The Little Nabé That Could

My rice cooker died of old age last year. I got it secondhand ten years ago from a Japanese guy who was probably given it by his mother when she bought a new one of her own some time before that. The timers didn’t work and the digital clock, which couldn’t be reset, displayed in the dark of the night kitchen the correct time for, perhaps, Bucharest. It was big enough to hold the day’s meals for a Japanese family, but the measly cup of brown rice I threw in it now and then ended up, in the end, being chewy or mushy, although I used the same measures of rice and water every time. Desperate last summer to get rid of some unwanted furniture (which you have to pay a nominal sum for the city furniture/household appliance disposal dudes to haul away), I threw out four things:a small defunct clothes dryer (which was stolen not two hours later by someone who was probably unpleasantly surprised); a TV stand/VCR-DVD cabinet (which survived until the next morning); another, shabbier TV stand (don’t ask; I waited to see if anyone would take it before calling the collectors: nobody took it, but after the first rain it more or less fell apart and the regular garbagemen took away the pieces); and the lowly rice cooker – the only thing I actually had to pay (300 yen) to have carted away. Could have been worse.

So for six months or so, I was cookerless. Since I wasn’t raised to need rice with every meal (in fact, the Japanese word for cooked rice – gohan – and the casual word for meal –meshi – are different readings of the same character, 飯) , that wasn’t a problem at first. Besides, I eat quite enough of it when I eat out. There were times, however, when I’d have a craving for one dish or another, and realize I didn’t have the wherewithal to cook the required rice (I say rice, but at home, I tend to eat brown rice, or genmai – 玄米). I had no idea how to cook real rice in a pot. I grew up in a meat/fish-potato-two veg household (all very tasty), and rice, when used at all, tended to go into soups or with sauces (or rice pudding) and was of the Uncle Ben’s/Minute Rice variety (I’m proud to say, however, that I did convert my parents to basmati some years ago). I only really began eating rice in earnest in Japan, but even then, not every day. I inherited the rice cooker, and never gave the production of it another thought until it faltered and died. Wouldn’t it be hard to cook? Isn’t that why God and Toshiba made rice cookers?

I started pricing rice cookers (suihanki,炊飯器) at the big-box appliance stores in Namba. Now, Japanese rice cookers are brilliant things, and since my old one was manufactured, they’ve become more compact and convenient to use. Did I want to throw out 90 bucks or more, though, for an appliance I wouldn’t use every day? I couldn’t decide (God knows, I’ve wasted more on things I’ve used less over the years, but I’ve been trying to break myself of that wicked habit and utility is my new mantra). I pondered this one day while eating lunch in class with some of my students. They noticed my rice-free meal and the subject came up.  Several could not understand how I’d survived as long as I had without an immediate source of cooked rice within reach 24/7, but one woman, from Fukuoka, assured me that all I needed was a 100-yen donabe. Nabe (鍋) means cooking pot, in particular a traditional earthenware hotpot. Like casserole, the word nabe can refer to the pot itself or the meal cooked in it. To avoid abiguity – there’s enough of that in Japanese – one says donabe ( ‘earthen pot’, 土鍋), although with my pronunciation I tend to sound like Homer Simpson when I do.

The next day, the woman from Fukuoka gave me a printout from a Japanese cooking site on how to make good rice in a cheap clay pot (bought at the equivalent of The Dollar Store) without having it (and the pot) ending up all over your stove. I was dubious about my chances. I was especially dubious because the printed-out instructions, although illustrated, were completely in Japanese. Well, she’d gone to so much effort tht I felt obliged to at least try. So try I did.

First I had to buy the donabe. I already owned one, but it’s party-sized – great for cooking various nabes and oden in the winter, but I didn’t trust myself to adjust the recipe to its size. I went to the 100-yen shop in OCAT (another failed, half-empty monolith built by the Osaka government in the 90s), near Namba station and, lo and behold, $1 hotpots (incidentally, for all the periodic complaining about China in the Japanese media, most ordinary Japanese couldn’t manage without these shops, which feature cheap, mostly Chinese-made household goods).

