Have a Mochi New Year!

mainI can actually remember visiting my grandfather during New Year’s when I lived in Japan, and watching him make mochi the old fashioned way—by pounding the heck out of it. He was a strawberry farmer in rural Hiroshima, so maybe he did a lot of things the old fashioned way. But sometimes tradition beats technology every time, and even though you can buy mochi anywhere these days, you can’t celebrate the New Year without it if you’re Japanese.

Mochi is for good luck, a long life and is the symbol of an auspicious new beginning to a fresh calendar year. Yikes! With 2016 trashed, we need all the help we can get this year—yoroshiku onegai shimasu, mochi! The stack of mochi you see above is called kagami mochi, which you’ll find adorning most households during the New Year. Usually two flattened mochi cakes topped with a mandarin orange, this is an offering to the Gods to bring good fortune and protection to the household. The orange is supposed to be of a variety called daidai, a bitter orange that, once its tree bears fruit, doesn’t drop for 2 or 3 years; hence representing long life. Sometimes the decoration is trimmed with dried sea kelp (konbu), dried persimmons, folded ornamental paper and set on a wooden stand, like you see below. The display is usually set up at the family altar in the house, a Buddhist shrine that honors the deceased.kagami

Mochi appears in so many ways during New Year’s—one of my favorites was my mother’s ozoni, a hot soup made of clear dashi stock, sometimes with miso depending on the regional recipe, and all kinds of possible ingredients including Chinese cabbage, carrots, spinach, fishcakes, etc., but always, always with mochi. The best ozoni IMHO, is the one on the morning of January 1st. You’ve had the one on New Year’s Eve when it’s just been cooked, then the following morning all the mochi is soft and gooey and the soup is thick and tasty! On a cold winter morning, it doesn’t get any better!ozoni

There are variations of simple grilled mochi cakes called yakimochi, where lightly charred pieces are dipped in soy sauce, or topped with grated daikon radish and soy sauce, or boiled and dusted with kinako, a sweet roasted soybean flour. The best part of grilling mochi? Watching it heat up until it magically expands, swells, and breaks open with a puff of steam as the insides burst out in a bubble. That’s when it’s done! Check out this excellent video by the ladies of Japanese Cooking 101 as they explain how to yakimochi.yakimochi

And there’s dessert! The warming, sweet soup of oshiruko, a red bean and mochi dish, is a New Year treat that is a favorite of the girls and anybody with a very sweet tooth. The red bean paste (anko) can be either koshi-an (completely smooth) or tsubu-an (partially mashed) and the mochi is often toasted or grilled before adding it to the oshiruko soup. It’s a very simple, comfort food that is easily made these days just by diluting canned red bean paste in hot water. Mochi is what makes it a New Year!oshiruko

One thing about Japanese culture—it’s always been about the old and the new. Pop culture co-exists everyday alongside traditions that are literally centuries old. But the New Year seems to be the one time of year where everyone, young and old alike, gets together to celebrate what it really means to be Japanese. For your entertainment, if you haven’t seen this video yet, is the world’s fastest mochi pounding man ever.bigstory

photo credits: Matcha Magazine, Rakuten Travel, Japanese Cooking 101, Xin Li’s Journal, The Great Big Story

Snow Talk

mainWhen I first heard about the unusually early November snowfall in Tokyo, the first time in over 54 years for the nation’s capital, it immediately brought back memories for me because, yes, I am old enough to have been there for the last time that happened. Just to put that period of time in perspective, in 1962 there was no bullet train yet, there were no skyscrapers in Tokyo, and there were no Western style toilets yet! The second thing that came to mind was global warming, but that discussion belongs on another blog.

Here in sunny SoCal we don’t do snow, do we? But we do make snow–we make it at our local mountains during ski season. And we can drive up there in a few hours! So you can grumble all you want about not having real snow, but it’s hard to complain when the surf and mountains are so conveniently close!

Snow MachinessnowmachinePersonally, I find it incredible that real snow can be blown out of machines and cover a whole mountain enough to ski on. These snowmakers literally break water up into small particles, freeze them and blow them into the air in one process. They use massive amounts of water to do this–to cover an area of 200ft. by 200ft. with 6 inches of snow, they need 75,000 gallons of water! Most ski areas are converting 5000 gallons of water per minute, into snow.

And besides making snow for skiing, these machines can create snow blankets to protect crops during freezing weather and are also used to test the snow worthiness of cars and airplanes. Recently snowmaking has resorted to using reclaimed waste water, which not only conserves water during our drought–it gives all of our ski resorts a way to stay in business.

Snowflake PerfectionflakeThis amazing photograph of a single snowflake was taken by amateur photographer Alexey Kljatov, who says that anyone can do the same thing with a simple point-and-shoot camera and a lot of persistence, patience and luck. This is his hobby, and it fascinates him for the same reasons snowflakes mesmerize all of us–they’re beautiful to look at up close.

