Fist off, I started this blog a year ago today — time flies.
I need to apologize for the unintended absence. For my birthday (on October 6th) ANA sent me a special promotion which I used to take an unscheduled, unplanned, always needed two-week vacation. When I came back I had essays up the kazoo to grade and, by chance, there was opening for a promotion.
I wanted the promotion.
I needed to prepare for the test (the first step in the application process), then for three successive interviews. I made it to the third and final group interview, but I didn’t get the job. That was at the end of November.
I sulked through most of December before getting in holiday mode — cooking, shopping, planning, and getting all my work done as our third year students graduate.
Excuses aside, I’m back. I didn’t mean to take a long holiday. Life happens — and I don’t get paid for this, so priorities. ;)
I did have time to consider what my blog means to me in the time I was away. I did start this as a means to reach out and connect with other people who share my passion for cooking and food — all things connected to food and eating. My blog then turned into a photography blog. I tried different ways to separate the two but photography was more fun to post about, however it’s not my real goal. I want to focus on my cooking and so I’m going to keep my photography in Flicker with a few here and there to liven up a given post.
I do love photography, perhaps even more than food. To take pictures and edit them require lots of time. To balance blogging and photography I’m setting a goal to post here once a week. I might post more, but I’d rather post a quality food post that’s informative than several small ones. We’ll see how it works out.
For this first week of the new year I thought I’d post about our New Year’s Osetchi.
Every year I’ve been in Japan for the New Year’s holiday I’ve spent the week it takes to make all the best dishes I can eek out of my kitchen — and it’s expensive. Two years ago I spent the equivalent of 700USD for Osetchi and it’s accompaniments (crab, sashimi, wine, etc). This year I purchased one of the many pre-made osetchi boxes available through department stores. They range in price from 2000USD to a modest 100USD. The food should be enough that it lasts for three days. I went with the Dean & Deluca osetchi box and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made.
I enjoy Japanese traditional foods (tray one); however, the other two trays of western delicacies blew them away. The duck confit, the home made sausages, the sea urchin mouse and on and on and on were some of the best things I’ve eaten in ages. The beef! I’ve never had beef so tender that it literally begins to melt while chewing.
So enjoy these photos of my first feast of the New Year and let me know in the comments how you’ve all been doing.
The new year in Japan.
On January 2nd the Imperial Family opens the East wing of their palace to the public. While we may not enter their residence we are allowed into the mail courtyard. The family makes an appearance at the window, the Emperor makes a short speech, and they all wave. It’s my first time attending — I’ve never been to a more crowded place in all my life (I’m tall enough to see just how crowded it was). These are a few photos I took at the event.
Two views from up top and one from down below.
One gives you something to aspire to,
The others show your reach.
I was tall for my age. And since both my parents were around five foot, my dad demanded a paternity test early on. ;)
As a teen I was swarthy and already six-foot by junior high school. I easily got into R-rated movies and, even though underage, in high school I could buy beer, something which greatly expanded my social circles.
Then sometime in my early twenties looking older was no longer a boon. I wanted to look young and with the magic words, “I am” I could be five to ten years older or younger without a second glance. The trick works even better the other way. I simply ask, with a slightly incredulous tone, “well, how old do you think I am?”. The answer can shave 10 – 15 years off without any cosmetic expense.
For decades I’ve made a game out of hiding my age, so much so that no one believes me when I tell them the truth. So how old am I? Well, I just celebrated my 152nd birthday.
The game started when I turned 26. I had the baker write Happy Anniversary instead of Happy Birthday, put a large candle in the shape of the numerals ’25’ and celebrated the anniversary of my 25th birthday. That party started a tradition of celebrating the anniversary of whatever year I wanted to celebrate — until this year.
I’m quite serious when I tell people I’m going to live well into my 100’s. My mom had me at 40; my dad was 52. My aunts and uncles on both sides died well into their 70’s, some lingering on into their 90’s even though they all ate horrifically rich foods, drank heavily, smoked, and were stressed into heart disease and ulcers. I’ve had none of that. I’ve always eaten healthily, almost never drink, can’t even handle the smell of tobacco and have zero stress in my life. If I can avoid accents I’ve got the nature and nurture to live to be at least 150 — and, with medical science progressing as it has, I truly believe that I will.
