Monday, January 31, 2005

The Dog Knows it All

I love dogs, but I am not one to believe in every amazing tale that over-enthused dog owner recount to prove how smart their dogs are (maybe it’s for the selfish reason that Libby ain't the smartest cookie?). For instance, dog keeps sniffing at owner's mole on leg, owner has it checked out, it's cancerous. Reason: dogs love to sniff at black speckles against light background. Libby sniffs at black lint on our beige carpet all the time. The carpet has got cancer?! Another one, my dog is so smart he/she can tell it's the weekend. Reason? Your weekend routine is different from your weekday routine, and your pets pick up on that.

This morning, however, Libby's behavior led me to think maybe, just maybe, dogs do know more than I give them credit for. As you know, today is the first of my many non-working days to come. In order not to waste my days away by sleeping in late everyday, I have long decided that I'd drive Jason to work every morning and then go to the gym afterwards. We got up as usual, I fed Libby and let her out into the yard to do her business. Normally, when she comes back in, she goes to the study and curls up in her usual spot to continue her beauty sleep while we prepare to leave. She doesn't even see us out but will present her tummy when we go to say goodbye to her before leaving (for the brief period I was using Bowlingual to interpret her doggie language, this is when she goes," Please don't leave me. I hate to be alone." Is it any wonder that I stopped using that damned Bowlingual? It is utterly depressing. But I digress). Today, however, she kept on coming into the bathroom to check on us, and when I finally got dressed, she ran towards the door, as if expecting me to take her for a walk.

How did she know? How could she tell that today is different from other days? We did exactly the same thing we do every morning. Ok, maybe not exactly the same.
a) We got up half an hour later than usual now that I don’t have that 8:30 bell to meet. (This means Libby has a biological clock so accurate it can actually tell exact time).
b) I wore jeans instead of the usual dress pants or skirts. (This implies Libby can tell what I’m wearing and associate that with whether it’s a workday or not. Hmm, I wonder if she passes judgments on my outfits)
c) Without having to be work at 8:30 sharp, I am much more relaxed and did not snap at Jason when he asked me if his pants go with his shirt. (This is the most believable reason since we all know dogs are acutely tuned into their humans’ moods and body language)

Regardless of what the reason is, Libby’s intelligence level just went up a notch in my book. So don’t roll your eyes the next time I tell you my dog’s a genius!

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Close Encounter

On our way back from a morning run (walking for me) around the Gaien, Libby had a close encounter with a yellow tabby. The cat must have blown up to twice his original size.

Let's take a closer look at the cat.

Incidetally, as I blog this Libby, who's been sleeping peacefully on the couch all of a sudden started to speak in her sleep. Little yelping sounds. Do ya think she's dreaming about that cat?

Chive Box - 韭菜盒子

Chinese chive holds a special power over me: it makes me want to cook Chinese food. The last time I cooked Chinese, which was months ago, was also because of some chives that I bought.

This time, I bought the chives and immediately thought of Chive Box, a pancake with a stuffing of chives and ground pork. I have not had this in years, and I have no idea why it's called a box, since the finished product looks nothing like a box. I do remember, however, that special fragrance that chive and pork produces together.

I am not sure how the dough should be for chive box, so I resort to my scallion pancake dough. Three cups of flour plus about 200ml of boiling water. You could use cold water, but the boiling water makes the dough soft, which is what you want. After forming the dough, let it rest covered for at least half an hour. This relaxes the dough and makes it easier to roll out.

While the dough is resting, you can prepare the stuffing:
Two bunches of Chinese chives (200g total)
One piece of ginger, ground (to taste, about 1 to 2 tbsp)
Ground pork 180g (which is the package size at my supermarket, you can adjust the amount)
Chinese vermicelli 1 pkg (I'm guessing it's around 50g)

First you chop the chives really fine. This should not be done in a food processor because that will cause the chive to bleed out too much liquid. Next mix the ginger and ground pork, and combine with the chives. Meanwhile, boil a big bowl of water to soak the vermicelli until it's soft. Drain out all the liquid, and cut into small pieces. Mix the pork, chives, and vermicelli all together. I had two egg yolks left from making cookies, so I threw them in as well, to make the stuffing stick together.

Heat 2 tsp oil in a pan, add stuffing, season with 2 tsp salt, dump in some white pepper (I use a lot because I love it), and cook for about 3 minutes, until meat is almost done. Sprinkle 1 tsp of sesame oil on top after removing from heat.

The dough should be ready by now. Divide dough into quarters, working with one quarter at a time, covering the rest to prevent drying. Roll one quarter of the dough into a rope, and divide into five equal parts. Roll each part into a ball and roll each ball into a round about 4 inch in diameter. Place 2 tbsp of stuffing onto dough, and seal by folding it into a semicircle and pinching the sides together, then again folding the seal over itself (third pix below, don't worry if you don't know how to do this). Next, stand it up and flatten with the palm of your hand.

Do this until all the dough is gone, now you have twenty boxes and are ready to cook them. Heat a pan with 1 tsp of oil (best if you have a cast iron pan)until pan is very hot. Place the boxes in the pan and fry 2-3 minutes per side, until golden.

We had the chive boxes with some plain rice porridge for lunch. Since I am a big fan of Chinese black vinegar (香醋), I used it as a dipping sauce. But the Chive Boxes taste just as nice without the vinegar, so you don't have to dip it in anything. Just a thought, if you don't dip it in vinegar, you might need to increase the salt you add to the stuffing, so it's not too bland.

I thought it was pretty good as a first attempt but Jason did not care too much for the vermicelli in the stuffing, saying it makes the textue weird. The man is hard to please! But I think I will leave out the vermicelli if I ever make it again. Not because Jason said so, mind you, but because a) I included the vermicelli to use it up and have no more left, and b)I ended up with some extra stuffing, so minus vermicelli should just be the perfect amount.

Note on storage: since I don't think it reheats well, I only cooked half of the boxes and froze the rest for a quick lunch some other time. I think they can be fried right out of the freezer.

Happy box-making!

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Suspicious Job Offers

I took the day off yesterday, to use up one of my two remaining paid holidays before I quit for good. Kind of like a test-drive for the non-working days to come.