The results were not unimpressive. I cheated a bit in mid-cooking, by finding a good recipe in English for brown rice. Of course, I was terrified that the rice would either boil over or dry up and burn and so I stood over it like a stage mother until I sensed it was ready, listening for just the right time when the sound of  bubbling water stopped. I then let it sit for half an hour, as per deciphered instructions (it was at this point that I found the English instructions and realized I was doing things correctly and needn’t have worried). The resulting pot of brown rice was light and fluffy and not at all sticky; if this were to happen to white rice, I think a Japanese cook would deem it a failure, because sticky short-grain rice is the ideal in Japanese cookery. I’m less fussy: it tasted great.

Here is what I made with it:

Mediterranean Yakimeshi (adapted from the Mediterranean Herbed Rice recipe in my well-worn copy of Lorna Sass’ Complete Vegetarian Kitchen, a cookbook I heartily recommend even though it’s so earnestly vegan that it doesn’t have any pictures).

Sauté a leek or large onion in a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan. When the leek/onion is soft, stir in 1 tsp sage (the original recipe calls for summer savoury; good luck finding that in Japan), 3/4 tsp dried rosemary, 1/2 tsp of dried oregano (actually, crazy-go-nuts with the herbs, if you like), and a drained can of chick peas (I didn’t happen to have any dried ones at hand; the original calls for 3/4 cup of dried chick peas, soaked and cooked). Take your 100 yen nabe-cooked brown rice (this 100-yen nabe method yields about 2.5 cups of rice) and add it to the mixture. Reduce the heat a bit. When it’s warmed through, add 1/3 cup of chopped, oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes (and/or pitted olives; the original recipe specifies oil-cured black olives, but I’ve used chopped, canned green ones in the past with no regrets). Good as a main dish, on the side, or warmed up for lunch.

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Hating Natto – a Dying Osaka Tradition

There’s so much about Japanese food that I love, but natto (納豆, fermented soybeans) is a culinary minefield. I can understand its health benefits and could probably even get used to the taste of the stuff, but (and this is no doubt a personal failing on my part) I can’t get past the fact that it smells like a foot infection. I’ve been here long enough to know that plenty of foreigners love natto and plenty of Japanese can’t stand it. The default opinion, though, is that “we Japanese love natto, and foreigners can’t eat it.”

It wasn’t always the case, at least in Kansai. In fact, when I first started working in Osaka, c.1989, the standard answer to the textbook question, “Do you like natto?” was “No – that’s Kanto food. We Osakans can’t eat it.” A bit of clever marketing in the early 90s changed that, nearly overnight. Dissenters, of course, still exist, but they keep their opinions to themselves.

Fifteen years on, it’s available in every supermarket or convenience store in Osaka, and it’s on the menu of many a diner, especially the lunch counters that cater to salarymen. I stopped by a gyudon  shop for lunch the other day (gyudon is a bowl of thin-sliced beef and green onions on rice), and while waiting for my order to arrive, I looked around to see which of the  tired-looking, middle-aged men in the shop had taken off his socks. Naturally, it was just the man on my right stirring up and tucking into his side-dish of natto and raw egg. I didn’t enjoy my lunch.

An import shop in Tennoji tried to popularize Thai tempeh a few years ago, but since I was apparently the only one buying it, they gave up. Tempeh is essentially the same food as natto (although I don’t know the difference, if any, between the fermenting agents used); the extra step, however, of pressing the tempeh into flat blocks during fermentation seems to take away the pong for which natto is so justly famed. I’ve only met one student who had ever eaten tempeh, and she complained that the smell and taste were too mild for her, and it felt funny in her mouth (unlike say, a bracing mouthful of tofu?). A dwindling number of old Kansai folk still audibly complain that natto stinks, has too strong a taste and … feels  funny in their mouth.

