January 14, 2010

Let me say at the outset that I never intended this blog to be a product promotional tool (other than perhaps the book reviews that show up here with some regularity), but I have bought  something with which I am quite enamored, and I want to share it with you.

A bit of background might be in order: some years ago, I tackled a BookPage assignment to pen reviews on a bunch of cookbooks from exotic places: Portugal, Malaysia, Argentina, and Brazil, to name but a few. The task was to write about these books from the perspective of a novice chef (and believe me, nobody could have been more of a novice than I), trying out some of the recipes and reporting on the results. My first dish, a pork tenderloin in a lime, coconut, cilantro and chile pepper sauce, was met with kudos from all who tasted it, and it launched (lunched?) my new avocation as cook-in-training.

When I remodelled my kitchen in Canada a couple of years back, I installed a high- end stove with a European full-convection oven. I had never used one of these before, but the promo literature promised speedier baking, better energy efficiency, and tastier foods; what’s not to like? And indeed, I have been quite pleased with it.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I am in a much smaller space in Japan (my whole apartment would fit into the kitchen and dining room of my house in Canada). Here, nobody has an American style full-size stove; most folks get by with a microwave and a toaster oven, and a separate gas-powered hotplate sort of affair for stovetop cooking. Those who have an oven typically have a free-standing countertop unit which is slightly bigger than a microwave oven, capable of roasting a chicken, for example, but nothing larger. A turkey? Forget about it.

A brief segue, a seeming non-sequitur perhaps, but I will tie it in: there is one major problem in Japan, a serious cookie shortage in the supermarkets. In the US, you can go into any Safeway and find a hundred or more different kinds of cookies on offer: ginger snaps, vanilla wafers, chocolate chip cookies, fortune cookies, oatmeal cookies, cookies from the four corners of the world. In Japan, you can get: Oreos, Ritz Crackers, a half-dozen local varieties which might have red bean filling or something even less palatable, and one confection that tastes like raisins crushed between sheets of cardboard. Clearly, if I wanted cookies, I was going to have to make my own. Which would require an oven. Now we are back on track again.

After doing a bit of market research, I happened upon the Healsio, an avant-garde oven made by the electronics firm of Sharp. This is about the slickest oven on the planet, a bit on the pricey side to be sure, especially for its size, but it is years ahead of the competition. For one thing, it is a steam oven, so one can make French bread that is soft and yeasty in the center, and crunchy and delicious on the outside, indistinguishable from the products on offer at a Left Bank boulangerie. The precise amount of steam is pre-programmed for perfect results every time. (This is from my experience, not from the promotional literature.) Baking cookies could not be easier: simply press “cookies” on the menu, place the tray in the oven, and it will bake them for the appropriate length of time, until the edges are a crispy golden brown and the centers soft and chewy. You don’t set the temperature, you don’t set the time, just press “cookies” and then go about your business. Additionally, it is a full convection oven; the latest examples include microwave capabilities as well. There are a half-dozen settings for doing complete “Balanced Meals”; I have not tried this yet, but it seems that you just put the ingredients into their separate containers, load them into the oven, push “Balanced Meal”, and return twenty-five minutes later for supper.

Downsides? Well, it is still not big enough for a turkey, although it could manage a turkey breast without a problem. Also, the display is in Japanese, which slows me down a lot (I have mastered the “cookies” setting, however…)

(This just in: I just now discovered that an English-language model is being sold stateside as the Sharp SuperSteam Oven; you can see details on the SharpUsa website.)


A Day Trip to Odaiba

January 12, 2010

January 11th is a holiday in Japan, Seijin-no-hi, commemorating the coming-of-age of young women in Japan. In the year of their twentieth birthdays, said young women don furisode, kimono-like garments but with voluminous sleeves, and proceed to parade singly and in groups about the city. It is quite colorful and attention-grabbing, especially at a time of year known for its relentless shades of grey (and also especially if you are a guy with a pulse).

I spent the day in Odaiba, the port of Tokyo, which boasts both a rich history and a somewhat controversial present. Odaiba is an artificial island, named after the Daiba, a group of six island fortresses that guarded Tokyo Bay in the Tokugawa era. The modern island had its beginnings in the early years of WWII, and has grown in the intervening years into a massive (and massively expensive) endeavor, a project with decidedly mixed results. On the plus side, the architecture is cutting edge, lots of concrete and glass, biomorphic forms, sculpture parks and the like. The boulevards are wide and uncharacteristically (for Tokyo) devoid of traffic. Which brings us to the minus side of the equation: comparatively few people live or work there because it is a somewhat inconvenient commute from Tokyo, and because the loud popping noise made by the bursting Japanese housing bubble resonates there all these years later.

