Category Archives: Food

The Surreal Zone

crazy mirror

I generally ignore the TV, but I happened to glance up the other day and was alarmed to learn that my hair is not shiny enough, my towels are not fluffy enough, my bed is full of bacteria and my shoes are stinky.

Although the hair is a lost cause at this point, my mother always told me the rest of those problems could be solved with cider vinegar;  perhaps times have changed. Apparently, if I steep myself in magical chemicals that come in brightly colored bottles, all these horrors of the human condition will disappear and I will be blissfully happy.

Well, that’s a relief.  I’ve got enough to worry about.

Case in point: When I asked my doctor how we know that the chemotherapy is working, he patted my knee, smiled and said, “We don’t. If you’re still alive in five or ten years, then we’ll know.”

I understand that doctors would rather not commit to anything, but I did read somewhere that losing my hair is a good thing, a silver lining, because it means the chemo is working. I may have written nice things about silver linings, but that one is a stretch, a tarnished, scratched and dented one lying under a pile of moth-eaten sweaters and mismatched socks on a rickety card table at a garage sale, because while the chemo monsters are, hopefully, gobbling up evil little cancer cells, they are also gnawing away at my immune system and doing their best to annoy many of my tender bits. In self defense, I have to paint my nails, use cuticle oil, moisturize from head to toe, figure out how to draw eyebrows, try to come to terms with hats, wigs and scarves, re-think my diet, re-learn how to do yoga and be very, very careful about how hard I push myself. Someone took my mirror and swapped it for a fun-house one that only reflects warped and distorted images. I have stepped through the looking-glass and landed in The Surreal Zone where nothing is as it was. Strawberries taste like oranges. Puppies speak Spanish and kittens speak French. Two plus two equals five. The Donald is my best friend.

Despite all of that piled on top of what the TV might have to say about my woeful inadequacies, a very kind friend pointed out that even a unicorn can get split ends in her mane and an occasional chip in her horn but she’s still a unicorn. Perhaps she’s a bit tarnished, scratched and dented, but then, aren’t we all?

So I have good days and bad and on the days when the bad is more than the good, there are butterscotch brownies.

butterscotch brownies

All aboard…if you dare

My dad was in the business of potato chips, as was his father before him, and I think another generation before that. Snack foods, particularly potato chips, were always a part of my upbringing.

14137766_1287252014641128_1246030873_n

There was a whole drawer in my childhood kitchen dedicated to snack foods: pretzels, beef jerky, Slim Jims, and of course, potato chips. I was born with fried potato coursing through my veins. We mostly ate the salted ones, but if one was feeling particularly sassy, there were also Bar-B-Q chips and sour cream and onion for the truly adventurous. But that was it.

Enter Japan and its obsession with improving on what was pretty  much perfect to begin with. Now, to be fair, they came out with pizza chips a few years ago. Dusted with pizza sauce flavored chemicals and globs of chemically induced fake cheese, they’re actually pretty tasty.

Pizza chips

I could get on board with the pizza chips. But then something went horribly wrong this summer. The potato chip train started to careen dangerously fast along the rails of the acceptable.

I began to encounter flavors that could only have been imagined by sweat-covered minions stoking the engines of the locomotive bound for hell.

 

Wasabi flavored beef jerky?

Wasabi beef chips

Grilled eel?

Grilled eel chips

Green curry?

Green curry chips

As the express train bound for the outer reaches the unimaginable rattled toward its inevitable doom, I suddenly felt a horrific shudder as the train derailed and tumbled into the abyss when I saw this:

mikan flavored potato chips

Mikan chips

For all that is good and holy on this sweet earth of ours, how did this ever get past the censors? Granted, I’m a tad old fashioned and a bit of a purist, but what’s next? Soy sauce flavored ice cream? Sashimi served on a bed of cotton candy? Miso soup with marshmallows?

I say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and plain old salted potato chips ain’t broke.

Happy Cake

In this morning’s yoga class, there was only one other student, who turned out to be a tour guide, the type that accompanies Japanese tour groups when they go abroad. But, she said, she hasn’t been very busy lately because people are not traveling much outside of commonwealth countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada. This is because there are too many terrorists in Europe and every American is armed to the teeth with automatic weapons and sub-machine guns.

Granted, many Japanese people are given to sweeping generalizations and melodramatic hyperbole but at the same time and for the first time in history, the governments of other countries are warning their nationals to avoid the States.

I told the other student and the teacher that not all of the States is a war zone and gun control is often a state-by-state issue. In fact, I told them, Hawaii has just recently passed some rather strict gun ownership regulations, thank goodness.

