asazuke

Life in Japan, food, music, whatever…

2012! 4 January, 2012

Filed under: countryside,customs,food & drink — johnraff @ 7:15 pm
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Happy New Year everyone! There are still some things I wanted to post about in 2011, along with the farm records for November and December, but since it’s now 2011 let’s start off more or less in real time…

T’s nephew and his wife now live here in Nagoya; their new baby is still too small to make the shinkansen journey to Tokyo so T’s sister came here, along with her daughter. Not a bad family gathering, considering we have no kids of our own, and a table to match, with contributions from all concerned. New Year here is just like Christmas in that respect, though the traditional fare is a bit exotic for us Westerners maybe. Personally, a roasted bird with all the trimmings followed by Christmas pudding would be quite OK, but we had “kazunoko” (salted herring roe), “kamaboko” (fish cake) and “kobumaki” (seaweed rolls). The kobumaki’s not bad, but I can pass on the kazunoko and kamaboko to be honest. There wasn’t any “mochi” (pounded glutinous rice cakes, another New year favourite) but things get better after that: delicious tuna sashimi, and the super-rich “toro” as well, “ikura” salmon roe, tender grilled yellowtail, prawns simmered in a light stock, crab and mushrooms steamed in citrus peel, some Japanese style vegetables, thai style octopus salad, roast beef with horseradish, deep fried water chestnuts with parmesan cheese…  Wow, but when there was a bit of space on the table some sushi appeared, followed by something T made: “anago” eel, snapper, ginko nuts and lily roots covered with a foam of grated young turnips and egg white and steamed for 20 minutes or so. Excellent.

The next day after a slow breakfast we headed out to the country, loaded up with leftovers to see us through a couple of days. Yes, it’s pretty cold. Fire up the oil fan heater for a few hours and eventually the floor and walls are no longer ice-cold to the touch. On the third I got a certain amount of work done, disposing of compostable rubbish and pruning a maple tree just in front of the house which had grown much too big. Knowing nothing about it except to do it in the Winter I sawed off a number of big branches, and spent the next couple of hours burning them down to a little pile of ash. Now I’ve just done a google search and found out that maples don’t like having their branches cut too much… I hope it survives.

On the 4th T woke me up at 9:00. It had started snowing quite steadily and if we didn’t get out soon we might get stuck there, or at least have to put on the tyre chains, which is a horrible job. Quick breakfast, hurried packing and on the road by 10:30. It’s a cold 0°C in the hills, but back in tropical Nagoya a much more tolerable 7°C or so. Safe! (But back to work tomorrow.)

In the country, last week,
Min temp -6°C max 6°C

 

Persimmons 25 November, 2011

Filed under: countryside,food & drink,seasons — johnraff @ 2:03 pm
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Maybe this fruit’s not too well known outside the Far East – it’s about the size of a small apple, bright red-orange and a bit crunchy. (I’m not that crazy about them personally.) There are two kinds: sweet and bitter. The bitter ones are incredibly astringent (tannin) and quite inedible. It feels as if your mouth is being turned inside out. However, if you dry them they miraculously become sweet! The result is something like dried dates or figs. The tree behind our country house is the bitter variety but this year there’s been a huge crop (they produce heavily on alternate years) and Taeko’s been hanging up some of them to make dried persimmons, out on our Nagoya veranda where the washing usually goes. Last time she did that she was eating them every day (they are a bit too sweet for me) and put on 10Kg, so this time she’s giving most of them away to friends and relatives.

