Who Goes There

If you allow your eyes to drift down, down, down to the very bottom of this blog, you'll notice two little squares--one, disturbingly unsightly; the other, not much better), whose existence reveals that I'm tracking all of you (insert maniacal laughter).

No, no, I'm not evil or scary, merely curious. Though now, I in fact ignore one entirely and check the other only infrequently, since I have a fairly good idea of who drops by.

But then today I saw that I had had a visit from the IRS. Curious. Was someone over there perhaps searching for the perfect pancake recipe? Or maybe they're big dachshund fans and the office was having a slow afternoon, so they decided to coo and giggle over Edward's pictures...?

Not Progress Exactly

After electronically venting my spleen the other day on all of you about the inexcusable state of my life, I then went searching the web, rather nilly-willy, for options. For the most part, this amounted to reading the "What Can YOU do?" page of various organizations. Pathetic, I know.

One of the websites I came upon was that of Voices in the Wilderness (VitW), an organization whose main concern seems to be protesting the UN sanctions placed on Iraq. On one page, there was a rather welcoming invitation to write for more information on volunteering opportunities "abroad," and so, without much thought, I penned a short note explaining my situation. And, miracles of miracles, today I received a reply from a representative in Chicago, who had very kindly sent me some links to peace groups in Japan, as well as inquired as to whether I might be interested in assisting with research on the "odious debt" incurred by Saddam Hussein. I hope you won't judge me too harshly for my initial reaction of simple, blind exhilaration.

Wow, research! I can do that, I thought. One of my biggest obstacles is an uncertainty as to whether I possess even a single skill that could possibly be of use to anyone. But suddenly, someone was offering me the chance to do something that perhaps even I could manage.

But then, amidst all the excitement, my single fiber of common sense started waving about, distracting me. Hello, it said, maybe you should just double check that you're not about to sign on with a friendly, anti-sanction cult or whatnot. I dutifully searched about, and unfortunately came upon a paper written by an ex-member of Voices in the Wilderness, who claimed that those at VitW "were less concerned with the suffering of the Iraqi people than we were in maintaining our moral challenge to US foreign policy." Of course, this being an ex-member, I don't know how much credit I should give Charlie, er, Charles Brown.

Okay, one critical voice. What else? Well, the group seems to have gotten on the bad side of the US Treasury Department quite a bit, and has been fined several times for violating embargoes on Iraq by bringing medicine and other supplies into the country.

I relent. The true reason I'm writing this post: I'm just not sure. If someone could give me proof that VitW and their peace team is truly accomplishing some good in Iraq, then I don't care if they're overly enamored by their own rebellious badness, I'll write back and tell them I'd gladly help them with research. But how can I tell if they're really the good guys? It's so hard these days.

Then there's Oxfam. Thanks to a friend who commented recently, I discovered that not only is there an English branch to Oxfam Japan, they claim to need volunteers. Only, my friend's previous offer to help had been turned down because she wasn't fluent in Japanese. Well, I wrote to them anyway, and will wait to hear from them. Hopefully the grating cheer and enthusiasm in my email will stun them into accepting my forceful offers. Perhaps I can wear them down over time. Don't sneer at this tactic--the father of one of my friends actually won his wife that way (which is kinda sad, but proves that bullish determination can work, if it's all you've got).

I suppose this is one of those "wait and see" moments.


Chicken Stew -- Singapore Style

I did something tonight that I haven't done for myself in a long time: I cooked. At the risk of sounding pitiful, most of my dinners at home are of the solo variety (unless I decide to join my husband for Dinner Part Two after he comes home from work, which I will do from time to time, but I just don't think eating at 3am and then sleeping at 4am is very...I dunno, healthy or something). And while I'm perfectly happy baking four cookies at the spur of the moment to meet those critical chocolate needs, I simply can't be bothered to actually cook--i.e., chop onions, peel stuff, sauté, etc.--if the entire production is to be for my benefit alone.

This is probably why tonight, when I pulled out my stash of onions, which I hadn't dipped into since the last time I'd cooked, I was treated to the rather unnerving sight of some serious sprouting--fat, pale-yellow tentacles curling and writhing (it's possible the latter part was just my imagination) and pushing their way out the ends of the slightly shrunken purple globes. It was all so deeply disturbing, and made me almost as squeamish as the time I tried to decapitate a fish with a very cheap knife and my sawing movements were making the fish's gaping mouth open and close like it was moaning, "Ow. Ow. Ow." And all the while, its big glassy eye stared up at me in a rather accusatory manner.

Back to the original story. Tonight I had a big meat craving. Canned tuna strike! On the freak occasion that I cook, I tend to go for one-pot, long-simmering meals: curries, stews, soups, etc., because it suits my cooking style of randomly throwing things together without any need for care or measurement. As for seasoning, I just keep tasting and adjusting until I'm satisfied. I think I developed this preference toward casual cooking because my mother refused to give me recipes with actual measurements, the few times I asked as a young girl. She was of the "Some of This, Bit of That" School.

Here's a short scene, adapted from childhood memories:
Mom: Okay, I need some ginger.
Me: How much?
Mom: Just a bit.
Me: How's this?
Mom: [bursts out laughing] That's much too much.
Me: Okay, is this okay?
Mom: No, more.
Me: This?
Mom: Bit more.
Me: [silent and annoyed, shows mom ginger]
Mom: Mm. Okay.

[Later, after dinner]
Mom: Uck, too much ginger. Next time, better let me do it.

My mom never really got into the whole domestic thing until we moved to Canada, and I know at first she had a rough time, learning to cook and care for three kids. Our first week, she put a frozen pie still in its tin foil plate in the microwave and the thing actually exploded. I'm talking a terrifying boom and then large, shooting flames. She eventually became an incredible cook and one of my favorite things that she'd make was chicken stew, only it wasn't really chicken stew, as I've come to realize over the years.

