Showing bread who’s boss

breadI’ve started to get a bit antsy regarding the — let’s face it — blandness of a lot of the food options here in Nippon.

I therefore decided to spice things up by getting medieval on the corner supermarket’s cheese demi-baguette, or チーズフランス (“Cheese France”) as the locals call it, by throwing some jalapeños on it and popping it into the old toaster oven — or “oven toaster” as it’s for whatever reason referred to in Japanese. Hrm…

In any case, my pimped-up bread rocked. Yup.

Jazz up your boring-ass white rice

Don’t get me wrong, I like rice. Rice with flavor, that is.

Jambalaya, Spanish rice, risotto … even a good Jasmine rice tastes pretty terrific on its own. But plain Japanese white rice — while placed at every meal as if no meal could be complete without it, while served to you by well-meaning hosts who invariably (and infuriatingly) ask “Can you eat rice?” and when the answer is “Yes,” you are expected to proclaim that what has just graced your tongue is like unto manna from heaven — is actually, if you ask me, pretty bland. As such, I thought I’d share some ways to add flavor to an otherwise sort of flavorless side dish. Allez cuisine!

Traditionally made by pouring tea over old rice and adding some pickles, nori (dried seaweed) and whatever else is lying around, ochazuke for most folks these days means opening up a packet of instant mix and tossing it in along with some hot water. As a food, ochazuke is so lackluster that asking your guests if they wanted some was once the traditional sign that you wanted them to get out. It’s easy to make but it is about the most boring thing you can do with an already boring ingredient … unless, of course, it is used as a component in the Breakfast of Fear.

Literally meaning something like “shake-n-coat,” furikake is a dried condiment sprinkled on top of rice to give it some flavor. I use the term “flavor” loosely here, because — as with ochazuke — said flavoring revolves mostly around fish and seaweed. Now, I have nothing against seaweed, but I personally prefer a bit more variety. Enter Exhibit A, Habanero-iri Gekikara Togarashi Furikake, or “Violently Spicy Red Pepper Furikake with Habanero.”

Now we’re talking.

A couple dashes of this bad boy, which goes for all of 99 yen at the local discount store, will add a bit of fire to some otherwise bland rice.

Another flavoring option is concentrated pastes that you scoop out and dollop onto your rice. Common examples include Gohan Desu Yo, which is made principally of nori (yes, seaweed again) and those made from the pulp of ume plums.

Utter shite.

tapunikuThis is the stuff you should be using: Tappuri Niku Miso. The niku (“meat”) in this case is ground pork, and while I don’t normally dig on swine, the mincemeat has no piggy aftertaste, and the miso flavor is phenomenal. If you’re a fan of miso ramen (as I am), you will see the obvious flavor parallel and you will love this stuff.

Seasoning packets
Unlike furikake, which one sprinkles daintily to allow one to savor the zen-like purity of one’s exceedingly boring rice, seasoning packets are added to rice in the frying pan to transform it into a flavorful, full-fledged main dish. You can never go wrong with a chahan (fried rice) packet, but other faves from the neighborhood 99 yen store include the dry curry packet pictured below and the Nasi Goreng packet — plop a fried egg on top and the result is a cheap and flavorful meal.

Hope this helped. Now get out there and throw a monkey wrench into the revered blandness that is white rice.

Dry curry -- the other curry

Dry curry -- the other curry

Cheap chuhai alert

hanachu2While I can’t say I quite see the connection, discount wholesaler Hanamasa has decided — in honor of Hina Matsuri, or “Girls’ Day” — to knock a few yen off its already cheap chuhai. As of today, a single can of chuhai is just 88 yen, which is definitely less than you’ll find elsewhere.

One caveat: the Hanamasa chuhai is a bit blah, and includes a not insignificant amount of sugar. I can never get through more than a couple of them without feeling as though all that 糖類 (saccharide) is starting to build up on my teeth. But then again, 88 yen is 88 yen.

While at Hanamasa, I was also able to pick up a two-liter (!) bottle of olive oil and a package of single-serving split crab for just 190 yen.

Oh, yes. The evening’s menu has been decided.

Peperoncino-infused olive oil

I’m far from an expert cook, but I’ve banged around kitchens long enough — enjoying myself in the process, I might add — that I’ve learned how to whip up a tasty dish or two. I am also, as I have mentioned before, a cheap bastard.

