It seems like a growing trend, that people are no longer satisfied with “just” being able to savour the desserts and pastries off their plates, but they’d also like to see how the desserts are being prepared right before their eyes. I see this as an extension of gastronomic experience which probably first stemmed from stepping into a sushi bar where a Jiro-like Japanese chef puts on a performance of, selecting a suitable cut, slicing the fish to precision, grasping the perfectly flavoured sushi rice so elegantly in one hand before clasping the two components together. It is a performance which many believe can invigorate the senses during the “omakase” as well as help one to gain a deeper understanding of the food in order to better appreciate what is being eaten. Such a dramatic show is a tradition is not unique to just Japanese of course, as a good crepe suzuette is often prepared from scratch right next one’s dining table, from the making of the lace-thin pancakes, to the final flambe of the orange juice and liqueur concoction. As such, “salons” or “ateliers” becomes an increasingly popular culinary concept which is replicated in many places now. During our most recent trip to Japan, we visited Salon de Dessert Toshi Yoroizuka in Tokyo Midtown , for a treat of not only their desserts but also the performance.
Springtime in Japan when everything is so beautiful. The weather is just starting to warm up a bit, when one can begin to embrace the earliest rays of the year while at the same time enjoy the cool from the remnants of the melting snow… The gardens are most lovely at this time of the year, as the ground awakens to the calls from the changing seasons and begins yet another year’s cycle. While we usher in the hanami season when cherry blossoms display their full regalia leaving all in their presence in awe, transfixed by their quiet beauty, the alluring fragrance from the plum blossoms still lingers in the air in some places and draws deep from within our soul, as we smile and sigh in the same breath, catching their final fleeting moments as the flowers dwindle and fade away to feed the sprouting soil…
Springtime is also a particularly important season for the Japanese. This is largely due to the availability of many fresh produce, bearing sharp contrast to much of the pickled foods which they would have eaten through the bitter winter months. The Japanese cuisine is one which is in harmony with the elements, changing with the seasons, tapping in the most opportunistic manner of what is the best to be eaten at what time of the year, depends entirely on what is available. While the cherry blossoms are most symbolic in Japan as the emblem of Spring, strawberries are also iconic and synonymous to this beautiful season in many ways. During springtime when strawberries are at their prime, most, if not all patisseries in Japan too roll out pastries themed after this much-loved fruit. Many of them do not take on fanciful and tongue twisting terms, but instead just a simple name like フレジエ Fraisier.
When we were in Kyoto, we were intrigued by the variety of traditional Japanese snacks available in just one shop alone which we’d visited. It is a 老舗 shinise, which means that it has been around for a very long time, and the selection was far more extensive than what we would probably find in all the snack shops we’d seen elsewhere combined. Senbei and other forms of rice biscuits in all thinkable Japanese-inspired flavours from the savory sansho and sakura-ebi to sweet ones like kurogoma and matcha. But this comes as no surprise of course. Kyoto is the old capital of Japan for more than 1000 years. Many of these snacks have their roots deep in the art of 和菓子 wagashi, the traditional artform of Japanese sweet-making. But some of these are classified as 南蛮菓子 nanban-gashi, brought into Japan by the Spanish and Portuguese missionaries more than 500 years ago. The most famous of these “imported confectioneries” must surely be the カステラケーキ kasutera cake which was derived from the Portuguese “Pão de Castela”. It has since become a speciality of Nagasaki. Another lesser known confection which is essentially a nanban-gashi as well, is a cookie known as そばぼうろ Soba Boro, These have since become a popular snack which is synonymously associated to Kyoto, where visitors would buy packets of them home as omiyage. But the recipe is fairly straightforward, so now you can make them on your own as well!
大根のそぼろに Daikon no Soboroni, like 肉じゃが Nikujaga , is another signature dish in Japanese home-styled cooking. Ironically like many such dishes, Daikon no soboroni is unfamiliar to many who are accustomed to relating Japanese cuisine to the dishes which are available in Japanese restaurants and delis, not places where one would readily find dishes of the Japanese home, especially in Singapore. But I love these dishes for their simplicity in technique, yet so full of おふくろの味 “flavours of the home”, just what one needs to warm the stomach and the heart after being so tired of eating out. It is extremely easy to prepare and takes very little time to do so.
I love 桜餅 sakuramochi and eat them whenever I could find them or find time to make them. And it has mostly been the Kansai version where 道明寺粉 domyoji-ko is used. I love love love glutinous rice and enjoy practically everything that comes with it. So I always have a stash of domyoji-ko and pickled sakura leaves at home so that I can make them whenever a craving sets in. Oddly, I’d not made the Kanto version before despite enjoying them several times in Japan. So I guess its a good time to try!