I started my day with a hot bowl of oatmeal and some tea, and got dressed leisurely. After running a brief errand, I had lunch with Jason at a little Thai place near his office. When he went back to the office, I decided to take a walk along the street in front of the subway station to check out some of the stores. Just as I was about to enter Food Express, I was stopped by a well-dressed middle-aged Japanese woman. She said a new interior design company was just set up around here and asked me if I was interested in working for them. Taken back by surprise and entirely unprepared for this, I hastily shook my head and said I wasn’t interested. She thanked me and walked away. Going into Food Express, I thought to myself, hmm, ask me in a month or two, maybe I would’ve given it more thoughts.

I promptly forgot about this little incident and went on browsing at Yamaya, the discount wine store that also carries a lot of western food stuff. Coming out of Yamaya, I was again stopped by someone. This time, it was a man, foreign and handsome, looked a little like the French actor who played Zoro, Alan de Lone?? He spoke to me in Japanese and said a foreign company had just set up a interior design firm, would I be interested in working for them.

Huh! Are there words written on my face? Does it say, “ Soon to be out of work?” Was it my blue jeans in a sea of office garbs that gave me away (they are dressy jeans, damn it)? Or could it be that I am just oozing so much style that cries out “perfect candidate to work for interior design firm.” (I can hear Jason snickering in his office from here) I will never know now, will I?

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Initiation to Sukiyaki

How is it that I had never eaten sukiyaki before Saturday in all my four years in Japan is beyond me. I mean, probably half the gaijins (foreigners) in Japan list it as their favorite Japanese food. I have, of course, heard of it, but having never set foot into a sukiyaki place, I imagined it to be some sort of nabe. Maybe that’s the reason we’ve never had it, because Jason is a nabe-hater and steered clear of anything even remotely resembling one.

But last Saturday was meant to be my day to eat sukiyaki. Driving back to our hotel from Karuizawa Prince Hotel ski resort, Robbee and Tomoko saw a restaurant with huge banners outside advertising all you can eat Sukiyaki for 168yen. Wait, something is wrong, the zero at the bottom of the banner was buried in snow. Ok, so it’s 1680yen for all you can eat. How can you beat that! I don’t know about you, but after a day of skiing, a big hearty beef meal is just what my stomach was longing for. Even Jason agreed to give it a try.

We went inside and promptly ordered the sukiyaki set. Two seconds later, the waitress brought out three platters: one laden with udon noodles, konnyaku noodles, and firm tofu; one piled high with napa cabbage, green onions, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and gobou (burdock); and another one with thinly sliced big pieces of marbled beef (being 1680yen, you can’t exactly be picky about the beef, so Matsuzaka-gyu it ain’t). She then placed on the table a big teapot-like container with the sukiyaki-tare (sauce), a bottle of lukewarm water to thin the tare if needed, and gave us each a little bowl with a raw egg inside. Last came the burner and a caste iron deep pan, with a little piece of lard in it. Wanting to find out what lard is called in Japanese, I asked the waitress what it was. Her reply? “Lah-doh.” Am glad we speak the same language! After waiting for a minute or so and then realizing that for this price, the waitress is probably not going to come and cook it for us, Tomoko took over.

First she turned on the burner and swirled the piece of lard around to coat the pan, then she poured some tare in. After the tare is heated, beef was put in, and then everything else followed. When the first piece of beef showed signs of being cooked, I was given the honor to try the first bite (to compensate for all those years of sukiyaki-deprivation).

I scrambled the raw egg in my little bowl per Tomoko’s instruction, and dipped the beef in. I know people in the US have this raw-egg phobia, thinking that’s a sure way of getting salmonella poisoning, but you just have to get used to the idea, and honestly, I have never heard of Japanese people getting food poisoning due to raw eggs. Maybe eggs here are just fresher.

Anyway, back to the sukiyaki. I loved it! The sweetness of the sukiyaki tare and the egg was the perfect combination. Some people might be turned off by the slipperiness of the raw egg but whoever thought of eating beef this way was a genius: it cools down the piping hot beef slightly so you can eat it right away; and the slippery eggs contrasts nicely with the beef grains. Can’t believe I wasted all these years without trying it.


That’s what I feel like screaming right now. With my imminent departure looming closer and closer, people are coming out of the boondocks with all sorts of English checks and translations for me to do. Just now I had to exercise maximum self-control and take deep breaths to stop myself from punching someone in the face. Or like Ally McBeal, chewing his head off and then spitting it out like a plum pit. Why is it not Friday yet?!

Monday, January 24, 2005

Ski trip to Tsumagoi

We went to Karuizawa and Tsumagoi for ski trip last weekend. Despite the accident, we (all four people and one dog) managed have lots of fun.

This is Libby with a snow covered mouth.

And this is Asama-yama, the volcano that erupted last year spreading ashes all the way to Tokyo, covered in snow.

For more pictures, click here

Analogy between skiing and driving

I think you can tell a lot about a person’s driving style from a person’s skiing style. Take Jason and I for an example. He’s a cautious skier. When we go to a new resort and try the slopes for the first time, he always goes very slowly because he doesn’t know the topography of the slopes yet. I, on the other hand, race down with blind faith and deal with whatever comes my way when it comes, ice patches, moguls, and whatnot. Sometimes I wipe out because I skid on ice, or my skis are caught unexpectedly in some extra powdery snow, but falling face first into a pile of snow is part of the fun too, in my opinion.

Now, let’s look at driving. I don’t like to keep below speed limits, even on winding mountain roads. Sometimes I don’t brake until I’m half way into a curve causing Jason to complain that he feels like he’s being thrown out of the car. He always says that I drive too fast, and I always say he drives too slow. Like skiing, he’s the cautious one and I’m the reckless one. Unlike skiing however, it’s not fun when your car hits something due to your carelessness, as it happened on our ski trip to Tsumagoi.

Coming down the mountain, the roads were covered in a sheath of ice/snow. I was for once obeying speed limit (40km). I thought it was plenty slow already while Jason constantly urged me to slow down. Next thing I knew, I was getting closer and closer to the car in front of me. Then I saw his right blinker come on. Oh shit, he’s stopped without using his brakes! (How the hell did he do that?! Do manual cars allow you to do this? By shifting down the gears?) I stepped on the brakes with all the strength I could summon in my right foot (caution of skidding went out the window). It all seemed to have happened in slow motion: I hear the grinding sound of the anti-lock brake engage; I feel my car slowing down but not nearly enough; I see the license plate of the car in front getting bigger and bigger; for a split second, I thought my car just might stop in time and I willed it to with all my might; then I hear the ill-fated bang.

