National Pack Your Lunch Day

LOL! Did you know March 10th is National Pack Your Lunch Day? Well, you do now, and since I’m a devoted lunch packer everyday, I’m inviting everyone to help me celebrate this great day coming up! This isn’t to be confused with National Bento Month, which Zojirushi started in September, but we can all appreciate the advantages to bringing your own lunch from home. It’s as healthy as you want it to be, cheaper than buying, portion controlled, and probably tastes better than quickie fast food (if you like what you had for dinner the night before).

For me, the last reason is important because there aren’t many places to eat near my office that I think is worth plunking down $10 for lunch. I’d rather help with the leftovers from dinner. Mind you, if it weren’t for the microwave in the lunchroom, I’d be severely limited in what I could bring. I can only eat so many cold sandwices and salads in a week. Thank goodness for bentos though, which often can be eaten at room temperature. If you want some tips on what to pack, Zojirushi has some great ideas in their newsletter that you can find here. And if you own one of their thermal Lunch Jars, you won’t even need that microwave. You can pack a hot meal right in the jar.

What I usually do is use my thermal jar to bring a hot soup, like chicken noodle soup if I’m packing a sandwich, or miso soup if I’m bringing a Japanese dish. Then for a food container, I like to use the glass types with the locking lids because I’m always bringing last night’s curry rice or some kind of pasta dish; and I hate how the plastic ones get stained. My daughter doesn’t like the glass ones because they get too heavy in her backpack, which makes total sense for her. In fact, she goes one step further by bringing her lunch in a paper sack whenever possible—she says she hates having to bring the bulky empty container home, so she wants everything to be disposable!

What will you pack your lunch in? One of those insulated soft cases, probably? They’re very popular and they seem to work well. If you wanted to be different, you could be the guy or girl who brings their lunch in a kid’s retro metal lunchbox. They’re kind of cool, actually, and there are serious collectors out there who love them for the colorful artwork and for their place in pop culture history. The first licensed character to appear on a lunchbox was Mickey Mouse in 1935. In 1950, the Alladin company officially started the metal lunchbox craze when they put the popular TV cowboy, Hopalong Cassidy, on the side of their box. The character lunchbox, with TV stars, super heroes and cartoons, were on every kid’s wishlist for about 20 years; so they had a good run until they fell out of fashion.

I’m pretty sure I had one when I was kid—I remember the matching thermos bottle that came with it, which was lined with glass on the inside, and had its own drinking cup. Wow! Lined with glass! Can you imagine that today? A lawsuit waiting to happen!

So on National Pack Your Lunch Day, even if it’s only a PB&J sandwich and a bag of chips, bring your own lunch to school or work and give the taco truck a pass. Trust me, it’s more satisfying.

Photos by: Brooke Lark for Bradshaw International, Bert Tanimoto, Zojirushi, El Poder de las Ideas

 

American Holidays in Japan

With Valentine’s Day coming soon, it always makes me wish I were living in Japan again, where the guys don’t have to worry about what romantic thing we need to do for our significant others—because the girls make the first move on Valentine’s Day. In Japan, the girls buy the chocolate for the men. And we don’t have to reciprocate until a month later on “White Day”. Confused? Don’t be—it’s actually kind of…uh, sweet. Valentine’s Day gives the girls a chance to show their crushes how they really feel, when they may normally be too embarrassed to do so. In addition to buying chocolate for their true loves, however, the girls are unfortunately on the hook for buying for their bosses or colleagues—the “obligation chocolate”. And the obligation-giving continues on March 14th for the men, when they’re expected to repay the Valentine’s Day gifts with chocolate gifts of their own, on White Day. Oh, those evil candy manufacturers, who started this ingenious holiday! Even though “White Day” is strictly a commercial money maker, I love the Japanese Valentine’s Day tradition of the girls taking the initiative!

The Japanese love to adopt our national holidays—they’re not always celebrated in the same way, but they do a pretty good job. And it’s always in good fun.

What’s Christmas like in Japan?

There’s no way Christmas would have the same religious significance in Japan the way it does here. It’s estimated only 1% of the population is actually Christian. But Christmas is a joyous time, and Japanese people love gift giving, so it seems pretty natural. The main symbolic gesture has always been the traditional “Christmas Cake”, usually topped with all the decorations, like plastic Santas, trees, reindeer and ornaments. And happily, that rude association with unmarried women being past their expiration date (25, as in December 25) and being called “Christmas Cakes”, is no longer taken seriously. Especially when more women are in the workforce and the marrying age is probably closer to 29.

Another phenomenon is the KFC® Christmas, a brilliant marketing angle invented years ago by a Japanese executive at Kentucky Fried Chicken Japan. He simply started promoting his chicken in Christmas themed barrels, getting his inspiration from the traditional holiday turkey dinners in the U.S. The idea that “Christmas is for Kentucky” caught on, and now standing in long lines to pick up KFC® has become synonymous with the season. Who woulda thought it? The Colonel is the most famous personality during Christmastime. And well deserved, that Japanese executive eventually became the CEO of KFC® Japan.

Halloween is picking up steam

Indeed, this very American holiday becomes bigger every year in Japan, and much like its popularity as an adult holiday here, Halloween in Japan is an excuse to dress up and be someone else. It makes sense that it would catch on in Japan, where cosplay first started. So when they start making costumes, they go all out. It also helps when all the major theme parks like Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan get on the bandwagon and start to feature the holiday in a big way. It used to be a scattering of American ex-pats dressing up and going to bars and nightclubs to be gawked at by curious onlookers—but no more; the dressing up part has been completely adopted by Japanese pop culture. The only thing missing is trick or treat—that part of the tradition doesn’t look like it’s going to assimilated anytime soon.

And what would Halloween be without controversy? Apparently at Universal Studios Japan last year, their new attraction, called “Tatari: Curse of the Living Doll”, drew letters of protest from the Japanese Doll Association, for using dolls that were donated to the park by a shrine. The association wasn’t keen on how the dolls were being represented as objects of terror, even though it was in the spirit of Halloween. Guess what? Dolls are creepy enough sometimes. These little ones are pretty scary with the right makeup!

Japan has pretty much made these holidays their own. Americans might say they’re copycats, and they certainly started that way, but after all these years the celebrations have evolved into something distinctly Japanese.

Images: Valentine art, Christmas cake, KFC, Halloween costumes, Tatari doll

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