There are signs of life in Odaiba, though, that suggest an imminent realization of the founders’ dreams, and in that slightly offbeat Japanese way that is so endearing to the hearts of Westerners:

To wit: a downsized replica of the Statue of Liberty; a humongous ship-shaped edifice that houses the Museum of Maritime Science; the Megaweb, which features Toyota’s futuristic interactive celebration of all things automotive (well, all things automotive and Toyota, at least); Venus Fort, (pronounced Venice Fort), the Venice-themed indoor galleria and mall which replicates the time of day in the ambient lighting, a slick but ever-s0-slightly disconcerting effect; and a sandy beach, one of only two in all of urban Tokyo. And, get this, you visit Odaiba by monorail, which crosses the aptly named Rainbow Bridge, how cool is that? In the monorail, there is no driver, no conductor, indeed, no people save for the passengers. The fine thing about this is that if you time it right, you can sit in the front seat, and have the entire windshield view to yourself (see pics below).

The first twenty-year-old of my day...

...followed in rapid succession by numbers two and three

Odaiba architecture, part one...

In the sculpture garden

The Telecom Ctr, great Tokyo skyline views from the top

...of which this is one

...as is this

The Return of Tom Swifties, or How Can We Miss You If You Won’t Go Away?

January 6, 2010

“Goodbye, cruel world,” Sue sighed.

“Bingo,” said Tom benignly.

“Hi, I’m Joseph Kingley,” he said jokingly.

“They are boring compared to rhinos,” he said hypocritically.

“2br, 1ba, LR, kit,” he said aptly.

“I shall run the CIA,” he said aspiringly.

“I believe your mink coat is inside out,” he inferred.

“What’s the capital of North Vietnam?” he asked annoyingly.

 “What’s the score in the Stevie Wonder-Ray Charles tennis game?” he asked lovingly.

“The Jello is 50% ready,” he affirmed.

“Is it a ‘Tom Swifty’ or a ‘Tom Swiftie’?” she asked, spellbound.

And then they get more difficult:

“I believe it is elephant pooh,” said Tom in Zulu.

“There is an insect in my cheese,” he said briefly.

“I vant to find za batroom,” said Hans peevishly.

Planet Mystery, Installment 2: India

January 6, 2010

For being the second most populous country in the world, and heirs to an English tradition that dates back well over a hundred years, India has been a bit behind the curve where mystery/suspense novels are concerned. That said, the ones that are most widely known, to a one, have been meticulously researched and finely crafted  (and also, to a one–at least the group covered here–penned by non-Indian authors; go figure).

The teeming metropolis of Bombay (nowadays Mumbai) is the setting for the three (thus far) George Sansi mysteries, the last of which was published in 1996 (and to my way of thinking, a new entry is long overdue). Sansi is a seasoned inspector on the Bombay police force, half English, half Indian, and, as such, an outsider and something of a loner. The series starts with Season of the Monsoon, in which Sansi investigates a brutal murder at the periphery of India’s huge cinema industry, colloquially known as Bollywood.

In the follow-up novel, The Ganja Coast, Sansi has retired from the Bombay police, intending to practice law. It is not to be, however, as his former boss recruits him for an undercover assignment in the nearby coastal city of Goa. Goa, once a Portuguese outpost, is well-known as a hippie backpacker destination, largely because of its look-the-other-way attitude vis-a-vis drug use. Nowadays, though, as the stakes get ever higher, greed has ramped up, and violence cannot be far behind.

The third installment of the series, The Burning Ghats, is evocative of the Bhopal chemical disaster of 1984, in which thousands of people died as a result of exposure to methyl isocyanate gas from a Union Carbide pesticide plant. In Mann’s fictionalized version, a chemical spill into the sacred Ganges River at Varanasi, killing hundreds of bathers and pilgrims, highlights the small value put on human life by avaricious industrialists. Sansi is recruited (given the circumstances, some might say “bullied”) into heading the investigation.

Fans of mystery and travel will have a hard time finding more appealing books than Paul Mann’s George Sansi series. Mr. Mann, if you’re reading this, I am itching to review your next book!