 

Farmlog 7th ~ 29th August 2011 28 September, 2011

Filed under: countryside,food & drink — johnraff @ 1:50 am
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7th~8th

  • A real Summer day for once: blue sky, summery clouds… and a blazing sun! It’s hot! The first supermarket car-park is scorching in the way only a supermarket car-park can be. The asphalt soaks up the sun so you get grilled from above and below simultaneously.
  • But by the time we get to the second supermarket – there are now two on our route – it’s already clouded over and extra humid. The cicadas are hitting a peak.
  • This week there are lots of nice fresh vegetables at the ¥100 stall so we stock up for Raffles and for ourselves: long shiny black eggplants and round green ones, various kinds of capsicums, perfect cucumbers and delicious tomatoes. Tomatoes show up less often these days so we’re lucky.
  • It’s cool when we leave the car at our house and there’s a chorus of welcome from the cicadas and uguisu. After a bit of work, though, the humidity gets you covered in moisture. Likewise the floor and tatami.
  • I had been a bit worried if the deer had got to the chillies, but they were OK. Not, however, the yams, which had had all their leaves eaten off by some animal. Saw a “mamushi” snake while fixing the hole in the netting the leaf-eater had probably come through.
  • On Monday there was more fierce hot sun and that humidity again, so it’s hot even in the shade. Half a dozen different insect voices fill in the background.
  • Bitten by leeches on wrist and toe. These creatures are affecting our quality of life here. Not in a positive way.
  • A baby rabbit appeared round the side of the house.
  • Min. temp. 19°C max. 32°C

13th~15th

  • We took an extra day off this week so we could take in the firework display at our local town on Saturday. This was our Summer Holiday but it was OK actually. Will post some pics of the fireworks soon. Anyway, we’re thinking of a trip somewhere at New Year maybe, when it’s easier to take time off.
  • A blazing hot Saturday, as it turned out. This is real summer heat – up to now was just a sort of extended Rainy Season – the humidity’s still too high though.
  • Traffic jams everywhere because this is the weekend just before “Obon“, but Nagoya is quiet. We catch some of the traffic on the road out, though.
  • The first supermarket car park is a furnace, unbelievable.
  • Unpack, a quick snack and it’s time to head down town for the fireworks, armed with fried chicken, “edamame”, beer and non-alcoholic “beer” for T who’s volunteered to drive.
  • Sunday is hot too; you can’t spend long in the sun, so do some general pottering about. Take the lid off the compost to try and dry it out a bit. If compost gets too wet, which ours always does, it doesn’t ferment properly and smells pretty bad.
  • The yam leaves have been eaten again but the net looks undamaged so it might have been some small animal – a rabbit? Maybe the parents of that baby we saw last week? The grass nearby has been nibbled too, so it could be.
  • Late afternoon we’re covered over by black clouds, followed by a good half hour of continuous thunder and lightning, some of it quite close by. It rains hard for a while, then it all goes away, the sky is clear and the temperature drops by an amazing 8°C: almost chilly!
  • Dinner under an almost full moon with a splendid insect chorus. Deliciously cool. Aah… having an extra day off makes quite a difference.
  • On the radio someone plays a 15 hour special of cover versions of all the beatles’ songs.
  • The insect voices are slightly different every day.
  • T dries this year’s umeboshi pickles in the sun, then they’ll keep. Perfect hand-made umeboshi sell for over a dollar each! T’s can compete easily for taste, but there might be a couple of spots here and there. Ah well.
  • A big black and yellow dragonfly flies into and out of the house.
  • Leave early to catch a film in Nagoya – “Tree of Life”, but I was pretty unimpressed.
  • Min. temp. 19°C max. 32°C

21st~22nd

  • Sunday is cold and rainy – is this the end of the summer?
  • The first “matsutake” mushrooms appear in the supermarket. Once plentiful, these are now an expensive treat, appreciated by Japanese (including T) for the supposedly wonderful aroma. To me, they’re just another mushroom. I like mushrooms for sure, but at 2000 yen each? Yes, that’s over 20 dollars for one mushroom! Anyway, these were from China.
  • That evening a long-sleeved shirt was called for, the first time since… May?
  • Monday was better with patchy clouds and a fresh breeze, but later slipped back into the familiar mugginess.
  • Visited by one red dragonfly. Masses of these will appear over the rice paddies in autumn. Two pigeons show up, probably to check out the sansho berries, but soon leave.
  • Regular stream of lorries on our usually quiet road, carrying gravel up and timber down. Are they building another road through the mountains, on some leftover budget?
  • Min. temp. 19°C max. 30°C