Fortunately, nobody was hurt (including Libby), and both cars suffered only minor damage (by my estimate). Needless to say, I wish I listened to Jason’s nagging and slowed down, but all is too late.

After this incident, we decided that Jason should be the one driving on icy road surfaces from now on. Just like I neither see the reason nor want to slow down on ski slopes, I don’t have it in me to slow down on roads. I guess I could force myself to, but since it’s an unnatural thing for me, Jason would have to nag constantly for me to keep it slow. So, to save us both the trouble, we decided to delegate cautious driving to the cautious skier.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

IMBB #11: Beans of Fortune

I have only recently discovered the world of food blogging, thanks to my friend Rachel. Although I don’t see myself setting up a blog just for food (there are too many other things to write about too), food is one of my main obsessions and the subjects of many entries on my blog. So when I saw the theme of the 11th IMBB, I decided to enter.

Mame Daifuku (pronounced mah-meh dye-fuku), which directly translates into “Beans of Big Fortune,” is one of my favorite Japanese desserts. If you’ve never had a mame daifuku, it is like a rice dumpling. The dough is made of sticky rice flour, with cooked peas mixed in (trust me, this is not weird). There are some variations on the stuffing but the most common type is red bean paste. In winter, when strawberries are in season you will also find daifukus with a strawberry nestled in the red bean stuffing. In this case it’s called an ichigo daifuku (strawberry daifuku).

I love mame daifuku for many reasons, one of which is because unlike most Japanese sweets, whose original purpose was to counter some of the bitter taste of macha (Japanese powdered green tea), they are not obscenely sweet. Here you have a filling that is sweet, but it’s perfectly countered by the sticky rice dough that only has the slightest hint of sweetness. Enjoy it with a cup of Japanese green tea (sencha) to experience the flawless harmony of flavors.

The best thing about the mame daifuku however, is its texture. The sticky rice flour used to make mame daifuku is called shiratamako (direct translation: white jade powder). Unlike regular sticky rice powder, which is ground into a fine powder mechanically, shiratamako is made by soaking the grains of sticky rice in water until soft. The soft rice is mashed, and then freeze dried. The end product looks a bit like broken up pieces of chalk, but the very nature of the freeze-drying process makes the particle size extremely fine (you people who’ve taken Pharmaceuticals 101 should know this). When cooked, this turns into texture so smooth when cooked it practically melts in your mouth. The freeze drying process also makes the dough extremely sticky and stretchy, so it is always fun to bite into a daifuku and see how long you can make the skin stretch before it breaks. It doesn’t make good table manners, but sure is a fun way to eat a daifuku. Try it, you’ll like it too.

Where was I? Right, back on the subject of texture. In Asian cultures, whenever you have “yin” it is always balanced out with “yang,” and mame daifuku is no exception. If the softness of the dough is “yin,” the firm peas imbedded in the dough is “yang.” Imagine sinking your teeth into the supple dough of sticky rice, you bite deeper, and hit the smooth bean paste. Mmmm. You take a bite and chew. Instantly a burst of sweet flavor explodes in your mouth. Then imagine chewing into a pea. What a pleasant surprise! The pea is cooked el dente; tender, yet firm compared to the dough and bean paste, providing a welcome contrast of texture. When I eat my mame daifuku, I always try to look at where the peas are hiding inside the dough and take my bites carefully so I have at least one pea per bite. Now, if you are going to put a strawberry inside the daifuku, it is recommended that you omit the peas. Texture is good, but we all know too much of a good thing can sometimes be bad.

Oh, one last thing, I forgot to mention a critical ingredient: the potato starch (but cornstarch will do also), which coats the daifuku, mame (bean) or strawberry. Because the rice dough is so sticky, without the potato starch coating, it’d be a mess to eat. Think of it as the Japanese version of “melts in your mouth, not in your hands”

Enough ranting. Here’s the original recipe in Japanese, and my translation/modification:

Sticky rice powder (shiratamako if you can find it) – 50g (scant 1/2C of the shiratamako, but less in volume if you use regular rice powder)
Water – 100ml
Sugar – 70g (scant 1/3 cup)
Cooked peas – 50g (about 1/4 cup) *
Potato starch (or cornstarch) – a generous amount
Red bean paste – 6 to 12 tablespoons

*I couldn’t find dried peas so used kidney beans instead. Any beans will do, but they should be at least the size of a pea. Just be careful not to boil the beans too long, as they should maintain their shape when mixed into the dough.


1. Place rice powder in a microwaveable large bowl, and stir in water until all the powder is wet. Microwave at 500W for 2 minutes without plastic wrap.

2. Stir well, add half of the sugar, and knead the dough really well with a spatula (a stiff silicone one is recommended as anything else will stick hopelessly to the dough).

3. Heat in the microwave at 500W for another 2 minutes, without plastic wrap.

4. Add the remaining half of the sugar and peas (or kidney beans in my case), stir. You’ll need to put some muscle into it as the dough is becoming more elastic at this point. For best result, try to make sure the beans are evenly distributed in the dough.

5. Place the bowl in microwave and microwave at 500W without plastic wrap until the dough stops expanding, approximately a minute and a half.

6. Scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a working surface covered with potato starch. (There is really no such thing as too much starch, since only the needed amount will stick to the dough and the rest will fall off) Sprinkle the top of the dough with starch so it’s completely covered with it, and divide into six equal parts. Make sure you powder the cut surface as well.
There is no need to shape the dough into rounds because they are so elastic you can do whatever you want with it and it won’t break. It is preferable to work while the dough is still warm, because then you could eat warm mame daifuku. Believe me, once you’ve had a warm one, you’ll never want to eat the store-bought cold version. Plus, if you don’t work quickly, the dough will dry out, which is another reason why the starch is so important, as it delays the drying.

7. Place one to two tablespoonfuls of red bean paste onto a piece of flattened dough, and gather the edge of the dough on top, as you would when making a dumpling.
The amount of red bean paste you put in entirely depends on your taste. If you like things sweet, put in 2 tablespoon, if you are like me, then one tablespoon will suffice, and if you decide to put a strawberry in, use one tablespoon of bean paste.

