Jason Truesdell : Pursuing My Passions
A life in flux. Soon to be immigrant to Japan. Recently migrated this blog from another platform after many years of neglect (about March 6, 2017). Sorry for the styling and functionality potholes; I am working on cleaning things up and making it usable again.

Okinawan Lunch at Yurakucho

Hiromi planned lunch with a few friends at Yurakucho yesterday, so we went a little early and shopped a bit at the Wakayama specialty shop and an Okinawan store to pick up some umeboshi, awamori, and various snacks and treats.

After browsing shelves full of tofuyo, Hiromi was in the mood to eat something Ryukyuan, so it was a fortunate coincidence that our group stumbled on an Okinawan restaurant in a nearby department store building.

Indulging my vegetarian habit in Japan is essentially impossible, at least with any degree of rigidity. But Okinawan food is even trickier. (More impossible?)

With a heavy reliance on pork wherever an excuse can be made to use it, even a basic noodle dish is served with hefty portions of tender braised pork belly (buta no kaku ni). Hiromi orders Okinawan soba as part of a set meal, and discovers that Okinawan soba is somewhere between ramen and udon in texture, and is made entirely of wheat flour, with poetic license much like "chuuka soba" or "yakisoba."

The buta no kaku ni is lighter in color than the typical Japanese version, thanks largely to eithered reduced quantities or the complete absence of soy sauce.

Normally, making substitutions at lunch is impossible, as it severely messes with the kitchen's mojo during the business lunch hour. But we came a little after 1pm, and the restaurant said they'd be happy to cook something off the dinner menu if I couldn't find something suitable from the lunch menu.

So we ordered the closest things to vegetarian dishes we could find.

First up was nigana no shiro-ae, made with a bitter herb indigenous to Okinawa. Nigana is a somewhat ambiguous term in Japan, but in Okinawa it seems to refer to one local species of plant. I was expecting this to be more of a vegetable dish than a tofu dish, but considering the intensity of the flavor, the proportion of tofu to herb made sense.

I can't quite place the flavor, but it would be somewhat fair to compare it to arugula or maybe dandelion greens.

Another dish, recommended by one of Hiromi's friends, was a soft tofu dish called yuri-doufu, somewhere between oborodoufu and kinugoshi-doufu in texture. It's quite similar to Korean-style soon-dubu. The soup it's served with is far from vegetarian, but was mild in flavor.

Nigana tofu and yuri doufu

I had another dish called hirayachi, an Okinawan-style pancake comparable to a the simplest Korean pajeon, but described in Japanese as "Okinawan okonomiyaki."

hirayachi

Unlike pajeon, the hirayachi I had did not contain scallions. The Okinawan dish is often made with nira, usually translated as garlic chives, an essential ingredient for making gyoza. I think there may have been a few pieces of tiny dried shrimp in the batter or maybe finely chopped kamaboko, and it's topped with katsuobushi, but I retain a sense of humor when dining out, especially in Japan.

The pancake is served with substantial portion of a mild soy-based dipping sauce, much less salty than the typical Korean equivalent. It's very simple, and since it's so thin, it probably just takes a few minutes to cook, but I like it.

We lingered long enough that it was already coffee hour when we finished, so we stopped and had some espresso-based drinks at some concept chain from the Illy brand. I ordered some odd (but actually nice) stuffed marshmallow concoctions, one made with tomato jam and the other flavored with coffee, as a little sweet thing.

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Yakitori-ya for a vegetarian

On the Sunday before Golden Week, Hiromi had a practice session to attend, so we needed to have a late dinner. Ochanomizu completely clears out during Golden Week, as it's mostly populated by university students, so nearly every place we walked by had just closed for the evening. Most of the shops closed around 8:30 or so, even if their signs indicated that they were customarily open much later.

An incredibly intoxicated woman just outside of one restaurant loudly offered a bottle of something that was allegedly jasmine tea to everyone within earshot, and some of her friends humored her, tasted something that was likely higher proof than the average bottled tea, and spit it out onto the street. We discovered that the restaurant around which they were congregating was still open.

