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Xochitl10


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Our next Blogger is Xochitl10, a Washington-area DRwellian who recently moved to Japan.

August 12-16 is Obon, a Japanese national holiday. Although there are specific foods that appear during this time, Xochitl10 has agreed to document the full spectrum of eating, from everyday to special occasion. Her blog will begin later today and run through August 20.

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Konnichi-wa, and thanks to legant for asking me to blog about cooking and eating in Japan. Zora's blog is a tough act to follow, but I'll do my best!

Japan is a great place for food-obsessed people to be -- the Japanese love to eat, and place a great deal of importance on seasonal, local ingredients. They are very proud of their local specialty foods, and consider it an honor to be presented with a gift from wherever your home is. Before becoming full-fledged residents who should give gifts of fine local rice or products from Koiwai Farms, the famous Iwate dairy, this meant tins of Old Bay for everyone.

My husband Azami and I live in Kitakami-shi, Iwate Prefecture, which is located on the northeastern part of the main island of Honshu. It is bordered by the Ou Mountains on the west, and the Pacific Ocean on the east, meaning that seafood, river fish, and mountain vegetables factor heavily into Iwate regional cooking. As much as possible, we are preparing Japanese food at home, which you'll get to see over the next week.

For breakfast yesterday morning, we ate part of what would be a traditional Japanese breakfast: rice and pickles. The full breakfast usually includes rice, miso soup, a piece of grilled fish, a small dish of pickles, and green tea. Azami eats his rice topped with nattou, or fermented soybeans, which I've tried and just can't get into. I eat mine with umeboshi, or pickled plums. One of our neighbors made the pickles you see in the middle of the photo.

breakfast.jpg

Also, we still drink coffee every morning, which we buy from a local shop that roasts the beans while you wait.

It's midnight my time, and we're taking a road trip to Akita Prefecture early tomorrow morning, so this will be a short initial post. I will be posting more details about Obon, the national holiday that's going on this week, and more about traditions and cultural aspects of dining in Japan as the week goes on. If you have any particular questions, please feel free to ask away!

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My setup here is best described as "small and sparing." We don't have a lot of space or resources, so we're living creatively. I've never lived outside the US before, so I was surprised by how much use relatively transient expatriates make of secondhand goods. Many of our storage units, rugs, and furniture came from other foreigners looking to unload before they returned home. So did a powerful bottle of raw organic apple cider vinegar.

Here's the main "kitchen" part of the room:

kitchen.jpg

The nifty, space-age looking fridge has the main refrigerator unit on top, freezer in the middle, and vegetable drawer on the bottom. It's pretty small -- only about five feet tall. You can see our rice bin on the left side top, next to the loaf of thick-sliced bread, and the spice rack on the right. In case you're wondering about the milk cartons next to the garbage can, they're considered recyclables, and recycling isn't collected until this Thursday. Recycling is an art form here -- everything from bottles to nattou containers and individual plastic cookie wrappers can be recycled.

On the far right of the kitchen is the cooktop. It is composed of two gas burners and a small broiler/grill designed for fish. The rightmost burner has a function that allows you to monitor oil temperature for deep-fat frying, which we haven't checked out yet.

cooktop.jpg

Turning clockwise, you come to our main worktable.

table_setup.jpg

We have a Tiger multi-setting rice cooker that we both think rocks. It has settings for regular white rice, genmai (brown rice), okayu (rice porridge), and okowa (a special occasion rice made from a combination of white rice and mochi rice, according to my language partner), among others. I also have just two knives. The bins under the table serve as our pantry, so that's where all the snack foods, dry staples, and teas are. The dogs' dishes and treats are in the bottom-most drawers.

Last stop in the kitchen tour is the drink station:

drink_station.jpg

This is the most important part of the kitchen. :angry: We have a Zojirushi combination grinder and coffeemaker, which we're pretty pleased with. The rocketship cocktail shaker and matching "glasses" (which are in the freezer) were our tenth anniversary gifts to each other. Probably the most interesting thing in the liquor cabinet is a bottle of Thai brandy that we acquired from a departing American.

I haven't yet acquired a lot of specialty equipment, but I do have a few things. One is a full complement of bamboo cooking chopsticks, which are fantastic for everything from turning slices of meat to stirring noodles to whipping cream. The others are a suribachi and surikogi, Japanese mortar and pestle. The suribachi is a ceramic bowl, glazed on the outside, unglazed on the inside, with a sort-of basketweave grooved interior for grinding. The surikogi preferably is made of ash and is used like a pestle to grind seeds and spices. I usually use them to make a crushed black-sesame dressing for green beans.

tools.jpg

There are a few spices and ingredients that I use that probably won't come up this week, but that I use here (and probably can be found in America). For spices, we frequently use shichimi (seven-spice powder), aonori (a type of seaweed), and Japanese curry powder.

spices.jpg

Shichimi is great on a bowl of noodles, or on eggplant sauteed with miso and green beans. Azami mixes aonori in with his eggs sometimes, or it can be used as a garnish on yakisoba. Japanese curry powder is, to my tastes, less spicy than other curry powders. When I make Japanese curry, I make my roux from scratch because I'm allergic to peanuts. Many Japanese use premade curry roux, most of which involve peanuts or peanut butter, from a large company for convenience. It comes in blocks that they add to whatever meat and vegetables they've prepared, and dashi (fish stock) or chicken stock.

I also have kuruma fu, which is literally "tire-shaped wheat gluten."

kuruma_fu.jpg

Fu goes into a lot of Japanese dishes. I've used it in sukiyaki, but it can also go in soups or, in Okinawan cuisine, into a chanpuru, or stir fry with eggs.

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Hey "x"! This is great! Did you do a lot of Japanese cooking before you moved to Japan? Are you using cook books? If so, which ones? What are your other sources of information regarding cooking methods and local products? Any back-home favorites that you still do on a regular basis? If so, what has your experience been, finding the necessary ingredients?