The art of 和菓子 Wagashi making is one of the finer elements of Japanese culinary culture and for me, it is the epitome of its levels of exquisiteness and artistry of its gastronomic heritage. Most wagashi used a grain-based starch as the main ingredient, usually glutinous rice or Japanese short-grained rice, but 蕨餅 Warabimochi is an interesting form of Wagashi using starch extracted from the roots and lower stems of the bracken fern instead. It is an extremely popular snack in the Kansai region and I remember first tasting it as part of the dessert served with a Kyoto-styled Tofu meal when we were in Osaka 2 years back. The texture was unique, somewhat chewy with quite a bit of bite yet soft and delicate at the same time. So it is quite difficult to describe but remains memorable until today.
When we were in Tokyo for the first time back in 2009, everything was literally a culture shock for us, despite having prepped up for it a couple of months before that with internet research and guidebook reading. Although both being very built-up Asian cities with a strong urban infrastructure, Singapore and Tokyo are vastly different. So almost everything was interesting, intriguing, puzzling to the point of being bewildering. This perpetuated through every aspect of our brief glimpse into the lives of the Tokyo people. It starts with the morning mad rush at JR Shinjuku station, where everyone moved with such fast pace in a concerted clock-work fashion, yet with immensely high levels of artistry and rapport no one knocks into each other. Yet the peak hour trains are so jam packed, the train companies need to call upon a special “task force” employed specifically to nudge and push passengers onto the trains to make sure that everyone gets to work on time. This is when being squished and squashed, jostled and pushed is inevitable! There are times when the trains are so congested it seems like in comparison, sardines in a can could breathe better! A world of ironies…
Yet at night Shinjuku transforms into a totally different world, a complete paradigm shift and reveals its Mr Hyde. Along the streets of Kabukicho, Ni-chome and San-chome lie every thinkable ounce of carnal pleasure and worldly decadence. Sex shops, pornography parlours, izakayas, nightclubs, gay bars, sleazy saunas… bearing strong and powerful juxtaposition to the buddhist temples and shinto shrines we’d visited in the daytime.
The food culture in Tokyo was also quite intriguing. We are accustomed to buying canned drinks and occasionally packets of snacks or snicker bars from vending machines over here. Yet in Japan, practically everything, from a fresh organically grown apple, to a hentai soiled panty could be peddled in vending machines! More commonly, vending machines in Tokyo serve a greater purpose. One could order a meal through vending machines placed outside an F&B establishment, and customise everything in accordance to one’s preference from adding of toppings on a ramen, ordering an additional side dish, to upgrading a miso jiru to a ton jiru that goes with the 牛丼 Gyudon. This saves the hassle of the already busy shop staff who could now concentrate on handling the food and not the money!
I had been thinking…what was probably my first impression of Japanese food which I’d gotten to known when we were young? Was it sushi? Was it sashimi? Hmm,I don’t think so… Was it Katsudon or Oyakodon? I think I only got to know about these in my late teens. So what was it exactly?
I vividly remember 2 programmes that were shown when I was young, a time when NHK invaded our local TV. It was 阿信 Oshin for the adults, especially mothers and grandmothers who would pause amidst making family dinner and become all thoroughly absorbed into the life of the little Japanese girl in this Japanese drama epic, only to return to the stove and vegetables all teary. For us kids then, it must have been Doraemon, that big-headed blue creature which I only got to know as a cat very much later. Japanese popular culture seem to be particularly fond of cats, albeit somewhat physically challenged, since Doraemon is without ears and just when you thought that was weird, Hello Kitty doesn’t have a mouth. Jokes aside, Doraemon was so immensely popular at that time with every boy and girl was able to hum the theme song despite not knowing a word in Japanese. And of course with Doraemon, dorayaki became also widely known to us as a popular Japanese snack. But it was only until much later that we’d gotten to know what it tasted like!
Five vast oceans and seven massive continents, none can be as amazing as Asia. It is the largest of the seven, in terms of land mass and the most extensive as well, easily more than the Americas combined. Demographically, it counts as the most diverse, with some populations leading the rest of the world as being the most advanced, while others are included amongst Earth’s remaining most indigenous. Culturally, it bears some of the world’s oldest civilisations, upholding and maintaining social and religious practices that still shock and astound much of the Western world even till today. Asia, nothing short of surprises and we invite you to join us in our culinary journey to explore some of her most unique cuisines, as well as gastronomic heritage and history, some widely familiar and others lesser known but no less interesting. And we begin our year long journey of “Asian Food Fest” with the Land of the Rising Sun, Japan.