Even though they say that no two snowflakes are alike, that’s not entirely true. If you look at them with a microscope, down to the molecular level, of course they’re all different. But at the superficial level, they start to look alike and can be classified into 35 distinct shapes. These flakes form their distinct shapes based on the atmospheric conditions surrounding them. Different conditions and temperatures, different shapes.

What causes snow anyway? When water vapor in the air drops below freezing, it crystallizes around particles of dust–then boom, snowflakes!

The Sacred Snow LeopardleopardI had a friend once who traveled to Nepal and came back with all kinds of insights into the meaning of life and our place in the universe. Nepal will do that to you I guess, being close to the highest elevation point on the planet.

Imagine being high up in the mountains at close to 17,000 feet. The snow leopard hunts wild sheep and goats in silence, almost as quietly as the falling snow. They are built for this harsh environment, with long thick fur to protect them against the cold and wide padded paws that make for natural snowshoes. They also have extra long tails which help them balance when climbing steep, rocky slopes. These magnificent big cats are fascinating to me, and sadly they are on the verge of extinction as farmers encroach on their habitat, and natural food sources become harder to find due to climate change. They are also being hunted and killed by poachers for their fur.

It is estimated that there are only about 6000 snow leopards left in the world, most of them in China and other parts of Central Asia. Interestingly, they have been protected the most by Tibetan monks, who live in close proximity to their habitats. Buddhist beliefs dictate a respect and compassion for all living things, and protecting the snow leopard is just one aspect of their spiritual values. For more information on the disappearing snow leopard you can go to the Snow Leopard Conservancy site.

Hawaiian SnowshaveiceHa! Just an excuse to get my favorite dessert into this post! Shave Ice is basically snow with syrup on it, right? So don’t eat the snow off the mountain–it might be recycled waste water! Eat shave ice instead!

photo credits: snow in Tokyo by Shizuo Kambayashi (AP) for Japan Times, snow machines courtesy of SMI Snowmakers, snowflake by Alexey Kljatov, snow leopard courtesy of The Hindu, shave ice courtesy of Lynn’s Hawaiian Ice

Hawaii Bakes!

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I have a sweet tooth. Aside from my weakness for donuts, my next fav is probably Hawaiian sweets. There are certain local cakes, pies and puddings that are best eaten when you’re in the Islands, and I always make time to get some whenever I visit. BUT you can also get them on the mainland, if you look hard enough. And like everything Hawaiian, diverse cultural influences have combined to make the most exotic dishes in the world.

Paradise Cake
A wonderful name for a wonderful cake, and so appropriate. A tri-colored and tri-flavored spongy chiffon cake, this is the one that most kids go for in Hawaii. Each slice is a 3-layered masterpiece, flavored in pink guava, yellow passion fruit and green lime. The guava pretty much takes over the taste, but the colors are so happy, who’s going to complain? The shot above is from my favorite bakery called King’s Hawaiian, so I’m going to give them a shout out. I used to go to this bakery when I was a kid living near King Street where they were located. Sadly, there is no King’s Hawaiian bakery in Hawaii anymore.

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Haupia
No, this isn’t tofu, this is haupia, a traditional pudding made from the arrow root and flavored with coconut milk and sugarcane juice. You’ll often see it made into fillings for pies and layered into cakes. It’s a local luau favorite, but it’s been catching on with the health conscious too, as a vegan alternative, for gluten free diets and for the lactose intolerant. I love puddings, and the lightness of the flavor of haupia seems to really match the texture–somewhere in between creamy and gelatinous, you know what I mean?

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Andagi
Everyone should know by now that I’ve admitted to donuts being my Achilles’ heel. One kind of donut that I really like is an Okinawan type called Andagi. It’s more like a donut hole actually, but bigger and not full of air. These guys are anywhere between the size of golf balls to billiard balls when they come out of the deep fryer, and they’re a very solid cake donut—crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. And contrary to what you might expect, they’re not glazed or sugar coated; they’re just eaten plain. So good! And have them warm for best results!

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Malasadas
Now that we’re talking donuts, let’s stay on the subject! The malasada has Portuguese origins, brought to Hawaii by plantation laborers in the 1800s. Being predominately Catholic, the Portuguese immigrants would give up sweets for Lent by using up all their lard and sugar to make large batches of malasadas to share with friends in the plantation camps. Lucky us, this led to the widespread popularity of this deep fried, sugar coated donut in Hawaii. Malasadas come with all kinds of fillings today–custard cream, chocolate, haupia–but for me, the plain ones hot from the fryer are the best!

