Sunday, March 28, 2010

Fed Up With School Lunch :: The School Lunch Project

The roommate tipped me off to a new blog in the US called Fed Up With School Lunch. An anonymous teacher in the midwest, Mrs. Q, is eating her public school's school lunch and secretly taking photos each day to show people what American kids are eating these days. I think this is a really great blog and am surprised that something like this hasn't popped up earlier. I just wrote about Japanese school lunch, which in contrast, is applauded (well...with the exception of whale meat which is sometimes found in parts of Japan) and hailed for its accessibility and focus on nutritional education.

Check out Mrs. Q's blog if you have a chance!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My Lunch :: March 19th

Isn't it beautiful? In contrast to what we get to eat the majority of the year at school, this special graduation day bento is quite a site to be seen! It's almost too pretty to eat. Almost.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Japanese School Lunch :: Kyushoku

Obviously not my final meal EVER but probably my last Japanese school lunch ever. Tomorrow is graduation day so today, in honor of the end of the school year, we were treated to Osekihan, red rice, today. Osekihan is eaten to celebrate special occasions and is a sticky rice dish mixed with red beans and a sesame seed topping. It's pretty tasty but I was told that this red rice is also eaten when teenage girls get their know...thing. Beans are a sign of fertility in Japan...and these ones just so happen to be red. Kind of cute. Kind of weird.

For the past 7 months, I've been teaching English part-time at Asakusa Junior High School. It's been a really enriching experience. I was really lucky to be placed in such a great school. The best part for me was learning from the kids about their daily lives. In Japan, the last year of JH is extremely important. They must all pass high school entrance exams and the pressure to say the pressure to do well is high would be a gross understatement. Personally, I think it's too young of an age to put so much stress, but that's their system and who am I to judge. Other highlights from the year:

  • Helping the drama club perform a play in English (can you imagine memorizing 50 lines in a foreign language when you were 15?!)
  • Cornering kids into having conversations with me
  • Helping the 3rd graders with their interview tests for high school and hearing the news that they passed
  • Singing The Beatles, Monkees, Cindi Lauper and Queen 5 times a day
  • The surprise of sitting down to school lunch!
So, I never knew what was in store for me when it came to lunch. Some days it was yummy pasta, other days, it was something completely unrecognizable to me. I managed to eat everything, though there were times I was convinced I was about to spit it out (ok, that was only once with the fried whole fishies - head, tails and fins still attached and expected to be eaten) Students eat together in their homeroom classes and everyone eats the same thing. Kyushoku means "lunch duty"...or something like that. It refers to the act of students serving their peers. The students really enjoy being on lunch duty and it's fun to see all the boys race to get seconds after the class blesses their food in unison. (ittadakimasu!)

A few last tidbits about Kyushoku: the meals are planned out by a nutritionist and they are always between 800-950 calories and well balanced - carbs, proteins, grains. A lunch menu with all the nutrition facts is sent home to pare ts so they know what their kids have been eating. Teachers eat the same meal as students and they talk about all the nutritional value during lunch, so lunch is an educational experience too. Given the childhood obesity issues in America, a school lunch program like Japan's would be a really great way to educate kids at a young age about the importance of as healthy diet. It also assures that all students get at least 1 healthy and substantial meal a day. Just something to think about Michelle Obama.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tommy Lee Jones :: The Boss (Coffee)

Remember that friend's episode where all the friends find Joey's Japanese men's lipstick commercial? Or the entire plot of Lost in Translation? ("For relaxing times, make it Suntory time") Celebrities really do make weird Japanese ads. Big stars that would NEVER be caught dead hawking cars and beer in America can be found on giant billboards across Tokyo and in prime time commercials. Right now, there is a big Hugh Jackman for Asahi Super Dry Beer campaign. On my first trip to Japan, Clooney was shilling for the Honda Odyssey. (The copy underneath George roughly translates to: "I like good cars. Because I'm a man.") These gigs pay a lot and most contracts include a clause that the commercials can't be use in Western markets, which is why you never see them. Thank goodness for YouTube!

Remember Tommy Lee Jones? I'm pretty sure he's the inspiration for Bob Harris in Lost in Translation. According to IMDB, TLJ's next big project is...sigh...Men in Black 3. In Japan, you can see Tommy's mug just about everywhere. He is and has been for some time, the face of Boss Coffee (owned by Suntory btw), a canned coffee company. He hardly speaks or smiles, but his presence is felt. This is acting at its best. He plays typical Japanese members of society and aside from TLJ, these are cool because you get a glimpse into daily life in Japan. If you've ever wanted to know what a maid cafe is like, check out the 2nd video.

