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Gap Year Abroad

12 posts categorized "Genevieve Iwanicki"

07/18/2014

Last Blog Post

 Japan is a country of contrast. The prime example of the old versus the new. Just being able to walk the streets, explore, and always end up somewhere gave me a whole new perspective on the Japanese lifestyle. Every Sunday, my friend Evan and I would go for walks across Tokyo. Starting in some corner of the city, usually Akihabara (close to our school), we would walk for hours, stopping along the way for family restaurant matcha lattes and ice cream and relying on road signs as our only directions. We would eventually end up in Shinjuku, or Shibuya, or Ikebukuro, massive tourist spots miles from where we had started, but along the way had traveled through areas that no tourist would discover and no guidebook would include because they were just everyday, normal, unexciting Japan. Homes, businesses, and restaurants frequented by citizens of Tokyo that no tourist had enough time to reach. And oddly enough, I found these little areas the most exciting of all. Discovering old, residential Japan smack in the middle of glitzy, modern, expanding Japan became my favorite activity. 

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 When I would run in the morning down the thin shopping streets in my area, I noticed the people and the stores, already busy at 8:00. I watched school kids race by on their bikes, riding alongside a friend or two. I saw salarymen and women pouring out of the neighborhood subway station. Buildings, like Asics and other brands, had massive glass towers. Cement high rise condominiums stood next door to tiny neighborhood fish markets on the first floor of traditional Japanese houses. Moms waving their elementary schoolers off down the street. People walking small dogs. The same man every morning standing outside of a small car wash and auto repair shop, waiting for people to stop by. 

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The contrast of Japan during the night is impossible to describe. In the space of five minutes, you can walk from a blindingly lit area full of billboards, massive stores, and throngs of people, and suddenly make a sharp turn into a tiny alley, dimly lit and achingly quiet. The air is always full with the smell of the trees and wind and the perfume of every woman who rushes by you. More so than during the day, people out at night are more relaxed and let their guard down. Someone’s shoulder might bump into you as you pass. They take a little longer to whirl around and exclaim “Sumimasen (excuse me)!”, or sometimes they won’t even notice at all. Once you get off the main roads, you can walk through utterly silent streets and notice every little thing. A light flickers. A leaf drops. The air is never stagnant at night- it always moves and flows.

 Not my favorite memory of Japan, but the memory that stuck with me most, was when I was walking back from a friend’s house, about three miles from mine. It was probably almost 8:00 at night. The air was still warm but a little misty- it was supposed to start to rain later on. Despite that and the fact that the sun was just about set, people were still out, carrying grocery bags and closing up their storefronts on the thin shopping streets in the area. Around the bridge over a small park crossing a big intersection, the area, however, was mainly deserted, except for an old woman pushing a cart on her way home. 

 I kept walking past buses, cars stopped at red lights, libraries with all the lights still on, and dim streetlights. A tiny restaurant somehow caught my eye. Red cloth hung over the sliding glass doors so common for neighborhood restaurants in Japan, with red lanterns gently swinging in the nighttime breeze. The space inside was only large enough for four stools at a counter, with the cooking space behind it. Through the dim indoor light, I could make out the figure of a salaryman in his customary dark suit, hunched over a bowl of ramen so close his nose was nearly hitting the broth, slurping up noodles with chopsticks. Behind the tiny counter, facing the customer, the chef stood with his back against the wall and arms crossed casually, a bandana tied around his salt and pepper hair. He said something quick to the salaryman, who promptly put down his chopsticks to reply before turning his attention back to the bowl. He lifted it to his mouth to drink every last bit of the broth. The chef tilted back his head and laughed before reaching for another bowl to begin to wash. That image stuck with me. It hit me with some wave of nostalgia and loneliness, calm and content. I don’t know how else to describe it. It gave me the deepest feeling of just “This is Japan” I had gotten in my entire six months. 

 In March, I went with my first host family to visit my host grandparents in the suburbs of Nagasaki. My host mom Mayumi and I spent the first day sightseeing, but the second day I took the best picture of my six months of Japan, at least to me. My host grandparents had treated us to a beautiful kaiseki lunch of at least 6 different courses of flawlessly arranged plates of food. Fresh Nagasaki sashimi, crispy shrimp and vegetable tempura, chawanmushi (a kind of savory egg custard with seafood and vegetables, delicately steamed in a small cup- incredibly difficult to make correctly), stir fried beef, steamed fish, rice, miso soup, and more. The food was amazing, but the view- that was the best part of the whole meal. I had seen Nagasaki harbor the day before, and all I had seen were shipping factories and freight boats pulling out of the busy waters. But on top of the mountain, seated on cushions around a low table in our private hut at the restaurant overlooking the harbor, I saw an entirely different side. 

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 Nagasaki is built into the mountains. The large cities in Japan, like Tokyo and Osaka, are built on flat plains of land on the island. But Japan is a mountainous country, and the rest of the cities are built into and around the mountains, winding and twisting and going up so far you can’t see the whole city. I looked down from the top of the mountain we were on directly to the ocean below and saw nothing but azure and green. The water was that perfect shade of green blue that kids always paint in pictures. Tiny islands that looked as green as rain forests dotted the bay as far as I could see. Every once in a while, I would spot a flash of white on top of the waves that my host grandparents informed me was a pearl fishing float. The scene was so simple yet the colors so bold that I just stopped and stared out the floor to ceiling glass windows. A picture can’t capture all the colors I saw that day. 

 Even as Japan, and especially Tokyo, moved at such a frantic pace, everyone there knew how to slow down and relax. I could find little pockets for myself everywhere I went- at school, with my host family, on the street exploring new places, everywhere. Being in Japan taught me how to find a space and make it my own by learning about it and adapting. 

