Milkin’ it.

I regularly buy flavored soy milk in little sippy cartons. It recently occurred to me that this might seem like a weird thing to someone outside of Japan. These little boxes of protein and sugar are probably meant for children, but I can only really understand six-year olds so by the transitive property it works.

In Japan flavors change with the seasons, and autumn reigns supreme. I arrived back in Tokyo to  flavors of sweet potato, pumpkin (actually, kabocha), hazelnut and persimmon. So when I saw the grilled sweet potato flavored soy milk, of course I bought it.

From left to right that’s yaki-imo (grilled sweet potato), banana, coffee malt, and strawberry. Other common flavors include black tea, matcha, vanilla ice cream, grapefruit, delicious plain, and fruity mix. My favorites are the less expected flavors, black sesame and kinako (roasted soybean powder). Perhaps these flavors sound strange, but in Japan they are commonly associated with sweets. So really, I’m just drinking candy.

Happy Kitchen, Happy Family

I have a confession. For the previous three weeks I was cattin’ around the US. I took a wee vacation to visit family, and what else to you do with your family on a lazy Saturday afternoon? You drink beer and make some Happy Kitchen, that’s what you do.

Before I left Tokyo I picked up a few of these kits to give as gifts. I don’t think other people are as excited about them as I am, but that didn’t stop me. These little Popin’ Cookin’ and Happy Kitchen candy-making kits are very cute, and a really good example of Japanese homestyle cooking: just add water.

Just kidding (kind of). These kits are just for fun and meant for children. Add water and poof! You’ve got a square meal of panda and donuts. Accompanied by some local beer, they suddenly become the perfect way to entertain your parents while dinner simmered. We chose the donut kit and dove in.

The kit comes with everything you need: vanilla and chocolate dough mix; vanilla, strawberry and chocolate frosting mix; crunch topping; sprinkles; donut molds; mixing bowls; measuring cup and mixing spoon. The directions are listed on the back of the box in Japanese, but the pictures give enough direction that you could figure it out in a pinch.

Each packet requires just one cup of water to be added to create the perfect texture — what science! Here dad illustrates the dough-making, and mom does the donut-mold-making. Now that is teamwork.

Everyone got to decorate. My mom disappeared to The Craft Room and returned with a mini spatula for our mini donut assembly line. There was some discussion over whether sprinkles or crunch were the superior topping choice.

The peanut gallery insisted I place them on a bigger plate. They needed to look as mini as possible.

Everyone took a taste. The consensus? Like play-dough and strawberry milk. Not bad, but not good either. I’d rather wait for the real thing, mini or not. Perhaps that’s the real difference between me and the 5-year old this kit was meant for. Though the donut flavor was a little disappointing, this kit delivered what was promised: a happy kitchen, full of a happy beer-drinkin’ family.

The Lesser Panda

I feel bad for this guy. First, he is not the panda of everyone’s dreams, he is lesser. Secondly, he is stuck inside a plastic bag.

This chocolate-cream-filled bun is to celebrate the Lesser Panda, also known as the Red Panda, at the Asahiyama Zoo in Hokkaido. So maybe life isn’t so bad.

A friend gave him to me, and at first I felt a little guilty about my plans to eat him (the panda, not the friend).

I quickly overcame my guilt because did I mention he is filled with chocolate? And is it gross that you can see my teeth marks in that photo? Maybe. I was worried this bun would be soggy — it seemed like there was moisture inside the bag, probably from the last breath of my suffocating lesser friend, but in truth it was a tasty cake.

Sorry about that, lesser panda.

さかたさん、本当にありがとう!おいしっかたね!

Pile of Pretz

I have a lot of photos of snack food on my camera.

One of the things I love about Pretz is that every few months they throw a few new flavors at us. I’m a sucker, and I buy them every time. Salty Butter Pretz? I wonder if that tastes different from Savory Butter Pretz? I must buy them NOW. Of course they taste the same, they always taste the same – like a crispy little cracker stick covered in fake umami flavoring. And I love it.  Behold, some new flavors:

Butter and soy sauce? Tastes like salt. Onion gratin soup? Tastes like salt.

Chirimenjako, or salty little fish. Tasted like salty fish.