28th~29th

  • We set off in some trepidation – there was very heavy rain during the week and some people were evacuated in a nearby town. Are the chilli plants OK? Is the house OK?
  • The Valor (supermarket #1) car park is the usual oven. Inside, rice from Toyama is 40% more than from Miyagi, where they were affected by the nuclear accident. It’s silly really, because this is still last year’s rice…
  • The house and chillies are OK – the rain here wasn’t all that bad apparently. Two chilli plants are down and need some support, and there’s a wet patch on the floor in our entrance. You’d swear the roof was leaking, but the ceiling and floor upstairs are perfectly dry. Is it groundwater? No, there’s a two foot deep square pit near the front door – once used to store vegetables – which is dry. It must be condensation when the moist air from outside meets the cold floor surface, but there’s a lot of it!
  • Monday breakfast of exotic leftovers. T had made a salad of fried eggplant strips, cucumber, gouda cheese and a handful of “edamame” (fresh soy beans), with an oil and vinegar dressing. Simple colours of brown, green and yellow – no flashy tomatoes or red peppers – I should have taken a photo but I was too concerned with eating it. With a slice of brown bread: delicious. We also had some leftover Inari sushi. This is sushi rice – slightly sweetened and vinegared – in this case mixed with sesame seeds and chopped myoga and stuffed into skins of fried tofu which had been stewed with sweetened soy sauce. The taste is less complicated than it sounds, and also delicious.
  • A reconnaissance flight of two red dragonflies checking the place out for the hordes to follow soon. It’s still very hot, but the breeze is hinting of autumn.
  • T picks more myoga. I must make Myoga Chicken for Raffles – a seasonal treat!
  • Listening to the DPJ leadership elections on the radio. Maehara is the most popular candidate by far, but he doesn’t get on with Ozawa who still has plenty of strings to pull, so the job goes to the more boring Noda.
  • Min. temp. 20°C max. 29°C
 

Myoga 9 September, 2011

Filed under: countryside,food & drink — johnraff @ 2:56 pm
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This is funny stuff. Myoga is a kind of wild ginger that grows freely around the house with no help from us at all; although it dies down in the winter it’s quite frost resistant and always comes back up. There’s no thick root to speak of though, in spite of being in the ginger family. What is used sometimes in Japanese food are the flowers, or flower buds. These are small and pink, and appear from the ground around August. You should pick them while they’re still buds, before the small yellow flowers start to emerge, which means searching around under the plants in the sticky heat, fighting off leeches and mosquitos, trying to find the buds when they’ve just shown above the ground and are still firm.

Once they’re picked you can slice them and put them in miso soup, add them to pickled eggplant or even put them in fried rice. Myoga has a very special fragrance which is hard to describe – sort of floral and bitter at the same time. It’s quite possible not to like it at first, and too much is definitely on the astringent side, but it’s one of the tastes of summer. Interestingly, there’s a “wild ginger flower” used in Southeast Asian cooking too, called bunga kantan in Malay. I was surprised to find one day in Singapore that it tasted almost exactly like myoga, although it’s bigger and longer, and the flower that comes from the bud looks quite different. There they sprinkle it on salads or put it in fish curries. It goes especially well with sour flavours like tamarind.

