Category Archives: Cooking

Cooking with Taro

I had read about Taro’s cooking classes in Fodor’s Easy Guide to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Western Honshu.  These easy guides condense monumental travel planning into one succinct guide.  I had found the Australia version immensely helpful.  For them to include this cooking class said a lot; the guide said it was the highlight of many visitors’ trips.  It was certainly one of mine, if not the only one.

Taro had made it clear in our email communications that he is not a professional chef, but a passionate home cook who loves to share Japanese cooking and culture. He told us a bit about his background.

“My father’s company relocated us to America when I was nine,” he said.  “He could have moved us to Seattle or some other place with lots of Japanese, but he purposely chose Virginia where I was the only Japanese in a school of a thousand kids, so I learned English quickly.  It was a good idea of his.”

He asked about our impressions of Japan so far, and I mentioned how quite it is.  It was Taro who explained this was about harmony and getting along with others.

“So…” I asked, “How do you explain World War II?”

“Ah … that was, that was about colonialism,” Taro said as he got us chopping.  “Japan saw Britain and America invading other countries and didn’t want to face the same fate.”

I have no idea if that’s accurate.

He encouraged us to ask him anything we liked about Japanese culture or food.  Taro had started cooking in high school because he was a picky eater and wanted to control his own food.  This morphed into cooking for his family and friends, and now he eats almost anything.

I told him about the chicken chops.  He explained that chicken is raised so cleanly in Japan that there’s no need to cook it thoroughly, and in fact raw-ish chicken is considered a delicacy.  Hmm.

He gave us a hand out and an overview of our 3-4-hour lesson.  We would learn how to combine kombu (seaweed) and bonito (fish flakes) to make dashi, a base used to many dishes.  We would also make a Japanese omelet, stir-fried root vegetables, and wagu beef.

I told him about my misperception that Japanese eat sushi morning, noon, and night.  He said he makes sushi for his family about once a month.  “It’s just one style of Japanese food.”

Taro walked us through the various seasonings like miso, soy sauce, sake, mirin, and of course, dashi. He pulled out the beef and its certificate of authenticity.  He talked at length about Kobe Beef and Wagu beef, none of which I remember.

He got Lynn up and cooking at the stove.

Taro’s wife and two young daughters came home.  As kids do, the girls immediately turned on cartoons and sat glued to the TV.

Taro had been teaching cooking for 10 years. He had also tried distributing an oil bottle that had a built-in brush in its cap; it sounded like there were 10,000 left over in his spare room.

“I want to focus more on teaching culture,” he said.  “That’s my next venture.”  It seemed to Lynn and me that cooking was an excellent gateway to teaching about culture.  “It’s hard to imagine people paying the same price but not getting a meal,” Lynn commented later.  I agreed but wish him well.

This was our meal.

Taro left us to eat while he and his wife busied themselves elsewhere in the house.  Then he emerged to collect our fee.  When I had inquired about the class I had said we would be open to either the vegetarian or beef version.  He chose the beef version for us, which cost $82 vs. $64 for the veggie option.  It was well worth it.

Taro gave us good directions back to the bus stop.  It was pouring and the bus was packed.  Lynn and I clung to the straps.  Sitting below me, a little boy in a Spiderman costume kept saying, “Hah-loh!” to us shyly, as he leaned against his grandma.

That evening we had a modest tempura ramen and sake, then slept well because our neighbors had moved on.

Chicken Chopped!

As we waited for the bus, Lynn and I recalled the noisy neighbors and laughed over our meal experience the evening before.

“Maybe the chicken was an omen about the Chinese,” she said.

We had walked up and down the main drag near our hotel seeking a good restaurant, then any restaurant.

I had arrived in Japan anticipating I’d be able to eat sushi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  I was aware there were other Japanese foods, like tempura and ramen, but that was about it.  I thought all Japanese food was healthy, lean, and fresh.

