Coffee, coffee everywhere but not a drop to drink (that’s any decent)

You can get coffee just about anywhere in Japan thanks to the millions (yes, millions) of vending machines littered around the country.  “How convenient,” you must be thinking.  Yeah, if you like drinking awful coffee.  I’ve seen vending machines with two of the four rows dedicated to coffee in a can, but none of them are very good.  Many of the ones that aren’t flavored with milk and sugar taste bitter and metallic.

Canned coffee in a vending machine. So convenient…so gross.
In the summer, the vending machine chills the coffee and in the winter it warms it up. So cool!

You can also purchase coffee in cute little faux-paper coffee cups at the convenience store.  Just stick a straw in the top and you’re on your way to “enjoying” a nice iced coffee beverage.  That sounds great, except in reality, these drinks are only vaguely reminiscent of coffee and, frankly, suck.  

Coffee at the convenience store. Clever packaging but still no coffee taste.

If I need an afternoon pick-me-up while I’m at work, my only option is of the freeze dried, instant variety.  Japan has perfected many things, but instant coffee is not one of them.

 

Starbucks, with its sickeningly sweet mochas America has come to know and…tolerate, is actually pretty good in Japan. Adapting to Japanese tastes, Starbucks Japan has toned down its use of sugar and syrups and churns out beverages that actually taste like coffee instead of a liquefied candy bar.  The whipped cream isn’t even sweetened, but the caramel frappucinos still come topped with caramel syrup.

Starbucks Japan: Same logo, better coffee.

Khoa and I visit a little coffee shop in Matsue whenever we get a chance to get off of our island.  They brew a mean cup of joe, but you have to pay 450 yen ($5.73) for a tea cup of black coffee. Yikes!  In the summer, we discovered a whole menu of fun cold drinks.  Take a look at my coffee float.  It’s just iced black coffee with a scoop of vanilla ice cream floating on top.  It definitely takes the edge off of the summer heat. 

Coffee float

 Even in Chibu (pop. 602), there are a handful of vending machines offering canned coffee 24/7.  The general store shelves are lined with three varieties of instant coffee, but no coffee beans or fresh brewed coffee in sight.  We have to cross an ocean for that.  Coffee, coffee everywhere but not a drop to drink (that’s any decent).

Bringing American Barbecue to Japan

 

Khoa grilling up a storm
(I kid you not, Khoa’s ability to grill delicious meats is one of the things that attracted me to him)

 

 

We’ve been busy.  Very busy.  But it was all worth it because we were able to bring American BBQ to 75 (of the 600) people on our island. 

 

Last Sunday was a PTA beach day for the elementary school and all 29 elementary school children and their parents came to enjoy the event.  We were also in charge of feeding those beach goers and this was going to be their first time eating American barbecue.  Talk about pressure! 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the menu that we created for 75 people:

Pork ribs smothered in Khoa’s homemade BBQ sauce
(notice how many guys are crowded around the grill, checking out what Khoa is doing)

 

Marinated vegetable kabobs

 

 

Avocado and tomato parmesan pasta salad
(yes, I made up that horrendously long name)

 

On Saturday we spent 5 ½ hours in the kitchen prepping food, another 3 hours on Sunday morning, and then another hour cooking on the barbecues at the beach.  It was a lot of work and extremely hot (32 degrees Celsius with 80% humidity), but it was great to see everyone’s reaction when Khoa brought out the racks of ribs and plunked them down on the barbecue grill.  Everyone was really impressed by the size of the ribs.  Big cuts of meat are hard to come by in Japan, so you can imagine everyone’s surprise when they saw the huge hunks of meat sizzling away on the grill.  I couldn’t stop smiling.  We then took out Khoa’s homemade BBQ sauce and began coating the racks with it.  All the dads clamored around as these two crazy Americans drowned the meat in sauce while it was still on the grill.  Japanese-style barbecue consists of thinly cut bite-sized meat and vegetables grilled on an open BBQ set [no lid], taken directly off the grill, dipped in sauce, and eaten as you go.  Us Americans were doing it backwards!  Sauce and seasoning on the meat before you grill it?  Say it ain’t so!  But, I think this style of cooking delicious meats caught on as a few people, in true American barbecue fashion, decided to cover their Japanese-style meat with Khoa’s barbecue sauce and then grill it.   

 

Japanese-style Barbecue
(You know you’re in Oki when they bust out the sea snails [top left corner of the grill])
    

 

Khoa’s BBQ Sauce
It’s goooood!

 

 

I don’t think Khoa is willing to part with his special barbecue sauce recipe, but just take my word for it, it’s GOOOOD!  (it is, in fact, the best BBQ sauce I’ve tasted, but I might be a sliiiight bit biased :P).  However, everyone at the barbecue at least mildly enjoyed the sauce, coming back and slathering their ribs with even more of the vinegary goodness. 