They seemed surprised that I felt that way. I was surprised at their surprise…and then deeply saddened.

So I came home and baked an orange cake because while warm cake might not solve anything, it makes things better, especially if it’s smiling.

I figure if cake can smile, I can, too.

13814992_1254871454545851_1393708419_n

 

Honesty

When I went to Bali last year, I was once offered a beverage made up of Pineapple and Orange juices with coconut Water. Lets call it POW. It was heavenly. Until that time, I thought the little paper cup of guava juice I was given on an airplane was the best nectar of heaven to ever pass my lips. But guava is rather thick and sticky and can be cloying. POW is the delightful reward I get after morning yoga and a year later it has not cloyed even once.

The problem, though, is that in my car-free existence, it’s hard to carry such heavy liquids home. And coconut water is expensive. Enter Amazon. While the cost is about the same as the import store, delivery is free and doesn’t give me sore shoulders.

So we ordered a case of coconut water and it came. Then the next day another one came. So we wrote to the store and asked if they’d…um…made a mistake. They wrote back right away saying how much they appreciated our honesty and that we should keep the extra case at no cost.

Ah, Japan.

cocanut water

The Restaurant from Hell

13348956_1221909887842008_1333839269_n

In the nearly six years I’ve lived in this neighborhood, I’ve been to this second floor restaurant three times. Each time it has been reincarnated: different name, somewhat different menu, slightly different decor. Each time it has been horrible. In my wide-eyed innocence, I keep expecting it to improve. I tried it once when we first moved to this neighborhood. I don’t remember what was so horrible, only that I kept reminding myself not to return. But two years ago, it changed hands and I blithely tried it again. I wrote about it at the time. Don’t read this if you have a weak stomach: Burger Blues

Not long ago, it transformed into a steak house.I donned my rose-colored glasses and climbed the stairs. I should have turned tail and fled when the water glass was made of plastic.

water glass

The steak arrived on a sputtering cast iron pan, a good start, I innocently thought. I took a bite. It was rubbery, half raw, served on a bed of bean sprouts, flanked by a tiny pile of humiliated canned corn, and accompanied by a plate of plain, sticky, white rice. Don’t get me wrong–sprouts are really tasty that way, and Japanese rice is delicious, but steak is meant to be served with potatoes. End of story. I left the restaurant full but with that half empty feeling you get when you know what you want but don’t get it.

Lessons learned:

  1. Even after nearly 30 years of living in Japan, I still have a Western bias about certain things.
  2. If I want authentic Western food, I have to make it myself.
  3. That building is cursed. Perhaps the bodies of innocent children are buried in its foundation or its constructed on an ancient Ainu burial ground. Whatever the reason, the universe clearly dislikes the property and it should be avoided.

The Silence of the Kitten

IMG_0455

At lunch today, we were sandwiched between two families, both with small children. People with small children are accustomed to a level of noise and chaos that we middle aged childless types find hard to stomach, especially when we’re trying to eat. We have to really focus on our noodles and try to tune out the rambunctious ankle-biters. I do the same thing when someone nearby is inhaling half of Tokyo as they slurp their noodles. I call it “Noodle Zen: the art of shutting out obnoxious noises and foul manners.”

So I was doing my Noodle Zen, finding inner peace, silence of the soul and a higher plane of gustatory harmony when it occurred to me that Little Guy doesn’t speak.

It’s not that he can’t; he just doesn’t.

When we first brought him home, I put the kitty jail on the floor and opened the door. Twitchy came over to see what was in it and the two of them immediately got into a rather heated discussion. Big meow, little mew, big meow, little mew. It went on for quite a while and probably included some mild kitty profanity. (“Your mother has sex with strays!” “Oh, yeah? Your father has tuna breath!”)

After a while, Twitch abruptly turned away and retreated to the top of the fridge. Since that day, Little Guy has said nary a word except for the time I stepped on his tail. That was an accident, not an experiment, and what he said was less “mew” than “HEY!”

Little Guy and Twitch love to wrestle, which they do with a great deal of gusto, rolling each other over and over, all the while biting and scratching. This goes on for quite some time, broken up with sudden spasms of chasing each other up and down the curtains and stairs, thundering along the hallway, jumping on the table and sending things flying in all directions. All that time, Little Guys says not a word except for an incredibly cute squeaky noise he makes when Twitch gets him into a headlock. I suppose it’s the kitten version of “uncle”.

