New Japanese Flora Foodie Frontiers (For Me, Anyway)

Too many a-travelblogpost gush on about the writer’s profound new experience — hitherto largely explored by the common, housebound masses – daringly testing out the local cuisine of whatever continent on which they’ve landed and decided to insult with their presence. Poosts (a new word I’ve coined, one which I’ll leave you to figure out) prattle on about how aMAaaaZing, followed by a head-shaking number of exclamation points, the food is, and how they’re soooo blessed by Hayzeus Agatha Christi to have had the experience. Following this, the viewer is shown frustratingly unperceivable photos of said food and perhaps feels the dooming sense that this person will someday either be the President of the United States or of a hippie drum circle in North Carolina.

I shall do the same here, but with more flair, finesse, and alliteration.

Konnyaku (こんにゃく)

A squishy block of konjac. Source: Wikipedia

A squishy block of konjac. Source: Wikipedia

Recently, I’ve become bold in my efforts to expand my palette in Japanese plant-based foods. On recommendation by my students (I’m an English teacher, if you haven’t been ardently following this fascinating blog), I recently tried the squishy gelatinous konnyaku, or konjac, or voodoo lily, snake palm, or elephant yam. Amorphophallus konjac, as it’s known botanically, comes from one of my favorite subfamilies of plants, Aroideae, under which can be found Arisaema triphyllum, or jack-in-the-pulpit.

For those unfortunate souls whose teeth have never worried away at a strip of this popular (not to mention incredibly healthy) Japanese staple, do not shy away from this for appearances’ sake. I cut thin strips of the dead, graying carcass of Flubber and fried them in oil along with a few eggs. As I myself am a bit blubberphobic, I fried the strips until they were quite tough (as one with an aversion to extremely soft tofu would do), and – voila! – tastes of bacon, sir.

Still good!

Still good!

Renkon (レンコン)

A lot of recipes call for lotus root, pronounced ren-kon in Japanese-speak, to be stir fried with soy sauce and sesame seeds. Me, I just slapped this baby onto the skillet and fried it in good ole-fashioned watery oil (I had very little oil left and needed some for my hair the next morning), and BANG, I had extremely plain lotus root to go with my equally plain rice. My experience with this typical ingredient in Japanese cuisine was complete, and I subsequently forgot about the remaining hunk of root, which is still rotting in my mini refrigerator to this day.

Kabocha (カボチ)

Some days, I wonder what on earth I’d do without this squash, and then I realize in a panic that I’ve run out and make a dash for Family Mart before the old people, who are so fond at poking at sweet potatoes at the mall, clean them out. In my sad Koriyama dwelling, I steam kabocha nearly every day, often with a pinch of cinnamon, and add it to any rice dish. Despite my seemingly newfound obsession, I was actually unwittingly introduced to this fruit by a former Chinese student of mine in Pennsylvania over a year ago.

Daikon (大根)

I kept hearing “radish” being thrown around, especially when it came to sushi and sashimi, but not once did I see the cherry-sized and -colored snack veggie I was so used to seeing in my parents’ refrigerator in Pennsylvania.

The radish I speak of here in Japan (aokubi-daikon) is long and white, much like an icicle or an albino carrot. Agriculturally, it seems that this crop is sometimes left to overwinter, as some persimmon trees, so they can decompose and release growth-stimulating nitrogen for the next crops in the rotation. Otherwise, I’ve experienced the root grated on salads and next to slices of ginger on sushi plates. I myself have lightly sautéed it, as one would a leek or spring onion, and added it to rice-based dishes for some added crispy freshness.

Satsumaimo/Yakiimo/Sweet Potato

Not just another tuberous root. The tuberous root. I can recall one bitter cold night, not long after arriving in Koriyama this time last year, and hearing the eeriest sound between the slaps of hard winter winds on my window. I peeked out from the covers on my bed just in time to see a glowing red object slide beyond a garden wall, down the alleyway, and out of sight. I shoved on my shoes and ran outside, following the sound, but the wind was taking it every which way. I walked and walked but never found the source of the mysterious music that night.

Sometime in October or November, perhaps, that same noise drifted over my neighbor’s low, gabled rooftops. This time, my friend and I discovered the source – the yakiimo truck (to which I refer as the “yakiimo lady”, as the recorded, looped song is sung by a woman). Sweet potatoes are a popular treat in the winter time here, although they can be found in supermarkets year-round, their sweet scents pervading the entire store. Unfortunately, they attract the older clientele, who poke and prod each yakiimo, despite the fact there’s a wrapper, with their shriveled, bony, gross, germ-infested fingers.

