harusame salad: so light, and yet so dang delicious

think about any pasta salad you have ever had.  did it involve copious amounts of mayo and/or butter?  yeah, that’s what i thought.

as a midwesterner, i am far too familiar with that cloying texture.  the sound of pasta salad squelching as you dig a spoon into it still haunts my nightmares.  i have learned to fear the gradually deepening yellow color of the salad as it becomes warmer and warmer in the intense heat of outdoor barbecue parties.  yes, i begrudgingly enjoy it now and again.  but i can feel my arteries screaming in pain as i masticate every bite.

imagine eating a big fat plate of the southern-style pasta salad i just described as the main course of lunch.  imagine the unending stomach pains that would result.  imagine the huge spike in your blood pressure.  imagine all those veggies, still half-buried in their fields somewhere, calling for the imposter “salad” to be deposed.

luckily, somewhere in a lab deep beneath the earth, japanese scientists and farmers were cooperating to create a new breed of pasta salad implementing an innovative hybrid noodle.  a noodle with texture, a noodle with flavor, a noodle so fresh that veggies would shriek and swoon at the prospect of being mixed in the same bowl (if they could shriek or swoon).

and they called that noodle harusame.

made of mung bean starch, water, and magic, they are the perfect choice for a fresh, filling, and absolutely delicious summer salad.

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autumn in izu: falling in love all over again.

i would apologize for the pun in the title, but i’m not really that sorry.  i like puns.

as summer draws to a close, fall is starting to descend upon us here on the glorious izu peninsula.  the weather is getting a little chillier, the wind is starting to pick up, and nature is beginning to throw yet another astounding seasonal bounty in our direction.

spring in japan in beautiful.  summer in japan is beautiful.  even winter in japan is beautiful.  but fall makes them all pale in comparison.  the color of the mountains, the golden waving fields of plump rice, and the harvest moon all seem to invite even the most lowly foreigner (i.e. me) to get out and see japan in all of its natural glory.

needless to say, i accepted the invitation.  this last weekend, i went out to the bamboo forest, and between drinking and barbecuing and eating tasty treats, we all found the time to wander across some okazawa-san’s land and see what mama nature had to offer.

the highlights?  a whole boatload of chestnuts, a few bulbs of myoga, a hitch-hiking female mantis, and a beautiful lady who (despite being a little hungover from the prior night of partying) saw fit to grace me with her company.  all in all, a superb day.

have any fellow fall lovers caught wind of autumn in other parts of the world?  throw me a story or two in the comment section below whenever you get the chance.

summertime, and the living’s izu.

i’ll admit it, i loved summer break as a kid.  summer meant making nachos everyday in the microwave, playing video games, and frolicking outside until i got so sunburned my skin started to peel.  ah, memories.

but looking back, i never truly appreciated summer for what it was when i was a kid.  it was just a long period of time without school, which made it inherently good.  i could have spent my summers in a junkyard or on the sub-zero front lawn of a gulag and i probably still would have had a blast.

in other words, summer isn’t for the kids.  it is for the teachers.

here’s a quick list (in no particular order) of what i did this summer vacation.

  • hopped on a plane and went to the good old usa
  • saw my family for the first time in six months
  • spent as much time as i could with my best friend/love of my life
  • drank cheap beer
  • enjoyed top-notch missouri humidity
  • ate a truly appalling amount of meat and starch
  • evened out my heinous farmer’s tan
  • played with my cats
  • fired up the smoker

and so, as summer draws to a close here in japan, i figured i would cook a tremendous (see: over-sized, far to big for one human to finish) meal to celebrate all the good times i had.  and here’s what i came up with.

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“itadakimasu.”

don’t worry.  this isn’t a post about the japanese language.  i do my best to avoid writing those because they are, on the whole, excruciatingly boring for anybody who isn’t a devoted student of the japanese language.

this is a post about japan and its attitude towards food.   while it would be so easy to slam you over the head with one anecdote after another in an attempt to illustrate all kinds of taboos and mores, i am of the opinion that a single word might actually accomplish a deeper understanding of the lesson i want to convey.

when translated literally, itadakimasu means something along the lines of “i will partake.”  the phrase is beautifully vague and pretty darn confusing due to the omission of any discernible object which would undertake the verb “partake.”

japanese children say it before they dig into school lunch every day.  eighty year old japanese men say it before chomping down on a beautiful piece of sushi between bottles upon bottles of japanese sake.  itadakimasu is a word which transcends age in a highly ageist society.  it is used without thought in nearly every situation involving food or drink in modern japanese society, regardless of time of day, formality, or company.

