Japanese Energydrinks

In Japan, being, or at least: seeming “genki” and able to “ganbatte” at all times is very important. Of course, the hapless salaryman sitting at a desk for long hours of mind-numbing tasks needs the occasional pick-me-up.

Enter Japanese Energydrinks like these:

These particular bottles contain just a few sips of taurine or caffeine-infused drinks, and they can be found pretty much everywhere. The largest variety to be bought offline seems to be available in convenience stores, I guess that’s where many office workers go for a short break anyway. Of course, there are different prices to these energy drinks, depending on the quality and possibly the amount of the supplement contained.

What I found interesting is that they were less sweet than I had expected; so far, my exposure to energy drinks was limited to Red Bull (yes yes, the Austrian connection here). I’m not sure if I keep drinking those because at least caffeine doesn’t do anything for/with me – I could drink a cup of coffee now and go straight to bed without problems.

On the other hand, these little bottles were a gift from a friend of mine – is it a good sign if your friends think you could do with more energy?

Japanese Fruit Sandwich

Ever since the Earl of Sandwich started to put cold cuts between two slices of bread, the idea has spread all over the world and spawned myriads of variations. From the standard BLT, tuna & mayo, and cheese & ham sandwich to the clubhouse and croque-monsieur, I’m guessing that everybody has a very special and very individual favourite.

Enter the Japanese, ever so creative, always looking for the ultimate improvement to making something yet more “oishii”. Behold the unique Japanese fruit sandwich:

It consists of standard, non-toasted sandwich bread, with a thin layer of custard and a thick layer of whipped cream. Embedded in the slightly sweetened cream are various types of fruit. This particular one included pieces of strawberries, kiwi, pineapple, orange, and even mango. Interestingly, it’s not overly sweet, and it’s best eaten straight out of the fridge. A perfect pick-me-up to get out of the daily afternoon slump, and best combined with iced matcha or coffee.

Sushi in Film

I spend too much time online. On youtube in particular. There are many interesting videos out there, mostly about cats, but every now and then, something else catches my eye. This one is fun: a master sushi chef from Tokyo rates the skills of other “chefs” as seen in movies or on TV.

Sushi master Endo Kazutoshi looks at nine sushi scenes from popular TV shows and movies and rates them based on realism. Endo is a third-generation sushi master specializing in the Edomae style of sushi, a technique particular to Tokyo. He was born in Yokohama and has been working in kitchens for 26 years.

From the video description.

Atsuage Donburi

Time for another summer recipe! My friend Junko taught me this dish, and besides being quick-and-easy, it has the added bonus that it is extremely cheap: The tofu needed for this recipe costs only 50 yen a slice! Initially, I hesitated putting it up, as some of the ingredients may be a bit hard to find outside of Japan, but then again, I modified the recipe already, and so can you. Here we go:

Atsuage Donburi à la Junko san
(for 1 person)

  • 1 bowl of cooked rice
  • 1 tablespoon of furikake
    Mix the rice with the furikake and put it in a bowl.
  • 1 piece of yawaraka tofu (atsuage). These are very thick slices (3cm) of fried tofu.
    Wash the tofu in hot water to remove any remnants of oil. Use a fork to poke small holes through the tofu.
  • 1-2 tablespoons each of dashi and mirin
  • 1 teaspoon each of sugar and soysauce
    Combine the above ingredients and heat them in a small pan. Put in the tofu and heat it from all sides so that it absorbs the broth.

    When this is finished, take the tofu out of the broth, cut it in squares and place it on top of the rice.

Now, if that wasn’t quick and easy – and it’s vegetarian too! As I said, I modified the original recipe which called for carrots and daikon cut into small pieces and replaced it with the furikake. I’m using furikake made with sesame and red pepper to add a spicy flavour to this otherwise rather bland dish (the broth doesn’t help that much). But any type of furikake or fresh herbs and spices will do just nicely, depending on your own preferences.

Enjoy!

Chocolate Cornets

If you’ve been reading here for a while you may have noticed that I have a thing for all things sweet. Chocolate in particular. Wherever I go, I try the local chocolate thing to see if it’s worth it. (Note: none of the national Nutella-knock-offs are, just stick to the real stuff.)

So I was very happy when I discovered these little things, which the Japanese call Chocolate Cornets:

They are wonderful for breakfast or as an afternoon snack. Heck, whom am I kidding here: They are great 24/7 and for any occasion! These pastries are palm-sized and really nothing more than a soft sweet yeast dough filled with chocolate custard. You can find them in most of the cheaper bakeries in Japan.

The interesting thing about them is that they are a true Japanese invention, even though they might not look very exotic. They are named after the Western music instrument cornet because they resemble them (or so I am told).

