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In which a Southerner’s heart goes way over her head

20 Oct


This, my friends, is one of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted. The place: Japan. The food: ramen. The feeling: ASDHADHIJFSG UNEXPLAINABLE. So good that I, a very un-Asian journalism student from Tennessee, decided to attempt making my own.

I’m slightly insane on normal days, and things like fall break only increase the crazy. Since I didn’t get to travel over the weekend and I’ve been craving what I fondly call “legit ramen” ever since I went to Tokyo last year, I decided to take the extra day my university blessed me with (that’s right. ONE. DAY.) and go for the gold, so to speak.

The nail-biting started at the ingredient list.

Shitake mushrooms, miso, pork belly, kelp, mirin…were these things at Kroger? Would I have to cross the street to Publix or take a drastic trip to the Asian Market?!

The answer: Kroger is stocked surprisingly well.

Even in bones. I was woefully ignorant of this fact.

Even in bones. I was woefully ignorant of this fact.

All the ingredients were bought, and it was time for prep. I squashed my feelings of foreboding and got to work hacking meat and removing livers. The worst part of making ramen is the way the recipe has you throw most things away. It’s all, “simmer the bacon for 45 minutes and discard.” I have to discard the bacon?! What kind of world is this?

The reason you discard everything is because the broth is just that – broth.  No stray carrots, no remnant of shredded chicken, no thinly-sliced onion. However, the stuff that brewed in the broth at one time or another? Pork bones, a whole chicken, vegetables, and let’s not forget the seaweed:

Best-lookin' start to soup I've ever seen..

Best-lookin’ start to soup I’ve ever seen..

The key word to this recipe is simmer. Yes, cooking it was an all-day (and a half) process, but it didn’t keep me in the kitchen the whole time. It was a whole lot of phone timers and “make sure nothing’s burning” sniffs. I even got out for a jog while the pork bones roasted in the oven.



At the end, I had a hearty, meaty broth that was all mouthfeel and not much flavor. That’s where the taré comes in. Taré is an intense sauce, boiled and simmered and, finally, reduced for an hour. The ingredient list was simple: soy sauce, mirin (rice sherry), and sake.

Which is gorgeous, by the way.

It’s like no one in Japan has bad handwriting?

I spiked the broth with the taré and it transformed into a flavorful pot of liquid that defies logic – impossibly meaty, yet completely smooth. Pretty unnerving. Thank you, Japanese cooks, for the confusing delight of ramen.

Now came the best part: toppings! I had bacon, corn, shallots, and slow-poached eggs to put in the ramen (it was my first time making eggs like this…they were surprisingly perfect!).


Everyone said the egg was like an eyeball. I said, “A delicious eyeball.”

The result of my crazy, time-consuming ramen was…good. It was nothing amazing, and also not something I would spend that much time for again. Yet it was still really, really good, especially with the corn (weird, right?). And it was at least a distant, disenfranchised third cousin to the ramen I had in Tokyo, so I got to reminisce a bit. Have you ever spent a huge amount of time on a cooking experiment? Was it worth it?


Laffy Taffys, world climates and natural disasters

4 Feb
Clouds are one of my favorite aspects of "weather" (sunset in Serbia)

Clouds are one of my favorite aspects of “weather.” (sunset in Serbia)

This week in Nashville there was a beautiful 70 degree day, a crazy storm that produced 8 tornadoes, a sudden drop to 20 °F and substantial snow. Like, “you could see it on the ground” substantial.

Welcome to Tennessee! Where no one worries about global warming because, well, it’s always been like this.

Some of my fondest memories growing up include spending spring afternoons in our basement, the tornado siren blaring outside. Occasionally we sat under a mattress. We would listen to radio dramas and eat Laffy Taffys (or, if the power was out, ice cream!). Tornado warnings seemed to come twice a week.

One December, we had enough snow to build a small igloo, and then a few days later, we wore shorts to hike on Christmas Eve.

The crazy weather made me contemplate climates in other parts of the world, so I give you…Carly’s World Weather Lists!

Best overall climate:

Faulconbridge, Australia is rumored to be rated “the most equitable climate” by the World Meteorological Organization. It sits 1, 463 feet above sea level, has evenly distributed rainfall and year-round mild temperatures. If you’re not careful, you might forget there’s such a thing as seasons.

Most alien-like:

Dotted with volcanoes and never free of hazardous gases, Danakil Desert in Ethiopia supposedly has the oddest sights, smells, landscape and temperatures in one location.  Its nickname is “Hell on Earth.” Since there is lava just waiting to bubble over the surface of the ground, temperatures can reach up to 115 degrees regularly! There are salt flats, mineral springs, sulfur pits, lava lakes and acid ponds. It has the only below-sea-level volcano. Although not ideal for a relaxing vacation, Danakil is a hit tourism spot for thrill-seekers. I like thrills, but…I…don’t know…

Biggest temperature range:

Verkhoyansk, a town in Siberia, Russia, has a record high of 99.14 °F. Although that doesn’t sound high, let’s remember that it’s in Siberia. Also, their record low is -93.6 °F, giving the two extremes a difference of almost 200 degrees! And I thought Nashville weather was bipolar.