A staple of Indian suspense fiction since 1964, H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ganesh Ghote is perhaps the best known of all Bombay cops. Interestingly, the author did not visit India until some ten years after publication of the first Ghote book, The Perfect Murder (which won a CWA Gold Dagger Award, was nominated for an Edgar Award, and was later made into a movie by legendary filmmakers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory). Lauded as “one of the great characters of the contemporary mystery novel” by the New York Times, Ghote is the hero of some two dozen books, so if you like the first one (and I predict you will), there are plenty more to keep you busy for the foreseeable future.

The third and last entry to our Indian triumvirate is noted travel writer Paul Theroux, whose A Dead Hand: Crime in Calcutta will hit bookstores in very short order. In equal parts travelogue, mystery, and Kama Sutra manual, A Dead Hand recounts in the first person a short period in the life of Jerry Delfont, a writer at loose ends in Calcutta, inadvertently drawn into a murder investigation by an enigmatic and sensual American woman. Metaphorically plagued by a “dead hand” (writer’s block), Delfont becomes the unwilling recipient of a real-life dead hand, ratcheting up the mystery component exponentially. There is a cute vignette where Delfont gets to meet his creator, Paul Theroux, who happens to be in Calcutta at the same time. The two take an instant disliking to one another, and engage in a witty battle of one-upmanship that is likely my favorite scene in the book.

So there you have it, a glimpse into mystery novels of the sub-continent, atmospheric, steamy, and completely unfamiliar, just the thing for a chilly January evening read.

Tora-san and the Year of the Tiger (which in Japanese, is “tora”)

January 3, 2010

A movie capable of spawning a sequel or two is a filmmaker’s dream. Occasionally, a character comes along who so captivates cinema audiences that a number of sequels follow (The Thin Man, Rocky, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter). But the all-time record holder would have to be Tora-san, an unlucky-in-love traveling salesman plying his wares throughout the towns and villages of Japan (with forays as far afield as Arizona and Vienna). In all, a staggering forty-eight Tora-san feature films were made, beginning in 1968, and ending in 1995 shortly before the death of the leading man, actor Kiyoshi Atsumi. Tora-san is well loved by Japanese of all ages; his everyman appeal is as strong today as ever, not unlike Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, in the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Prior to today, I had never even heard of Tora-san, but I got the full-immersion course, a most timely introduction at the outset of the Year of the Tiger/Tora.

It all started out innocently enough: a trio of friends gathering to visit the temples of the Seven Gods of Fortune, a New Year’s tradition for young and old alike throughout Japan. At each temple, a small offering is left, and the blessing of that particular god is thus secured. The gods are: Jyurou-jin (the god of long life); Ebisu-ten (originally the god of fishermen, he is now regarded as the god of good business); Daikoku-ten (the god of careers); Fuku-rokuju (the god of the three lucks); Benzai-ten (the goddess of knowledge, and by the way, the only female of the lot); Bisya Mon-ten (the god of making good luck and protecting from bad luck, also the god of warriors); and Hotei (the chubby-cheeked benevolent god of abundance). There are numerous places in Tokyo to seek the blessings of the gods, and each year I have visited someplace new; this year’s trek led me north of the city, to Shibamata, a suburb on the Keisei train line, well along the way to Narita Airport.

Maps of the course were available at the local train station; on the downside, they were not in English, but my fellow blessing seekers were both Japanese, so no worries on that count. At the first temple we each acquired a shikishi card, a stiff cardboard square on which the stamps of the gods would be impressed in red ink as we visited each temple. Gods one through four went without a hitch—coins in the boxes, a moment of meditation or prayer, the obligatory “I was here” photo—but then we got waylaid, sidetracked by brightly colored signs touting the adjacent Tora-san Museum. Would I like to go? Not so much, I admitted, in that I had never even heard of Tora-san. But how can that be?!! With that, my companions decided it was time for a strong dose of Japanese culture immersion, so they herded the outvoted gaijin toward the entrance. Immediately upon entering, I could scarcely help but notice that the museum is a true labor of love, and that the visitors were, to a one, charmed by the original movie sets, period relics and scores of photographs on hand. All forty-eight films are available on DVD, and with English subtitles or soundtracks, so it appears that this longtime film buff has his work cut out for him. I am starting this week with the first of the series, Otoko Wa Tsurai Yo, which translates loosely to “It’s Tough Being a Man.” I’ll let you know how it goes…

A couple of hours later, with a museum and a scrumptious Chinese lunch under our belts, we picked up where we had left off with the Seven Gods, finishing up with the cuddly Hotei, whose lengthy earlobes and rounded belly reminded my companions strongly of a certain foreigner in their midst, an observation they made merrily and repeatedly. I cannot imagine who they were referring to.

