Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Japanese kids don't like cakes

In holiday season, there are many opportunities to go to parties.  It is fun but some parents may be concerned that their kids eat a lot of sugar.

Living abroad, I see a lot of kids love sweets - chocolate, cake, cookies, candies and ice cream.  But this is not true of Japanese kids.

Many Japanese kids don't like cakes or any desserts.  I remember that when I was little, I wanted a cake for my birthday but didn't want anymore after one bite.  I didn't like cakes or any sweets for a long time.  In fact, it is common for Japanese mothers who have preschool-aged kids to give them salty crackers or dried fish as an afternoon snack.  It is not because they don't want to feed them sweets but kids don't like them.

This may sound strange for those who live in cultures where children typically have a sweet tooth, but where does this difference come from?

The answer is Japanese food.

For Japanese, the main food is rice.  Almost all Japanese kids eat rice regularly and love it from a very young age.  As you chew rice, you will sense the subtle sweet taste in the mouth.  Chemically speaking, the main ingredient of rice is starch.  The starch is mixed with saliva when being chewed; the starch is broken down, and it turns into sugar by the work of amylase enzyme.  This creates a natural sweetness.

Also, when you look at the recipes of Japanese dishes, a lot of them have a little bit of sugar or sweetener like Mirin.  The main ingredients of many recipes are soy sauce, sake, and sugar.  Cooking sake is sometimes replaced with mirin, which is basically sake and sugar.  The ratio of these can be different depending on the kind of dish , but with these three ingredients, we make many dishes such as Niku-jaga (meat and potatos), Nitsuke (Stewed fish), and Kinpira-gobou (stirred burdock).

After eating rice and these Japanese dishes, kids are satisfied with the sweetness that they had in the meal and don't feel like having more sugar.  Also, compared to desserts, the amount of sugar taken in this way is considerably lower.

Now I am older, I like cakes and sweet desserts.  But I don't crave for them after Japanese meals!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Warm up winter with chai in a Ricotta Pan

Coming of winter season - I love making my homemade chai with this Ricotta Pan.

What is special about this pan?  Well, first of all, it is absolutely beautiful - it is called 'banko' pottery from Mie prefecture which is famous for its high quality clay soil.  The plain form conveys the natural beauty of this soil.  When in use, it gently and gradually heats the contents.  The clay preserves heat quite well, so whatever is heated up stays warm for a long time while it is in this pan.

Have you had the experience of spilling water when pouring it into a cup?  This pan's unique shape stops that from happening!

The surface is finished in matt-texture, and this gives the pan beauty and warmness.  The combination of pottery and wood that goes into this pan requires great skill, but is possible because of the detailed and careful handwork of the craftspeople who make them.

I like to take it to the table and serve it there, leaving it for my second cup.  It is such a treat to take time and have tea with this special pot.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Let's make a seasonal lunch with Magewappa bento box

It is already December!

In Japan, in my home city, Kyoto, it is the peak of the red maple.  People visit gardens in the temples and shrines to see the beauty and the change of the color that the Japanese maples show to us in this season.  

Yes, we can still do picnic.  Take a warm jacket, hot drink, and Magewappa bento box to enjoy it under the trees.  What a great way to enjoy the season!  Or if it's indoor, would you like to try bento box like this to bring the season to the room?

This is called 3-colors crumbles bento - or soboro bento in Japanese.  On the top of cooked rice, there normally are minced stirred chicken or pork, scramble eggs, and a kind of green vegetables to make it to three colors.  Once you are used to it, it is not troublesome, but nutritious and yummy!

The beauty to the eyes is the additional but foremost benefit of having this bento box.
First you please the eyes by appreciating it, and then please the tongue by tasting it.  It is surprising that even the simple food impresses and satisfies you just because it is in this special box.

You can shape the boiled carrots with the cookie cutter of maple shape to enhance the feeling of the season.  The bento cooking becomes an creative art.  

This soboro bento and photos are done by my friend photographer and food blogger, Nao Kondo.  Thanks to Nao for your beautiful works!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Workshops of Magewappa in San Francisco!

Yes, it's true!  There will be workshops by the craftsman of 'Magewappa Bento Box' in San Francisco!

Shibata Yoshinobu Shouten will visit SF from Akita, Japan, to demonstrate and show how to make their exquisite cedar-wood box.  They will bring the pieces of Natural Akita Cedar from Akita and show how to fold them into a bento box.  Then, you can actually learn how to make your own nail-free bento box!
It is an amazing opportunity to see a fantastic craftsman at work and perhaps get an early christmas gift!