Of course I did attempt to wheedle the recipe out of my mother, but it was, to quote the woman directly, like trying to draw blood from a dead cat. Her answer, if I recall, was something like, "Oh, it's so easy. You just need some onions, garlic, and ginger. Fry, fry until there's a nice smell. Add chicken, some of this, bit of that..." Yeah, great. Next, I turned to books and the Internet, but no matter how carefully I adhered to the recipe, it was never quite right. The stew always came out this disturbing purplish color from the red wine and the taste was just...wrong.

Later still, I learned that "stew" in Singapore is really not stew as people in Western countries know it--no herbs, no wine. The secret: dark soy sauce.

Messy Bubbling Goodness

And instead of crusty bread, white rice is used to soak up all the rich sauce. Maybe it's because it's the first stew that passed my lips. Maybe others would try this version and be horrified. But I just made it tonight and it was, frankly, delicious (and I rarely use that word with anything I make). Of course I added things that I don't think ordinarily find their way even into a Singaporean stew, but it tasted pretty damn good. Which forces me to add that I don't even know if this can legitimately be called "Singaporean" stew, since I'm sure there are tons of people there who never eat or make it.

I'm afraid most of my measurements are pretty rough, but I'll try my best to recall what I did. Use my notes more as a rough flavor guide than as a recipe to be followed to the "t."

Chicken Stew
(servings: Hmm...4-5?)

1tbl sesame oil
1/2 tsp salt
1 onion*, roughly chopped
1 stalk celery, roughly chopped**
1 head of garlic, finely chop two cloves and leave the rest unpeeled***
2-3 tsp finely chopped ginger
4-5 anchovy fillets (packed in oil, but don't use the oil)
1 tsp whole peppercorns****
500g chicken, preferably parts with lots of bones for flavor (and marinated in just a bit of light soy sauce, sugar, pepper, if you like)
2tbl dark soy sauce
1 carrot--I like my carrot chunks about medium size; do whatever you like
Chinese wine
3 dried shiitake mushrooms
2 sundried tomatoes, roughly chopped
1 finely chopped red chilli or 1tsp red chilli sauce

1. In a pot that will hold all the ingredients fairly snugly (but not so crowded that things start flying out if you try to give it a good stir), heat up the oil on medium-high.
2. When the oil is hot (to test, add a piece of onion; when it starts making lots of noise, the oil's ready), add the salt, onion, and celery.
3. Sauté until onions start to soften--about 3-4 minutes.
4. Add the whole garlic cloves, chopped garlic, ginger, anchovy, and peppercorns.
5. Sauté for about a minute or two.
6. Add the chicken and the dark soy sauce, and sauté another minute or two.
7. Okay, you may have noticed there's no measurement for the wine. This is one ingredient I find it really tough to give a quantity for. I simply tip the wine bottle over the pot, sort of circling and dousing everything. Give it a stir. If the bottom of the pot looks dry, keep adding more wine.
8. Add the carrots, mushrooms, tomatoes, and chilli. Give it a quick stir. Then add just enough water to cover the chicken.
9. Bring to boil. Let simmer, uncovered, until reaches a nice, saucy thickness--about 30-40 minutes.
10. Be sure to taste and check that you're satisfied with the amount of seasoning.
11. Serve with white rice.

About 10 minutes before the rice was ready, I added some white asparagus (skinned and cut in thirds) to the stew. The asparagus was plump and juicy, and absorbed some of the sauce. It was utterly delectable. Then about 3 minutes before everything was done, I added some okra. Purrrrrfect.

*Yes, I used the scary, tentacled onions--what could I do? The stores were all closed by then, and I had to have stew--bravely lopping off and prying out...the bad parts.
**I finely chopped up the celery leaves and set them aside, adding them to the stew around the same time that I added the okra.
***I have a lot of garlic to get rid of; you may use as little as half a head of garlic if you have more genteel taste buds; also, don't worry about the skins of the unpeeled garlic cloves because they mysteriously melt into the stew. You can peel the cloves if you want to, but I believe in an unproved theory that garlic cooked in its skin tastes good. Update: Tonight, my husband fished out a garlic skin--heh, I guess they hadn't magically disapppeared so much as sunk to the bottom of the pot--and looked at me like I'd served him boiled moth wings. So on second thought, peel the damn garlic.
****Although I've been trained since young to accept whole peppercorns swimming around happily in my food, and will readily chew on them without care, I understand that some people aren't used to doing that. Please feel free to put your peppercorns in a little cheesecloth bag or whatnot.


Satellite's Eye View

Maybe I'm the only one... No, I've got to stop doing that. I'm quite sure I'm not always the last one to know everything--most of the time, but not always. Anyhow, it has been brought to my attention (through my honey--the husband, not the dog) that Google has a pretty fun, though at the moment limited, new feature on Google Maps that allows you to see satellite images of North America, although it's really mostly the U.S., which is why I say limited. But it's still fairly entertaining. Say you're far from home (if home is in North America) and hankering for a view of something familiar, you can search for your address, then click on the "Satellite" link, and you just might get a closeup bird's eye view of the top of your house, or at least the street where you live. "Hey look! There's George mowing the lawn!" Okay, maybe not that close.

The coolest thing I've seen so far is the airplane graveyard in Arizona (thanks to Google Blog for the heads up).

Alas, for those not interested in spying gazing upon the United States and parts of Canada (and Mexico, I think), you'll either have to wait for Google to upgrade its service, or you can sign up for a free trial with Keyhole (the company newly acquired by Google), which lets you view satellite images of a few of the bigger cities around the world. Warning: my husband downloaded it and my computer started working itself into such a froth it sounded like it was going to explode--i.e., don't bother unless you have a pretty powerful machine.