Here he is as a bar host:

A TV show production guy in Akihabara:

A Hot Pepper (free restaurant guide) distributor:

And a Karaoke attendant:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

My Lunch :: March 13th :: Zenya Ramen Akasaka

There are a few new shops opening up just in time for the nice weather. Zenya Ramen specializes in Hakata ramen but also makes other varieties such as miso and tsukemen. Hakata style ramen uses a thinner noodle and the broth is cloudy since it is a variation of tonkotsu (pork bone) broth.  I got the basic Hakata ramen which comes with green onions, half of a soft boiled egg, a slice of charshu (roast pork) and a nice fatty piece of pork belly. I love pork belly, so this was a welcome change to my ramen routine.

Zenya reminds me of a popular Hakata ramen branch, Jangara, but I think Zenya is better because they have better eggs. Over boiled eggs - ladies, that's a deal breaker! There are 4 other locations in Japan, with the Akasaka station the newest of the bunch and only 1 of 2 in Tokyo.

Zenya Ramen
5-1-1 Akasaka
Akasaka Station (Chiyoda)

Friday, March 12, 2010


Saw this on TV months ago and it BLEW.MY.MIND. Found it on YouTube today and just had to share...I am really impressed with Shingo's English and Lionel's enthusiasm and face. The Japanese in the beginning is just Shingo talking about how Lionel Richie is the one American singer he wanted to sing with the most. Can't really blame him, now can I? It's cool to see a star as big as Shingo (of SMAP) be starstruck by someone.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Everyday Harumi :: Tsukune

Now this is what I'm talkin'bout. Don't those babies look tasty? Tsukune. Hands down my favorite type of yakitori, or grilled chicken. When you eat yakitori, you usually get a choice of either plain salt and pepper or tare, a teriyaki like sauce. You can almost always find yakiyori at an izakaya  (Japanese pubs) staple, and I could (and have) eat it all night long. (Specifically, at Oh! Taisho on St. Mark's in NY) Who doesn't love eating chicken with cold beer? Tsukune are usually made with minced chicken, so even though Harumi's recipe calls for pork, I went with chicken. Raw ground chicken, by the way, is my absolute least favorite thing to cook with. It is just...too fleshy looking and the texture is gnarlsburgh. However, I love tsukune so much that I powered through and overcame.

This recipe is again, really simple that I can recite the recipe off the top of my head: 300g minced meat of choice, 2 TB plain flour, 1 medium egg, 1/2 an onion roughly chopped, 1 celery stalk roughly chopped, 5 basil leaves roughly chopped. Salt and pepper to taste. Mix all the ingredients in a bowl but add the basil at the very end to maintain a nice color. Make 5 cm wide balls. Cook in a lightly oiled pan - brown both sides. DONE.

Ok, not quite done. What gives tsukune flavor is teriyaki sauce. While the meatballs are still hot, dip them in teriyaki sauce. The meatballs absorb the sauce and they become super juicy. Teriyaki sauce is really easy to make - dilute 2 TB of sugar in 50 ml of soy sauce and 50 ml of mirin. Bring it up to a boil then simmer for about 10 minutes. As it simmers, the sauce thickens and starts to look like the teriyaki sauce you know and love.

Meeting Harumi!

A friend let me know that she saw Harumi Kurihara this weekend at Isetan in Shinjuku (my favorite department store in Tokyo) and "almost started squeeling like she was a goddamn Beatle". (Actual text) She was doing a cooking demonstration for her 10th anniversary of...being famous, I guess. With nothing to do on a rainy Sunday, I decided to see if she was still there and lo and behold - SHE WAS!

I had walked in at the tail end of a kids demonstration. The room was filled with some of the cutest, most fashionable children I have ever seen. They were all drinking milk boxes and asking questions. It was adorable. A few of the questions asked:

Little boy: Nan no tabemono suki desu ka. (What kind of food do you like. -- She likes fish a lot because she is from Shimoda (I've been there, NBD) )

Little Girl: Watashi wa rok-sai desu. Kurihara-san wa nan-sai desu ka. (I am 6 years old. Miss Kurihara, how old are you? -- Everyone laughed of course and she avoided answering)

Along with cooking demonstrations, there were tons of food samples being passed around. I managed to get passed all the old ladies with sharp elbows and snagged a sample of rice with her banno soy sauce. It was simple and tasty, which is her style.

