asazuke

Life in Japan, food, music, whatever…

British Beer 13 July, 2012

Filed under: food & drink — johnraff @ 2:44 pm
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T and I were in Heathrow terminal 4 last year waiting for our flight back to Japan and found a plastic “pub” in a corner of the departure area. On the menu was a beer called “Fuller’s London Pride”, which I’d vaguely heard of, so we had a couple of pints. It turned out to be very nice, amazingly for an airport, Heathrow especially.

So, when, with all the London Olympics thing going on (though I gather they’re taking it all pretty low-key over there), our wine merchant sent us a list of British beers from one of their importers I recognized that Fuller’s London Pride right away. Hmm, so this year instead of cheap lager on Thursdays we decided to do a  British Beer Fair every day to mark the Historic Event. We stocked a dozen varieties for the duration and are selling them at no-profit prices just to turn people on to the wonderful world of British Beer … and maybe entice a few new customers into Raffles …

When they arrived, a look at the cases suggested they might have come via some wholesaler in the USA – a long journey round the world to Exotic Japan, but on opening a bottle I was pleasantly surprised. And the next bottle… Most of these beers are from either Fuller’s in London or Wychwood in Oxfordshire and they’re all delicious. Really. I’ve been a fan of Belgian beer for some time, and didn’t really expect anything from the UK to be able to compete, but most of these top-fermented ales could stand up there.

Maybe after the fair’s over we’ll keep on one or two on our regular menu – at a more regular price though. I’m sure you’ll understand.

Cheers!

 

The Wrecker again (yawn) 12 July, 2012

Filed under: politics — johnraff @ 2:52 pm
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“Wrecker” Ozawa has come to Asazuke’s attention before, eg here and here , and he’s been up to his tricks again.

Now, nobody I know enjoys paying taxes, and there are arguments to be made against raising consumption tax – for example, it’s regressive, and hits the poor harder than the rich – but that the Japanese government needs to straighten out its finances seems beyond doubt. Noda the boring prime minister, for lack of any more inspiring ambition, seems to have decided he wants to go down in history as the one who finally succeeded in forcing this tax increase down the necks of an increasingly inert and despondent Japanese public. There was no mention of such a tax increase in the manifesto of the Democratic Party of Japan at the time of the landslide election when Japan decided it had finally had enough of the Liberal Democrat Party, but politicians don’t generally base their campaigns on the promise of Higher Taxes.

The DPJ have actually done a lot less than they promised in those heady days a couple of years ago, but even without the earthquake and tidal wave there’s no way of avoiding the fact that Good Times are not really just around the corner, here in Japan or anywhere in the world for that matter. The bills for the consumption spree the developed countries have been enjoying the last 100~200 years are lining up to come in and hit us one after another. (Pity those in Asia and Africa who never got to come to the party, but are still going to get their share of the tab anyway.) Now Ozawa – to return to today’s topic – hasn’t actually put up any nifty proposals for dealing with any of Japan’s problems, but he is definitely against an increase in consumption tax, he voted against the recent Diet bill and has left the DPJ, taking some 50 members with him, to start a new party.

Maybe I’m cynical, but it looks as if he just thinks that no-tax-raise line will get him some votes in the election that must be held by next year at the latest. His “Peoples’ Livelihood First” (or whatever) party’s other line to date is opposition to nuclear power. Now that’s one I totally agree with, but it needs to go along with an urgent huge shift to renewable energy sources, about which they are saying nothing to date. That would cost lots of money, implying more cuts in our standard of living. There’s no way out, but politicians the world over are still avoiding looking reality in the face. Ozawa looks like a populist, just like Nagoya mayor Kawamura.

There are other new forces floating around that O. would like to team up with, Osaka’s Hashimoto and Tokyo’s Ishihara. Both these are trying to present themselves as some kind of cleansing New Wave in Japanese politics, but both are somewhat rightist-populist and don’t seem too keen on getting together with the somewhat leftist-populist old-school money-politics Ozawa.

