Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Salted Peanuts & Mini Soda Cans

What's up readers!? First off, I haven't forgotten about you. Things here have gotten quite hectic, so I haven't been able to post this past week. I know I promised a tentative outline of what I'll be doing during my trip to China & Thailand, but I'll have to take a bit of a detour on that plan. As I'm sure you can imagine, moving from one country to another is quite a hassle. That being said, I'm still dealing with shipping goods and making sure I have all of the necessary items for my trip. So, here's my new plan. I'll bid farewell for the next 3 weeks, enjoy my time, eat as much food as I can and completely soak in everything these great countries have to offer. By doing so, I'll be able to provide a much more vivid recount of my journey for you! Yeah... a rather lame justification for not posting as promised, I know. But anyway, once I touch down in the states, I'll have tons of things to say, a bunch of pictures for you to look at and FINALLY, some home-cooking of my own to display. Don't miss me too much! 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

2 & 1/2 Weeks Left: The Chicken or The Egg, Little Boxes & Good-Fry Japan!

Bite 9: As time continues to fly by and my departure gets closer and closer, I'm trying to get one last bite of all the flavors I've come to enjoy or find interesting while in Japan. Instead of going on and on about ingredients or my opinion of the dishes (which you could very easily find from other reliable sources,) I'd like to share my thoughts about some typical Japanese food and how strikingly similar the everyday cuisine is to the culture here.

First up, Oyakodon.

Oyakodon is one of my favorite dishes here. It is simple to make and most people usually have all of the ingredients on hand (eggs, chicken, green onion, rice, dashi and mirin.) As a matter of fact, you can even find pre-made oyakodon in most convenient stores here (I ate this one standing outside of a 7-11 today.) Anyway, the really cool thing about this dish is its name: Oya (parent) ko (child) don (bowl.) Maybe I'm over-thinking something so simple. But, one can't deny how truly amazing it is that one animal can be utilized to create two completely versatile foods. For me, eating this dish makes me so much more thankful for simple, delicious comfort food. 

The idea of combining chicken and eggs in a dish isn't necessarily Japanese, but adding only dashi and some green onion to it is somewhat befitting of their propensity for eating very neutral tasting food. Also, the existential nature of the "chicken or the egg" causality dilemma, in my opinion, is tied in very closely to Japanese Buddhist culture. A Japanese monk might choose his words wisely when speaking, but would answer the question "Which came first?" by saying something along the lines of "Neither." Which is great for me. That way I won't feel guilty about eating both of them!

Once again, I apologize for not having any pics of my own cooking yet. I actually sent most of my belongings back to the states yesterday, so my apartment is nearly empty. Once I return, Oyakodon is definitely something I intend to cook often. I think I'll kick it up with some Sriracha, white onions, red peppers and potatoes. It'll be called "Mother and Child Fight the Dragon."

Now, let's take a deep breath together and chill out for just a second. I didn't mean to get all Nietzsche on you, but if we're not thinking about where our food comes from, we're walking into an art museum with shades on. We all know that's only ok if you're completely hungover... Speaking of where our food comes from. Japanese people are always very mindful of that and are avid supporters of using whatever local ingredients they can get their hands on. In fact, one of the teachers I used to work with once told me that a dish is only complete if it uses at least 15 ingredients.  That may seem like a lot. Well,  It is. Now, let's compare that with the average American lunch. How about a tuna salad sandwich with a simple macaroni salad. I come up with about 8, maybe 10 ingredients that are necessary to complete this lunch. Now, let's take a look at the $5 bento I purchased from my local supermarket the other day.

If you look closely (I'll buy a better camera as soon as I can,) you should be able to count upwards of 20 different ingredients. I forget how many were in the rice alone, but I do remember some carrot and konyaku being in there. The reason Japanese people are so caught up on this idea is because they believe that even though you can get the same basic nutrients from two different ingredients, i.e. protein from both shrimp and fish cake, receiving those nutrients  from as many different sources as possible is better for you. I concur. If you ask any pro body builder or olympic athlete about this, they'll tell you that their is no shortcut to elite performance. Although there are many successful athletes who use nutritional supplements, they do not substitute them for quality food intake. Check out this link and count the ingredients that were in the most popular dish at the U.S. Olympic Team training center in 2012: Keep in mind, that was just their main dish!