So from this year I decided to celebrate my future birthdays, perhaps those I might not have and so I had the baker put this on my cake and had a couple of fantastic birthday parties this year. (Why limit yourself to one?)
So here is to me this year and for many, many, many, many years after.
Early this year I walked into my bedroom showered, tired, and ready for bed. Flipped the light. Baby spider was on my pillow. We both looked at each other for a beat. I charged, it JUMPED behind the bed, and I slept in the other room. I am not an arachnophob. Not really. Unnerved. Unsettled. Proof that they live amongst us both fascinates me and puts me on edge and, yes, terrifies me.
Walking through Dejima’s orchards and gardens in the rain — umbrella in one hand, camera in the other — I dodged a few spiders perched eye level to me (because no one else walking though is 192cm/6’4″ they can spin their webs lower than I’d like) until I walked face first into one.
Instinct and expectations collided — I am a man, I can not scream!
I shuddered deeply from within, shook my head violently from side to side, managed to drop my shoulder bag on the wet ground and land my camera on top. With one self possessed step forward I practically undulated with complete and total revulsion and fear. I don’t know how I didn’t scream or completely freak out in a dance.
I couldn’t bring myself to pat myself down for a spider check so dropped my umbrella over my camera and calmly walked over to a near by gardner and told what happened. I asked if he wouldn’t mind checking if I missed any “web” on my person.
I was spider free.
I am in awe of what social expectations and a ridged idea of how one thinks they should behave can, thankfully, reign in even the primeval emotions hidden deep, deep within. Remember that the next time you get pissed at someone. ;)
And ladies and gentlemen, that is how I’ve come to post this set of pics from Nagasaki.
The day I arrived in Nagasaki the sky was overcast and it rained intermittently throughout the day. My first stop was the temple Sofukuji, then off to Glover House, nearby Chinatown, and finally Dejima, the remains of the only trading port open to Western people during the Edo Era.
Today, Dejima is kind of like an ongoing Renaissance faire, only with samurai and merchants trying to keep character despite obligatory photos with iTech and digital cameras. The city of Nagasaki has unearthed, restored or rebuilt the original structures (excavation work is ongoing). Inside these buildings are exhibits explaining how trade enriched — or changed — the people and living standards, along with personal anecdotes from texts written during the era. The whole is really entertaining.
Nagasaki is is one of the two southernmost places in the four islands which make up Japan. It’s blisteringly hot in the summer with unrelenting humidity, unless you went last month. Some of the perks to traveling in the rain are the mild temperature, no sunburn, and perspiration-free. I’ve been to Nagasaki in the summer and I was grateful for the overcast.
Nagasaki was rebut after the war. The city is a mix of the remainders of the rushed post-war architecture, historical buildings which survived the bomb, and The New, all laid out along steep slopes and waterways. There is still a sizable Chinese community there. Along with a grand Chinatown there is the Sofukuji Temple built upon foundations which survived the bombing in 1945. I arrived there just after it opened. Shortly after one of the monks, a young man who was brought over from a rural provence in China, came in to do his morning libations while I was setting up my tripod. We hit it off immediately. He explained everything to do with the temple, told me about his life, and asked that I take his picture — a lot of pictures.
He’s about 155cm and solid muscle. He, along with other monks in China, practice martial arts as part of their training. We played around with my camera for a couple of hours, became Facebook friends, and I was on my way.
I only edited the above pic of him in Photoshop to smooth out his skin. Most everything I could do in Lightroom, including fix some overblown pics from my iPhone.
I remember that first hit off my Nikon bong. I thought I could handle it — I really did, but before long I was in for a major headtrip in Lightroom. Before these addictions started eating away my life I was just a normal man engaged in average things: Molecular gastronomy, Marvel Comics and the New 52, Japanese pop music, yoga and free weights. And dinner parties. I loved throwing weekend dinner parties.