The downside of all this silence is that Little Guy doesn’t purr. Unlike the wild and somewhat terrifying monster who used to scream bloody murder when she first came here, Twitchy has become much less vocal than she used to be. She likes to be picked up and cuddled and she purrs a chocolate syrup river as she rubs her head against my chin. Little Guy sometimes lets me cuddle him, but soon enough something catches his attention and he squirms away, completely purr-less. I’m hoping Twitch will school him in that gentle art. I’ve tried, but my purr isn’t very convincing.

And as I came to the end of that train of thought, I also arrived at the bottom of my bowl of noodles, satisfyingly full of both noodles and Zen. Namaste.

What the fork?

IMG_0451

In Japan, curry and rice is nearly always served with a spoon. This makes sense when you’re eating something as drippy as curry. But my Western orientation told me that only babies and invalids eat from a spoon. The first time I was given a spoon I thought I was being insulted. But I learned that this is standard practice and in time got used to it. You certainly can’t accuse the Japanese of being backward or childish when it comes to food. These are the same people who can pick up a single grain of rice with a pair of pointy sticks, not to mention the inventors and/or perfectors some of the world’s finest delicacies.

But I digress.

Yesterday, I ordered curry and rice for lunch. The eating utensil it came with was wrapped in a paper napkin. Imagine my surprise when I unfolded it and found not the expected spoon but a fork. My colleagues, all Japanese, just shrugged and said, “That’s how they do it here.”

Just when I’m finally getting the hang of things, they pull the rug out from under me. Or maybe it was the tatami mat.

Stop, Thief!

151119_1335~01

Despite it being the middle of November, the local supermarket currently has an extensive selection of tiny tomatoes. Customers can mix and match as we see fit, but they are horrifically expensive and to be honest, I’m rather tired of tiny tomatoes. (The plant in our garden is STILL bearing fruit!) However, while I consider myself something of an urban sophisticate, I realized much to my chagrin that I had never tasted a purple tomato. What if I were to run into, say, Brad Pitt and he asked me if I liked purple tomatoes and I wouldn’t be able to answer? This rankled.

At once, the curious kitten in me awoke, stretched and blinked her eyes. What might a purple tomato taste like? Grape Kool-Aid® (proudly produced by Kraft Foods since 1927)? A raspberry Popsicle® (accidentally invented by Frank Epperson in 1905)? An eggplant Pop-Tart® (Kellogg, 1964)? The mind boggles.

At the same time, there was something off-putting about the color; I have a bruise on my thigh about that shade. But still, I knew to the depth of my soul that I would toss and turn for nights on end and, if I were ever released into the sweet arms of sleep, my dreams would be haunted with angry killer tomato monsters chasing me down darkened alleys, leaving behind trails of purple-tinted tomato blood dotted with slippery seeds of Satan spawn.

I picked one up and held it in my palm. Then I tweaked off the stem and popped it into my mouth. It tasted like…wait for it…drum roll, please…

A tomato!

I was not disappointed; quite the contrary. There was once an Asian looking family in a supermarket in California, its members taking jars of things off the shelves, opening, tasting, wincing, and putting them back. Well, I can understand that. What if you tasted something that looked like tahini or miso but turned out to be Skippy® Super Chunk peanut butter (which is kosher and contains no cholesterol)?

Sometimes it is enough that things are what they are and are not trying to be anything else. If the eggplant Pop-Tart® scenario had played out, I could well have fainted right on the spot, then the tomato monsters would have gotten me for sure.

So now, if anyone asks, I can say I know what a purple tomato tastes like. I will sleep deeply tonight. And Brad, baby, bring it on. I’m ready for you.

 

The Path to Heaven is Paved with Blueberries

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

In my opinion, there are few alimentary pleasures in the world greater than the almighty blueberry. It is a perfect little orb of delightful sweetness. Its delicate skin resists the teeth ever so slightly, teasing the palate and then exploding with juicy joy.

For many years, I had to live without them. They just weren’t available except at high end department stores where they cost just over the total of Greece’s national debt. You’d occasionally get a piece of cake with a blueberry or two on it but that was the extent of it.

Then a few years ago, they started becoming available all year. They travel well and it’s always mid-summer somewhere. I’ve bought blueberries from Chile, Argentina, Canada, New Zealand, the US. But even those come in tiny boxes and cost…let’s say the national debt of Romania.

I sigh for American supermarkets where they practically give the dear things away.

blueberries in USPhoto by Marcellie  Used with permission.

So when I saw that Rodger was leading a Meet Up to pick blueberries, I jumped on the bandwagon.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

There were about twenty of us, a very nice group of people from all over.

blueberry crew

That’s me at the front crouched over, wearing my Cookie Monster hat and very cool retro RayBan shades.