Another way of perceiving the bento is through the concept of balance, or Wa in Japanese. Wa can mean peace, harmony or balance depending on how it's used. If I had to, I could sit here and try to tell you how each and every one of those ingredients in that lunch box relate to one another, but I won't. Ok... I'll do a few. Fish & beef = Land & sea. Sliced fish & Fish cake = Something old & Something new. Or how about how all of the proteins (aside from beef) are all from the ocean. They're all water creatures, yet they can all be classified into different species. To be honest, you can relate anything to anything. But, when taking a look at such a beautifully composed meal, it's hard not to think that there are hundreds of years worth of thought and tradition that help form such a complex, yet simple web of culinary balance and harmony.

And finally:

This is what happens when the bento maker goes to work after a night of drinking. I'm not gonna lie, I really couldn't think of a way to fit this picture into the post and have it make sense. But, I figured I'd toss it in anyway. I call it "Good-fry, Japan." First and foremost, it was good. It was damn good. In addition to that, I rarely eat deep-fried food (for obvious reasons.) So, this will probably be the very last meal of this type that I'll eat during the rest of my time here. Good-fry, Japan. Good-fry.

For those that are curious, the two pieces of saturated fat coated unsaturated fat are tonkatsu and a pork croquette. The tonkatsu (top left) is made from pork loin and the croquette has a ham and potato filling. 

Note 1: Tonkatsu shouldn't be confused with tonkotsu (pig bone broth.) My last post featured a tonkotsu ramen dish, so I just wanted to clarify for those who are unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine. Also, I'm completely aware that this meal is by no means healthy. But, since I'll be leaving Japan soon and have recently completed a full marathon, I felt I deserved to loosen up the belt for once. Buen Provecho!

Note 2: I'm aware I've fallen a bit off the tentative posting schedule, but I figured it was better to post my most recent material before posting more details about my trip to China and Thailand. Once I've laid out concrete plans, I'll definitely write about them and let you know what my intentions are. The lack of social media access I'll have for a couple of weeks won't be fun, but I think you guys can survive without me for a while.

Next time on Ten Thousand Bites: Opened jar's long awaited China/Thailand food challenge itinerary!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Palate Cleanser 1: Oodles of Noodles & Automated Service

Konbanwa! (Good evening!) It is now 20 days until my departure and it has been a little while since I've updated this blog. Not much has changed since my last post, but I figured I'd write something new anyway. For those of you who've spent some time in Japan, you may be familiar with this post's contents, so enjoy the pictures. For those of you who haven't, I'd like to tell you a little bit about two things; the vending machine culture in Japan and tonkotsu broth.

Bite 8: First off, many people think of Japan as a very technology-friendly place to be. However true or untrue that may be, Japan does have the highest ratio of vending machines to humans in the world (approximately 24 machines per person living here.) Some of them talk to you, have touch-screens, play video, or all of the above.

Personally, I think the abundance of vending machines here is rather great. Not only because they're frikkin cool to look at, but also because the majority of them only contain beverages. As you'll notice above, only a couple of those drinks are soft-drinks. Most of them are tea, coffee, or vitamin supplements. That, my friends, is the direction we should be going in.

Although most of these machines are located outdoors, many can be found inside restaurants, where they are used to expedite service. Owners of ramen shops usually have a predilection towards using these machines, as they usually experience a high volume  of costumers during peak meal hours. This evening, I had dinner at Ichiran Ramen, where they use several different kinds of machines to help move the swarms of people that are fond of eating there. I'll walk you through the process.

Step 1: Prepare yourself for the delicious ramen that awaits you while staring at the cool sign outside.