This year I got into blogging and got into the routine each morning of making a pot of espresso, opening up WordPress, and engaging with people until the caffeine kicked in. But two days ago I opened Photoshop. Have you ever opened Photoshop?
It’s h a r d.
Nothing is intuitive.
I got the Fundamentals series from Lynda.com and that was it. Lost time. I was late for work — did not hear the phone ring when they called; I forgot to eat; and I ended up buying instant coffee because I couldn’t tear myself away from my iMac to look for my Starbuck’s Bean’s Card — It is impossible to do M.R. in the morning with instant coffee!
So here I sit, sifting through copies of copies of copies of re-edited photos of the next stop on my photo journey, Nagasaki. The rains were building in intensity, the anniversary of the nuclear bomb was approaching, and people all over Japan were beginning their summer Obon Holiday, so despite the weather everyplace was packed. I had a great time. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow if I can get a handle on these Adobe cravings.
Odaiba, which I’ve posted on before, held an “American Festival”. I needed to know. If Japan is sushi, samurai, manga in the US, what is America in Japan? Oh, you don’t want to know.
I was going to take photos but I knew I’d be taking them to jab and jeer.
I will briefly outline the people and venue: Every worker was dressed in denim shirts AND jeans with HUGE cowboy hats. Over that women wore white homestead aprons and/or Aunt Jemima-esq headscarves. The shops were cooking up huge steaks on BBQ’s and the Budweiser was everywhere. On either side of the audience/tables were food stalls with steaks, the Japanese interpretation of pulled pork (if you think you’ve been eating Teriyaki chicken and sushi where you are, I’ve got a surprise for you), and SPAM. Oh, and used clothing bins, boxed cake mixes, and toy guns because that’s America folks, used clothes and guns. Yes, sir.
Picture it: The average Japanese person is about 170 – 175 cm and narrow waisted. Their Texas belt buckles were like shields and their poor little heads peaking out from those hats — oh, lord. No. No photographs — for their sake — save the stage, which was playing an unusual bossa nova/jazz with Japanese lyrics because that’s how we roll in the states.
Odaiba is popular and crowded all the time. The rest of Odaiba was packed with people; however . . . .
I felt so bad them. The people in the shops were doing the best to bring in customers but…. I, too, abandoned them and took a walk around some of my favorite places. I came back a few times but I never saw it any more crowded twenty people in that HUGE venue.
I love this building. It’s the Fuji TV building. With a little tilt shift I can do this now.
And a day in Odaiba without a sculpture of a bird flying overhead and a beautiful sunset is incomplete.
I didn’t want it to rain during my vacation. I didn’t plan for it. I didn’t expect it, but it rained every single day. That first day, in my white linen shorts and black underpants (never again), I knew whether I enjoyed myself was entirely up to me.
So when things don’t go the way you plan, the sky seems — or is — gray, do as I did with this series of photos: Lighten the mood; find the beauty; be grateful for what is, not unhappy about what isn’t.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a rainy day — or a gray mood, but you do have the power to lighten either one.
How to talk about something which is an individual impression and which is forbidden to photograph or draw? Naoshima Chichibu Art Museum.
The rains were heaviest when I arrived on the island peaking with several squalls sending rain down the long winding roads as a rivers into the sea. No traffic moved until the intensity lessened to a hard rain. With a dozen others, I waited in the ferry terminal (link to pictures) till about ten a.m. after which we piled into a tiny shuttle bus and were motored twenty minutes up and through the hilly terrain to the Chichibu Art Museum where we purchased our tickets and walked the prerequisite half kilometer up the slope to the actual art galleries, designed by Tadao Ando.
The three galleries are built into the hill to preserve the landscape. I invite you to read about the three artists and their projects. James Turrell, Walter De Maria, and Claude Monet. You can not photographic what is inside (you must check in your bags and the gallery staff are watching for cell phones). All works have to do with light. No image can truly capture what is there. The number of people who can enter a gallery is limited, maximum eight, leading to a build of anticipation before you enter each work with time for your eyes to adjust to the specific lighting in each area.