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Hey "x"! This is great! Did you do a lot of Japanese cooking before you moved to Japan?
Thanks! To answer your question, not really. Azami did more than me, mostly salt-grilled fish and soba dishes. I love, love, love the Wafuu Curry recipe from last year's Saveur 100, and made it both at home and here.
Are you using cook books? If so, which ones?
Yes, most of my cooking is still "by the book." My primary reference is "Japanese Homestyle Cooking," by Tokiko Suzuki, which a Japanese friend's mother gave me as a moving gift. Azami bought a cookbook written in Japanese when he moved here that I can use minimally, "Ichiban Wakari Yasui Kihon no Ryori," by Maki Hiromi (translated title: Number One Most Easily Understood Basic Cooking).
What are your other sources of information regarding cooking methods and local products?
Friends and the Internets! I chose the Internet okonomiyaki recipe that I use because it seemed closest to what a friend (the one whose mother gave me the cookbook) did when she made okonomiyaki for us in Maryland. I watched my language partner make somen, a local cold noodle dish, and now cook my noodles similarly. As for local products, neighbors and friends are very generous about giving us stuff out of their gardens -- I've gotten almost more potatoes, tomatoes, and cucumbers than I can handle this way. At the store, produce, fish, meats, and some dairy products generally are labeled with the kanji of the prefecture from which they came, so it's easy for me to pick out the Iwate goods. Or the Yamagata cherries, which are justly famous throughout Japan -- they're beautiful and succulently sweet. B) Also, each prefecture has in its cities shops with the showcase products, both consumables and arts.
Any back-home favorites that you still do on a regular basis? If so, what has your experience been, finding the necessary ingredients?
Every once in a while, we both want hamburgers. Beef is way more expensive than pork, and it's rare that we see ground beef, so we usually make pork burgers. We have yet to find hamburger buns. Good cheese is also expensive because most of it is imported, which has caused us to turn to slices. :angry: I made carnitas tacos last week for a party, but we hadn't bought tortillas up until then because the ones we can get here are made in Belgium. This was very difficult for two native New Mexicans to accept. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that they were actually pretty tasty. As a general rule, Western foods tend to be quite expensive here.
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Your space, or lack of it, is inspiring. Was this a permanent move for you, or will you be coming back to the US at some point?
We plan to be here for two years. Azami is living a dream to teach English in Japan.
And what are the restaurants like in your area?
We have lots of Japanese restaurants, some Italian places (Italian food is very popular in Japan), a couple of French places, and at least one each of Chinese, Indian, and Korean. Like anywhere, they're a mixed bag. There's American fast food, in the form of Mickey D's and KFC, the latter of which I understand is insanely popular for Christmas, along with a whipped-cream-and-strawberries-filled sponge cake. We're fortunate to have a wonderful patisserie owned and operated by a Kitakami native who spent about seven years studying in France. European-style cakes and pastries are very popular in Japan.

We're still exploring, but we have a few regular places: an Okinawan restaurant; a place that serves takoyaki (grilled octopus balls -- ahem), okonomiyaki (Japanese frittata/pancake thing), and yakisoba (grilled noodles); and a regular okonomiyaki restaurant.

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breakfast.jpg

Natto!!! :angry: How is it sold in Japan? Around here I can only get frozen natto. Other than on top of rice how does Azami like to eat it? I usually just eat it wrapped in nori (seaweed).

What has been the biggest surprise about Japanese food in Japan? How are the potato chip flavors? What is the fast food menu like-I've heard McDonalds serves some funky stuff over there.

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Everytime I follow an eG foodblog from Japan I see pocky, pocky, pocky! Do you find that this is popular? Also, whipping cream with chopsticks? I am very impressed!!

Thank you very much for blogging. I'm reading with great interest and admiration for your embracing such a wonderful adventure.

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Natto!!! :angry: How is it sold in Japan? Around here I can only get frozen natto. Other than on top of rice how does Azami like to eat it? I usually just eat it wrapped in nori (seaweed).
How DOESN'T Azami like to eat it? He'll mix it in eggs by themselves, or with rice, using the little mustard and dashi sauce packets. He's also had it in tempura at a local restaurant.

Here, it's in the refrigerator case in styrofoam packages similar to the frozen natto, but covered only by a thin sheet of plastic. There are a lot of different brands, some of which come with different sauces. Some companies also pre-chop it.

What has been the biggest surprise about Japanese food in Japan? How are the potato chip flavors? What is the fast food menu like-I've heard McDonalds serves some funky stuff over there.
They use peanuts in things! Chiba, the prefecture outside of Tokyo where Narita Airport is located, is famous for its peanuts and peanut products. Iwate is famous for its senbei (rice crackers); a town south of Kitakami, Mizusawa, makes a specialty peanut senbei. I mentioned the prevalence of peanut butter in curry roux.

Potato chip flavors are different -- sea salt and cracked pepper, wasabi, I think I've seen seven-spice chips. I haven't investigated KFC's menu, but there's a McDonald's in the grocery store that offers an "Ebi-O-Filet" set, which is essentially a combo meal of a shrimp patty sandwich, fries, and a soda. Mos Burger, a Japanese fast food chain, offers teriyaki burgers, curry chicken sandwiches, chili dogs (actually better than some we've had Stateside), burgers with meat sauce, and an array of "naan" sandwiches on flatbread. They're things like "taco naan," with corn chips and cheese. Mos Burger does have the best grape soda I've had in a while -- might be Fanta.

Fast food here could also include the various snacks and prepared dishes you find at the convenience stores. Prepared foods run the gamut from sushi and katsu don (rice topped with breaded pork cutlet and an egg) to cold salads (I particularly like the chilled sesame noodles with shredded chicken from the Lawson) and microwaveable things like cheesy potato gratins (these I don't recommend, especially on a road trip). You'll also find a wide range of baked goods, including yakisoba sandwiches, hot dogs baked into the buns with ketchup already on, curry doughnuts, and cheese bread.

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Everytime I follow an eG foodblog from Japan I see pocky, pocky, pocky! Do you find that this is popular? Also, whipping cream with chopsticks? I am very impressed!!
Oh, yes. There are tons of Pocky flavors, many of which are available in the States. The one I've liked best is Tahitian Vanilla, followed by the "Men's Pocky," which is dark chocolate. There are also a lot of Pocky-alikes that aren't nearly as good.

