Sansai Season

Japanese mountain vegetables

Japanese mountain vegetables

Why hello again!  Apologies for the silence ‘round here, but a combination of too much traveling, which in turn triggered a nasty flu, has left me without much time or energy to devote to blogging lately.  However, I thought I should at least post some photos of the wonderful spring produce available in Japan at this time of year.  What follows is a broad, though by no means exhaustive, selection of the sansai available around Matsumoto right now (for more on sansai, see this post from early March).

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A Japanese Feast in Brooklyn

Sesame seeds in suribachi

I was recently back home in Brooklyn for several weeks, mainly to take care of some important tasks to prepare for my new job here, like getting a Japanese work visa.  In my free time, I found myself craving Japanese home cooking – foods like simply prepared vegetables flavored with dashi or miso, grilled fishes and meats, and homemade onigiri (rice balls).  In Japan, it’s easy to obtain these dishes from takeout shops that advertise “auntie’s” or “mama’s” cooking.  In New York, such a shop would be overpriced, not to mention difficult to find in the first place.  Besides, if you have the right ingredients, it’s easier and much more fun to cook these dishes at home.

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Signs of Spring

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.

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Two Korean-Inspired Dishes

Gochujang

Gochujang - Korean Chile Paste

Besides the occasional meal at a local Korean restaurant Chicago, my first real exposure to that country’s cuisine was in the test kitchen of Saveur magazine, where I interned this past summer.  In preparation for the October issue, we were testing a variety of recipes for kimchi, all of them made entirely from scratch.  On the roster were the classic baechu (cabbage) kimchi, mild water kimchi (made with daikon, Asian pear, and scallions), spicy daikon kimchi, and stuffed cucumber kimchi.  (You can find recipes for all four on Saveur’s website.)  For the most part, I was in charge of testing the recipe for the cabbage kimchi, which involved chopping and mincing no less than twelve ingredients.  Suffice it to say that by the end of end of my stint, I felt pretty confident about my kimchi-making skills.

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The Japanese Pantry

Moving somewhere new, even within your own country, can be a scary and daunting task.  Besides all the obvious environmental changes one must adjust to, there are unfamiliar customs to abide by, neighbors to meet, friends to make, and perhaps even a new language to learn.  And then, of course, there’s the food.

Besides being in a country where very little English is spoken, what worried me most about moving to Japan was this last factor.  It’s not that I don’t like Japanese food, but rather that I had no idea what I’d find in the grocery stores and markets.

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