At Raffles we were delighted to have this authentic ingredient at hand, and use the myoga leaves to wrap our steamed “otak otak” spicy fish paste, sometimes make a cucumber and myoga salad and also put it in “myoga chicken” which is on our blackboard right now. This is an adaptation of a Penang dish called “ayam tumis” which also contains lemon grass, galangal, fresh turmeric, shrimp paste and tamarind. I’ve boosted up the myoga content so you can really taste it, and I think it’s pretty good. It looks just like a curry, and you eat it the same way, with rice, but there’s no spice in there which would be found in normal “curry powder”: if you don’t call it a “curry” though, people won’t order it…

 

Farmlog July 3rd ~ 25th 2011 27 August, 2011

Filed under: countryside — johnraff @ 2:59 pm
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Summer in Gifu continues:

3rd ~ 4th July

  • We’re late this week and arrive on a moist Sunday evening. It’s extremely humid and mouldy, even a thorough vacuuming of the tatami floor can’t get rid of the smell.
  • The insects are warming up for their summer serenade, but there’s no sign of the fireflies this year. Did the carp in the pond eat all the larvae?
  • The yams that T planted had all their leaves eaten by some animal. I found a small gap in the net round that field and fixed it. Luckily the chillies were OK.
  • Got some weed-cutting done. Lots of buyo (nasty little black flies), but no leeches, amazingly.
  • Cloudy and wet the whole weekend.
  • Min. temp. 19°C max. 32°C

10th ~ 11th July

  • Tsuyu-ake (official end of the Rainy Season) is very early this year; Sunday is hot and humid, but the clouds are summer clouds – fluffy cumulus. not the grey blanket of the tsuyu.
  • The heat persists even out in the country and our floor is still wet. Maybe it’ll dry up in a week or two.
  • A bumper ume harvest. Something like a sour plum or apricot, this was originally imported from China as a medicine apparently, but is long-established in Japan. This year the tree branches are bent down with fruit and we pick 15Kg in an hour or so. Apart from umeboshi pickles and umeshu liqueur, you can make a drink by just putting them in a jar with rock sugar for a few weeks. Mix the syrup with water – good on a summer afternoon.
  • Saw a single firefly!
  • Monday continues hot and humid, but sometimes there’s a refreshing breeze – quite different from Nagoya, where any wind will have blown over acres of sun-baked concrete and comes on like something from an open oven door. We also had a visit from the uguisu, which was thoughtful of it.
  • Min. temp. 15°C max. 33°C

17th ~ 18th July

  • Typical summer clouds and humidity – a baking supermarket car park.
  • Shiso is a herb that looks a bit like a nettle – maybe a relative of basil? It comes in green and red varieties, the green is good in salad-type things and the red is used for umeboshi pickles. They both have a clean smell and antiseptic properties, but this year apparently everyone’s had huge ume harvest so there’s a shortage of red shiso. Eventually the lady at the 100 yen stand was able to get some for us. T has a lot of work ahead and I suppose we’ll be OK for umeboshi for a while.
  • Voices: a noisy welcome from birds and cicadas. In late afternoon come waves of synchronized blips from some kind of cicada, slipping in and out of phase like an op-art painting, moving up close, sometimes down the valley. The effect is very psychedelic. The morning cicadas do a continuous stream of sound that just blends into the humid heat. Just after dark there’s a strange cry from somewhere behind the house. A deer? A dog? Different insects take over in the evening – is autumn starting early? In the morning we hear a new bird – a voice I haven’t noticed before.
  • The humidity continues unabated. There are still some wet spots on the floor. A light haze softens the sun’s heat a bit.
  • It’s been a dry week but there’s a typhoon coming so we should get some rain.
  • But… no leeches! Could they be finished? Lots of lizards though. They’re much nicer than leeches let me tell you.
  • Min. temp. 18°C max. 33°C