Dec 10: 6:00 - 8:30 pm at Workshop Residence

Dec 12: 1:00 - 4:00 pm at Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California

Related blogs:
Yoshinobu Shibaya, Master of Magewappa Making
Magewappa Master 1 - Constant Invention
Magewappa Master 2 - Interaction with the heart

Friday, November 27, 2015

Kenji Miyazawa - the Japanese 'Farmer-Poet'

This follows from the last article that talks about Kenji Miyazawa

Although in his later life he lived as a poor farmer, he was actually born into a wealthy family, and was educated at a school that is now called the Iwate University Agricultural Department.  He was smart, humorous, and was honored by his classmates.  But what appealed to most people about him was his genuine kindness and compassion towards people.

Iwate is located in the northern part of Japan, which has a severe cold winter.  This was the area that was affected recently by the Earthquake and Tsunami in 2011.  In his time, farmers suffered when there was a cold summer and crops didn't grow.  His family ran a pawnshop and he saw the farmers coming to sell their kimonos and furniture when they had a bad harvest.  Seeing these farmers deeply affected to his life.  He came to have sense of shame of his wealthy environment and resisted taking over his family business.

After graduating from school, he left home to follow his dream of becoming a writer in Tokyo.  During this time, he wrote many of his famous stories, including the collection novels later published as 'The restaurant of many orders' with the help of his friend from school, Shiro Oikawa.  This was his only collection of novels published while he was alive - it became hugely popular after he passed away.

However, after 6 months living in Tokyo, he moved back to Iwate because of his sister's illness and became a teacher at a farming school.  He was still writing children's literature and poems, including the poems expressing his deep grief when his sister passed away at the age of 24.

Kenji - on the back right
He had a lot of curiosity about art - he learnt Esperanto, played the cello and organ, painted, and composed music.  Although he encouraged his students to farm, he saw it as a paradox that he was teaching farming while never actually cultivating the soil himself, so he left his career and started farming the waste land in the remote area from his home.  There, he gathered the local youth and started teaching the rice cultivating method, soil science, and botany.  He visited other villages as well to teach how to evolve the quality of soil for better farming.  At the same time, he taught the importance of art to these farmers, and held art events such as western music listening and literature reading at his home.

Epitaph to Kenji in Hiei Temple
He wrote a paper, named 'Introduction to Art for Farmers'.  He says, 'Once, our ancestors lived happily in their poverty.  There were art and belief.  But now, we exist only to labor. ..... Today, we have to open up the new path and create beauty from our life.'

After his death, a lot of his works were published by the poets and the writers who were deeply moved by and noticed his incredible talent.  Now, he is known as one of the most prominent poets in Japan.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Ame ni mo Makezu, not losing to the rain - by Japanese Poet, Kenji Miyazawa

Kenji Miyazawa (1896 - 1933) is a famous Japanese Poet.  He was from Hanamaki in Iwate, and died young age at 37 years-old from pneumonia, but was quite talented and left many children's literature and poems that have been read and loved by both children and adults for nearly a century.  However, like many other of the greatest artists in history, he had been poor for most of his life and unknown as a poet in his entire lifetime.  He was closely connected to nature, and this makes his perspective of the world in his literature so attractive and profound.

He wrote about his local land of Iwate, described its plain beauty and respected the simple northern farmers' life.  He converted to Nichiren buddism, became a vegetarian, and showed deep compassion for the poor, especially farmers who worked hard but suffered from the severe climate of the region.  He also learnt Esperanto and called his local land, 'Ihatov' which means utopia.  Even today, many of the names in Hanamaki area are written in Esperanto because of his influence.

Here is his most famous poem, Ame ni mo Makezu - Not losing to the rain.

not losing to the rain
not losing to the wind
not losing to the snow nor to summer's heat
with a strong body
not fettered by desire
by no means offending anyone
always quietly smiling
every day four bowls of brown rice
miso and some vegetables to eat
in everything
count yourself last and put others before you
watching and listening, and understanding
and never forgetting
in the shade of the woods of the pines of the fields
being in a little thatched hut
if there is a sick child to the east
going and nursing over them
if there is a tired mother to the west
going and shouldering her sheaf of rice
if there is someone near death to the south
going and saying there's no need to be afraid
if there is a quarrel or a lawsuit to the north
telling them to leave off with such waste
when there's drought, shedding tears of sympathy
when the summer's cold, wandering upset
called a nobody by everyone
without being praised
without being blamed
such a person
I want to become

This is a poem that was found in his diary after he passed away.