when i ask the children i teach why they say itadakimasu and what exactly they are “partaking” in, they almost always give me the same reply: “we are giving our thanks to the nice old ladies that made our lunches from scratch.”  they aren’t wrong.  most people in japan use itadakimasu to mean something along the lines of “thank you for making this beautiful meal, i’m going to dig in now.”  based on such an explanation, the japanese stigma behind wasting food starts to make sense.  it is almost common sense that you should never waste any part of a meal that someone worked hard to prepare just for you.  in other words, it is bad to waste because it is bad to be rude.

they aren’t wrong, but they aren’t quite right, either.  i fell in love with this word when it was explained to me by a weekend farmer and fellow teacher.  when i asked him what exactly he “partakes” in, his answer was simple:

a life.

he explained to me that every living thing in this world has a life, and in order to consume it, we have to end that life.  cooking is, in a way, a manner of manipulating the life force of this world.

he told me that this is the reason why japanese cuisine has valued the integrity of its ingredients for so long.  traditional japanese cuisine augments its ingredients, it doesn’t cover them.  some japanese people joke that the only spices they use are soy sauce, mirin, japanese sake, dried fish, and hot water.  and most of them, especially the elderly folks, know that there is more than an element of truth to such a joke.

when he explained all this to me, the real reason for the japanese stigma behind wasting food made sense to me all of the sudden.  it isn’t a waste to end the life of a living thing, make it into food, and then not consume that food.  it is a tragedy.  by cooking, we shape the life force we harvest from nature, and by eating, we give the action meaning.

if you have read this whole long-winded post so far, i have a quick favor to ask of you.  i’m not some weirdo who is going to demand that you start saying itadakimasu before every meal.  i’m not going to force you go out and become a vegan.  i won’t even tell you you should try to eat more japanese food.

all i ask is that every time you buy groceries, cook a meal, or eat at a restaurant, take a split-second to appreciate each and every one of the myriad ingredients.  because they are giving their beautiful lives to you in an effort to help you appreciate the beauty of yours.

italian club: rescued from the pmk archives.

i have been told that some people feel something called “nostalgia” when they look through old photos they have saved on their hard drive.  i think if i had photos of places and people and events, i might know what that feels like.  instead, i have photos of delicious, delicious food.  and then only thing i end up feeling is the saliva running down my chinny chin chin.

here’s a gem i rescued from the depths of my sd card.

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crostini: the toast with the most

bread.  let’s all be honest with ourselves, it’s just downright amazing.

just to quickly clear up any misinterpretations, when i say the word “bread,” i mean magical foods like challah, french bread, italian bread, pumpernickel, rye bread, pita, and even our unleavened friend matzah.  what i don’t mean is the nasty highly processed white bread that sticks to the roof of your mouth when you make a sandwich out of it.  are we all on the same page?  ok, let’s continue.

the invention of bread gave humanity all kinds of stuff.  it gave us sandwiches (arguably one of mankind’s most versatile and transportable foods), croutons, bread bowls, french onion soup, and a boat load of other things which make my life wonderful.  some historians even think bread was the innovation that inspired beer (although other historians believe exactly the opposite, namely that beer, as one of the oldest beverages known to man, was the inspiration for bread).

but let’s address the elephant in the room.

toast.  if toast was a liquid, i would bathe in it.  if it weren’t so darn crispy and scratchy, i would probably try to make an overcoat or some cool article of clothing out of it.  maybe a hat.  yes, i like toast that much.

roughly torn chunks of french bread, once toasted to perfection, accentuate the majesty of the already incredible fried egg.  toasted pumpernickel bread, raw garlic, and pickles have been the backbone of the russian diet for well over 100 years.  what would french onion soup be without a disk of toast slathered in cheese?  it would be run of the mill onion soup, that’s what.  i could go on, but i won’t, because i want to talk about the crostini.

the sweet, sweet crostini.

picture a super thin disk of toast.  then picture a smattering of two or three high quality delicious ingredients delicately nestled atop the aforementioned toast disk.  sound simple?  that is because it is.  but as our good friend lord polonius said, “brevity is the soul of wit.”

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love is a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie.

guess what?  i don’t like sweet foods.  sure, that might make me a curmudgeon.  yeah, you might be able to accuse of having lost touch with my inner child.  but in all honesty, right from the get-go, sweet was always one of my least favorite flavors.  i know lots of people are probably chomping at the bit, ready to lace into me for being such a cynic, but hold your horses and let me explain myself for a moment.

in my experience, the vast majority of sweet foods being produced en masse are highly processed.  sweet is one of those flavors that reminds us of “home,” and even if we didn’t have a mommy or a grandma who baked fresh goodies all the time, we like to imagine that we did when we bite into a tollhouse cookie or a little debbie snack.  commercials and marketing do their best to convince us that a tremendous room full of smiling grannies or joyous frolicking elves produce our snacks.  which of course could not be farther from the truth.

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