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.
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.
You never forget your first quince. I first saw this strange fruit while driving through rice paddies on the western outskirts of Matsumoto, in mountainous central Japan. The trees themselves were small and scraggly, their knotted branches laden with the golden, apple-like fruit. Though tempted to jump out of the car and gather a few, I continued on, only to discover that quinces were practically impossible to find at Japanese markets. Even here in New York, quinces are remarkably difficult to come by, appearing only sporadically in the autumn. Yet as any quince aficionado knows, finding the fruit is only the beginning, for they take as much perseverance to procure as to prepare.
Ah, August, that most bittersweet of months. Its early, languid days shimmer with heat and promise, offering the tantalizing prospect of an endless summer. Within weeks, dusk vibrates with the hum of cicadas, hinting at autumn’s inexorable approach. Those days are not far off, but there’s something I’ve been dying to share with you before it’s too late: peach and white miso ice cream. Imagine: creamy, caramelized custard layered atop salty tang, each mouthful tinged with the acidity and fragrance of impossibly ripe peaches. The mood of this ice cream is slow and sensual, like eating peaches licked with sea spray and sand after a leisurely day at the beach. It’s summer in a spoonful, and it’s both as peculiar and delicious as it sounds.
In the spirit of brevity, I’ll leave you with the recipe and some favorite scenes from summers past.
Making ice cream doesn’t require a fancy electric ice cream maker, or even an old-fashioned hand-cranked one like the one I use, but a freezer is most definitely necessary. (Of course, ice cream has been around a lot longer than electric freezers, but that’s a post for another day.) Today, frozen food is so cheap and readily available that we often forget what a luxury it once was to simply have ice. Indeed, the notion that we now have machines to make frozen water seems both appalling and magical; what culture could be both so lazy and inspired as to invent a device for such a simple end? And yet ice machines and their kitchen brethren – immersion blenders, coffee makers, and the rest – make a range of small, simple pleasures readily and widely accessible.* Chief among these simple pleasures, of course, is ice cream.
Shichimi turned two years old this week. Though I had hoped to have a more special celebratory post prepared, words have been eluding me lately.
Thoughts swirl around endlessly, but my attempts to verbalize them have been halting at best, incoherent at worst, and usually ineloquent. A simple e-mail turns into a ten minute ordeal, to say much less of one written in Japanese. Perhaps it’s the effect of acquiring new words in a second language; somehow one’s native tongue begins to seem convoluted and nonsensical. At times, relativity takes over – why shouldn’t the verb come at the end of the sentence? Do we really need a distinction between the present and future tenses?
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.
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.
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.