Three trains and a bus got us to the “Yours Garden” farm where we paid about $20 to eat as many of the spherical delights as we could manage as well as pick about a kilo of them to take home. We were each given a plastic basket and then the farmer parted the mesh gates to heaven.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

It was blistering hot but it had rained the day before so the little round morsels of perfection were plump and juicy. Row after row of ripening perfection stretched into the distance. As I approached each new bush the lovely purple gems practically called out: “Pick me! Pick me!” It was gym class for fruit. The berries flew off the stems, half into my basket and half into my mouth, the occasional tart one easily forgiven by the next bite of sweet perfection.

When my basket was full, my lips starting to pucker and I looked like this…

Violet blueberry…I decided I was done.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

The fruit of my labor. Nyar nyar nyar.

There were blueberry pancakes for Sunday breakfast and a lovely blueberry cobbler is cobbling in the oven as I type.

Ah, rapture. Thy name is blueberry.

Another Grand Day Out

Destination: Yokohama

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

Maya wanted to go to Chinatown and that seemed like a good idea, so we headed there in time for lunch.

The thing with Chinatown is there are about a gazillion restaurants to choose from. We knew enough to stay away from the fancy ones on the main drag (Bah! Those for the tourists!) but that just left a half gazillion smaller ones on side streets. I figured it was best to just dive in, so chose one because the woman standing outside trying to coax us in had a Chinese accent–usually a good sign.

We got lucky. We ordered and then indulged ourselves in a feeding frenzy worthy of several schools of piranha who had been locked in a closet for a few weeks. Chopsticks flashing faster than a Benihana chef’s knives, we devoured everything except the furniture. Yum! ‘Nuf said.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

So we hauled our bloated bellies toward Yamashita park and the port area where we saw a stingray. That doesn’t often happen. I morphed myself into E.T. to take the picture. (See shadow.)

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

We next visited the doll museum which is rather boring but at least everyone else thinks so, too, so nobody was there. We enjoyed the peace and air conditioning.

Then there was this: Marine Tower.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

I have always avoided Tokyo Tower and have no interest in Skytree but we’d been looking for new experiences.

I had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for.

It’s only 94 meters tall. That’s about 30 stories. I’ve been up buildings taller than that. No bid deal, I thought. So we got into the elevator to go up. And the little glass box started to rise…and rise…and rise.

“Oh, cool. It’s a see through elevator. Love those. Look at the steel girders sliding by. Oops. What was that? My stomach just hit the floor. Uh-oh. Can’t breathe. Was that Willie Wonka and Charlie I just saw flying by? There goes the wicked witch on her broomstick. And wasn’t that Harry Potter chasing a Golden Snitch? This can’t be happening. Help. HELP! GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE!!!”

And then the doors opened. We crept out, hugging the internal wall. I could barely move and could feel myself shaking.

“Oh, no. That’s not you,” said the affable woman wiping fingerprints off the glass. “It’s quite windy today so this thing wobbles all around. I have to keep the glass very clean or people get dizzy trying to focus on the distance.”

Oh, my.  Do.Not.Retch.

And to add terror to an already frightening experience, there was this:

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

Maya is not clowning. You step onto that sheet of plexiglass and your heart plummets to the depths of hell. You can feel your soul being sucked out through the soles of your feet. Not for the faint of heart, my friends.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

After a while, I did manage it, but what you can’t see is that I am staring resolutely into the distance, my white knuckled fingers making indentations in the wooden handrail.

Closed eyes, deep breathing and a meditation mantra are the only things that got me back into the elevator and down to street level.

Been there. Done that. Don’t ever have to do it again. Amen.

By comparison, the ride home on the nearly empty train felt like pure bliss. We were only going forward, not up, and the gentle side-to-side rocking was a comfort, not the erratic shudders of a spindly tower with the structural integrity of a Slinky.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

Maya has made an impressive effort to learn reading and writing. As we pulled into our station she turned to me looking perplexed and asked, “Garbage is dangerous?”

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA

Well, yes, that’s pretty much what the sign says. One of the things that makes Japanese so difficult is that even when you can read something, that doesn’t mean it will make any sense. While the illustration shows a relaxed looking hand calmly dropping a piece of paper, which didn’t strike either of us as particularly dangerous, what the text implies is that it is dangerous to toss garbage over the wall and into the street. The thinking is that if they use an illustration of, say, a tattooed thug tossing a beer bottle over the wall, then that’s what will happen. Or something like that.

(Gallic shrug.) It is what it is.

We ate, we laughed, we had a lot of fun. Once again, it was worth the effort and I’m glad we went.

P.S. Diana, this is for you. It’s the hotel where Napolitan spaghetti was invented. You’re welcome.

PENTAX DIGITAL CAMERA