Thursday, August 25, 2016

Adventures in Japan: Yawatahama!

Do me a favor and google some travel blogs for visits to Yawatahama. Okay, how about Shikoku in general? Not finding a plethora of pictures?

Not a lot of westerners make it to Shikoku island at all, let alone Yawatahama, but that is where we went next on our adventure through Japan. Our wonderful relatives drove us all the way from Fukuoka to Beppu, where we caught a ferry to Yawatahama to see our ancestral home and our family's grave site.

Shikoku is the smallest and least populous of the four main islands of Japan, and the JR railway express only has one rail line on the entire island that runs along the perimeter, to give you some scope of how rural it is compared to the massive Tokyo metropolis. Shikoku is famous for its Shikoku Henro, a Buddhist pilgrimage that goes along 88 shrines around the four provinces of Shikoku.

Of course, there's no pilgrimage stop in Yawatahama. Yawatahama is a port city, with the largest fish market in Shikoku with a natural harbor. The main agricultural export is the mikan, or the satsuma mandarin. This reminded me a lot of my home here in Orange County, California as I grew up playing in an orange orchard.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Yawatahama Champon (八幡浜 ちゃんぽん)

It was really hard to decide what to make for Yawatahama. I wanted to bring you something not just uniquely from Shikoku in origin, but Yawatahama itself. However, I was a bit stumped. A lot of what makes Shikoku cuisine unique is the island itself. For instance, the most famous local food of Shikoku is sanuki udon because the island has the best wheat production in Japan. However, that dish hails from Kagawa prefecture, not Ehime prefecture where Yawatahama is located.

Citrus is a huge part of Ehime's agriculture, however I don't have access to the more unique citrus that Japan has. I could do a citrus recipe, even though it's summer and citrus is at its peak in winter, and call it good. But there's not a lot of recipes for citrus that are unique to Ehime because the citrus is normally just eaten simply and the fruit is savored in its original form, and I've already blogged about that. I'd basically be slapping together a marmalade and making a flimsy connection to Yawatahama, something I didn't want to do. I could do a recipe of a nearby city, like Imabari or Uwajima, instead of Yawatahama. I found some awesome regional foods when I researched, however they still weren't strictly from Yawatahama.

I guess I stressed over this so much because I felt so connected to Yawatahama when I visited. My family is buried there. My family lived and died, and continues to live, there. Our creaky old ancestral house stands firmly on its soil. A tiny portion of my soul, my very essence, I think was left on that hilltop surrounded by graves and citrus and the smell of the ocean. A bigger portion was left in that house where I shared tea and smiles with family. It's only natural I wanted to share some of Yawatahama's soul with you.

I'm not normally this cheesy, but truly it was a special experience.

So really, the choice was made for me. If I was going to share a bit of Yawatahama's soul, I was going to have to get serious about creating a dish I've never actually eaten: Yawatahama-style Champon.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Amalfi (アマルフィ)

Before paying our respects at our family grave site and visiting the local temple in Yawatahama, my relatives in Japan took my brother, mother, and I to an Italian restaurant in the heart of Yawatahama called Amalfi. I wanted to share this experience with you as our meal showcased not only the Japanese's twist on Italian food, but also some of the local ingredients of Shikoku. Their attention to detail and ability to express a lot of flavor in small portion sizes were two things I was very impressed with.

Despite it being the lunch hour, our meal was a multi-course extravaganza. I think a lot of restaurants back in the states could learn a thing or two about portion control from places in Japan like Amalfi. This was a five course meal that managed to stay light!

We started out with an amuse-bouche of a warm potato cream soup with a thin savory crisp skewered on top with a side of a house parmesan cream cheese. The potato soup was pleasantly creamy and without any sort of graininess that sometimes happens with potato soup. I was impressed with how they managed to serve it piping hot as I've had amuse-bouches arrive lukewarm by the time they are done plating, and all of ours arrived at once. There was not a large staff by any means, so that meant they worked like lightning!

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Tomato Miso Soup (丸ごとトマトの味噌汁)

I bring you a break from my Japan adventures to make sure you have a chance to make this soup while tomatoes are in season!

Before we get to the recipe, I wanted to share a funny tidbit about food blogging in general that I really think applies to this recipe. I'm no bullshit. I really don't have the time or energy to pretend life is perfect. I've written about how disastrous I am in the kitchen, and just last week shared how I can't even eat spaghetti or salad without ruining a blouse.

As I've said before, this is isn't one of the more ambitious food blogs, but I'd like to think it's one of the real ones.

I wear an apron not for the fetishized Stepford wife effect, but because I'm really just fucking messy.

So when I set about making this recipe, I was able to make it with my mother's huge bumper crop of heirloom tomatoes. The problem with most heirloom varieties is they are very photo-ready. They tend to crack, have splotchy color, and seem to never be a uniform shape. Not exactly blog-worthy visually, but definitely delicious! But food blogging is about pretty photos. Really, no one cares about what I write up here; we eat with our eyes first. There's a reason Pinterest is popular: we are visual creatures. You can't take my word for it that the ugliest tomato ever is actually delicious. It's gotta look the part.

Some of the wonderful crazy colors!
Therefore I was faced with a choice: make the recipe with grocery store Stepford wife tomatoes, or not-so-pretty heirloom tomatoes? I could even make it with the perfect umblemished grocery store ones for just the photos, then eat the ones from the garden. But that just seemed to venture too far away from my style.

Instead I hosted a casting call of all the ripe heirloom tomatoes from my mother's garden and chose the prettiest ones for my photos! Is it perfectly round? Nope, but it tasted perfect. You'll just have to take my word on it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Adventures in Japan: Fukuoka!

After taking a long plane flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo, we took a teeny plane from Narita, Tokyo to Fukuoka, Kyushu where most of my relatives call home.

Fukuoka is the capital of Fukuoka prefecture, and it's one of the biggest cities in Japan. What I liked the best about Fukuoka is even though it's the 6th most populous city in Japan, it has a lot of open spaces, greenery, and little shrines even in the heart of it.

We were led through Fukuoka at a blazing pace by my relatives. Coming from Orange County, which has virtually no public transportation, we were amazed when we took a plane, private car, taxi, ferry boat, bus, train, and subway all within a 24 hour period. Not only was I jet-lagged, I was overwhelmed.

Fukuoka had two of my favorite shrines. I fell in love because they weren't tourist attractions, like I would experience later in Tokyo and Kyoto, crowded with people of all walks of life.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Kansansoubekkan (観山荘別館)

Our most memorable meal of Fukuoka (and perhaps the enitre trip) was at Kansansoubekkan (観山荘別館), a kaiseki restaurant.

Let us be clear: I am not a kaiseki person and neither is my mother. I'm a fan of donburi, ramen, and mochi. I am solidly a B-class gourmand. My mother is the type of person that got bored in France because every meal took so long.

So kaiseki was a leap for us. For those uninitiated in what kaiseki is: Kaiseki is a multi-course meal that really takes food to an art form.

Only seasonal ingredients, cooked fresh, are used, prepared and plated in a way to highlight not only the taste but the visual appeal of the dish.

We were served 12 different dishes over several hours in a gargantuan private room with just us in it and a view of their beautiful garden. It was a crazy ride, and something I am so glad I was able to experience!

We were sat in a traditional style room, without chairs, but there were several larger parties that elected to sit in a more western banquet style. We took a tour of the garden and took pictures in it, which I don't think most people were allowed to do, because we certainly messed up the pretty gravel designs by walking on it.