The restaurant promised we could still eat if we coult get all our orders in within about 30 minutes... We were up for the challenge. The one caveat is that the shop specializes in yakitori, grilled chicken (and assorted parts) on skewers.

View of the kitchen

View of the Kitchen, Ochanomizu yakitori shop

Fortunately, many yakitori shops have a number of vegetable options, and we happened to stumble into one with a surprisingly long menu.

Sobacha-Ryokucha to Shochu Cocktail

Soba-cha to ryokucha with shochu

We started with these allegedly seasonal drinks made with ryokucha (green tea). Mine had soba-cha and shochu in it... thanks to the toasted buckwheat, it resembled a slighlty alcoholic genmaicha with a pronounced buckwheat aroma.

Stick harumaki

Stick harumaki

Our first thing to nibble on... some sort of cheese-filled stick harumaki... My memory of the other ingredients has faded, but it was pleasingly crunchy and creamy.

Spring greens salad

Spring greens salad

Some bitter greens with a kind of grapefruit dressing, topped with little webs of dried fish and a garnish of katsuobushi. Another example of the sense of humor required to be vegetarian in Japan, perhaps, but the greens and dressing were nice.

Soramame no sumibiyaki

Soramame no sumibiyaki (grilled fava beans)

Ume salt

Ume-jio (ume salt)

I always delight in unexpected greatness in simplicity... These were one of our favorite treats of the night. Oak charcoal grilled soramame (fava beans) served with coarse ume (Japanese apricot)-flavored salt. The easiest way to eat this is to out the fava beans one by one and eat with a grain or two of the salt.

Shouyu-butter tofu with moyashi

Another pleasant surprise... This tofu was served on a small sizzle platter with a sauce made from little more than butter and soy sauce, and tasted surprisingly indulgent. It's topped with negi (scallions), and like so many other pub side dish in Japan, is dressed with some katsuobushi.

Kushi-yaki

Kushi-yaki: takenoko and tsukune shiitake

Tsukune-stuffed shiitake for Hiromi in the background, served with a heavy dose of yuzu-kosho, and grilled bamboo shoots with slightly sweetened miso. It's really hard to get nice bamboo shoots in the US, especially this fresh. I don't know why that is, exactly. But these were very nice, very appropriate for spring, and they were completely free of the unpleasantly preserved taste that most bamboo shoots in the US have.

 

 

Department store dinner, hand transported from Shibuya to Kawasaki

Department store basement meal

On a wet and rainy April 28, Hiromi, Hiromi's mother and I trekked to Meiji Jinguu, then briefly toured Shibuya's Tokkyu Foods Show depachika madness. We were planning to have dinner at Hiromi's home that night, so we actually wanted to pick up a few things to take home.

The nifty thing about department store basements in Japan is that you can assemble a fairly elaborate meal without ever needing to whip out a spatula or your handy kitchen saibashi.

Not one of the dishes required more than a bit of reheating, although for one of the two grilled eggplant dishes (far left, middle) I chose to make a quick nerimiso to help the two variations stand apart from each other. Even in that case, however, the department store had a ready-to-buy sauce you could take away to remove even this tiny step of production.

I also made a quick seasoned soup stock for the big ganmodoki (upper left), but everything else was just a matter of heating, at most, and plating.

Among the other dishes: Fresh yuba with soy sauce, an okra ohitashi with yuba, two kinds of vegetable croquettes, supermarket sushi, blanched kogomi (a spring mountain vegetable similar to warabi), a vegetable aemono, dashi-maki tamago (a broth-seasoned omelet), takenoko gohan (bamboo shoot rice), and four kinds of inari-zushi. One variety had a wasabi-seasoned rice, another was gomoku, another might have been made with azuki, and the last one had age puffs made from black soybeans.

It wasn't all easy, though... A fair amount of time unwrapping, plating and transporting foods from the kitchen to the table made preparation take almost as long as making a simpler dinner might have taken. Of course, the quality was much better than the average takeaway meal at a US supermarket, and everything was nicer than most of what you might find at even upscale urban specialty shops.