 I’ve been home for about three weeks, and life has already fallen back into its old routine pace. I run every morning, I go to work, I babysit, I see my friends. But I haven’t been able to give up some aspects of life in Japan. I take a bento box of lunch to work with me, with little portions of each dish separated. I eat out of little bowls and plates at home. I scour my local grocery store for tofu and dashi stock. I convince my little sister each night to go for a 3 mile walk with me after dinner. 

 I can’t thank my two wonderful host families enough. They made sure I always had somewhere comforting to come home to every day. I was always excited at the end of the day to be home and play with my host siblings, learn what was for dinner that night, talk about school, and hear about what eight year old Eri had eaten for lunch (lunch was always her favorite part of the school day) or what fifteen year old Takeshi had done at baseball practice, or, with my first host family, play trains with five year old Daichi. At night, we would sit with the sliding doors to the balcony overlooking the river open and eat dark chocolate squares, chocolate covered almonds, and bowls of fruit whole I worked on my Japanese homework, Takeshi scrolled on the computer, Eri practiced math or looked over my shoulder to help with my homework, and Akiko (the mom) got ready to serve dinner to Naoki (the dad) as soon as he came home from work. I miss that calm pace of life at night, where after a hectic day everything would just come to a halt. I could sit on a reclining chair, speak in my broken Japanese, and watch the night go by. Hopefully I’ve changed enough over the course of the past six months so that I won’t forget how peaceful and relaxed slowing down made me feel. 

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 So what’s up next?

 College, where I will try to figure out exactly how to combine all my interests into a career. Hopefully graduate school, where I will hone my interests. And then, life. I can live anywhere in the world, uproot myself and find a house and job and just go. I can pick any career in the world I want. Right now is the most hopeful time of my life- I have the whole world open to me, and all I need to do is reach out and grab it. 

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 To my family, who let me live in Japan for six months, thank you. I know you were worried about me and you have no idea how happy it made me to know you trusted me and thought I was responsible enough to complete this trip on my own. Thank you for all the support you gave to me the past eighteen years.

 To the friends I met in Japan, you know who you are. And I love you for every time you picked me up when I fell, dusted me off, and told me to be myself because you loved me for just who I was. 

 To the CIEE staff in Tokyo (and in America!), taking the subway early mornings on Thursdays might not have been the most fun experience, but I came to not exactly enjoy, but appreciate the magnitude of Tokyo at rush hour. In addition, thank you for planning all those awesome excursions and trips- I had a lot of fun and you have no idea how happy some of those trips made me. 

 Japan, I can’t thank you enough. You gave me some of the best friends I’ve ever made, made me more comfortable in my own skin, and taught me how to live on my own. I now can tell myself, whenever things get hard, “Genevieve. You lived on your own across the world for six entire months. And you don’t think you can handle this situation right now?” 

 Before Japan, I always had a problem with connecting “school Genevieve” to “friend Genevieve” to “work Genevieve” to my personal favorite, “family Genevieve”. But in Japan, I realized something. There’s only one Genevieve, and that’s “me Genevieve”. And “me Genevieve” might not be perfect, but that’s okay. Because there’s nothing that I say or do who can change the type of person I am at heart. And that person, underneath all the layers, is someone I can truly be proud of. 

 Thank you, Japan. I miss you and I hope we will be reunited someday.

A Little about Language

I never really thought about speech. As nearly everyone around me in my hometown, my native language was, of course, English. I never thought about the speed of my conversations or the way words would just fall out of my mouth before I even realized what I wanted to say. Conversational placeholders, different grammar patterns- in your native language, they come so naturally that you don’t even stop to notice what’s happening. 

When I first arrived in Japan and met people in my class who were fluent in English but not native speakers, I was amazed when they told me they often couldn’t keep up with the speed of my conversations when I spoke to other native English speakers. They were able to speak at a normal conversational pace perfectly but had trouble blending words together rapidly like Americans do when they’re excited. 

 Then, listening to my host families slowing down their Japanese conversations for my benefit so I could understand a little more of what they were saying, I understood. The pace of native speakers in any language is completely different than that of those who pick up the language later in life. Being a native speaker means hearing the language constantly and picking up all the tiny idiosyncrasies that make each language completely different. Switching from halted conversations in Japanese where I created my own placeholders in conversations when I was trying to figure out what to say, or when I copied patterns I had heard my host family say, to conversations with my native English-speaking friends where I didn’t have to think, just speak because my mouth already knew exactly what to do, surprised me every time I noticed the contrast.

 My first three months in Japan, I didn’t pick up too much Japanese- I was too concerned with learning basic phrases and surviving day to day conversations. The next three months was when everything really took off, and I started to notice and use phrases I had heard repeated around me. Things started to stick in my brain, and my tongue moved faster in grammar patterns and sentence connectors I had been practicing over and over again, making my conversations a little smoother. My Japanese will probably never reach the native level of fluency, but that is my goal someday. I want to someday be able to speak Japanese without thinking about what I need to say, and instead just have words fall out of my mouth. I can’t think of a better way for me to have practiced getting to that level than living in Japan.  :)

 

03/28/2014

Kamakura Day Trip

Today Mayumi, Daichi, and I went on a day trip to Kamakura, a resort city on the ocean under an hour from Tokyo. It’s famous for its multitude of shrines and giant Buddha statue that attract tourists from all over Japan (and the world). 

We took the Yokosuka line from Tokyo, and ended up at Kamakura station. Immediately exiting the station, we found ourselves on a shopping street aptly named Kommachi Dori (Small Town Street). The street was bustling! I was amazed at the number of people out and about, but, then again, it was a Friday on spring vacation with gorgeous weather. The street had everything from restaurants to omiyage (souvenir) and toy stores.  IMG_0843

Ice cream stores were also incredibly prevalent, featuring Japanese flavors like sweet potato and matcha (green tea).