8. Turn it over so the sealed side is down and shape.

Voila! Mame Daifuku!

From left: strawberry daifuku; yomogi daifuku (dough contains a green ingredient extracted from plants); mame daifuku

* Store in a tight container at room temperature for up to two days.

Friday, January 21, 2005

I Quit

I finally did it. I turned in my resignation on Monday. Yes, I am finally leaving this company after almost three years. I’ve been wanting to do this for as long as I can remember, but was somehow always pulled back. To be fair, the people in my department are all really nice and sweet, even if sometimes I don’t always agree with the ways they do things. If I didn’t like the people I worked with, I I wouldn’t have lasted this long. BUT, all things were not peachy. Little things that you think you can deal with become a big source of frustration over time, and I finally decided that I don’t have to live my life this way. Why torture myself? If working is becoming a tumor that poisons my quality of life, why not remove it altogether? So that’s what I did.

It’s actually scary. I am only 31, going on 32. I have half of my life still ahead of me. What am I going to do with it? Any suggestions?

Ever since my boss signed my resignation form and made it official this morning, I’ve been having this sickening feeling in my stomach. Where do I go from here? How will I spend my days? Work was my safety net, however much I hated it, but now that it will be gone, I kind of miss it.


I was going to stay up and watch GWB II's inauguration ceremony. Actually I wanted to listen to his speech. But I give up. It's not going to start until noon, which means 2am Tokyo time. Need my beauty sleep. I'm sure his speech will be plastered all over the internet tomorrow. I'll find out then. Yawn

Thursday, January 20, 2005

In Love with Fennel

While looking for pecans at Nissin (my favorite supermarket specializing in foreign foods in Tokyo), there in the middle of the isle, sitting in a basket, I saw giant fennels (I say giant because the stalks and leaves attached made the whole thing almost 1 metre in length). You don’t see them in Japan very often. Come to think of it, I am not sure if I’d ever had fennel before. I mean real fennels, not just some chopped up pieces in a sauce or fennel seeds that come from a bottle. I think Nissin may have always stocked them, but never in such a conspicuous spot for me to see, and usually small ones. These, on the other hand, looked so meaty and fresh. They beckoned me with their luscious feathery leaves to come and take a closer look. I picked out the biggest one with a full head of crazy green hair and held it in my arm like a baby (although, what do I know about holding a baby?). Hmmm, now I have to cook you.

If I weren't so anxious to hack into the bulb, I'd have a picture of my fine-looking fennel, but I don't, so you'll just have to take my word for it.

When I got home, I quickly found a recipe for Fenouils braisés à la tomate et à l'échalote (French, ooh lah lah) and decided to pair it with rosemary chicken with orange-maple glaze . (A chance for my rosemary plants to make a debut too) I thought the subtle taste of the fennel (I assumed it would be subtle) would complement the strong flavors in the maple glaze well. I was not disappointed. I wasn’t sure we would like it, since neither Jason nor I are licorice fans, but we didn’t find the taste too pungent. It’s hard to pinpoint, but it reminded me of something (maybe celery? Except no celery I’ve ever eaten had such complex flavors). Our entire dinner conversation focused on this subject, but we were not able to come up with a satisfactory answer. Oh well, I am not picky, as long as my food tastes good.

My next task is to find a way to use the feathery leaves that was left. I am not about to throw them away. One, because I have decided to be less wasteful about food this year; and two, they are simply too gorgeous to be dumped, especially the furry baby leaves, like feathers on hatchlings. I am absolutely smitten.

Bar Code

A colleague once asked me what people call “bar code” in America. “Bar code,” I said. Turned out she was not asking about the bar codes on products for scanning, but “bar code” on people’s head.

I had a prime vantage point of one on the train to work this morning. The guy seated in front me had a shiny bald head. Over his pate, he had meticulously combed over from one side a thin layer of hair, gelled and separated into thin strands. All the strands were perfectly parallel with uneven spaces in between: bar code! And you thought the Japanese have no sense of humor.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Nabe for One

Yesterday was poker night, Jason’s weekly game with the boys at the American Club, so I had dinner by myself. Usually I am too lazy to cook for one person and on most Tuesdays I buy some bento box sushi at one of the sushi shops on Aoyama-dori. Kansan is one of my favorites, but you do get tired of eating sushi bento boxes every week.

Then it dawned on me, what better time to test out that oolong tea nabe stock I saw on TV last week! Since Jason and I don’t share the same opinions on nabe, it was the perfect time for me to experiment without him wrinkling up his nose and go, “Nabe, yuck! Oolong tea nabe, double yuck!”

I fished out the little canister of oolong tea from the plethora of tea cans that filled up my tea shelf three-deep and set to work. Um, actually, there wasn’t much work. This is what I did: boil an extra strong pot of oolong tea with a dried chili pepper or two. When the color turns dark, scoop out all the tea leaves and throw the ingredients into the simmering stock: vegetable, tofu products, chicken, and a few pieces of mochi (rice cake). Crack a raw egg in it, and you are done! Easy.

Now I just have to see if it really tastes as good as the food critic said it did. (drum rolls) Aaaaaaaaand she gives it a 4! (out of 5) It’s definitely different, kind of refreshing, and the chili pepper does add a nice touch. But it’s kind of bland, so I think this will go better against more flavorful meats such as beef or maybe flavored chicken meatballs. It does grow on you though. At the end of my meal I was gulping down the soup, which by now was faintly flavored by the mushrooms and chicken, and the various tofu products. Hmmm, I just realized that’s probably why I was still wide awake at 2am and had to go to the bathroom so many times last night. Note to self: next time don’t drink too much stock.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Hello, my name is Libby.

Do I look like a begging grizzly bear?

Blind Men's Elephant

You guys all know the story of the three blind men and the elephant, right? It goes something like this:

Three blind men wanted to find out what an elephant looks like. They each went up to it and felt it with their hands.

The first blind man touched the elephant’s trunk and said: “It looks like a giant snake.”
The second blind man touched the elephant’s leg and said: “No, it looks like a tree.”
The third blind man touched the elephant’s body and said, “No, you are both wrong. It looks like a wall.”

