Friday, December 31, 2010

The Importance of Tradition

What is it about traditions and especially those associated with a holiday that make them so important to us?   As I sit here in Japan on New Year’s Day, I find myself reflecting on holidays and traditions and their importance in my life.

My spouse and in-law’s family Christmas traditions (and all their traditions, really) have become something of a legend within the family.  Although all their respective children have pretty much outgrown any real belief in Santa Claus, they still expect all of us to observe every ritual that the family has ever instituted!

The kids want stockings from Mom H.filled with the same tchotchkala from time immemorial that only a Sitto (Arabic for Grandma) can find, John and the kids want to get their tree, make cookies and have turkey on Christmas Day (I believe John has taken years of videotape and each tape is certain to look almost identical to the other ones – except that we keep getting older!).

Of course, NO Christmas is complete without a fruit basket from George & Andrea (which I love, by the way, both for the contents and the smile it brings to Ed's face!) and Andrea’s über-delicious baked goods!!

Indeed, any holiday without Andrea’s famous Chocolate Peanut Butter cake sends my nephew David into conniptions!

For Ed and I, we have our expected Christmas contributions as well from the annual Advent boxes to painting ceramics with John and the kids to the whole side of prime rib (when we host Christmas Eve) that Ed proudly and expertly roasts and places on the table.

In years past, we’ve made annual gingerbread houses – and talk about tradition!  When the kids were younger, it was a must to have the houses and we made them come Hell or high water – oddly enough, there was always more Hell than high water. 

I remember vividly a Christmas where I was deathly ill and Ed and Gail came to the rescue to put together the gingerbread ski chalet from Sugarplum Hell.

I lay dramatically dying and nauseous from the cloying smells of gingerbread and royal icing as I tried (in futility) to direct construction! 
Indeed, anytime I want to belly laugh, I just recall Gail and Eddie holding on the 2 lb chalet roof made  of ¼ inch gingerbread in our 1000 degree kitchen.  They were wrestling with the structure, willing and cursing the liquefying royal icing to set up – which it finally did after it was secured with straight pins!  Who says lawyers and doctors can't work together?!

Family traditions provide great value, and the value lasts far beyond the moment. The value of a tradition isn't in completing the ritual; the value comes from what it provides for those who participate – and I realize how important it is to participate fully.  As Ed often says, “All in – or all out”.

I am realizing that traditions provide stability. Activities that are observed year in and year out become a means by which family members can build trust and security. Regardless of what else may happen, the traditions will not change. So much in our lives these days is temporary and traditions help keep us from drifting apart regardless of what might be happening in our lives individually.

Family traditions provide something for every person to hold on to and to rely upon and as I embrace Ed's family traditions as they were my own - so does he with mine and my family's and it is yet another element in making our relationship a strong and fulfilling one that I know I can always rely upon. 

Growing up in military-driven household for my first 12 years between Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Hong Kong, the only traditions I grew up with that were consistent were Asian New Year and attending an Embassy sponsored Christmas dinner during the years in Saigon where the dining room was converted into something out of a Dickensian Christmas on steroids.

In fact, I think I just now realized where my strong attachment to Christmas began – it was pure magic.  Christmas to me has always been spectacularly magical and wondrous and full of happy, laughing children ‘believing’ in the magic, the splendor, the over-the-top wonderland that is at the heart of Christmas both secular and religious.

For many years, I surrounded myself with the ‘Believe’ Santa Claus and regardless of the house where I lived or the situations I faced, I always made it a point to carry on the traditions that I held dear. Some of these traditions have changed as my life has changed but these traditions gave me a foundation of familiarity in places and circumstances that were unfamiliar and sometimes disconcerting.   Christmas, I realize now, provided an anchor of normalcy in times of chaos.

Also I see how traditions give families and people within them a sense of identity.  They are one of the things that make families unique to other families.

When I think back on my Midwestern childhood Christmas traditions, I recall that my Aunt Tess always made an Ambrosia Salad and that my Uncle Clyde always made peanut brittle – the BEST peanut brittle ever, too! The Ambrosia Salad was a ubiquitous holiday item but the peanut brittle was ONLY for Christmas.

For me, it was what a normal American Christmas in my father’s family was, but as I think back on it; I am sure there are many who don’t even know what an Ambrosia Salad is!! Ambrosia Salad and peanut brittle then, was for me, the crowning glory of Christmas. For others, it is probably an anomaly.

Although Christmas traditions may have some basic commonality with other families, each household still has their own way of living out those traditions. That is what is so special about them. Each family's unique twist is what gives that family its identity and helps the members bond with one another. Ethnic foods, decorations, special activities, all help families become distinctive.

