A Simple Lunch

Tofu salad and stir-fry

Lately, I’ve been working on some writing that is not for this blog, and it’s been consuming a great deal of my time.  There are days when I’m so busy tapping away at the computer that I almost forget to eat lunch.  Yesterday was one of those days.  I realized it had been hours since breakfast and stumbled into the kitchen, weak-kneed and lightheaded.

After staring into the fridge for a few minutes, ideas for two dishes began to take shape: one would be a bold stir-fry, the other a cool, refreshing salad.

I pulled out some leftover pork belly, a mildly hot green pepper, ginger, half a leek, silken tofu, some miso, and a packet of red pickled ginger.  From the cabinet, I retrieved ground toasted sesame seeds, mirin, sake, shoyu, and sesame oil.  On the counter were garlic and a container of tiny, sweet cherry tomatoes.  I grabbed those, too.

Then I set to work chopping, slicing, mincing, and mixing.

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Tea and Sweets

Matcha and kinako mochi

Matcha and kinako mochi in Kyoto

The ritualized consumption of matcha (i.e. the Japanese tea ceremony) has intrigued me ever since I first read about the practice in a Japanese art history course I took in college. The professor, Hans Thomsen, was particularly interested in the objects used for the tea ceremony. We learned that the tea ceremony originally had its roots in Buddhist practices, which were themselves imported from China. As a result, elegant and refined Chinese ceramics were long considered de rigueur for the tea ceremony.

In the sixteenth century, tastes began to shift toward a more rustic aesthetic, thanks largely to the influence of a tea master Sen no Rikyu. This new style of bowls, plates, and other utensils were crafted to reflect wabi sabi, the concept that there is beauty in imperfection, incompleteness, and impermanence. (For more on wabi sabi, see this page on Japanese aesthetics.) The rough surfaces, cracked glazes, and uneven colorings of these objects were thought to enhance the experience of drinking tea and raise it to the level of a spiritual exercise. Today, the tea ceremony is still associated with elegant simplicity, understatement, and measured refinement, a testament to Sen no Rikyu’s lasting influence.

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Last weekend, I saw some spectacular fireworks in Toda city, which is located outside of Tokyo in Saitama prefecture.  (This is apparently one of the biggest fireworks displays in the country.)  I had seen the event advertised on the Tokyo CouchSurfing page and decided to tag along.  In our little group we had representatives from South Korea, Turkey, Taiwan, Switzerland, Germany, Japan, the U.S., and Thailand.  No doubt I’ve forgotten a few countries, too.  We must’ve been quite a sight!

The Japanese word for fireworks is hanabi (花火), which translates to “fire (火) flower (花).”  This is actually a very accurate description.  As Steven has pointed out, Japanese fireworks are a much more subtle and artistic affair than their flashier American and Chinese counterparts. The colors seem to change much more gradually, and the light from the explosions seems to dissipate more slowly as well.  This doesn’t mean they’re any less breathtaking, though.  In fact, these fireworks were far more beautiful than anything I’d ever seen back home.  Plus, the show lasted for a full two hours!  How can you beat that?

So, I shall leave you with a video of these “fire flowers.” The quality isn’t great, but I hope you’ll find them just as mesmerizing as I did.  (Warning: there is a considerable amount of silly laughter in this movie.  Yeah, that’s me.  Sorry.  I don’t even remember what was so funny.  I believe it had to do with popcorn…  Anyway!)

Pssst: You can also view photos of the fireworks on my Flickr page.

Today’s Bento

Edamame bento box

New potato, fresh edamame, and scallion salad with lemon and olive oil. Plus sweet summer tomatoes, spicy pickled eggplant, and a soy sauce egg.

As Harris Salat noted recently on The Japanese Food Report, it’s the season for edamame.  Every produce shop and grocery store here is selling large bunches of the beans, which are often still attached to their roots and stems. When fresh, their flavor is superb – very “beany,” for lack of a better word.  You can almost taste the minerals in them.

Simply boiled in salted water, they make a great summer snack with a tall glass of cold beer.  In fact, I happen to have a can of Yebisu (owned by the venerable Sapporo brewery) sitting in my tiny fridge, so dinner tonight may be just that, plus whatever odds and ends are lying about.

However, I also love edamame in salads, especially when paired with other legumes, fresh herbs, and alliums. Last night I decided to make an edamame-centric salad for my bento box lunch.  Some basil and purple shiso would’ve been nice additions, but those plants are three hours away in Matsumoto. Instead, I made do with some lemon zest and plenty of black pepper.  That was fine, because it allowed the flavor of the fresh beans to stand out.  The salad is so simple and adaptable that you don’t really need a recipe, but I’ve written up my version anyway. See below for more!

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