It is the convergence of these two points that leads to this blog entry.

oil1I use olive oil like a mad fiend; sometimes the plain stuff works fine, but other times when I’m making a more savory dish, I want an olive oil that has a bit of kick to it. You could shell out an inordinate amount of money for an herb-infused olive oil at the snooty grocery store, but frankly I’d rather make it myself.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Hanamasa is your go-to spot for buying things in bulk, and for a lot less than you’d find elsewhere. The beer bottle you see here has been filled with extra-virgin olive oil from an industrial-sized, Hanamasa- purchased number, and filled with dried peperoncino, crushed garlic, lemongrass, bay leaves and rosemary. (The huge bag of peperoncino was also purchased at Hanamasa — I tear the things up by hand and toss them into pretty much everything.)

It doesn’t take more than a couple weeks for the flavors to soak into the olive oil, and it is friggin’ incredible. I use it to coat the frypan when cooking up meats or tofu, and also drizzle it over salad, adding vinegar, crushed black pepper, a dash of cayenne and several shakes of Pieffe brand grated Italian cheese blend to make a rocking good salad dressing. Yes, I like spicy food so much that even my salads are spicy.

If you like to cook, I’d recommend giving your own flavored olive oils a shot. It takes next to no time to do, and the results speak for themselves.

Tofu also pan-fried in spicy olive oil. 辛い!

Salad topped with tofu pan-fried in spicy olive oil. 辛い!

Beer special alert

Attention Tokyoites: The Queen’s Isetan chain of supermarkets is running one of their semi-regular imported beer specials. Right now, 330 mL cans of Houjun Monogatari beer are on sale for 188 yen each.

houjun1Houjun Monogatari is brewed in Germany according to the Reinheitsgebot, or German Purity Law, meaning that its ingredients are malt and hops, period. None of that rice or cornstarch fuckery that Kirin and the other macrobrewers dilute their suds with.

Taste-wise, Houjun is a decent brew, with a sweetness reminiscent of caramel-infused especial Mexican beers, but with a depth and flavor that the latter lack. It makes a nice sipping beer, and while a little smaller than the average 350 mL-sized can, it’s cheaper and more flavorful than the Kirins and Asahis of the world, may the devil take them.

Queen’s Isetan tends to run specials like these until their inventory runs out (read: I buy and drink it all), so if you’re looking to stock up on something besides the usual J-pilsner, you should give Houjun a try.

Kourakuen ramen

I hardly ever eat out, but if I do, chances are good that it’s for ramen.

I friggin’ love the stuff.

But considering that a bowl of good noodles tends to run from 640 to 900+ yen, plus extra for the obligatory beer, what’s a body to do when counting down till payday but still needing to get the old ramen fix on?

kanbanEnter Kourakuen ramen.

Kourakuen is a restaurant chain with shops all across Japan. They offer a variety of dishes with equally varying price tags, but their signature draw is a bowl of basic chuka soba (ramen) for just 290 yen.

That, my friends, is some cheap ramen.

The only similarly priced ramen you’re liable to find is the bland, straight-out-of-the-packet stuff served at some train stations (which, if you’ve ever had, you’ll know is not worth having).

So, how does Kourakuen’s budget chuka soba stack up?

The soup is your basic soy sauce, with plenty of chicken flavor coming through as well. The noodles are chijirimen, meaning they’re of the plumper, slightly curly variety rather than the shoestring-thin hosomen type. Toppings are the standard slices of chashiu pork, as well as menma, naruto and a slice of nori (which I’ve actually never cared for).

ramenSomething Kourakuen definitely has in its favor is the range of condiments available on the countertop — in particular, the pepper-infused crushed garlic. Several scoops of that, a couple dashes of white pepper and a drizzle of hot sesame oil, and your ramen is good to go.

All told, my chuka soba and a glass of beer came out to 545 yen. Not too shabby if you ask me.

Is a bowl of Kourakuen’s cheapest worth dropping everything and running out for? Well, no. The good stuff is obviously going to cost you more. But it’s a decent set of noodles for the price, and it beats any comparably priced restaurant ramen I’ve yet to encounter.

Bottom line, if you’re craving ramen but only have a couple 100 yen coins in your pocket, you should give Kourakuen a try.

And trust me, add the spicy garlic.

John Turningpin’s Breakfast of Fear

1/2 can of tuna
1 raw egg
1 large scoop of rice
Wasabi-flavored ochazuke mix

Several twists of fresh-ground black pepper
Largish dash of white pepper
3-4 dashes of rayu (hot oil)

Makin’ it
-Insert all ingredients into chawan or similar compact bowl
-Add boiling hot water and spices
-Ingest alone or with one’s closest enemies

Came up with this one morning when very hungry but with barely enough time to throw a few ingredients together. It’s surprisingly filling, and a sick part of me likes it enough to make it once or twice a week.

Oh, yes. I’ll blog about it, but I’m not posting a picture of it.