Toraya Cafe: Wagashi reimagined.

After our big lunch, we found ourselves at Toraya Cafe, another fancy Omotesando Hills concept restaurant.

You'd think that we couldn't possibly have room to eat more.

However, to think so, you must be oblivious to the concept of betsubara... literally, separate stomach, the idea is expressed rather verbosely in English as "there's always room for dessert."

Toraya Cafe is a contemporary-style wagashi shop... Much like Tsujiri Cafe, from Uji, they reference traditional wagashi (Japanese confectionary) but playfully reimagine flavors and presentations. Toraya, though, is a very old confectionary company, and their parent company is equally adept at old-school and contemporary wagashi.

Most of us ordered some sort of beverage, generally some kind of tea. Kristin ordered  a "matcha glacé", a sort of sweet matcha drink that doubles as a dessert.

Tōnyū Pudding with Matcha Sauce

Tōnyū Pudding with Matcha Sauce 

I ordered some azuki-cha (roasted azuki mean tea) served cold, with optional wasanbon syrup, a lightly processed sugar cane syrup, as a sweetener.

One of the things I love about soy-based foods in Japan, including desserts, is that, for the most part, little effort is made to conceal the soy flavor. In fact, the aroma of the soybean is often intentionally highlighted. Soy is not some sort health food or a second-class milk or meat substitute, but, when suitably fresh, a remarkable flavor all its own.

This tounyuu purin, or soy milk pudding, has a pronounced soy flavor and is pleasingly creamy.

A thick matcha-based crème anglaise adds a bittersweet touch and contrasts nicely with the soy pudding.

Dark azuki beans, slightly sweet, garnish the dessert in the same way you might expect to see in a coffee-based dessert.

Oshiruko With Pu-erh infusion

Oshiruko With Pu-erh infusion

This remarkable variation of oshiruko, sweet azuki soup, is relatively traditional except for one subtle base note: The azuki are simmered with earthy Chinese pu-erh tea. Since azuki already has a somewhat earthy flavor, the flavor doesn't dominate, but provides a pleasant underlying accent that adds a subtle complexity to a dish that normally has a very straightforward, sweet flavor.

A few shiratama, also slightly tweaked for this dish, had, I believe, a little accent from white sesame seeds.

Although Toraya is a fairly large company, their cafe is, for me, one of the pleasant things that can happen when someone with vision and firm roots in a culinary tradition smartly reinterprets their palette of flavors and techniques with a creative eye. It's not hit-you-over-the-head culinary drama, but it's pleasingly innovative, and worth seeking out.

Sake tasting

After our lunch at Bretagne, we again set out in entirely the wrong direction in search of the new Omotesando Hills building. Fortunately, this landed us at Pierre Hermé, where I convinced Hiromi that we needed to try some macarons. We had an "Earl Grey" and a "Arabesque", the former filled with a sort of Earl Grey tea infused ganache, and the second made with an apricot filling and possibly a hint of cardamom, with a secret center made with pistachio. The Arabesque also had a tiny bit of apricot in the macaron shell itself. The Earl Grey was well balanced as far as sweetness, and I loved the flavor of the Arabesque, but it could have been a little lighter-handed with the sugar.

It was a bit strange to me to taste macarons that have just come out of refrigeration... In Seattle at the few places that produce Parisian-style macarons, that's rather atypical, so the outer shell has an initial crunch that's really nice. However, the fillings are never nearly as nice, save for the matcha one at Fresh Flours.

Anyway, we reoriented ourselves and found our way to the sort of luxury mall known as Omotesando Hills.

It was right next to La Bretagne, really.

We felt so not clever.

After meandering through half of the floors, we decided to stop in here.

Hasegawa Sake Shop

Hasegawa is a sake shop with a small but elegant tachinomi baa, or stand-up bar. You can order 20-50ml samples of any of today's featured sake, a few types of shochu, and in my case, a yuzu liqueur.