This is exactly what went on in both of the 2-hr meetings I attended yesterday. Nobody knew exactly what he was talking about but everyone was pretty sure with his own assumptions. I just sat back and day dreamed.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Strawberry Attack

All of sudden, I see strawberries everywhere. Yup, they come into season in the middle of January in Japan. Why? I have no idea, but could only guess that maybe it has something to do with all the valentine cakes decorated with strawberries that will be flying out of the bakeries come February.

Not that I am complaining. As it so happened, they were on sale at the supermarket next to my office, so I bought two boxes for about $10, and launched into a strawberry themed cooking frenzy when our hiking plan was thwarted by the two days of freezing rain over the weekend.

We started off with sliced strawberries wrapped in golden crepes dusted with powdered sugar and doused in chocolate syrup. Am not exactly a crepe-making person, but the recipe was so simple and easy to follow that things turned out really well. Don’t they look pretty?

Next, I made some strawberry daifuku for Jason to take to the office. A couple of them went straight from my potato starch covered hands into our mouths, but some did make it to the office-bound box.

The great finale was a strawberry pie. However, I must report that it wasn’t as grand as I had envisioned. For starters, I thought I could get away with letting the rolled out pie dough rest in the fridge for a couple of hours instead of overnight, but it shrunk while baking in the oven. Not by much, but enough to render the pretty fluted edge and the little heart cutouts I stuck on the edge of the pie invisible. Then, the topping I made for the pie had way too much starch in it. I blame myself for not following my instinct to cut it down. So we ended up with a pie with barely a crust and strawberries topped with, instead of a glistening glaze, something that looks like gruel.

This is Jason’s reaction when he first saw it on the kitchen counter: “Oh, a strawberry pie. It looks ni…. Why does it look like that? What’s that on top?”

It does not look appetizing at all, kind of like extra thick shredded crab soup dumped on the strawberries. Thank goodness nasty looking things sometimes taste good, as is the case with the pie. Believe it or not, I didn’t even notice the starchiness of the topping against the fresh strawberries.

This is Jason’s reaction when he first took a bite: “Mmmm, very good! So much better than it looks!”

Crepe recipe

Piecrust recipe (how to make crust, and how to bake it)
**Despite failure this time, this is a tried and true piecrust and my absolute favorite. A bit involved in the making (I make two at a time and freeze one), and takes a lot of planning because the dough has to rest for two separate nights for best result. If you don’t, you’ll get a shrunken pie like I did.

Pie recipe (remember to cut down starch)

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Icy Icy Rain

After a glorious week of sunshine and warm temperature, we were supposed to get snow this past weekend. Not exactly my choice, but still better than the two days of freezing rain in place of snow. And the thing about having a dog is that she doesn’t see why rain should stop you from taking her for a walk. She cut down her yard patrol at home, but that’s totally unrelated to taking a walk in the rain, now is it?

Sunday afternoon, after being asked for the thousandth time, we finally dragged our lazy asses out of our warm apartment and put on rain pants to take Princess Libby for a walk. We went to the gingko boulevard. Somehow, the last image I have of this place is when all the leaves were golden yellow.

Now they look like this. A very depressing sight indeed, but at least Princess Libby was happy; wet fur, muddy paws and all.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Kitchenware Galore

The most satisfying experience on my trip back to the US this time, besides spending time with my parents, will have to be my shopping spree of kitchen products.

Jason's 5-day trip to Atlanta to visit his brother proved very conducive for the expansion of my kitchenware collections. Without him rolling his eyes and tapping his watch, I could browse through the endless collections of stylish toys for the kitchen for as long as I wanted. I lingered for hours, losing myself in front of all kinds of baking pans, pastry tools, and everything I have ever wanted for my kitchen, and some that I didn't know I needed or even existed.

The Discount Route
I was not discriminative as to where I shopped. Did you know Ross and Marshalls, the discount clothing stores, have an amazing range of household products? It was at Ross that I fell in love with the cutest 4" spring form pan and bought out the stock (only two, but I would've bought more if they had any). As long as I was going the mini route, I also bought six tartlet pans. Images of mini New York styled cheesecakes and mini lemon tarts danced in my head. Aaaaaah, the potentials are endless. Gone are the days when I look at a recipe and sigh because without inviting people, there is no way for Jason and I to finish a whole cheesecake without doing some serious damage to our waistline and cholesterol level. Now, I can simply cut the recipe down and make cake for two!

At Marshalls, I found a treasure trove of J. A.Henckels knives at a steep discount and told myself that one can never have too many knives. With some self-control, I managed to only buy a chef’s knife, a bread knife, and a paring knife (just in case one day I get inspired to make my own turducken). Admittedly, Henckels knives are not the sharpest but they sure look good, and at that price, it wouldn’t be too wasteful to replace them in a year or two.

Other finds include a cheese slicer with marble board; a pizza stone; mini loaf pans; shiny brass maple leaf shaped cookie cutter (it’s so huge that I will probably never use it to cut out cookies, but such a beauty to behold); and a Kitchen-Aid garlic press with ultra ergonomic handles (with this super smasher, Jason will never know how much garlic I put into our food, mwahahaha!).

Crafty Tools
Did you know crafts store also sell cake-decorating tools? Ever heard of a cake even-bake strips? Neither had I, but I am now the proud owner of two sets. It is a long strip of silvery insulating material. You soak and saturate it with cold water and wrap it around the outside of a cake pan before putting it in the oven. I am guessing that the theory behind it is that it provides an even temperature all around so the cake doesn't rise too fast in the middle and doesn't crack on top. From the same crafts store, I also bought a cake leveler, which looks like a saw with notches to help you slice cakes horizontally for easy decorating.

Specialty Stores
Please do not think of me as totally out of control, because I do know where to draw the line, or rather, the weight limits of airline luggage drew the line for me. Not far from my house, there is a Le Creuset store. These things cost a fortune in Japan, which is why I still cannot justify buying one. The day I went, the entire store was 25% off (American price)! Imagine my delight when I felt the weight of the caste iron frying pan in my hand and admired the tomato shaped casserole. The sales clerk was ever so polite and knowledgeable (and very much gay), but I was firm. I was not going to haul back a heavy caste-iron pot in my suitcase, no matter how cheap. In the end, I only bought a book (Crème Brulee The Bonjour Way by Randolph Mann) and these cute little guys.