Every guide will recommend eating kaiseki in Kyoto.  Kaiseki is a type of Japanese haute cuisine that features local, in-season foods.  We never had it because it was too expensive. On the evening in question, we found a basement-level kaiseki restaurant despite its best efforts to hide, but the set meals started at around $70 per person.

“The guides said to eat kaiseki at lunch, when it’s a lot cheaper,” I said as I read the board.  But the lunches on offer here started at $50 per person.  “I’m sure it’s wonderful, but fifty bucks for lunch?”

“And we have to make a reservation,” Lynn read.  “We only have two days left.”

“What if it turned out to be 50 bucks worth of that grey, shredded-tire-like stuff?”

We walked on.  There was an Irish pub and an Italian pizza joint.  Several Japanese places were already closed.  The only Japanese-style restaurant open was a steak place.

“I hadn’t expected the beef here to be so fatty,” Lynn said.  “It makes sense; fatty beef is more tender. But it really is different from British beef.”

“I’m starving.  Okay with you if we just eat at the pizza place?  At least it’ll be familiar and we can order fast.”

We sat at the bar.  Lynn had no trouble ordering but I don’t eat pork, and most of the menu items involved pork.

“I’ll have this,” I told the waiter, jabbing my finger at the “personal pizza with chicken chops.”

“What are chicken chops?” Lynn tried to suppress her laughter.

“I don’t know!” I chuckled.  “For some reason it sounds hilarious, and more ominous than something specific, like chicken feet, or chicken beaks.”

Whatever they were, they were raw.  I looked down at a pizza covered in chicken meat oozing with blood.

“How ghastly!  That can’t be right!” Lynn exclaimed.

With Lynn’s help I managed to flag down the waiter and ask him to cook the chicken more.  He looked at me, puzzled, but took my plate and returned it with the chicken still pink but not bloody.

“I can’t eat this,” I said, “I feel bad because I like to think of myself as an adventurous eater.”

“Well there’s adventurous, and there’s salmonella,” said Lynn.

I removed the chicken chops and tried to eat the pizza, but just the thought of chicken blood oozing into the crust made me gag.

However, for the rest of our lives, whenever Lynn or I want to crack each other up, all we have to say is chicken chops.   It’ll be one of those little inside jokes no one else gets.

We arrived at the bus stop where we were to meet our cooking teacher almost an hour early.  There was nothing around but a little tea shop set in a lovely, wild garden, so we stepped in for another tea break.  We were the only customers and the elderly proprieter talked to us a while about the garden that he and his wife had spent a lifetime developing.  It was serene.

Back at the bus stop, a young man approached and stuck out his hand to introduce himself. We had corresponded over email. “I am Taro,” he said.  Then he spun around and walked briskly through alleys and streets, turning so many times we would have never found our way back to the bus stop if we lost him.

“Here we are,” he said as he invited us into his house.  His was the only Japanese house I would see the inside of.

We washed our hands and then sat at a table, ready to learn and be put to work.

Runny, Slimy Things

The Mielparque Hotel had a breakfast buffet with Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and western-style foods.

Alongside various forms of tofu, pickled vegetables, and fish, there were runny scrambled eggs, British favourites like fried tomatoes and baked beans; and spaghetti—something I saw on breakfast buffets in Australia.

I loaded up and felt like I was in heaven.  This was my first Japanese meal and looking back, it’s pretty sad compared with many that followed.

One of the joys of Japanese eating is that a meal may include 12 small dishes, all served in beautiful porcelain or lacquered wood bowls or plates, on a wooden tray.  So the serving ware above is not typical.

But the squash soup was to die for.  So rich!  I never tasted its equivalent again.

Miso was served with every meal I had all month.  Rice was standard unless it was a noodle meal. Pickled plums (lower right) are sweet, sour, and salty all at once and absolutely sensational. Smoked salmon was central to breakfast. One standard breakfast thing not shown above was the sheets of nori (dried seaweed) in a plastic wrapper.  Several times in the days to come, waiters would point it out on my breakfast tray and explain that I should unwrap it and soak it in soy sauce before eating it with rice.  You can imagine how many tourists must have tried to eat the wrapper, or dry.  Kind of like people trying to eat the corn husks in which tamales come wrapped.