Step 2: Walk in and select everything you'll need to leave you comatose. Pay.

Step 3: Check seat availability and proceed to the nearest vacant spot.

Step 4: Observe how the personal eating areas slightly resemble voting polls. This is for optimum flavor appreciation. Ichiran Ramen believes that one must fully concentrate on the complex flavors that a serving of their delectable noodles has to offer. I concur.

Step 5: Slide your ticket from the vending machine located at the entrance under the opening in your booth. Wait for all hell to break loose in your mouth.

Step 6: Follow the instructions on the panel. Repeat as needed.

There you have it. You are now fully capable of ordering ramen at about half of all noodle establishments in Japan. If there's no English print and you can't read Japanese, just press some buttons. Chances are whatever you get is going to rock anyway.

Now that I've given my version of a ramen shop tour, I'd like to pose some questions. Do you think this would work in a similar setting in the US? I'm curious to know what you foodies out there think about it. Your comments would be much appreciated. I happen to think this could be a very helpful tool for young entrepreneurs who are interested in opening up a casual dining restaurant and are trying to cut back on service costs. What do you think? In what kind of establishment would you appreciate ordering from a machine? Keep in mind that there will always be an employee around that can answer questions and make slight adjustments to your order, so you wouldn't be facing any "404: page not found" situations.

Some extra thoughts. For those of you who don't know exactly what tonkotsu ramen is, I'll elaborate. Tonkotsu is a broth made from boiling down pig bones, fat and collagen for many hours, over high heat. The resulting taste is quite buttery, almost milky. Pardon my language, but it's fucking delicious. Anyway, if you have the chance to try some, go for it. I'm thinking about using tonkotsu in a variety of ways once I get back to the states. Maybe a tonkotsu stew. I feel like hearty potatoes, carrots and maybe rabbit or some kind of game might fuse well with the broth. What do you think? What kind of spin would you put on this popular Japanese dish?

And just for fun, I had this little piece of awesomeness for desert:

I actually paid about $1.50 for this at a 7-eleven (yet another convenience Japan is fond of.) Mont Blancs seem to be all the rage over here. I can see why. They're amazing. I wonder why they're so uncommon back in the states. Hm, food for thought.

Friday, March 1, 2013

T-30 days: The Countdown Begins

It is now officially 30 days until my departure from Japan and to be honest, I'm excited as hell. For the most part, my time here has been awesome. But after 2 years, I've started to miss a lot of things most Americans take for granted. Great food is one of them. Although Japan has its share of imported food markets and a decent culinary scene outside of Japanese food, this country is ranked as one of the most expensive in the world, making good quality foreign food a luxury item. I actually live 25 minutes outside of Tokyo, which is said to be this year's most expensive city in the world. Check out this survey if you're interested in reading more about how Tokyo stacks up against other cities:

Upon arriving here, paying student debt, traveling and partying were my top financial priorities. Actually, traveling and partying were the only two on the list that I accomplished during my first year here. I've just now started to put a dent in my student loans... I guess there's always time for that. Anyway, because my funds were allocated towards cultural experiences and debauchery,  I found myself left with very little money for anything else. This helped me to become acquainted with several Japanese foods that are both popular amongst budget conscious Japanese people and relatively unknown to those who haven't spent much time in Japan.

Bite 7: In celebration of my upcoming departure, here is a list of some of my favorites.

1) Natto

Natto is basically fermented soy beans mixed with soy sauce and a Japanese mustard called karashi. Although many foreigners won't eat it because of its potent odor, it is quite popular amongst the Japanese. This dish is commonly served with breakfast and is usually eaten over rice. I prefer to eat it on its own.

2) Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki literally translates to "cooked whatever you like." It is basically an omelette consisting of eggs, batter, cabbage and dashi. An addition to those four main ingredients, green onion, pork belly, squid and octopus are all things you're likely to find in any variation of the dish. More often than not, okonomiyaki is coated with a thick worcestershire-like sauce, topped with bonito flakes and drizzled with mayonnaise. The picture above was taken in Hiroshima, where they add Chinese-style noodles to the bottom of the dish.