Assuming cream and ceramic dish are properly chilled, whipping cream only takes about 20 minutes with chopsticks. Six are better than four. :angry:

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Yesterday, we took a road trip to Akita, the prefecture next door to Iwate. We visited Akita Prefecture last year on our vacation to Japan, and ate fantastically well. So, when the opportunity to visit a friend now living in Akita City presented itself, we leapt at it. I'm not sure if it's the variety of specialties, the types of foods, or the ingredients themselves, but we get really excited about Akita eats.

We joined our friend at a restaurant in Akita City that specializes in inaniwa udon. Unlike normal udon, inaniwa udon is thin and flat, almost like capellini. The texture is very silken, and the noodles have a bit more resistance to them than pasta cooked al dente. It can be served either hot or cold, although cold is very popular during the summer.

I had cold inaniwa udon alongside a bowl of Hinai jidori soup with mushrooms and green onions. They were served with a small dish of pickled daikon radish, which you can't see.

hinai_jidori_inaniwa_udon.jpg

I could eat this every day. Hinai jidori is a breed of chicken raised, free range (which is what jidori means in Japanese), in Hinai Town, Akita Prefecture. Its meat is very flavorful, almost as if the entire bird were made of dark meat. The soup base it makes is outstanding, somewhat sweet and rich.

Azami and our friend each had a kind of tenzaru udon, or cold udon with tempura. Azami had shrimp and vegetable tempura, and our friend had matsutake mushroom tempura.

tenzaru_udon.jpg

Clockwise from the tempura in the upper left of the front tray, you see inaniwa udon, tsuyu-based dipping sauce for the udon, pickled daikon radish, and tempura dipping sauce.

No trip to Akita is complete without a bit of iburigakko, or smoked pickled daikon radish.

pickles.jpg

That's it in the upper left corner of the dish of pickles. Again, clockwise from the iburigakko, we had pickles of Japanese cucumber, Japanese eggplant, some kind of sweet rice porridge (not pickled), and carrot. Iburigakko is not well known outside of Akita Prefecture, and many people who have had it don't really like it. More for us. :angry:

On our vacation last year, we stayed in Akita City for three days and became regulars at a local coffeehouse, the Nagahama Coffee Company. We paid a visit yesterday for iced coffee, cheescake (just okay, per Azami), and refreshingly delicious mascarpone gelato.

nagahama_mascarpone_gelato.jpg

Finally, on our way home, we had to stop for dinner in Yokote, a small town near the Akita/Iwate border, famous for its yakisoba. Yakisoba is basically grilled soba noodles tossed with cooked pork and a teriyaki-like sauce that isn't as sweet as teriyaki and a bit spicier. It can also be made with shrimp, other seafood (I've had it with squid, scallops, and shrimp), or just vegetables. It's then topped with benishouga (grated pickled ginger), and sometimes aonori. The distinguishing feature of Yokote yakisoba is a sunny-side up egg on top.

yokote_yakisoba.jpg

The owner and cook also gave us a small dish of fresh cucumbers and lightly salted eggplant.

yokote_yasai.jpg

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Over in the Dinner thread, I've mentioned making okonomiyaki a few times. Okonomi means "as you like it" in Japanese, and yaki means "grilled." It's one of our favorite Japanese dishes, it's relatively easy to make, and is infinitely versatile. Common ingredients include pork, kimchi, various seafoods, nattou, or vegetables. Many okonomiyaki restaurants here let you DIY by seating you at a table with a griddle in the middle and providing you with a small bowl of batter to mix up, whatever toppings you want, a couple of spatulas for turning, and a timer.

I use this recipe, with some adjustments. The batter holds for a day or two once mixed, which is handy because the recipe makes five, and there are only two of us (the dogs aren't that lucky). I made up a batch for dinner Monday night, and made the last ones today. Here's a photo of the ingredients:

ingredients.jpg

Clockwise starting from the back left, we have flour, instant dashinomoto (bonito stock), cabbage, soy sauce, mayonnaise (leaning against the modem), benishouga, tenkasu (literally "tempura scraps," or residual bits of fried tempura batter), finely chopped nagaimo (Chinese yam), egg, chopped green onion, sliced pork, and okonimiyaki sauce.

This is the tenkasu, up close and personal.

tenkasu.jpg

And, here's the nagaimo, both whole and chopped. What you may not be able to tell about it from the photo is that when grated or chopped finely, it develops a mucilaginous texture. It slides right off the cutting board into the bowl of batter in one mass.

nagaimo.jpg

minced_nagaimo.jpg

I usually mix the batter up with chopsticks. Initial egg and flour mixture looks like nascent pancake batter.

egg_flour_batter.jpg

Once everything's in, it looks like this:

batter_vegetables.jpg

I admit to a bit of trouble with this batch because of an experiment. Our favorite okonomiyaki joint puts benishouga in the batter, which my recipe doesn't. On Monday, I threw a healthy bunch in without first draining it, and I didn't think to compensate by adding extra flour, so the batter came out rather liquid and spread non-uniformly in the skillet.

pork_skillet.jpg

Shaped like a map of Hokkaido or not, once the batter was in the pan (optimally, you would use a greased griddle), I topped it with the sliced pork. Like pancakes, it needs to be turned once the bottom is nicely browned. In restaurants, they teach you to use the corner of your spatula to break the crust in a few spots after you've turned it, presumably to let steam escape since there are a lot of wet ingredients in there. It only needs three or four minutes per side.

Here's Monday's finished product:

monday_okonomiyaki.jpg

Okonomiyaki garnishes are many. Like the yakisoba, there's a thick, somewhat spicy, less-sweet teriyaki-like sauce. You can also use sliced cheese, mayonnaise (the Japanese LOVE mayonnaise -- it goes on everything, including pizza), benishouga, aonori, or katsuobushi (shaved bonito flakes). I forgot to get photos of the dressed okonomiyaki, so these are from an earlier batch involving shrimp.

okonomiyaki-blog.jpg

I had batter left over, so I decided to finish it off at lunch today. I added more flour to the mixture, and the end products were much more regular.

wednesday_okonomiyaki.jpg

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Finally, on our way home, we had to stop for dinner in Yokote, a small town near the Akita/Iwate border, famous for its yakisoba. Yakisoba is basically grilled soba noodles tossed with cooked pork and a teriyaki-like sauce that isn't as sweet as teriyaki and a bit spicier. It can also be made with shrimp, other seafood (I've had it with squid, scallops, and shrimp), or just vegetables. It's then topped with benishouga, grated pickled ginger and sometimes aonori. The distinguishing feature of Yokote yakisoba is a sunny-side up egg on top.

yokote_yakisoba.jpg

Oh wow that looks delicious! Do you happen to have a recipe for that??