I’m with the old folks on this one, although it’s ironic that young Osakans (who live in an eternal present) assume it’s a sign of my foreignness that I can’t stand the stuff.

Food Manga

Coming back from work on Monday night, I got off at Nagai Station and found my bicycle (parked out behind the exit, where no one is supposed to park but everybody does). In the basket were some books, small paperbacks. Religious tracts? Porno? No, although I’ve been given both over the years (the Japanese versions of both are equally tedious). These were three books of manga, from different publishers, but all about food.

Manga usually first appear in serial form in huge, pulpy, weekly comic book collections, featuring eight or nine different stories by different artists. The bigger, more general ones, like Shonen Jump, feature the usual team sports stories for the boys (Slam Dunk!), plus stories about cool delinquents (Bleach!) or animé-related fantasy with lots of tie-ins (Yugio! One Piece! Dragon Ball-Z!). Others, like Nakayoshi, are exclusively for girls and feature profoundly saccharine school-girl heroines (Candy Candy! Sailor Moon!). Still others, more specialized and adult-oriented, feature yakuza stories, samurai epics, or any type of porn you could imagine – and several you probably couldn’t. Like Victorian novels, the stories can go on for years, and many artists have loyal followings. Occasionally, stories are compiled into paperback volumes, which collectors buy. There are also manga cafés, where you pay a nominal hourly sum to drink unlimited coffee or soft drinks and read these compilations at your leisure – a sort of private paying library – very convenient for manga-lovers with no shelf space.

Anyway, these three books were about cooking. Not the most exciting topic to draw cartoons about, you say? You don’t know the half of it. There is nothing a Japanese hobbyist won’t read about his favourite topic and nothing a manga artist won’t draw to get an audience, no matter how small. When I was new to Japan, a friend and I tried to imagine the most boring manga, featuring all the usual sportsman-as-samurai clichés, about a drawn-out, utter non-event. We settled on golf. We would draw pages and pages of men standing on the green, not moving for panels on end, thwacking the ball in slow motion for five panels, then eight or nine panels of the ball flying through the air, and the sweat on the golfer’s brow (Japanese always sweat at times like this because it’s so crucial) as it lands in the sand trap. His opponent smirks wickedly – end of episode 72. We laughed our heads off over several pints of draught (it was in the old Keystone in Nagai, c.1989). The whole thing would be designed to be so utterly underwhelming – excruciating details of pure inaction. Ah we were brilliant back then! So imagine my deflation two days later when I took a seat on the subway next to a sombre, plump salaryman who was reading… a golf manga. The artist had cleverly dealt with the problem of all those inert panels by including a sportscaster, who narrated. Boringly. Lines of Japanese script ran vertically down the sides of the panels as the golfers stood there. And gazed into the distance. And moved their thumb down a notch on the driver. Perhaps we should have tried a house-painting manga (Chapters 1-3 – Flat or Gloss for the living room: Keiko’s heart will break at the wrong choice, but Kazu can’t decide), although I’m sure someone has long since beat us to it.

I brought the food manga home. Tried reading one chapter/episode the other night. A taxi driver says bad things to his customer about the restaurant they’re driving to. Realizes that customer works there. Silent glances. Cabbie goes home to his pathetic bed-sit. Eats Cup Noodle, smokes in his futon. Flashes back to the quarrel he had with his wife at that same restaurant: she leaves him, taking their daughter. Present day: cabbie dresses and goes to the restaurant. Eats good food – the chef comes out from the kitchen: same guy to whom he criticized the place. “I’m the new owner. It’s better now.” He looks into the distance (to Mount Fuji, no doubt), proudly. For some reason this inspires the cab driver to go back to his wife, if she’ll have him. I’ve got to read it again with the kanji dictionary, but that’s the story in a nutshell. They all seem to be pretty much in the same vein (although one features three pages on how to peel and carve a bamboo shoot, which might come in handy some day…)

There are three volumes of this. Somewhat more interesting (and a lot weirder) than all the textbooks gathering dust on my shelf. I wonder who left them in the basket? A case of mistaken bicycality? Ah well, a good a way as any to start the summer holidays.

