Every new year, we promise ourselves new lives, new looks, new selves. Yet by the end of the first week of January, how many of us still feel that motivation, that tug toward self-improvement? Think for a moment now: what if every day were lived with that sort of mindfulness and deliberation, of keeping our promises to others and ourselves? What would that feel like, and who would we become? We might not necessarily become better, or wiser, or more beautiful, but perhaps we would live with a greater appreciation for incremental change, the gradual completion of a project, the assiduous chiseling of an idea, the slow and uncertain progress that underlies day-to-day existence.
For the past few weeks, I’ve had an uncharacteristically low appetite. Some part of this is no doubt due to Japan’s notorious natsubate (summer fatigue), but I suspect it’s also because I know my time in Japan will soon come to an end. I’ve been here nearly two years now, a short time by most people’s standards, though it feels like an eternity. It has been an eternity, in some ways, considering all I’ve seen, learned, and discovered. Friendships have been made, while others have sadly faded. I’ve changed, too, in ways that may be difficult to comprehend for some of my friends and family back home. Some might wonder why I can’t accept a compliment without immediately waving it off, and others may find my habit of constantly nodding and bowing in conversation bit peculiar. To be sure, these mannerisms will fade with time, but there will be a rough period while I transition to life back in the States.
That’s still a few months away though. For now, I’m doing my best to soak up the remaining Japanese summer, and continuing to cook and eat this cuisine I have grown to love so much. In fact, summer is still very much with us here, much to my delight. Tomatoes, green beans, eggplants, sweet and hot peppers, edamame, cucumbers, peaches, melons, and plums are still in abundance, though some welcome newcomers — Asian pears, figs, baby kabocha squash, and tiny sweet potatoes — have also begun to appear at the market.
Spring makes me antsy – it puts me in the mood for travel, for adventure, for places yet unseen. The promise of summer’s balmy nights lies not far off, just perceptible, like a taste on the tip of the tongue. I always have to be careful, though, to not wish on summer too eagerly. In the end, it always passes far too quickly, leaving me wishing I had savored the moments between the seasons more judiciously.
This year I’m making an effort to do just that. As we begin the inexorable slide toward summer, I find myself cooking less intensively but still craving sustenance with some body. Although warm food still seems appropriate, spring’s delicate, young vegetables – a far cry from the flamboyant, exuberant bounty of summer produce – call for a light hand in seasoning and preparation.
While Western cuisine can certainly do justice to spring produce (as evidenced by this gorgeous spread), the restrained flavors and minimalist preparations of Japanese cooking seem, in some ways, much better suited to these fleeting delicacies. I’m certainly not butter-averse (particularly when it comes to baked goods), but dousing vegetables with the stuff is not exactly an affordable proposition in Japan, where less than half a pound costs upwards of 350 yen (~4 USD). So, I’ve decided to take a different approach this spring and try my hand at some unfamiliar dishes.
Somehow, nearly a month has come and gone since my last post. I realize I’ve been remiss in regaling you with tales of Japan’s culinary delights, but I hope you understand, given the circumstances. After the earthquake, when thousands were subsisting on instant noodles and rice balls, writing about food seemed inappropriate, even impossible. For a few days, I subsisted on simple meals – simmered chicken and kabocha squash, egg salad on toast, rice with pickles – but even these healthy, comforting dishes were difficult to enjoy. Amid the shock and stress, my appetite and will to cook (much less photograph and write about food) simply disappeared.
Thankfully, over the past several weeks my capacity to enjoy the small pleasures of daily life – a picnic with friends, the first whiff of early spring’s bracing breath, a satin blue sky against tufts of sakura – has returned, albeit in fits and starts. When I returned to Japan almost two weeks ago, I found myself craving one thing: soba, particularly Shinshū soba, a rustic variety from Nagano prefecture. Whenever I’m feeling under the weather, both physically and mentally, nothing revives me more than soba, preferably accompanied by plenty of sprightly scallions and sansai (mountain vegetables). It’s nourishment embodied, as sustaining as chicken noodle soup but, to my peculiarly un-American taste buds, infinitely tastier.
It took some time, but winter’s chill has definitely settled over Japan. A few weeks ago, temperatures on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido dipped to -25°C, and the western part of the country, where winters are usually temperate, received some unexpected snowfall. However, winter in the Tokyo area has been relatively mild, with daytime temperatures hovering around 5 – 10°C and little precipitation. No doubt those of you in the Northeastern and Midwestern U.S. will scoff at these temperatures, given the recent slew of blizzards those regions have been subjected to.
Here’s the catch though: most houses in Japan do not have central heating are poorly insulated (if at all). Traditionally, Japanese houses were equipped with a central hearth, or irori, which was used for both cooking and heating. However, unlike the wood and coal stoves that heated American homes of yore, Japanese hearths lacked a chimney, which resulted in very sooty rafters and walls. Thankfully, times have changed, although warding off the cold indoors remains an issue.
Growing up, one of my favorite meals was Chinese food from the take-out place near my family’s house in Brooklyn. The restaurant, which stood (and still stands!) across from the local police station and pizzeria, served up the typical rotation of heavily sauced and overly sweet Chinese-American favorites. We always ordered cold sesame noodles, garlicky stir-fried broccoli and beef, and sweet and sour chicken, with its cloak of bright orange sauce studded with juicy chunks of canned pineapple. This last dish was my favorite, for at the time it seemed like a delightfully sophisticated version of chicken nuggets.
By now, those of you who read this blog regularly probably know that I have a thing for vegetables. Let me clarify: when I say vegetables, I don’t mean salad. Salad is well and good, and I enjoy it often enough. But it just doesn’t have the same capacity to excite me as, say, a big plate of roasted kabocha squash and onions spiked with shichimi togarashi, a velvety soup of puréed carrots and leeks, or a tangle of smoky-sweet grilled peppers.
Sometimes I eat so many vegetables that I’m unable to finish my meal, as happened at lunch yesterday. The culprit in this case was a plate of sautéed brussels sprouts, caramelized around the edges and bursting with sweetness. Soon enough, I realized I had little room for the rest of my lunch, including the delicious sour-sweet kumquats that I’ve been popping into my mouth all week. What can I say? The brussels sprouts were good.
In comparison, the vegetable dish I want to tell you about today may seem rather mundane: stir-fried greens. No doubt some of you are thinking, “It’s the week before Christmas, and you’re writing about spinach?” Well, yes and no.
My mom and I always call this time of year the “shoulder season,” when the last rush of summer produce tumbles in and people begin to set their sights on the soups and warm comforts of the coming months. Those of you in the States are probably already donning your fall jackets, scarves, and other cool weather accoutrements, as have many of us in Japan. I, for one, have never been so happy to wear pants, long sleeves, and boots! Autumn is indeed a very special time here, in part because people are eager to bid farewell to the hot and humid Japanese summer.
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.
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.