 

Okonomiyaki? Tastes surprising like okonomiyaki, like the green seaweed stuff you sprinkle on top of your savory sauce-covered pancake. Adzuki toast? Disgusting! So gross! I spit them out and made a big display of how utterly horrible they were. Then promptly insisted Dan try them. He wouldn’t. I had high hopes for this one, I really did. I thought a salty sweet snack would be right up my alley, but this is more like a salty nasty snack. *Shudder*

There were two others which I opened and devoured before I could take a photo. I kept thinking I’d see them in the supermarket again, but as is the nature of Pretz, they are gone forever. You’ll have to believe me that they existed – wasabi and yuzu. Both were salty. And good.

I need a glass of water.

Christmas Pie

I know Christmas was over 2 weeks ago. It has taken me that long to recover.

Dan and I spent 3 glorious weeks in the US for the holidays. We saw friends and family. We raced Hot Wheels with our nephew. We drank homemade eggnog and red wine that wasn’t chilled (why, Japan? why?!). And we ate. I gained 2 pounds in the first week, then stopped counting. I knew what I was up against when I witnessed my mother-in-law buy 8 pounds of butter.

I was responsible for at least a pound of that edible gold. For Christmas eve dinner I made two of my favorite pie recipes — deep-dish winter fruit and bourbon pecan.

I haven’t talked about my pie obsession in a while, probably because I am still grieving the loss of a real oven. So for a full afternoon my dad and I barricaded ourselves in the kitchen, drank brandy, and rolled out two beauties. It’s just not Christmas until the kitchen smells like cinnamon. Or there is day drinking. My Christmases involve a lot of that, too.

Try them for yourself!

Deep-Dish Winter Fruit Pie with Walnut Crumb Topping

From Rustic Fruit Desserts: Crumbles, Buckles, Cobblers, Pandowdies, and More

Pie Crust

  • 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 12 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 3 tablespoons ice water
  • 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Walnut Crumb Topping

  • 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 3/4 cup raw walnuts, coarsely chopped
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Fruit Filling

  • 1 cup dried figs
  • 4 small apples, peeled and sliced
  • 4 pears, peeled and sliced
  • 1 cup cranberries, fresh or frozen (In a pinch, I use craisins. This year I used brandied cranberries.)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch (I usually skip this.)

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 375°F.

Crust: Combine flour, sugar, and salt in food processor. Add the butter and mix just until the mixture becomes coarse and crumbly and the butter is the size of peas. Stir the water and lemon juice together, then pour over the dry ingredients and stir just until the dry ingredients are moistened. (The key is to keep the water cold so it doesn’t melt your butter. Keep your butter chunky, this helps create a flaky crust.) Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate while you prep the rest of your pie. When ready, roll the chilled dough into a 14-inch disk, then line a 9 or 10 by 3-inch springform pan with the rolled-out dough.

Topping: Mix flour, brown sugar, walnuts, cinnamon, and salt together in a bowl. Stir in the butter, then work it in with your hands until the texture of crumbs.

Filling: Remove the stem from each fig, then boil the figs in 1 cup of water for 5 minutes. Drain and set aside until cool enough to handle. Slice each fig into 4 to 5 pieces, put them in a large bowl, and add the apples, pears, and cranberries. Gently toss the fruit with sugar until evenly coated.

Transfer the filling to the pie shell and top with the walnut crumb. Bake in the lower third of the oven for 60 to 75 minutes, or until the crumb is golden, the fruit juices are bubbling thickly around the edges, and the fruit is tender. If the crumb is getting too dark, cover it with foil while baking.

Bourbon Pecan Pie
Adapted from Bon Appétit, November 2006

Pie Crust

  • 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 4 to 5 tablespoons ice water

Filling

  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup (packed) golden brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup agave syrup
  • 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
  • 1/4 cup bourbon
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel
  • 2 cups pecan halves, very coarsely chopped

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350°F.

Crust: Combine flour and salt in food processor. Add the butter and mix just until the mixture becomes coarse and crumbly and the butter is the size of peas. Pour the water over the dry ingredients and pulse just until the dry ingredients are moistened. (The key is to keep the water cold so it doesn’t melt your butter. Keep your butter chunky, this helps create a flaky crust.) Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate while you prep the rest of your pie. When ready, roll the chilled dough into a 10-inch disk, then line a 9 or 10-inch pie plate with the rolled-out dough. Fold the extra dough under and crimp to make a decorative edge.

Filling: Whisk eggs in large bowl. Whisk in both sugars, then next 5 ingredients. Stir in pecans. Pour into crust.

Bake until filling is puffed and just set in center (filling may begin to crack), about 55 minutes.

Enjoy!