Kinokuniya 2008: Better Late than Never

I bought only five books at the “12th Annual (sic) Kinokuniya Foreign Book Sale” in Umeda. Although I still haven’t finished some of the books I bought at the 11th annual (sic) sale, held in late 2006, I still had to buy something. The selection was smaller than in past years and the books a bit older than usual (many of the paperbacks I bought in ’06, had been published in ’05 – most of this year’s seemed to be, at best, from ’05 as well). It might be dawning on Kinokuniya that most of the expat population graze happily in the landmark store at Umeda station while waiting to meet friends, but actually sweat it out until the sale to actually buy something. And many just buy from Amazon. At any rate, the pickings were slimmer.

For the record, I will attempt to read this year:

Oh, Play That Thing, by Roddy Doyle (2004). Sequel to A Star Named Henry, which I liked.

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell (2005). I bought The Tipping Point last time. I’m nothing if not a loyal reader.

The Master of Go, by Yasunari Kawabata (1954; trans. by Edward Seidensticker, 1972). I’ve never been able to get through his so-called masterpiece, Snow Country (I have that much in common with many Japanese friends). We’ll see how I do with this one. It’s encouragingly short.

Dogs and Demons, by Alex Kerr (2001). I’ve been holding off reading this one for some time. Its reputation as a cri de coeur of a disillusioned gaijin preceded it. I’ve read enough of those, listened to enough of them in bars, and try to avoid becoming one on this blog (with only a few slip-ups). But it was on sale for ¥700. What can you do?

Cooking with Beans (…Grains, Pulses and Legumes), by Nicola Graimes (2006). I’ve been trying to eat a bit more healthfully lately and I grabbed this the minute I saw it. It’s a gas. Hard-covered, pretty pictures, clear recipes, more or less readily available ingredients (exceptions – the Canadian staple, navy beans, and the Jamaican staple, black beans, which is frustrating). Hard-core food-porn, and nearly 60% off the Japanese cover price. Made the Spanish omelette recipe this morning with great success (secret ingredient: cannellini beans). Bargain of the year.

Dragonfly Café, Amemura

(This place closed about a year after the review appeared, but I don’t think it was my fault…)

The Dragonfly is a short walk from Yotsubashi Namba station, or three blocks south of America Mura’s Triangle Park, in Osaka (across the street from the Family Mart). An elevator at the end of a narrow corridor takes you to the third floor. This café-lounge (café in the afternoon, slowly evolving into lounge at night) is like a stage ready to be decorated – unbuffed black and white floors and walls, indirect lighting in the evening, assisted in the daytime by natural light from a big picture window. Along the walls, a monthly exhibition of photographs or other works from guest artists. The afternoon I visited… (read more here)

Impromptu Japanese Couscous

Something light from what I found in my suburban Osaka fridge last night: in a small saucepan, place two pieces of chicken thigh (momoniku, sasami, they call it here), or a cut-up chicken breast (fat and skin removed) in 1 cup of boiling water (or more – just remember how much you put in). Add a chopped green onion or two, a diced wedge of red bell pepper, a good dribble or two of soy sauce, a bit of mirin, and a dash of cooking saké (sea salt to taste). Cover and boil for five minutes; then, stir in about a tablespoon of miso paste and turn off the heat. Let sit, covered, for five minutes more (the chicken is still coooking, but won’t get rubbery, as it would if you kept boiling it). Turn the heat on again and add a cup of couscous (or more, as long as it’s roughly the same amount as the liquid), stirring for a minute. Cover and let sit again for 5 minutes or so. Fluff up the couscous and add a pat of butter if you like. Serves two as a side-dish, one if it’s your supper and you’re hungry.