The person he dreamt of becoming was not a great writer nor did wish for wealth or status.  His hero was a simple, humble, hardworking, and genuinely kindhearted human being who helped people in need.  His genuine wish while struggling with illness was to think of others and be of help to them.  We tend to be occupied with our own situation and become unhappy.  We tend to argue more rather than listening.
  This poem seems to tell us something more important than achieving or becoming 'something' in life.  He is not someone who achieved something in his lifetime, but a plain but dignified human being.  And yet, he is still highly respected and unintentionally became a hero of his beloved land.

More of his life will follow in the next blog!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The making of Sanuki Branding Iron

This follows from the last article that talks about Sanuki Branding Iron.  

Unfortunately no one is making these branding irons anymore. I hear that they were last made in the 70's; the maker was 77 years old at that time.  Now, when we see these marks on Japanese sweets or other objects, they are done by machine.  

The way to make the mold of yaki-in is quite unique - the mold is made of seaweed and a specific sand found only in a specific beach of Chiba prefecture.  

These two ingredients are mixed together until it becomes like a clay.  Then a motif or picture is drown on the clay-like material.  After the mold is formed, iron is poured in the sunken parts.  When the iron is fixed, you crack the mold of seaweed and sand and they break down.  Since the form is made of 100% organic ingredients from the ocean, it can be reused again. 

If someone is interested in reviving this beautiful handwork, please contact me!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Sanuki Branding Iron in Kagawa

I was visiting the large beautiful Japanese circuit style garden in Takamatsu City in Kagawa called Ritsurin Park.  Inside the park, there is a folk art museum called Sanuki Mingei-kan.  I visited there to see an exhibition of old 'yaki-in', which is a stamp made from iron between 17th and 21st century.

There are so many beautiful designs of hundreds years old!  They are all handmade and were often used to stamp Japanese sweets, or people stamped a company logo or a symbol on various objects.  The iron was heated in charcoal and the heat burns the surface of the object. 

All the motifs are so lovely - the line of design is round and gives a warm impression.  The designs are often about nature that stands for the seasons or a letter that means auspiciousness at the occasion of a celebration.  It is amazing to think that the detailed patterns were handcrafted hundreds years ago.

This stamp is the picture of swallows returning to their home.  

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Magewappa Master 2 - Interaction with the heart

This is the continuation of Magewappa Master Part 1.

Yoshinobu Shibata shows up in his daily uniform: traditional Japanese sandals and the toolbox that he has used for his entire life.  He sets up his 'studio' in a small area at a fancy department store and starts making a Magewappa box quietly.

Shoppers notice his presence, look at what he is doing and ask questions.  He loves to talk to people, and once he gets the opportunity, he happily starts describing his work in the tone of an old 'granpa'.

In today's Japan, this is often how people in cities encounter Japanese traditional crafts and arts.  They learn of the skill and of the value of the fine handmade art in Japanese culture, which is not easily found in city life.  His easy manner makes people feel like listening to him and they are drawn into his world.

When Japan grew rapidly in 60's and 70's, a lot of Japanese people left their rural homes and moved to big cities for work.  Many of us who were born after that were cut off from the local craft culture, and handmade crafts were replaced by plastics.

He talks not just about his products, but also stories of old Japan, culture and how to have a happy family life.

He asks whether you eat with your family everyday, talks about how rice put in a Magewappa is so delicious that family members will come home early to eat it in time.  Having a family meal everyday should be a fundamental thing, but sadly, a lot of Japanese people cannot have this in their busy lives.  It's not just a product demo - People feel uplifted after watching and listening to him to speak.  

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Magewappa Master 1 - Constant Invention

Magewappa master, Yoshinobu Shibata, having run his company, Shibata-Yoshinobu-Shouten (shouten means store in Japanese), has now left day-to-day work, after having made Magewappa since the 60's

Now the company is taken care of by his son, Yoshimasa Shibata, but he is still active.  He is constantly inventing new Magewappa products and travels to exhibit them in Japan and the wider world.  In the last few years, he had exhibitions in Japan, flying from Odate in Akita to many other cities in Japan quite frequently.  In addition, he has had major exhibitions in Paris and Helsinki.

This has been his regular work since the 70's.  His purpose is to demonstrate Magewappa making at department stores.

His recent work is a box to keep the umbilical cord of a newborn baby.  In Japan, this is a traditional keep-sake and families normally keep this in a high quality wooden box.  It is believed that an umbilical cord has the special power to protect the growth of a child, as it did when he/she was in the mother's belly.  The lid is marked with the Asian year animal of the year the child was born.