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Kulolo
If you ever want to try a real Hawaiian dessert, you should go for kulolo. This sweet pudding is more like Japanese mochi in texture, so it’s a firm kind of pudding. You can usually find it cut up into fudge like squares and sold in brick shapes. The main ingredient is the taro root, or kalo in Hawaiian, which is the traditional main staple of old Hawaii. In the old days kulolo was made with taro, fresh coconut milk and raw sugar–it was then wrapped in leaves and baked for 8 hours under the earth. Much harder to do these days, but you can still get taro. Over 80% of the state’s production comes from the island of Kauai, where Islanders say the kulolo is the best.

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Butter Mochi
Butter! In the name of the dish! ‘Nuff said. Seriously, if I told you the main ingredients were butter and coconut, wouldn’t that be enough to get you interested? Essentially a baked custard, butter mochi is made with a rice flour (mochiko) base, which gives it a soft, chewy, sticky consistency similar to mochi. There’s always one auntie who makes “da bess” butter mochi at every potluck family gathering. If you want to try making one yourself, Zojirushi has a recipe of theirs right here.

There are so many more Hawaiian style baked goods I could get into, but these are the ones I consider the classics–and I really like how they reflect the cultural diversity of the Islands. The ingredients are local, and each dish comes from the heart of the people of Hawaii.

photo credits: Paradise Cake by King’s Hawaiian Bakery, Haupia by Shakatime Hawaii, Andagi by JapanCentre, Malasadas by Robyn Lee for Serious Eats, Kulolo by Rowena, Butter Mochi by Uca’s

 

Guess The Burger

mainHow well do you know your hamburgers? By no means am I a burger geek or anything, but I give in to the craving like everyone else. Some might say a burger is a burger is a burger–but not true! They all definitely taste different, and a lot of them look different, right? What good is a burger brand if it can’t distinguish itself from the rest of the herd?

So here are a few major ones. Sorry, I can’t list them all, and I can’t let you taste them. But there are clues everywhere–so look (and read) closely. And if you can get through this write-up without immediately going out to get a burger for lunch, then you’re a better person than I am.

The burger shown above isn’t really a traditional fast food chain, which is why it looks so spectacular! But it’s not like a sit down restaurant either. It’s classified as “high end fast casual”. Whaa? They rose to fame in 2006 when they got a shout on the Oprah TV show, and there have been many such “gourmet custom built” burger places since then. These guys pride themselves in establishing a counter culture to the burger mainstream by offering Korean BBQ, lamb, carne asada and crab, among other innovative ingredients on their menu.

Jack finalFounded and headquartered in San Diego, California, this company pioneered the 2-way intercom at its drive-thru restaurants, when customers would give their orders by talking directly at the mascot’s face. Although this signature burger put them on the map, they actually sell more tacos than burgers, even though they’re not known for Mexican fast food. Which burger giant is this?

in&out finalYou cannot do a list on hamburgers without this one–especially if you’re from the West Coast. Their fame and notoriety has reached mythical proportions in the East, where my son, who goes to college in Boston, says his friends ask him about this legendary burger as soon as they find out he’s from California. Best known for their fresh cut fries and a “secret menu” that most people know about, this chain also pays their employees well. Managers have been known to make into six figures–did you know that?

wendys finalThis one is almost too easy because no other hamburger looks like this. The idea behind the uniquely shaped patties is that the corners stick out from under the bun to show the quality of the meat. Makes sense, right? This famous chain has the third most locations in the world and became the first to introduce the salad bar. If you’re old enough, you might remember their hit commercials in the 80s, which featured an elderly lady who kept complaining about her burger, “Where’s the beef?”

carls finalAs a classic American success story, it’s hard not to love how this popular hamburger chain grew from a single hot dog cart, started by a husband and wife in Los Angeles. That cart multiplied into 4 carts, then became a full service restaurant, which grew to 24 restaurants, and today operates in over 1300 locations all over the world. “If it doesn’t get all over the place, it doesn’t belong in your face.” Ring a bell?

mcdonalds finalThere’s too much to tell about this famous hamburger, so the more I say, the easier it gets to figure it out.  So let’s just quote the famous astronomer Carl Sagan on this one, who used to day, “A galaxy is composed of gas and dust and stars–billions upon billions of stars.” Get it?

fatburger finalHere is the last great hamburger stand, which started as a 3-stool stand in Los Angeles that catered to celebrities who would come in at late night hours to get the best burgers in town. The name was the founder’s idea, who “wanted to get across the idea of a big burger with everything on it–a meal in itself.”

burgerking finalIn terms of global franchises, this burger chain is second to the real King. Still, that’s no small accomplishment, as there were a whopping 15,000+ locations worldwide as of last year. In fact, their most famous ad campaigns featured direct challenges to the number one guy, much like the way Pepsi went to war with Coke. And they were the first to start product tie-ins when they collaborated with a “Star Wars drinking glass” promotion back in 1977. Now they all do it.

