Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year!!

2:50 AM JST

Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu! My brother Jun and his wife Akemi just left with their sleepy dog Hina dressed in a hat and sweater for the 2 minute drive home from my mother’s house. 

Mama, Papa and I went to the local shrine together just after 12:00 AM to say our prayers.  It was not too cold but there were intermittent gusts of strong wind as we waited in the queue from the street and up the stone steps carved into the side of the mountain up to the shrine.  The shrine is a 2 minute walk from my mother’s front door so we were pretty much there and back home within a half hour.
I love going to the shrine on New Year’s – there was a beautiful full moon shining over us with a few dark rolling clouds and a sprinkling of stars.  Crisp, cold and really just the perfect setting for the New Year to begin.  After climbing the steps and getting to our turn in line, we offer a 100 yen coin in the coin box and then ring the bell before bowing and clapping our hands twice to say our prayers with bowed head. 

After that we move on to get either (or both) cold, clear, oaky daru (cask) sake and sweet, hot amazake as well as a sweet miso glazed skewer of konnyaku.  Across from the food and drink there is a raging bonfire that crackles and sends out beautiful fiery sparks dancing up through the air.  The small plaza is bustling with the local citizens, talking, laughing, drinking, eating and wishing each other blessings for the New Year as the  children play – and yes, text each other incessantly – while the adults socialize.

Mama and I chose to have the hot amazake and papa the daru sake.  Papa decided to go in sweatpants, a light jacket and no hat against Mama’s protests and as the one who is always catching a cold; he was already sniffling by the time we got home – the Gods clearly chiding his pride. 
Jun and Akemi decided not to go – Jun was fast asleep as much from our four hour eating and drinking binge as his hectic work schedule of the past week.  Kawaisou – poor devil just doesn’t get enough sleep!!  Akemi is Buddhist and generally only goes to the Oteara to say her prayers.  Mama’s family has always been Shinto and heavily involved in the religion so going to the shrines has always been paramount.
I love being in Japan for New Years and this is the first time Mama has had Jun and I together with her to share New Years Eve and New Years ever in her life so she is just delirious and beaming with happiness.
I love to see her smiling and happy – a priceless and indescribable feeling to put into words. 
We usually eat toshi-koshi soba or Year Ending noodles after returning from the shrine but everyone is so full tonight that we decided to have them in the morning at our leisure.
It is almost 2:00 AM JST so I am off to bed and am looking forward to writing out my nengajou – New Year’s cards – out over some hot green tea and undoubtedly another round of New Year food and sweets…

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Day 1 in Japan

Japan 5:15 PM JST

I have been in Japan for about 24 hours and it is always amazing to me how no matter how much time passes between visits; that nothing seems to change in terms of how I feel when I am here.  It always feels as if I have always lived here and my life in the US is but a dream…and when I am in New Jersey, the reverse seems true.
In any case, I am happy to be home and with no work or homework to do – I am truly ‘anshin shiteimasu’ - which means at peace…
The trip here was fine and while I was worried about the heightened security imposed just the day before due to the crazy guy in Detroit, I really wasn’t affected by it in the US or in Japan.  I had to arrive at the airport an hour earlier – 3 hours instead of the usual 2 – but with my iPhone kindle app loaded up with 6 books; the time passed quickly as I sipped my Starbucks green tea latte and read through “His Majesty’s Dragon” by Naomi Novik.  I started the second book in the series at the end of my flight so I think I will get through the other two in the series during my time here and on the flight back.
My flight was scheduled to depart at 11:10 AM EST and all was going smoothly until we were just ready to take off.  Suddenly the captain informed us that there was a person who “decided that that they wanted off the plane”, and so we had to wait about 20 minutes for their luggage to be removed from the plane. 
We then were ready to take off again when the captain got back on the intercom and asked the entire plane for a doctor, nurse or EMT. When none identified themselves as such, the paramedics were called and so we waited some more.
We were then cleared a third time after the sick passenger was taken off the plane and the third time was the charm so we were off.
The flight was uneventful, very smooth and though I was pretty much stuck in my seat for the entire 13.5 hour flight, save for one trip to the bathroom; it was fine.  My seat mates were Chinese and very quiet but they ended up sleeping for the majority of the flight, rousing only to eat and then going back into hibernation.  I may switch to an aisle seat for the return flight...
The airplane seat backs were all fitted with a touch screen entertainment system with movies, television shows, music and flight status.  There was a huge selection of global international entertainment so I was able to watch “Departures” (okuribito in Japanese) a Japanese movie that won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.  It was a beautiful movie and yes, I bawled my eyes out in parts LOL.
I then watched the Bollywood film “Fashion” by Madhur Bhandarkar and starring Priyanka Chopra who is just stunningly gorgeous.
The flight landed about 40 minutes late and then I pretty much zipped through debarkation – once I had my luggage, I just showed the customs official my passport and told him I was visiting my mother and family and he just waved me through immediately without checking a single bag.  John gave me a Cuban cigar for Papa and I wasn’t sure if it would be an issue (Cuban cigars aren’t illegal in Japan) and luckily it wasn’t.
Mama and Papa were waiting for me at the gate and I had been texting my brother (at work) on his cell as soon as I landed – the iPhone is indeed global and found the local carrier DoCoMo & SoftBank as soon as I switched off the airplane mode after we landed. The fact that I can text in both Japanese and English at will is awesome – I love, love,love the iPhone!