In part 2, I will describe his typical scene at one of his demonstrations.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Miso-Making Workshop in San Francisco!

I am currently based in San Francisco, which is filled with foodies!  I have been pleasantly surprised to find that so many people are open to new kinds of food, even if sometimes it sounds a little strange at the first encounter.  Also, they are very much conscious about the impact that fresh food gives to people in the body and the heart.

My friend, Mariko, runs the company, Aeden which makes the Japanese fermented foods from fresh organic ingredients.  As I introduced the Japanese fermented foods and the power of Koji in my last blog, Miso is such a nutritious superfood.  But the fresher the ingredients are, the more nutrition and energy you get from these active fungus.

There was a Miso-making workshop by her at 18 Reasons the other day.  All the tickets were sold out and there are many curious San Franciscans who came to try their first hand-made Miso-making.

The ingredients of Miso is simple; cooked soybeans, rice Koji and salt.  You mash the soybeans and mix it with Koji and salt.  The key to make good Miso is to exclude air from the mixture and keep the container air free.  Simple recipe, but requires that you put your heart into it.

The rest of work is left to Koji, and your work is to wait at least for 6 months!

Mariko's miso has great flavor.  It is because she takes care of her products with love, and only makes a small batch at a time to keep the quality.  You can check more details on her site here.
Have a healthy happy life feeling the genuine power of food!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Secret of Japanese Fermented Foods

Fermented foods - I hear the word very often these days.  When you look into recipes of Japanese cooking, the ingredients are quite simple.  They are often combination of soy sauce, miso, sake, mirin, sugar, vinegar and salt.  Except salt, they are all fermented foods.  By these magical sauce and paste, varieties of delicious Japanese meals are made, as they draw out the best flavor of vegetables, fish and meat, and create rich flavorful taste.

So, what are Japanese fermented foods?  How are they made?  What's the secret of its taste?

Miso is one of the most common Japanese food known all over the world.  It is made from soy beans, koji and salt, and it is fermented for at least 6 months.

Koji is a starter and key ingredients to make all of the Japanese fermented foods.  It is a culture made by growing fungus on cooked rice and becomes rice koji moulds.  Fermented foods are made by breaking down these moulds.  This is the mother of all tastes of Japanese meals.

Koji is an active enzyme that breaks the protein into amino acids, that is known as 'umami', a rich tasteful flavor, and the starch is turned into glucose, which creates natural sweetness.
Miso and other koji products are regarded as superfoods and high in nutrition.  They are delicious and stay fresh for a long time.

These fermented foods have a long history, going back thousands of years.  Before the civilization understood the microorganism, the ancient people already knew the way of using it and bringing out the best flavor and nutrition from foods.  It is wisdom that we have inherited over centuries. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Serving Somen in Magewappa

Magewappa Bento Box can be used for taking noodles or pasta to lunch.  This Magewappa Maru Round box is one of the smallest size of our Magewappa series, but it can contain more food than you might think.  This was my to-go lunch box when I worked in Tokyo.  Today, I'd like to introduce a recipe using the Japanese noodle, somen.

Somen is one of the many types of Japanese noodles; it is made from wheat and it is commonly eaten in summer time, often in cold dishes.  It is thinner than Udon or Spaghetti, less than 1.3 mm, similar to rice vermicelli.  It takes less time to cook, so is nice to cook in summer time when you don't want to spend a lot of time around the heat.  If you cannot find somen, there are some thin types of Udon and these would work for this recipe as well.

Today's bento lunch menu is:

- Somen noodle marinated with chicken breast and cucumber in sesame sauce
- Omelette with green onion


Somen (70g)
Chicken breast (50g)
Cucumber 1/2
Sesame seeds 1tbsp (15g)
Salt 1/2 tsp (2.5g)
Soy sauce 1tbsp (15g)
Sesame oil 1tbsp (15g)

1. Add somen to boiling water for 3 - 5 min, or follow the suggested cooking time of whatever noodles you buy.  Drain the water in a strainer and cool the noodles down by dipping in a cold water.

Once it's cool, drain the cold water and marinate it with sesame oil to avoid the noodles sticking together.

2. Boil the chicken breast and split it into small pieces.

3. Chop cucumber and rub with a little bit of salt to drain water from cucumber.  (this salt is not included in the ingredients above)  

4. Marinate somen, chicken, and cucumber with all the other ingredients in a bowl.

Sesame oil and sesame seeds add the rich flavor on the simple ingredients, yum!
The recipe and photos are from my friend, Nao Kondo, who is a photographer and a food blogger.  You can check her other recipes on her blog, magewappana-hibi.