Taking the First Baby Step

One last post before bedtime. I didn't want to rant and rave and then seemingly forget the matter entirely the very next day.

Having read everyone's comments, I felt like I'd found (or been found by) my very own tribe of wannedabe-doctor sisters! How weird and wonderful.

There was one commenter named Tea who kindly responded to my ranting, and out of all of us, I feel she may have the greatest variety of options open to her (no offense to the rest of the tribe) because she's still in university deciding her future and isn't tied down yet...I don't think. You could do anything, Tea! Well, except medicine, I guess--but forget about that!

When I eventually gave up on becoming a doctor (dropping out of university for a year, because I felt so lost), I also foolishly gave up the more important part of my dream, which was to help people. I felt like without the skills that a medical degree would imbue me with, I would be worthless. I was so wrong. Now I have all this great desire to help, in any way at all, but my options are limited by the most basic things, like a husband and dog who need me. I'm not giving up so easily though!

For me, I've decided the first thing I need and can do right away is increase my knowledge. Life Jaime said in her comment, there are so many causes we could devote ourselves to. I've been doing a lot of searching and, quite simply, reading all I can. If anyone's interested, I found two great groups: human rights organization Global Exchange and the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Both sites have a lot of good information on important issues (or at least I think they're important) and both groups offer internships and also admit to needing volunteers--hint, hint, all you free people out there!

Sorry, I hope the tone of this post wasn't too preachy.

If only I could erase those paddle boats from the picture. Sigh.

Posting Multiple Pictures

Maybe I'm the only one who didn't know, but you can publish multiple photos with Hello in a single post. Now if only they'd let you upload the photos in draft form first.


Dark Chocolatey Cookies

I was feeling in need of deep dark chocolate this evening, the kind that kind of takes over your mouth and holds it hostage. Being a great supporter of the Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe by Cook's Illustrated--albeit with some adjustments--I considered giving the Triple Chocolate Cookie a go... until I examined their recipe and realized the good people at Cook's Illustrated must have gone temporarily insane. Sixteen ounces of semi-sweet chocolate? That would equate to something like five family-size Cadbury Dairy Milk bars in every bite--ah, my mouth just clenched in a sugar seizure at the mere thought. No, pure chocolate can never be too wrong, but I wanted a chocolatey cookie, not chocolate.

It was all up to me. I rolled up my sleeves, got out my trusty, adjusted Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe, and just did a little more adjusting. The final cookie was pretty good: crisp exterior, chewy interior, deep-dark chocolatey, and not too sweet.

spreadage There was a downside: spreadage. Meaning a slightly flat cookie. I made some notes as to how the problem could be fixed, and you can find them at the end of the recipe.

Take My Mouth Hostage Cookies (adapted from Cook's Illustrated Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe)
(makes four cookies--what would I do with three dozen?)

8 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon instant coffee
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons (45g) butter, melted and cooled until warm
4 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 tablespoons dark brown sugar
1 egg yolk
Dash of vanilla extract
2 tablespoons chocolate chips
* 1-2 tablespoons chopped pecans (optional)

1. In small bowl, whisk: flour, cocoa, coffee, baking soda, salt, and pecans.
2. In another small bowl, blend: butter, sugars, yolk, and vanilla.
3. Mix the contents of the two bowls together, stirring in the chocolate chips at the end.
4. Refrigerate the dough.
5. When the dough has chilled and firmed up, preheat oven to 160'C/325'F. Get out your baking sheet and line with parchment paper. Divide the cookie dough into four mounds.
6. Bake for 10-11 minutes.
7. Transfer cookies, parchment paper and all, onto rack to cool a bit because, right out of the oven, they'll just fall apart—all hot, gooey chocolate--if you try to pick one up.

NOTE: Regarding the spreadage, the next time, I might consider trying one or more of the following:
-use an extra tablespoon of flour, so 9 tablespoons (the cookie was almost too buttery, if such a thing is possible)
-instead of melting the butter, just really soften it up
-let dough chill in fridge longer
-try baking at higher temperature--170'C/340'F--for shorter time
-use baking powder instead of soda—about 1/2 teaspoon


Blogger.com, Please Don't

Anyone using Blogger.com might have noticed the new "recover post" link that was created to be helpful. You type something, somehow it disappears, you click on "Recover post," and if you're lucky, the lost text comes back. Well, ever since this oh-so helpful new feature was added, I've lost text, big chunks of it, which never came back. If you don't know, let me warn you: clicking anywhere on the toolbar--even, say, near the "Preview" link--could make your draft revert to the last saved version. I don't know why the link is so darn...is sensitive the right word? But, this means that accidentally clicking on the toolbar while you're still typing a draft could cause the most recent portion of it to vanish. If this happens to you, don't panic. I discovered that all you have to do is click anywhere on the text box, and then press the control key and Z at the same time (this is the undo command in MS Word). Your erased text should reappear.

As much as I appreciate the effort, sometimes I get scared when Blogger.com tries new things.

Stand Back, She's Going To

Let's just spell it out right from the start: I'm not in a good mood. I may even alienate all four of my readers, so maybe this should be one of those let her rant and rage all by herself moments, like a spoilt brat kicking and screaming in the corner of the room, and where the only one who reads the following crap is me, like diary-tic catharsis.

I hate the Harry Potter stories. Mmmm, that feels like a good place to start. The main character is mean and whiny, and, true, I only read the first book and maybe it gets better after that, but I just didn't care enough about the twit to give him a second chance.