Were you able to guess what they are for? They are pot-lid holders. Aren't they the darnest things? Well, if I can't have my Le Creuset caste iron casserole, I am entitled to indulge myself in these virtually weightless essential items, am I not?

Silicone Everything
It seems that silicone baking pans and tools are the latest trend in home-baking nowadays. I’ve read about them, but had always imagined them to be stiff shapes like the metal pans, only made of plastic. The first time I saw one in the store, I was taken by surprise, for they are totally pliable. Sure, I had my doubts. Can they really withstand temperature up to 500F as said? Will things really not stick to them?

Doubts not withstanding, I decided to give these light and packable things a try. Factoring in how often I use each type of baking dish, and how likely things are to stick to each type, I narrowed down my purchases to just a 9-inch cake pan and a 10-inch tart pan. Cakes are notoriously hard to get out of pans, and although my tart pan with the removable bottom ensures my tart comes out undamaged, I could never manage to pry the bottom off and always had to serve the tart with the bottom of the tart pan. I also bought two silicone baking mats for lining cookie sheets, and a butterfly-shaped cake pan for when I am in the mood to make a butterfly cake, maybe in the spring? Throw in a couple of spatulas, I’ve got all the silicone my kitchen needs, for now.

* Saw some silicone baking pans at a special event’s corner in my supermarket after I came back to Tokyo. They are coming to Japan too! But get this! They cost 4300yen! That’s like 40USD for a frigging baking pan! Boy am I glad I loaded up on them at $8 a piece.

The Crème Brulee Torch
You probably noticed that I got a cookbook on crème brulee at Le Creuset. What good is a book if you can’t make it; and how can you make it without a proper torch? The nice gay clerk at Le Creuset apologized for running out of the torch but pointed me to another store, Le Gourmet Chef . There I found a Crème Brulee torch set (complete with four 4-oz ramekins) on sale for $19.99. How could I resist? I chose a red one with heart-shaped ramekins, and bought a canister of butane as advised by the clerk, as the torch came unfilled.

It was only after I got home that I realized the problem: the butane canister would never in a million years get past airport security! So I did the only reasonable thing to do: I made a batch of crème brulee before returning to Tokyo, so as to use my brand new torch at least once, in case it gets confisticated. Then I burned off the remaining butane in the torch and packed it in my carry-on, hoping that at least this way, I could explain that without fuel, it doesn’t pose any danger to anyone. Luckily, the torch made it through security check without fanfare. Now I just have to find a butane canister in Tokyo to fill my torch so I can churn out crème brulees from my very own humble kitchen.

Classic creme brulee with some homemade cran-apple-orange relish

Friday, January 14, 2005


I love the smell of green apples. Last year, I bought them when Jason mentioned that we should make a conscious effort to eat more fruits, and you know the saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” So I got two bags (a dozen in total). I should have known better.

We have this really nasty and wasteful habit of only eating at the most half of anything we buy before getting bored (very expensive if you know how much food costs in Tokyo). I am constantly throwing out omiyage (food special to a specific region) from our trips, because Jason can never resist any temptation. (I had to juice an entire case of Niigata pears once because he got tired of eating them after just a week and it was too wasteful to just throw them out) Our green apples didn’t fare too much better. We stopped eating them half way through the second bag. For a while, it was nice to just let them sit on my kitchen counter and enjoy the scent, kind of like fresh potpourri. Then the scent went away, and the apples started to wilt, at which point I put them away in the fridge and proceeded to forget all about it. (I am constantly throwing out things in my fridge that I had no idea when I put them in there in the first place.)

When we came back from the States this year, I decided it was time to organize my kitchen, starting with the fridge. Surprise! Green apples from a month ago are still sitting in the vegi drawer looking firm (makes you wonder, doesn’t it?). Normally I would have just tossed them out, but since I sort of made a promise to myself to be more frugal about food this year, I decided we should make use of them.

Since neither of us wanted to eat month-old apples and there were not enough of them to juice, I thought the best way is to use them in baking. I turned to my trusted recipe source: and chanced upon a pear bread recipe. Hmmm, apples, pears, what’s the difference, right? (Besides, I don’t see how you can shred pears without ending up with just a big puddle of pear juice.) Some modifications later (to make it healthier), I embarked on my first baking task of the year: making apple bread.

Let me just say that I am glad I didn’t throw the apples out because the bread was deeeelicious and the smell of apples while the bread was baking was heavenly. Here is my version of the recipe:

2 C all-purpose flour
1 C whole-wheat flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 C apple sauce
1/4 C vegetable oil
3 eggs, slightly beaten
1 C white sugar
2 C unpeeled shredded apples *
1 C chopped pecans
2 tsp vanilla extract

* apple skin is an excellent source of phytochemicals which have antioxidizing and cancer-fighting properties, not to mention all the fiber it contains.

1. Preheat oven to 375 degree F (190 degree C)
2. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl.
3. In a separate bowl, combine the apple sauce, oil, eggs, sugar, and vanilla. Blend well and add to dry ingredients. Stir until just moistened, and fold in the apples and pecans.
4. Coat the inside of two 8x5x3 inch loaf pans with shortening (or butter, or oil), dust with flour. Distribute batter evenly between the two pans.
5. Bake in preheated oven until your kitchen is filled with such wonderful fragrance of apples that you couldn’t possibly wait any longer to taste a slice. (or about 30-40 minutes, but isn’t the smell method much more fun?)
6. Insert a skewer all the way into the thickest part of the bread to check doneness. Bread is ready to come out of the oven if the skewer comes out clean with no wet dough sticking to it.
7. Cool on rack for 10 minutes before removing from the loaf pans.

Apple bread, Yay!

TV Cooking Tips #1

Watched one of my favorite Japanese TV shows, ichiman-yen seigatsu (Living on 10,000yen for a month) in between dinner preparation last night. If you are not familiar with this TV show, it usually involves two celebrities competing to see who can live on 10,000yen (about US$100) for a month, including food and utility, in the best style and have the most money left. A large part of the show is devoted to showing how they come up with cheap and innovative menus everyday, which is why I watch. Last night, the show had a special theme: nabe. As a big nabe fan myself, I just had to see what kind of cheap and delicious ways there are to make this excellent one-pot meal.