According to the fascinatingly named The Economic Aspects of the History of the Civilization of Japan, Volume 2, sweet potato was introduced to Japan in the early 1700s. So far, I’ve seen it used as the main ingredient for bread, as the aforementioned delicious treat, and as a substitution for rice in shochu, a Japanese spirit. It has also made frequent guest appearances in my kitchen skillet, coated in cinnamon.

On my hit list

It’s unbelievable that, during my unregrettable year here in Japanland, I’ve not yet tried takenoko (bamboo shoots) nor the common gobo, both the root and plant itself I’ve seen growing in the very city in which I currently live. I shall endeavor to try and savor these and more in my time here now, and, subsequently, shall bloglish my hereforthto unique experiences.

Advertisements

Disconnect

My tomato plant grows only in moonlight.

My tomato plant grows only in moonlight.

This week, the plates got saucy and treated the Japanese coast to a six-point-eighter, all maps pulsing a three-ringed bullseye in the Pacific Ocean to the immediate right of Fukushima prefecture. I woke up that morning not from the shaking but about four minutes before from a nightmare I still haven’t forgotten and from an absurdly bright and far-too-early 4-a.m. sunrise.

In my first pottery class, I decided to style my bowl after the Campanula flower.

In my first pottery class, I decided to style my bowl after the Campanula flower.

The previous week, I lost my internet connection once again, this time for reasons beyond my logic and still unresolved for all my fist-shaking. This meant more reading, more outside recreation, and more plants. At this point, my windowsill resembles some sort of mad scientist desperately trying to save the world’s rarest specimens but who has lost his government funding due to shoddy record keeping and a basic labeling system; I doubt there are any rarities among my collection, but it can certainly be said that everything — whatever it might be — is very much alive, thriving, flowering, twining, fruiting, and all -ings botanical.

I was kindly asked by the magnanimous staff at the Shinjuku Botanical Garden to stay on the path and stop looking for seeds. It's like Willy Wonka's Factory in there!

I was kindly asked by the magnanimous staff at the Shinjuku Botanical Garden to stay on the path and stop looking for seeds. It’s like Willy Wonka’s Factory in there!

I’ve read a few Murakami novels, studied several chapters of my new Botany book, and even put together what might be called music with the fantastic FruityLoops Studio program. I’ve even been putting in some serious time studying Japanese, getting closer and closer to finding out exactly what it is that’s so constantly humorous to the people here. Of course, I’ve reckoned already that, on the whole, Japanese people are just simply…happier.

My all-time favorite, the Ice Plant.

My all-time favorite, the Ice Plant.

I’ve always felt that disconnect, though, with the people around me. Happiness, laughter, and frivolity do not come to me easily. As was (historically inaccurately) with the Queen, I am generally not amused. And, despite, in my mind, being on par with the word “moist”, I have to agree with my family as being described as a “worrywart”. The Word Detective also has me here, explaining its foul etymology as such: “a person who annoys others by worrying loudly and constantly over nearly everything.” Have you by chance heard of my gluten allergy or money problems?

Lotus flowers dominating the pond at Ueno Park, Tokyo. Not pictured: Crack addicts behind me.

Lotus flowers dominating the pond at Ueno Park, Tokyo. Not pictured: Crack addicts behind me.

These things being said and fretted over, however, I have the suspicion that my students have been gradually and surreptitiously grafting some of their inexplicable good nature and origin-indiscernable happiness onto my dark and oft on-the-verge-of-snarky humor. I find myself lately either blissfully going about my day or, in the worst cases, joshing around with my colleagues and students alike even after having had no coffee on a Saturday morning (if I stay another year, I will lobby for 9 a.m. McDonald’s openings).

My $1 Japanese lanterns make for great plant pictures

My $1 Japanese lanterns make for great plant pictures

I don’t know what my future is or might be here in Koriyama, Japan, but (I hope) even an earthquake would not shake loose the connections I’ve made here over the few months since I’ve arrived. Budapest was another lifetime compared with this six-month stint; my students were fewer, my friends doubly so. I knew I would be leaving Hungary even after having received a hard-won visa and before going through a regrettably tumultuous time with someone who I thought would be with me for years of travelling to come.

Every day my plants be hustlin'. This Morning Glory was overtaken by my new goya (bitter melon) plant. The weeks-long battle was riveting.

Every day my plants be hustlin’. This Morning Glory was overtaken by my new goya (bitter melon) plant. The weeks-long battle was riveting.

The severance from that person, a breakup that occurred years before that, and the ever-widening gap between my hometown friends and me have been trying. Yet, in the only way I know how to cheesily end a blog post, I think — or at least I’ve convinced myself of my own bull — that my plants, Japan, my company and coworkers, have instilled in me a good deal of patience. Sure, I still have jealousy, regret, laziness, and the other deadly sins to worry about, but, for now, I’m very simply happy.