We grabbed a bite at a Soba Noodle shop on the 4th floor at Narita Airport and I had delicious tsukimi soba (moon viewing soba) noodles served cold and warm hijiki seaweed rice with hot mugs of mugi-cha (barley tea).  Truly delicious!

 (Tsukimi soba - Moon viewing soba)
There was a African-American Navy guy who came in after us and sat next to us with his wife (or girlfriend) who had just arrived for a visit – her first to Japan, and she didn’t seem too happy about it.
She ordered blindly and was served soba noodles with a dipping sauce and a mug of soup broth to sip – my mother ended up showing her how to eat the noodles since she had no idea what to do with the fresh knob of wasabi next to her noodles nor the dipping sauce or sipping soup.  She seemed happier to be eating the noodles once they had some flavor.
After dinner, I changed my currency over to yen and we were off to the house.  I slept the entire way and when I woke up we were home.
Ake-chan (my brother’s wife) and her mother (who I call Ake-Mama) stopped for a visit about an hour after my arrival and I was able to give them the gifts I brought which seemed to go over very well. 
My brother called after they left and apologized for not stopping but he had just gotten home from work and it was about 11:00 PM JST so I told him I would see him whenever he was able to stop by – he has such a difficult schedule, I really feel for him and would rather he got a good night’s sleep.  He is off for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day so we will have plenty of time to catch up and spend time together.  Besides – he and Ake-chan are taking me to Kyoto for three days next week.
I slept well and spent today just being home and going for a couple short walks.  Mama made a great breakfast as usual – hot rice, hot clear broth with seaweed and sesame, ginger chicken, mentaiko (cod roe), sautéed lotus root, mapo tofu with pork, spicy sautéed perilla leaves, umeboshi and her delicious nukazuke pickles of fresh turnip and cucumber. 
Ake-chan and Ake-Mama stopped by for coffee shortly after breakfast and during their visit I showed them Skype – we called Ed and also Ed’s mother, Mom H.; which my mother was over the moon about.  She and Papa were so, so happy to see and talk to Mom H. that their faces were just beaming.  They both adore Mom H. and the feeling is certainly returned in kind.  Mom often says they lived closer together and I have no doubt that if they lived close, that the moms would be fast friends – they seem to share so many similar thoughts about life and family.  I am truly very blessed and happy to have both wonderful women in my life.
After we called Mom H., Ake and Ake-Mama left and then we called Darline and Peet in Anguilla.  Danny and Aubry were there as well so Mama was able to see and talk to her oldest grandson and then meet his girlfriend Aubry for the first time.  She was (and still is) beaming with happiness.  It is so good to see her laughing and smiling all day.  Skype is as magical a thing to her as the iPhone.


I remembered this area with no problems and went to the book store where I bought two great cookbooks on wagashi or Japanese sweets. I stopped by the liquor store and bought my brother a nice bottle of Kageshima Imo Shochu (similar to potato vodka), then the tea shop where I picked up some roasted mugi-cha (barley tea) and then finally went to my favorite wagashi-ya or Japanese Sweet store called Sakakura-ya and bought some yummy daifuku mame and kuri yokan.

