Sunday, October 25, 2009

Japanese Hot Pot Success: Beef Sukiyaki!

I'm not a cook. But I follow directions well, which is why I'm pleased with Japanese Hot Pots: Comforting One-Pot Meals by renowned chef Tadashi Ono and prolific food writer Harris Salat. One of the reasons I bought this book was I thought I could make a hearty Japanese meal with very little fuss. It worked!

I go nuts with the prep time that cooking Japanese dishes requires. I could spend hours chopping, slicing, and preparing stocks and broths. I chose beef sukiyaki as my first dish to create from Japanese Hot Pots because it doesn't call for dashi, and I could buy the meat pre-cut at my local Japanese grocery store. (I already mentioned that I wasn't a cook; did I mention that I'm a lazy non-cook?) Anyway, chopping is involved in the making of this marvelous dish, but I endured it. Once the onions and cabbage were chopped and the mushrooms were cleaned, I was able to move on to the other reason I bought this cookbook: Iwatani!

Iwatani makes portable gas stoves which are amazing to use for hot pot cooking. My husband bought me this Iwatani a few years ago, but I've never had the confidence to use it until now. (I always thought I would blow up the apartment.) I'm happy to report that it's one of the easiest things to use. I enjoyed cooking with my portable hot plate – which actually works better than a couple of the burners on our stove – and my adorable nabe pot. These things aren't required for hot pot cooking – your stovetop and a large cast-iron skillet will do the trick – but it's fun to go full-on Japanese during moments like this.

The lid to our nabe pot

Beef sukiyaki ingredients are spread out in my kitchen.

Most Japanese grocery stores sell pre-cut beef specifically for sukiyaki cooking.

Two kinds of onions are used in this dish: negi (left) and a half of a Spanish onion (center). I have no idea if I actually used a Spanish onion, but it worked. Negi looks like a scallion but is really long. Napa cabbage is in the background.

Two kinds of mushrooms: shiitake . . .

. . . and enoki, which I think are the cutest little mushrooms.

This mass of spaghetti-looking stringy things is itokonnyaku. My package said that it was "yam noodles" or something like that, but it's from a tuber known as konjac. Practically devoid of flavor, itokonnyaku is used to add texture to the hot pot meal.

Also included in beef sukiyaki is broiled tofu. I'd heard of silken, firm, and extra firm tofu, but broiled was a new one to me. The next time I make this dish, I'll be sure to cut the squares into smaller, more manageable pieces. They seem to absorb the most heat.

Now it's time to start cooking! This was actually the easiest part. I know it looks gross right now, but this beef turned out to be delicious. Smelled good, too.

Things are starting to look good as I add more ingredients into the nabe pot.

A couple of cups of sake, some sugar, and some soy sauce add flavor to the fixin's.

Hmm, seems like my nabe pot isn't big enough for all of the ingredients.

As the dish simmers, the bigger chunks of ingredients start to shrink, so I do have room to fit everything in there. It's looking good!

When the beef sukiyaki is ready, we cracked an egg into a couple of small bowls and beat them. This is what we dip the meat and other goodies into before eating. (This is an optional step for people who are squeamish about raw eggs.)

The perfect compliment to any Japanese dish is a nice, cold Japanese beer.

Beef sukiyaki!

A rainy, chilly October night such as Friday night was perfect for hot pot cooking. It was a great night for soup, Japanese style, and all of the ingredients combined to create a filling dish. And it's fun and easy to cook. I can't wait to try my next hot pot recipe. Thanks, Tadashi and Harris!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

All the Astro Boy You Need to See

Astro Boy opened yesterday. My husband and I saw a screening of it at Japan Society on Tuesday. Our impressions: Eh.

This clip is pretty much all you really need to see. I went into the screening with a mix of excitement (wanted to see a film based on a popular Japanese manga and TV character) and trepidation (not a fan of Nicolas Cage and Nathan Lane, who provide voices for a couple of the characters). After seeing the movie, I want to see the original TV series, and I still dislike Nicolas Cage and Nathan Lane.

Perhaps it's unfair for me to judge this movie since I never saw the TV show or the live-action movie and know next to nothing about the Astro Boy manga series. But I can judge bad acting. And there's plenty of it in this film. Nicolas Cage – his 1995 Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas notwithstanding – has always been bad, in my opinion. In Astro Boy, he continued to disappoint. There is no feeling or emotion in his voice; it's as if he's just reading his lines. The only thing I liked about Nathan Lane's character was his name: Hamegg. Mmm, I love me some ham and eggs, but Hamegg as a character did nothing for me.

