“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.
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.
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.
The weather these few weeks has been so excruciatingly hot to the point of being unbearable. It is precisely times like these, that we celebrate and embrace the greatest invention of the 20th century, air-conditioning. Singapore knows no seasons. Its either hot, or hotter, and we can only lament that the cooler months left us too soon as we move into the warmer periods of the year. Alas the almost “spring-like” season during the December to March months was much welcomed, albeit a bit wetter than usual, but at least the heat was much more tolerable. How I wish we were off somewhere cooler. And thoughts like this made me reminiscent our trip to Japan last year. Snow in March, countless macarons and pastries, wagashi… all was but too memorable…
Our first encounter with traditional Japanese confections, better known as 和菓子 wagashi stems from a trip to the Kansai region last spring. These little sweets, often made of very simple ingredients like anko (red bean paste), sesame seeds, japanese candied chestnuts and glutinous or rice flour are delicately designed and crafted, often to reflect the changing seasons. We sampled an assortment of deletable wagashi in Osaka and Kyoto, from candied yuzu to 金糖 kinton-styled 菜の花 nanohana, but none left an impression as strong as 桜餅 Sakuramochi.
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?
No trip to Japan would be complete without sampling authentic Japanese cuisine. We ain’t very keen on Kaiseki 懷石料理 though. Exquisite it might be, the damage is not going to be dainty on our wallets. Our overnight stay at an mini onsen resort in Hakone during our last trip to the Kanto region came with a mini Kaiseki dinner, so its more or less a “been there done that” for us. But we’d not had 和菓子 wagashi yet. Not the authentic ones at least, unless you count the countless sticks of dango we’d bought from supermarkets! So we are definitely not going to miss the opportunity this time round to try some and zoomed in on those offered by 竹路庵, a very famous wagashi shop from 岚山 Arashiyama. We’d read online that the flagship store in western Kyoto is always packed with tourists! Thankfully they have a stall located at the basement of Daimaru in Umeda Osaka which is well supplied with freshly made confections sent from Kyoto 2-3 times a day. That definitely saved us the hassle of queuing, and not to mention giving us a preview of Kyoto, and a taste of spring…
We were absolutely famished after a whole morning at Osaka Castle and the Plum Blossom Garden. We headed for Umeda via the Osakajo Koen Subway Station on the Chuo line.