冷やし中華 Hiyashi Chuka literally meaning “chilled Chinese” is a popular Japanese noodle dish which is normally enjoyed during the summer months. Well, we don’t have distinct seasons in Singapore so all the more better as that meant we get to enjoy it all year round!
I usually do not blog about anything else here apart from my travels and my food ventures, be it those I’d tried to eat or those I’d tried to cook. However, something in the recent news made me shiver in my bones, as it concerns two countries which I’m very closely related to, i.e Singapore where I am born, bred and call home, and Japan which I’d been to couple of times and increasingly growing fond of and attached to. Singapore will be importing rice from Fukushima, Japan very soon, following a complete lift of import restrictions on Japanese food items to the small island state since the Fukushima catastrophe in 2011. It didn’t occur to me that we are going to be getting rice from Fukushima until recent news dating just two days back in our local newspapers. Should this be of any concern, especially when many Singaporeans like me, are particularly fond of Japanese cuisine?
“Summer” is here again and for a tropical country like Singapore who knows no seasons, it is usually marked by unbearable heat waves, and hopefully late afternoon thunderstorms which help to dispel the heat for more tolerable nights, only to wake up to repeat this “daily cycle” all over again. While I loathe the heat, I love “summer” for several reasons and one of which is the coming of seasonal fruits we get only during this time of the year. Stone fruits take centre stage but not forgetting our lovely tropical mangoes and soon-to-come durians as well. One of my favorites is 日向夏柑 Hyuganatsu, a citrus from Miyazaki, Japan much loved for its refreshing sweet and sourish flavour combination. Amongst all the varieties of Japanese citrus available throughout the year from an assortment of different cultivars of Mikan to Yuzu, Kiyomi, Dekopon, Satsuma etc… Hyuganatsu is one which is particularly enjoyed to “welcome” the hot season, as the name of this citrus 夏 “natsu” literally means “summer” in Japanese. The Japanese love it and often present boxes of hyuganatsu as omiyage or gifts to friends, family and business associates whenever the fruits are in season. Though good to be eaten on its own, Hyuganatsu can also be used to make a variety of desserts, including the popular 日向夏柑の寒天ゼリー Hyuganatsu Kanten Jelly, which is so easy to make but incredibly enjoyable.
My first walk-in dining experience for Japanese food was probably about 15 years ago. I was in national service then and there is “food court” located a stone’s throw away from my army camp. During the days when I had to stay up late in camp, my colleagues and I would drop by the food court for dinner. There was a small Japanese food deli within the food court and it was there, that I had my first donburi. Katsudon, oyakodon and gyudon are the usual culprits, and occasionally unadon when I was in the mood for something better. It was a time when sushi on conveyor belts had just landed in Singapore and the concept of Japanese food then was very new to most of us. The slurry-like half-cooked egg that robed the donburis, the melange of both sweet and savory flavours in teriyaki sauce were all very alien to me. And then I encountered agedashi tofu. Tofu we eat a lot since young but to have it deep fried and then drenched with a broth, the textures were pretty interesting to start with!
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.
肉じゃが Nikujaga is a Japanese dish which I got to know only around 2 years back, during our trip to Kansai. Compared to many other popular dishes like agedashi tofu, ebi tempura and tori karaage, nikujaga came really late. I remembered that it was part of the 鰻丼定食 “unadon teishoku” which I’d ordered in a small family restaurant in downtown Kyoto. The original intentions then was to visit an old unadon restaurant which was reputably very good. We had some trouble locating the unadon speciality shop actually and when we finally gotten round to it, the prices for a decent meal there was prohibitive to say the least. Luckily, there was another family restaurant located just diagonally on the other side of the street which also served unadon. Prices for a set meal was only a fraction of what we would have paid at the other shop but we were famished, tired and in dire need to be fueled and watered. The Japanese restaurants we’d had so far have yet to disappoint us. Even the least motivating place we’d dined in was at least decent. So it was a family operated restaurant and that alone told us that it would be disappointing.
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!
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!
Melonpan メロンパン has got to be one of the most intriguing confections in the world, with no connection to melons at all! And this popular Japanese children’s song summarises it rather well, I think. “Anpan with anko, karepan (curry buns) with kare but no melons in melonpan.” 残念! It probably counts as one of the quirkiest mysteries of culinary history.
Well, the crispy pâte sablée layer on top of the bun, if one extrapolates his imagination far enough, does bear a certain remote resemblance to the web-like motifs on the highly priced Japanese cultivated musk melons. Well, no offense but I think the Hongkongers fare better in naming a similarly crafted bread as “polo bun” 菠萝包, after the pineapple. Resembling melons or not, the aroma of freshly baked melonpans is certainly one of my most vivid memories of our trip to Tokyo 2 years back.