Sunday, July 1, 2012

Country Bumpkin or City Slicker?

12 months ago, Mum took me to Japan to visit her family over there. I’ve been to Japan quite a few times during my life and, each time, I find myself falling deeper in love with the place. Last year was probably the clincher for me and resulted in me deciding that one day, I would like to live there (at least temporarily). Hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to visit the place again at the end of this university year. If only it wasn’t for winter semester I could have gone back this July instead – I much prefer visiting in the summer!

Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavillion
Higashi Honganji

Dragon painting by Joizumi Junsaku, spanning the roof of one of the buildings of Kenninji. These twin dragons occupy the space of108 tatami mats (approximately 200 square metres). I took the photo above but for a clearer shot, try this link.
The title for this post came from me reflecting on my first ever blog post here, ranting on about my country roots. However I also have city roots, with Mum having grown up smack-bang in the middle of Kyoto city. Traipsing  around Kyoto last year made me think that maybe I too would be suited to such a life. Kyoto is one of those cities where cultural and modern interact to form a hybrid life form – new, convenient and buzzing with activity, whilst still managing to maintain an air of finesse which you could only hope to find in the oldest of civilisations.

Unfortunately last year’s visit had a rather grim tone, with the reason for our trip being my aunt’s memorial service. She battled with breast cancer for 17 long years and last year, it finally beat her. It never stole her beauty though, for apparently she died looking as beautiful as she always had been. I admired my aunt, I really did. We were in Japan a couple of Christmases ago (a disaster where we tried with extremely limited resources, to make my grandparents a traditional Western Christmas dinner – “traditional” Christmas food in Japan is KFC, I kid you not) and she bent over backwards to cure my homesickness. It’s hard to describe in words what she did for me, but that’s not really important. Obviously it’s harder for my mum and my grandparents and I feel as though this last year has been a massive one for self-healing.

Ohtani-byo where my aunt rests, taking in the beautiful view of Kyoto city. 
Every cloud has its silver lining though and, for the first time for as long as I can remember, all of my Japanese relatives were in the same spot at the same time. My other aunt, my uncles (both blood and in-laws) and three cousins joined Mum and I at my grandparents’ house and it became a celebration of my aunt’s life more than anything else. It was also a time for family and, of course no celebration would be complete without it, good food. We shared many a good meal together for the short time we were united. Below are photo of some of the sushi platters we ordered for a light dinner one night. 

At the time of my visit last year, I was at my peak of fascination with looking at and eating food… now I like to make and eat it (looking at pretty pictures has become a little bit boring – I’d rather destroy the kitchen!). As a result, my camera memory card from that trip is packed with hundreds of photos of what Mum and I shoved down our respective oesophagi. It will probably bore you to death but, if interested, feel free to scroll down and take a squiz… the food in Japan is delicious, as well as being of fabulous quality and often ridiculously cheap (at least by Australian standards).

I’ve rationalised the collection a little bit for your convenience. Hopefully I’ll be able to source some recipes from somewhere/get Mum to work her magic and whip some of these things up.

Which reminds me, before I sign off I’d like to publicly voice my admiration for my Japanese grandmother… among other things, she cooks the best white rice known to woman and mankind. It is  cooked in a 20kg ceramic pot and tastes like heaven in a bowl. Amen. Love you, Obaachan. Stay strong and take care of Gramps too. <3

- Matilda

To start with, the best meal we ate out (an obscure little Chinese restaurant) and what I think of as the taste of a Japanese summer, matcha soft serves. 

Now an example of my grandmother's cooking... 

Grilled eggplant

Breakfast: natto (fermented soy beans), soup, tomatoes, kazunoko (fish eggs) steak, salad, rice and cherries

Dinner: fish, eggplant, squid, potato salad, rakkyo (pickled onions), veggies, soup and unagi -don (eel on rice)

Dinner: fried chicken, fried salmon, prawns, veggie stir-fry, soup and sekihan (red rice)

Dinner: edamame, a couple of veggie dishes, octopus salad, fish, squid sashimi, egg rolls, sekihan

Chirimenjako... teensy weensy dried fish that you eat with rice - super duper high in calcium!!

