Tag Archives: Japan

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.

OH YUM

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.
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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.

Konichiwa, sushi!

6 Jun

Sushi. I used to fear this word. My more refined friends occasionally use it to refer to their favorite food, or to illustrate how liking it makes them so refined or whatever.

But this is what the word conjures up in my mind:

“How long do we have to pretend to be dead?”

Before I went to Tokyo, I had tasted “sushi.” I didn’t eat it often, and I’m not an enthusiast by any means, but I liked it as much as the average person. Yet what I considered sushi was nothing like what I ate in Japan! Sushi roll? What’s that? At Japanese sushi places, experienced chefs pick out the best fish at the market in the morning, then cut it and assemble it in front of you. You literally eat a slab of raw fish nestled on top of a rice ball (onigiri), only sometimes beautified by a bit of drizzly mayonaise or caviar.

Japanese vs. American sushi

We ate our first Japanese sushi with my friend’s brother who has lived in Japan for four years. He kindly started us out with flash-roasted fish, but still, the look of it was not appealing. However, when I took my first bite, it didn’t matter what the sushi looked like.

That stuff is GOOD.

We soon graduated to death raw sushi, called sashimi. I enjoyed that as well, but still didn’t like looking at it before I ate. Or thinking about it (caviar: “Baby Nemo and his siblings!”). Thankfully we tried our first sushi before visiting Tsukiji Fish Market!

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Japanese sushi. Even when I realized I was allergic to the self-serve green tea at sushi bars, it didn’t faze me much. You can’t have it all…

Plus it’s just so yummy!

First impressions of Japan

3 Jun

I’m fresh from the 11-hour airplane ride and still full of memories from crazy, exciting, hyperactive and colorful Japan. I only spent nine days in Tokyo but got to traipse around from malls to shrines to chill cafes. Here are some of my first (and lasting) impressions from the largest city in the world:

#1: So. Many. People!

I live in Nashville, TN, with about a million other people. Over 36 million people live in greater Tokyo! That’s 30% of the entire population of Japan. It’s not uncommon to wait to cross a street with 50 other people. The first word I learned was sumimasen, which roughly translates “excuse me,” because it’s impossible to go a day without bumping into someone. I personally enjoyed the masses of humanity, but if you get overwhelmed, there’s always the option of ducking into a capsule hotel.

#2: (Endless) tall buildings

One night we went to the top of the Metropolitan Government Office to survey Tokyo. I simply could not get over the massive size of, well, everything! As far as I could see in every direction there were skyscrapers and lights. Tokyo is home to the tallest tower in the world, after all, yet to me, the Skytree was just another reason to never stop looking up.

View of the Skytree from Asakusa, Tokyo

#3: Crazy fashion

In Nashville the current fashion is hipster. Mainly, caring about how you look while pretending you don’t.  I don’t think the average Tokyo-ite would want anyone to think they didn’t put care into their outfit. After all, they live in the birthplace of cosplay. Short skirts, sky-high wedges (with socks!), tattoo tights…I didn’t blink twice when I saw what this girl was wearing. No one can say Tokyo isn’t interesting!

#4: 98% Japanese population

“Duh,” you’ll say. “Of course they’re Japanese. It’s Japan!” And yes, I’ll admit most countries have more natives than foreigners, but Japan seemed to more so. Not many Japanese leave their country for good, and being an island, it’s not particularly easy to get to. Especially compared with my life in the melting pot of America, it was different for me to experience the relative homogeneousness of Japan.

#5: Consistently great food

You didn’t think I would leave this one out, did you? Mmm. I’ll admit, I didn’t really know what Japanese food was before I visited Tokyo. All my knowledge came from Hibachi grills and sushi rolls. What I learned was, first, Japanese food is nothing like (American) Chinese food, which I had naively assumed. Second, ramen noodle soup and supermarket sushi rolls in the U.S. are absolutely dismal compared to their legitimate counterparts. Third, Japanese are all about eating fresh, so even if your meat isn’t totally raw, it’s juicy and tender. Food is one area where I was definitely glad for Japan’s “one-up” culture!

Sorry to leave you drooling, but you’ll have to wait til next time to read about all the Japanese delicacies I ate. Jet lag calls…sayonara, y’all!

Visiting Japan through…Japan!

19 May

I’m going to Japan tomorrow.

I know, crazy, right?

A month ago, my lovely friend contacted me about the possibility of going with her to visit her brother, who lives in Tokyo. After a lot of prayer, planning and packing, we are now merely hours from departure!

I am tremendously excited! This will be my first trip to Asia, as well as one of my first to a more modern and Westernized city like Tokyo (I tend to find myself in more adventuresome, less-traveled areas, which I love and my mother hates).

I hope to take lots of pictures, eat tons of food and share my experiences with y’all afterwards. As some have accused me of taking pictures of only food, I will do my best to snap a few of some buildings or an important piece of Japanese culture or whatever. *sigh*

See? A picture of me in Macedonia that contains NO food whatsoever. It can be done!

But it IS at such a time as this when I am extremely thankful that food is a necessity, because there is no doubt that I will eat in Japan. Thank you, Lord, that I would die without food.

Oh well-cultured and travel savvy people, is there anything I absolutely cannot miss when in Tokyo?