Over the 15+ years spent with the Hamaty’s I now can’t imagine a Christmas without kibbe and a variety of other Lebanese foods and of course, the magnificent whole roasted side of Beef Primus Costae!

For most families, traditions are important because they provide continuity between generations. It can be difficult to keep up with extended family members these days, and of course it is impossible to touch those who are long gone. But traditions create a bridge between the young and the old, between the past and the present.

All of us have holiday memories. I know people for whom Christmas and other holidays are something that is dreaded rather than anticipated for a number of reasons; from the loss of a family member during that time to a myriad of other personal reasons.

I think that for me, Christmas and other holidays are times where we can really create life-long memories and connection with our families - or with those who are in essence our families - in creating memories by presenting a special gift, a fun event, or a creating a moment when it seems that all of life has come together and we hold it in our hands.

Whether it is my own holiday or Ed's - I revel in the tradition and in the memory-making.  It is an honor and a true joy for me to be included and I absolutely cherish the memories that I contribute to - they are as precious to me as they are to them.

We cannot plan all of those magical moments for our families, many just happen in the course of the holiday celebration. However, I believe that through creating and maintaining family traditions, we can offer stability, identity and continuity to our loved ones while strengthening our own bonds with each other.

We can look to the past and remember fondly those who are no longer with us. We can enjoy the present, knowing that we are building strong families and relationships and we can look forward to the future, when we will sit by the fire in our homes and tell stories of our Christmas traditions.

I think it’s time to bring back the Ambrosia Salad!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Luggage MIA

I slept pretty well - I generally have zero jet lag coming to Japan - and spent a nice relaxing morning with Mama and Papa.  As always Mama started populating the table with food and snacks and several cups of tea and other drinks all at once - I have to be careful or I will gain back all 40 lbs in 10 days LOL.

It is hard to resist ALL my favorite foods at once heaped on the table in front of me - all carbs and other sorts of deliciousness in the land of NO Splenda, diet food, diet drinks or Weight Watchers...

A diet here is having only 2 heaping bowls of rice (or noodles or simply insert your favorite carb here) instead of 3 or 4 or 5...

I called JAL and they told me that one of my two suitcases has appeared and would be delivered to the house by late afternoon.  I had no idea which suitcase I would be getting so a little Price is Right fun to start my trip off right.  I had packed a laptop in each suitcase and one suitcase was packed with only gifts for family and friends here and the other with my clothes and necessities.  By the afternoon, I would either have gifts for everyone - and no clothes or underwear  or I would have clothes and underwear but no gifts.  Of the laptops, one is my work laptop with VPN and the other is my own personal (newer, faster, bigger) and has all my class materials on it - my class which I start teaching on January 4th!!

I spent the day taking a Japanese style bath and soaking until I looked like umeboshi and then Ake and her mother stopped by to say 'hello'.

After their visit, the three of us walked to the nearby grocery (Mama is determined to make Papa go for a walk - but she should really stop wasting her time as he has no interest LOL) and picked up yet more goodies to snack upon every minute of every day...

After stop one and three bags of groceries later; she sent Papa home with two of the bags.  He HATES to shop - especially with Mama, so he quickly took his leave and we hit grocery number two.  A few more items and a few bottles of nigori sake later, we headed for home as well.  Mama was happy, bubbly and full of energy.

My mother certainly doesn't act or look her 80 years and that made me feel pretty good.  They are also very excited to come visit in June - their last visit was for Mama's 77th birthday or (Kijyu 喜寿)  2011 will be her 80th birthday or (Sanju 傘寿) so it certainly will be a great time for her.

My luggage arrived shortly after we returned home and behind suitcase number 1 was all of the presents and my work laptop.  I gave Mama and Papa their gifts from Ed and I and they were very happily admonishing me that we shouldn't have bought any gifts.  I'll give Ake and Jun their gifts tomorrow and also send the Sugiyama gifts with her for her parents.

I watched tv, answered emails and then we had dinner, mapo tofu, potato korokke (croquette) and mentaiko (spicy codfish roe), Mama's nukamiso pickles, pickled apricots and a number of other dishes -  all my favorites!!

Spicy Mapo Tofu with Pork - YUM                    

Potato Korokke - oishii!!

Mentaiko (Spicy Codfish Roe)

I ended the night with a sparkling nigori sake (which is available in the US) - "Hajikeru" Nigori Sake by KizaKura - it was sweeter than most but delish!!  Oishii!!

So now that i's 2:20 AM JST (12:27 PM EST) I am off to sleep.  The wind is picking up and rain is forecast for New Year's Eve but with the heated floor, delicious Osechi Ryori* and hot sake through the day - it will be cozy, perfect!!!

Osechi Ryori is special New Year's food that is only available at New Year's.  Mama has ordered a special selection and she also makes a lot of the food (which many people no longer do because they don't know how or find it too time-consuming to do so) - all of which I love! Yummmmm!!!!

