and his given name was actually Kan'yamato Iwarebiko, Jimmu being his posthumous name. He and his brothers were originally from Takachiho in the southern part of Kyushu, but since they were the descendants of Amaterasu, and were supposed to be ruling the whole country, they decided to move to a more central location.

Of course, that central location was inhabited. These people already had a ruler, Nagasunehiko, a chieftain who apparently had very long legs (not sure that's relevant, but that's what his name translates to). When the brothers reached present day Osaka they met Nagasunehiko in battle. Those long legs seem to have given him an edge after all, because he kicked their butts and slew the eldest brother. But Jimmu wasn't going to give up just like that and concluded that they had lost the battle because they were coming from the west and were battling against the sun (remember that this was in a time where sunglasses were not fashionable).

Yatagarasu

Yatagarasu

So Jimmu took over and lead his people around to the Kii peninsula, now having the sun to their backs (not exactly sure how that helps since the sun moves during the day...). With the help of a three legged crow, Yatagarasu, Jimmu brought his people to Yamato (you remember Yamato, right?). Here they once again faced Nagasunehiko, only this time it was Jimmu who did the butt kicking. And so Jimmu ascended to the throne of Japan and became the first Emperor. He died at the ripe old age of 126, having reined for seventy five years. His son, Suizei inherited the throne.

Okay, so right away you will see some holes in this story from the point of view of a historian. A) 126 is a very ripe old age, like too damn ripe. B) he is supposed to have done all this between 660 BCE and 585 BCE, which as you know was during the Jomon period, and there is no archeological evidence that Yamato was so old. I mean, the people living in Japan during this time weren't even the same ethnicity. I totally don't knock the whole descended from gods thing, because who am I to say whether that's true, but something about the whole time line doesn't quite add up.

Japan certainly isn't the only country with legendary kings (Hello Britain, is King Arthur back yet?). However, since there is an unbroken lineage linked to Jimmu and the following eight emperors (who don't have any verification papers either), I think it's an interesting question. To my mind there are three possible answers. The most obvious is that Jimmu and his eight successors are simply mythic, as in only real in the form of a great story. The second, and possibly harder for modern westerners to accept, is that it's all true, that the first nine emperors existed and either the dates are a little off, or they had long life spans. This would suggest that there simply hasn't been any proof found yet, and maybe in the future they'll find some.

The third option I'm going to present you with is one that I found while researching this post. The Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki both have very little to say about emperors two through nine, only really giving their names and dates, in fact, they're sometimes called the "eight undocumented monarchs". For this, and other reasons, some scholars believe that these eight were invented as a means to push Jimmu's rein back to the year 660 BCE. If this is the case, the imperial family may have actually been founded by Jimmu, only later. Possibly this would have been just before 97 BCE, since that was when Emperor Sujin is supposed to have taken the throne and he is the first emperor that scholars think could have existed. Or maybe Jimmu was later or earlier. The sad fact is, we will probably never know.

But whether Jimmu and his nine successors were real people, or simply a story told for generations before being written down in the Kojiki, they certainly make an interesting story. For my part, I will always prefer to think of them as real, larger than life, legendary rulers, who were descended from the gods. It's just more interesting that way.

And so my question to you is, what do you think? Legend, history, or somewhere in between? Does it matter? Let me know in the comment section below (seriously, I love to hear from you guys!).

P.S. These are the other eight emperors who may not have existed. They are Emperor Suizei (581-549 BCE), Emperor Annei (549-511 BCE), Emperor Itoku (510-476 BCE), Emperor Kosho (475-393 BCE), Emperor Koan (392-291 BCE), Emperor Korei (290-215 BCE), Emperor Kogen (214-158 BCE), and Emperor Kaika (157-98 BCE).

P.P.S. You might have noticed that this is Nihon Day instead of Nippon Day. This is because in my studies of the Japanese language I have discovered that Japan can either be said Nippon or Nihon. I have decided I like Nihon better and will therefore be switching.

Three Building Blocks of Japanese Flavors

I had a hard time deciding what to post this week. I was going to make a Japanese style chiffon cake for my sister's birthday (yes I have many sisters), but then we accidentally ran out of propane. However, to go with the Japanese ribs we had for the birthday dinner, I made tentsuyu, the dipping sauce that generally goes with tempura. This is one of my favorite condiments, made from grated diakon, dashi, soy sauce, mirin, and ginger. It has a wonderfully strong flavor, packed with umami, that cuts fatty foods, like pork ribs and tempura, perfectly. I also like to drizzle it over my rice.