 

 

 

 

The barbecue, although stressful and time consuming, was a very nice way to share our culture with the people of Chibu.

So many fish!

If we ever want fish, Khoa and I just have to stand out in front of our house and wait for a fisherman to drive by (which won’t take too long).  Last Monday I was waiting outside with Khoa to be picked up for a work party when the taxi driver (who is also a fisherman) drove by.  He stopped his little K-truck and asked if we wanted some fish.  I said sure and he proceeded to fill a plastic grocery bag with around 20 flying fish, 4 long scary looking fish, a weird purple/blue crab and 3 or so pokey fish (sorry, I forgot their names in Japanese).  Here are some pictures:

Our bag o’ fish. Flying fish on the top.
Flying fish, also known as “tobi uo” in Japanese.
Fly away!
Scary fish. It had some gnarly teeth!  It was delicious.
Imma eat you!
Pokey fish.
Close up of the pokey fish
Blue and purple crab that was caught in the fisherman’s net. So beautiful, I almost didn’t want to eat it…almost.
Blue and Purple!
Boiled crab. Very sandy on the inside, but the legs were delicious! And really salty!

Khoa and I love getting fish from the fishermen, but it’s really tough to gut and prepare them.  We spent about an hour taking out the insides and cutting them up.  As true Chibu citizens, we went out to the ocean in front of our house and dumped out the entrails.

Dumping out the guts of around 30 fish. The hawks came and tried to swoop in for an easy meal, but it sunk too quickly.

We ate well that night.  Foil wrapped fish and boiled crab, fresh and from the ocean we see every day.

Cravings

The thing about living in a foreign country is that even though you’re surrounded by the most delicious food you’ve ever tasted , you still crave the foods you loved back home.  I could have just sat down to a wonderful spread of the freshest sushi, but my cravings for the good stuff from home still persist.  It’s the cruel irony of living in a foreign country: surrounded by delicious food, but all I want is a grilled cheese sandwich, made with real cheese and wheat bread (both of which are hard to find in Japan and impossible to buy on our island). 

What is it about those nostalgic foods from back home that make foreigners go mad with cravings?  There are countless websites in Japan that cater to foreigners in search of food from their home country.  These websites are also able to charge an arm and a leg because foreigners will pay (remember yesterday’s post where I wrote, “Oh my god, I would pay 50 bucks for a California Fresh right now”).

It’s such a strange phenomenon, living abroad and craving the food you love.  It’s completely different from a normal, everyday craving that you have while living in your home country.  When craving food while living abroad, there’s a sense of longing, futility, and that glorious moment when you make it to a big city and they actually have a place that makes pizza, real pizza, not a cracker with melted cheese on it.  When you finally eat that food you have been craving, no, longing for, there is no better feeling in the world.  “But what about love, Michelle?  You love Khoa, don’t you? Isn’t love the best feeling in the world?”  Hmm, yes, yes it is, but my goodness, eating a long lost piece of pizza has got to be a close second…maybe equal.  (I LOVE YOU, KHOA!!! 🙂 )

Maybe it’s just because I’m really hungry or maybe it’s because I just really want some sharp cheddar cheese, but man, food is great. 

But come on, foreigners, back me up on this one.  Isn’t finally eating the food you have been craving (one of) the best feelings in the world? 

My kingdom for some bread

I was looking through some old posts from a blog that I wrote while I was studying abroad in Japan and I came across this post:

I’m sorry, America, your staple has been out done by the Japanese.

When I first went grocery shopping in Japan, I was disappointed with the lack of wheat bread. I sadly bought a loaf of fluffy white bread instead or my usual favorite, the orowheat bread in the green package. The bread sat on my microwave for a few days, staring at me, reminding me that I don’t really like white bread. I finally decided to eat a slice as a snack, and wow, it was glorious!…

Japanese white bread is great for 6 months, but when you’ve been living away from croissants, baguettes, and wheat bread for two years, your attitude towards that fluffy white stuff will change.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy Japan’s white bread, I really do.  It makes a wonderful BLT.  But when buttery, bleached-flour bread is your only option, you get tired of it. Right now my ultimate craving is for a California Fresh sandwich (turkey breast, avocado, jack cheese, red onion, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, dijon) on a dutch crunch roll from Le Boulanger, a bread and sandwich shop I used to go to at home (I couldn’t find a picture of it on the internet, but if you go to the Le Boulanger homepage, it’s the sandwich that shows up on the front page photo reel).  I usually don’t like to eat dutch crunch bread.  It always cuts up the roof of my mouth and makes my sandwich eating experience less enjoyable.  But the dutch crunch rolls at Le Boulanger are a different story.  They have just the right amount of crunchiness to warrant the “crunch” in their name, but are soft enough to keep you coming back for more bites.  During my visit home to America in February, my last lunch was a California Fresh.  Sitting here typing about my favorite sandwich makes me want it even more.  Oh my god, I would pay 50 bucks for a California Fresh right now!