7th day in Kansai, back to Osaka after our short trips to Kyoto and Nara. Time to pay our due visit to the Osaka Aquarium. Alas, the good weather we’d had earlier in the week took a turn and brought persistent showers who lasted for hours, and sometimes entire afternoons. That kinda dampened our spirits, quite literally. Oh well, our last 3 days in Kansai and we are determined to make the best out of it.
Located in the western end of the metropolitan by the bay, the Osaka Aquarium is home to a large variety of marine animals from all over the world, including Kai kun, one of the few whale sharks in captivity. Here are some photos which I snapped in haste, which do not accurately portray the scale and grandeur of the place for sure. Do enjoy them nonetheless…
I remember our first walk down Shinsaibashisuji after we’d touched down at Osaka on our first day. It was exciting as we’d read so much about this shopping street, packed with all sorts of shops selling all kinds of stuff from facial masks to fugu. There was a cake shop that specialises in castellas, and a tea house with all grades of Kyoto Uji matcha. The wide corridor is also flanked with many eateries for all sorts of cuisines and desserts. And the one which made us stop and stare hard into their window the most has to be Dalloyau.
The bento lunch was cold but tasty, and alas, too short. We continued our way around Nara, crossing Nara Koen and making our way to Todaiji 東大寺, an ancient buddhist shrine, which boasts many “firsts” in this ancient city.
I’m “fast forwarding” my Japan posts to bring to you guys the Le Cordon Bleu Macarons from Kobe! “Nan desu de?!” some of you might ask. ‘Cos in barely 2 weeks’ time on 20th March is Le Jour de Macaron aka Macarons Day! This day which celebrates the popular French confectionery was initiated by no other than the man who revolutionised macaron gastronomie, Pierre Hermé. Since its inauguration 7 years ago, Macarons Day is celebrated by many patisseries around France, with notable names like Sadaharu Aoki, Dalloyau, Laurent Duchêne and Jean-Paul Hévin, just to name a few. It has since spread across the Altantic to NYC and Toronto, as well as the rest of the world! And over at Aspiring Bakers, we are having celebrating it for one whole month with “Aspiring Bakers #17 – March Macaron Madness!”
We visited Kobe as a day trip on our second last day in Kansai. It was an impromptu decision actually as we’d initially decided to stay put in Osaka after visiting Kyoto and Nara a couple of days back. But we kinda ran out of places to visit in Osaka, which is pretty much of a business and commercial hub, with much less character and history than its neighbouring cities and towns. So it was off to Kobe for more patisserie hunting!
Early morning our 6th day in Kansai, we checked out of our hotel and proceeded to JR Kyoto Station for a train ride for a day trip to Nara. It was a fairly short journey, only 40 min if I recall correctly since the two cities are very close to each other.
奈良 Nara, like 京都 Kyoto is an ancient city. In fact, it is reputably older than Kyoto, being the capital city of Japan during the Nara period. The city celebrated its 1300th anniversary in 2010 and our trip was scheduled then, in hope to catch some of the festivities and celebrations. Alas all was not meant to be and the trip had to be postponed til early 2011. But that is another story altogether.
First thing when we’d reached Nara was to find a luggage locker at train station, which thankfully was not too difficult to locate. No way we are lugging our bags around the city! Then it was off to Nara Koen, a mere 10 min walk away, but we’d opt to take the bus instead. Recuperating from all that walking in Kyoto and saving our legs for all is to come!
奈良公园 Nara Koen is basically a vast grass field which seemed pretty ordinary to start with. But its “occupants” are far from being ordinary! Serving as “messengers from the gods”, sika deer roam the compounds freely without barricades whatsoever and despite the signage found all over the park to remind that they are wild, the deer seemed very domesticated and definitely very used to humans. Souvenir shops around the vicinity capitalise on the animals and sell “deer biscuits” which one could purchase to feed the deer. Judging by how brisk business was and well-fed the deer were, we weren’t about to contribute to the Japanese economy this way. So no, we didn’t get any biscuits, but most certainly had lots of fun watching others do it! Sometimes we couldn’t make out who was more entertaining, the people or the deer.