That's probably because there were holes in his story and the rest of the plot as well. The movie did not do a good job of explaining Hamegg's situation and his relationship with Cage's Dr. Tenma, who, as a brilliant scientist, created Astro Boy to replace his dead son, only to cast him aside. Another annoying big Hollywood name is Donald Sutherland, who was also phoning it in as the voice of General Stone, the president of Astro Boy's hometown of Metro City. General Stone never let us forget that he was running for re-election, and that annoyed me almost as much as the sound of Nicolas Cage's voice. Outside of Astro Boy himself, the only characters I liked were Trashcan and Zog.

Don't just listen to me; read real reviews of the film, including Glenn Whipp's in the LA Times and Manohla Dargis's in The New York Times.

I like the concept of Astro Boy, but it lacked in execution. If nothing else, it helped me discover Osamu Tezuka's original "Mighty Atom". There is an entire community dedicated to Tezuka's creations, and while I'll never join that community, I can certainly appreciate it more than the movie.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Uribo Mystery Solved!

Yesterday I posted an entry about a Mitsui commercial and wondered what a uribo is. (Or should it be an uribo?) Anyway, my friend Tammy found a blog post that described how a Japanese watermelon, called uri, favored a young wild boar.

Japanese melon - uri (瓜)

Wild boar - inoshishi (猪), nicknamed uribo (ウリボー)

Here's the "I am a Uribo" commercial for Mistui Visa Card again for good measure:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

This Actually Scares Me

I love reading blogs about crazy Japanese stuff, and Tofugu is one of my favorites. But this recent entry actually scares me.

October 15 was Global Handwashing Day? Apparently, it was, and UNICEF Japan assembled the above PSA to encourage children as well as adults to wash their hands. It stars Japanese dancer Kaiji Moriyama, who looks very different on his website than he does in his Global Handwashing Dance.

I shouldn't make fun of this because it's very important that we all wash our hands. I'm just not going to dance around for twenty seconds every time.

"I am a uribo"

After seeing this commercial for Mitsui Sumitomo's Visa card on Japan Probe, it made me want to re-read I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki. Even though I don't understand everything that's being said here, I love this spot.

Funny, I don't recall the cat in the book being so bumbling and destructive. Guess that's why I need to read it again.

Despite my attempts at research, I could not find out why a wild boar is Mitsui's mascot. I shouldn't question it; Japanese companies always use cute characters in their advertising. At the beginning of the commercial, the pig says that he's not a cat, he's an uribo; and at the end of the commercial, the announcer says "Let's uribo campaign." I've looked through every Japanese-to-English dictionary at my disposal, and I can't figure out what an uribo is. Is it another name for wild boar? Is it another delightful Japanese play on words that can't be found in a dictionary?

I also can't figure out who the actress is and why they chose and actress to portray such a prominent and important literary figures. I understand it's a parody, but still.

What I do know is that Natsume Sōseki is one of Japan's most revered authors. His likeness currently appears on the 1,000 yen note, although I've read that he's going to be replaced soon. I read his book Kokoro in my Japanese history class when I was a senior in college. That was about a thousand years ago, so I should probably re-read that one, too.

How Will They Win Without Yu?

Professional baseball is in the throes of the postseason, here and in Japan. As I write this, the Phillies pounded the Dodgers in the deciding game of the NLCS, ruining my prediction of a Dodgers/Yankees World Series. On the other side of the world, it's already tomorrow afternoon, and Nippon Professional Baseball teams are also in playoff mode. It's now the second stage of the Climax Series.

Climax Series? Huh?
Yeah, that's what Japanese baseball calls their version of the playoffs. Apparently, it's a marketing ploy. Nothing says "Pay attention to me!" like a catchy title.

Playoff Structure
Japan has two leagues, the Central and Pacific, with the top three finishers in each league advancing to the Climax Series. This season the Yomiuri Giants ran away with the regular season Central title, followed by the Chunichi Dragons and the Yakult Swallows. The Dragons and Swallows met in Stage 1 of the Climax Series, with Chunichi prevailing 2 games to 1. (Stage 1 is a best-of-three series.) They are currently playing the Giants in Stage 2 of the Climax Series. The winner of that stage goes on to Japan Series.