IMG_0845Making our way down the street, we stopped by a mame store (dried soybeans) that sold both flavored dried beans/nuts and some sort of rice cracker I had never seen before- small balls of rice cracker with a shelled peanut in the middle of each. They were delicious! A ton of people were in the store, just sampling the hundred or so different variations of nuts and rice crackers. My personal favorites were the apple flavored rice crackers, the brown sugar soybeans, and the yogurt covered coffee beans. Delicious!

 We then moved to the end of the street, where one of the most famous shrines (Kamakura Hachimangu) in Kamakura sits.  IMG_0859

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The sakura trees in the shrine complex were just beginning to bloom!

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 After our picnic lunch on the pond within Kamakura Hachimangu, we walked back to Kamakura station to catch the tram out to the ocean, in the outskirts of the city. The tram was all above ground, so we could watch Kamakura (which felt much more like a small seaside town than a city) pass by.

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Being next to the ocean really felt like being home. The smell of the ocean and the color of the sand were incredibly familiar. Alongside the street across from the beach were many colorful restaurants with balconies overlooking the water.  IMG_0890
The beach itself was far below the street level- you had to climb a massive set of sandy stairs to get there. We found seaweed on the beach and joked that we would eat it with our dinner.

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 We also stopped by a grocery store with an incredible variety of cheap, colorful vegetables out front.

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Mayumi and my favorite was the massive daikon for only $1.50 apiece! (my hand is in the picture to give a reference size). 

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 Once we got back to Kommachi dori, Mayumi and Daichi ate crepes with chocolate and cream cheese while I ate a cone of sweet potato ice cream- so good! When it was still light out, we headed back to Tokyo, tired and content. It was still warm enough out that the walk back from the station felt almost like a summer night. All in all, a great spring break day.

03/15/2014

Bento o Tsukurimashou!

Traveling to Iidabashi on a rainy Thursday morning for a CIEE field trip may not have seemed like the most fun thing while I was on the subway, but once we reached our location, the rainy ride was worth it. 

 We were BENTO MAKING. 

 You know bentos. Those classic, beautifully arranged lunch boxes Japanese moms pack for their children to take to school. The meals are a perfectly balanced set of vegetables, starch, carbohydrates, and protein, arranged in small portions and in a careful, cute fashion. The bento must both look creative and taste delicious. Many mothers wake up as early as 5:00 in the morning to begun preparing artful (there’s really no other word for them) bentos for their children’s lunches. Bentos can also be purchased in fancy depato (department store) grocery stores, though they can often be expensive, depending on the quality of the bento. REALLY fancy bentos can be bought for lunch at many expensive kaiseki restaurants. 

 After we put on our aprons and washed our hands, we got to work. With the help of a few kind women at the town office building, we were making a set of foods for our own bentos that are incredibly popular for lunch- chicken and root vegetables, tamagoyaki (a sweet egg omelette that is famously hard to roll correctly), cooked kani and tako (crab and octopus) sausages, green beans tossed in sesame soy sauce dressing, and grilled salmon. Here’s the set of ingredients-

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 Our first step was to create the dashi stock. In Japan, dashi stock serves as the basis for nearly every dish. The basic stock is created from konbu (kelp), dried bonito flakes (or sometimes fish), and water. We boiled the water with one piece of konbu. Then, we removed the konbu, turned down the heat, and added in the bonito flakes for about one minute before removing them as well. 

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We peeled vegetables and cut the chicken into small pieces, while simultaneously cooking konnyaku (a Japanese jelly-like substance made from a type of potato) cut into small pieces in some dashi stock. The vegetables were cooked with soy sauce, salt, a little sugar, and more of our homemade dashi stock. Japanese savory food in general usually has some sugar added for a tiny bit of sweetness. We added the raw chicken and already cooked konnyaku in once the vegetables were almost fully cooked, and let it sit for a few minutes. 

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 Tamagoyaki, the rolled sweet omelette cut into small bite-sized pieces, is made using a square pan to make rolling it into a perfect shape a little easier. We mixed three eggs with some of the dashi broth and some sugar. After we poured a small bit of the mixture onto the pan for a first layer of the omelette, we rolled it using chopsticks into one corner of the pan. Then, we poured some more in, and repeated the process until all of the mixture was in the pan.

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Rolling the omelette with chopsticks was easily the hardest part of all the cooking we did. The women helping us demonstrated how to roll it, and they made it look too easy! 

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 Not bad for a first attempt! Richard and I messed up a little with our chopsticks, but the omelette still tasted delicious. 

 Next, we moved to tako and kani sausages. These are incredibly popular among young Japanese children. They are fully cooked, packaged mini sausages that mothers cut incisions into before cooking quickly. When cooked, the cuts expand, and create shapes that look similar to octopi or crabs, depending on the number of cuts made. 4 cuts on one end of a sausage make an octopus, while making 4 cuts either side of the sausage and then 2 criss crosses in the middle makes a crab. All of our sausages ended up being crabs. 

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 Green bean salad came next, and was incredibly simple yet insanely delicious. We tossed cooked green beans with sesame and a sugar/soy sauce/salt combination. 

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 Meanwhile, we put the salmon fillets on the grill and let them cook for a few minutes. Here’s the finished salmon and sliced omelette-

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 And a picture of my finished bento! Way too much food packed in (we still had a lot of leftovers we had to gobble down before we went to school too). We also added rice, umeboshi, and nori pieces to our bentos to make a full meal. Even thought I think I still need some practice with presentation, everything was delicious!