Most dangerous places to live:

Oklahoma City, OK. has been hit by more tornados than anywhere in the world.

The Phillipines cash in with the most hurricanes – they have up to 20 per year!

Japan and Indonesia are the earthquake capitals of the world. Indonesia has more earthquakes total, but Japan has more earthquakes per square kilometer.

Latacunga, Ecuador has been destroyed by the Cotopaxi Volcano four times in the past 300 years. And yet they keep rebuilding…

Well, the world has some pretty crazy places. I hope you, reading this, stay safe from disasters and have fun in your home’s climate! I still have a few months before tornado season starts, so maybe you’ll get a few more blog posts before my laptop is sucked into a swirling vortex of wind. There’s no place like home!

Donuts: an ode and lament

1 Nov

I just want to start out by saying that normally, I eat pretty healthy. Lots of veggies (lima beans are my favorite!) and fruit, yogurt, oatmeal and the like. But I do have a sweet tooth.

Do I ever!

One of the most glorious sweet things in the entire world is the American donut.


My adoration for this kind of donut might be a small factor in why I’m consistently disappointed by “foreign donuts.” I know, that makes me racist or stuck up or whatever, and one of the first things I made myself learn about new food is to never compare. I’ve stuck with this rule for almost everything I’ve eaten overseas. BUT. I simply cannot hear the word donut without picturing and then craving these above delicacies.

I have two donut stories for you. The first takes place in Budapest. It was there a beautiful Polish lady took me out for a donut one day, having heard of my adoration for the sugary rounds of dough. We ventured across the Danube to the Hungarian Market, a huge open-air building bustling with vendors and shoppers.

We came to a pastry stand and asked for a donut in broken Hungarian. The elderly man inside smiled and pointed at a large pastry totally devoid of a hole.

“No,” I whispered to Edyta,”that’s not a donut. Ask him for a donut.” But after a few confused minutes, we were assured that was indeed a Hungarian donut and that I could choose from either chocolate or “yellow” filling. Okay. Chocolate it is.

Who knows what my finger is doing…

It was a very nice pastry. Puffy but substantial, filled with a cross between hot fudge and pudding. But as I ate it, all I saw was the conveyor belt of donuts at Krispy Kreme, freshly baked and shining with glaze.

Strike one.

My second story is far more depressing. It took place last spring in Tokyo. One early morning, my friends and I were crammed into the metro full of commuters on their Nokia phones and Nintendo DS’s. We’d had a late night and missed breakfast that day.

In order to boost moral, someone suggested a trip to Mr. Donut. My tired self perked up immediately. HECK TO THE YES, MR. DONUT.

I don’t have a picture of the donut I bought there, possibly because I was crying too hard to find my camera. But it looked like a donut. No sprinkles, mind you, but icing, yes. Glaze, even. Yet this poor donut had no discernible sugar to my overly saturated taste buds. The icing was even a bitter dark chocolate. I ate it because I was hungry, but it meant nothing to me but energy for walking the streets of downtown Tokyo.

Here’s to you, Japan: I ate some of the best food I’ve ever tasted among your alleyways. Your ramen is to die for. I mean, you’re the birthplace of sushi! But your donuts?

Strike two.

Disclaimer: this post is meant to be humorous. My apologies if you are offended. Go buy yourself a donut.

4 reasons why new food is awesome

3 Aug

1) New food is a hot commodity

You can’t get new food anywhere. I mean, c’mon, I’ve had a lot of food in my life. It’s not every day I can get my hands on something I’ve never tasted!

2) It’s exciting and mysterious

I love surprises. I love not knowing what something will taste like, or even what’s all in it. The thrill of experiencing the hustle and bustle of a new city is on par to tasting that city’s specialty dish (mmm!).

The meal on my flight to Japan might have been more mysterious than exciting…

3) You can more fully experience small details

Think of meeting a someone new. You say hello, shake hands, maybe ask a few general questions. Five minutes into your conversation, you’ve judged whether or not you like them. If you do, you talk longer and discover a smidgen of their past, their favorite places to hang out and other details that make them unique. Accordingly, when you spy a new food, you scope it out. Give it a cautious sniff and inspect its ingredients. Then you take a bite. If you like it, you eat more, and as you do, you experience its notes of flavor fully and form adjectives for certain characteristics of it in your mind. Granted, you might learn more about a food each time you eat it, but that first bite has your total attention, allowing you to fully enjoy the details.

4) It tells about a country’s identity

In nearly every culture, meals are a time for community. What get-together doesn’t have food in the mix? A lame one, believe you me. If you want to call up that friend you haven’t seen awhile, you ask her to meet you for coffee or at a deli. Why? Food lightens the mood. We’ve been trained to associate food with good feelings (aka, coffee and friendship). Since food is such an important part of everyones’ lives, the things a person eats tells you a bit about them.