Yuzu liqueur and sake

The yuzu liqueur of the day (they have two or three) is about 10% alcohol, which places it into the same proof as wine or sake; however, I believe they call it a liqueur because it was not brewed like sake, but made from distilled alcohol. Hiromi had a nice sake, though I forgot what it was called.

Had we planned a little better, I would have ordered a shochu first, but I thought we were just here for one quick sample. Hiromi got curious about other items on the menu, and she ordered a nice umeshu. I felt obligated to order something else, but I didn't want another sweet drink, so I ordered today's shochu, which I think was made with buckwheat (soba).

This is a great place to stop in and try a few things before committing to a full bottle of something you've never heard of. Most of the sample-size servings are 200-600 yen, so it's in the same class of indulgence that coffee would be. You can also order some tiny salty snacks to nibble on along with your drink.

The staff is very professional and knowledgable, and they'll answer your questions about anything on the menu in great detail (in Japanese, at least).

 

Bretagne in Omotesandō

Omotesandō is a very brand-conscious, upscale, fashionable district in Tokyo. It's home to boutiques by Pierre Hermé, La Maison du Chocolat, Louis Vuitton, and Hanae Mori, among others. It's part of Minato-ku, one of the most expensive wards within Tokyo.

A few years ago Hiromi read something about a fancy crêpe shop in Omotesando serving galette, or buckwheat-based crêpe, an idea which fascinated Hiromi. In Seattle, where savory crêpes are less unusual, they're a bit easier to find, but most of Tokyo thinks of crepes as a street dessert food for Harajuku-haunting junior high school girls.

We wanted to go out to brunch after returning from Aomori, and Hiromi was in the mood to revisit Le Bretagne, the crêpe shop in question, so we made our way to Omotesando without bothering to look it up, as Hiromi was sure we could find it by memory.

As a rule, if you aren't living, working, or regularly shopping in a particular neighborhood in Tokyo, don't ever make this assumption. We were quite on the wrong side of things, and only with a bit of expensive fancy web searching on my rental cell phone (thanks Softbank Telecom!) were we able to locate the address and realize the error of our ways.

There it is!

If you aren't already familiar with Tokyo, you need to know two things: 1) it is easy to get lost in a city full of small alleys of which you have only the vaguest memory, and 2) none of said alleys, or even minor streets, have actual names. Only fairly major thoroughfares and highways have meaningful designations. People in Japan give directions almost entirely using landmarks and notable features.

Le Menu

It took a while to get in... On a sunny Tokyo day when everyone in the city with a non-service industry job has the day off, the place was packed, and we had a 20 minute wait to be seated even after our long odyssey.

Pear cidre

 

It was brunch, but we wanted a little taste of sparkling pear cider, which is fermented much like beer and has a similar percentage of alcohol... 3-6%, depending on variety. The small cups let us taste without feeling overly indulgent for early afternoon.

Roquefort and walnut mixed greens salad

Hiromi loves blue cheese, so we decided to order a little side salad made with roquefort and walnuts.

Both of us were somehow craving eggs... Except for a great chawan mushi at the last onsen where we stayed and that fantastic egg cooked in a shell, I guess we just hadn't had our fair share of ovoid cholesterol delivery vehicles of late.

Galette de sarrasin with spinach, artichokes, tomatoes and egg

 

Galette de sarrasin with ham, egg and gruyere cheese

As you'd expect, I had the vegetarian thing and Hiromi had the ham and cheese.The nice gently fried egg helped pull the galettes together. The texture was crispy and the taste was nutty, and the filling was pleasingly decadent.

Facing the kitchen, dreaming of pear cider

 

After skipping breakfast with the intention of doing an early brunch, then walking around hopelessly lost until our early brunch turned into a fashionably late lunch, we were still craving a bit of dessert. On our previous trip here three years ago, we were satisfied with a single rhubarb-orange dessert crepe, also made with the buckwheat flour, shared between the two of us.

But this time, we were a bit hungrier. So both of us ordered dessert...