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Yokohama Hakkeijima Sea Paradise Trip

As a special day trip through Intercult, all Intercult students holding a student visa got to spend the day at Yokohama Hakkeijima Sea Paradise, a sort of aquarium amusement park. Located on a man-made island in Tokyo Bay off of Yokohama, the theme park is a popular destination for families looking to escape the city for a day. 

We started in the Aqua Museum, a large aquarium building. Featured on the first floor were polar bears, penguins, and other marine mammals, and then the tanks moved to fish. All different kinds of penguins were present. 

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 A massive glass tank in the center of the building held more fish than I could imagine (it reminded me a lot of the tank in my home aquarium, the New England Aquarium), and you could even take an escalator up to the next floor through a glass tube in the inside of the tank! The schools of fish were massive, as were the sharks swimming around them. Probably the best fish I saw though were the jellyfish, with varieties held in different tanks, and the spider crabs about the size of a grown man. I had no idea crabs could even grow that large. 

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Once we got to the fourth floor, we followed the signs to the Marine Mammal Show. Three giant whale sharks swam underneath in the giant tank, while on stage, trainers handled sea lions, penguins, and dolphins. The show was amazing- they even brought a volunteer from the audience to be brought onto a blown-up island in the middle of the tank and be saved by a "rescue" seal. 

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 All around the area of the amusement park were gift shops, boat rides, and even a few roller coasters! They all cost extra money, so I didn’t end up riding any, but they still looked fun. There was a raft ride through a white water rapid stream, a swan boat ride in a small lagoon, and even a center for kids to handle small starfish and shellfish!

 Then, we hopped on a bus to Yokosuka, about 45 minutes away, to a large strawberry picking farm! In Japan, strawberries are incredibly expensive, and are grown to be perfectly shaped and ripened before packaging. A container of six strawberries in your average grocery store can cost anywhere from $4-$15. Containers of less-than-perfect strawberries can be found in some markets for a little cheaper. 

 And yes, we had a half hour to pick and eat as many strawberries as was physically possible. I think I ate a few too many...my plastic container was overflowing with stems by the end. The strawberries were so delicious though- sweet and fully ripened. Some were really warm from the sun, so I found a row slightly hidden in shade where the berries were a little cooler. 

 The strawberry farm was on a shrine property with a massive, beautifully cared for cemetery, so we were allowed to explore a little, provided we were quiet. It was one of my first experiences getting up close to a Japanese shrine, and it was fascinating. 

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02/15/2014

Tofu: Everyone's Favorite Food

In my last CIEE gap class, I made a presentation about tofu, my favorite food since coming to Japan. During the presentation, everyone snacked on pumpkin pie tofu pudding, which I made to demonstrate that tofu can be used as a substitute for higher-calorie ingredients and can even make dessert almost healthy. In the end, tofu really is a wonder food. 

Tofu originated in China, but it is not known exactly when- accounts of tofu are scattered. It is believed, however, that the Chinese used Mongolian curdling and fermenting techniques on soy milk to, over time, perfect a recipe for tofu. Tofu spread to Japan and other Asian countries through exploration and trade. At first, tofu in Japan was extraordinarily expensive and regarded as a food for the rich, but, starting around the Edo period, tofu became more widely available to all, eventually becoming a staple of Japanese cuisine. 

 There are many kinds of tofu sold in your basic Japanese grocery store, but they can all be broken down into two categories- fresh tofu and processed tofu. Fresh tofu refers to tofu that is made directly from soy milk and packaged, while processed tofu is made from fresh tofu and either has various flavorings added or is cooked before packaging. 

                FRESH TOFU comes in 3 distinct types: 

Silk Tofu (Kinudofu- 絹): The softest type of fresh tofu, “silk” refers to kinudofu’s soft texture. This tofu falls apart easily if not handled carefully, and has a high moisture content. When making kinudofu, most of the water is not pressed out. Silk tofu is found in Japanese hot pots and stews, and is commonly used for desserts and puddings because of its smoothness. 

 Cotton/Firm Tofu (Momendofu- 木綿): When making firm tofu, most of the water is pressed out. This makes the tofu have a more firm shape that can handle stir-frying and grilling. Firm tofu is the most popular type of tofu around the world. 

In China, Extra Firm Tofu is also popular. This type of tofu has nearly all of the water pressed out during the tofu-making process.

              PROCESSED TOFU comes in many different varieties, but the most popular include:

Yakidofu: Processed stir fried cotton tofu. This type of stir fried tofu is only used for sukiyaki.

 Fermented: After the tofu is made, it is allowed to ferment in the air and is then dressed in vinegar, salt, and spices before packaging.  

 Fried (Aburage)

 Flavored

 Koyadofu (freeze-dried): This type of processed tofu absorbs sauce extremely well, and is usually cooked in a sweet miso, soy sauce, and sugar combination. 

                OTHER SOY PRODUCTS

Miso is another staple of Japanese cooking, a fermented soybean paste mixed with salt and the fungus kojikin. It comes in three common varieties- shiromiso (white miso), a popular, light tasting miso that has a shorter fermentation period; akamiso (red miso), which has a bolder flavor and longer fermentation period; and awasemiso, a mixture of both shiro and aka miso. To me, miso has a flavor almost similar to peanut butter. Or maybe I just really miss peanut butter. 

 Soy Milk- Becoming very popular in the West, with various flavors. 

 Soybeans: Dried soybeans are a popular (and cheap) snack, and are thrown at Setsubun (a holiday, February 3) to ward off oni (demons). 

             MAKING YOUR OWN TOFU

Making tofu is a surprisingly simple process. 

