During my first few weeks in Japan, I struggled with something many other American expats experience: peanut butter withdrawal. Although I’ve mostly overcome that problem, I occasionally find myself pining for other Western foods. For example: cheese, once a refrigerator staple, is now a very rare luxury. However, as my culture shock diminished, my desire for these foods also waned.
Since I’d rather spend my money on gorgeous Japanese produce and sublimely fresh tofu than on overpriced foreign imports, my diet has inevitably changed. As an occasional vegetarian back in the States, it wasn’t difficult to make an affordable and protein-rich meal, thanks to the help of one key ingredient: the egg. Here, too, eggs are an important part of my diet. I often slide a fried egg over vegetables (see the recipe for kinpira gobo, below) to make a satisfying, healthy dinner. Other times, I’ll nestle a soft-boiled egg in a bowl of noodles for a quick lunch, or tuck a few slices of hardboiled egg and spicy daikon sprouts into a mayonnaise-smeared baguette.
Although I’m currently back in New York for a brief visit, I’ve been thinking a lot about spring in Japan, particularly what new foods will be available in the markets once I return in April. Even in February, when it was most definitely still winter, it was clear that people’s minds were already turning toward spring. Stores around Matsumoto began introducing sakura (cherry blossom)-flavored goods: a little street stand that sells taiyaki (fish-shaped pancakes surrounding sweet red bean paste) featured a sakura and mochi-filled version, and the local Starbucks was advertising a sakura frappuccino!
Then, in early March, we had a full week of sunny weather, with temperatures reaching 15°C (~60°F) some days – perfect biking weather. As I pedaled around town, I noticed that the mountains had taken on a reddish tinge, due to the appearance of buds on deciduous trees. Many of the local rice paddies had turned a verdant, brilliant green, and some plum blossoms had even begun to peek out.
As you might suspect, Japanese kitchens are tiny, so making the most of available space is essential. Home supply stores sell a variety of devices designed to make storage more efficient, such as over-the-sink countertop extenders and organizers for holding plastic wrap, tin foil, and waxed paper (my favorite). Not only is storage limited, but the appliances are considerably smaller, too. When renting an apartment, it is almost always the tenant’s responsibility to provide kitchen appliances. This means no mammoth Sub-Zero refrigerators or six-burner Viking ranges. Instead, most people use a two-burner gas stove or simply a butane burner. Refrigerators are diminutive as well, so one has to stock up on fresh produce much more often, which is quite a good thing in my opinion. Large American-style ovens simply don’t exist; I do all my baking in a countertop microwave-cum-convection oven.