In the Pacific, the Nippon Ham Fighters, Rakuten Golden Eagles, and Softbank Hawks finished 1-2-3. Rakuten dispatched the Hawks and are facing the Yu Darvish-less Fighters.

Best-of-Six Series? Huh?
Another facet of Japanese baseball that may seem a bit odd – because it is – is the fact that the Dragons and Giants are tied 1-1 but have played only one game. Hmmm. That's because the league champions – the Giants and the Fighters – are given 1-game leads before Stage 2 begins as well as home field advantage for the entire series. That means Stage 2 of the Central League will be played entirely at Tokyo Dome, home of the Giants, and Stage 2 of the Pacific will be in Sapporo Dome, Nippon Ham's home park.

Wayne Graczyk, Yomiuri Giants broadcaster, Japan Times columnist, Japan Pro Baseball Fan Handbook and Media Guide publisher, and JapanBall friend, took the time to explain this curiosity to me. "The first place team gets a one-game advantage and all home games to give it every edge in case, as happened this year in the Central League, the first place team wins by a wide margin (more than ten games) during the regular season," Wayne said via e-mail.

I think the NPB, based on Wayne's explanation, does its best to ensure the regular season champions eventually compete in the Japan Series, especially if those teams dominated the season, as Yomiuri did this year. However, the Giants could miss out on the Japan Series if they lose to the Dragons, who routed them last night by a score of 7-2 and tied the series at 1-1. According to Wayne, "it will be especially embarrassing [for the Giants] to lose after winning the pennant by twelve games and with the one-game and home field advantages." Nippon Ham, who won the Pacific by a mere five-and-a-half games, is doing its part to advance to the Japan Series. The Fighters defeated Rakuten last night, thanks in part to a walkoff grand slam off the bat of former MLB player Terrmel Sledge, who, coincidentally, was born in my hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina. But I digress . . .

Many in Japan believe that Nippon Ham will have a tough time winning the Climax Series because they are without the services of their ace – and quite possibly the best pitcher in the world – Yu Darvish. The young star won fifteen games this season, but he is out with lower back pain and right shoulder fatigue. That's a shame because he is dominant in playoff situations: 5-0, 0.84 ERA in five postseason starts. And he's only 23 years old. As Fighters manager Masataka Nashida put it, "The starters and relievers are going to have to pull it together."

It's interesting how baseball talk is similar this time of year, no matter what country.

Thanks to Wayne for the info, and good luck to the Giants in the Climax Series!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Timbre of Everyday Life

As I perused TOKYOMANGO, Lisa Katayama's blog about cute and quirky things about Japan and Japanese technology, I saw her post about a music video by the Japanese band Sour. I'd never heard of this band, nor had I seen the video, before this morning, but I've decided that I love them both. The video is for the song "Hibi no Neiro," which translates to "the timbre (or tone) of everyday life."

I'm a little late to the party: Their EP was released in June, and the video has had more that one million hits. What makes this video so special? It's made up of shots from fans on their webcams, and their actions are synchronized to create special images. (Think halftime at a college football game where everyone holds up signs that look like plain colored pieces of laminated paper but together spell out "Go Heels!" or something to that effect, then remember that these fans are sitting in front of their computers and are from all over the world.)

Check out the video and love it! (I'm sure my editor husband has a technological explanation for how this was done.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Reporting on the Food Report

One of my favorite blogs about Japanese cuisine is The Japanese Food Report, which is edited by food writer Harris Salat. I wrote an essay about the wonderful food I consumed – and some I couldn't find – during my tour of Japanese baseball, and Harris was kind enough to post it on his site. Please read "Chowing Down at Japanese Baseball Stadiums."

The sign says Kobe Beef croquettes, but they were sold out by the time I made it to the counter.

A beer girl carries a Kirin Ichiban keg on her back at Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium in Hiroshima.

I was surprised to see this van serving Okinawan cuisine in front of the Seibu Dome in Tokorozawa, Saitama.

Inside the Seibu Dome, two youngsters share a smile and a bento at one of the picnic areas in the stadium.

One of my favorite meals on the baseball tour: Curry rice at Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo.

Side Note:
Harris, who specializes in writing about Japanese food, recently published a book called Japanese Hot Pots: Comforting One-Pot Meals. He wrote it in conjunction with Tadashi Ono, executive chef at Matsuri, a fantastic Japanese restaurant in New York City. It has an extensive menu, and if you love sushi, this is the place to go!