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Over in the Dinner thread, I've mentioned making okonomiyaki a few times. Okonomi means "as you like it" in Japanese, and yaki means "grilled." It's one of our favorite Japanese dishes, it's relatively easy to make, and is infinitely versatile. Common ingredients include pork, kimchi, various seafoods, nattou, or vegetables. Many okonomiyaki restaurants here let you DIY by seating you at a table with a griddle in the middle and providing you with a small bowl of batter to mix up, whatever toppings you want, a couple of spatulas for turning, and a timer.

I use this recipe, with some adjustments. The batter holds for a day or two once mixed, which is handy because the recipe makes five, and there are only two of us (the dogs aren't that lucky).

Oh, man, okanomiyaki! We've made it a couple times, but with packaged batter I picked up at Daruma. One day I want to get all of the raw ingredients and do it myself, though. We usually wing it, and I never get the filling proportions right; mine tend to be a bit doughy. I do find that letting the batter rest on the counter for a bit really helps. The final product tends to taste starchy if I don't.

Thanks for posting all of these pictures! A good dish of cold soba is what I've been really craving for lunch these past few weeks.

I tried Mos Burger in Tokyo just because I wanted to see what Japanese fast food was all about. The shrimp burger was really good, and so was the green tea shake. Miles above burger joints here. We were obsessed with the chip flavors over there, especially the Pringles. French consomme! Grilled shrimp and black pepper!

There were these fancy gelatin desserts we kept seeing everywhere, especially in the food halls of the big department stores in Tokyo. Do you know what they are called? I kept getting different answers, but it was likely due to a language barrier. Here's what some of of fancier ones looked like:

85310255-M.jpg

I'm guessing they were meant as gifts since many were packaged in boxes as such.

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As part of my blog, legant asked me to talk a bit about the Obon holiday, which is going on this week. Obon is a Buddhist festival during which it is believed that the spirits of ancestors return to the physical world briefly. Many Japanese travel to their hometowns, or the location of the family tomb, to reunite and celebrate the holiday. I understand that the main activity of the holiday involves family members cleaning the tomb, setting up lanterns and incense to guide the spirits back, and placing small offerings of flowers and incense at the tomb.

I'm not aware that there are any specific foods that are consumed during Obon. I understand that in Buddhist homes, in addition to the family home altar, a second altar is set up during Obon to welcome ancestors' spirits home. Family members place food offerings at this altar, including dumplings; somen noodles; and a mixture of washed rice, chopped cucumber and eggplant, and water, all arranged in a lotus leaf.

In each town, bon odori, or bon dances occur, accompanied by taiko (drums). Each region (I'm not sure whether "region" means "city," "prefecture," or larger geographic area) has its own dance, using movements that represent aspects of the life and nature of that region. Anyone can join in these dances. There are also generally fireworks displays, which is not unique to Obon -- nearly all summer festivals here have fireworks. At the end of Obon, the lanterns and incense are removed from the family tomb.

In the grocery stores, platters of prepared foods have become much larger in recent days, presumably to accommodate larger families celebrating Obon together. I've seen large fruit trays, big platters of tempura, tonkatsu, sushi, and slices of meat cut for sukiyaki, as well as large boxes of daifuku (mochi stuffed with a sweet filling, usually adzuki bean paste, called anko in Japanese) or youkan (bean jelly). Grocery stores here don't permit you to take cameras inside, so I unfortunately don't have photographs of these things. :angry:

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Oh, man, okanomiyaki! We've made it a couple times, but with packaged batter I picked up at Daruma. One day I want to get all of the raw ingredients and do it myself, though. We usually wing it, and I never get the filling proportions right; mine tend to be a bit doughy. I do find that letting the batter rest on the counter for a bit really helps. The final product tends to taste starchy if I don't.
The recipe that I use calls for 160g of flour to "one large Chinese yam." The okonomiyaki came out with the best texture when I used approximately a 2:1 ratio of yam to flour (e.g., a 320g yam).
I tried Mos Burger in Tokyo just because I wanted to see what Japanese fast food was all about. The shrimp burger was really good, and so was the green tea shake. Miles above burger joints here.
I do love Mos Burger every now and then. Haven't had the green tea shake, but I also like the shrimp burger and the teriyaki burger. Azami really likes the onion rings. And I can't shut up about how good the grape soda is -- I rarely drink soda, but on every trip to Mos Burger I order a sandwich/fries/soda set.
There were these fancy gelatin desserts we kept seeing everywhere, especially in the food halls of the big department stores in Tokyo. Do you know what they are called? I kept getting different answers, but it was likely due to a language barrier. Here's what some of of fancier ones looked like:

85310255-M.jpg

I'm guessing they were meant as gifts since many were packaged in boxes as such.

I believe the general name for them is kanten. Kanten is also the Japanese name for agar, the gelatinizing agent used in making them.

These ones are specifically "natsu-sugata," or summer-style, which makes sense. They look very summery.

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We've had blisteringly hot days all week, from 100.4 F on Monday, to a cool of 86 F today. Like many homes in Japan, ours does not have central AC or heat, so we're making do with an electric fan and lots of open windows. Azami has the week off for Obon, and neither of us slept well because of the heat, so we're being pretty lazy today. I think we both had cereal for lunch.

Yesterday, we decided to beat the heat with shochu highballs. Shochu is sort of like Japanese vodka. It's a clear, neutral spirit, made most frequently from rice, but it can also be made from Japanese yam (imo-shochu), barley (mugi-shochu, which is what we used in these), or buckwheat, among other things. The raw materials used depend on the region in which it is made. Shochu has become very popular in Japan in recent years, and according to some sources, has overtaken sake as the most popular spirit in Japan.

A shochu highball is just what its name suggests: shochu plus a mixer, usually tea, over ice. We keep houjicha (roasted green tea) in the refrigerator, so it's highball-ready.