Different goodies I found in the chirimenjako packet. Only the little fish (like the ones in the bottom right corner) are supposed to be there but sometimes other small ocean critters find their way in.

My aunt's cooking...

Bukkake somen with natto, okra and egg

Eating somen

Hijiki and abura age

THE best cherry tomatoes I have, and probably ever will, eat. Wakayama prefecture where my aunt lives is famous for its fresh veg and our short stay there certainly didn't disappoint.
Wagyu, shiitake mushrooms, shallots and assorted greens in a hot pot. 

Buying a sweet snack for the road or to eat at home...

I am yet to try fresh waffles but the takeaway ones from Manneken will do me fine... so many varieties, too! Plain, chocolate, strawberry, matcha, etc

My first ever mont blanc.. I absolutely love chestnuts and wish they were more widely available in Australia :-(

Minazuki (a sweet rice powder cake topped with adzuki beans that is traditionally eaten in Kyoto in June)

"...a delightful bit of ice cream covered in chocolate for you to enjoy anytime"

Yomogi mochi (glutinous rice with yomogi leaves)

Yomogi mochi.. a bite reveals they are filled with red bean paste.

Imokko (sweets shaped like a potato filled with sweet white bean filling)


A few pieces of bamkuchen, my favourite type of cake in the world. My uncle bought this at  a very famous bamkuchen store in Osaka and the only cake that comes close to it is my mum's earl grey chiffon cake (which I request on my birthday each year)

Two varieties of nama yatsuhasi, or raw yatsuhashi (unbaked glutinous rice pockets filled with red bean paste)

Coffee jelly bun from a 7-Eleven. Walking into a 7-Eleven in Japan feels like all your Christmases have come at once... so imagine the overwhelming sensation when setting foot in a supermarket!

Random store-bought cheesecake - better than any cheesecake I have ever had in Australia. 

Mister Doughnut doughnuts! These are baked, not fried, and have a refined taste. They're not too sweet  and are far too easy to eat. My grandma happens to be obsessed with doughnuts so I had no problem convincing her to buy some...

More doughnuts. This photo was taken just before I placed them on a platter in front of the ancestors' shrine that resides in the tatami room of my grandparents' house. It's customary to offer nice foods to the ancestors first, before getting stuck into it yourself. Actually, most of the foods here were offered to my ancestors before they were consumed by yours truly and my equally Jap-food-deprived mother.

Mochi filled with red bean

Warabimochi (starch jelly) without kinako (sweet toasted soy bean flour)

Warabimochi with kinako (and half eaten)

Matcha KitKat 

Don't forget seasonal fruit!!

Figs and biwa

Another fig... this was only my second time eating fresh figs (they're so expensive in Australia!) and the first time I had eaten a sweet one. I was foodgasming like there was no tomorrow. Amen. 

Peaches. Along with the matcha soft serve, this is another food I strongly associate with summers in Japan. They are  huge, round and unbelievably sweet. 

One hundred dollar square watermelon in the shops

An equally ridiculously priced mango. The prices on the watermelon and mango made me realise that maybe Australia isn't all bad. I think that price tag says 5,600yen?

Our final meal, at the airport...

How come sandwiches never taste this good in Australia??
Hotcakes with some sort of special Japanese syrup 

Parfait. The most impressive part about this dessert for me was the canned mandarin pieces... you just don't get them over here! And they are so delicious!

And last but not least, an every-day bakery at a train station in Japan...

Cheddar cheese buns

Camembert cheese buns
Camembert AND cheddar cheese bread (!!)

Spinach, curry and cheese gratin buns

Soft-boiled egg curry doughnuts
Sweet mango rolls

Chocolate horns

Apple cream pies

Dark cherry Danish 

Almond pretzels 

Mr Turtles :-) 

Biiiiig melon bun

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