Sunday, October 30, 2016

Nakau (なか卯)

I'm definitely not fluent in Japanese, especially when it comes to the written word. Therefore I amused my relatives by exclaiming excitedly when I actually could read a sign on my trip to Japan. To put this in perspective: imagine if your crazy cousin from another country came to visit you, and every single time you drove past a Little Cesar's, they joyfully bellowed "Pizza!" like they discovered the promised land.

I'm brilliant if I do say so myself.

It doesn't help that my Japanese reading comprehension is all limited to food. I can instantly recognize the characters for donburi (丼), ramen (ラーメン), udon (うどん), curry (カレー)... and not much else without some careful thought.

So I was especially excited to try Nakau (なか卯) as their sign boasted not one, but two words I knew by heart: gyudon and udon. Nakau is a fast food restaurant in Japan famous for their cheap eats with over 400 location. Or perhaps fast casual, not fast food? It's hard to tell in Japan. Anyways, it's very popular with Japanese looking to get a cheap fast meal and I wanted to experience what the quality and price of such a typical chain was.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Pumpkin Granola Cookies

Growing up in Southern California, Autumn does not herald itself in the same way as most people associate with the season.

Here, Fall isn't about the changing colors of the leaves (palm trees don't do that, sorry), nor the cool crisp morning fog that rolls in and begs you to turn on the kettle for a cup of tea (yeah no seriously, I wear flip flops year round). Hey, at least now we kind of have football with the return of the Rams.

Fall for me, and for a lot of Southern California natives, is when the Santa Ana winds start howling. For those unfamiliar with these winds, they even have their own Wikipedia page (and accompanying page on their mention in the popular arts). Also know as "devil winds," these winds are super hot and super strong, and account for how our wildfires get so out of control.

So when the ground bakes and cracks, when the air itself crackles with electricity, and the wind seems to go after you with a personal vengeance, that's when I know that Autumn is upon us.

I'll admit that Southern Californians are a little bit twisted, positively quivering to glug down Pumpkin Spice Lattes and don some scarves when the weather is trying to kill them and it's just as hot as ever. We seem to decide when the seasons change based on what the stores are selling.

So when the first Santa Ana winds of the season started, I immediately decided it was time to start decorating for Halloween and bust out the fall recipes that I've been saving all year.

Too bad I'm just not a fan of Starbucks' PSL.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Adventures in Japan: Hiroshima and Miyajima!

The places in Hiroshima we visited weren't exactly fun, but they were important.

They really made me wonder what would have happened if Japan hadn't tried to expand their power into the mainland and fought in WWII. Would I be fluent in Japanese? Would I have known my relatives in Japan better? Would I even exist? All the fear and hatred of the Japanese here in America: would my grandmother have known a life without that constantly over her shoulder?

And I know that going to such a museum and thinking about how everything affected you and your loved ones is probably the height of arrogance, but that's how I felt. I also felt numb at how pointless it all was, the wars, the bombs--every time someone picks up a gun in the name of their country. A city devastated, thousands killed, nothing gained, and ultimately everyone loses. And we as a species do it over and over again. I think that what depressed me the most is that I couldn't think of a good way out of this spiral of hatred. It's been over 70 years and we are still killing each other.

A beautiful but sad sight: millions of paper cranes
We visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, also known as the A-bomb Dome (shown above), the only building left standing in the atomic bomb's hypocenter, and visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Inside the museum, we saw many artifacts from the blast as well as details of their survival following radiation exposure. What stuck me most was the Peace Watch, which resets itself every time a nuclear test is performed around the world. It struck me how fragile peace truly was, with so many countries not only capable of leveling an entire city with a single missile, but actively testing the technology.

After a sobering day of memorials and millions of paper cranes, we went to Miyajima island and I have to say it was probably the prettiest part of the entire trip. The cherry blossoms were at their peak and it was mind boggling. The petals really do cascade like snow falling when the wind blows, and I danced around in them without shame.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Hiroshima-Style Okonomiyaki (広島風お好み焼き)

If you walk into an okonomiyaki joint in Hiroshima and ask for Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, you might get a funny look. To them, this is simply okonomiyaki and others just have it all wrong.

Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki starts with wheat flour and water, mixed to a thin batter that is cooked over a grill. Shredded cabbage is piled on top as it is halfway through cooking, along with whatever toppings you would like. Yakisoba noodles are put on top, followed by a fried egg.

This entire tower of savory goodness is topped with sauces and served piping hot.

Check out the layers!
What the difference between Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki and the rest of Japan? The more popular style of okonomiyaki mixes the cabbage and eggs directly into the batter rather than stacking them for a thicker okonomiyaki with almost a custardy inside, and most importantly it lacks the noodles.

Okonomiyaki is a Japanese dish that lots of people have tried describing it by attempting to liken it to pizza, but it's nothing like pizza! I liken it more to a Japanese savory cabbage pancake, but it's a little hard to describe even in these respects.
Okonomiyaki, in my opinion, is one of the most accessible foods to those who might be picky or apprehensive about Japanese cuisine. It's a shame that there's a huge lack of okonomiyaki shops in America because everyone who try it seems to love okonomiyaki. I myself actually dislike cabbage, but love this dish. Also in its favor is its nature of customization: okonomiyaki's name itself means "grilled as you like it," and you can add whatever you like to it: squid, seafood, bean sprouts, or anything else that strikes your fancy. For instance, Mr. Mochi loves pork belly and only wants a hint of mayo. No problem! Customization is key.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Ekiben and Japanese Train Stations

Southern California does not have the best public transportation, especially where I live in the suburbs of Orange County. When I lived with my parents, we didn't even have street lights or sidewalks, let alone a train or subway system.

Japan, on the other hand, has amazing public transportation. I can see why so many Japanese don't have cars. It's like New York City, it's almost a bother to have a car. The shinkasen, or bullet train, was possibly the coolest form of transportation I've taken in quite a while. The only train that I had ever taken prior to this trip to Japan was the train at Disneyland (no, stop laughing, I'm not joking).

The shinkasen reached top speeds of 200mph but was so smooth and quiet I fell asleep on it quite a few times. I was worried about getting motion sickness as I'm prone to it in cars and I was still a bit jet-lagged when I stepped on my first shinkasen to head to Hiroshima, but it was so butter smooth I was able to read without any headache.

We were all very excited to try ekiben (駅弁) as well. We had heard of the delicious train bentos sold at the train stations that showcased local cuisine, and I made sure to take tons of pictures.

I apparently missed the golden age of ekiben, which occurred in the 1980s. Back then, the trains were slower and plane rides were so expensive, a lot of people traveled by train. And since the trains were slower, more people relied on ekiben as a meal while traveling. Now, with the shinkasen reaching top speeds of 150-200mph, you might not get to finish that meal! Despite this, ekiben are still a thriving aspect of most train stations in Japan and I made a point to snap some pictures to share with you.