In case anyone judgmental is still reading this when I just told you to butt out, let's just get it all out in the open. I'm sheltered, self-centered, and cowardly. I live in this fairy tale bubble of a world where nothing bad ever happens and I don't have the courage to ever step out of it to actually help people who aren't even a fraction as lucky as I am.

Okay, fine! I'm consumed by guilt. This little temper tantrum is all about me hating the complacency of my life but not having the will to actually do anything to rectify the situation. Where is all this juvenile emotion coming from?

Well, it's all been festering inside, but then the festering started leaking out after I began reading Baghdad Burning, which is a blog by a young woman about my age who shares what everyday life is like in Iraq. And everything I've read so far is driving me crazy. I can't stop thinking about this utterly foreign world that the writer who calls herself Riverbend is trying to survive in and how unfair it is that my life is so...easy in comparison.

What do I do every day? I work, I walk my dog, I blog, I bake, I laugh with my husband. What does Riverbend do? She watches the news constantly, she's afraid all the time, she can't sleep because of all those exploding bombs falling around her, she is describing to us how her world is growing more and more damaged, more unsalvageable every day.

How can I not do something? How can I continue as I have been, in my safe little world? This is not just about assuaging guilt. This is standing on the street, gaping at a woman being assaulted, and not doing anything more than feeling horrified. It's so wrong, my entire being is protesting.

But what can I do? Me, an average woman, living in Japan, fluent only in English, and hopelessly unqualified for anything useful. Should I pack my bags, say bye-bye to my dog and husband, catch the next flight to Washington, join an NGO, lobby the politicians, protest the so-called collateral damage caused by military troops?

When I was six, I knew I wanted to become a doctor. As I grew older, I kept adding to the dream, dead certain I'd join Doctors Without Borders right after graduation. I had it all mapped out. When I got too old for dodging bombs between delivering babies and amputating limbs, I'd return to Canada, start a private practice, make loads of money, then move to Thailand to build a shelter for child prostitutes (but of course they'd also receive educatation and training so as to be self suficient). I figured I'd eventually die of a terrible disease, like Father Damien--or be snuffed by a pissed off pimp whose sex slave had come under my protection--but I knew it would be worth it.

Embarassing, huh? Not my dreams, but how far removed my life is now from all those childish aspirations. I feel like I should apologize or at least travel back in time to tell my young self to forget med school ("Cause you just plain suck at chemistry.") and to definitely forget majoring in magazine journalism. I can almost see my 12-year-old self looking scornful, saying, "Why would I do something dumb like that?" Why indeed.

I am sorry, truly I am. I know you're probably thinking, Sweet Baby Jesus, stop whining and do something already. Hey give me a break. I'm just starting to figure this all out. Nobody wakes up from La La Land and instantly knows the plan from A to Z. Well, not me, anyhow. Better late then never is the only cliche I can think of to keep up the optimism. If all you can do is roll your eyes...just don't roll them in this direction. But if you've got any ideas, then tell me.

I'm also sorry I said I hated Harry Potter. Well, I do. But I guess I didn't have to be rude about it.

Edwardo El Matador

More like, "Estupido bandanna."



Four Great New Blogs

Hi, it is me again, amenable to continuing the ever-popular Poor Me I Am So Poor series. Well, people, I have bad news of the lowest order: used English book store Caravan Books in Ikebukuro closed down. Dude, this is serious. I know what you are thinking: Well, wasn't it just the previous post that she was waxing lyrical about the "heavenly haven" that is the library? Yes, but that kind of overwrought emotion only applies, I'm afraid, to the libraries I knew in my pre-Japan days. Not to be rude--I sincerely appreciate the efforts of my local library, but truthfully, the thought of having to look at that same shelf of 30 books (the latest in the collection dating circa 1975) one more time has me seriously depressed.

Like I said before, one of my only weaknesses is books, and for the last few years I've been...buying. What was I supposed to do? Dear god, please don't make me borrow Flowers in the Attic from the library. Just the thought of handling those yellow pages makes the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up. Quick question: Does reading that last sentence make you think, "Ew, she has hair on the back of her neck"? Okay, I will stop babbling deliriously now. So, yeah, I've been patronizing a couple of used book stores: one that I have to pass on my way to the office and one that's close to home. Unfortunately, I don't visit the former often because I don't have to go to the office that often; and the latter was Caravan Books, which now is gone. Do you know what this means for me? Amazon, with their slow-as-the-living-dead delivery record of two to three freakin' weeks. Just thinking about that kind of wait makes me all antsy.

Morever, I hate online book shopping. It just cannot compare with the sight of row upon row of filled book shelves and all those spines lined up, waiting to be touched and examined. Not only do I judge a book by its cover, I tend to judge it by its first few pages, which is not something you can always do on Amazon.

But, a weakness is a weakness, and I've already put in my order and spent the requisite amount that will get me free delivery. Unfortunately, this leaves me with two weeks of booklessness. I have books lying around the house but I'm one of those people who can't read the same book twice, no matter how much I enjoyed it--I've tried a few times; I always end up reading the first line over and over and over.

So what's a girl to do? Work shmerk. I mean, seriously? Well, without spending a dime, I've been perusing some newly discovered blogs that have so far proved to be fairly good reading. Thought I'd share.

With all the anti-Japan demonstrations that have been going on in China the past week, I've been reading up on Sino-Japanese relations. During one search for more info, I came upon a rather opinionated Singaporean blogger in China who posted on her site an email she received encouraging people to protest as well as a brief glimpse into how one Chinese colleague regards Japan as well as his own country. Admittedly, I feel bad for the Chinese people, who I believe have been conditioned all their lives to hate the Japanese in a blind manner that is utterly useless to anyone except their government, for whom such consuming emotion I suppose could serve as a pretty handy tool.