3) Miso ramen

Ramen are Chinese style noodles that can be served in a variety of broths. My favorite is miso ramen, which is said to have originated in Hokkaido. Hokkaido is the most northern island of Japan and has a very harsh winter climate. If you keep that in mind while eating miso ramen, you can see why many people enjoy this rich and hearty dish. Also, chili paste is often seen at tables in noodle shops where this item is sold. Adding some of that to your ramen will definitely make you take off that extra layer you're wearing.

4) Sakura mochi

Sakura mochi consists of Japanese sticky rice infused with cherry blossoms, anko (sweet azuki bean paste) and a cherry blossom leaf. The sticky rice is first infused with the flavor and color from the cherry blossom, giving it a beautiful pink color. Azuki bean paste is then added to the rice and formed into a ball, which is then placed on top of a sakura leaf. This treat can be purchased year-round, but is most delicious during the spring, when cherry blossoms begin to bloom.

5) Kuromame spread

I love this stuff. It's the Japanese equivalent of peanut butter in my mind. Kuromame is the Japanese name for black soybean. A somewhat grainy (but delicious) spread is made from the beans and then lightly sweetened. This spread works well with nearly anything. I've actually gone through entire containers with nothing but a butter knife and my fingers!

6) Japanese curry

Japanese curry resembles a very dark, warm diarrhea. I'm sorry to be so vulgar, but if you can't see the resemblance, you must be blind. Having eaten this dish with other foreigners here in Japan, I feel obligated to tell you that the curry here has a joke of a reputation. The Brits here are especially fond of mocking it and then bragging about the abundance of delicious Indian curry available in their home country. In comparison, it may be true that Japanese curry lacks some of the bold flavors that curries from other countries have, but this hearty dish definitely hits the spot after a night full of beer. Since most Japanese people tend to have a proclivity towards very neutral tastes, their curry is usually quite mild. This gives the dishes earthy flavors an opportunity to shine and for the person eating the dish to not wake up with both a hangover and diarrhea resembling the curry they ate last night. An endless, brown cycle.

7) Takoyaki

I call'em octopus balls in English! These balls are made of a wheat flour-based batter containing octopus, pickled ginger and green onions. The mixture is then cooked on a special griddle with spherical compartments and topped with condiments similar to those found on Okonomiyaki. Takoyaki is most commonly sold as a street food in Japan and is very popular in Osaka.


Kaitenzushi or conveyor belt sushi is exactly what you would think it is. Grab a seat at the counter, wait to see what you like, grab it & eat it. Each dish is given a colored label, signifying price and can range anywhere from about $1.10 to $6.

9) Gyudon

This is fast food at its best. gyudon literally translates to "beef bowl." Japan has a gyudon chain called "Suki-ya." There are over a thousand of them in this small country and I can see why. It's hard to beat decent meat, served on decent rice, in under a minute, for under $4. I usually go for the cheese gyudon if I have a beer or two in me.

10) Matcha

Although matcha is really a drink, it is used as a flavoring quite often in Japan. Hello, my name is Bob and I'm a matcha-holic. For those who think matcha is the same as green tea, it's not. When making green tea, one simply steeps the tea leaves in hot water. Matcha is made by taking high quality green tea leaves, grinding them into a fine powder and then adding hot water. The end result being a darker, richer and much more nutritious drink. I love drinking matcha and occasionally eating some of the unhealthy treats flavored with this awesome green powder.

There you have it. My list of cheap treats here in Japan. I hope this is enough to hold you over for a bit. I'll probably be a bit busy tying up some ends here over the next few weeks, but I'll definitely post again before I leave to China. いただきます!

Next time on Ten Thousand Bites: More about the 100+ food challenge I'll undertake while in China and Thailand!

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