One of three works by James Turrell is a room with eight marble steps leading up to a neon blue painting which, we discover upon ascending, is actually a room filled with blue light. We are invited to enter into the room, which by optical illusion, becomes a wide white void once you’re inside. The people in my group were using words like “floating”, “boundless”, ” limitless”. The effect is tranquil and recalled, for me, the idea that when we die we enter into a white light of love and warmth — you lose your orientation inside. Turn around and you’ll see a beautiful orange light painting, which is the room you were is just in, floating within the void — another optical illusion impossible to truly photograph. (The image below is from Getty Images and is of a different James Turrell work to give you an idea of what I’m writing about. Clicking the image will take you to more of his work.)
Monet’s Water Lilies are in another gallery of smooth white light, a floor in white marble mosaic, and walls smoothed of all angles. Click this link for a 360 degree tour of the room.
My favorite room was Walter De Maria’s. I managed to sneak two cell phone photos before I was caught — and curtly reprimanded. The room is illuminated by a rectangular hollow in the ceiling letting in natural light allowing the room to change minute by minute –there is no artificial light in the picture below. In the center of two ascending flights of stairs is a large round marble sculpture polished so finely that it mirrors all the light in the room like a fisheye photograph might. The effect is mesmerizing. I stood back from all angles within the space and observed: Every one was equally facinated by the effect. (The photo below is also from Getty Images. Click the photo for more work by the artist.)
By the end of my stay there I felt as though I’d meditated all day. I listened to other people echo this feeling. Even with the pouring rain and all the discomforts in getting there everyone found their own zen by the end. Below are the two images I was able to capture. Because the room is partly about the play of light I used this as an opportunity to see how light affects the great sphere (through Lightroom). That tiny spec in the center is me. I think of these as a composite self portrait. :)
Idli is not originally an Indian dish, but an import to India — I’m full of trivia. :)
When I was at CII idli was not on the menu, so to speak. A fermented mixture of beans and rice, steamed, then served with chutney or sambar, idli is a home cooked dish which you can sometime find out.
Idli batter follows the same steps as dosa, but idli is steamed rather than cooked on a hot griddle. There is what’s called an idli steamer you can purchase to make the standard shape, but you can also make them in ramkins or mandoline trays you fit into a steamer.
Idli is a fermented dish, which depending on how long you ferment can be bland with the flavor of rice to a slightly sour flavor to it not unlike a very mild yogurt. However you like it, they pairs well with spicy coconut curries and sambar. The living bacteria become active the first few minutes in the steamer producing gas — causing the idli to rise — before the heat kills the bacteria. The rice absorbs water and sets their slightly domed shape. This makes them somewhat porous and spongy, perfect to absorb something souplike (such as sambar).
There are sweet versions of idli. Many use palm sugar called jagery and dried fruits or nuts. More artful presentations can be made by adding decorative slices of vegetables to the idli pan before adding the batter, or mixing in bits of this and that to add flavor and eye appeal.
These days Indian families, short on patience, are searching for a quick fix to the overnight rise. The alternative to the overnight ferment? The addition of an antacid product. Think plop, plop; fizz, fizz giving rise to the batter which holds long enough until set, the product is called Eno.
With a food processor idli batter is simple to make and with a little imagination you can make it even without the idli pan — so give it a go.
Perhaps the best part about idli is what you can do with the leftovers. Idli is best served fresh from the steamer. Make a few extra and the next morning deep fry them for a high protein crisp faux-french fry. (Photos coming soon.)
What follows are the step by step instructions for idli.
Step one: Find a ratio of beans to rice, and chose a rice.
I’ve come to like the texture from 1 cup beans to 3 cups uncooked rice. Dosa can be made with only beans and upwards to 1:5 beans:rice. The more rice, the fluffier the end product. I’ve met people who insist dosa is made from parboiled, jasmine, short grain and sometimes long. Myself, I’ve even made it with brown rice.
Rava, Indian parboiled rice which has been powdered, can be purchased online through a grocer. Alternatively, parboiled rice, such as Uncle Bens in the US, can be soaked with the beans and purred in the mixer. I’ve experimented with uncooked Japanese short grain brown and white rice soaked overnight and ground with the beans. These idli were less light, but good in a pinch and perfect for deep frying later.
