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Nippon Aishiteru (I love Japan)

31 Aug

Ahhhh, Japan. I just got back from a week-long trip to Tokyo, Japan and I was blown away. What’s to love? The food, the beautiful people, the buzz, the 99 Yen stores, lemonade Kit Kats (?),  … twas hard to come back. Despite knowing only ten Japanese words/phrases — Hai (yes), Konichiwa (hello) , Domo Arigato (thank you), Sayonara (good bye), Sumimasen (excuse me), Gomen-nasai (Sorry), Tasukete! (help), Ohayō gozaimass (Good morning), Wakarimasen (I don;t understand) and ikura desu ka? (How much is that) — I had minimal problems getting around the city, ordering food, shopping or taking the trains. Sure, I got lost a couple of times … in a cab! The cabbie  didn’t understand me and I don’t blame him but it was all good in  the end and with sign language and a lot of smiles, I was able to get where I wanted anyways.

I’ve been to Tokyo just once before, a couple of years ago. It was a busy working trip though and I had hardly enough time to explore the city. This time around, I was luckier. Though I has quite a few events to attend and five interviews to conduct (work really does get in the way of fun!), my schedule still allowed me two full days to explore the city. Also, since my travel buddies were night owls, I was out gallivanting in the city till way past midnight most night. Tokyo can seriously challenge the Big Apple for the “city that never sleeps” title!

I was also blessed because my two buddies, Shirley and Zoey, were rel foodies. Hard-core foodies who kinda made me throw my diet out the window. Aww, you’re in Japan. Plus they have a gazillion instant diet pills that you can pop as you eat, they said. I was easily convinced. I had resigned myself to eating mainly tempura, miso soup, soba and edamame  throughout my trip. The Japanese are serious carnivores and although there are a number of vegetarian Japanese dishes, asking for a purely vegetarian dish (no bonito flakes, no pork or beef stock, etc) via sign language was just impossible. So, yeah, I had low expectations on the food spectrum.

Turned out, I was wrong. Yeah I had tempura (vegetables which are deep-fried in a batter – oh, my, it was delicious), miso soup (you can’t ever go wrong here, yummmm) and edamame (to go with Kirin, way better than beer nuts!) but I also had some yakitori, vegetarian Onigiri (rice cakes), the most delicious grilled and chilled sesame-seed tofu served with grilled tomatoes … and more. We ate everywhere, from small basement  (literally) Japanese restaurants to road-side stalls to really fancy five-star style restaurants.

Remember the movie Kill Bill? Remember the Uma Thurman’s swashbuckling scene at the japanese rest (PIC above) ? Well the set was inspired by an actual restaurant in Roponggi, Tokyo called  Gonpachi and we went there despite mixed reviews about the food. It was AWESOME. (pics will be up later).

So anyway, to cut a loooooong story short, I am so in love with Japanese food now that I have been craving  nothing but since coming back. Let’s start with the basics while I practice my sushi/onigiri skills. It’s coming… I promise. Yesterday, I had a super healthy, detox Japanese dinner: edamame for starters and miso soup + tofu as my main (with some cold soba on the side). Yummmmm.

Simple Miso soup
4 cups water/light vegetable broth
1/3 cup miso (check the ingredients, not all miso is vegetarian)
3 scallions, chopped
1 tbsp shredded nori or wakame seaweed
1/2 block firm tofu, cubed
dash soy sauce (optional)
1/2 tsp sesame oil (optional)

Bring stock to a simmer and add the seaweed. Allow to simmer for about 5 mins (low heat). Add the tofu, soy sauce and sesame oil and continue to simmer. Ladle out some of the simmering stock to dissolve the miso paste and then add it in the pot with the tofu.  When it comes to a boil, remove and serve.

To prepare the edamame, just boil in salted water for about 10 min or steam and season with salt and pepper. I added some red chilli flakes (bought in Japan for authenticity).

The tale of a bun that grew up to become soup

19 Mar

FIVE MINUTES. That’s all it took for my wonderful wholemeal buns to go from crisp and golden to extra crisp and charcoal. You don’t know frustration utnil you’ve spent  more than 2 hours carefully making some buns — and they turned out pretty good — only to answer a phone call, leaving  them  FIVE MINUTES longer in the oven (it was switched off, mind you), only to come back and see them in with black tops.