Kyoto is for Eaters, Again

As Dan reported, our recent trip to Kyoto was livelier than expected. While wriggling fish haunt his dreams, all I can think about is this:

Parfait perfection.

Maybe we need to look at that again…

This was lunch. I’m not ashamed. I also wasn’t alone — this is what my father-in-law ordered:

We’re like two peas in a pod sweet beans in a parfait.

But let’s back up. After we arrived at Kyoto station, Dan and I used our keen instincts — we found the only restaurant with a line and stood in it — to track down some seasonal soba.

Clockwise from the top left — pickles, tempura mushrooms and green peppers, warabi (a soybean-powder-covered mochi dessert), soba noodle soup with mushrooms, tempura dipping sauce, yuba (tofu skin, a Kyoto specialty), mushroom rice (kinoko takikomi gohan), and more pickles (another Kyoto specialty).

Nishin soba, another Kyoto specialty.

After lunch we went for a hike. At the peak there was a restaurant serving beer and ice cream, of course. What do you think this shop owner’s commute is like?

When you climb a mountain and meet a guy wanting to sell you ice cream, you can’t refuse. This one was kinako.

Our weekend wasn’t all about food, I swear. We did some sightsighing, and a little more sightseeing. And then after an especially rainy afternoon, we found a charming little omurice restaurant. Maybe not the haute Kyoto cuisine my in-laws were expecting, but it was perfectly placed comfort food for a chilly evening.

And, to round out the weekend (and our waistlines), we ended with a trip to Kyoto Ramen Street.

With a belly full of noodles and a cold beer in-hand, we hopped on the shinkansen for a sleepy trip back to Tokyo. Ah, how I love Japan in the fall.

One Fish, Two Fish, Oh No, Blue Fish

You know how you go out to a restaurant, order a meal, and then it comes out cooked and all around ready to eat? Funny story.

Ordering off a menu in Japan where we have a tenuous grip on the language  is always a mumble gamble. I see the kanji for chicken…but then what are all those characters after it?

“I’ll have the [murmermurmer] chicken.”

“You mean the chicken [somethingsomething]?

“Yep, that’s the one.”

And then we wait, and then it’s chickenmurmersomethingorother, and it’s delicious. Or, it’s chicken womb.

A great meal swings on the hinge of chance?

In Kyoto last weekend, my finger got stuck in the hinge, and then when I tried to pull it out, my pants ripped, but then it turned out that I was already naked. You know how the old Abraham Lincoln saying goes.

Ang and I were snacking at a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant. One of those classy ones, where there’s no reason for the conveyor belt because everyone is ordering their meals off iPad menus.

There was a giant fish tank behind the sushi chef. The tank had a strong current, and the fish were swimming with purpose, swiftly. It was a nice touch. In Japanese, you’d say the place was moody.

But then a panel opened behind the tank, a net went in, a fish came out, and a chef in the back kitchen was waving a horse mackerel at us (Angie).

Our chef told us, “Oh, you have to try the [mumblescrumble] aji. It’s our specialty.”

“Oh it’s [somethingmumble] aji? Sure, good.”

“Really? Wow. Ok. Grrreat,” the chef said, now slipping into his only English.

Net in, fish out, horse mackerel waved at us (Angie).

The chef in the back disappeared.

“This is where he goes and kills the fish,” I said expertly, stupidly, feeling a little bad that we had sentenced a fish to its death.

The expertly carved sashimi came out with the fish carcass presented on the plate, a macabre garnish we’re used to at this point.

We went in with our chopsticks, and the fish carcass wriggled. Then the fish carcass tried to breath. Then the still-very-much-alive fish didn’t really do much of anything, because it’s pretty hard to move when someone carves off most of you.

Ang let out a little whoop of a nervous giggle, like if Annie Oakley saw someone slip on a banana peel.

I let out a “whooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaarbfl.”

No, I didn’t keep my cool, because I was uncomfortable keeping an animal alive just so it can watch itself being eaten. Yes, I continued to eat the fish, because rule number one of dining etiquette is to not let your meal see itself go to waste.

We ate slowly, just hoping the mackerel would stop moving, but also dreading the moment when it would stop moving.

A waitress came by and said they would fry the skeleton for us when we were done eating. We decided the best we could do by the fish was to put him down quickly. We shoved the sashimi in our mouths and let the waitress take the fish to his deep-fried grave.

Feel free to discuss the ethics of this in the comments. I’m going to watch a video of a chimp washing a cat for the next 30 minutes.