(daifuku mame)

My brother is stopping by in a couple of hours so I will get to see him today – for now, KBS is broadcasting a Korean Epic movie set in the same timeframe as Japan’s Samurai feudal era.
Papa  and Mama both love these movies – as do I – so off to watch the show!!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Qurban (Lebanese Holy Bread)

Merry Christmas!

This entry in my blog is by Mercedes a fellow eblogger from Washington DC who has a passion for cooking/baking and a love of the Middle East.  Her Blog is called Desert Candy. (

Mercedes' recipe for "Qurban" from Damascus' Old Orthodox Christian quarter of the city called 'Bab Touma':

Several afternoons a week I rush out of work, heading across town for my Arabic tutoring session, which is really just an excuse for Wael and me to gab about the ongoing saga of his engagement and other such gossip. I tap my fingers on the window of the service, the van stuck in the smog-filled traffic of Damascus' rush hour. Finally reaching Bab Touma, I leap out and hustle into the winding alleys of the old city. Bab Touma is the Christian quarter of the old city and right at the entrance, between the chicken vendor and the kunafe maker, is a small bakery selling small twisted cookie rings and puffy round breads and sesame breadsticks. When my stomach grumbles I stop quickly, paying a few coins for one of those soft breads, pressing it to my nose to inhale its orange water scent before hurrying on my way.

The bread is called qurban, which means sacrifice, and it is the bread used during communion for the Orthodox Christian churches of Syria and Lebanon. But don't worry, my afternoon snack isn't sacrilegious, qurban are often for sale for public consumption. You can literally smell this bread baking from blocks away, the scent of orange flower water and yeast hooking your nose like a ring though a cow's nostril. They are best when your nose draws you to them, fresh out of the oven, the sweet rounds marked in the center with a stamp in Aramaic, soft and lightly sweet.

I had forgotten about qurban until I picked up a copy of Annisa Helou's Savory Baking from the Mediterranean (I am a Ms. Helou groupy and all her books are fabulous, including this latest one). Ms. Helou, who is Lebanese Christian, describes rediscovering qurban years later as her "madeleine moment," and I can understand why. Since the first time I made them at home they've been in high demand, and I have no objection because I love the way it makes the house smell. Plus, I've had plenty of practice to tweak and streamline the recipe to be more in line with my memory. These are perfect breakfast breads, toasted and spread with sweet butter, or they make a great sweet-savory sandwich with some salty halloumi cheese. And you need not be religious nor observant to enjoy them, though if you have a cup of wine alongside you could pretend you were.

Qurban (Lebanese Holy Bread)

These wonderfully scented breads are best served warm from the oven or lightly toasted with sweet butter.

1 package (2 1/2 tsp) active dry yeast
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp mahlep, if available
2 tbl unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tbl orange blossom water
for brushing: 2 tbl butter melted with 1 tsp orange blossom water

1. Place the yeast in a small with 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Add 1/3 of a cup of warm water and set aside for 5-10 minutes, until bubbly.

2. Meanwhile, in a large bowl combine the flour, remaining sugar, salt, and mahlep. Add the butter and rub it into the flour mixture with your finger tips until well distributed. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, add the yeast mixture and add 1/2 cup warm water. Knead until you have a rough ball of dough.

3. Knead the dough in the bowl for 3-5 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Rub the inside of the bow with oil to coat, place the dough bal inside. Cover with a kitchen towel and leave to rise until doubled in volume, about 1 1/2 hours.

4. Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces and shape each piece into a ball. Let rest 10 minutes. On a lightly floured surafce, roll each dough ball out into a circe about 6 inches in diameter. Place on a greased or lined baking sheet, cover with a kitchen towel and let rise one hour. Preheat oven to 400 F.

5. Press each dough round with the tines of a fork to make a square in the center. Make sure to press deeply as this will prevent the dough from puffing too much in the oven. Place in the oven and bake 15-17 minutes, until golden. Meanwhile, prepare the glaze. When the bread comes out of the oven brush generously with the butter-flower water mixture. Let cool slightly before serving.