Woo, calm down, it’s going to be alright.

Anyways….err…in conclusion, Japanese white bread is awesome, but not when it’s your only bread option for two whole years. 

 

…now off to coax Khoa into trying to make me a mock-up of a California Fresh sandwich.  Bye!

Better than Kobe beef? (Sunday Island Hopping)

Last Sunday, Khoa and I decided to eat one meal on each of the three Oki Douzen Islands.  Here’s a map for reference:

Nakano-shima is also called “Ama”

We started out with a breakfast in Chibu, our island.  Nothing fancy, just some toast with raspberry jam.    

We then took the isokaze (a boat that runs on a set schedule to each of the Douzen islands…it’s like a bus…but it’s a boat).  

The Isokaze

Once we were in Ama (around 15 minutes by boat from Chibu), we ate at a restaurant that serves Oki beef.  

Oki Beef Restaurant

The sign outside reads, “Island born, island raised Oki Beef Shop.”  The cows that dot the hills of Oki are kept to produce baby cows that are sold to ranchers throughout Japan.  It is said that the calves from Oki are some of the most expensive in Japan; many are sold to ranchers in Kobe, which later become Kobe beef.  Some of those cows are kept in Oki and raised to adulthood. The restaurant in Ama is the only place in all of Oki where you can eat Oki beef.  It is said that Oki beef is even better than Kobe beef.  Of course, I hear this from people who live in Oki, but it’s still pretty darn tasty.  Khoa and I both ordered the Yakiniku (grilled meat) lunch set.  Here it is:

 

Yakiniku Teishoku
Grilled meat lunch set


there is a grill in the middle of the table that you use to cook the Oki beef.

 

Not only was the food delicious, the dishes used to plate the food were beautiful.  Take a look:

 

Mouthwateringly delicious, aesthetically pleasing, that lunch had it all.

 

Since we had a few hours before dinner, we decided to take a walk to Oki Jinja, the largest shinto shrine in Ama.  It’s about a 2.5km walk one way, but after stuffing ourselves silly with Oki Beef, we were happy to take a walk.

Oki Shrine
Oki Shrine
Oki Shrine

After our walk, we still had about an hour left to wait for the boat, so we sat out at the port and ate some soft cream:

Hishiura, Ama’s port


Soft Cream


We then took the isokaze over to Nishinoshima where we ate dinner at Zen Sushi, the same restaurant that I mentioned in this post.  We had the zen chirashi sushi again.  Our bellies full once again, we took the isokaze back to Chibu and relaxed for the rest of the night.

It was such a fun day of island hopping and eating good food.  Maybe we’ll do it again next weekend 😛 

gyoza

We love gyoza.  Crispy on the outside, wonderful on inside; there’s something irresistable about those little bundles of flavor.  The best part is, they aren’t too difficult to make.  All you need is some filling, a few gyoza wrappers, a tiny bowl of water, and steady fingers.  They’re even fun to make (and that’s saying something coming from me, the one who can’t/won’t/doesn’t like to/is forbidden to cook).
Last night we made two kinds: Kabocha-cheese and ginger-beef.
Khoa found a recipe online for the kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) gyoza over at eating okinawa, a great food blog based in Okinawa, Japan.  We omitted some of the spices and substituted shredded cheese for cream cheese, but the results were still delicious!
kabocha gyoza
He also created his own filling using ground beef, finely chopped shiitake mushrooms, ginger, garlic, red onions and a little salt and pepper (Unlike the traditional way, Khoa sauteed the meat and the rest of the ingredients before making the gyoza).
Ginger beef gyoza
 Once you’ve pinched together the gyoza, all that’s left to do is put some oil in a hot pan, and cook the bottoms for a few minutes until they are crispy.  You then add a very small amount of water (1mm deep) to the pan, cover, and steam for another 2 or 3 minutes.  That’s it!
But be careful, we don’t call them “pot stickers” in America for nothing.  These little suckers have a tendency to get stuck to the bottom of the pan, so be sure to use enough oil.
The thing we like most about gyoza is that it’s up to you what you put in it (or what you put it in).
Have you ever made gyoza at home?  What filling did you use?

Popeye

There’s nothing better than waking up in the morning to the smell of breakfast cooking.