Just For FunsiesshaveVSin&out finalThis is the never ending debate, right? To see how these guys smackdown the best of the West Coast and East Coast, check out this Thrillist article and read how they duke it out.

Bonus Burgerssmash fnal5guysfinalI’m not even giving you hints on these guys. Look carefully at the images–you’ll see clues if you have a sharp eye and know your burgers.

“Mmm, this is a tasty burger!”Kahuna finalAnd finally, can you guess this one? This is the most famous movie burger in Hollywood. Never has a hamburger played such a pivotal role in one of the all-time classic scenes. A cult classic. Hint: that thumb belongs to one bad m*ther f***er.

credits: McDonalds (thriftyfun.com) Wendys (businessinsider.com) Burger King (smaakit.co.za) Jack-in-the-Box (tasty-eating.blogspot.com) ShakeShack vs. In&Out (thrillist.com) other images by @ironchefmom and Bert Tanimoto

Pan (The Breads of Japan)

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Rice might still be the number one staple in Japan, but bread is so popular that a typical breakfast might be toast and coffee as it would be fish and miso soup. The Japanese word for bread is “pan”, but if you look up the etymology you’ll find the same word for bread in the Portuguese language. It makes sense since bread was first brought to Japan by the Portuguese in the 1500s.

I love all the dessert breads and savory combinations that make up the selection at a typical Japanese bakery. I even like the old-fashioned An-pan pictured above, which I think is still a comfort food to many Japanese. It was invented by Yasubei Kimura, a former samurai who turned to baking when the samurai class was dissolved with the influence of Western culture. Today the Kimuraya Bakery is the oldest chain in the country, and An-pan can be found everywhere, filled with sweet chestnut, white bean paste, and other dessert fillings as well as the traditional red bean paste. The black sesame seeds on top is the classic An-pan look.

melonpan

Melon Pan is another of my favorites. It’s not even usually melon flavored, but there’s something about the crusty, cookie dough outer shell and soft, moist bread inside that is so good, it doesn’t need any filing. This is an awesome sweet bread, loved by everyone in Japan, and instantly recognized by its signature cross hatch pattern and round shape–like a melon.

creampan2

Cream Pan is a soft bread very similar to an-pan in fluffy consistency. The big difference is the filling, which can best be described as a creamy custard. There are all kinds of variations on the outer shape, but to me, it’s the filling that makes a really good cream pan. Not too soft, but firm enough not to ooze out; and eggy like a good custard should be.

shokupan

Then there’s the Shoku Pan, a very ordinary loaf of Japanese white bread. This is the kind of bread served at breakfast–sometimes as a simple slice of buttered toast with coffee, called a “Morning Set”. The unique thing about shoku pan though, is the thickness of the slices–sometimes over an inch thick for breakfast, sometimes a thin, one-third inch for sandwiches. Unlike American white bread, shoku pan has a soft, creamy taste and a stretchy kind of texture that is unbelievably habit forming. When making tea sandwiches with the thin ones, be sure to cut off the crust for a better presentation. When I used to make my daughter’s lunches for school, her friends were impressed that the crusts were cut off! LOL. The thick ones make an excellent breakfast–toasted to a golden brown goodness.

currypan2

Now let’s get into some savory breads–my favorite thing for snacks and lunches. First up is Curry Pan. Real Japanese style curry, thickened and stuffed into a deep fried dough coated with bread crumbs. Amazing! Maybe a bit oily sometimes, but so good if you’re a fan of curry. These football shaped snacks are very popular and can be found anywhere in Japan–convenience stores, train stations, corner bakeries, vending machines; anywhere!

korokkepan

Then there is the Korokke Pan, a deep fried potato croquette wedged in a soft roll and drizzled with a sweet/salty sauce. Even if the croquette (korokke) is unlikely to be crispy anymore after having been on the shelf for awhile, this is still good stuff! A close relative to this sandwich is the Katsu Sando, made with a pork cutlet in place of the croquette. Now that’s a lunch, man.

yakisobapan

The last one is the very popular Yakisoba Pan, which seems a little top heavy on the carbs when you realize it’s a noodle sandwich, but it works somehow! I guess you have to first be a fan of yakisoba, the chow mein like fried noodles that most Japanese kids grew up with. I’ve always loved this tangy dish because it’s so loaded with flavor. If you can put it between two halves of a hot dog style bun and call it a sandwich, then so be it! I won’t complain.

So that’s my list of top breads of Japan. What are yours? Here are some recipes from the Zojirushi site. Try them for yourself!

An-pan

Shoku Pan

Curry Pan

Melon pan

credits: an-pan and yakisoba pan by JPinfo.com, shoku pan by JapanTimes.com, melon pan by JapaneseCooking101.com, other images by Bert Tanimoto