Summer in Japan is, to put it bluntly, brutal. This is particularly true where I live, in Saitama prefecture, just outside Tokyo. Thanks to Saitama’s geography – it’s essentially a giant, flat plain – the residual heat and smog of the city get trapped in its valleys and lowlands, with no promise of relief from the cooling ocean breezes that reach Chiba prefecture to the east.
This year, with everyone doing their best to conserve electricity after the accident at Fukushima, the need to stay cool is more pressing than ever.
Some offices are operating on different schedules, with employees arriving and leaving earlier, and everyone is buying sensu, senpūki, and uchiwa (folding handheld fans, electric fans, and non-folding handheld fans, respectively). As of Friday, major manufacturers in Tōkyō, such as Hitachi and Nissan, began power-saving regimens. For the employees of these companies, Thursday and Friday are the new weekend, and Saturday and Sunday are the new Thursday and Friday. (For more on setsuden, or power conservation, check out Makiko Itō’s great blog post and article in the Japan Times.)
Last summer, I somehow managed to survive without using the air conditioner, except on the hottest of the hottest days. (And believe me, it was a hot summer.) This year, I’m hoping to keep it off every day for the next three months.
So, what you do when it’s degrees ninety-plus degrees outside, the humidity is hovering around eighty-five percent, and you don’t feel like cooking (or eating) a thing?
First, you pour yourself a beer. My latest favorite is Sapporo’s barley and hops brew. Beer snobs, laugh all you want, but it’s crisp, refreshing, and… well, what more do you need when it’s this hot? Take a sip. Ahhh. Isn’t that better already?
Next, grab a cucumber (or whatever fresh, crunchy vegetables you have on hand – daikon, carrots, and jicama would all be great), and cut it into spears. Pile these on a plate alongside a spoonful of really good, chunky miso, plus perhaps some halved, local cherry tomatoes.
Now that you have beer and something to snack on, bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil. I know, this uses energy and makes the kitchen hot, but you don’t need much water, and it won’t take long. When it’s bubbling furiously, dump in a few fistfuls of edamame pods (fresh if you can find them!) and cook for just a few minutes. Drain and let cool in a colander.
Time for a break (because this meal is really difficult to prepare, right?) Mix equal parts soy sauce and rice vinegar (and/or rāyu) in a small dish and set aside.
Finally, heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat, swirl in some vegetable oil, and plop in some gyōza, flat-side down. These will preferably be handmade, hauled from the depths of your freezer. In my case, they were from a kind woman who sells them alongside freshly fried spring rolls at a tiny, fluorescent-lit storefront in my neighborhood. Once the gyōza are nicely browned and crisp on the bottom, throw in a splash of water and (quickly!) place a lid over the pan. There will be a great deal of sputtering and splattering, but fear not. Once the water has nearly disappeared, they’re ready to eat.
Did you make enough food for you and your friends? I hope so, because this sort of meal is best enjoyed with them, basking in the citronella-infused dusk of an early July day. Pat yourself on the back for manning the stove in such weather and head outside to join the crowd. (And don’t forget to turn out the lights!)