Meanwhile, the public, going by recent opinion polls, don’t give a ****. They dislike the DPJ, they also dislike the LDP, they have no expectations of Ozawa’s new party – this is the fourth time he’s split off to form a new party – and more than 50% don’t support any party at all. Everyone’s just Fed Up with the whole business. This attitude is understandable, but it doesn’t really lead to any productive action. Is anyone else reminded of prewar Weimar Germany by all this? If we get a new Japanese Hitler before long don’t say I didn’t warn you…

 

A Panda is Born 10 July, 2012

Filed under: news — johnraff @ 2:15 pm
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“We interrupt this programme”, they said the other afternoon, as I was listening to the radio in Raffles’ kitchen, “to bring you a news bulletin.” The Important News was that a baby panda had been born in Ueno Zoo. The next day the street in front of the zoo was full of TV cameras, and since then there have been queues of people lining up in case they might get a glimpse of the 100 gramme scrap of panda-flesh being nursed by its mother. The talk is of a boost to the economy of over 100 million dollars as sales of Panda Goods take off. Panda cakes, panda bread, panda knickknacks…

OK it’s somewhat unusual for pandas to be born in captivity so no doubt the people at Ueno were feeling pleased with themselves but it does all seem a bit over the top. The pandas all belong to China anyway. I doubt they’d make this much fuss if a new member of the Imperial Household was born. A plot to take people’s minds off the less interesting things that are being foisted on them by the establishment? …sigh…

 

Farmlog March 2012 20 June, 2012

Filed under: countryside — johnraff @ 2:24 pm
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4th~5th

  • Rain all the weekend – cloudy and depressing just like back in Britain but… it’s getting warmer. Spring is coming.
  • While the plumber is round fixing those burst pipes we discover that our boiler is leaking. It’s 26 years old so it’s not all that surprising, but the new eco-boiler will set us back some ¥250,000…
  • Yamada san drops in. You might have an image of the Japanese as incredibly smartly dressed at all times, but he’s an exception to that stereotype. Today’s attire is a pair of nondescript slacks, what look like old carpet slippers and a down jacket that’s stuck all over with little bits of black insulating tape. (Presumably there were holes underneath.) He’s a great guy.
  • Min. temp. -4°C, max. 11°C

11th~12th

  • The Japanese like marathons! To me running is something you do if being pursued by a large dangerous animal, and not otherwise, but amazingly there seem to be people who actually enjoy it, and there are many events here involving this kind of self-torture. Apparently the pain causes the body to release endorphins, which give you a high… Anyway, Sunday this week is the date of yet another Nagoya Marathon of some kind and to avoid the traffic jams we head out of town on Saturday evening after Raffles closes. As we leave at 11:00PM the temperature is 9°C but while we’re driving through Nagoya it soon drops to 6.5. The town looks different from its usual Sunday midday mode of course, and there are long queues in front of the ramen shops. Only the ramen shops though. We arrive at our place in the hills at 1:00AM and -2°C. While sleeping, try to stay in the warm zone of the futon.
  • Sunday is beautiful with a clear blue sky but a cold, going on icy, wind. Spring starts suddenly here and though all we have so far are a few daffodil and tulip shoots (will the deer eat them?) it’s as if it’s taking a deep breath before bursting into full bloom. Later in the afternoon it clouds over as the weather forecast promised, and at 3:30PM it starts snowing. We wrote off the Winter too soon.
  • Of course Sunday is 3/11, one year after the Tohoku disaster which killed nearly 20,000 people and disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands. There are still more than 300,000 people in temporary accommodation, many without work and unemployment benefit running out. (It’s only paid for a limited period here.) There are some 23 million tons of debris still to be disposed of, although some of it floated out to sea and is now reaching Hawaii.
  • The emperor is barely out of hospital for a cancer operation, but went up to Tohoku to give a speech. I’m sure it was appreciated. Now, records show that the showa emperor (the current emperor’s father) shared some responsibility for the conduct of the last war, but basically since the Meiji era the emperor has been a figurehead, living relatively simply on a public budget, and still quite popular.
  • It snowed again on Sunday night and Monday morning is white. A bit less cold though.
  • The new boiler came with a 38 page instruction manual.
  • I’m busy clipping our tea bushes – not so much because we plan to pick and sell tea, but because if you leave tea bushes alone they grow into trees several metres high. If we ever wanted to sell the property it might possibly be better to have the tea bushes in working order, so to speak.
  • Min. temp. -2°C, max. 12°C