Buckwheat times three

My dessert was this buckwheat crêpe served with a buckwheat ice cream and drizzled with buckwheat flower honey. As expected, the texture and flavor of the crêpe was nothing short of spectacular. The ice cream was interesting and I've been known to use a bit of buckwheat honey myself, but the overall impact comes across as just a little bit healthy... nice, but not overly indulgent.

And then I tasted this...

Crêpe with "milk" ice cream and salted butter caramel sauce

Oh. My. God. It could inspire religion in the hardest-core of agnostics. It alone serves as proof that the divine exists right on this little green planet. Hiromi jealously guarded this, but I definitely stole my fair share... This had the most fantastic caramel sauce ever... a little buttery, and apparently a little salty, and very deep and rich in flavor. I didn't know it was possible.

The ice cream was simple and creamy and made with remarkably good milk. It provided just the right balance to the intensity of the caramel.

Thanks to our self-indulgence, we ended up with an extravagant JPY 9000 lunch ($80-90). A similar lunch (though not quite at the same level of quality) at one of Seattle's few crêpe  shops wouldn't have gone for much more than $50, but somehow, in Omotesando, where madamu go to spend their mid-level executive husbands' excess income on lunch and shopping, it seemed just like another day... and not a yen wasted.

 

Shalimar, Ochanomizu, Tokyo

An Indian restaurant may not be the most obvious place to eat one's first meal in Tokyo.

But this is far from my first time in Tokyo, so I can dispense with the ambition to eat the best possible Japanese food every meal I have in this city. Tokyo is kind of a part-time home for me... Since 1999 or so, I've averaged very close to two Japan stamps in my passport every year, sometimes several weeks per trip.

Besides, the tempting Italian-Japanese fusion inches from our weekly mansion was completely booked for the night. It was already rapidly approaching 9pm, when most restaurants start winding down in Tokyo, so we settled for another small temptation just a few hundred meters away.

Papadum

Papadum topped with onions

We ordered a pair of papadum, lentil-based crackers. Each papad was topped with marinated onions and other vegetables.

Bhindi

We were originally tempted to order a spinach dish but then noticed an okra curry on the menu. We've often had a simple okra and tomato masala, which we're huge fans of. This was a heavier dish with okra and potatoes along with a tomato-based sauce, which was not incredibly exciting, but was pleasingly comforting.

After a few minutes, we received another dish of what appeared to be the same okra curry, and we were told this was saabisu (free). We didn't quite expect it also to be studded with bits of lamb and chicken, but Hiromi made use of the animal bits. Based on the hodgepodge of ingredients, Hiromi surmised this was likely meant as part of the makanai (staff meal).

Channa masala

Channa masala 

We ordered a chickpea curry as our primary protein source for the evening, which looks perhaps a bit similar to the okra dish but was fortunately seasoned somewhat differently. Sometimes Indian restaurants in Japan serve the same base for almost every dish, especially if they're financed by Japanese owners. This place doesn't seem to commit quite that sin, although there are only a handful of vegetarian mains so it's a bit hard to tell.

Paratha

Paratha

This is a little different than the parathas I'm used to, as the dough seems to be twisted into a spiral. It was quite addictive, though... After everything came, we did order a bit of an unremarkable saffron rice, partially because we never received any tori-zara to set small portions of food, and maybe partially because it didn't quite seem like dinner without rice. Like many Indian restaurants in Japan, they used expensive but texturally and aromatically inappropriate Japanese rice rather than basmati. I don't really know if this is meant to accommodate local tastes or if the import tarriffs on rice make real basmati too expensive.

We also had some inexpensive but rather mild "cocktails", one made with mango, and the other meant to be a gently spiked sweet lassi, which tasted suspiciously like Calpis brand syrup (we liked it anyway).

Anyway, we were reasonably pleased with our choice to eat here. The food was slightly above average for a Tokyo Indian restaurant, and the staff was exceedingly nice to us, even offering us a complimentary salad before the rest of our food arrived.