There's some incredible writing on Life as a Dervish by Willow, who describes herself as "American Cairene, Sufi Muslim, voting Democrat." I recommend her poignant "Beloved" but there's also lots of lighter (and heavier) though no less amazing moments, like when the blogger shares the discovery that gasoline poured on the floor of her apartment works great as mosquito repellent and ends with "Thank God the Saudis' precious oil wealth is going to good use."

And last, I've been enjoying one "Arab-American woman's take on politics, the Middle East, feminism, religion, and anything else of interest" presented in blogger Nadz's funny, blunt fashion. Here's a sample of her writing: (under her list of "The Top 5 Misconceptions about the Middle East")

4. Arab women are all veiled, abused victims begging to be rescued

Thanks, Hollywood. Many Arab women are tough, strong, assertive, opinionated and educated ladies who kick serious ass if anyone tells them otherwise. Lots of Bahraini women dress as they please, go out and bring home the bacon. Kuwaiti women are demanding the right to vote. And Saudi women - OK, they're all covered from head-to-toe, but things can change....

And what kind of friend would I be if I didn't direct you to my best girl at Bubble Squeak? This woman does humorous re-writes of Chaucer, people (or is Chaucer humorous already? Do you see what an illiterate mollusk I am in comparison, that I don't even know!) and she also claims to be able to live without a microwave oven. Now aren't you dying to know more about her? Hmmm?

Japanese Fast Food

My winning combination of cheap and restrained has meant I've never had a serious money problem before. Even when I was living in New York (okay, Brooklyn) and earning a sad, sad editorial assistant salary--I thought about sparing you the painful details, but what the heck? US$1,400 a month--I actually had savings. I know. I wonder if it's partially because I've never felt that allegedly typical girlie desire to splurge on things like accessories, shoes, and purses. I'm almost 28 and I still live in my getting-pretty-ick jeans and sneakers, and the only jewelry I wear is my wedding band.

I do have two weaknesses: books and food. But the answer to the former was, of course, that heavenly haven: the library. As for the latter, I figure that I have to eat anyway, so I might as well enjoy myself once in a while.

Then I came to Japan. I know how everybody says, Oh, Japan is so expensive. But I never really understood until I started living here. I've since been reduced to the type of person who crosses her fingers when I punch in an entreaty the amount I would really like to withdraw at the ATM. Technically, I can't complain because I could always become an English teacher--I won't call it easy money but it sure is good money. But I've already given my reasons as to why I won't go down that road.

I guess I just wanted to explain one last time why I'm living in this fun and wacky city called Tokyo but I never seem to actually report much on it. If you want to read up on all that's cool and new over here, then you'll have to find a blogger who can actually afford to experience all those cool new things. Me, I live in the Japanese equivalent of the 'burbs where the most happening thing is what wild flower is going to burst into bloom next.

As for food, when I can't bear one more can of tuna for dinner but I'm not feeling rich enough for grossly overpriced ramen (it's really good but it's just noodles, for the love of god, and maybe one stamp-sized sheet of nori, if you're lucky), I eat "local."

Nah, I'm not talking about some dark, quaint little izakaya where everyone in the neighborhood gathers late at night for beer and bad singing. I'm talking about Matsuya. What is this place? It's the ultimate salaryman hangout and the Japanese equivalent of fast food, only the pace of Matsuya makes McDonald's feel like leisure dining. Some people kind of sneer at Matsuya and its trademark bowl of rice topped with paper-thin, really cheap cuts of beef. I wouldn't suggest it without a laugh if my husband and I were thinking about grabbing a rare meal together. But I pretty much can't stand my own cooking and sometimes a meal at Matsuya bears just enough semblence to a "real meal" to pacify me. One disclaimer: Matsuya may be a chain, but the quality varies wildly from one location to the next. I very rarely eat at a Matsuya outside of my own neighborhood.

To give you a little taste of the cheapest meal you can get in Japan--well, it used to be something like 230 yen for a bowl of rice topped with beef, but after the whole BSE ruckus, now it's more; I always go for the curry anyway, which is 290 yen, oh yeah--allow me to present it à la "24," an intriguing-sounding new TV show that was recently imported for Japanese viewers (it appears to have potential, but why are all the white people on the show so...bleached?) (And while we're on the subject of American TV, are Monica and Chandler *ever* going to get married?).

24 (Seconds, That Is)

Jack Bauer has only four more hours to save Los Angeles from being nuked, um, again, and he's been running around Tokyo trying to find the bad guy. But if he doesn't get something to eat soon, he isn't going to be good for anything. His attention is caught by the blinding fluorescent light pouring out of a small Matsuya and, helplessly, he taps the glass doors, causing them to automatically spring apart.

The two young girls bustling about behind the long counter snap to attention like marionettes and cry "Welcome!" in soft but alarmingly high-pitched unison. One girl pours a steaming mug of tea and the other a frosty glass of water.

20:00:02 - 20:00:04
Jack, a regular at Matsuya because of his need for a hot meal served at lightening speed, drops coins into the vending machine by the door and punches the "salad" and "curry" buttons. Jack allows himself a millisecond to reminisce about the days before he could read easy Japanese and was forced to play eenie meanie minie moe with the machine, never knowing what he'd just bought himself.

Jack collects the two white tickets and sits down on a bar stool at the counter, placing the tickets in front of him.

The tea and water appear before him and the order on his two tickets are read out loud.

20:00:07 - 20:00:12
Girl A gets out a chilled bowl of salad. Girl B starts piling a plate with a motherload of rice from the mother of all rice cookers. Jack listens to his cellphone messages. His daughter has been kidnapped, um, again. Girl B ladles steaming miso soup into a black faux-lacquer bowl, then adds some wakame and julienned abura-age.