Fun with Signs

Here are a few of my favorite signs from my most recent trip to Japan.

I saw this sign in Asakusa at one of the shops that line the path to Sensōji Temple. It's rare to see Japanese people eating and walking down the street at the same time, so the people who work at this tea and sweets shop posted this sign in English and Korean, asking patrons to eat and drink at the store instead of walking around with their purchased food and beverages. If you choose to ignore this sign, not only will you look like a moron, but you'll walk around for hours with an empty cup because trash cans aren't on every corner as in American cities.

I love this sign, which was on the bathroom door in my Kyoto hotel. I discussed the bad punctuation in a previous post, but let's revisit it, shall we? The first period is not necessary because "because a fire alarm will be worked by a steam" is not a complete sentence. And if it were a complete sentence, the B in "because" should be capitalized. Since it's not a sentence and shouldn't stand alone, the sign should read

Please close the bath door because a fire alarm will be worked by a steam.

Now let's talk about the actual words in the sentence. I think it should say

Please close the bathroom door because steam will set off the fire alarm.

I think the person who translated this sign from the Japanese consulted Babel Fish and went with the literal translation.

This sign is on the bullet train from Hiroshima to Iwakuni. It says that in case of emergency, push the button. Nothing wrong with that, right? Well . . .

. . . considering the button is about seven feet in the air, not many people would be able to push that button should the need arise. Although Japanese people are growing taller, the average height for Japanese males is 5'7" and for women is 5'2".

Encountering funny signs and translations is one of my favorite things about visiting Japan.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I'm All About Smart Money

The October issue of Smart Money magazine contains a quote from me! Back in June I wrote a review on yelp about Environment Furniture, the place where Marc and I purchased our bedroom furniture. When Miriam Gottfried, a reporter for Smart Money, was assigned to write a story about eco-friendly furniture, she read my review and asked to interview me.

I'm mentioned only at the beginning, and I sound like a total dork. I'm pretty sure I sounded intelligent when I spoke to Miriam on the phone, though.

Click on each page to see it in full view.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

New Life for Former Military Houses in Okinawa

I found this story about former U.S. military housing on Okinawa in Japan Today and thought I'd post it here. Apparently the old concrete structures are being rented by people from mainland Japan; they're interested in the housing because it looks different from anything else they've seen on the mainland. Interesting.

I'd always thought that native Okinawans inhabited the old U.S. military housing because some of the apartment buildings have the same style of construction as the on-post housing I lived in as a child when my dad was in the Army.

One-time houses of Americans in Okinawa undergoing changes › Japan Today: Japan News and Discussion

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Combining Functionality with Japanese Cute

Cube Gum

Ever find yourself annoyed when the gum you've been chewing has lost its flavor, but you can't find anything - scrap of paper, Kleenex, trash can - into which you can deposit it? Or you spit it in whatever scrap of paper you hastily find in your purse or pocket, only to discover later that what you thought was a scrap was actually an important document? The folks at Lotte have found a solution: Cube!

Cube's packaging comes with a small pad of post-it notes you can use to dispose of the adorable little cubes of gum once the chewiness has diminished. Great idea. (I know this gum can be purchased at Asian food markets in the US, but I thought it was cool that I bought it in Tokyo.)

Here's a commercial for Cube that I found on YouTube. It features KAT-TUN, one of the myriad boy bands that saturate the Japanese airwaves.

Binder Ball

In this digital age of iPhones and PDAs, we still find the need to put pen to paper and jot down notes and ideas, grocery and to-do lists, and perhaps even someone's phone number. Sometimes toting a big notebook around isn't feasible, and pens are easily lost. The solution: The Binder Ball Memo Set!

A clamp much like what you'll find at the top of a clipboard is affixed to the side of a small pad of paper. Attached to the clamp is a thin ballpoint pen that you use to write on the notepad.

It may seem strange at first to write with a clipboard clamp, but it feels like a real pen. Ingenious! Because Binder Ball binds your ballpoint pen to your paper, note-taking opportunities are always close at hand.

Animal Design Cord Wrapping

Has your office space been attacked by a nest of cords from all of your electronics? The solution: Animal Design Cord Wrapping!

Simply wrap the unruly cables around these animal-shaped sponges to tidy up your area. Yes, sponges shaped like animals.