18th~19th

  • A gloomy wet Sunday, but at least it’s warm. It’s been a long cold winter but this seems to be Spring at last.
  • Nakagawa-san the plumber calls and has time for a chat. It seems local businesses are even off than in Nagoya, if anything. A beautiful thatch-roofed building on the main road is due to be demolished. It was a drive-in restaurant, but the new motorway to Takayama has drained off all the business. (Minshukus in Shirakawa are feeling the pinch too, because the new highway means there’s no longer any need to stop overnight.) Nakagawa-san gives us our key back, and his bill. It’s 300,000 yen. This isn’t great news, to be honest…
  • Do some more tea-clipping. The shears need oiling and the squeak seems to be getting responses from a nearby bird.
  • Monday is cold again and I’m getting numb fingers – spring’s like this – but the cherry blossom will be out in two weeks or so!
  • There are flags out in front of the shrine at the bottom of the hill, ready for the matsuri tomorrow. It’s usually on a nice spring day, but this year’s might be chilly. We’ll miss this one, but sometimes it’s on a Sunday so we can catch it.
  • Min. temp. -5°C, max. 10°C

25th~26th

  • Yet another unpleasant Sunday! The Winter’s back and the wind in Nagoya is biting. Rain and sun alternate all day and as we get near the house there’s snow on the ground in places! Inside, and it starts snowing again. This is very late – usually the cherry blossom is coming out in Nagaoya around this time.
  • No fukinoto? Too cold? Taken by someone/something?
  • A little bit of tea clipping before leaving early to see “The Iron Lady” back in town.
  • A van drives past selling laundry poles – two for ¥1000 – the same price as 20 years ago. The fact is, everything is the same price as 20 years ago. Or cheaper.
  • Min. temp. -2°C, max. 10°C

 

The Third Beer 31 May, 2012

Filed under: food & drink — johnraff @ 1:49 pm
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Taxes. Unavoidable of course, and liable to change people’s lives. Fewer windows, less lung disease… Land tax in Japanese cities is high, with the result that empty lots are quickly put to some useful economic purpose to pay the tax. On the other hand, beautiful Japanese-style houses are knocked down because their owners could no longer afford to live in them.

Spirits like whisky and shochu are relatively low-taxed, so there’s not much reason to buy anything in the duty-free shops on your way here; beer, however, is hit with something like 45% tax! It used to be luxury item, for the snooty westernized Japanese who didn’t want to drink sake or shochu. Postwar, everyone started drinking beer, but the government, addicted to that nice 45% revenue, aren’t going to lower it any time soon. There are more oddities in the messy Japanese liquor tax system. The level of tax on beer is determined by its malt content. Under 67%, and it has to be called “happoshu“, not beer, but as compensation the tax rate is only 35% or so. Happoshu tastes vaguely like beer, but it’s pretty anaemic stuff, not really worth putting up with for the ¥15 you save over the price of a real can of beer. Even so, in these hard times pseudo-beers have been selling quite well, especially since the beer manufacturers discovered yet another tax category: this is for those “alcopops” that have been popular in the West, just flavoured water with some distilled alcohol added, and much lower taxed even than happoshu.

These so-called “third beers” were flavoured with anything the maker could come up with – soy beans, seaweed, or if you were lucky a very weak happoshu – dosed with some extra hops and a dash of cheap industrial alcohol to bring the strength up to the usual 5% or so. They tasted about as horrible as they sound, but cost about half what real beer did – maybe ¥2400 for a case of 24 350ml cans. Every month or so a new brand came out, each tasting as vile as the last, but the market shifted down from beer to happoshu, and finally the only sector where sales were holding up was that Third Beer stuff.