20:00:13 - 20:00:17
The second message is from the bad guy. He's got Jack's daughter and wants to meet. Girl A spoons chicken curry on the same plate as the rice, but off to one side, so it kind of resembles one of those giant black & white cookies that you always see in New York delis and that look yummy but never actually taste yummy, Jack thinks sadly.

20:00:18 - 20:00:20
Girl A adds a happy sprinkle of golden pickles to the plate of curry because Japanese curry always seems to be eaten with pickles, although any other place the pickles are usually a fuscia color, Jack muses.

Girl B sets salad down in front of Jack.

Girl A sets gargantuan plate of curry down in front of Jack.

Girl B sets down miso soup in front of Jack.

Jack regards the complete meal before him and wishes everything could happen that quickly and without complication. Jack picks up the spoon--because Japanese curry is always eaten with a spoon, nothing else--and hurriedly digs in.



The Japanese really love ice cream. I know, you're thinking, "Oh, come on, what people, save perhaps the Inuit, don't love ice cream?"

First of all, I'd have to object to your offhanded exclusion of the Inuit, since, conversely, there are people living in tropical climes who, even in the inferno of summertime, relish the sweaty, scalding pleasures that come from a cup of coffee, a big bowl of soup, or even--paradoxical as it may seem--a hot bath. Thus, who is to say that in one's native Arctic environment, a frosty treat wouldn't be just the thing to hit the spot?

Second, I would have to reemphasize that that, no, I mean the Japanese really love ice cream. This is a country that has ice cream vending machines, sometimes with fifteen different flavors. Living near what could qualify as a tourist attraction*, I've witnessed people happily digging into ice cream cones with spoons (I'm not sure why but you always get a little plastic spoon with your ice cream cone, which most people seem to favor over the use of their tongue) at eight in the morning. And if you peruse the ice cream cooler at your nearest 7-Eleven, alongside the ubiquitous Haagen-Dazs vanilla and yuzu sorbet, you'll find the most amazing selection of "ice," which is how ice cream is fondly referred to in Japan: Muscat grape popsicles with whole grapes suspended within; seasonal offerings (peach tea in the summer, marrons in the fall, etc.); and even Fauchon ice cream with flavors like darjeeling and roasted fig.

Of course, to each her own, and Japan too does things her own way or sometimes not at all. Over here, homemade ice cream sundaes are one of those things that aren't done. You want proof? Try finding toppings of any kind in a regular Japanese supermarket. You won't. No hot fudge, no caramel, no Magic Shell Twix--can anyone tell me what this is exactly?--no sprinkles, no whipped cream in a spray can. Ice cream generally comes in single servings. You lift off the lid of the little cup, peel back the plastic flap, and dig in. What you won't see in most homes after dinner is big bowls heaped with creamy scoops of Dryer's just begging to be condimented like an overdressed tart. In fact, I don't think I've ever even seen an ice cream scoop for sale.

Another possible explanation for the unpopularity of ice cream toppings--and condiments in general, now that I think about it--is that the average Japanese consumer does not try to impose his or her preferences on established products. For example, if you don't want ketchup on your burger, then don't go to McDonald's. Do not ask the nice, young lady taking your order if you could get a burger made without ketchup. Such an illicit request could send the establishment into total meltdown, resulting in: the manager coming out front, possibly venting his fear and confusion on the nice, young girl who tried to take your order; tears shed; much frantic hand waving; and you, after many hours, exhausted and famished, escaping (a) empty handed or (b) clutching a burger with ketchup.

In Japan, if an ice cream were meant to be eaten with raspberry syrup, then there would be a little individual-serving pack of raspberry syrup neatly affixed to your cup of ice cream. Otherwise, “just eat the bloody ice cream, it's good as is” would be the general sentiment.

Now this is not to say that there aren't sundaes in Japan. I daresay you could find them on the menu of just about any family restaurant in the country. I just don't like most ice cream toppings, with whipped cream, sprinkles, and maraschino cherries topping (sorry) my loathing list. I'm not too fond of the Japanese versions either that employ layers of corn flakes or cubes of jello.

Which brings me to the whole point of this post. Last night, I came up with a really good pseudo homemade topping: melt five or six chocolate-covered coffee beans (I dipped into my small stash of Bernard Callebaut, which uses bittersweet chocolate and coats each little ball in a dusting of cocoa powder) in a few teaspoons of milk, add the tiniest pinch of salt, toss in some chopped roasted almonds to coat, and carefully spoon the creamy mixture over your single-serving cup of ice cream. The idea isn't revolutionary, but the coffee beans add a wonderful crackly crunch and aromatic little bursts to each bite.

*The local tourist attraction to which I refer is a park with trees in it, because in Tokyo, a "park" could just as easily be a five-by-five-foot plot of dirt. We actually get tour buses at our park.


Brown Bread Ice Cream!

I am bursting with excitement and the need to share: see real brown bread ice cream, created and presented by Keiko of Nordljus, one of the most elegant food blogs I've yet to come across.

Well? Have you looked yet? Isn't it beautiful? I feel so proud, somehow, to be connected--okay, really there's no connection at all except for the link I've created to Keiko's lovely blog--with such a luscious dessert.

Near Perfect

I know, there must be a gajillion pancake recipes on the world wide web, each with its very own blinking neon sign proclaiming This Is It This Is the One. But I've tried 'em all, and none have ever turned out to be The One for me.

You know what the problem is? The egg. Every single pancake recipe out there measures its amount in whole eggs. This is madness, since eggs come in so many sizes. I only realized recently that all my pancakes have been way too eggy, resulting in what amounted to a thick crepe: all dense and smooth and kind of chewy.

