Friday, June 25, 2010

Food for thought

Japan, along with a plethora of weird seafood, has some pretty unusual veggies too. Here are three recipes with ingredients you've probably never heard of.
(To access the recipe just click on the pic!)

Goya Chanpuru

Goya, also known as a bitter melon although it's pretty much not like a melon at all, is an extremely bitter vegetable often eaten in the island of Okinawa. People eat it around these parts usually in eggs or some other capacity that can counteract some of the bitter flavor. It's said that the bitterness of goya helps us beat the summer heat, so chow down!

Kinpira Gobo

Gobo, also known as burdock root, is a woody vegetable that when prepared poorly tastes like what I imagine a twig would, but when prepared correctly is very tasty. They often julienne it and cover it with mayo for gobo salad in the school lunches. Kinpira refers to a style of Japanese cooking that just means simmered with soy sauce and sugar. With all this fiber, your insides will get cleaned out for sure. Thanks to the fabulous Lexi for this recipe! Renkon Okara

Renkon, or lotus root, is one of my favorite Japanese vegetables. It's like a crunchy potato shaped in a pretty design. Renkon is also often made into kinpira or salads, which shows off it's cute little shape, but I found a more unusual recipe for you all. Okara is actually kind of like the leftover curds from making tofu, but I've found soft tofu works just as well.

Hope these wet your appetite! Dig in!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

This is not a riot

It's the 大山たいまつ行列 
Mt. Daisen Torch Parade

So what happens when you arm a thousand Japanese people with kerosene-soaked rags stuffed in bamboo?

They make an orderly procession down a huge mountain path.

Oh, Japan.

Let me start from the beginning. The principal of Takata Elementary School, Mr. Kadowaki, invited me to come with his family to Mt. Daisen. Mr. Kadowaki loves English, and often has me come talk with him during my free periods about strange English grammar. And Mt. Daisen a huge mountain just outside of Shimane in Tottori Prefecture. Many JETS enjoy skiing and snowboarding at Daisen (which literally just means big mountain) in the winter. I had never been there before, but the view sure was gorgeous.

His two sons, Satoru and Kanato are quiet, smart boys. Satoru is obsessed with airplanes and wants to be an air traffic controller. Here we are enjoying some festival food (a locally brewed beer for me, takoyaki for the boys) and getting ready to climb the mountain.

We climbed about half a mile up Daisen to the shrine 
大神山神社 Oogamiyama-jinja (Literally Big God Mountain Shrine. I'm seeing a pattern to this place . . . ) On the way up we colleced our taimatsu or torches. They were literally bamboo poles with kerosene soaked rags shoved down the tubes. Nice.

At the temple we encountered some priests dressed up as 天狗Tengu- birdlike mountain goblins. Now, in Japanese folklore there are bad tengu- the ones who cause mischeif, and good tengu- the ones who guard temples. I think these were good tengu, although they did attack visitors who strayed too close and made them have their picture taken.

The actual parade started about 7:30. Some priests said a blessing, and they and the tengu led the procession. Participants walked up to a huge ceremonial fire to light their taimatsu and make their way down the now dark mountain path.

It was literally one of the coolest experiences I've ever had in Japan.

As the boys and I lit our torches Satoru whispered "I love fire." I told him he was a pyromaniac, which is probably now his new favorite English word.

I can't really fault him though. I love fire too.

It is said that a good thing will happen to you this year if your torch lasts all the way to the bottom of the mountain. Satoru had let out too much wick at the beginning of the parade, which made a spectacular fire, but unfortunately burned out too quickly. Kanato's torch was too thin and he had the most problems keepin it lit. But mine was perfect, and lasted all the way to the bottom. Yeah!

Monday, June 7, 2010

A really cool Temple and a really cool Shrine

It's not hard to get tired of seeing shrines in temples sometimes in Japan. I mean come on. Once you've seen so many of these majestic old buildings they do kind of blend together. So when my friend Ashley came to visit me with her friend Laura and they suggested two new religious edifices to visit, I wasn't entirely enthused.That just goes to show how little you can know about where you live. I look at Shimane as a place to live. Where can I buy edible food? Clothes that fit? How do I get my oil changed? Not that exciting.
But they looked at it as tourists, and found some really cool places to visit.

The first was 清水寺 Kiyomizu-dera , a temple in Yasugi City. (NOT to be confused with my formerly favorite temple in Kyoto, also called Kiyomizu-dera). What makes this temple special? Two things. One is that restaraunts surrounding Kiyomizu serve a special kind of food called 精進料理 shoujin-ryouri. It's a cuisine based on the dietary restricitions of strict Buddhist monks who actually eat a vegetarian diet. Although I had once learned about this food, I had long ago forgotten about it. So I was very pleasantly surprised by our delicious and healthy lunch.

"Is that tofu?" the culinarily inclined of you might ask. Well, not exactly. This is ごまどうふ or sesame seed tofu- the poster child of shoujin-ryouri. It's made out of ground sesame seeds and a root called kuzu. Grinding the seeds and the kuzu to such a fine paste takes a loooooong time, especially back in the days before food processors. So the job was given to low-level monks- boring work is good for character and meditation right? It was extremely sticky and had an interesting sesame flavor. It was tasty, but I'll stick to good ol' tofu tofu, thanks.
This dish was various kind of 煮物 nimono - foods cooked by boiling with light sugar. In the front is a mountain fern, with some seaweed behind it and a pumpkin to its right. That stuff on the left is tofu skin or yude, and there are two pieces of tofu prepared in two ways behind the pumpkin.This is called chawanmushi, as you may remember from the wedding post. It's an egg custard dish that usually has various kinds of vegetables and some meat. Well, of course being vegetarian cuisine this one had no meat (yay!) but it did have ginko nuts (yay!) which were an interesting surprise. Ginko nuts taste like an interesting mix between quail eggs and chickpeas.These clear noodles are called are made out of konnyaku root, also known as devil's tongue root. They magically have no calories, which is awesome. Unfortunately this means they also have no flavor, which is easily fixed with a dab of wasabi and some lemon as you can see. Phew!

It was a big meal with several courses, but very low calorie. I wish I could eat shoujin ryouri every day.

The other really cool thing about this temple was the pagoda. Now, in other countries a pagoda by itself is a place of worship. In Japan, they usually have a pagoda hanging around a temple just as kind of decoration, so I've never found them that interesting. But this pagoda you can climb. I would have laughed at you if you asked me to climb a pagoda in Japan. I thought it impossible. But we did it. The ladders were tiny, tight, dark, and death defying, but the view from the top was beautiful.

We also visited a sweet shrine, 八重垣神社 Yaegaki-jinja near Matsue. Remember the story of Yamata-no-Orochi, the eight headed serpent and the god Susanoo who slew him? (You better not forget it. It's not going away). Well, apparently after Susanoo slew Orochi, he and the gal he saved moved to Yaegaki. This shrine, erected where they were said to live, is dedicated to marriages and matchmaking. At this shrine you can take a piece of rice paper to a special pond known as the mirror pond. You lay the paper in the pond and put a ten yen coin on top. If the coin and paper sink within fifteen minutes, you will have a happy marriage. If not . . . well . . .
Luckily mine dropped in 8 minutes, so I'm safe. Ashley and Laura were safe too. (Actually, I can't imagine this taking longer than 15 minutes). Apparently there are also giant wooden phalluses on the grounds, but I forgot to look. Curses!!

I guess it just goes to show that you can't get complacent where you are- there are always new and interesting things to eat, explore, and do.