Here's the setup:

chuhai_ingredients.jpg

And, the final product:

chu-hai.jpg

Like the Senate shot glass? No, the vitamin C didn't go into these.

With our highballs, we ate seven-spice senbei, TJ's Honey Sesame Almonds (sent by a friend in a care package), and some dried pressed fish sticks.

shichimi_senbei.jpg

dried_fish_sticks.jpg

The Japanese name for things that would count as "beer snacks" is otsumami. I don't know if they'd include the almonds. :angry:

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I love your blog so far! I am a Japan-phile (not sure of the word for that)- my mother recalls my odd obsession with the country as a toddler. I have never been to Japan, and though I would love to go, I am not drawn to its capital. Can you tell us more about Kitakami, the prefecture and its culture? How is it different from Tokyo, or how Japan/Tokyo is portrayed in film and pop culture?

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Last night, we attended an outdoor birthday party involving Japanese grilling, or yakiniku (literally, grilled meat). The evening started off with some snacks.

Edamame and little packages of rice crackers and peanuts:

kaki-p_edamame.jpg

A pizza topped with ham, shrimp, ketchup, mayonnaise, and aonori; potato chips (not pictured; they were standard salted chips); and "Giant Corn," which looked like dried huitlacoche, had the texture of rice cakes, and tasted a lot like Sugar Pops:

pizza_giant_corn.jpg

Grilled chicken or chicken and onion skewers (generally, yakitori):

yakitori.jpg

Onigiri (rice balls wrapped in seaweed). Onigiri usually are stuffed with things like salmon roe, mentaiko (spicy roe), umeboshi, kampyo (gourd), or salmon.

variety_onigiri.jpg

Here's the first tray of meat:

yakiniku_meat.jpg

We had an array of cuts of pork, beef, and chicken. People kept arriving throughout the evening, and more meat would get thrown on the griddle for the new arrivals. We also had a nice selection of vegetables: kabocha squash, cabbage, yellow onion, piman (small green Japanese peppers), and mushrooms. Once things were cooked, people helped themselves to whatever they wanted off the grill and dipped their selections in either sweet or spicy sauce. You can see the spicy sauce bottle in the first picture of snacks above.

Kabocha and cabbage on the grill:

kabocha_kyabetsu.jpg

Full array of meats and veggies on the grill:

raw_griddle.jpg

Another shot of the full grill. People took turns minding the grill; everyone used chopsticks to turn and choose food.

full_griddle.jpg

The party hosts provided all food and non-alcoholic beverages, and we attendees made contributions to the cost. Liquor was not provided; anyone who wanted to drink could bring their own. This isn't entirely unusual -- drinking and driving laws in Japan are very restrictive. Many people won't have even one drink if they're driving. Others will take advantage of a service offered by cab companies in which the person drinking calls a cab, and the cabbie brings along a second person to follow him home in the caller's car.

And, it's not a birthday party without cake:

o-tanjoubi_ke-ki.jpg

Sponge cakes topped with whipped cream and fruit are very common in Japan. This one was very good. It had blueberries, oranges, strawberries, and bits of melon on it, plus a cute little plaque wishing "birthday girl-chan" (chan is a diminutive term frequently added to girls' and women's names) a happy birthday.

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You referenced it earlier... but what's up with the mayonnaise? It looks as if the mayo is drizzled on the pizza.

A pizza topped with ham, shrimp, ketchup, mayonnaisepizza_giant_corn.jpg

And... how passionate are the Japanese about Miracle Whip? :angry:

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Last night, we attended a going-away party for a friend at an izakaya in Kitakami's izakaya district. Izakaya are defined by Wikipedia as Japanese drinking establishments where food, more substantial than tapas or mezze but less than full meals, is offered to accompany the drinks. They range from very traditional ones, serving only sake and Japanese food, to ones offering Western spirits and cocktails and Western-inspired or fusion foods, in addition to traditional Japanese food and drink. They often offer time-limited all-you-can-consume options for drink (nomihodai) or eat (tabehodai) for a set price.

The party was held at a more modern, Western-influenced izakaya. After being greeted with the standard, all-staff shout of "Irasshaimase!" (Welcome!), we were seated and requested nomihodai. I had a couple of perfectly decent Campari and orange; Azami had Ballantine's neat.

At each place setting, the restaurant had included an oshibori, or small damp towel to clean your hands. This is a fairly standard practice in Japan.

There are other standard practices involved in dining. For example, before beginning to eat, either in a private home or in a restaurant, you would say "Itadakimasu!" which loosely means "I will receive." At the end of the meal, you would say "gochisousamadeshita," or roughly "Thank you for the feast." Both are used to communicate appreciation to the host or preparer of food. It's acceptable to use your own chopsticks to take food from a communal dish when no other serving utensil is provided. However, it is most proper to turn your chopsticks around and use the non-eating end to do so.

Some izakaya, this one included, present you with a small dish called otoushi upon being seated . These are automatically given to each patron and charged to the bill as a seating charge. It's sort of like a cover charge. Our otoushi was very good: a cube of chilled tofu, sliced okra, and small dice of nagaimo, surrounded by dashi gelatin.

tofu_okra.jpg

We ordered a lot of dishes to share amongst us, many of which were really, really good. This dish, katsuo tataki served in a soy-based sauce with slivers of red onion and red and yellow peppers, was one of the best.

katsuo_tataki.jpg

Seafood salad: shrimp, clams, and squid, tossed in a wasabi-tinged vinegar dressing, served on mild greens and garnished with katsuobushi (shaved dried bonito):

seafood_salad.jpg

Surprisingly, a simple, fresh mushroom pizza wowed us with thin, crispy crust, and a not-overwhelming amount of cheese:

pizza.jpg

Azami particularly liked the buta-kimuchiizu, or sauteed pork tossed with kimchi, and topped with (I think) mozzarella cheese. My language partner tells me that her husband really likes buta-kimuchi, the same dish sans cheese. The fine threads on top of the dish were hot pepper.

buta_kimuchiizu.jpg

We all really liked this fusion-y pasta dish: spaghetti tossed with a thin sauce made of butter and the flesh of umeboshi, mashed into a paste. It was also topped with some mild greens and katsuobushi. The tartness of the pickled plums was subdued in the composition of the dish, lending a pleasant tang to the spaghetti.

ume_pasta.jpg

The last of the really good dishes again featured umeboshi: chicken breast pounded thin and rolled around umeboshi, coated in panko, and deep fried. Yes, that's mayonnaise for dipping.