OK now the (sort of) good news. Over the years, those beer companies’ R&D departments have been hard at work, and the latest varieties of beeroids are very slightly less disgusting than they used to be. A couple of years ago Sapporo had a happoshu called “Sugomi” which wasn’t bad at all; it was soon dropped for some reason, but now they’ve got a Third Beer called “Mugi to Hoppu” (麦とホップ) which I’d have to admit isn’t really too bad. Mugi to Hoppu BlackThe name means “wheat/barley and hops” and somehow they’ve managed to concoct this stuff only from those ingredients without going into a beer tax bracket. It seems as if they brew a low-grade happoshu with a little bit of malt, boost the taste with some unmalted barley or wheat, add more hop flavour and some alcohol which has been distilled from wheat or barley (the two words are the same in Japanese). Put it in the fridge for a while, and amazingly it’s not too bad, especially on a hot summer day. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d rather drink real beer any time, preferably a craft beer from one of the local microbreweries, but at ¥100 a can this will do for a quick one after work. Last winter a “black” version came out which is even harder to distinguish from some kinds of black beer. If you don’t want to work your way through every variety of beer-like beverage in the supermarket, check this one out. (Sapporo haven’t yet paid me anything for writing this, but of course donations are welcome…)

Now the recent sales of beery things have been generally pretty poor in fact. Young people are abandoning beer in favour of sweeter “cocktails” and those alcopops which might have inspired the Third Beers. Actually, young people are abandoning alcohol in general, believe it or not. Instead of going for a quick one with the gang from the office after work, they go straight home and… do whatever it is they do… The single beverage category whose sales are booming is non-alcoholic beer. Seriously.

The country is going to the dogs.

 

Farmlog February 2012 18 May, 2012

Filed under: countryside — johnraff @ 3:01 pm
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I’ve been jotting down notes each weekend on bits of paper, so they just need to be typed up and posted on the blog. So why is it May already? I could have just kept these notes and used them next year I suppose… Anyway:

5th~6th

The recent fierce cold lets up a little bit and we have a regular grey winter day. Our bit of Gifu missed the blizzards and most of the snow on the road has melted. We get to our house, relieved that it’s not as freezing cold as last week, and find that there’s no water.

Of course we drained off the system before leaving last week, but somewhere in some corner a bit of water was left and froze solid. We’ve got a fairly powerful oil fan heater that I move to the outhouse where the pipes come in from the well to the boiler, and in an hour everything is warm to the touch, but there’s still no water. Last week’s hard freeze must have got down further into the ground than usual. I hope the pump that fetches the water from the well isn’t broken.

Give up and go back to Nagoya? I’m somewhat inclined that way, but we decide, having come this far, to brave it out with water from the stream for cooking and washing. There’ll be no bath though – we can call at the onsen on our way home again.

Monday brings rain, but not enough to melt the blockage. The forecast says it’ll be cold again in a couple of days, so maybe we won’t make it up next week. Fingers crossed. We leave early and go to see a film in Nagoya.

Min temp. -10°C max. 2°C


26th~27th

(2 weeks have been skipped because of the frozen pipes and a Daihachi Ryodan gig.)

That cold has finally eased off a bit, but it’s a sort of grey Sunday again. OK the snow has melted, but water spurts out of some crack in the bath tap. Have to call the plumber who’s busy fixing everyone’s burst pipes. It really has been a cold winter this year.

A late-night visit to the outside toilet before going to bed – look up to see a bright red Mars going down in the West.

Monday is sunny, but the wind is freezing cold. Winter hasn’t let go after all. With no hot water and no bath we’re going to stop off at that onsen on our way home again, but meanwhile there are two buckets of organic refuse to be added to the compost pile (vegetable peelings etc from Raffles’) and a new laundry pole to be cut from a long piece of bamboo. Numerous other jobs remain undone.

Min. temp. -8°C max. 10°C

 

Kitemiteya きてみてや 29 April, 2012

Filed under: city,food & drink,places — johnraff @ 1:40 am
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This is the kind of place that Japan excels at. Just a counter with room for 6~7 people, and a bit of tatami at the back with a couple more tables. One guy, Ina-chan, runs the whole place – serving drinks (though beers from the fridge are self-service) and the snacks that are obligatory when drinking in Japan – squid with spinach, noodle salad, mackerel stewed in soy sauce… and because Ina-chan’s from near Osaka you can also get good Kansai style okonomi-yaki (the negi-yaki’s especially good) and yaki-soba which will fill you up if you’re hungry. In Britain you’re lucky to get a couple of crisps or peanuts but here you can easily have your whole evening meal down at the pub if you want. There’s a kind of fuzzy area between eating out and drinking out which I thoroughly enjoy exploring.