  1. Buy dried soybeans and soak them overnight in water, and then liquidize them in a food processor. Cook the mixture on low heat.
  2. Strain the mixture through cheesecloth and be sure to get all the liquid out- this is the soy milk. The leftover pulp is called okara and is incredibly nutritious, though it must be cooked before eating.
  3. Boil the soy milk, then add the curdling agent (nigari or lemon juice are most commonly used). Allow it to simmer for about 15 minutes. 
  4. Separate the curds from the whey. Let the whey drain away, and wait the curds with boxes (more weight= more firm tofu). 
  5. Refrigerate and serve later. 

            NUTRITION OF TOFU

I thought this part of my slideshow was pretty much all-inclusive, so I have a screenshot of the nutrition slide below. All in all, tofu packs one healthy punch.

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             BASIC TOFU DISHES

Misoshiru: Miso soup, a necessary part of any Japanese meal. Every family seems to have their own specific recipe, but in essence, miso soup is made from dashi stock, seaweed, bonita (dried fish flakes) and miso. Small bits of seaweed and silk tofu are usually added later to give the soup some texture. 

 Hiyayakko: The most basic of basic, this summertime dish involves just a block of tofu (either firm or silk) in soy sauce, garnished with negi or seaweed. That’s it. 

 Agemono: Literally “deep fried food”, agemono comes in three common types: aburage, thinly deep fried tofu; atsuage, thick cut cubes of deep fried tofu, found commonly in nabe; and inarizushi, sweet thin deep fried tofu pockets wrapped around rice. 

             TRADITIONAL TOFU DISHES

Kitsune Udon: A bowl of udon in broth with seaweed and a slice of aburage on top. The name stems from the legend that kitsune (foxes) like aburage.

 Nabe with Tofu: A traditional Japanese hot pot. 

 Yuudofu: A tofu and vegetable hot pot.

 Tamagodofu: A sort of custard, made from eggs beaten into soy milk and then curdled. 

             POPULAR TOFU DISHES

Mabodofu: Adopted from the insanely spicy Chinese Mapodofu, this dish contains tofu and small bits of pork mixed in a less spicy chili pepper sauce, with rice on the side.

 Iridofu: A popular dish for kids whose parents want them to eat healthy, not so much for adults- it’s just pan fried tofu and vegetables. 

 Nikudofu: Meat and tofu mixed together. 

 Shiraae: Mashed tofu salad, served over lettuce or spinach with a light dressing. 

             POSSIBILITIES FOR TOFU

Contrary to Western belief, tofu is not used as a meat substitute in most Japanese meals. Dishes are generally a combination of various kinds of meat and tofu. Western veggie burgers and tofurkey are not so common in Japan. 

 With its ability to adapt to any flavor and its soft texture, tofu can be used in practically any dish as a substitute for a creamy, higher-calorie ingredient. Tofu desserts are gaining popularity for their smooth taste, as well as tofu soufflé. Tofu can be made into pudding, mousse, cheesecake, or frosting, to name a few. Soybean powder can also be used as a substitute for flour. 

             I know this post is getting long, but NOW, the recipe for pumpkin pie tofu pudding!

Mayumi, Daichi, and I cooked this amazing pumpkin pudding, which is smooth, sweet, and insanely simple to make. We used frozen pumpkin and carrot squares, but you can just as easily use the real vegetables or canned pumpkin.

7 frozen pumpkin squares, 2 frozen carrot squares

1 package of silk tofu (39 cents at most Japanese grocery stores)

3 tbsp of real maple syrup (more if you want the pudding sweeter)

2-3 tbsp of brown sugar

1 small packet of gelatin mixed fully into 1/4 cup hot water

 

In a food processor, put the package of silk tofu and the defrosted vegetable squares. Pour in the maple syrup and and brown sugar. Add the gelatin, and process the food until smooth. Make sure there are no lumps of unmixed gelatin! Refrigerate for a few hours or until no longer runny. Garnish with cinnamon just before serving. 

02/14/2014

Kaiseki: Small Meals, Big Impact

I have now eaten kaiseki twice since I came to Japan, and both times I have been beyond impressed by the presentation and beauty of the food. Imagine course upon course of tiny, elegant dishes, with only a few mouthfuls of food per dish, tingling your tastebuds while flavors combine in a delicate harmony specifically arranged by the chef.  Kaiseki is an art form in Japan that represents the ultimate unity between food and aesthetics. A kaiseki meal is made to be both beautiful and functional- that is, delicious!

Incredibly expensive (ranging from around $70 to up to $400 per person at high end establishments) and delicately prepared, kaiseki literally means “hot stone in a kimono fold”, referring to Zen priests who tucked hot stones into their kimonos to cure hunger pangs. The idea of small meals curing hunger originated from the light vegetarian meal served during traditional tea ceremonies, but evolved over time into a many-course (not necessarily vegetarian) meal for Japanese aristocrats. Today, kaiseki can be enjoyed at ryokan (traditional Japanese inns, often adjoined with a hot spring), or at specialized restaurants called ryotei. 

 The chef has all the power when creating a kaiseki meal. All kaiseki dishes are prepared using a one simple technique of Japanese cooking per dish, but the chef has the freedom to experiment with color and flavor within the dish to suit different palates. The dishes are all about balance and harmony, and the use of only the freshest seasonal ingredients. A general kaiseki meal will change completely depending on the time of year and what is in season to eat. Each specific ingredient is chosen to balance another within the dish, or to offset the dish that came before it. The combination of flavors and all-encompassing cooking techniques, as well as the artistic presentation and balance between dishes, that come together as one meal in the end is nothing short of fantastic, and gives a great overview into the world of Japanese cooking. 