We love depachikas! And we most certainly made no attempt to hide it! Depachikas is surely a shopping phenomenon which was uniquely Japan before the concept was widely emulated in departmental stores all over the world. I remember the first time we walked into the depachika in one of the major departmental stores linked to Shinjuku station on our first trip to Japan and the experience was simply “fwah!!!!” to say the least. From appetisers to desserts, from English salads to Japanese homemade pickled foodstuff, depachikas provide an exceedingly wide repertoire of delectable foods prepared for all thinkable occasions, from a light meal to elaborated box sets for hanami or hina matsuri celebrations, from simple bentos for the nearby working lunch crowds, to delicately crafted dinner courses worthy of kaiseki calibre! And do not think that since its a “food-to-go” takeaway concept, the quality would be compromised and shoddy. In fact its quite the contrary! A large number renowned restaurants and shops have set up delis and counters in depachikas, just to keep up with the pace of the dining crowd and maintain exposure. The competition is often stiff, keeping everyone on their toes to present their very best. One doesn’t have to look too far when he needs to plan a feast! In fact, a decent spread from any good depachika is just the perfect excuse for him to hold one!
Our third and last day in Kyoto and we didn’t want to pack the day’s itinerary with too much activities but alas, I think we “underdid” ourselves as we were pretty much done with Kinkakuji and Kitano Tenmangu by mid-day, initially thinking that we’d probably need a full day for these two spots in northern Kyoto 洛北. Not wanting to waste any precious time in this beautiful city, a quick decision was made to visit sourthen Kyoto where the infamous 伏見稻荷大社 Fushimi Inari Daisha lies. But going there was not without hiccups… (more…)
Day 5 in Japan is our 3rd day in Kyoto. Incidentally, its our last day here too. We love this city so much and lamented at the thought of not being able to stay here for another day. No wait, make that the rest of our lives! Its an ancient city yes but still so very much alive! The juxtaposition of the ancient and the new, the young and the old is all too dramatic and attractive for us. 3 days is really
barely NOT enough to see Kyoto and I often wonder how people do those “one day Kyoto stopovers” as they travel from Fukuoka to Tokyo via the JR line. I bet they leave the city with memories like… erm, Kyoto… what Kyoto?
After a hearty dinner at the unagi don joint, we walked down Kawaramachi Dori towards our next destination. We usually end the day with a dessert and today’s no exception. However, we could enjoy the desserts at the comfort of a sit-in dessert boutique instead of takeaways which we had over the last few days in Japan. Shop space is so limited in downtown Kyoto and Pâtisserie Kanae is no different. But we were glad we’d managed to make time in our itinerary for a trip down here.
After our little tour at Nishiki Market, we found ourselves at Daimaru Kyoto, located in between Kawaramachi and Karasuma stations. Won’t miss the chance for a little “tour” of the depachika as well. True enough, the basement is filled with little takeaway corners representing various big names which have found themselves in Kyoto. The one that struck us most was a small little booth by the famed Belgian patissier cum chocolatier, Jean-Philippe Darcis.
Apart visiting kiyomizu-dera 京都清水寺, we headed northwards passing through numerous small lanes which we so well-preserved of Kyoto’s glorious past. Some of the houses have been standing for hundreds of years. Even rebuilts were modelled after the old design. If not for the people, one would have been transported back to the Edo period…
After waking up to a cold and lazy morning, we took a bus from outside the hotel to Kyoto Station. Though the train station is nearby, we opted for buses instead as its cheaper. Moreoever, we get to sightsee along the way, and hopefully chance upon something which would be interesting. Today’s itinerary is to cover Higashiyama, which literally means the “eastern hills” of Kyoto. We had glimpses of the place yesterday since Gion is located there. Today’s walking trail would bring us from Kiyomizudera to Heian Jingu.
2nd day in Kyoto, we woke up to a pleasant surprise. it had been snowing the night before and the neighbourhood was enshrouded in a white veil. barely 6 am in the morning but the sky’s already quite lit but the air was chilly and dense. the neighbourhood was still in slumbers, quiet and peaceful saved for an occasional but infrequent bark. probably an Akita. clouds ominous and grey brood in the distant mountains foreboding a storm making its way down the hills. True enough, it began to snow again.
Pâtisserie Henri Charpentier (PHC) is easily the most “accessible” french bakery in Japan, with many takeaway outlets in depachikas of the major departmental stores like Isetan, Daimaru and Takashimaya, all over Japan. In fact, I don’t recall not seeing them at any of the departmental stores we went to! If one is forced to draw comparisons, PHC is like BreadTalk in Singapore, only that the former is much much much much much much…better, especially for a pastry junkie like me!
As we were on our way, leaving Gion to cross Kamogawa for Takashimaya Kyoto, we chanced upon our first french pastry shop in Kyoto, Pâtisserie Gion Sakai. Amidst the traditional Japanese architectural infrastructure of this part of the ancient city which beared two-storey shophouses with wooden framed doors, this establishment seemed like the most unexpecting and perhaps awkward juxtaposition. Nonetheless, we are glad that we have found it.