In any case, if you have an oven and would like to try out these delicious chocolate pastries, here is a detailed recipe with wonderful images and even a youtube video to watch. Bon appetit!
https://cookingwithdog.com/recipe/chocolate-cornets/

Sweet Apples

There are countless Japanese sweets. Some are made exclusively for tea ceremony, and others are eaten as desserts. Traditionally, many of these sweets are made with heavily sugared anko red bean paste or they involve matcha. Since I am not a big fan of red anko, I am happy whenever I find sweets that don’t have it. Like these palm-sized apples:

Crimson Apples dessertThese are called beniringo – crimson apples – for obvious reasons, and they are delicious. At first, I thought they would contain white anko (which I do like), but no, it gets better: they have an apple filling! They are a perfect afternoon snack, just two or three bites and very sweet. I have returned to the shop twice now and handed these sweets out to friends, and I’m actually tempted to buy another batch before they start the winter season with their sweets and I have to wait another year.

These wonderful apples are made by Kogetsu, a traditional Japanese sweets shop from Kyoto that opened back in 1945. Today, they have 16 stores in Kyoto and their sweets are sold in 69 shops (including department stores etc.) throughout Japan. If you’re coming to Kyoto and interested in Japanese sweets, both traditional and with a modern twist, I recommend you check them out.

Kakigori

Of all the dishes one could eat in the unbearable Japanese summer, kakigori is the most refreshing. No wonder, since it is nothing else than shaved ice with added flavour. During summer, it’s sold pretty much everywhere, from simple street stalls at festivals to convenience stores or traditional kissaten cafes and there are even shops that specialise in kakigori. To advertise kakigori, a special banner is used, showing the kanji for “ice”.While having ice available in summer only became widespread from the 19th century onwards, the nobility could enjoy kakigori as early as the Heian period of the 11th century. It is already mentioned in Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book, when it was a rare treat even at court. At that time, large blocks of ice were cut from rivers during the winter and then stored in mountain caves or special ice houses that would reach deep into the earth.

Nowadays, the ice for kakigori is mineral water frozen into blocks. Great care is taken that the ice turns into a fluffy, snow-like consistency when shaved, and it is this consistency that sets kakigori apart from other shaved ice desserts like snow cones. These days, electric machines are used to shave the ice, but there are still street vendors who use a traditional hand-cranked machine. These machines are ubiquitous at flea markets; they come in all sizes and very small ones are still occasionally sold at household goods stores.Once the ice is properly shaved, it is put on a dish – special korikoppu dishes were popular before WWII – and then it’s time for the flavouring. Heavy syrup that comes in numerous flavours is poured over the ice, and you can have your kakigori as strawberry, lemon, plum, grape, matcha… An extra dash of condensed milk adds a bit of sweetness.While the basic kakigori is available throughout Japan, there are a few local varieties as well. Shirokuma (literally polar bear) comes with small mochi, condensed milk, anko, and a variety of fruits added to the shaved ice. This type of kakigori was invented in Kagoshima during the Edo period and is now known throughout Japan.

Another version is Ujikintoki with green tea syrup and anko. It is named after Uji, a small town near Kyoto that is famous for its green tea and kintoki, a type of red bean paste.Whether you get a small cup of eat-as-you-go kakigori at a festival or sit down at a specialty shop for a large bowl topped with fruit, kakigori is always a welcome refreshment in the hot Japanese summers and worth trying all the flavours.

Doyo-no-ushi-no-hi

Today is the second doyo-no-ushi-no-hi of 2020, so if you need a bit more explanation than what I gave in my post of last week, here you go.

Let’s start at the beginning: What is doyo?

Traditionally, doyo is the period of 18 to 19 days before the beginning of a new season, so there are four doyo in each year: before the beginning of spring (called risshun) around Feb. 4, beginning of summer (rikka) around May 5, autumn (risshuu) around August 7 and winter (rittou) around November 7. Nowadays, doyo most often refers to the one in summer.

Generally, the doyo is considered a time of preparation for the coming season. However, it also means that times are a bit unstable, and it is possible, in particular during the last night, that demons may enter the world in the gap between two seasons. This is the reason for the setsubun ritual, where demons are ousted from our world on February 3rd.

Moving on: What is ushi-no-hi?

Ushi-no-hi is the day of the ox, one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. Every day (and every 2-hour period and every cardinal direction) is assigned one of the zodiac animals. Therefore, doyo-no-ushi-no-hi refers to the day of the ox during a doyo period. Obviously, when dividing a period of 18/19 days by 12 zodiac animals, some of the animals have to repeat. This is why in 2020, there are two days of the ox in the summer doyo period, on July 21 and August 2.

But what makes doyo-no-ushi-no-hi so special?

Well, the day of the ox during the doyo is considered the hottest day in all summer. In general, it seems to me that the Japanese bear the summer heat less well than the cold in the winter, which is understandable for anyone who has ever tried to move on a humid summer afternoon in Kyoto… Therefore, they have come up with a lot of little traditions to better get through the hot days.

One of these traditions is moxibustion, where people burn dried mugwort on their skin. Another one is to wear “cool” colors like white, light blue or green and to take a hot bath in the evening. And another one is to eat healthy foods, which in this case means anything that starts with the letter u. Such foods are udon noodles, umeboshi (pickled plums), uri (all sorts of gourds including cucumbers, pumpkins, and melons) and unagi eel. While umeboshi, melons and cucumbers can be eaten cold, unagi needs to be cooked, which sounds a bit counterintuitive to a light summer meal. So, why unagi?

