There are those days when I feel so lazy to get out of the house to do anything. Well, make that most of the time *chuckles*. Yet we all have to eat yeah? So to compensate for those “lazy days”, I make sure that my fridge and pantry are well-stocked with ingredients which I may need to whip up something fast yet no less gratifying. As such, my fridge is always packed with food, and I often tell my friends that it is so stuffed that I have to be careful whenever I open it, or something would just drop out from somewhere. Friends laugh, dispensing it as a silly joke which I’d spun up but it’s true you know. Being a food hoarder comes with its own set of problems and fears. Some stuff are buried so deep within the abyss of other produce that they have to excavated. These “archaeological findings” usually take weeks and at times, months to be uncovered. Things which were once fresh turn stale and had to be binned. Wastage… But the greatest fear any food hoarder has is the day when the fridge decides to kick the bucket. That is sheer armageddon I tell you. And that happened to me just two weeks ago!
Sometime back, I can’t remember exactly when, I was told that the art of making tamagoyaki is the true litmus test to the “greatness” of a sushi chef. There are many things which a good sushi chef needs to master, i.e. his fish handling skills, his knife work, his sushi rice clasping technique, down to the proper way of toasting nori sheets… but a truly great sushi chef has to know his tamagoyaki well too! Well, I didn’t really buy it then. I mean… “how difficult could making tamagoyaki be?” I told myself. It was not until I attempted to make tamagoyaki on my own did I realise that yes indeed… not the easiest thing to do for sure. To make something which “looks like” tamagoyaki is manageable but to get all the ticks in texture, taste, colour, level of moisture, presentation etc… definitely requires quite a bit of dexterity. So this post is basically a little documentation of my experiments with the famed Japanese egg omelette (that is “omelet” for you guys in the US). I’ve not perfected it yet… no where near yet in fact.
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.
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!
Ask me what I deem to be the most delicious in this world which I cannot stop eating, I probably can’t give you a definite answer. So many foods would come spinning in my head like sevens on a pachinko machine. Über fresh sea urchin roe sashimi (uni) over a bowl of piping hot Japanese short-grain rice, perfectly braised pork belly sandwiched in crisp salad greens, timely cooked Kacchi chicken biryani, freshly baked ciabatta with a simple pesto dip and aged balsamic vinegar, otah otah from just fresh mackerel and coconut milk, chilled pengat durian… and the list runs on and on. Ask me again on what I find to be the most delicious dish which can be whipped up in just minutes and the list narrows down quite easily to just one candidate emerging victorious and somewhat vindictive. It has to be 明太子パスタ Mentaiko Pasta!