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The first time I ate kaiseki, it was only lunch kaiseki. All the beautiful dishes were served at the same time. Lightly grilled salmon, an egg and broth custard, sashimi, pickles, soup, and various garnishes made up my tray. I was amazed at the preparation (and the beautiful room we were sitting in) and the attention paid to each handcrafted, elegant bite of food, and thought that was the extent of kaiseki. And then I went to a real ryokan in Hakone and was completely blown away. I’ll describe my meal in Hakone below.  

 Courses of Kaiseki

 Appetizer-
IMG_0315A small collection of bite sized morsels, specially selected by the chef, to stimulate the palate for the meal to come. In Hakone, I had smoked salmon wrapped around broccolini, a piece of sushi, soft salted mackerel, sliced abalone, and slightly sweet natto (in the red container).

 Soup- often clear and delicately garnished (with carrot, nori [seaweed], or negi [green onion]). I was served a clear soup with an incredibly soft, slow-cooked potato slice that melted in my mouth. 

Side dishes are a necessary part of any Japanese meal, whether it be kaiseki or otherwise. 

 Pickles cleanse the palate after a strong  dish or after the meal.

Rice is the basic staple of any meal here. My rice was, quite simply, the best, fluffiest rice I’ve ever  had. I need to invest in one of the ryokan’s rice pots. When we sat down, our waitress came over with a lighter and lit the blue candle underneath the pot set to our left. She warned us not to take the top off, because letting steam escape would disturb the cooking process. About a half hour later, the candle had burned all the way down and perfectly cooked rice was ready to eat alongside our beef stew (served last).

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Miso soup- basic Japanese soup, made from a base of miso (crushed fermented soybeans), dashi (fish stock) and nori (seaweed). 

Sashimi- Popular around the world, sashimi consists of thin slices of raw fish often served on top of molded portions of sushi rice. My maguro (tuna) was soft and delicate, while my white fish (I have no idea what is was called) was slightly chewier but still had a delicious flavor.

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 Boiled Dish- I was not served a boiled dish, but in general, boiled kaiseki dishes are just what you’d expect- boiled seasonal vegetables and possibly some meat, delicately arranged with garnishes. 

 Stewed Dish- My stewed dish was a delicious mixture of mushrooms, brightly colored peppers, small pieces of chicken, and a fish cake for garnish, stewed in a light orange sauce. 

 Grilled Dish/Vinegared Dish- IMG_0339My grilled and vinegared dishes were mixed on the serving plate, a sort of box. I had various strong pickled vegetables, a grilled sweet potato piece, and a slice of grilled white fish. One of the pickled vegetables was served atop konnyaku (the pink slab you can sort of see underneath the brussels sprout), a low calorie, almost gelatin-like food that has little flavor and is usually stewed in a Japanese hot pot.

Deep Fried Dish- I wish I had gotten to try a deep fried dish in my kaiseki, but I also am not the biggest fan of fried food- I’d make an exception for tempura, though. Japan is famous for its delicate tempura: seasonal vegetables and shrimp or other fish dipped lightly in batter and fried. The batter is deliberately kept thin to have less crispy fried parts when served and allow the natural flavor of the vegetable or fish to shine through.

 Hot Pot- definitely one of the best parts of my meal. Around the third course or so, the waitress taking care of our table came over and lit the blue candle underneath the second pot at our place setting, and beef stew began to heat up right in front of us! The stew was light and savory, and the slow-cooked vegetables and beef were some of the best I’ve ever eaten. 

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 Dessert- light and sweet, usually seasonal fresh fruit or some sort of sweet jelly. The perfect ending to a meal. The light slice of pound cake, served with a side of- you guessed it- jelly and fresh fruit, was small enough that I could still taste it after my massive meal, but large enough that it satisfied my sweets craving. 

 So, all in all, kaiseki is something you must enjoy in Japan. It may be expensive, but the beautiful presentation, elegant atmosphere, and satisfied feeling you get after eating is entirely worth the price. 

 

02/07/2014

Japanese Fast Food

Tokyo’s motto should be “Food that’s fast, not fast food” because that’s all I’ve seen so far. Super quick and easy meals that contain enough food for 2 grown men to eat together and still not finish. Delicious and amazingly prepared, even though the food is ready about ten to fifteen minutes after you sit down at your table. And insanely cheap- a meal that would cost upwards of $20 in the United States costs somewhere between $5-$8 here. Massive bowls of ramen, plates of kareraisu, and trays of colorful vegetables or meat, rice, and miso soup. The lightest fried fish I’ve ever eaten, with minimal oil and resting in a soup of broth and vegetables. And, of course, any kind of tofu you can imagine- fried, stewed, lathered in sauce, or stuffed with rice. 

Before I came here, my idea of fast food was what every American’s is- MacDonald’s style. Triple burgers stuffed with bacon, french fries dripping in oil, and chicken that isn’t really chicken. Food that isn’t healthy or even delicious so much as fast and convenient.  Tokyo, however, is a healthy city. As anywhere, if you eat tempura (batter-dipped vegetables) or fried chicken everyday, of course it won’t be good for you. But a healthy smattering of the quick and easy options across the board in Tokyo makes for an amazing selection of delicious meals. 

 Ramen:

IMG_0228Ramen (ラーメン)is generally served in a thin, slightly salty broth with a slice of fatty pork, seaweed, and scallions, and, of course, a generous helping of thin ramen noodles. Made right, the pork should fall apart in your mouth, and the seaweed and scallions should offset the flavor of the salty broth. Personally, I prefer tofu over pork, and so I enjoy bowls of tofu ramen, but my friends all tell me that normal pork ramen is more delicious than anything. In a lot of ramen restaurants, you can place your order- as well as orders for extra sides, like seaweed or tofu- in a sort of vending machine that shoots out a ticket for your order after you pay. 