Another item not shown above is the aduki, or adzuki, beans.  On the buffet, they came in a little paper cup with a cellophane lid.  I was intrigued.  At my table, I peeled back the lid to reveal strings of slime.  I tried a few, gagged, and set them to one side.

The Mielparque was one of only two places I stayed that made coffee available.  Typically, only green tea was provided in accommodations.  I would be grateful I had brought a small jar of instant coffee and a box of creamer cups in my suitcase.

Most meals in Japan start with the cleaning of one’s hands at the table.  This might be as lovely as being handed a warmed, jasmine-scented white wash cloth artfully rolled up and presented on a small tray, but usually it involved a wet wipe in a plastic wrap.

I had used the wipe and it had been whisked away by a waiter.  My nose started to run.  It unhelpfully does this when I eat something spicy.  I searched for a paper napkin but there were none.  Could I get away with rubbing my nose with the back of my hand?  I was the only westerner in the dining room and I had chosen a seat facing the center of the room so I could people watch.  This meant they all faced me. Would my fellow diners be disgusted if I wiped?

Over and over, I had read that Japanese expected westerners to get their etiquette wrong.

I wiped, trying to act nonchalant.  No one looked in my direction, but somehow I felt they all saw what I did and condemned all Americans for being nose wipers.  But hey—there were toothpicks on the table.  Was it acceptable to pick my teeth—if not my nose—at the table?

The dining room was silent except for a small boy playing with his Anpanman action toy.  This was my introduction to how quiet Japan is.  No one in the dining room—or anywhere, ever—was blabbing loudly on his phone.  I never heard a text alert tone or cell phone ring. I never heard a jack hammer, although there must have been construction going on.  I only heard one power tool in the many gardens I visited, and the user switched it off as soon as he saw me coming.  I heard only a handful of sirens or cars honking.

This all goes to the Japanese value of harmony of the group, which Lynn and I would learn more about when we took a cooking class in Kyoto from a guy who had lived in the US.

I forgot to ask him about nose wiping.

Cookies and Contracts and Chasms … and Poop

Winter Solstice, in real time.  The cookie baking party was a success, if you measure success by the amount of cookie dough and sprinkles and silver balls ground into the carpet.

One child took it all very seriously and worked steadily, ignoring all the others’ silliness, to meet some quota she had set for herself.  The rest of them were very silly.

None of them are destined to compete on the Great British Baking show, but that wasn’t the point.

And there was poop.  In the middle of the chaos the three-year-old exclaimed proudly from the bathroom, “I pooped!”  That did not mean she had done it in the toilet.

I hadn’t cleaned up human poop for a long time.  It’s really, really gross.

Later, the three-year-old exclaimed from the kitchen, in a distressed tone, “There’s poop!”  In an act of karmic justice, the cat had crapped on her coat, which she’d thrown on the floor instead of on the bed as the other, older, children had done per my instructions.  Someone had closed the door to the closet where the litter box was placed, also in contradiction to my instructions.

Then everybody was pooped out. The children cuddled up on the couch and read books, and the naughty poopers fell asleep.

My son’s step daughters stayed overnight.  The next day, we went for a long walk in the woods and across Beaver Lake.

That night, without cleaning up at all, I collapsed onto the new mattress that had arrived in the middle of all this and I slept through the night for the first time in years.

Still in real time.  Yesterday was my last day at my job.  It happened to coincide with a planned team retreat to a puzzle room.  Now, I can’t stand board games or “brain teasers” or Sudoku.  I am a crossword aficionado, but I was very leery about a puzzle room.