I guess everyone has their own ideal, but I like my pancakes fat and tall, with a medium crumb. One thing I find that helps is a thick batter--like cooked-oatmeal thick. I'm not often proud of the things I produce in my kitchen, but I can't help but feel a little swell of satisfaction over my near-perfect pancakes.

In case Jenny's seeing this and is reeling in horror, I love butter but, no, I'm not some mad butter fiend. That's a square of gouda cheese in the middle.

They're not picture perfect, but they're exactly the pancakes I crave. And every time I polish one off, I collapse back in my chair with a gusty sigh and a small grin.

Here's the recipe. It's for one pancake--I know, this is the kind of thing I do that gets me the "She's not one of us" look. But you end up with a pancake that's just the right size for easy flipping. And I find the small ingredient quantities make whipping one up extremely quick and easy (there's less threat of overmixing), so you can have a pancake just minutes after a craving hits you.

Near Perfect Pancake
6 tablespoons whole wheat flour*
1 tablespoon rolled oats
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch (1/16tsp) of baking soda

30ml beaten egg
70ml plain (unsweetened) yogurt
1/2 tsp oil
1 1/2 tsp maple syrup**

* I find whole wheat flour makes a sturdier pancake, which is what I prefer. If you like yours kind of floppy and wimpy, you can use all-purpose flour, but you'll have to reduce the amount of yogurt.
** I use maple syrup cause it blends faster and easier into the batter.
***Notice how the egg and yogurt combined add up to 100ml? I eyeball 30ml of egg in my liquid measuring cup, then top up the cup with yogurt until it gets to 100ml. Next into the wet mix is the 1/2 teaspoon of oil, which nicely greases up the spoon in preparation for the maple syrup, which will just slide neatly out.

1. Get all your ingredients together.
2. Start heating up the fry pan with a teaspoon of oil (butter tastes nicer but it burns easily and stinks up the place).
3. Briefly whisk all the dry ingredients together.
4. Add all the wet ingredients to the dry. Gently give the batter about four slow swirls with the whisk--so everything is still very thick and lumpy (should not be a pourable consistency).
3. Give the hot pan a swirl to spread the oil out a bit and then just use some tissue paper to evenly rub the oil around.
4. Spoon your batter into the pan and gently spread it into a rough disk that's about 1cm thick.
5. Well, hopefully you know what to do after this. Just one word of advice: be gentle when you flip your pancake.

If I don't feel like a syrup-doused cake, I sometimes make a small scramble out of the leftover egg, sprinkle cubes of cheese over the batter right after I've spooned it into the hot pan, and then--hmm, should I tell you this?--top the finished pancake with a spiral of Sriracha, quite possibly the best chilli sauce in the whole world. Serve the scrambled egg and pancake together.


What Is Going On?!

As soon as I entered my apartment today, I felt a little swoop of unease. Something was off--and, no, it wasn't the new starter I'm trying to bring to life because the old one featured so proudly in my sidebar died, yes, died, but I'll have to write about that another time because I'm in fact so busy I shouldn't even be writing this very brief post I am attempting to post briefly. Er...

Back to my quick story. It was as I was slipping off my shoes that it hit me, or rather the warmth did. Warmth? On a cold day? Inside my apartment? Nuh uh, my apartment doesn't do that. In fact, my apartment seems to be in blatant competition with the outdoors: if the day's cold, then my apartment has to knock its internal temperature down to a level amenable to frostbite. In the dead of winter, my apartment could double as a transitional base camp for those about to embark on an Antarctic expedition.

Naturally, I panicked at the foreign desire to take off my coat. First, I dashed to the stove, certain that there I would find a roaring blaze that would demystify the alarmingly comfortable degree of heat within my home. Nope, my burners were quiet and a wee bit dirty, just as I'd left them. I then dashed about my home, but there just aren't that many sources of heat in this place--huh, don't I know it. I wondered if I'd been walking too fast and merely woken up my inner furnace. But then my eyes were drawn to the windows: blurred, top to bottom, with condensation.

Okay, now I was scared. You know in that movie where the room suddenly gets really cold and you watch a layer of frost swiftly creep over everything, and then you know the monster or big baddie has arrived? Well, okay, this is nothing like that, but... This just isn't normal. Nice. But not the natural order of things.

Something's wrong, I just know it. But what? Where is all this good ambient warmth coming from? Aaaaarrrgh!



Today's return to red, wind-chapped hands stiffly clenched around the umbrella handle seemed fitting, as Edward and I wandered the deserted park that's looking a bit the way I imagine Times Square might on New Year's Day--forlorn, with evidence of the midnight celebrations still scattered about, lingering confetti glinting from the sidewalks, on building walls, and adorning the odd mail box--minus the shards of broken beer bottles. And replace the confetti with sodden little pink petals, millions of them.

For Tokyo, it is unofficially the end of sakura season, that greatly anticipated, elusive week or so in spring when thousands of cherry blossom trees all over town seem to explode into massive frothy-pink afros overnight. Sakura spells spring madness for the Japanese, who will drop everything to gather with loved ones for some pretty impressive impromptu picnicing beneath the sakura trees at full bloom, otherwise known as hanami (flower viewing).

Planning a hanami is serious business that requires precision timing and skilled coordination among friends and family because as soon as the first signs of pink start peeking through, the clock starts ticking. Cherry blossoms seem to start falling almost as soon as they bloom, while a sudden rain storm could easily snatch a tree bald. It is this sudden and fleeting nature of sakura season that probably makes hanami an experience few non-Japan residents get to enjoy, unless they're the spur-of-the-moment traveling type. Even regular working people in Japan probably only get one weekend to sigh at the dazzling pink canopy overhead whilst becoming totally sloshed.