During a trip to Osaka in Japan about 7 years ago, I visited an Indian restaurant run by a friend of a friend, who confided... no... broadcasted... that he gets tired selling the same setto combo meals one after another to 80% or more of the Japanese customers who walk in to the restaurant. He said loudly, in Japanese, that people who order set meals get much more boring food and that people should try to be adventurous "like these two" and order various things from different parts of the menu, as it would be much more delicious. After his gentle tirade, the couple sitting next to us brustled a bit, and proceeded to order two of that night's setto specials...

Phone: 03-5298-2036
Tokyo-to Chiyoda-ku Gai-Kanda, a 5-minute walk from the Ochanomizu station Hijiri-bashi exit, straight across the bridge.

Pulhyanggi: cuisine of the imperial court, Part 2

If you're properly royal, you save the rice for last. At Pulhyanggi (see part 1), you have two options: Typical steamed rice, probably also better than the average peasant mother will make, or, if you like, nurungji (scorched rice), which is prepared from roasted rice and added water. This is rice from the bottom of a metal pot that has browned from long holding. Almost all over Asia, this slightly "damaged" rice is regarded rather nostalgically because it has such a pleasing nutty aroma.

Scorched rice

Nurungji, scorched rice with water, walnut, pine nuts

For the mass market, there are now any number of scorched rice products in Korea, sold dry or even as a microwavable product. Pulhyanggi does things the old-fashioned way, of course. We receive ours in a stoneware bowl, topped with a walnut and a couple of pine nuts.

Rice accompaniments

Banchan and Pulhyanggi for the rice course

Rice isn't complete in Korea without a suitable set of side dishes (banchan), and if you were suitably royal, and had an army of servants at your disposal, you'd expect to have something remarkable. I think we had a total of 9 or 10 side dishes.

Scallion wrapped vegetables with gochujang

Scallion wrapped vegetables with gochujang

Painstakingly wrapped, matchstick cut blanched and raw vegetables.

Simmered renkon

Simmered renkon

We wanted more of this lotus root dish.

Seasoned greens

Seasoned greens 

Shiitake mushrooms

Korean shiitake side dish

These mushrooms were served very lightly seasoned and almost dry in texture.

Daikon, carrot and nori

Daikon, carrot and gim

Probably the most strongly seasoned dish in this set, this daikon and carrot dish, mixed with gim and the whites of scallions, has a bit of sesame oil, something like the muk from the previous set of courses.

Marinated Konnyaku

Marinated konnyaku

This is a surprising treatmeant of the devil's tongue tuber, konnyaku... minimalist but flavorful.

And a little something sweet

Korean sweets

After we look suitably defeated, the waitstaff comes by with a few small things to settle our palates. The meal ends with some wedges of surprisingly good Korean pears, a small serving of a sweet Korean herbal drink, and this nice little confection.

 

Eki-ben on the way to Aomori

May 1st we had an early start... By this time, my jetlagged habit of waking up at 6 am without the aid of an alarm gave way to a more ordinary pattern of begrudgingly getting out of bed around 7:30 or 8. We had to use multiple cell-phone alarms to make sure we woke up in time... We had departed the football game after-party around 11, just in time to get home around midnight to bemusedly consider packing for our short trip to Aomori....

I think most of the serious packing waited until morning, but we had to wake up around 5:30 to make sure we could get to Tokyo station in time to grab breakfast and to make the shinkansen train.

JAL Sky Time Yuzu Original Citrus Drink

JAL Sky Time Yuzu Original Citrus Drink

I grabbed an overly-sweet yuzu drink from a vending machine to take on the train... I tend to make one that's closer to 4-5% yuzu at home, but mass production has certain cost constraints... the stronger-tasting yuzu drinks in Japan I've found tend to be about 200-300 yen for a small glass bottle... this was a bit more generous in size, but is only 2% fruit juice.

Balance Ekiben

Balance Ekiben box

Hiromi picked some reasonably vegetable-heavy bento... There's no such thing as a vegetarian ekiben (train station bento) anywhere in Japan that I've seen.