Udon and Soba:

 Udon are thick flour noodles that are generally served hot in soup or fried in yakiudon, while soba are thin noodles made from buckwheat, either served hot in fried yakisoba or cold with a side of dipping sauce.  Kitsune udon, a traditional udon bowl made with thick udon noodles, light broth, and thin triangles of fried tofu on top, is one of the most popular types of udon. Legend has it that kitsune (foxes) loved eating this fried tofu. Dipping sauces for cold soba generally have a soy sauce base with other flavors, like miso, scallions, or seaweed, mixed in. 

 Tofu/Meat, Soup, and Rice:   

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This type of meal is often called teishoku, or set lunch. A combination of a meat or a type of tofu (this picture is Mapodofu, a Chinese dish adopted into Japanese cooking that involves tofu in a very spicy chili sauce), a generous serving of rice, and a soup with Japanese pickled vegetables on the side adds a balance of flavors and palates. Teishoku can be very expensive in fancier restaurants, but in most lunch places they range from 600-1000 yen ($6-$10, incredibly cheap, especially considering the amount of food usually in teishoku).  

 Kareraisu:

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At this point, kareraisu (カレーライス)is a national staple in Japan. The combination of white rice and delicious curry, made from vegetables usually with chunks of beef added, is delicious. The curry is adopted from India, but Japan has made a style of curry all its own- Japanese curry is never spicy, but instead savory. 

So now, I can teach you how to make the fastest of fast in the world of Japanese food- the ubiquitous onigiri (rice balls stuffed with various fillings). Found in konbini everywhere, this snack is the ultimate Japanese fast food- healthy, convenient, and able to be eaten at any time. 

 

Below is an onigiri-specific shop I went to in Chiyoda- you can also order hot rice dishes from behind the counter. 

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 Fillings for onigiri range from bonita (dried fish flakes) to seaweed. Other popular flavors are umeboshi (sweet pickled plum), salmon, cooked vegetable mixture,  and tuna salad with mayonnaise. When I made onigiri with my host family, we stuck with umeboshi (in the left blue bowl below) and bonita (in the right bowl). Sheets of nori, or dried seaweed, are wrapped around the outside of the finished rice ball. 

Ingredients: 

2 soft umeboshi (cut or mashed into small pieces, with the pits cut out)

4 sheets of nori, each broken into 4 long strips

3 tbsp of bonita mixed with sesame seeds and 1/4 tsp of soy sauce

6 cups cooked brown or white rice

pinch of salt

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Using the 6 cups of rice (white or brown, whichever you prefer), add a small bit of salt to help the rice stick together. Place a sheet of plastic cling wrap flat in one hand. With the other, scoop a small amount of rice (a few spoonfuls) onto the wrap. Choose your filling (for the umeboshi, a little goes a long way), and use chopsticks or a spoon to put it in the center of the scoops of rice. Use a finger, with the plastic wrap as a barrier, to push the filling deeper into the center of the rice. Shift the rice so that it moves to cover the filling completely. 

 Now comes the tricky part: forming the rice ball into a shape. Ordinary spherical rice balls are the least complicated to make, but if you want a challenge, you can try forming the rice into a triangle, the way onigiri are sold in konbini. To make a triangle, first form the rice into a sphere. Rest the plastic wrap with the rice ball on one hand. Using your free hand, place your middle and pointer fingers on one side of the rice ball and your thumb on the other. Gently squeeze the rice into a triangular shape by pressing your fingers into the rice. Continue turning the rice on its side in your hand to keep forming a triangle. 

Once you have formed a shape, take one of the thin strips of nori and wrap it on the outside of the onigiri. 

IMG_0196 And it’s done! When you’re ready to eat, say “Itadakimasu!” This incredibly polite word literally means “I receive” and signals that you are ready to begin a meal and have appreciated the food before eating it. Enjoy!

01/16/2014

Yummy, Yummy Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is a savory Japanese pancake, made from egg, vegetables, and meat. In Japan, you cook it at your table on a hot stove (called a teppan), using utensils called kote (almost like small metal spatulas) to flip the pancake to cook both sides. However, it’s also super easy to make on a normal stove in your kitchen! My second night in Tokyo, Yuri, Richard (two other new gap year program students), and I went to a small okonomiyaki restaurant near our hotel in Chiyoda and learned to make out own okonomiyaki from the owner of the restaurant! Here’s how:

Turn on the teppan and put a tiny bit of oil onto it. Spread the oil all the way around. 

In a small bowl, put together a mixture of vegetables you wouldn’t mind eating cooked (carrots, cabbage, soy beans, etc.) with a cracked raw egg on top. Place 5-7 bite-sized pieces of thinly sliced meat meat (pork is delicious!) on one corner of the stove to cook. Using a spoon or kote, mix the vegetables and egg in the bowl until the vegetables are coated in the yellow-y egg sauce of sorts. 

Pour the mixture from the bowl onto the stove, keeping it separate from the meat. Use the kote to shape the batter into a circular shape, with flattened sides. Run the kote along the sides of the pancake to smooth them continuously. 

Once the meat is almost all the way cooked, but still slightly pink and raw in the middle, place it on top of the pancake. By this time, the pancake should hold its circular shape and be mostly cooked on the bottom. Let the pancake with the meat on top sit for about a minute before flipping the pancake over. 

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When you flip the pancake, use two kote and place them on either side of the pancake to facilitate flipping. It takes some practice.