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Tomato and mozzarella salad may be approaching the triteness threshold in Japan -- it's on multiple menus in Kitakami. This one was meh.

tomato_mozz_salad.jpg

From meh to bleh: a Bali-inspired yakisoba dish, featuring spicy sauce, shrimp, and fluffy, crispy rice crackers. It was garnished with peanut bits, so I didn't get to try it, but I'm told that it was unremarkable.

balinese_yakisoba.jpg

Finally, a globe eggplant stuffed with sauteed squid, octopus, and vegetables, smothered in tomato sauce and cheese, was a failure. Octopus was way overcooked and rubbery, tomato sauce was one-dimensional and overwhelmed the whole dish.

seafood_eggplant_saute.jpg

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You referenced it earlier... but what's up with the mayonnaise? It looks as if the mayo is drizzled on the pizza.

And... how passionate are the Japanese about Miracle Whip? B)

I have no idea. It's just really, really popular, and goes on almost anything. And yes, the mayo is drizzled on the pizza. Possibly even baked there.

I have never seen Miracle Whip in a grocery store here. I have seen this, though, and I still don't know what to do with it.

kraft_camembert.jpg

This is a box of Kraft pre-sliced "Camembert" cheese. :angry:

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Woo-hoo, road trip! A group of us caravaned from Kitakami to a beach in Miyagi Prefecture, Iwate's neighbor to the south, to go surfing yesterday. We took some snacks pictured earlier with us: the seven-spice senbei, TJ's honey sesame almonds, and pressed fish sticks. Our Japanese friends seemed pretty taken with the almonds.

Azami and I bought lunch at the beach. We each had a dish of yakisoba, and Azami had a couple of misoyakionigiri, or miso-basted grilled rice balls. These had teeny-tiny umeboshi in the middle of them. They were accompanied by two brilliant yellow slices of pickled daikon radish. The little green grass-looking barrier is included frequently in packaged lunches, presumably to keep the pickles separate from the main parts of the dish.

misoyakionigiri.jpg

Also, because we'd expended so much energy and lost so many electrolytes and ions, we had to replenish them with Pocari Sweat.

pocari_sweat.jpg

Pocari Sweat is a quintessentially Japanese creation. It's an "ion supply drink" manufactured by a pharmaceutical company that claims to restore the nutrients lost through sweating and physical exertion -- or even sleep, since the can recommends that you pop open a Pocari Sweat to quench your thirst when you wake up in the morning. I rather like it; it's got a nice citrusy flavor.

For the trip home, we bought a couple of canned coffees out of a roadside vending machine. Vending machine coffees aren't spectacular, but they are a nice cheap way to get your caffeine on on a road trip. They're only 120 yen each, or about a buck. My "Draft" turned out to be a sweetened milk coffee. Azami's "Emblem Black" was, as advertised, black. And bitter.

vending_machine_coffee.jpg

The drive took us through mountains and valleys planted with rice. The rice is now producing seeds, and should be ready for harvest soon in the north.

rice_paddies.jpg

We were both too exhausted when we got home to execute our original blogging opportunity and dinner plan: a visit to the local Okinawan restaurant. Instead, we ordered delivery udon. :angry: I love delivery udon. I love the concept. I love the execution. Call in, place your order, and a delivery guy shows up about forty-five minutes later with a box carrying real dishes full of fresh, tasty Japanese food.

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Azami ordered katsu don, which came with a side dish of lightly pickled cabbage and carrots and an envelope of miso soup mix.

delivery_katsu_don.jpg

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I ordered shrimp tempura udon. The tempura shrimp swelled up from the soup and the plastic delivery covering, but were still very good. The dish included a slice of kamaboko (pressed fish cake).

delivery_ebi_ten_udon.jpg

Also, as a completely untraditional treat, we ordered cheese gyoza. I still don't know what kind of cheese is in them -- it's a little tangier than mozzarella, but still mild. Maybe it's the Kraft "Camembert".

cheese_gyoza.jpg

After eating, we rinsed out the dishes and placed them on the front step for the restaurant to collect the next morning. The driver came by while I was working on this entry.

dishes_for_pickup.jpg

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I love your blog so far! I am a Japan-phile (not sure of the word for that)- my mother recalls my odd obsession with the country as a toddler. I have never been to Japan, and though I would love to go, I am not drawn to its capital. Can you tell us more about Kitakami, the prefecture and its culture? How is it different from Tokyo, or how Japan/Tokyo is portrayed in film and pop culture?
To tell you the truth, I don't know that much about Tokyo. I've only spent about two days there over the course of last year's vacation and moving here. It is, of course, a major international city of about 12 million people. It has more of "everything": the famed Tsukiji fish market, top flight restaurants, many Western chains, and Western influence generally.

Kitakami, on the other hand, is only home to about 92,000 people; Iwate Prefecture's entire population is around 1.2 million. It is very rural and mountainous, and the predominant industries are agriculture, forestry, and fishing, according to the prefectural website. Kitakami is liberally sprinkled with rice paddies such as the one of which Azami took this photo. It's across the street from a restaurant in town.

rice_2.jpg

Foreigners are a dime a dozen in Tokyo. Here, it's rare that we'll see more than one in a day (excluding each other), unless one of us is having a party or it's a festival day when everyone is out. Consequently, you won't find many restaurants that have translated their menus into English, or even that have photo menus. You'll still see plastic food in some restaurant windows both places, though.

two_ramens.jpg

Most people in Kitakami who have yards have vegetable gardens, from which they'll gladly share produce. The crops I've seen most frequently here are tomatoes, potatoes, kabocha squash, Japanese eggplant, onions, cucumbers, and the aforementioned rice.