Here at Kitemiteya anybody’s welcome, but most of the people at the counter are regulars, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll know somebody. Lately he’s taken to putting the TV on more often, to show off the shiny new wide-screen digital picture, and because he’s a Hanshin Tigers (baseball) fan, but Ina-chan’s got a music background and the sounds he puts on tend to be choice – usually some Japanese artist you’ve never heard of because they’re outside the music industry machine. Prices are really cheap too, especially the food which is generally in the ¥300~¥400 region. Add to all that the fact that it’s just a two-minute walk from where we live and you’ll see why Kitemiteya’s been our regular place for some years.

Musicians tend to drop in quite often, and the other day this guy we know brought in a friend who’d just finished playing a concert. He had this instrument case with him and asked if we’d like to hear a bit – well, sure, we said and he takes out this Mongolian horse-head fiddle thing and starts playing it. It sounds pretty good, and then he gets into this Mongolian “throat singing”. Gosh. I don’t know if you’ve heard any, but it’s very strange, a bit like playing a Jew’s harp with your voice. Till then I’d only heard it on CDs or the radio but at a distance of 1 metre it’s very impressive. I was ready for more, but it was getting late and we had to leave. I don’t know how often you’d get to hear Mongolian Throat Singing down at the local back in the UK.

When I came to Japan 36 years ago you’d be able to call Kitemiteya a typical Japanese bar, but it’s really not easy to make any sort of living doing this these days. People can no longer afford the sort of prices an owner would have to charge to make a proper living from it, and drink instead at chain pubs with food that comes out of factories. These little street-corner drinking places are becoming quite scarce, along with the local sushi-shops. Inachan just seems to get by somehow… anyway, long may he continue!

A few pics:

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An evening in the country 19 April, 2012

Filed under: countryside,food & drink,people — johnraff @ 1:32 am
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We had invited Yamada san over to our place for a drink, but, a couple of days before, he called up to suggest his place instead. It turned out to be a much better evening than the Cold Sake Debacle of last year.

We get there around 6 and he’s invited some friends over and started grilling some iwana one of them had taken from his pond. Yamada san’s got this great lean-to attached to his timber warehouse, with huge beams in the ceiling, traditional tools hanging on the walls and a big wood burning stove in the middle. He’s got plenty of timber offcuts and keeps the stove well stocked up so it’s toasty warm, even in summer… He says you have to keep the stove hot or it’ll rust. There’s nothing fancy about the place at all – we sit on an old saggy sofa while others have battered armchairs. ( The guy right next to the stove will be roasted in a while. ) Anyway, it’s a good place to drink beer, later wine and shochu (but not too much cold sake), while eating the grilled fish.

The food’s pretty good on the whole. We took something over and other people brought contributions, but later on we get the evening’s feature dish, “tori-meshi”. Meshi means rice, and tori means bird, usually chicken, so “yakitori” is grilled chicken on a stick and torimeshi is chicken rice. Anyway our torimeshi today isn’t chicken, it’s small birds that were caught that day (some of those cute little birds that were round our persimmon tree?), burnt to get the feathers off, chopped up, stewed in soy sauce then cooked with rice. The rice has little anonymous black bits and crunchy bone fragments in, but doesn’t taste too bad if you don’t think too much about it. Many years ago I once ordered “yakitori” in a railway station kiosk and, instead of the tasty chicken I was expecting, got some little birds – sparrows maybe – impaled on a skewer. Compared with that, this torimeshi is quite tasty in fact. After that we have the comparatively innocuous wild boar cooked in a pot with miso, leeks and Chinese cabbage. It’s not smelly or greasy at all – really good. I think some hunters nearby had just caught it.

The place warms up as Y pushes more wood into the stove with his foot. The guy in the Hot Seat has moved elsewhere. This isn’t a young crowd at all – I don’t think anyone here is under 50 – but the conversation is lively and interesting, including the 75-year-old in the corner. Yamada san himself is 72 but still working, eating, drinking, joking and generally enjoying life.

We return home around 11, happy after an excellent evening. It Was Real, as they say.