I don't have enough on tentsuyu to write an entire post, but it did get me thinking about condiments. One of the things I find so interesting about Japanese cooking is the fact that almost every dish is flavored with the same three building blocks, soy sauce, mirin, and sake. However, I never feel like everything tastes the same. The birthday dinner I made had spear ribs, cucumber wakame sunomono, and the tentsuyu. All were made with practically the same base, and yet they all tasted completely different.

So what about these three ingredients? The most common is soy sauce, which is hardly exclusive to Japanese cuisine. Recently I wrote quite a bit about this crucial sauce for my up coming book. Here is a brief excerpt:

"Soy sauce is made from fermented soybean paste, grain, brine, and Aspergillus oryzae or Aspergillus sojae molds. It has a strong, salty flavor, is used in many Asian foods, and has been adopted by many western chefs as well. It was first invented in China sometime between the third or fifth century. Originally it was probably used as a way to make salt go farther, seeing as it was expensive. These first soy sauces were made either from fermented meat or fish sauces that had soy beans added to them, but eventually soy became the main ingredient.

Japan first adopted the new condiment in the seventh century where it was developed into five different categories. In America we tend to think that soy sauce is soy sauce, but the different varieties of Japanese soy sauces (or shoyu as it is called) can be as dissimilar as red and white wine.

Koikuchi, which might be your standard soy sauce, is made from equal parts soy and wheat, making it slightly sweet. Usukuchi uses a sweet liquid in its production which is made from fermented rice, it gives it a lighter taste and color. Tamari is the closest to the original Japanese soy sauce and derives its name from the fact that it used to be made from the run off from making miso. Tamari uses little or no wheat and there are many gluten-fee varieties. Shiro, or white soy sauce, is the opposite of tamari, using almost entirely wheat and little soy, thus it is quite sweet. Finally saishikomi is made with the same brine as a previous batch, making it stronger and darker than the other varieties."

As you can see, there is more to soy sauce than you might have supposed. Personally, I almost entirely use a gluten-free tamari. This is mostly because I am sensitive to wheat, but I also really like the strong flavor.

As for mirin (pronounced mee-rin), it is a type of rice wine, like sake, only with a lower alcohol content. The sweetness comes not from refined sugar (which isn't good for you, guys), but from the fermentation process. There are three different types, starting with hon mirin (true mirin), with an alcohol content of 14%. Next is shio mirin, which jumps down to 1.5% alcohol. Lastly is shin mirin (new mirin), with the even lower 1% alcohol content. Today mirin is pretty much only used for cooking, but back in the Edo period they did drink it. I've never tried drinking it straight, but the flavor is very mild and sweet.

Also in the rice wine category is, of course, sake (pronounced sah-kay not sah-kee). I won't pretend that I understand how alcohol is brewed, but apparently sake is brewed more like beer than wine. I guess this has to do with fruit sugar versus starch sugar. I don't want to spoil anything because I actually intend to write a more in depth post about this process later. So you'll just have to wait patiently, or, you know, go read about it somewhere else (traitor).

So from these three ingredients you get the classic Japanese flavor combo that makes up the base of so many dishes. They are also the base for many additional sauces and condiments like tentsuyu. Some other classics are ponzu (with the addition of citrus and vinegar), teriyaki (with the addition of a little sugar), and kaeshi (a concentrated base for noodle dishes). By tweaking your measurements, cooking methods, and adding other ingredients, like ginger or citrus, a myriad of flavors can be achieved. Which is great because it saves room in the fridge. It's also one of my favorite things about Japanese cooking.

So now I have a question for you, my faithful readers. Do you use any of these three building blocks? If so, how? Please feel free to scroll down and use the comment section! Also let me know if there are any foods you would like me to explore!

Until next time, flavor your life with equal parts curiosity and adventure.

P.S. We recently got a new kitty, who we have named Merry. He's a little terror. See him here, stalking my fingers as I type out this post. This was only moments before he smacked me upside the face and left scratches on the side of my nose. I can't stay mad at him though, just look at that fuzzy face!