 

 

Strange Spread: The Vibrant World of Japanese Cuisine

Sushi rolls and platters at the Hokkaido Food Fair in Koriyama's Usui Department Store

Sushi rolls and platters at the Hokkaido Food Fair in Koriyama’s Usui Department Store

Maybe the Scottish brogue was throwing me. I don’t, after all, have a particularly good ear for Celtic cadences. Having a knack for inappropriateness I never knew myself capable of since moving to Japan, I assumed my brain, under the influence of diabolic dyslexia, registered the offering as “fish sperm”.

However, the pale intestinal thing he jiggled at me with a pair of chopsticks was indeed fish sperm, known culinarily as milt, defined by TheFreeDictionary as “seminal fluid produced by male fish”. You can watch this gloriously discourteous video on Shirako, the sperm sacs of a male cod.

Earlier that day, during my lunch at the Fukushima branch office, I had already dared my digestion by trying some packaged fresh fish from the 7-11 convenience store, which I later found out to be a type of Japanese blue-backed fish (背の青い魚; this one most likely a kind of mackerel), mouth-wateringly sour, succulent, sweet, and unfortunately stubbornly pungent (my apologies to any post-lunch students or coworkers reading this).

Following my painful ordeal of having (knowingly) ingested glutenicious yet delicious Japanese foods during my first week or so here in Koriyama, I’ve been vigilant in my efforts to eat only natural foods with no fancy dressings such as those in the ubiquitous and customary soy sauce—soaked dishes. But outside the inviting glow of restaurants and under the fluorescents of the supermarket, the world of Japanese cuisine has not ceased to amaze me with its selection of the weird and wonderful.

IMG_0210

On a rather slow yet sunny Monday, my usual day off, I ventured to Usui at the behest of some clever students who suggested I visit this downtown, ten-floor department store to find some much-needed Japan-style postcards to send to family and friends (hold on, they’re coming!) – these being the same students who fawned over their favorite dish, Omuraisu.

On the top floor, I stumbled into a maze of market stalls and smells I have never smelled in my 26 years of smelling. I saw foods and creatures I’ve never set sights on and some I never want to again. Disturbingly beautiful mounds of translucent red roe eggs precariously spilled atop basins of ice, hewn blocks of hardish pink and green marine, and the kawaii-est (cute) cubes of chocolate and perfectly circular balls of lightly dusted mochi – everything so pleasing to the eye and yet so utterly unknown and exactly what any curious traveler would want out of an exploratory outing.

IMG_0216

The most alluring of the smells, aside from the puffed sweet potato loafs lightly toasting under hot lights at several of the booths in the front of the fair, turned out to be one of the more gruesome looking: Ikameshi, sweet rice—stuffed squid, which hails from Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture.

Roasting Ikameshi at the Hokkaido Food Fair at Usui

Roasting Ikameshi at the Hokkaido Food Fair at Usui

I gave the less lovingly piled intestinal-looking slime heaps a wide berth, past heated buffet trays lined with mouth-watering jumbo fried crab cakes. Behind the plastic or glass display cases, perfectly rolled sushi rolls as big as a babe’s arm and ornately arranged bento boxes shined in what I had assumed was a toxic veneer of sprayed laminate.

Upon a little research, however, these and much of the food shown in the many store-front displays here are plastic replicas. In fact, fake food goes back some ways in Japan, evolving from short-lived wax-made models in the Shōwa period (1926—1989) to today’s vinyl makes with a much longer shelf life. The phenomenon, according to several sources, was spurred by Western influence and has its value today for tourists braving an all-Kanji menu in less English-prevalent prefectures.

IMG_0211

In addition to some fan literature on the subject – including Yasunobu Nose’s Japanese People Eat With Their Eyes – there is a famous street in Tokyo, Kappabashi-dori, lined with shops selling plastic restaurantery from fake knives to the most intricately detailed blue-backs.

As much as I enjoy gawping at and drooling over the all-too-perfect window works, I still have a long way to go in learning Japanese if I want to try all of Japan’s real gluten-free offerings.

Putain, Gluten!

I remember this pain. I rolled over, expecting to see the sun peeping over the low-rises in downtown Koriyama, but what really roused me was the churning sensations in my stomach. I had let my guard down during my first week or so in Japan, eating unknown foods and dressings and letting open the gates for my old arch enemy, Gluten.

