Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Best Banh Mi in Tokyo

I've searched high. I've searched low and I can say with certainty, that the Banh Mi Sandwich shop in Takadanobaba is the best Banh Mi you'll find in Tokyo. The bread is baked fresh on site and they flavor their meats with a lot of lemongrass. Now, keep in mind, I didn't say these are the best banh mi sandwiches ever but definitely the best in Tokyo. For example, there's no pate and no hot peppers. I'm also pretty sure they use Korean kochujang instead of Sriracha. But hey, they do their best.

In any case, this place makes me happy and gets the job done. They also make desserts and breads you can buy to go.

Banh Mi Sandwich Takadanobaba (バインミーサンドイッチ 高田馬場)
新宿区高田馬場 4-9-18

* Take the Waseda exit at JR Takadanobaba Station, go left down the main street, take your frist left after the Becker's Cafe then a right down a small street/parking lot. Keep an eye out for the red awning.

* Be warned that they sell out fast and once they sell out, they're done for the day. Go early if you can. 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Perfect Day Hakone

Last weekend I went to Hakone with my new friend Dezza. (Nickname alert!) Dezza just moved here in June and hadn't left Tokyo since arriving. So we got on the Odakyu Romance Car to Hakone and had ourselves a day of fun and nature. 

One of the best things about going on a trip is starting the day with an eki-ben, a bento from the departing station, and eating it on the train while enjoying the views of the countryside. This bento was on the more expensive side, but it included 3 pieces of chu-toro (medium fatty tuna) so in my eyes, it was worth it. 

Our itinerary. 

Cooled off with a free footbath and kakigori (shaved iced) with ice cream on top at the adorable Naraya Cafe outside the Miyanoshita stop on the Hakone-Tozan Line. 

After a short ride on a cable car and a scenic stroll across a ropeway, we got to Owakudani, which translates to "great boiling valley". And that's exactly what it is! Hakone is known for its natural hot springs and at Owakudani, you can see (and smell) the source.

If you go to Owakudani, you might as well make the mini-hike up to where they sell the kurotamago, black eggs. These eggs are boiled in the hot springs and turn black due to a chemical reaction with the sulphur. I'm sure my dad can pop in and let us all know exactly what the reaction is but let's move on. 

They say that you'll extend your life by 7 years for every egg you ate. I had 2, generously dipped in salt so...with my math that's something like 13 and a half years. Not too bad. 

Other things that are not bad: clear views of Mt. Fuji! We picked the perfect day to visit Hakone. On clear days, it's a great place to see Fuji but many people are left disappointed because it's usually too cloudy to see anything. Earlier in the week, we had a lil typhoon sweep through Japan. Generally speaking, typhoons are bad. But it did clear away the clouds and drop the temperatures for a few days.  

There are lots of "black" themed foods around Hakone, including this black steamed bun. Looks gross, but it was delicious. 

Of course. 

After taking the ropeway down, we crossed Lake Ashi in this ridiculous boat. Beers, boats and Japanese pirates. Just another day in Japan. 

And finally back down to the main station for some tenzaru soba (tempura and soba with cold dipping sauce) and cold sake at Yama Soba

This little dish is a specialty of Hakone. It's goopy and slimy, which is a good sign that people in Japan love it. It was very yummy and wish they had given me more. It's a mixture of wild mushrooms from the area on top of grated daikon radish. 

And of course, it wouldn't be a proper trip to Hakone without a dip into an onsen, or hot spring bath. We  went to the Yumoto Fujiya Hotel and relaxed in their indoor and outdoor baths before taking the last train back to Tokyo. Obviously, you can't take pictures in the onsen because everyone is naked, but this is the path to the hotel. Isn't my camera kind of boss?! It's a Samsung TL500 and I highly recommend it. 

And in case you doubt that I actually went to Hakone, here is proof! A certificate from the Hakone Tourist Association!