GREAT. Now what do I do with 9 blackened buns? I didn’t include pictures of the disaster buns because … well they were just too ugly.  First I scrapped off the tops. They looked less ominous but still unpresentable. Buns must have smooth rounded tops not scraggly, uneven flat tops. So I thought, as small as they were, I’d scoop out the middles and fill them with soup. Kinda a bread bowlette (I am making up words as I go along).

Tomato soup was what I deemed suitable. It’s easy to make and delicious with bread and some cheese. Plus I had lotsa tomatoes which were ripening fast.

Let me not kid you. The buns were way to small to be bowls and could only hold three spoons of soup. However, topped with some mozerella and grilled in the oven for 7 mins, they came out really well. The soup thickened and the cheese melted and the bread softened. You needn’t scoop the meagre soup out; you could bite into the bun which had become a tomato -cheese filled wholemeal bun. He he he.

Because I wanted to melt the cheese over the soup, I opted not to make a creamy tomato soup. By the way, if you want a creamy soup, try Jamie Oliver’s ... it’s fantastic. My clear soup was pretty easy to put together.

Wholesome Tomato Broth

250 ml Vegetable stock
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1/4 carrot, grated
handful each fresh basil, sage and thyme  (or 1 tsp of the dried equivalent)
1/2 teaspoon red wine vinegar
3 -4 ripe tomatoes
salt and black pepper to season
3 tbsp olive oil

Heat olive oil and add the onion, garlic and a while later the  carrot  and herbs stalks into saucepan.  Cover and let them cook for about 7  minutes, stirring once in a while. Add  the tomatoes (chopped)  and stock and simmer on low heat for about 15 mins, covered. You can puree it in a blender or mash it in the saucepan with your wooden spoon. I wanted it a bit chunky. Pre heat oven grill at 150C for about 10 mins and transfer soup into bread bowls or ramekins, topped with cheese and cook for about 5 to 7 mins. You can add some croutons into the ramekin before pouring in the soup fr added goodness. Remove and serve hot. Garnish with some fresh basil.

Food for the soul

13 Feb

It’s the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year and I need a break from cooking Malaysian Chinese delicacies simply because they are so difficult to make. After devoting three weeks or so to local kuihs, I have come to the conclusion that Western desserts are so much easier to execute.

Sigh. For next month’s Don’t Call Me Chef column, Marty, Blessed Glutz and I decided the theme should be Nonya Kuih (read the column in StarTwo or online on on March 1).

We thought it would be fun. For one thing, we all love eating Nonya Kuihs; and the idea of being able to make these traditional delicacies was just exciting. We were psyched and selected the desserts of our choice. So excited were we that we embarked on our project weeks in advance.

And then we discovered to our extreme disappointment that these were complex recipes and weren’t as straightforward as we though. The many recipes for local kuihs online or in recipe books borrowed from my aunt have been just impossible. There were just too many unanswered questions and no solutions.

An example of my most recent failure was my attempt at making my favourite cookie, Kuih Bangkit or melt in your mouth tapioca cookies (pic below). I followed the recipe to the T. Really, I did. And it wasn’t the easiest of recipes. You have to dry fry the tapioca flour for about 30 mins or more and then store it overnight before actually making the cookie the next day. I bought the mould and everything. But my cookies didn’t melt in the mouth. I kinda needed a sledgehammer to break them in two. Ok, I exagerate but they were hard. Why? Who knows. I looked at 6 recipes and no answers. Sigh.  (Keep a lookout for a future post … I will make this work).

So today I decided to make something healthy (no coconut milk) and, most importantly, easy. A recipe that was sure to work. I made a delicious bowl of cream of celery soup with two cheeses. And home made croutons. I followed Mark Bittman’s recipe from his How To Cook Everything Vegetarian book.  Want an example of a perfectly concise and clear recipe? Check Bittman’s out.

It’s real simple. You just need celery (I used a bunch I had in the fridge … about 6 stalks, peel away the outer layer so its not stringy and then chop roughly), 2.5 cups stock, salt and pepper, butter and milk (or cream if you prefer). I must add that Bittman included potato, diced and cooked with the celery. But I am not a fan of potatoes so I left them out. Melt butter and add celery and cook on medium heat till the celery softens. Add boiling stock and let it simmer for about 10 mins till celery is soft. Season with salt and pepper. Blend in batches till pureed. Return to heat, add milk/cream and before turning off the heat and sprinkle grated parmesan and hard cheddar over it. Serve with crisp croutons.