These, of course, are prevalent throughout Japan, and their absence is how you know you're truly off the beaten path:

vending_machine_2.jpg

As I was thinking about your question, I came to the realization that I know more about Akita specialty foods than Iwate specialty foods. Part of the reason may be seasonality: Azami tells me that most of the Kitakami local specialties are fall or winter foods, such as Kitakami korokke, a type of potato croquette, or a soup made with cut sheets of buckwheat dough. Also, people don't seem as involved with their food here as they are in Akita, where they'll gladly tell you about almost everything that Akita is known for and where you can get it. Whenever I ask about local foods here, I generally get two responses: Morioka reimen and wanko soba. Both are specialties of Morioka, Iwate's capital city. Morioka reimen is an adaptation of a Korean dish involving noodles in a cold soup and topped with kimchi, a slice of pork, a hard-boiled egg, and usually a piece of watermelon. It's popular in the summer. This photo is from the Iwate Prefecture website.

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Wanko soba is more of a competition than a culinary experience. The diner has a small, miso-soup sized bowl with a lid. A waitress stands over him or her with a pot of soba, which she dishes into the diner's bowl as he finishes the prior batch. The purpose is to compete with your neighbors (or yourself, I suppose) by eating as many bowls as possible. I haven't eaten it, but people who have say the trick is to cover your bowl quickly when you've had enough -- otherwise, the waitress will just keep serving you.

I've tried to keep my response as food-focused as possible. More general insights about our expatriate life in Japan can be found at our everyday blog, Let's Sharing!.

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Sunday was our last real day off after Obon, so we took the opportunity to explore more of Kitakami and its environs. We've only had a car for about three weeks, making extended travel difficult. We both decided to start our day with Western-ish breakfasts. Azami made scrambled eggs with nattou and a side of toast.

nattou_tosuto.jpg

I decided just to have toast. We make toast in the grill part of our cooktop because we don't have a toaster.

grill_toast.jpg

Japanese bread comes in relatively cube-shaped loaves sliced into varying degrees of thickness: eight, six, or four slices per cube. We usually buy the six-slice loaves; I love the thick-sliced bread here.

For lunch, we sought out a new-to-us restaurant on the other side of town. We each had a teishoku, or set lunch of main, pickles, rice, salad, and miso soup. Teishoku are common lunch options in Japan, and they're pretty cheap -- they usually range in price from 400 yen to 1200 yen, or about 3.50 USD to 11.00 USD.

Azami had butaniku teishoku ("pork set lunch"). Rice is in the front left dish; miso soup in the right front dish.

butaniku_teishoku.jpg

I had Kitakami korokke teishoku. Kitakami korokke are croquettes made from locally grown potatoes mixed with meat and/or vegetables, shaped into disks, coated in panko, and deep-fried. These ones had green beans and mushroom bits. They're served with a tangy soy-based sauce, thinner than but closer in flavor to okonomiyaki sauce than teriyaki sauce.

kitakami_korokke.jpg

In addition to the shredded cabbage with tangy, creamy dressing that came on our plates, we received a small dish of okra and two kinds of seaweed in a soy dressing.

okra_seaweed_salad.jpg

Delicious miso soup with small pieces of tightly coiled fu and wakame:

kinoji_miso_soup.jpg

They were very good, filling lunches for our road trip to a nearby lake to check out possible windsurfing venues. Upon our return, we attended a music concert given by a student of Azami's colleague, then treated ourselves to dinner at an izakaya called Onikenbai, after a traditional dance for which Kitakami is famous.

To be continued...

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Dinner at Onikenbai: We started off with an order of kiritampo. Kiritampo is an Akita specialty made from cooked pounded rice. The pounded rice is shaped around a stick and grilled. It then can be served in soup, where it cooks to a soft, somewhat porridgy texture, and lends the broth a pleasant rice flavor. What we were served was more akin to misotampo, where the kiritampo is brushed with miso and grilled again. For presentation, one kiritampo was wrapped in a shiso (perilla, similar to mint) leaf.

kiritampo.jpg

We also ordered hiyayakko tofu, or chilled tofu. It came with sliced green onion, grated ginger, and katsuobushi for mixing in with soy sauce to season the tofu.

hiyayakko_tofu.jpg

Azami ordered chikuwa chiizu, a dish that makes me think there may be a developing niche of Japanese/cheese fusion cuisine. Chikuwa is cooked fish paste molded around a stick and grilled, similar to kiritampo. It has a rather mild fish flavor, and can frequently be found in noodle soups. For this dish, the chikuwa was stuffed with mystery cheese, coated with a light batter involving aonori and deep fried. It was actually quite good -- very crisp coating and nice complementary flavors. I need to stop being inherently skeptical of Japanese dishes enhanced with cheese...

chikuwa_chiizu.jpg

For my "main," I ordered salmon spring rolls. They were filled with a slice of salmon, julienned daikon, cucumber, and carrot, and a bit of sour cream, and served on a sweet sauce laced with red pepper flakes.

salmon_spring_rolls.jpg

Azami had a temaki sushi selection as his "main." His dish came with three large temaki: one tuna, one salmon, and one nattou. The garnish is lightly pickled ginger.

temaki_collection.jpg

The nattou temaki:

nattou_temaki.jpg

We'll be eating in this evening, and cooking with vegetables given to us by our neighbor across the street: green peppers and tomatoes.

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Both in the blog and in the Dinner thread, I've mentioned the neighbor who frequently gives us vegetables from her garden. I can see her garden from my kitchen window, and was very amused a couple of weeks ago when she saw me working in there and came over to pass me some tomatoes and cucumbers through the window. Sort of like reverse take-out. Yesterday she gave us a bunch of small green peppers, and this morning she presented Azami with a boatload of tomatoes. Here's our bounty:

garden_bounty.jpg

She suggested stuffing the peppers with ground meat, so I decided to run with that for some of them. Because I can't bake them at any point, I had to come up with some other way to cook them. So, I turned to the fish grill to "roast" them.

grilling_peppers.jpg

I love this thing. I've actually toyed with the idea of blind baking tartlet crusts in it, but I'm not sure how well that would work, given that the instructions tell you to put water in the bottom pan. Also, the cooking space isn't very high -- I've torched corn husks in it before. Anyhoo, it roasted the peppers just fine.

peppers_aki.jpg

One of the dogs finally managed to get into a photo. :angry:

I wanted to do a simple Japanese-inspired filling. Azami found mixed ground beef and pork at the store, so picked that up instead of the usual ground pork. The rest of the filling ingredients were green onions, a carrot, ginger, and garlic.

filling_ingredients.jpg

I sauteed the chopped-up carrot to soften it for the filling.

carrot_saute.jpg

Comment about the pan: it has a detachable handle. If you look closely, you can see a button on top of the handle -- that's the release. The handle migrates among the three pots we have. I'm assuming they were designed this way to allow for maximum pot storage in small spaces.