They were only selling the Japanese language cookbooks, but I bought one of her lifestyle magazine-books (a "mook" - no really, that is an actual category in Japanese publishing) to sign. Now, I've been to a few book signings in my time - people I really admire too. Jamie Oliver, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chuck Klosterman...I was totally cool at those book signings. Duuuude...I totally freaked out on Harumi. Maybe because you know, I don't really speak Japanese and felt awkward speaking English in front of everyone, but I just couldn't really speak properly and just had a goofy grin on my face. I told her that I'm not Japanese (duh) and that I bought her book in New York (a lie) and love her (total truth). She told me she just went to New York to do many events and asked if I knew Kinokuniya near Bryant Park. Then she shook my hand. Swoooon! Then for some reason I bowed a couple of times...because you know, this is Japan and a bow can never really hurt and I was ushered away.  I wish I had told her that I was cooking all her Everyday Harumi dishes, but I guess it wasn't meant to be. 

Isn't she adorable?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Everyday Harumi :: Fried Chicken and Spicy Eggplant

I decided to make the fried chicken again after catching the Your Japanese Kitchen, the Harumi Kurihara cooking show on NHK World. On the show, she cut the pieces smaller - nugget sizes - which did make it much easier to cook. She also said to lift the chicken out of the oil 3-4 times while frying to make the nuggets extra crispy. It works, but is a little scary - one slip of a chopstick and SPLASH - fried oil cannonball!!!

I'm a little tired of rice eight now so I made cold udon noodles instead - kind of unorthadox for fried chicken, but yummy nonetheless. This was my first go at the spicy eggplant side and must say, I'm
blown away at how delicious it is. I don't actually like eggplant all that much, but this was really flavorful. The texture is my main issue, but this tasted so good I didn't care about the mushiness. The eggplant is deep fried then tossed in a dressing of soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar, minced leeks, ginger, garlic and chili peppers. I used it as s topping for my udon bento today and it was a great combination.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Everday Harumi :: Tofu Steak

After the deep fried chicken, I decided to go vegetarian the next day. I really like tofu. I like the many textures it comes in - super silky to firm and crispy and I like both sweet and savory tofu dishes. I also like that you don't even have to cook it - I'm not so great with judging when meat is done. This is a really easy dish to make. The hardest part is handling the soft tofu from dredging to pan frying. It breaks easily so if you can make smaller "steaks", the better.

Everyday Harumi's recipe calls for banno sauce which is just mirin and soy sauce simmered together with kombu seaweed. The kombu thickens up the mixture, making it a little syrupy. If you don't want to make the banno, you can top the steaks with soy sauce.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Everyday Harumi :: Deep Fried Chicken with Spicy Leek Sauce

I'm in a big Japanese cooking phase right now for dinner and mostly using Everyday Harumi as my guide. I am finding that I'm saving a lot of money and also eating healthier. Granted yes, a lot of things are deep fried and seem to contain a lot of sodium from all the soy sauce, you eat a more diverse plate - meat, veggies and rice. Since I already stocked my kitchen with all the basic Japanese ingredients, I usually only need to pick up my protein and veggies at the grocery store. 

Last night I made deep fried chicken with a spicy leek sauce and a side of quick pickled cucumbers. I don't do a lot of deep frying and I have to say, I kind of hate it. It's kind of dangerous, scary and if something has a lot of butter or oil in it, I prefer not to see how it is made. As much as I love Paula Deen, it kind of makes me cringe. Don't get me wrong, I'll eat it and love it -- I want to be ignorant to the process. The chicken was really good -- once I threw out all the undercooked pieces. One thing I dislike about Everyday Harumi is that her instructions are sometimes vague. "Deep fry until cooked through and golden brown." Apparently, my definition of "golden brown" would give you salmonella. 
The pickles were pretty good, but I made it a little sweet. The recipe calls for sesame oil to taste and I would suggest a teeny tiny itsy bitsy drop of it.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