I’m not sure what this snack says about me…

Why do you enjoy new food?

The Japanese no-no

14 Jul

My sister got the best birthday parties. Surprise parties, horse rides, magicians, you name it. One time my mom invented a Mystery Dinner for her birthday. Every kid sat around the table and received a menu. It listed things such as “Chinese No-No” (a fork), “Big hit” (punch) or my personal favorite, “Mouse’s delight with trees” (broccoli cheese casserole). Each child ordered their meal without knowing what they were getting. Not everyone was pleased when their order arrived, though. Imagine getting a fork, tomato soup and grapes when someone else has macaroni and cheese, chocolate cake and Kool-Aid! I’m jealous just thinking about it.

Kua ‘Aina has locations in Tokyo, London and Hawaii.

My point is not that I am the forgotten child who never got a surprise party even though I asked for one every year (I’m over that). Nope. I thought of the Mystery Dinner when I tried to get a free drink refill in Tokyo a few months ago. My friend and I were at a Hawaiian burger joint in Kanda and I ordered guava juice with my meal. It was so delicious that I ignored my common sense, perhaps as well as my cultural deference, and asked for a refill.

Once the girl behind the counter realized what I wanted (after lots of pleading and gesturing), she emphatically denied me. So I walked out the door drinkless, feeling a tinge of homesickness. It was gone in two seconds, mind you, but it’s funny the things that get you. For me, home was DIY pop fountains.

So if I ever put together a Mystery Dinner menu for my future kid’s birthday, I’ll include the famous Chinese No-No. But there will also be a Japanese No-No, complete with a monster-sized cup featuring as many refills as the kids can drink. Passive agressive revenge? Maybe 🙂

A trip to Yakitori Alley

24 Jun

It’s amazing how such a universal thing as meat can be cooked so differently in various kitchens, cultures and countries.

Now, I haven’t traveled the whole world yet, but everyone’s got a unique way of cookin’ up their beef. Where I live in the South, we like a good steak. You order it medium rare with a side of veggies and a loaded baked potato. You eat every bite so as not to offend the poor starving children in Africa. In the Balkans, they thrive on multiple kinds of meat, mostly grilled. I once went to a picnic in Macedonia where all we ate was meat! Huge plates of it covered the table – first come, first grab!

Japanese meat is more, hmm, shall we say refined? It’s made with a focus on flavor and quality rather than quantity. I never had a surplus of meat in any of my meals, yet it was always tender and succulent. The meticulous Japanese culture really makes for fine dining!

All this about meat is a background for my next dish, the intensely complicated Japanese word yakitori. Roughly translated, it means bite-sized meat on a skewer. 

Yakitori with a common Japanese appetizer, edamame.

As my companions and I ventured through Yakitori Alley in Shinjuku, each business owner beckoned us to his own tiny yakitori shop. We chose one at the end of the smoky alley and were seated in the upper room. True to Tokyo’s limited space, only three small tables could fit in the crowded room. We ordered half our yakitori with sauce and the other half plain, or “salty.” My favorite was the saucy meat dipped in spicy flakes.

Chicken, beef, spring onions and peppers…mmm!

Fortunately for you Americans, Japan has one of the most influential cuisines in the world! The yakitori trend has grown so popular that it has trickled into the Western world. So the next time you’re out, if you spy a small shop smelling of smoke and grilled meat, by all means – go!

You’re the noodle to my Ramen

19 Jun

Hey guys – sorry for the lack of posts. I’ve been on vacation in San Diego! Yet now I write to you not about fish tacos (although California’s seafood made me question why I live in a landlocked state), but another Japanese staple. Ramen!

I shudder to compare the 10 cent bags of dry noodles in the U.S. to the glorious bowls of Ramen in Japan. So I won’t. But let’s just say both have their merits (what is as cheap and filling as Maruchan?).

Japan does have their own version of prepackaged Ramen noodles, but that ain’t what we’re talking about today. No, sir! Instead we go to the Ramen shop – restaurants scattered throughout Japan that have nothing on the menu besides noodle soup.

Oh yeah, and the mysterious red stuff on the left.

You have options, though. Spicy or tangy, little or lots of broth, chicken or pork. I went with a more spicy alternative that included pork, green stuff and yellow stuff. I learned not to be too curious about what I was eating in Tokyo since chefs rarely speak English and our “tour guide” barely spoke Japanese.

My bowl of YUM.

You cannot properly understand the size of this bowl from the picture. It was huge. Like the size of a salad bowl for a dinner party. Which brings up a problem I have in my relationship with food. I love it, I dream about it and sometimes it’s the highlight of my travels (okay, well, always). But I can’t eat very much of it. My stomach rebels and I reach a point where if I eat another bite, I’m convinced I’ll explode.

But this is how good that bowl of ramen was:

So I didn’t eat all the broth. DEAL WITH IT.

I was delightedly won over by my spicy, intensely flavorful, surprise-in-every-bite bowl of legit Ramen noodles. Although eating the decorative pepper was probably a mistake.