24th ~ 25th July

  • Pleasantly cloudy on Sunday so the supermarket car park on the way out is less bakingly hot. That sun can hit you like a hammer.
  • Vegetables: lots of eggplants – I’ve already made a (very nice) eggplant pickle though. Some tomatoes. One place on our route has especially nice tomatoes from a local grower but they’re often sold out. No cucumbers. Why? They’re expensive in the supermarkets too. (We now have two supermarkets to check out on our route. )
  • The big Malaysian chillies aren’t doing well at all. Maybe the soil in this year’s field doesn’t suit them. Maybe I let them grow too big in their pots before planting? They looked so vigorous in Nagoya… The small hot varieties are doing OK though.
  • The house is slowly drying out, but there are still damp patches. Not wet though.
  • The insect chorus is building up.
  • The nozenkazura (Chinese trumpet vine) is in full bloom and looking good.
  • Lorry-loads of timber coming down from the hills. Are they building a road somewhere?
  • Pampas grass is a weed! People grow it in their gardens in Europe, but here it’s almost impossible to control. Keep hitting it with the weed-cutter: three times a year for three years they say. Or try glyphosate – that seems to work.
  • Next week Daihachi Ryodan play at the Ichinomiya Festival which might be fun, but means we miss a weekend here.
  • Min. temp. 18°C max. 29°C
 

Farmlog May 15th ~ 23rd 2011 3 June, 2011

Filed under: countryside — johnraff @ 2:31 pm
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Two in one to catch up a bit.

15th ~ 16th May

  • After a wet week, it’s sunny and hot again, going on scorching in fact, though the breeze is still cool as we get out into the hills of Gifu.
  • At last all the rice has been planted out in our area. This year they seem to be using every available square inch of land – are they anticipating a rice shortage this autumn with the fields of Fukushima knocked out?
  • Peas and broad beans: up till last year or so the fresh ones were sold in the supermarket in packets so tiny you could count them, at a ridiculous price, but now they’re more plentiful for some reason. Are the imports of Chinese frozen vegetables being replaced locally? Anyway rice cooked with peas is very good. Just throw in a handful and cook them together.
  • Our other dinner item was san sai tempura. San sai means “mountain vegetables” and means the delicious wild shoots you can pick in the spring. Dinner outside wasn’t quite as cold as last week but still a bit chilly.
  • Checked the woods, and got two more bamboo shoots.
  • After listening to the Lebanese legend Fairuz on the radiowe had a programme of hogaku, or traditional Japanese music. While many other countries have a rich musical tradition – Indonesia, Brazil, the USA… – Japan too has quite a variety of less well-known genres: Hogaku, Minyo, Enka, Kayoukyoku…
  • Min. temp. 5°C max. 23°C

22nd ~ 23rd May

  • A foretaste of the tsuyu rainy season – humid and hot in Nagoya, chilly at the farm.
  • Cobwebs are the theme as we arrive, everywhere you move, there’s one in your face.
  • Many bird voices, but still no uguisu – I wonder what’s happened?
  • The weeds are growing at an incredible rate, but it’s raining so no weeding done.
  • T picked some tea from the fresh shoots on our bushes. Most of it goes unused, but lately she’s found you can dry it with a microwave so we can drink some of the produce of our plantation. This is less ecological than sun-drying I agree, but much quicker.
  • Min. temp. 6°C, max. 28°C.
 

Raw Beef 20 May, 2011

Filed under: food & drink,news — johnraff @ 2:54 pm
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The Tartars have a lot to answer for. I don’t know if you have “tartare steak” where you live, but minced raw beef, possibly mixed with onion, and topped with a raw egg is a standard menu item in many countries in Europe and America. The story is that the Tartars brought the dish to Europe as part of the Mongolian invasion. I don’t know whether the Tartars are supposed to have invented it themselves or got it from the Mongols, but it’s interesting to note that at the other end of the Mongolian sphere of influence, in East Asia, there are things like steak tartare too. Laos and Thailand have a dish called laap (or larp or laab) which is minced, sometimes raw, meat with herbs and spices, Bali has something called lawar, and Korea has yukhoe. This is definitely raw beef, and there are other elements in Korean culture to suggest Mongolian influences, so yukhoe could well be a Far Eastern version of Tartare steak.

