It is difficult to convey, visually or verbally, the utter magic of the Japanese cherry blossom season. Although the blooms signal the arrival of warmth, their appearance can evoke both melancholy and joy. In their brief yet exuberant existence, sakura express spring’s inherent duality: it is both the most longed-for and short-lived season of all, imbued with promise but often tempered by the realization that another year has passed so quickly, and with so little awareness.
Here in Brooklyn, there’s a popular Australian coffee shop that does a brisk brunch business catering to folks who seem to come more for the fashionable crowd than for the coffee (which is excellent, though perhaps not as good as that at another Australian-owned spot a few blocks east). Now, it’s a bit of a misnomer to call this cafe’s food offerings a proper brunch, as the menu mainly consists of “toasties,” a quaint-sounding (and quaintly sized) open-faced sandwich. For two dollars extra, one can add a dollop of chunky guacamole to the toast; an additional dollar fifty buys a poached egg, which sits jauntily and wobbly atop the avocado. It’s an almost ridiculously simple concept, and in that sense brilliant from a business perspective: a toastie with avocado and an egg plus coffee can run well over $10, plus tip.
Excellent coffee aside, this is an experience that can be easily replicated in the comfort of one’s own home. Aside from provisioning the right ingredients – fresh bread, ripe avocados, and interesting seasonings – there is almost no labor involved in the creation of an avocado toast. But what, exactly, comprises a good avocado toast? Or better yet, what is the ideal?
Imagine this: you’re five years old, visiting a new country and meeting distant relatives who speak little to no English. One evening, they invite you to their modest house outside Copenhagen for dinner. On the table are several small bowls of a mysterious, glistening substance in jewel tones of jet black, blood red, and rusty orange. Each bowl is accompanied by a tiny spoon, which you cautiously use to scoop up a sample of this mysterious substance. Suddenly, a shower of tiny bubbles explodes across your tongue in unison, and rush of sharp salinity overwhelms your palate. It is a peculiarly pleasurable experience – not necessarily delicious, but so novel that you reach for another tiny spoonful. And another. And yet another.
As anyone who’s worked at a small restaurant can tell you, living in the moment is par for the course. Indeed, it’s often the case that things never quite come together until the last minute. Whether it’s a pre-service dash to the deli to pick up soap or a moment of utter terror in which you realize you’ve forgotten to order extra fish for the Saturday night special, life in a tiny kitchen rarely provides time for introspection. This is simply the nature of the work, which is dependent on one’s ability to completely detach from larger life concerns. Once you’ve been on the other side of the wall (or counter, as the case may be), it can be hard to eat at any restaurant without feeling a profound sense of respect, patience, and appreciation for the unseen effort that goes into every refilled glass of water, gracefully opened bottle of wine, and perfectly executed quenelle of ice cream.
Just over three years ago, I was sitting in a frigid living room in central Japan, pondering the prospect of starting a blog (and struggling to find a fitting name for said blog). Six weeks into my new life there, the pace of discovery had been both exhausting and exhilarating. In that span of time, I had marveled at urban farms abutting highway exit ramps, transmission lines cutting through graveyards, utterly peculiar English signage, fanciful mash-ups of Western and Japanese architecture in Hakodate and Matsumoto, breathtaking rural scenery, and small slices of mundane beauty at every turn.
Yet what fascinated me most — and continues to hold me in thrall — was Japanese food. Everything, from the hearty rice bowls served at highway rest stops to deceptively simple soups, was prepared and served with a level of craftsmanship that is, I suspect, difficult to find anywhere else in the world. Despite Japan’s reputation for punishing work schedules and a general obsession with timeliness, there are places where the heartbeat of the culture slows just enough to remind you that time and our perception of its passage is entirely mutable. Food made with the degree of care lavished on it in Japan has a similar effect, momentarily expanding the relentless flood of minutes and seconds into hours. Although three years have flown by, there’s still a lot more to discover. I hope you’ll join me for the journey.
Having previously waxed poetic about turnips – specifically the petite variety known as Hakurei – it may seem repetitive to sing their praises again. Yet as winter’s darkest days dissipate and spring creeps ever closer, I can think of no better way to celebrate the season than with a feast of these knobby roots. Their mild, crisp bite is enough to appease even the crankiest cold weather haters, while their humble appearance appeals to those of us with an unexplained penchant for the unloved castaways of the vegetable bin.
Many years ago, I read an article about Michel Richard, a French pastry chef who moved to the U.S. in the 1970s and now sits at the helm of a veritable restaurant empire. In the course of his cross country travels, Richard discovered that Americans seemed to be singularly obsessed with all things crispy. More precisely, he noted that there was a premium placed on the textural play between interiors (moist) and exteriors (crunchy), Kentucky Fried Chicken being the prime example of this sort of texture-driven cookery. Indeed, the fast food establishments that increasingly dotted the American landscape were particularly adept at a particular kind of culinary alchemy, which melded a relatively sophisticated understanding of sensory pleasure with mass-market tastes (and, of course, standardized supply chains). It was this discovery, claims Richard, that led him to rethink the way French food was prepared and presented in this country.
January 7 has come and gone, but I’m still enjoying leftover nanakusa gayu for breakfast. Mixed with some lightly beaten egg, it’s hearty, filling, and perfect fuel for a blustery bike commute on a winter morning.
In other porridge-y news, Google Japan featured nanakusa gayu in their January 7 “Google Doodle“:
See how the family is gathered around an opening in the floor, with the rice pot suspended from above? This is a representation (albeit a rather abstract one) of a traditional Japanese hearth, or irori. Nice work, Google!
P.S. Congrats to Margaret (aka Megsie) Siple, winner of the Humble Bean Cookbook Giveaway! If you have a chance, please be sure to check out her wonderful blog over at fishpondfever.wordpress.com
I once found the passing of the holidays a rather melancholy event. After all the parties, baking, and gift wrapping, we’re left with empty bottles, stray crumbs, and crumpled paper. As a student, the unpleasant feeling was heightened by the prospect of facing the long march through the Chicago winter. Living in Japan, however, each new year seemed to hold so much promise. In Tokyo, the January sky is bright, blue, and unmarred by the humidity and clouds that settle over the city in other seasons. Returning from the States, the gentle, late afternoon light and long shadows streaking across the rice fields near Narita airport seemed to be as warm a welcome as any weary traveler could ask for. On the train back to Koshigaya, I’d find myself marveling at the fact that this seemingly strange place could feel so much like home, even in the year’s darkest days.
As Shichimi readers, you probably understand that this blog is a purely personal project: I don’t accept advertising, sponsorships, or any other forms of patronage. (Any ads you see at the bottom of this page are there courtesy of WordPress.) However, I do enjoy promoting and supporting individuals and small businesses I admire, hence the list of blogs you see listed on the right. Of these blogs, there are very few I actually read regularly, but a small handful keep me coming back for their beautiful photography, creative approach to food, and engaging writing and stories. Azusa Oda’s blog Humble Bean has all these elements and more. That’s why I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be giving away a copy of Azusa’s latest recipe booklet, which includes 11 recipes and gorgeous color photos, to one lucky reader in 2013!