I have been feeling like I’ve had a slight cold for the past week now, so I was glad to finally have a chance to sleep in on Sunday morning.  Because of the sunlight, Khoa can’t sleep in and was up at around 7:45 this morning.  When I finally stirred from my slumber at around 9, Khoa was making me a popeye.  I’m not sure if this is a normal dish, but my dad used to make it for me when I was a kid.  Khoa had never heard of a popeye until I ventured into the kitchen to show him how to make one.  It’s really easy to make…I think if I just show you a picture of one, you’ll get the idea:

A popeye cooking in the skillet

You take a piece of bread and make a hole in the middle using the edges of a cup (the part you drink from).  Once you have cut the circle out of the center, DO NOT THROW AWAY THE ROUND PIECE OF BREAD!!!  That’s the best part 😛  You then butter both sides of the bread and place it in  a skillet.  Crack an egg in the center hole and flip it once the egg is about half way cooked.  Be sure to butter and grill the little round part too.  It’ll become all nice and buttery and toasty. So good!

cooked popeye

Have any of you every had or made a popeye?  Is it just something my dad made up?

Either way, it’s a really simple and comforting breakfast to have on a lazy Sunday morning.

Try it out, you might like it!

The best sushi we’ve ever eaten

Zen Sushi.
The best sushi we’ve ever had.

Hidden down a road, a little ways from the main port of Nishinoshima, is a tiny sushi restaurant.

From the outside, it doesn’t look like much. Approaching the front of the establishment, you can even see the owner’s laundry hanging to dry in the upstairs window. But inside, Zen Sushi will amaze you.

A little mom and pop establishment, the owners prepare fresh sushi made with fish caught in the waters of the Oki Islands. Peering through the front windows, you can enjoy views of the turquoise waters that these fish call home.

The sushi we ate here is hands down the best sushi we’ve ever eaten. Here are a few photos of the wonderful food we enjoyed:

Zen Chirashi-zushi (ちらし寿司)
The house special chirashi-zushi.
Think of this as deconstructed sushi. It’s a bowl of seasoned rice topped with sashimi and other garnishes.
Beautiful!
The brightly colored spheres are ikura, salmon roe.
Onigiri with the perfect amount of wasabi. Just enough to give you a bit of a kick, but not so much that it overwhelms your palette. Delicious!
What I love most about sushi is the freshness of the dish. (Traditionally) it isn’t smothered in sweet sauces or doused in spices like many western dishes. When eating sushi, you are able to taste each ingredient. The vinegar of the rice, the saltiness of the fish, and the kick of the wasabi. So simple. So pure. So deceivingly difficult to get right.
Mozuku, a type of stringy, slimy Japanese seaweed. It’s flavored with vinegar to give it some extra slimy goodness. One of our friends told us that last year, the mozoku didn’t grow well, but this year there are tons of it. We’ve already encountered it twice while eating at restaurants on the islands.
An interesting design on the barrier separating the two tatami dining areas.
Beautiful Nishinoshima.
Waiting to take the boat.
The perfect end to a great day: tiramisu ice cream on the boat back to Chibu.

It’s the little things in life

Living in a foreign country makes you appreciate the things you took for granted in your home country.

For example, we used to expect all houses to have central heating and insulation and most to have central air conditioning. Now a warm house on a cold day has turned into a fond memory as we sit in our freezing apartment in the winter months of Japan.

We used to stand in a hot shower for as long as we wanted to, but now the fear of running out of kerosene to heat the water and having to walk 30 minutes to the port and carry 10 liters of kerosene all the way back cuts our shower times to a minimum.

We used to freely lounge around in our house at night, never checking all corners for giant bugs before entering a room, but now the fear of a poisonous centipede walking on our face at night has us huddled in a mesh tent after dark. ***three people we know have had a centipede crawl across their face at night***

We used to eat huge, thick, juicy pieces of steak whenever we wanted to, just pop on down to the store and a whole mess of meats were there for the buying. Now we savor even the thinnest, saddest looking piece of beef.

We used to be able to find almost any vegetable we needed at the grocery store. Now we cultivate our own squash, zucchini, artichokes, red onions, sugar snap peas, and bell peppers because we can’t buy them easily/at all.

We used to have hundreds of restaurants to choose from, thousands if we were willing to drive far away. Now we take trips to the mainland with nothing planned except eating at restaurants.

We found some Planter’s Honey Roasted Peanuts and Dad’s Root Beer at the foreign foods store during our trip to Matsue.

When we lived in the US, we could go down to the store at any time we wanted to (24 hour supermarkets galore) and buy these two items. Now that any brand of honey roasted peanut and root beer is hard to get, it makes them all the more delicious. Not having the things you’re used to at home can be tough, but it makes you appreciate those things you used to take for granted.

Living in Japan has afforded us very unique opportunities and experiences that we couldn’t have had anywhere else in the world. It has also made us a lot more humble and a lot more appreciative of the things we had in America. Hopefully this experience will cause us to not take even the smallest things for granted once we return to our home country.