The participants were Mr. Sanbei (Three Bottles, and I am not kidding) and Ms. Nemoto (Root Origin, no kidding either). Sanbei is my absolute favorite among all the regular participants. He is a TV personnel who graduated from a cooking school and holds a chef’s certificate. He looks like a very huggable Pillsbury doughboy in his chef's outfit and always talks in this slow and soothing tone that just makes you feel warm and fuzzy all over. Nemoto is a former “idol,” an Only-In-Japan breed of celebrity whose only requirement, as far as I can tell, is to look cute. When idols outgrow their cuteness, they often end up on shows like this.

Anyway, I only saw the first half of the show because I had to watch my gnocci sauce, but did get two very helpful pointers, one from each participant.

1. Sanbei made his special chicken stock using a chicken carcass (where can you get that in Tokyo? I’ve never seen one). You know how when you make soup stock there is always that layer of gunk floating on top, and no matter how many times you try to fish it out, you will never get all of it, and the stock ends up looking cloudy? What Sanbei did to obtain a clear stock was putting half a raw egg white into the stock at the very last stage of boiling. The egg white somehow mysteriously pulled all the gunk towards it and solidified them into gunky looking strands that can be easily removed. What you are left with is golden clear chicken stock.

2. Nemoto came up with an original nabe soup stock made of oolong tea. It’s extremely simple. She made a large pot of oolong tea as you normally would, and then threw in half a dried red chili pepper. I suspect that if your taste bud can take some heat, you can increase the amount of chili pepper. Although I was skeptical about this, a food researcher (ryouri kenkyuuka; chef, food critic rolled into one) placed her oolong tea stock ahead of Sanbei’s very delicious looking chicken stock, and said the chili pepper and oolong tea nicely complimented each other. Am still not 100% convinced, but maybe I will give it a try some time.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

A dog's life

Libby finding herself a sunny spot in the living room for a little nap.

Wanna know how a Japanese company works?

I have refrained from writing anything about work, because, well, you just never know who’s going to read it. Granted, I doubt how many people I work with will trawl the internet to pass time, and even if they did, I doubt they’d be interested in any English sites. So I guess I can take a little risk.

Here’s the situation, a faffer who mumbles, who is also a manager, sat on a big pile of unsorted matters, which is actually not all that complicated, but since he let it sit for so long hoping it'll go away, it's about to blow up in his face. At which point he goes to the boss asking for backup. Boss turns to me and another unsuspecting hardworking pawn, basically asking us to clean up the mess, giving us one week to do what faffer was supposed to have finished in the past two months, i.e. writing a quality agreement for a drug company A is making for us. We obligingly agreed to give it a crack, but soon found out that critical information is missing. We went back to boss and faffer and said, “Hey, we can’t write it without knowing how this drug is made.” Faffer who mumbles starts to mumble and this is when it really gets bizarre.

Instead of asking company A to send us the essential information, boss and faffer decides that the other pawn (TOP) and I can wing it and just use information on hand, and whatever we can’t make up, simply leave it blank for company A to fill in later. (All because for some mysterious reason, old faffer promised, probably under heavy influence of Schnapps, that he’d send them a draft agreement before their next meeting, and he was reluctant to go back on his words. It’s a face thing.) We were also informed that we should preferably finish the draft in 3 days so as to send it to company A for review before faffer’s second meeting with company A in Switzerland.

With the 3-day deadline hanging over our heads, TOP and I started to frantically cutting and pasting old information to make a quality agreement out of practically nothing. If you have never seen a quality agreement of a drug before, trust me when I tell you it’s a long (approx. 40 pages) document with a shit load of information that you just can’t grab out of thin air. You need your source information, damn it! Without it, our so-called first draft was a joke.

At this time, TOP and I decided to try one more time to convince our boss that if we sent out the agreement with gaping holes in it, we’d be the laughing stock of the entire pharmaceutical industry. We had a heated 30-minute discussion, involving much mumbling on faffer’s part but my brave fellow pawn and I stood our grounds. The result? I am now in charge of getting the essential information from company A and finishing the quality agreement.

How did that happen? Because I work for a Japanese company, that's how.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Passengers Only

One of the reasons we never took any trains to go on skiing day-trips was because I never knew quite what to do with our skis. If we went for more than one day, I could have the skis picked up from my house and shipped to our hotel at the ski resort. But for a day-trip, I couldn’t really have the skis sent to the bottom of the slopes, now could I? So we always drove on day-trips, until we took the shinkansen train to GALA last weekend.

As for the skis? I had a plan. Last year, my astigmatic eyes caused me to mistake a 7-passenger van taxi for a regular sedan. It was spacious and a light bulb immediately came on in my head: there’s space enough for skis in here! I made a mental note to call for one of these if we are ever in need of transporting skis via taxi.

Smug with my foresight, I looked up Nihon Koutsu, the company that has a fleet of those vans, on Yahoo Japan. Lucky me, they even have an English speaking line. As I packed our ski bags, I asked Jason to book a taxi to drive us to Tokyo station. First, we were shocked to learn that they charge 1000yen extra for advanced booking: 600yen for booking and 400yen for pick up. (That’s the price to pay for being lazy.) I gave Jason the OK to book it. Then he felt the need to explain to the operator why we needed a van for only two passengers, and things went south from there.

At first I heard Jason struggling to make the operator girl understand that we are going skiing and need a car big enough for our skis. Judging from Jason’s reactions, she must have said no-can’t-do. Fearing that she might have misunderstood him and thought we were taking the taxi all the way to the ski resort, I told Jason to tell her we were only going to Tokyo Station. That didn’t work either, and Jason said they didn’t have any cars big enough for skis. What do you mean they don’t have any? Do I have to get on the phone myself even when it’s an English line?