The story goes that a certain Hiraga Gennai, 18th century pharmacologist, renaissance man and gay icon, particularly recommended eating unagi on doyo-no-ushi-no-hi. However, not because he believed so fervently in the efficacy of the dish, but rather because one of his friends, who had an unagi restaurant, could do with more customers…

And that’s why many Japanese to this day still eat unagi on the hottest day in summer.

Ayu

From the time I was a child, I’ve always liked eating fish. This is interesting, since Austria has no access to the sea, and we chiefly subsist on pork and potatoes. As a child, fish was mainly those deep frozen/fried fish-stick kind of things, and when I was a bit older, we occasionally got fresh trout from a family member who had a fish rearing pond.

So, now that I’m in Japan, one would think that I’d eat a lot of fish. Well, yes I do… kinda. Sadly, I mainly stick to sushi and salmon. To be honest, although the fish and seafood section in my supermarket is huge, I am a bit intimidated – I mean, I have no idea how to cook this properly!

But of course, now I am an adult with lots of curiosity and said supermarket next door plus: enter the internet! I am proud to report tha I have already cooked myself spicy clams with spaghetti, and even though I probably got the wrong kind of clams (it was an Italian recipe) I was very happy with the outcome. My proudest moment, however, was when I tried the ayu.

Ayu, also called sweetfish, are small freshwater fish that are very popular in Japan and other parts of Asia. They are eaten throughout summer and are available at almost any matsuri where they are grilled over an open fire.

So when I saw the fish above, I was intrigued but also a bit worried. As you can see, this is a complete fish, bones and innards and all – do I have to do that cutting that stuff out myself? So I asked one of the staff at the supermarket, an elderly man. First of all, he explained that this was indeed an ayu (there are many kanji for this fish, none of which I can read: 鮎, 年魚, 香魚) and then he said that no, Japanese people eat the whole thing. Really.

After some deliberation, I thought, oh well, let’s try this. Thankfully, not having to cut off any pieces made cooking it very easy – I simply put it on the little fish grill of my gas stove. And because ayu are maybe 20 cm long at most, it took only around 10 minutes until it was done.

Overall verdict: The term “sweetfish” is accurate, the meat was tender and very delicious. I only used a bit of salt to cook it and put some lemon juice on it before eating. Full disclosure, I did not eat the whole fish after all, leaving the spine, head and innards, but it may be something I’m willing to try at a later point, of which there will definitely be many!   

Cafe Breaks

With summer approaching and my apartment still being without aircondition, I will probably be forced out of my home every now and then in the coming months. I am slowly building a list of cafes where I can go and work in dire circumstances because I don’t want to go to the same ones all the time. So far, my favourites are the following:

  • The Cafe in the Ogaki Bookstore on Kitaoji Street. It’s the closest to my home, they have small meals and excellent matcha latte. When I need a break, I can simply walk among the books in the store. Con: No wifi.
  • The Mushiyashinai, a vegan cafe near Ichijoji Station on the Eiden railway to Kurama. While I don’t care much that it’s vegan as such, their soymilk lassi is absolutely addictive. They have nice little cakes to take home too, and as a bonus: the young man working there is very cute… Con: a bit expensive.take-home fruit cake from the Mushiyashinai
  • The Nama Chocolat in Okazaki, run by a friend of mine. Pretty quiet (except for weekends) and located in a lovely old house. Excellent home-made chocolate, a real treat together with matcha. Con: I always end up chatting with my friend rather than working…
  • The Mo-an Cafe on top of Yoshida hill. Rustic and quiet atmosphere, with a nice view over Kyoto. Serves small meals for lunch, not many people (busy in the weekends and during lunch time though). Con: Tricky to access by bicycle. You should leave it somewhere at the foot of the hill.
  • Matsunosuke near the Museum of Kyoto. A bit far from my place but their sweets are worth it. Best pancakes in town. Con: Not really a place to work since it’s quite busy. Pancakes are delicious but take an eternity to make…
  • The Lec Court Cafe in the Kyoto Hotel Okura. Excellent desserts, excellent service in very stylish ambience. Tea is served in large pots to about three cups. Con: Expensive. And they would probably frown upon laptop use – not that they would complain though!
  • The Lipton Tea House on Sanjo Dori. Fluffy cakes to die for (and for takeout), a large selection of tea and wonderful hot chocolate. Refined ambience, friendly staff and reasonable prices. Con: Like in the Okura, it doesn’t feel right to take out a laptop. Bustling with tourists.

These are my favourite cafes in Kyoto when I want to work away from my office, or when I just want a break. There are hundreds more that want to be tried of course. The nice thing about cafes in Japan is their great Austrian approach to it: Order one coffee, and you can stay forever. I prefer not to go on the weekends when these places are usually busy with many customers, but during the week, when there’s nobody else, they are fair game. Who knows, I might be seeing you there!