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.

Advertisements

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!

Ochazuke
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.

furikakeFurikake
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.

Paste
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

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!

The generic “I live in Japan!” post

This, dear Reader, was an entry I spent a fair bit of time working on before throwing my hands in the air and setting aside to finish later. Unfortunately, “later” ended up being a little more than two months from when I’d started writing it.

Whoops.

The pro bloggers, the really good ones, would consider something like this past its prime by now and not worth using – I, however, have no such qualms! Thus, I invite you to enjoy a brief vignette of a night long past but by no means forgotten…


So. I have been roundly chastised for my recent old post, Bad wind. It would seem you all come here expecting a bit of humour, a dash of revelry, and were none too pleased with my sudden, unexpected foray into the dark side.

Very well. Your voices have been heard.

However.

While I shall comply and get things back on a lighter note, I’ve decided that I will passive-aggressively do so with a post about what I did over the weekend; in other words, the exact same shit that every other blogger in Japan writes about.

Told via my unique wit, of course.

Last weekend Quite some time ago now, Yoyogi Park was host to the annual Indian Festival. I hadn’t been to a cultural festival in a couple years, and had never been to Yoyogi Park at all, so I was quite looking forward to it. Nor was I disappointed.

The park is a sprawling forest of green frequented by every flavor of freak and geek imaginable (including, apparently, a roving gang of obnoxious tap-dancers). The place rocks, and I’ll definitely be back.

Showing me around — in fact, the person who told me about the festival in the first place — was Mr. Neil Duckett of neilduckett.com. Doing anything with Neil is like watching a movie with the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000. He has a quip for any occasion, and can condense his thoughts on a given subject into a short, pithy statement.

Neil on cultural festivals: “Nah mate, I stay for a couple hours, grab some grub, have a few beers and get the fuck out.”

Neil on Japanese girls: “I fuckin’ love ’em!”

It’s hard to argue with sentiments like that.

The festival itself was huge, with a mind-boggling number of stalls and an even more mind-boggling number of foreigners. (Seriously. I had no idea Tokyo had such a large Indian population.) Once we’d gotten our bearings, the first order of business was to procure ourselves some beers. Neil and I took a place in the nearest line… and it was there that we had our first encounter of the night, courtesy of an individual I shall refer to as Strange Black Homosexual Man.

Minding our own business as we were, it was something of a surprise when Strange Black Homosexual Man, a lanky and quite inebriated fellow, wandered up and decided he wanted to start talking to us. Predictably, it wasn’t long before we were hit with that time-honored classic (though with a slight twist), “Where are you guyth from?”

‘Straylia!” Neil practically bellowed. I couldn’t tell if he was being curt with Strange Black Homosexual Man or if that’s just how he normally says “Australia.” Next, it was my turn. I said where I was from.

To which the reply was, “Oh, I’m sorry.”

Protip: That is a good way to get your ass beat!

Luckily for Strange Black Homosexual Man, I wasn’t in the mood for fisting gay people. Hm, that doesn’t sound quite right.

In any case, beers now in hand, we left our new acquaintance and began doing a survey of the fairground in search of something to eat. Thumbing our noses at vendors that would deign to offer Japanese fare at an Indian festival, we headed for a nearby stall and got ourselves some curry, naan and another beer. At one point, Strange Black Homosexual Man came rounding the corner unsteadily, and we quickly moved to avoid being seen.

Once we’d progressed to beer number three – which, as I recall, was a good 200 yen more than the deceptively placed sign had led us to believe — we made our way to the stage to take in a few of the night’s musical acts. These acts, which began with a somewhat unremarkable band playing generic light rock, seemed to follow a cycle of becoming progressively stranger. By the time the positively bizarre troupe of gaudily dressed Japanese ladies took to the stage and began dancing in circles, flapping their arms about and making cluck-cluck sounds (!), Neil and I decided that it was, in fact, time for us to get the fuck out.

But our night was just beginning…

The chills! The drama!
What awaits Mssrs. Ducket and Turningpin as they get the fuck out and venture into the streets of Tokyo?

Who shall join this unlikely duo as the evening unfolds? And what could the 12 Apostles possibly have to do with it?!

Check back for Part 2, coming soon! Not sure when, sorry.

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

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

Spices
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
-Stir
-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.

They are delicious nachos, you must eat them

Sometimes I need a taste of the things I used to enjoy back in the Old Country. Being a cheap bugger, I prefer to make most of them myself — in this case, nachos.

Look at ’em. Just look at those damn things!

OK, maybe they don’t look that good, but they elicited well-deserved moos of deliciousness.

Ingredients and where bought
Nacho chips: Costco
Salsa verde and refried beans: Hanamasa
Grated cheese and the thickest sour cream I have ever seen: Local grocery store

How
1. Upend refried beans into a saucepan. They’re pretty blah straight out of the can, and will need to be flavored and brought back to life. I tend to add garlic, salt, cracked black pepper, and something herby like basil. Stir over low heat.
2. Spread thin layer of nacho chips. Slather with beans and sprinkle cheese. Repeat layering, slathering and sprinkling.
4. Wrap in aluminum foil and bake for an indeterminate amount of time. (It was about 20 minutes in my toaster oven.)
5. Garnish salsa and sour cream.

Is this a rather ghetto, taking-several-shortcuts way of making nachos? Yessir.

Did they rock?

They’re gone, aren’t they?

p/s – In an unrelated and somewhat unusual note (unusual in that I’m not one for sharing personal anecdotes), I would like to give a shoutout to a couple individuals. To Mr. Neil Duckett, a man of great humor and wit, and Mr. -Paul, a large and very animated fellow with the amazing ability to use the word “cunt” at least twice in every sentence — thanks for agreeing to meet up with a perfect stranger for drinks at a moment’s notice, and for being such great company. You guys rock.

p/p/s (edited version) – In a fit of righteous drunken anger, and convinced that yet another iPod of mine had broken for no good reason, I tossed it from the balcony and angrily posted “iPods suck ass” along with some other invective. As it turns out, I’m pretty sure in retrospect that the problem was my drunken self and not the iPod. Oh yes, dear Reader, I’m a classy guy.