Balance ekiben inside

This one has a little shrimp, so Hiromi ate that part... Perhaps throwing this Balance Bento out of balance? Ah well. I was also a little sad that the takenoko gohan, which I usually love, was filled with tiny bits of chicken or pork...

Yasai Tappuri Haru-Yasai Bento

Haruyasai bento, box

This one, true to its description, was full of vegetables, but also had its fair share of animal bits.

Haruyasai bento, inside

These would have to do...

The two bento sustained us for the three hour train ride north. At our destination, Hiromi picked up our rental car and took us the rest of the way to our destination, on very little sleep, while I crashed in the passenger seat, mostly oblivious to the length of our trek across Aomori prefecture.

 

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Kitchen survivalism

Working in a minimally-stocked kitchen that's completely different than your own is pretty tricky.

Our weekly apartment was equipped with a rice cooker, a saucepan and a frying pan. We had a few plates and bowls, but nothing close to what I'm used to at home.

But after a bunch of elaborate, not to mention expensive, restaurant meals, we wanted to make something on our own.

Haru kyabetsu to nerimiso

We have spring cabbage made with a quick homemade sweetened miso... this is sort of a typical izakaya dish nowadays. We soon discovered that the lighter colored leaves from inside the cabbage were much more tender, and decided to reserve the dark outer leaves for an itamemono on another day.

Three nice side dishes made ugly

We didn't really have all the fundamentals... just mirin, soy sauce, salt, pepper and instant dashi. We had no vinegar, and we had only a small amount of miso. We didn't actually have any cooking oil; just some butter, meant for toast for breakfast.

I normally don't use instant dashi since it's not vegetarian, but when I'm on the road and only cooking a few meals on my own, it's a bit harder to stock a bunch of konbu and dried mushrooms, so we relied a bit on a few granules of that dashi for a few things. Although I'm not really a fan of the flavor of instant dashi, some dishes just don't taste right if you only use water. Since I already have to relax my vegetarian habits when eating out in Japan, I elected to make another small concession to reality, and I used small amounts of it in one or two dishes.

Since we only had a few plates, elegant platings had to be sacrificed, but we found some sort of solution.

Our side dishes included, from left to right: An egg scramble with some cheap maitake mushrooms and leeks, an ohitashi made with sakura no shiozuke, or salted cherry blossoms, and grilled bamboo shoots with butter and soy sauce. They may not look like much, but everything turned out slightly better than I expected.

Yuba and myouga

We love myouga, sometimes explained as ginger shoots in English, and it's hard to get in the US. Myōga looks a bit like the bulb of a shallot but has a gently spicy mild ginger flavor. I sliced some with the scary, flimsy knife supplied by our weekly apartment and scattered the slices inelegantly atop pieces of cut yuba, and carelessly drizzled some soy sauce over the yuba.

I miss fresh yuba when I'm in the US. The best I can do is dried or, on rare occasions, previously-frozen... unless I'm willing to commit to sitting in front of a nabe for an hour or two as I slowly peel off pieces of yuba from simmering soymilk. I don't do that so often.

Our dinner

Hiromi prepared a miso soup, which I nearly ruined by adding too much instant dashi. Since I never have any instant dashi at home, I didn't know how much is "normal" for soup. It turns out that the answer is very little.

She also blended some more salted cherry blossoms into the rice to make sakura-gohan, and whipped out the kuromame nattou (black bean nattō) before I could blink.

After a really fancy lunch in Omotesandō, this more humble dinner helped us balance our extravagance without feeling like much of a sacrifice.

Hwayo Soju

I had bought an "expensive" bottle of soju while in Korea at about KRW 11,000, or $11-12. The mass-produced stuff like Jinro and Chamiseul goes for less than $2 a bottle at your average convenience store, so this would be considered a bit extravagant. Anyway, tonight we cracked open this bottle and each had a glass of Korean shochu on the rocks with our dinner.

It's smoother and cleaner-tasting than the mass-produced brands, but not quite as nice as the better Japanese varieties of shochu. The flavor is relatively neutral  but still has a hint of complexity. I'd buy it again if I were in Korea.

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