Even for those who have seen a cherry blossom tree, it's not quite the same as standing in the middle of an entire park of them, where the whole world has turned a ghostly white-pink, or walking along a sakura-lined river and gazing at the uninterrupted arch of flowers stretching endlessly ahead. For someone who's never been in Japan during sakura season, it's difficult to comprehend just how much the Japanese love their sakura and just how many trees flourish in this country because of that love.

Even more impossible to describe is the strange wonder of hanami. Yesterday, as I entered the park to meet a group of friends for our own hanami party, I couldn't help but gape, at the sheer number of human beings sprawled out on the ground, reveling in the midst of a fierce pink blizzard.

Years ago, as I was strolling through downtown Montreal on an unusually fine sunny afternoon, it suddenly began to snow. It was the most exhilarating sight: millions of snow flakes swirling through the air under a blue sky.

Hanami is a bit like that. The dreamlike sensation of walking through a warm, dry snow storm. All around you, peppering the air, carpeting the ground, building up in drifts are these pink-tinged snow flakes that never melt into slush or sting your exposed skin. You sit on your ubiquitous blue tarp (because in Japan, the ground of parks is invariably damp brown earth, not green grass), you eat picnic foods seasoned with petals, you laugh and drink as flower stamens collect in your hair, and the pink snow keeps falling, endlessly.


Breathe Again

Today as I was walking, I was startled by a strange fluttering sensation against my shins: the wind! It felt absolutely delicious, and I realized that for months on end, my legs have been imprisoned in tights and long socks, starved for light and air. Until today. It was so warm, I had my jeans daringly rolled up a few inches, and if it weren't for the new decongestant drugs I'm on that have me mellow as a cat in warm cream, I'm sure I would have been dashing about the park, fully reveling in the wondrous bare-ankle sensations.


Eggplant Focaccia

I've recently become intrigued by the concept of Peter Reinhart's "modern" pain a l'ancienne, which, very simply put, uses ice water for the initial dough mixing as well as overnight refrigeration to slow down the activation of the yeast--the resulting bread is supposed to have excellent flavor and those beautiful, irregular holes* inside, something my breads never have. I've been impatient to give it a try, and an uncoming party requiring a food offering gave me the excuse to break away from work to play. But evenutally, I veered slightly off course and made Reinhart's Potato Rosemary Focaccia, which is similar in that it asks for "ice-cold water" and also has you refrigerate the dough after fairly minimal handling.

As you may or may not be able to make out from the uncomfortably intimate focaccia shot above (my husband remarked that it resembled a frightening alien landscape), I eschewed the potatoes because I am a shameless hussy for roasted eggplant and use it to replace original ingredients in a recipe whenever possible.

If you know me, you already know that things went wrong and the Road to Focaccia was a bumpy one. I learned a few new important lessons (and some not-so-new ones, but sometimes I need to be hit in the head more than a couple of times before I go, "Oh") that I want to share, so gather round, kids:
  1. Making freshly baked bread for a lunch party is *so* not a brilliant idea; a dinner party, fine; to be ready for lunch, one would have to wake up at 6am in the morning to get the dough out of the fridge to wake it up, which one thinks is just ridiculous, especially if one's bedtime were 3-4am.

  2. Focaccia needs to be baked in a really hot oven, so don't do silly things like pre-roasting toppings or slicing your onions and beautiful eggplant into skinny strips so that when the bread is only halfway done, the veggies have already been transformed into crispy coal rings and sticks. Thankfully, I had extra red onion slices, and I strew these over the focaccia at the end, which actually looked quite pretty--the bright purple together with the fresh green of the rosemary. Aside from possible carcinogenic effects, more importantly, I was hesitant to bake the focaccia as long as I would have liked, because I didn't know how much more baking the eggplant could handle; I think the crispness of the crust suffered for this.

  3. Although many focaccia recipes seem to like the idea of decorating the surface with branches of fresh rosemary, it's better to chop up a handful of the leaves and mix it directly into the dough; otherwise, the end result will surely be a horrific battlefield of scorched rosemary, permanently curled in the final throes of roasted agony. Plus they'll taste kind of bitter. I ended up having to pick out all the brown carcasses and replace them with fresh green sprigs. Meanwhile, the chopped rosemary in the dough remained safely nestled and also perfumed the bread nicely (or so I was told).
Although people were kind in their comments about the focaccia, I wasn't happy with the texture. The crumb was way too soft and fine and the holes were very small and uniform. I think that had to do with the fact that I misread the recipe and didn't wake up at 6am to wake up the dough like I was supposed to--but which I *totally* would have done, if I'd read the recipe correctly. No! Seriously, I would have.

Instead, I got up around 9-ish. And so the poor dough found itself being rudely jolted awake at a very low oven temperature setting (rather then room temp.), and it's possible my focaccia suffered from the shock of it.

Three other things I did differently from the recipe: One, I cut down slightly on the copious amounts of oil in which the focaccia supposedly enjoys bathing. Two, I wanted a slightly heartier focaccia but didn't want too many strong competing flavors, so I added to the dough just a small handful of chopped walnuts. Three, I didn't make the herb oil in the recipe. I'm not a fan of mixed herbs. I don't want to sound like a moron, but I think each herb is lovely and unique, and should be allowed to shine on its own. This time I chose rosemary. Although I did roast a few cloves of garlic, mashed them up, and mixed them with the roasted eggplant and onion toppings.

Quite honestly, I can't tell you what I personally thought of my focaccia because of my hay fever and the resulting inability to taste anything.

I definitely will try this recipe again when I've got more time on my hands and my sense of taste returns.

*The linked photo was taken by a member of eGullet and can be viewed, along with its original post, in this thread.

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