Sunday, December 30, 2012


My cousin asked a great question today: What is mochi? I was going to answer and then realized I couldn't get the gist of it in a short FaceBook reply. So here's the longer response.


For special occasions -- but especially during the New Year's holidays -- people in Japan eat mochi. It's glutinous rice that is cooked and then while still piping hot pounded into a sticky (and I mean sticky!) dough. And from there it becomes any number of wonderful treats.

Traditionally and still in a lot of places it was pounded like this:

Now, though,  they have special rice cookers with built in mochi makers that do most of the work. Even more popular (and easier by far) is just having someone else do the work and buying it at your local supermarket. Right before the New Year's holidays they have people selling fresh mochi in supermarkets all over the place. You can buy the dried kind, too, (that's sold year round) but it's not nearly as good.

So after the mochi has been pounded to within an inch of its life it is rolled out and cut into squares. Or sometimes while still soft rolled into balls. They are then stored in a cool place (fridge). Once the squares or balls dry a bit you can put them on a grill like this and heat them. They become crispy on the outside and soft and sticky on the inside.

And from here you can decorate them any way you want.

You can put them into a sweet red bean paste soup.

Or sprinkle sweetened kinako (soy bean) powder on them.

Or wrap them in a sheet of seaweed and flavor with sweetened soy sauce.

Then there is always the old tried and true filling some mochi with sweet adzuki paste.

All the above are obviously desserts, but there is one non sweet dish that is served on New Year's day (and the days following) and it's called ozoni. There are all sorts of versions of this depending on where you live in Japan but it's basically a fish stock based soup with lots of veggies and chicken or some kind of meat with a chunk of grilled mochi dropped in.

And now if you really want to see something neat, here's a video of the mochi pounding. Watch until the end because they do a super fast thing where you won't believe how the one guy's hands don't get smushed. It's pretty cool.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Kyoto Tray

I went to Kyoto this past weekend for a writers' conference. A lot of neat stuff happened. But first I must tell you about this.

I woke up early to walk around the city. I found this tray outside an apartment building.

And because trays are hot property, it was chained to that pipe. 

While I can grasp someone not wanting their perfectly lovely tray stolen, I can't figure out why it was out there in the first place. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Tale of Four Sages

Twelve years ago when we first moved into this house my mother-in-law gave me a sprig of sage. Keep in mind I kill just about everything she gives me -- not on purpose mind you. I just do. But this little sprig grew and thrived and took over half my garden. And it was delicious. For twelve years I cooked with my fresh and dried sage. I added it to meats and gravies and soups. The plant grew lush and I grew cocky. "Hey, why don't you come over? I'll fix some of my sage and pork."

Here's a close up of this delightful smelling plant. 

Most of you 'in the know' can see where this is going. 

So a couple of months ago I was being shown a rooftop garden. The man was pointing to all his different herbs and naming them for me. "Basil, parsley, lemon balm." And then he pointed to what was the exact twin of my sage and said, "Of course you know rosemary." 

I gulped and said, "Of course."

The whole world telescoped away from me. I had just spent the past decade cooking with rosemary and thinking it was some exotic sage. What else wasn't what it seemed? 

I immediately went out and searched everywhere for real sage. Because quite frankly, I didn't know what the heck it tasted (or for that matter looked!) like. It must not have been the right season because it took visiting five different nurseries before I found three measly plants. I bought them all. 

Here's one of those plants after about two months. 

Yep. All dried up.

And here's the second one. Ol' Lucky Life Leaf.

Not so lucky. 

But then a miracle happened, the third plant survived. 

So far so good.

And you know what? I think I'm getting better at this gardening thing. I might even have somewhat of a green thumb. No really.

Just look at my blue roses!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Photo Shoot

At work my husband and his team are developing a smart phone for the elderly. It has been getting pretty good press, called Raku Raku Smart Phone. So the thing is he came home the other day and said he was elected to bring in a photo to use on the phone as an example of something or other. It will be a default on all the phones. So we picked several photos for the Big Bosses to choose from, scenery, flowers, our trip to Hawaii. But we also added some of our ham. 

I present you with some of the photo shoot. These are the pictures that we didn't choose to hand over. The warming up, if you will. 

Okay, Cha, give me 'cute puppy'.

Good, good. 

Now give me 'pensive'.


How about 'thoughtful'?


Can you do 'gangsta'?

Good boy!

Betcha can't do 'coy'. 

You're on fire!

Oh, no! is that an alien space craft landing? 
Can I have some 'worried'?

Have you done this before?

Here's a hard one. How about 'cool cat'?

Yes! Yes! 

Now let's see some 'sexy'.

Lassie eat your heart out!

There were a lot more photos. Better ones. No idea if they'll choose him or the shot of my roses. But if they do choose the mutt I've got this sneaking suspicion they'll be no living with him.

I'll have the steak tartare tonight, doggy biscuit on the side. Thank you.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Mucky Mother's Day

I've had a long standing feud with Mother's Day, ever since we moved into this new house, in this new neighborhood. That is, every year for twelve years Mother's Day coincides with our town's River Sludge Cleaning Day.

Happy Mother's Day! Now wake up early,  pull on those thigh-high rubber boots, and get out there and dredge some slime.

Okay, by river I mean this...

A River.

And this...

And Another River.

And this...