Now that it’s my third week here, I’m teaching full days of classes – up to eight a day – and there is little break between each lesson. 40-minute session, 10 minute in-between (unless the previous class runs over), repeat. It’s a wonderfully structured system, each session focusing on very specific target language the student should be able to use effectively by the end and remember it for the next time the lesson is repeated.

I mentioned before how English teachers must be part entertainer, and when you’re immobilized by pain down below, it shows up above; by the end of the day, my efforts to smile and keep upbeat for the students have exhausted me. I’m afraid my glum silence and moments of outright confusion might put off my co-workers – the other day, a fellow teacher asked me several times for a certain file, and for all my frustrated efforts to focus and acquiesce his request, I could barely function enough to answer him with a full sentence. I even opted out of a Tokyo trip with the school for fear that I might have to spend some pretty yen on medical advice and meds or, worse, draw more unnecessary attention to my, frankly, annoying situation during the trip.

A package of mochi squares, ready to boiled and made into delicious treats

A package of mochi squares, ready to boiled and made into delicious treats

However, I’m lying low now, planning carefully my next grocery store attack. I didn’t come 6,600 miles across the world to not sample Japan’s best, and it’s not as if though this subject hasn’t been breached already by gaijin bloggers who have been braving the wheat beast in Japan for some years now. Of course, there are a few Japanese dishes I absolutely must push from my mind, ne’er to be tasted by my lips:

Miso soup – it comes with nearly every meal and can include such base ingredients as soybeans, barley, rice, buckwheat, millet, rye, and wheat. One can find that almost-legendary fifth taste, umami, in several kinds of miso. I had at least two bowls, wittingly, during my first three days in Japan.

Soy sauce – Many of my students, because food can be such a popular topic in class to rouse discussion, now know of my allergy. Though at first I believed their incredulous “Eeeeeehhhhhs?” to be a typically polite Japanese expression of interest, I’ve found, even talking with students in the medical field and reading up on what little research there is on the subject here, that gluten sensitivity is hardly known to the Japanese population. Many students have been intrigued with what toppings I put on my sashimi or sushi, and when I answer “nothing” or “just wasabi”, I receive another adorably astounded “Eeeeeehhhhh?”

Soba Noodles – Like 711s, soba joints dot the cityscape of Koriyama, offering cheap, delicious, and filling lunches. And, like ramen noodles, packed with gluten.

Amazingly, halfway through writing this, my belly aching serendipitously let up as I thought of the Japanese treats I can eat and some I have yet to try:

Sashimi & sushi – While I’ve already had my fair share of both since arriving, I can’t wait for more. Despite the absence of soy or tamari sauce, I find the fresh fare delicious as is, particularly the octopus, which has an excellent texture and savory taste.

My sashimi fare after a day of snowboarding, with a regrettably untouched bowl of steaming miso soup

My sashimi and green tea fare after a day of snowboarding, with a regrettably untouched bowl of steaming miso soup

Yatsuhashi – Made from rice flour, sugar, and cinnamon and stuffed tortilla—like in appearance, these confectionaries are ubiquitous in the sweet shops lined in front of supermarkets in Koriyama.

Mochi – I’ve been dreaming of this rice paste before my arrival. Though a gluten-avoider should be prudent to read the packaging to make sure only rice flour has been used to dust the squares, most mochi is gluten-free and can be mixed with a bean paste and sugar for a tasty snack, according to several of my students.

Watch this mouthwatering preparation of sweet mochi.

Edamame – At restaurants in the States, it’s sometimes stale popcorn or tortilla chips. Here, it’s delightfully fresh, bright green edamame.

O-nigiri – Found lining the shelves and in abundance at every 7-11 and Family Mart, these little triangular seaweed-wrapped sandwiches are great lunchtime snacks (though I stick to only the plain ones, as others contain wheat additions).

There have been a few times when, cocky from such a long run of a pain-free stomach and clear head (well, not all of the time), I believed Celiac’s Disease to be another ailment manufactured in the hypochondriac portion of the brain. Now that the angry gluten gods have made me humble once again, I’m taking my kanji learning for the grocery store more seriously and being – politely – suspicious of all restaurant foods.

In addition, a student who happens to have some interest in the field of food allergies would like to meet with me, discussing the possibility of studying the effects of Chinese herbal remedies on my body. I have little to say on this area, but I’ll treat it with the same approach I take in any life situation: Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, unless it has gluten.

Resources:

http://ctrlalteat.com.au/gluten-free-japan/

http://lazybeggars.wordpress.com/2013/08/22/japan-is-not-the-gluten-free-mecca-you-think-it-is/

(list much like this one; first alerted me to teas with gluten in them and gluten-free soy joy bars)

http://justhungry.com/japan-dining-out-cards

(helpful dietary restriction cards to show waiters at restaurants)