Hakone is only an hour and half away from Tokyo on the Odakyu Line from Shinjuku. You can do it all in one day like we did, or you can book a night in a traditional ryokan and really experience Japanese hospitality and cuisine. It's a great trip either way.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

No Bread for You

This happened such a long time ago I almost forgot about it until I came across this photo. My wonderful, awesome, Tennis blogger sister gave me the Tartine Bread Cookbook for Christmas and I finally decided to give the basic country bread a try. Do not be fooled by the name of the bread. Even though Chad Robertson tried to simplify his process for the home baker, it's still pretty complex. I studied the recipe religiously for weeks before diving in. It is intimidating, but not impossible. In the meantime, I embarked on my first attempt at growing a healthy starter. 

Real bread bakers use home grown starters to bake bread. Making a starter, or "mother", is actually not too difficult. After all, it's just water and flour mixed together and left out on the counter. But it takes a lot of love and a watchful eye (and nose) to make a starter that will be flavorful and strong enough to bake into a rustic loaf. Everyday at the same time, you have to discard about 80% of the mixture and replenish with fresh flour and water. The bacteria will feed on this fresh flour and water mixture, create gas bubbles, rise and then fall. The goal is to train the starter to rise and fall in a consistent manner. It's like having a puppy and you definitely get attached to it. It's a alive. You start talking to it. You yell at it for smelling bad. It makes messes you have to cleanup. But you continue to give it love. 

Anyways, after about 2 weeks, I got my starter, which I named "Gross", to where the book said it should be. I set my alarm for 6am on a Saturday so we could have some fresh bread for dinner. I'm not a morning person, so I of course measured out my ingredients wrong. I literally messed up on the very first step. Heartbreaking! And of course, I didn't have enough starter to start that's where this story ends. No pretty pictures of fresh crusty bread. No stories about how easy and fun this recipe was. It wasn't easy. And it wasn't that much fun either. Sorry. 

It turns out, my fake oven doesn't even get hot enough to bake this bread, so even if I hadn't been a bozo and messed up on step 1, I would have found out by step 8 that this was a lost cause. It just wasn't meant to be. Maybe one day, when I have a real oven, I'll give it another go, but until then, the Tartine Cookbook is getting packed away. 

If you do ever try making a starter, I highly recommend keeping a daily log of the look and smell of your starter. Keeping track of the times you feed it and how it behaves throughout the day will help you with making adjustments so that you get a sweet, flavorful loaf.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Shōwa Nostalgia

After a few months of blaming the heat for everything, I've made a pact with myself to take more pictures, cook more and post more.

Here are a few from a recent random day in Tokyo. 

A handmade train station sign warning riders about bird pooping out hearts. Leave it to Japan to turn something so gross into something super adorable. 

On on our way to lunch, we stumbled upon a Shōwa Era candy shop. Japan counts their years using the name of the ruling Emperors of that time. Emperor Showa rules Japan from 1926 to 1989 and chances are, if you see something in Japan that looks "retro", it's from the Showa Era.

I know that these Hipstamatic/Instagram camera apps can be a little annoying. But I can't help but use these apps when taking  pictures of Showa Era candy and toys. 

Remember when candy was just simple, colorful and fun?

Squidward says this is what the inside of my brain looks like

Baaaabies...lots of baaaabies 

We ended the day at one of our favorite burger restaurants in Tokyo, Sunny Diner in Kita Senju. This is how they brought me my ketchup. That's why I like this place. 

There are two Sunny Diner's in Kita Senju:

Lumine Shop: 
Kita Senju Lumine 8F 

Original Shop: 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Home, Sweet Home :: Doo Dads, Tchotchkes & What Nots

If you thought I had a lot of randomness in the kitchen, just you see what we have laying around the rest of the apartment. Most things were won in machines, stolen borrowed late at night or given as charity. 

We are essentially hobos living on the 31st floor of a high rise building. 

The budding tiny musical instrument collection on a Sapporo beer crate. 

Bookshelf of orphaned things. 

Yes, there's a tiny Alf figurine on our bookshelf. 

Squidward strangling a mean giraffe. 

Concert posters from around Tokyo. 

View from above. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Home, Sweet Home :: World Kitchen

I was a little bored this weekend and decided to take some snaps around the house. It turned out to be a fun couple of hours. It gave me the opportunity to marvel at all the weird stuff we've accumulated over the past 2 years.

 I'm really proud of all this weird stuff!

