Its time again, after spending a few days in a hospital eating what must be the worst food I have ever had in Japan. Even the rice was inedible without adding a smuggled-in packet of instant chazuke and some hot tea. I myself was only there for a few days so I was able to handle it, but my heart goes out to some people who had been our would be there for weeks or longer. I don’t know what was scarier though – that the people who prepared the food actually went to school and had some kind of training, or that some people (even hospital staff) actually ate it as if there was nothing wrong…
Nurses and other inmates would see me returning full trays of food and inevitably make remarks about how “Foreigners can’t eat Japanese food.” When I could not eat the rice it was because “foreigners can only eat bread”.
Its time again to definitively answer the age old question that plagues every foreigner in Japan: What do gaijin eat?
A random lunch on a typical foreigner’s table:
Rice in our house is easily a couple of blog-post chapters all on its own, so what I will say about this particular meal is that we enjoyed our own home-grown rice. We still have about a half-year worth of last year’s harvest sitting in rodent-proof lockers in our basement. We save it as momi, which is rice-in-the-husk to preserve the freshness, but as great as it tastes at a year old, we can’t wait to try the fresh rice from this year’s harvest. Hopefully within this week.
Hijiki Kiriboshi Daikon Itameni
Dried hijiki seaweed, Kiriboshi daikon (cut and sun-dried daikon radish), carrot, sesame and soy-sauce.
Hijiki Gomokuni is a very traditional dish in Japan, but we haven’t seen it on our table much recently – at least compared to the past few years when Tomoe was pregnant and nursing and needed a lot more of the calcium and iron found in hijiki.
Thought it is getting harder to find, due to cheap imports from China and Korea, Tomoe uses and recommends domestic hijiki purchased online. If cost is a barrier, consider that if a normal health-conscious family might end up paying only three to four-thousand yen ($40) per year more.
Yeah, yeah, there is the issue of carbon emissions from transportation distance to the table (Nagasaki would be the furthest grower from us), supporting local economy, and Japan’s dietary self-sufficiency, but ANOTHER reason to buy local is that Japanese hijiki is less likely to come with a piece of used toilet paper surprise.
Apparently there were stories about Korean growers using unprocessed humanure to fertilize their crops. Remember, hijiki is a seaweed, so fertilizer is applied by simply pouring the poop into the ocean. People reported seeing toilet paper and other things that people throw into toilets floating around in the farms. Japan is also much stricter in terms of regulating the plankton-icides and algaecides that China and Korea apparently use freely.
In this particular variation to the recipe, kiriboshi daikon (dried cut daikon radish) is used. Traditionally, daikon are cut into thin strips and dried in May (the best drying month of the year) as a way to make use of those radishes that have survived the winter in the cellar, but are looking a little more… errr… elderly than what you are used to seeing at market.
Sun dried daikon are also mineral and fiber rich, with lots of yummy vitamin D3 which helps our bodies absorb the calcium from the hijiki. Likewise, the oils from the the ground sesame help absorb iron.
Finally, the carrots. While I would love to say that we used our own yuki-no-shita (grown beneath the snow) carrots, I can’t. We didn’t grow enough carrots, so the carrots are purchased from a local farm market.
Roasted Natto Krispies
Homemade natto using black, brown, and yellow organic soy-beans from our garden. The natto this time was not fermented in rice-straw, rather using a bit of bacteria left over from a regular natto pack, but the recipie is still worth making at home.
For this dish Tomoe sprinkled it with chick-pea flour and stir-fried it with a dash of oil and salt. Tomoe says it is a “good meat substitute” but since it has neither the texture nor flavor of meat, I assume she means nutritionally as it does have lots of protein. The dish could be made with boiled beans as well, but with boiled beans, only 60-70% of the beans nutrients can be absorbed by the body, whereas the fermentation process of natto makes digestion easier, raising that nutrient capture rate to 99%.
Okanori (Curled Mallow)
The brilliant green colored veggie is called okanori, which translates to “seaweed on a hill”, apparently because it has a very tender, slimy seaweed texture, yet grows on land.
Tomoe simply boiled them this time and garnished with sesame oil, garlic, and salt. It was delicious just like that, but as it is in the same family as okra and other mallows, it is usually used in soups and as a cool weather okra substitue or as a thickening agent to other dishes. It is extremely high in calcium and easily beats out spinach for a calcium-rich salad green.
Unfortunately for most city-folk, this is hard to come by as it is very difficult to transport, looking “fresh” for only a few hours after picking. Strangely, it is difficult to find here in the countryside too, and we are the only ones growing it on our block and perhaps in the entire village.
Next year we intend to plant lots more as it provides a low/no maintenance green year-round. Okanori is the first green to appear when the snow melts, and self-propagates like a weed. There are very few pests interested in it, and it provides fast growing ground-cover. We are hoping it will out-grow the weeds. Finally, the extremely soft stems and leaves compost very quickly and will add lots of calcium.
The bottle on the table is Tomoe’s home-made spicy rayu sauce. Her version is slightly different than what can be purchased in the supermarket in that in adition to our home-grown chili peppers, which have a “firey” spiciness, she also added some imported Chinese huajan which is a spice related to sansho, giving the sauce a “piri-piri” (tingly) spiciness as well.
The recipe is so simple (soy-sauce, huajan, chili peppers, sesame oil, and vinegar), taking less than ten minutes to prepare the entire bottle which would sell for over two-thousand yen ($20) in the supermarket. This is a staple in our spice rack and I use it way more than plain soy-sauce.
Cant forget our first kaki of the year! This was purchased at a farmers market for really cheap because it is one of the unripened fruits that growers pick early to thin out the tree. I took a bite a few weeks ago, and it tasted like cardboard, but leaving it in a closed plastic bag with other ripening fruits for a while created this gem. Mona approved.