Once the carrot was tender, I tossed in the garlic and ginger to cook briefly before adding the ground meat. I also added a bit of soy sauce and mirin to the mixture.

While the filling was cooking, I prepared and plated the salad. I don't know what the kanji characters on the lettuce band are, but the last three hiragana characters are "yasai," "vegetables."

tomatoes_lettuce.jpg

The Japanese focus on balance and aesthetic harmony when plating dishes. That focus includes everything from the dish on which something is served to the types of foods served on a plate (I have read that fish and rice should never be together on a plate, and certain foods call for certain shapes of dishes) and their arrangement and adornment. I'm still working on my presentation skills.

plated_salad.jpg

To accompany the peppers and salad, I steamed some genmai (brown rice). One of the great things about living in Japan is easy access to fresh, high-quality rice. We used to buy our rice at a rice store down the street from us that I believe only carried local varieties. They also may have had some Akita Komachi, which is excellent rice due to the species of rice and the purity of the water in Akita. One of Azami's students, a semi-retired Kitakami rice farmer, sold us our current supplies of both genmai and white rice.

dinner.jpg

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I'm drooling over all the natto pics-thank you. Couple more questions regarding the food if that's okay. How is Western food eaten-do they use forks and knives? Has this led to forks and knives being used more often when eating traditional Japanese food? Have you dealt with bento boxes and all the fun gadgets you can buy to spruce up one's lunch? If we could send you two food items from home what would they be?

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How is Western food eaten-do they use forks and knives? Has this led to forks and knives being used more often when eating traditional Japanese food?
It depends. Restaurants will provide knives and forks, and so will your hosts if you're eating Western food in someone's home. I've been to at least one party where a mix of Western and Japanese foods were served, and people ate both kinds with chopsticks. Curry rice, which is not particularly traditional, is eaten with a spoon and a fork. I'm not otherwise aware of instances in which Western silverware is used for Japanese food.
Have you dealt with bento boxes and all the fun gadgets you can buy to spruce up one's lunch?
Not entirely. We're still using teeny-tiny storage containers to carry leftovers. Azami has a little carrying case for his chopsticks, though, for when he takes lunch with him. I just started working part-time, so I usually eat lunch at home or meet him at a restaurant near his school, which is close to our home.
If we could send you two food items from home what would they be?
Cupcakes! There aren't any American-style bakeries in Kitakami, and the Starbucks in Morioka doesn't have them. Also, good flour tortillas.
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Today is the last day for my blog. I've really enjoyed sharing the culinary aspect of our lives here -- there's so much to discuss!

I've only been in Japan for about three months, and have learned a lot in that time. Doing the blog, however, really demonstrated to me that I still have a lot to learn about local offerings, seasonal dishes, cooking techniques, sake, and restaurants. We passed a butcher yesterday while running our errands, which I didn't know we had. Must investigate the Japanese butcher!

It was hard to leave Washington because of our connections there. We lived through a lot in the eight years we were there, we own a home in Silver Spring, we have wonderful friends, and I left a job I really enjoyed. I miss windsurfing on the Eastern Shore, followed by a beer-battered rockfish sandwich and a pint at Sheridan's in Stevensville. Maybe not the best food ever, but perfect for tired windsurfers.

In Kitakami, we have mountains, rivers, and lots of open sky. Azami has an interesting job that may develop into his new career, and we're surrounded by wonderfully generous and friendly people. I'm enjoying the challenge of learning Japanese cooking techniques, and hope to be doing some pickling soon. We've both discovered that the longer we live here, the less we're drawn to cooking or seeking out Western food (with the exceptions of cupcakes and tortillas, of course). "Going native" enables you to eat very well and rather cheaply, and the availability of good quality fish and vegetables makes it easy to do so.

This thread will be open for questions until August 22nd. I will continue posting about my culinary exploits over in the Dinner thread.

Thanks again to legant for the suggestion and to Don for the forum. Thanks for reading!

Cheers,

Xochitl10

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Thanks Xochitl10 for sharing with us! Your pictures are beautiful and it's been so interesting to get an insight to Japanese culture and cuisine!

One last (selfish) question: Would it be possible to travel/eat in Japan and avoid soy products completely?

You're welcome! It's been fun. :angry:

Eating in Japan without getting soy is possible, I think, if you're vigilant. Soy sauce (shoyu in Japanese, an important word to know!), tofu, and miso (I'm sure you know this, but miso is made from soybeans) go into many, many things. Most soup bases include soy sauce , so noodle soups would almost definitely be out. So would miso soup. Cold noodle dishes like zaru soba or zaru udon probably would be good bets because the noodles are served separately from the dipping sauce, which probably includes shoyu. Similarly, tempura would probably be fine as long as you weren't dipping it in sauce. You would also want to ask whether the tempura includes tofu or edamame. Nigiri sushi (fish on rice) and sashimi mostly would be fine, as long as you're not dipping them. You would probably want to avoid anything involving unagi (freshwater eel), which is glazed with soy sauce and grilled. I'm not sure if the seaweed used to wrap onigiri and rolled sushi is first softened by dipping in soy sauce.

Grilled meats might be okay if you can ask for them to be grilled plainly, without their usual basting/afterseasoning with sauce because it probably includes soy sauce. Same with whole grilled fish, although these frequently are only seasoned with salt. I don't think that adzuki beans are the same as soybeans, so sweets made with adzuki bean paste (anko) would probably be okay. Desserts here are often fruit, which wouldn't be a problem from a soy standpoint. I would avoid things like convenience store foods or supermarket bento simply because they're premade (in the case of convenience stores, offsite) and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to know definitively which contained soy products and which did not.

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but I hope it's helpful. I think it could be done, and IMO Japan is worth the effort.

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