More like little streams running between houses and around the rice fields.  It's spring and almost time to plow, flood, and plant the fields, so every year at this time (EXACTLY on Mother's Day) we all wake up at seven and get to work. 

The whole thing looks a lot like this. 

Scraping up River Sludge.

The gunk is then put into these woven bags and stacked in piles all over the place. In about a week the city will send trucks around to pick it up. I hear they use it for fertilizer in some mysterious place.  

Bags of Yuck.

Basically the crud is a mixture of river grasses and mud (cans and garbage are plucked out and thrown away separately).  

So, a few years ago I pleaded my case. Why must the mom's do this treacherous work on Mother's Day? Not only that, but why can't we just leave the smelly, slimy stuff. The ducks and turtles and fish certainly seem to enjoy it. 

But I was chastised. 


If we leave it, I hear this will happen. 

Muck Monster.

And eventually, invariably...this. 

I eat you. 

And so, I no longer put up (much of) a fight. And my husband volunteers to go into the river with the boots and the funky shoveling device. I, along with all the other women in the neighborhood, just sit around picking weeds for an hour or so and rest assured we won't be killed in our sleep by a River Sludge Beastie. 

ETA: It's NOT Mother's Day. This is the first year in 12 that they've done it BEFORE MD. My husband I judge MD by Sludge Cleaning Day not by the calendar. That is scary. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012


While spacing out in line at the supermarket the other day, I ran across this little gem in the impulse item section.


How freaking cool is that?

There isn't a clue as to what it is. The only words on the entire package are Zeus, Lotte (the company's name), and if you turn it on its side...

Thunder Spark!

So I bought it, took it home, and opened it. It was GUM! Zeus gum. And it tasted like a cross between...


and pepper spray...

But not all together horrible. Actually, quite refreshing, stimulating, painful, almost like I was shooting thunder bolts from my mouth.

Overall I think Zeus would be proud.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Hana Yori Dango - Dumplings Rather Than Flowers

Hana yori dango ("I'd rather have dumplings than flowers.") is a famous Japanese proverb. It means preferring practical things over aesthetically beautiful things. That said, you often hear it mumbled in the spring while people are spreading their plastic mats under the cherry trees and unpacking all the food and beer they've brought for the day-long picnic. I'm fairly sure their interpretation of the phrase is simply that they can't wait to dig in and eat and drink with friends and family.

And there you have my lame segue for introducing my favorite dumpling. The sasa dango.

First, the prefecture that made these bamboo grass dumplings famous is Niigata (Remember this. There will be a quiz later.). Pretty much they can be found just about anywhere, but I only seem to be able to get my hands on them in the spring. I'm guessing it has to do with all the cherry blossom viewing and the hana yori dango stuff.

This is what one looks like.

All wrapped up in bamboo grass leaves that both smell great and have anti-bacterial properties to boot.

So you undo the fancy, ingeniously-tied, vine and...

...inside you have the dumpling. A lump of sticky rice that's been mushed together with mugwort (sounds nasty, tastes divine).

And inside that is a glob of red bean paste.


Question: What prefecture is famous for sasa dango? (See, I told you there'd be a quiz.)

Yep! Niigata. So two years ago Niigata decided it needed a new image character (all good prefectures, cities, towns, wards, utility companies, schools, clubs, (Stop me!)... need an image character). And Niigata needed one as well. So they came up with Sasadagon!

This cute little critter.

He's got a webpage, a Twitter account, and a whole merchandising army behind him. In case you were curious, his favorite food is ramen. He's left handed. In his spare time he likes to take walks, drive his car, and go on blind dates. There's a huge Wikipedia page dedicated to him in Japanese too. It's all very ... thorough.

But since he represents one of my favorite Japanese treats I think he's just grand.

I still haven't figured out the fangs yet...

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Happy New Year!

I can't believe it's already the end of 2011 and I haven't even broken 20 posts here. Definitely going to fix that in 2012.

I wanted to wish all my blog friends a fantastic New Year. Again I'm going to aim for being more organized and productive this year. That way I can post here and stop by and see everyone at least once a week.

We spent New Year's Eve at the local temple.


I still love that they build a fire in a drum can to keep us all warm.

Here's J ringing out the old year.

And when we're done with our turn ringing, the head monk and his wife give us hot drinks. Amazake for me and hot sake for M.

Home for a few hours sleep and then off to the beach for the sunrise. The weatherman said it was going to be cloudy, but I got up at 5:00, saw stars and woke everyone else. They weren't the happiest campers but, hey, we did get to see the sunrise.

Here's pre-sunrise.

While we're waiting lots of wild dancing and music going on (to the right). On the left are the guys with the giant flags. Love them. Those things have got to be heavy.

And then the sun comes up and someone on a microphone wishes us all a Happy New Year and we 'banzai' three times.

After we leave the beach we drive to the docks and I take pictures of the boats all decked out in New Year's decorations.

That's Mount Fuji there in the back to the left.

Then home to eat New Year's breakfast and sleep for a few hours.

I'll leave you all with a funny photo I just took. Animals are pretty exhausted being kept up all night with us going in and out. The cat was sleeping soundly when Cha suddenly got up and sat down, not realizing his tail was on her neck. (Note: She *hates* when the dog touches her.) So she had this disgusted look on her face but was too sleepy to move. I shot this not realizing she was actually laser-beaming him with her eyes.

Take care everyone, let's all have a great Year of the Dragon.