Well it was a lot of fun.  Ten of my coworkers and I entered a room and worked to solve a mystery by the end of one hour.  If it had been just me, I would still be in the room.  But we all contributed something, even me.  Then we went for drinks at a nearby pub, and that was my last day at work.

I also finished the day with a signed agreement for six months of contract work at this same organization, and an offer letter for a part-time job at my local YMCA.

It’s been dreary and cold for months.  As I write this, it’s the shortest day of the year and I am dreaming of winter travel but not getting anything done about it.

Day 8 in Australia: The West MacDonnell Ranges.

A new tour bus pulled up in front of our motel, a nice comfy one.  Lachlan introduced himself as our guide and we were off.  We were a group of about a dozen, including a family with four children, one of whom was disabled and used a wheelchair.  I give them a lot of credit for getting out there and seeing the world when it clearly took a lot of extra effort.

Lachlan was passionate about the area, so while there were only four or five stops on the official tour, he kept saying, “We’re going to stop here; it’s not on the tour but it’s one of my favorite views.” And it would be worth it.

There was a couple sitting in front of us and the wife was a loud talker.  She started every sentence with the standard Australian “Awww,” but much louder and more nasally drawn out than normal.  I could see through the seats, her husband gazing at her adoringly.

Heidi and I looked at each other silently cracked up.  It would have been annoying if we were on a five-hour drive but we were stopping every half hour.

I will never remember all the stops but I will never forget Standley Chasm.  We walked through a glade to said chasm and back, and Heidi and I agreed there was something about the place … we both felt a sensation of peacefulness descend on us.

Aussie Rules

The bunkhouse was the best place we could have stayed because it motivated us to get out and explore.

“Let’s get a beer,” I suggested, and we wandered until we found a large open-sided, tin-roofed beer hall from whence a lot of whooping was emanating.  I stopped to read the alcohol limits.

A six pack of beer and a bottle of wine, or two bottles of wine?  I would be flat out on the floor before I ever reached those limits.  There were multiple bartenders and the place was crowded and rowdy.  How could they track who-had-how-much?

“I wonder why you have to show your room key?” I asked the guy next to me at the bar as I looked it over.  “It doesn’t have a tracking chip in it to count drinks or anything.”

“It’s for the aboriginals,” he said.  “To keep them coming in here and getting pissed.  I have no idea if this was true or not.  I do believe I finally found my sport that day: Australia Rules Football. That was the draw today—the AFL Championship game between the West Coast Eagles, based in Perth, and Collingwood, based in Melbourne.

I didn’t know what was going on, just that very fit men in what look like wrestling uniforms were running around a round field and kicking, throwing, and bouncing an American-football-like ball and tackling each other.  The clock never stopped.

The men in the crowd weren’t bad either, if you like tall, rugged men with tattoos.

Heidi was ecstatic.  She’s a sporty person and she explained the game as we stood in the crowd and watched.  “Collingwood is Dean’s team,” she said, as she texted him a message of support.  Our friend Dean, who we would stay with in Melbourne in a few weeks.

Alas, Dean was destined for heartbreak this day, as the Eagles prevailed over Collingwood in what everyone seemed to agree was a great game.  I enjoyed it, to be sure, but I just have no patience for sports.  When people start talking about plays and stats and lineups my eyes go dim.

At the end the crowd became subdued.  The men in the background, behind Heidi below, were dejected at Collingwood’s loss.  More than one man and boy passed me on his way out with tears in his eyes.  The winners were also subdued—I didn’t notice any fist pumping or victorious howling.  Very civilized.

We walked to the “Town Hall” area, which had an IGA (a grocery), a few restaurants, and some stores that sold souvenirs and outdoor gear.

“I’d better get my souvenirs here, since we’ll be camping the rest of the time,” I said to Heidi as I stuffed my shopping basket with aboriginal-art-themed notepads, wacky Australian animal stickers, and a tea towel with kangaroos on it.

“Oh yes,” Heidi replied drily, “This will probably be your only chance to buy souvenirs.”