Saki at the first station (note the one raised finger)

I popped into a convenience store en route for a soft drink; found Red Bean (azuki) Flavor Pepsi, and “Vinegar and Milk”; would you have believed this if I had not photographed it?

I have made my way to station number two...

A photo op: the Mini-malist family

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain! Tora-san Museum

Tora-san and one of his four dozen leading ladies

Tora-san makes me feel downright petite!

Wait a minute; did I just see one of those statues blink?

And finally, here I am at station number seven, sharing a laugh with my good buddy Hotei, who has altogether a better sense of humor than his western counterpart, and who promises abundance in all things in the coming year. Note the seven fingers in the air, requiring me to hold my shikishi temple visitation card under my chin.

Oh, I almost forgot; one shop near the station was selling this unusual product…

…the quintessential lucky golden poop. Yours for a mere $25 for a snack-sized dollop, or up to $50-ish for a full-on multi-course dinner-sized offering. There is also a stuffed animal version of this design, but unfortunately they were sold out, so I couldn’t get a picture of it. Maybe next year…

Sunrise in the Land of the Rising Sun, and two wonderfully weird new KitKat flavors!

January 1, 2010

I have never been a morning person; daybreak is just not my cup of oolong. That said, the scenery in Shizuoka, southwest of Tokyo, makes up for the early hour. Almost. I was taking a photo of the festive sailboat, when I noticed Mt. Fuji looming up in the background. For the third year running, I have been the first in my group to lay eyes on Fuji-san in the new year, which reputedly bodes well for success in the upcoming year (although you couldn’t prove it by the last two years, that’s for sure). Shortly after this picture was taken, we boarded the adjacent ferry (below), and made our way out into Suruga Bay for a first glimpse of the sunrise and a closer look at the fabled mountain.

A layer of low clouds obscured the eastern horizon…

but that didn’t stop intrepid photographers from huddling topside in sub-freezing weather in the hopes of catching the first rays of the new year. The sun cooperated quite well, actually, illuminating the snow-capped peak of Mt. Fuji with the soft pink glow so sought after by camera buffs.

Our next stop was Kunozan Toshogu, the original burial place of Ieyasu Tokugawa, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate which ruled Japan from 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. If you read James Clavell’s book, Shogun (or saw the movie), the title referred to a powerful daimyo, Lord Toranaga, whose character was based on Ieyasu Tokugawa. A year after Tokugawa’s interment, his remains were moved to Nikko, north of Tokyo, where they rest until this day. However, while in Kunozan Toshogu, one can still visit the gravesite of Ieyasu Tokugawa’s horse, which occupies a space adjacent to its master’s original crypt. There are 1159 steps leading up from the coast to the shrine. My traveling companions, Masako and Saki, can be seen partway up.

Of the 1159 steps, we climbed all but the first 1100 (which explains why they look so fresh so close to the top), opting instead for alternative transport:

Inside the temple grounds, reds, greens, gold and black dominate the palette:

A young kimono princess pays 100 yen for her fortune, a small piece of paper with details about studies, romance, finances, travel, and health. If it is a good one, she will keep it close at hand for the year; if it is one of the unhappier ones, the paper will be affixed to a board at the shrine, allowing her to leave her bad fortune behind when she descends the mountainside.

The view from the shrine is really breathtaking…

On the way out, I stopped in the attached gift shop and picked up the two latest flavors of KitKat bars…

For those of you not familiar with Japanese KitKat bars, they come in all sorts of arcane flavors in addition to the normal chocolate wafer bar available stateside. There are Orange, Mango and Apple KitKats. Cherry, Pumpkin and Banana KitKats. All of those are comparatively normal, and reasonably tasty as well. Then there are some more unusual flavors, like Soy Powder, Roasted Corn, and Buttered Baked Potato KitKats. Also Lemon Vinegar and Vegetable Sports Drink KitKats. But I think these two new ones may take the prize: the one in the red package is Miso Soup KitKat, and the one adorned in green is Wasabi KitKat. Wasabi, for those not up on their Japanese condiments, is a piquant Asian horseradish, which when prepared looks like guacamole, but tastes not unlike oven cleaner. I quite like it, actually; nonetheless, I haven’t yet screwed up the courage to try one of the Wasabi KitKats.

I arrived home at sunset, and thought I would take one last picture of Mt. Fuji (it is the flat-topped inverted cone “roof” dead center in the pic) from my balcony, at the close of a really excellent January 1st. Happy New Year, everyone!