I love this. These are the various sauces and seasonings that sit on my counter top. 

 From left to right: Mediterranean sea salt, rice vinegar, olive oil, grape seed oil, thai fish sauce, light soy sauce, mirin, parmesan cheese, maggi sauce, black pepper, kochujang, sesame paste, shichimi, chinese chili oil. 

Smiley spoon, various mismatched chopsticks in empty sake one cups

These were actually scattered around all over the kitchen. I have a tendency to make lists of ingredients from recipes on the super cool internet on the back of whatever is near me - old bills, actual notebooks, cute stationary from Japan and elsewhere

Fridge craziness. This is actually a really great story board of our life in Japan so far. Every piece has a memorable/funny story behind it and you might recognize some of the stuff because you gave it to me. Congratulations! You've made the fridge of fame! 
Doodles of Squidward killing animals in various super radical ways

Moneys from around the world, running bib, silly magnets

I love getting post cards. They seem to be falling out of fashion, which makes receiving them even more of a delight. If you send me a postcard, it goes straight to my heart and onto my fridge

Sunday, July 17, 2011

My First and Favorite Korean Dish, Japchae

I love Korean food, but aside from a few dishes that use kimchi or recipes from my beloved Momofuku cookbook, I've never cooked any Korean dishes. Grilled pre-marinated bulgogi? Yes. Cooked a dish from start to finish? No. When I lived in New York, I worked on 34th and Madison, a real crappy part of town for good food. My saving grace was that I was a short walk from 32nd Street. For those in the know, this short block in Midtown is K-Town. I ate at a Korean deli called Woorijip at least twice a week, if not more because it was cheap and good. There was a rotating to-go buffet filled with spicy toppogi, tender bulgogi and my favorite, japchae.

I love cold noodles of any kind, so it's not surprising that I love this dish. It's surprisingly filling and pretty easy to make. It takes a little bit of time to prep all the veggies, but it's kind of soothing to just chop, marinate and mix. 

Considering that it's summer and you're probably craving something healthy and light, might I suggest this dish? I found a great recipe on Beyond Kimchee, a great blog for Korean recipes. Finding the ingredients, namely, the dang-myon sweet potato noodles, was pretty easy for me since there are quite a few Korean grocery stores in my neighborhood. I substituted pork for beef with nice results and used bok choy instead of Korean Spinach because...I don't know what Korean Spinach is. This substitute worked out well too. 

I don't have a pair of kitchen scissors so I skipped the step where you cut the cooked noodles into shorter strands. Big mistake. That is definitely not a step you want to skip, especially if you're going to try and eat this in public...say, at work in front of you computer. You will look very very silly and get sesame oil all over your screen. Sweet potato noodles don't break as easily as cellophane noodles or other glass noodles. You can't break off a bit with a little nibble. So you basically get a super long bunch of noodles in your mouth and you just have to keep stuffing your mouth until they're all in.

For the recipe, head over to Beyond Kimchee and give it a try!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Vent Session:: That's Rude!

An interesting thing happened to me today. An "acquaintance" (Google+ tells me that this is "people you've met but aren't particularly close to" so let's go with that) today asked me if I spoke Vietnamese in front of a group of other acquaintances, to which I answered honestly. (I don't) His response was, roughly: 

"What is wrong with you Californians? You grow up in a multicultural place and you can't even speak your own language." 

Whistle! Penalty! Foul! Red card! Technical!

What I am about to write is more for me than it is for you because this exchange has really thrown me into a tizzy and I need somewhere to work out my thoughts in a meaningful way. Something more productive than "F#%! that guy!" and "Are you effing kidding me?!" Though it feels good to go on a whinge like that, it's not that helpful. But if you want to keep reading, please do. It is a blog after all. 

I think I responded to this comment as best as possible given the shock and embarrassment I was experiencing at the moment. That is to say, I gave him the stinkiest stink eye I could muster and just waved him off because it wasn't worth my time. And it's not. I can't be bothered with stuff like that at this point in my life. Maybe if I were 22 and still minoring in American Ethnic Studies, I'd have some awesome speech for him quoting Ronald Tataki and Spike Lee. But I've calmed down a bit since then when it comes to racial stuff. It can get really tiring being offended all the time. It's also really hard to explain yourself without sounding defensive or like you have something to apologize for. So it's better to just pull the stink eye out. That's what it's there for. 