I bought a hat with a built-in fly net, a decision that would save me from bug-induced insanity while hiking.

We took a spin through the IGA and as is my habit when traveling I documented another culture through foods and household goods.  I was not disappointed; there were lots of items with Australian themes.

I’m not sure “furry” is an adjective I want applied to candy, but they sure were cute.

The one box of Emu oil moisturizer looked like it had been there for a decade and had been stepped on by a big dusty boot.

This soap was made in “Country” Australia.  Country means rural.

I wanted to buy some Strong and Bitey cheese, especially Bega brand, but we had no refrigeration in the bunk house.

There were lots of Asian imports, like this ramen spaghetti with roasted black bean sauce from Korea.

Adorable diapers with koalas.

Infant wind drops “provide relief from infant wind.”  What a relief.

As I would learn, Jatz are the national crackers and people had strong opinions about them.

Lamingtons, which are rectangles of day-old chocolate cake with chocolate frosting sprinkled with coconut, are the national—and delicious—cake.

Various mites.  And no, I never did have a vegemite sandwich.

Over the Hills

One of my proposals was due in two days and things had gone seriously off piste. It may be that, because we are essentially a mental health organization, we have a way of working that is consultative in the extreme.  When people edit drafts of proposals they never comment, “This number should be 50.”  Instead they write, “I sort of think this number could be 50, but what does everyone else think?”  And then everyone piles on and adds comments until all the edits look like the Babylonian Talmud.

I often suggest that people jump on Skype and talk to each other and make decisions, but with time differences and poor internet and … well … Skype—the program we love to hate—that’s challenging.

A colleague had offered to incorporate everyone’s comments into the proposal.  I just had to give it a once-over to cut down the length and make sure it was clear and responded to the donor’s intent and requirements.  I was free to go with Lynn on an excursion the next day.

The next day.  An email from my colleague to the whole group, “I’m sick and there’s no way I can do these edits. I’m sorry!  I’m signing off now.”

Shit.  It was on me now.

“Will there be internet at the venue?” I asked Lynn.  She didn’t know; Richard Googled it and the website didn’t say anything about internet.

“But it’s an event venue,” Lynn reasoned.  “It has to have internet.”

“Agreed.  It has to have internet.”

Lynn is on the board of Grampian Women’s Aid, one member of a consortium of Scottish domestic abuse organizations.  The event was a celebration marking their 40 years of providing refuge for survivors and advocating for stronger laws to protect women and children.

It took us an hour to get to there.  Richard had hand-drawn a map for us; I held it and nervously called out the turns.  “Left before this bridge!”  “Right after the abandoned pub!”  We only got slightly lost once, which is amazing for Lynn and me.  Why didn’t we use a GPS?  I don’t recall, but we passed through one of the most wild, empty areas of Scotland.  An old-school GPS wouldn’t have known about the washed-out bridge; a smart phone-based app needs 3G, which was iffy in some areas.

I’m looking at a map of Aberdenshire now, trying to figure out where we were. I love the names but none of them sound familiar: Haugh of Glass.  Glenkindie Towie. Bellabeg Strathdon. Longmorn Fogwatt. We may have been in Cairngorns National Park.  I don’t know.

We passed this creepy gate.  I hope it was a joke.

I can’t recall the name of the venue, but it was lovely.  We met some of the other board members in the café to have lunch before the event, which was redundant because there was so much great food at the event.  More great food!  Here is my lunch.  A fresh fish fest!  I forgot all about my proposal.

But after lunch reality hit and while Lynn and her fellow volunteers were setting up, I tried to get an internet connection.  This was complicated by the fact that my laptop battery has been dead for five years so it has to be plugged in.  I walked around with it and finally got an off-on connection and an electric outlet in a back room.

People think everybody, everywhere, is online.  Well everybody isn’t, and doesn’t.  People in Ethiopia.  People in rural Scotland.  People in Nebraska.  Poor people.  Elderly people.  Me.