Step two: Soak your beans and rice.
Urad dal has a bacteria which will ferment, so it is imperative that you do not wash the beans if you want the ferment. You can soak the beans and rice together, or apart, but soak at least 8 hours.
Some say that soaking the beans and rice apart makes the batter lighter, but with what machine you grind, how long you soak, how thick the batter is, and how much rice you use will all will contribute to how to how light your idli are.
Step three: Grind the beans and rice together.
Drain the beans and rice. For a faster ferment, use all or some of the water to grind the beans and rice. My young friend used a blender, I use a Vitamix, some homes use a Mixi, the shops in India use a stone or industrial wet grinder. The consistency should be like pancake batter. You can always add water to your batter later, so it’s okay if your batter is thick.
Step four: To ferment or not.
Fermenting will give the dosa a sourdough like flavour and lighten the batter. Simply cover and leave in a warm place overnight. If the ferment doesn’t take, put a ladle of the batter in a bowl and add 3 or 4 tablespoons of whole fenugreek seeds, which share the same bacteria as the urad dal. Pour the cup of batter back into the main batter through a strainer (to remove the seeds), stir and cover. If your home is too cold, try placing the batter in the oven or near a heater.
Alternatively, you can add citrus acid and baking soda . It’s a short cut some people use, but only just before you use the batter.
Step five: Making idli.
First, place about 1/2 inch of water into your steamer.
Lightly oil your idli trays or moulds.
Turn on the burner under the pot and when the water is at a rolling boil carefully put the insert into the steamer, close the lid, and turn down the heat to a low setting. Set the timer for 20 minutes and do not open the pot again or you will lose the steam.
When their time is up remove them from the pan and let them cool for two or three minutes.
Remove with a rubber spatula and serve — they are exceptional.
To personalize idli think about these questions during each step:
Step one: Soaking.
- Do I need a complete protein? Adjust my ratio of beans to rice.
- What texture do I want? Lighter and crispier, more rice. Softer? More beans.
Step two: Liquify the beans and rice.
- Do I want a thin dosa? More water.
- Do I want a thick dosa? Less water.
Steps three and four: Grinding and fermenting.
- Do I want it sour? Ferment it over night. Keep the fermented batter in the fridge for a week, it will keep indefinity and the sourness will icrease.
- I don’t want to ferment, but I want a sour flavor. Add yogurt or whey in place of some of the water when blending and don’t ferment.
- I want it light, but without the ferment. Use fruit salts (it’s sold as an antacid, but used in the kitchen for an artificial ferment).
- I want it to be flavorful: Add one or two tablespoons of a different kind of bean when grinding. Or, mix in a powdered bean or spice just before using.
- Add a healthy pinch of salt to add flavor.
Step five: Cook
- Do you have the idli pan? Look around your kitchen for something that you can use to steam such as ramekins or doughnut pans.
This post is long and detailed, which might dissuade you from making Idli, or it’s cousin, Dosa. That is my error in trying to be thorough. My larger point is that the formula and technique for the batter can be modified. By going into detail I hope you do try both idli and dosa in the usual Indian style — they are wonderful, full of flavour, and healthy. But I also hope you experiment in your kitchens, especially if you’re vegetarian. Myself, I’ve used the batter to make “crepe layer cakes”, faux-enchiladas, psudo-blitzes, and mock-quesidillas.
My last evening in Okayama ended with a huge fireworks display. The next morning I woke at 5:00 a.m. to catch the earliest train to the pier for a ferry ride over to Naoshima. What you’ll need to remember for length of the series is that I had three pairs of short pants for a one-month trip: One bright white linen pair (from last years trip to Spain), black workout shorts, and plaid Abercrombie; I packed three tank tops and matching overs shirts; and I only had the crocs on my feet.
I went downstairs dressed in the white linen shorts and a tank top, sunglasses on (because I do not do five a.m.) to Noah’s rain. I didn’t know it then, but that rain and those white linen shorts were not a good match.
The last image I took on the way out of Okayama was Spiderman unmasked. The other image is what Naoshima is about.