Korean food is popular here in Japan too, especially grilled beef (pulgogi in Korea and yakiniku here) and recently yukke, the Japanese take on yukhoe, has been a very popular side dish. Of course Japan is the land of raw fish, so nobody gets too worried about raw beef – in fact I’ve had beef sashimi a few times and it’s quite good if the beef is of decent quality. That is, until a couple of weeks ago. The last two weeks the TV news has been full of reports about a spate of food poisoning cases at a yakiniku chain, where people had eaten the (very cheap at ¥280) yukke. A lot of people ended up in hospital, and four died. Food poisoning isn’t only about vomiting and diarrhoea.

 

Farmlog 8th~9th May 2011 19 May, 2011

Filed under: countryside,food & drink — johnraff @ 2:31 pm
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  • Opened the car boot to load in bags and noticed how much the temperature has just gone up – inside the car the air was nice and cool, without any use of the air conditioner.
  • A beautiful day for speed-trapping, and there they were with their white motobikes, in their favourite spot, hauling in a middle-aged lady.
  • The May sun can be quite fierce – there’s a lot of UV out there too, which you don’t notice because of the cool wind so you can get burnt easily.
  • Wild wisteria out in the hills, azaleas, flowers come out one after another – spring is busy. Busy for us too – trees to be pruned, weeds to be cut, and the field where the chillies will be planted has to be dug up. That last job should have been done last autumn, leaving time now for the other stuff…
  • Got some mustard greens (karashina) at the 100yen stand. These have a nice hotness when raw, or pickled in salt, but are also good stir-fried, when the mustardy taste goes.
  • More and more voices around the house – frogs, a strange mournful bird like an owl an octave higher, another one has a beautiful call with a delicate fall at the end, as if it was speaking Thai… but no uguisu yet.
  • Lots of flies.
  • Dinner outside for the first time – a bit chilly but OK if you sit near the fire.
  • There wasn’t much rain last week, but in the woods behind the house there was one bamboo shoot. I made an Indian pickle with the crunchy part, and T cooked the rest with soy sauce, fish flakes and a couple of sansho leaves. Sansho has a sharp lemony smell but has a strange affinity with freshly dug bamboo shoot. Both seem to have an oddly creamy undertone, if that makes any sense…
  • Min temp 5°C max 24°C
 

Farmlog 24th April 2011 1 May, 2011

Filed under: countryside,food & drink — johnraff @ 1:37 am
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Well my spell back in Britain meant a month since the last trip up to our place in Gifu, and Spring has well and truly arrived. Paddy fields in the area are already filled with water ready for the rice seedlings to be planted. This really has to be my favourite season out here. From late March to early May all kinds of flowers come out one after another and on a warm sunny afternoon it feels like a yet undiscovered corner of paradise. This time, unfortunately, the weather wasn’t with us – wet, cloudy and chilly. Ah well. Maybe better luck next week.

The first warabi (fern shoots) of the season are up, and they’re delicious, although possibly poisonous and carcinogenic… You put wood ash on them, pour on boiling water and leave them overnight. This gets out some of the bitterness. Then just rinse and eat them with a drop of soy sauce, some dried fish flakes and a dab of wasabi. Good. T likes to stew them with chunks of fried tofu, which is OK too. Someone else shares our appreciation for these wild vegetables, and had already picked quite a few before we arrived on Sunday. This annoys T no end, and she put up some notices warning tresspassers and warabi-thieves away. We’ll see if they do any good.

Min. temp. -4°C, max. 20°C (over the last four weeks, remember).

 

Body chemistry or something 20 April, 2011

Filed under: food & drink,places — johnraff @ 1:54 am
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I’ve just got back from three weeks in the UK. It’s the place where I was born and grew up and I love it; the buildings that were intended – in contrast with earthquake-prone Japan – to last for years and years, the green green grass everywhere even in winter, the TV, the humour, the relaxed mixture of cultures you now enjoy, the warm beer, and, yes, even the food.

All that said, I’ve now been living in Japan for 35 years – more than half my life – and my body must have adapted in some way. Maybe it’s the air, maybe the water: I don’t know but this morning my breakfast – the same fruit + yogurt + muesli + pot of tea I was having while in Britain – just tasted so good.

 

 
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