 

Farmlog January 2012 11 April, 2012

Filed under: countryside — johnraff @ 1:55 am
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8th~9th

  • Sunday is cold but clear and we get a beautiful view of snowy mountains on our way out of town.
  • There are no speed cops – have they moved to a new place?
  • There hasn’t been much rain and the well dries up in the night.
  • The local timber co-operative have been round and cut some of the trees that were growing just south of our field. This is quite welcome – it gives us more sunlight and lets the breeze through so the house won’t be quite so damp this summer with luck. I suspect our friend Yamada san might have been behind this because there’s no particular benefit from their point of view – the trees were just left on the ground.
  • I do some digging in the field where the chillies will be planted this year.
  • Min. temp. -4°C, max. 4°C

15th~16th

  • A grey Sunday. There’s nothing special to say about it – it’s not even outstandingly cold until we get to the house, where after being empty for five days everything is icy.
  • In the second supermarket we run into Yamada san who’s on his way with a vanful of friends to a shrine near Lake Biwa (quite far from here) for a ceremony called “dondoyaki“. He stopped to pick up some beer.
  • The next afternoon Yamada san drops in and we ask him round for a drink the week after next. (Next week we have to stay in Nagoya.)
  • I finish digging the chilli field. 🙂
  • Min. temp. -5°C max. 4°C

29th~30th

  • A nice sunny day in Nagoya. It’s been very cold the last couple of weeks, though, with blizzards on the Sea of Japan side of the country and Sunday isn’t exactly warm. We set off a bit worried that the road will be snowed up near the house. I really don’t want to have to put the snow chains on, but we’ve promised to meet Yamada san (at his place not ours) and on the phone he said it wasn’t too bad, so fingers crossed.
  • When we arrive the snow isn’t too bad at all, but it’s cold: down to 0°C by 4:00, and the water pipes are frozen in a couple of places, even though we drained the system before leaving two weeks ago. One tap starts flowing after an hour or so, but the cold water in the kitchen is still off at 5:00.
  • There’s a flock of cute little birds in our persimmon tree enjoying the fruit T left in the Autumn.
  • After a bath we head over to Yamada san’s for the evening. (more later)
  • The next day it’s still cold with icicles hanging off the eaves, we decide to skip the bath and stop off at a local onsen on our way home, which is very nice.
  • Min. temp. -7°C max. 7°C
 

Japanese Junk food 31 March, 2012

Filed under: food & drink — johnraff @ 1:31 am
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…is coming to a street corner somewhere near you, at least if you live in Asia. Yoshinoya beef bowl, Mos Burger, conveyor-belt sushi, Coco Ichi Ban curry and who knows what other shiny flourescent-lit plastic-panelled purveyors of inedible monosodium glutamate mixtures are all planning a major invasion of nearby Asian markets to make up for the dwindling enthusiasm among Japanese consumers for their factory-produced “food”. The irony is that while here this is stuff you scarf down quickly in your lunch half-hour, holding your nose, in Shanghai and Bangkok these are stylish places where the pampered daughters of the newly rich go to show off their new Louis Vuitton handbags. Not put off by prices four or five times higher than the much tastier local food, they go for the shiny shiny decor, squeaky cleanliness, obsequious manual-trained service and the exotic taste of the Japanese take on Junk Food.

The Japanese curry apparently came originally from Britain, so I feel some responsibility for the blandness and wheat-flour gloppiness, but when it got here they threw things like soy sauce and “kombu” stock into the mix, reduced the spices and meat content still further, and made it a favourite among elementary school children (they soon move on to grilled Kobe beef and the more expensive sushi). This stuff is now selling like hot cakes in Thailand of all places! If you’ve been there, or even if you haven’t, you’ll know they’ve got great curries in Thailand, redolent with all kinds of herbs and spices and spoon-meltingly hot, but those who can afford the ridiculous prices are now eating this Japanese imitation of English curry… (sigh)

While I’m all for Japanese companies making some money, so our customers can afford to come back, it’s hard to feel happy about all this. Ah well, maybe it’ll turn out to be a fad and an Asian version of the Slow Food movement will throw out the invaders. As the owner of an Asian Food restaurant I’m probably biased, but I think there’s some of the best food in the world in Southeast Asia, and certainly hope it survives.

 

 
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