But I managed to just focus’til I got ‘er done then got enough of a connection to send it off.

The event was very moving.  About 100 women and men were in attendance, including one of the local lords and a woman politician.  This is artwork by children in refuge.

The most memorable speaker was a woman who had been involved from the start.

The food was fantastic and provided gratis by the caterer.

I felt grateful.  A former battered woman myself, I was now eating strawberry and cream tarts in Scotland to celebrate 40 years of aid to battered women.  There is so much good work being done in this world by so many.

Went to a Garden Party

Lynn was finding it challenging to communicate with the caterer for the summer party.

“I’d like a paella, like you made at the farmers’ market, and some tapas,” she told him when he came round to discuss the order.

“Si, si, si,” he had responded as he took notes, “And a cured ham.  I just brought one back from eh-spahnya.  Enough to feed 60 people.”

Lynn hadn’t requested a cured ham and really didn’t want a cured ham—especially since it would add £200 to the bill.

“I’ve invited 80 people, but half of them won’t show up, and there are so many vegetarians, and vegans, and you—who don’t eat pork,” she related to me later.

“Did you actually tell him no?” I asked.

“Yes. I think so.  He’s a nice fellow. I think it’s just a language barrier.  I’ll try telling him again, in writing.”

The week flew by, me busy writing about torture, with the attic makeover project, and in helping prepare for the party where possible.  I had found four boxes of children’s party toys, prizes, and art supplies in the attic so brought those down and had them ready to go.  I would be the child whisperer, keeping any little monsters in attendance occupied and out of trouble.

On Saturday, the giant Tesco order arrived.  I loved Tesco when I lived in Oxford. I have hated grocery shopping since I left home at 16, when I had no money or car.  With Tesco, I ordered online, a truck arrived, and two men carried it all in.

The dining room tables were pushed together to make a 15-foot long surface, covered with packages of puff pastry shells, smoked salmon, olives, cream cheese, mozzarella, Gouda, and Stilton; salmon paté, flat breads and party rye and mini rice cakes; tomatoes and fresh basil and dill; strawberries and raspberries and whipping cream; homemade candies from the farmers’ market, and so on.  Kegs of ale had appeared, along with ciders and wines and nonalcoholic bevvies.

“Be ready to form an assembly line in the morning, girls,” Lynn told Gwen and me after dinner.  The men would be busy raking the drive, watching the caterer put up the marquee, and testing the ale.

Promptly after breakfast, Gwen and I carried in food from the dining room, loaded some CDs, and began assembling finger foods.  Salmon paté on flatbread, topped with a cherry tomato and sprig of dill.  Mozarella on a rice cake, topped with a slice of tomato and olive tapenade and basil leaves.  It was fun, it was creative.

This was not the caterer’s food.  This was the “base” on top of which he would contribute tapas and paella and possibly a cured ham.

Suddenly a song I hadn’t heard in decades came on—Looking for the Right One, by Art Garfunkel, and I started to cry.  It’s such a melancholy song, about never finding love. Just when I think I don’t care anymore, wham!—all it takes is one old song.  No one was watching, so I wiped my face and left the room until the song ended.

Marco arrived, and he did indeed bring a cured ham.

“And I will make Spanish omelets,” he informed Lynn as his wife, who worked steadily all day, carried in and unloaded crates of eggs and sacks of potatoes and onions.

“But I didn’t order Spanish omelets!” Lynn replied helplessly.

No matter.  He proceeded to take over the kitchen work surfaces on which Lynn was working.

Did I mention he brought his three children? One immediately tangoed with a dog, who bit his hand and drew blood.  I whisked the child away into my bathroom to wash his hand and keep him sweet so no law suit would ensue.  He was a lovely child and I needn’t have worried.  He ran out into the garden to play with the other children.

The paella was a hit.

I don’t know how many guests came—maybe 50—but they made a dent in the food and everyone went home with a care package of ham.