The previous underside of the pancake, the face you can now see, should look cooked and be a little brown. Let the pancake cook for about 3-5 minutes, and then flip it one more time. The pancake by this time should be basically fully cooked. 

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 Once the pancake is cooked, cut out a slice using the kote and put it onto your plate! Turn the teppan off, but leave the rest of the okonomiyaki on the stove so that it can stay warm. Use your personal smaller kote and chopsticks to break up the slice of okonomiyaki into smaller, bite-sized pieces, and enjoy! Add okonomiyaki sauce (a delicious dark brown sauce made of soy and various fruits and vegetables, which most people buy in a grocery store), bonita (dried fish flakes), and dried seaweed on top to give the pancake a little extra flavor. YUM!

We ordered 2 okonomiyaki to split between the three of us- Yuri, Richard, and I cooked one and the owner of the restaurant cooked the other. They were super filling- I was full eating less than half of one. But it was so amazing to get the chance to cook my own food on my table. Especially when the food turns out as great as okonomiyaki.  

 

My First Few Impressions of Tokyo

I have settled in with my host family, and they are absolutely amazing. There’s the mom, Mayumi-san, who is super friendly. She speaks near-perfect English, and is an English teacher who loves flower arrangement and traveling. We’ve had most of our conversations in English so far was we got to know each other, but now she is starting to speak to me in Japanese and I, with my very limited Japanese, try to respond back. She’s been so helpful, assisting me with buying subway tickets, helping me with phrases, and even taking me to a Japanese grocery store! I met the dad, Fumihiko, my first morning as he rushed out of the house for work, and he is also amazingly nice and welcoming. Two nights ago, we spent a while together trying to figure out how to connect my camera to the wifi network so I could download my pictures to my computer. We exchanged a few Japanese phrases, and he taught me “Yatta!” (meaning “We did it!”). He’s also been teaching me kanji and their hiragana equivalents, and we poured over a map of Japan and one of America while he pointed out cities and islands of Japan and I showed him Boston (where I was born), Norwell, MA (my hometown), and Chicago (where my college is). Their son, Daichi, is a five year old, rambunctious bundle of energy who is also one of the cutest kids I have ever met. He loves trains, and has memorized many of the stops of the Tokyo Metro and JR lines. Yesterday on our way home, he stopped us in Gotanda station to grab a JR train stamp and take a look at the JR lines complicated train map. We’ve played with his toy trains several times already- he takes them out every night before he goes to bed and builds train stations out of the TV remotes and Legos. 

 This is Daichi and Mayumi:

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 And Daichi and Fumihiko on my computer:pastedGraphic_1.pdf

 They live in Higashi-magome, part of Oota-ku, which is one of the prefectures of Tokyo proper. There’s a ton to do around here- a konbini (convenience store that sells practically everything) is right next door to the apartment building, and the Magome subway station is right down the street, making it super easy to travel to other parts of the city and for me to get to school. 

 Tokyo is amazing so far. I never knew that a city could be this big but feel so welcoming at the same time.  Everything might look confusing and overwhelming at first, but the city is bright, efficient, and like nowhere else I’ve ever been. Even thought the city stretches on for miles, every part of it feels electric and relatively easy to navigate. It’s a friendly city, or at least that’s my first impression of it. Looking out the windows of the train, you can really watch the whole city pass by. 

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I was very worried the first day about finding my way from Magome to Okachimachi (the subway station closest to the Japanese Intercultural Institute, where I have Japanese class), but everything was labeled so clearly and the ride was so smooth that time just flew by- before I knew it, I had arrived. The hardest part of my commute every day will be changing train lines from the Tokyo Toei company subway lines to the JR Company Yamanote Line. In Tokyo, there are both below ground subways and above ground train lines that run in sync with each other. It is easy to change between the two different companies at nearly any station. At Gotanda, where I transfer, the walk between the two companies’ tracks was around seven minutes, and all I had to do was follow the signs for the Yamanote line! The Yamanote line is an amazing train, and it’s packed during rush hour. The line loops around central Tokyo, stopping at all major stations in a circle, such as Shinjuku, the largest station on the Tokyo train system and part of the largest, glitziest district of Tokyo, Shibuya (another major district), and Akihabara. 

The area around Intercult is bustling with shops and restaurants- anything from jewelry stores to bakeries. 

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The walk from Okachimachi station to the school is about fifteen minutes. Further away from the station, as you might expect, it gets less busy, but there are still tiny, delicious restaurants everywhere you look.

Lunch every day around school has been a culinary adventure. I’ve eaten at a tiny ramen shop (where you place your order into a sort of vending machine that shoots out a ticket for your meal), a place where there’s only room for two four-person tables shoved into a corner and a few bar stools near the kitchen. The ramen was served in massive bowls (and a huge spoon) with scallions, seaweed, and a huge slice of perfectly cooked, juicy pork on top. Another favorite lunch place: a busy almost cafeteria-style restaurant, where the delicious (and amazingly cheap) food is premade and heated up for you. This place is super popular around lunch time, and we usually end up sharing a table with a few Japanese businessmen or students. You pick up your plates of food, that are then heated up by an attentive waitress while you ask for miso soup and a bowl of rice. The now-hot entrees are returned to your tray, and you go to sit down and enjoy the meal! Yesterday, I was in a hurry, and ended up grabbing a curry bread and a sweet custard bread from the nearest bakery. The curry bread, deep-fried dough filled with non-spicy Japanese vegetable curry, was light, flaky, and had just enough curry to not overwhelm the bread. The custard bread was vanilla flavored and had sweetened egg on top, with the custard in the center of the bread. Oishii desu ne? 

 So thats it for a few of my many first impressions of Tokyo. Hopefully the city will continue to amaze me as I explore more!

 

 

 

 

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