Me – “You have vans, big cars, right? I saw them on your website and have taken it myself.”
Girl – “Yes, we do, but skis will not fit in them.”
Me – “What do you mean they won’t fit? There are only two of us, the rest of the space will be empty.”
Girl – “ Yes, but the seats are for passengers.”
Me (getting more and more exacerbated) – “But like I told you, there are ONLY two passengers. There will be PLENTY of space left in the van. Don’t people with lots of luggage use those vans to go to the airport?”
Girl – “No, we do not allow luggage in the van.”
Me (silently, what the #%&$?) – “ You do not ALLOW luggage in the van?”
Girl – “Our vans are for passengers only, and if you want to put luggage in the van, we’d have to convert passenger space into luggage space, and we cannot do that.”
Me (again silently, who the #%&$ asked you to convert the #%&$ van?!) – “ But I am not asking you to convert your van, we just want to put our skis into the van, surely it will fit.”
Girl – “Only passengers are allowed in the vans…”

At this point my patience ran out and I didn’t bother to find out what other nonsense was spewing out of her mouth. Man! You think that after four and a half years in Japan you’ve seen all the malicious side effects of an entire nation of people with inflexible/can’t think for self/droid-like mentality, then you get hit with “Sorry, our vans are for passengers only.” What do you say to that?!

Jason suggested that I call back to the Japanese line and try again, but no, I would not give my business to a company that a) has a stupid rigid policy like that, b) trains their operators to give answers from a script, c) charges an extra 1000yen just for booking! In fact, I will never ever get into a Nihon Koutsu taxi, EVER!
We ended up hauling our skis to the station ourselves, but the 7-minute walk to Gaienmae station was surprisingly painless, and the train to Tokyo station was practically empty. So what if we got to our shinkansen a little out of breath? Just think of it as a warm-up. Plus, the satisfaction to have one-upped Nihon Koutsu was priceless, even though they don’t know it. HA!

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Doggie Pillow

Libby was fluffy and soft after a bath, so Jason decided to use her as a pillow.

First Ski 2005

For every ski season, there is a “first ski” (hatsu-suberi in Japanese). It usually means the first weekend that a ski resort opens for the season, but it also means the first time one goes skiing for the season.

For our first-ski this year, we took the JR day-trip package to GALA Yuzawa. 13500yen per person gets you a return-trip shinkansen (bullet train) ticket, plus a one-day ski lift pass worth 4500yen. Considering how much we would’ve paid in highway tolls, plus gas, it’s not a bad deal at all.

The train ride took a little over an hour and a half. All along the way, there was no snow in sight. Then the train went into a tunnel, and when we came out on the other end, it was like a different world. I stared and said, “But, but, it was sunny just a minute ago.” Feathery snowflakes engulfed our train as it pulled into the station. GALA Yuzawa ski resort is directly connected to the shinkansen station: you step off the train, go up one floor, and you are in the lobby of the ski resort’s main building. It’s so convenient, I don’t know why we never came here instead of insisting on getting up at 4am and drive to ski resorts.

Half an hour later, changed and our things stored away in the locker, we were ready to hit the slopes. I was extra glad that I took precaution and brought mini heating pads (the type activated by body heat). I had one in each ski boot, one stuck on my tummy, and another one slipped into the kangaroo pouch on my fleece pullover.

“I am ready!” said I to the snowflakes coming straight into my face.
And I was glad to find out that, unlike last year, my skiing muscles didn’t refuse to wake up after a one-year hibernation. But it was cooooold! I covered myself up as much as possible, but the few patches of exposed skin on my face still felt the freezing wind and a stray strand of hair quickly became an icicle hanging next to my face, grrrrrrr!

I guess this is the price to pay for the adrenaline rush and the fresh mountain air. Let the ski season begin!

Friday, January 07, 2005

A Somber New Year

2005 began with a somber tone. The tsunami that hit South Asia and parts of Africa during last year’s Christmas season still rings fresh in everyone’s mind. I admit I had been immersed in my own little world of cooking for my parents and keeping my dad company, as well as shopping the sales for the past two weeks. Of course I knew about the tsunami, and read it on CNN’s website, but maybe it was because I didn’t watch any TV at my parents’ place, it didn’t hit me until yesterday as to the extent of damage and casualties those areas suffered.

Yesterday, a day after coming back to Japan, I turned on the TV for the first time and tuned into CNN to see Soladad O’Brian reporting live from Phuket. The TV screen is filled with corpses wrapped in white or blue sheets and secured with duct tape. Workers with facemasks sprayed giant open-air morgues with what I assume to be anti-infectants while flies swarmed around, and volunteers worked to obtain dental record or fingerprints for identification purposes.

Sitting there watching, I thought about how it could’ve easily been us. We love Phuket’s pristine white sandy beaches and have visited twice while living in Singapore; and Maldives, paradise on earth, is where we spent ten blissful days in May of 2003. I logged onto the website of Soneva Gili, the resort we stayed in Maldives, and found it closed due to tsunami damages. Luckily, all guests and hotel staff were unharmed but some staff lost family and homes on other atolls. My thoughts couldn’t help but turn to Mo, our Guest Relationship Officer with the bubbly personality who took care of us 24-7 while we stayed on Soneva Gili. I hope he and his family are ok. One of Jason’s colleagues was in Sri Lanka with his wife and two young children when the wall of water came crashing in. They climbed to the top of the hotel building and prayed for the water to not rise any further. Lucky for them, it didn't.

For every survival story there are thousands who were not so lucky, and the long-term economical and ecological effects in the area is hard to estimate. With disasters of this scale, one of the immediate priorities is to prevent outbreaks of deadly diseases such as cholera and dengue fever, achievable in part by ensuring clean drinking water and other basic hygiene standards. WHO is calling for 66 million USD in donation to help combat disease outbreaks. Here is an example of what your money can do, according to WHO:

US$10 ensures…
…that one person has access to safe drinking water for four days. Individuals must have access to 10 litres of safe drinking water per day, to reduce the risk of waterborne diseases, particularly the onset of various diarrhoeal diseases such as cholera.

US$50 ensures…
…that 70 people have access to basic medical care for a period of three months. Populations living in overcrowded temporary shelter accommodations are at increased risk of disease and will require an increase in medical attention.

US$100 ensures…
…that 10 people can be treated fully for diarrhoeal diseases (including cholera). Diarrhoeal diseases are a major cause of mortality among populations who may not have access to basic human needs.

US$150 ensures…
…that full surgical care is available to one person. Following catastrophes, it is estimated that approximately one percent of the population requires access to full surgical care. An additional ten percent of the population will require care for minor trauma and injuries.

Donation is easy, just click here.