Rough transition: I'm not sure if I've ever mentioned this before, but the Tokyo expat community is pretty weird. I don't mean that as an offense, but it seems to be very different from other expat communities in the world. Foreigners just aren't that friendly with other foreigners here. Everyone thinks they're better than the other guy for various illogical reasons. Because you can speak Japanese fluently. Because you're not an English teacher. Because you've lived here longer. Because you have Japanese friends. Because you're married to a Japanese person. Because you think you're not an obnoxious foreigner. It's weird and I think that this is just a Japan thing. 

Another interesting thing about foreigners in Japan (or actually, just people in general) is that they tend to fall back on wildly stupid generalizations about each other in a not jokey kind of way when meeting strangers.
  • "Oh you're from Australia? Have you ever pet a Koala?" -- No, because they all have chlamydia and are high on eucalyptus leaves
  • "Oh you're from England? Do you know Kate Middleton?" -- No, but she's hot. 
  • "Oh you're American? Fuck you." -- Oh...umm, ok. Nice to meet you too. 
You know that tidbit about the rest of the world hating Americans? It's totally true!  Hating on Americans simply because they are Americans is a thing. Fair enough. I get it. Sometimes I hate America too. (Okaaay, "hate" is a strong word but whatever, free speech! Yay America and yay the internet!) But their understanding of Americans and American culture can be very limited. Rightfully so! You didn't grow up there, so why would you know the difference between the East and West coast? Why would you understand anything about Asian-American families and the American immigrant experience? I tend not to fault people for their first offense of ignorance. I try my best to educate people about my country and culture in a non-condescending and polite way. But..I don't know, what happened today went beyond that. I just don't feel like I need to explain myself. This was personal for the kind of relationship we had. 

My feelings over this whole matter are pretty weird in that I'm really surprised that I'm so affected by the exchange. I had a pretty intense fight or flight response in the moment. And once that kind of settled, I was just sad. My mind was rationalizing everything saying "It's fine. He didn't mean to offend you. He just doesn't know." but my body wanted none of that. I just wanted to punch something. Or cry. So I did a little, in the bathroom. I'll admit it. And it felt good I guess. But then I was upset that I had let him get a reaction out of me which made me want to cry more...a vicious cycle! 

Truth be told, I am really sensitive about my inability to speak Vietnamese. It's always been a sore subject for me since my teens, so it's no wonder he struck such an emotional nerve. But even though it's an issue for me, it's really not something people should comment on. That's my opinion. There are plenty of people who, for various reasons, can't speak their parents' native tongue fluently. That's America and that's what's great about it. How many Italian-Americans can actually speak Italian? Why isn't anyone up in arms over that?  

Look see? I'm totally Vietnamese! I've BEEN to Vietnam! My last name is NGUYEN!

Just because I don't speak Vietnamese doesn't make us any less Vietnamese. I'm really proud to be Vietnamese-American. I really am. And I'm proud of both - to be an American and to be of Vietnamese descent. Maybe I didn't always feel that way - yeah, when I was little, I wanted to be taller and have blonde hair. I've been called "whitewashed" a plenty of times. I'm not Asian enough or not White enough -- that's sort of the feeling. But I've come to terms with all that. When I went to high school and started seeing more people "like" me, it sort of washed away all those insecurities. I guess today was a little bit of a wake up call. 

A gay friend of mine recently told me a story about how his Japanese boss put him on the spot at a work function about which woman in the office was his type, basically trying to get him to admit that he was gay. I remember him telling me this story and feeling sorry for him, but now I really get why that was a big deal to him. Both being Bay Area kids, we were brought up in this little bubble where people are slightly more educated about diversity, be it homosexuality or race. But we're not in the hand-holding, flag waving, accepting Bay anymore and things like this are bound to happen from time to time. Even though we grow out of these insecurities, the scars are still there. If you poke at it hard enough, it'll remind you how you got it in the first place.