SunDu Booyah! :: Tokyo Sundub

I really love Korean food. When I lived in New York, I worked on 34th and Madison which is like a black hole for good food. Subway? Guy and Guillard? Starbucks? How about some Sabarro's Pizza? One can only eat $10 salads and pre-packaged sandwiches so many days in a row before going crazy. The only saving grace is it's proximity to 32nd Street, aka K-Town. It is quite possibly the smallest K-Town you'll ever find, but quality trumps quantity. Korean fried chicken, BBQ and my favorite, sundubu. My sister first introduced me to sundubu in Oakland, CA and I later became obsessed with it after my Korean friend took me to Seoul Garden in K-Town. Breaking it down, sundubu is a hot tofu soup eaten with a raw egg cracked in it and you eat it with rice. Nothing is better on a cold, gloomy day or when you're feeling sick and cranky. It will literally kick all the bad out of your system and it's pretty healthy too! It is so good, that every time my sister came to town, our first meal was at Seoul Garden for sundubu. Ahhh, memories.

There are quite a few Korean restaurants in Tokyo and there is even a soon doo boo chain called Tokyo SunDub. I was hesitant to try it because it's a chain and I have only ever eaten sundubu in mom and pop type shops. Tokyo SunDub gives you lots of options - miso or salt base - meat, seafood of veggie - 5 levels of spiciness. I ordered mine "very hot" but it wasn't so spicy at all - I guess we're measuring spiciness on the Japanese scale here...also, just so you know, just because you order a meat soup doesn't mean there won't be seafood in it too. My pork sundubu also had scallops, shrimp and clams, but I didn't mind. The more the merrier. Speaking of more, check out all the yummy goodies that came with my soup!
I love banchan! Banchan are Korean side dishes like kimchi, pancakes and marinated veggies and you always get a ton for free at sundubu restaurants. The milky drink in the picture is Makgeolli, a fermented rice wine popular with girls because it is sweet.

Tokyo Sundub
Multiple Locations in Tokyo
Roppongi Hills, Hollywood Hills B2F

Everyday Harumi :: Green Beans with Pork and Kinshi Tamago Crepes

My desire to experiment with new recipes comes in waves. Sometimes you want to try something new, but on busy weeks, you just want to make something easy and familiar. Every now and then though, you make something new that tastes like something old and homey. Tonight was one of those times. I dusted off my Everyday Harumi cook book and made a simple dish of white rice topped with green bean and minced pork. Super duper simple, healthy and oh so tastey. I suspect this will become a weeknight staple in my home. I enjoy her recipes because most are simple with few ingredients and they always make great leftovers for lunch.

To liven up the dish, and to use up some soon to be questionable eggs, I made kinshi tamago (egg) crepes. It's basically a very thing egg omelet that is then thinly sliced to make really delicate egg "threads". Egg omelets and scrambled eggs are popular bento options in Japan. I like the color it brings to your plate and they taste good too. They're sweet because of the sugar and light because of sake. Cooking them on a lower temp will help keep the bright yellow color.

I'm looking forward to my leftover bento lunch tomorrow!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Ichiran Ramen :: Have It Your Way

Hungry, wandering around Shinjuku on a cold and rainy day, I fortuitously stumbled upon Ichiran, a famous ramen chain in Tokyo. Ichiran is famous for it's single eating stalls and their "have it the
way you like" ordering system. There's a ticket machine out front where you order the basics but once you get inside, a waitress hands you an order form to fill out. Like garlic? Order extra. Not a fan of
green onions? Have them hold it. There are about 6 categories which you can adjust according to your preferences. This is tonkotsu style ramen, so I prefer lots of greens to offset the richness of the broth.
They also have a special red sauce unique to their shop - I suggest getting 2 scoops of the stuff.

Their slow boiled egg comes in the shell, so you have to do a little work to get to it but it's worth it. I judge any good ramen shop by their eggs - they must be slow cooked, the old fashion style - no hard
boiled eggs please! (eggs at ramen shops are like fries at burger joints - it won't make your meal but it can certainly break it) According to the Momofuku Cookbook, Japanese women used to take
baskets of eggs to the hot springs back in the day and that's how they slow cooked their eggs.
If you've never had a slow boiled egg, do yourself a favor and have one. I'm not a yolk lover at all, but I cannot resist the creamy custard yolks of slow boiled ramen eggs.

Ichiran Ramen
Multiple locations in Tokyo
Shinjuku 3-Chome
Shibuya 1-Chome
Roppongi 4-Chome
Tokyo Dome

There is also an Ichiran in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.