Home for New Year's in Japan

If you have been following the news, then you might have heard about (and if on the East coast of the USA, perhaps even experienced firsthand) the first blizzard of 2010.

I have to say that it didn't seem too bad to me but I have been extremely lucky compared to most people in the same situation.

I try to go back to Japan for the New Year and so I had planned and bought tickets through IACE (much cheaper than via US outlets for the same tickets!) way back in October/November of this year.

My passport expired in September so I renewed that and now am good until 2020.

I packed, made reservations on the limo to JFK International and was all set to go when the storm decided to hit late afternoon on the day before my departure (Monday, December 27, 2010) but I remained optimistic since the limo service insisted that they would pick me up regardless of the weather and get me to JFK in time for my flight.

Long story short - I couldn't get out of the driveway at 4:00 AM Monday and in spite of Ed's best efforts, the car was not going anywhere - so I went back to bed.  The flight ended up not being cancelled but it was delayed  - for 12 hours!  Good thing I didn't go to JFK!!

Anyway, I rented a car and drove up the next morning at 4:00 AM after a relaxing snow-bound day at home.

I turned the car in, grabbed 4 bottles of coconut water and a package of Italian white wine taralli (for $40 -OMG!!) to take on the plane and then I pretty much had no further delays until after I boarded the plane at 10:30 AM EST.

Taralli Recipe from Martha Stewart (the ones I bought were definitely not as good!)

We had to wait on the tarmac for an extra hour or so for the ground crew to 'load the baggage' on the plane.

Once that was done, we were off into the clear blue sky.  The flight was fine - lunch, snack, dinner and four movies:

1.  Soup Opera (cute, odd, very Japanese film)

2.  Hatchobori no Shichinin (Hatchobori Seven is a very Japanese-y Eastwood-ish film with samurai)

3.  Salt (Angelina being Angelina...mad, bad and dangerous to know...)

4. Robin Hood (glad I didn't pay to see it...)

I had an aisle seat, great neighbor (a bilingual Japanese girl who HAD to have been raised in the valley based on her level of cuteness and SoCal accent)  and so the trip went by fine - my trip to Japan also started as soon as I boarded the JAL flight -no English was spoken for the entire flight and they assumed I was Japanese returning from a visit to the USA LOL.

We landed with no issue - on time - and I zipped through customs to the baggage claim area in about 10 minutes after disembarking.  I called Papa to let him know that I would be out as soon as I picked up my baggage.

After about 45 minutes later with only the same 3 or 4 pieces of luggage on the conveyor, we were quietly told that the luggage was not on the plane and had not arrived - furthermore; they had no idea where it was.

Well - shigata ga nai - I filled out the information to have them deliver the luggage when it did arrive and went out to meet the folks.

We grabbed a quick bite at a soba-ya (I had soba no goma daru, soba with sesame sauce) and then we were off on the JR Green Sha Express train home.

My brother Jun and his wife Ake met us at the station and then we stopped for a few snacks (as if Mama didn't have enough at home) before finally arriving home about 6:30 PM JST ( 4:30 AM EST).

After a few hours of more food, conversation and drinks - Ake and Jun left and Mama made up the futon for me to sleep on - she tried to get me to take their bedroom but I prefer the futon and I am also up earlier than either of them when I am here so...futon onegai shimasu!!

Tadaima!!  I have returned home!!  (^_^)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Atayef bil Ushta- Lebanese Stuffed Pancakes

Atayef (or Qataif ) قطايف is an Arabic dessert reserved for special occasions or holidays and enjoyed by both Christians and Muslims during their respective celebrations. Interestingly enough, while dairy foods aren't immediately associated with Hanukkah, Syrian Jews prepare atayef for the Festival of Lights to honor Judith.

Atayef (or Qataif) are similar to pancakes, except only one side is cooked, then the pancake is folded into a mini cone and filled with either ushta, a Lebanese pastry cream or a Lebanese nut roll type filling. The ushta filled atayef are then sprinkled with pistachios and served with attar, the Lebanese orange or rose-water syrup.

Atayef Batter:

1 package of dried yeast (or 1 ½ oz (45g) fresh yeast
1 teaspoon sugar
1 ½ cups lukewarm water
1 ½ cups all purpose flour

Make Atayef Batter:
Sprinkle sugar and yeast on top of lukewarm water and mix together.
Let proof in a warm place until it starts to bubble, about 10 minutes.
Add yeast to flour and mix well, then add in all the water and mix until smooth and well combined.
Cover with plastic wrap and let stand in a warm place for an hour until it rises and is bubbly (see below).

Preheat griddle to 400 F and lightly grease with a paper towel dipped in oil.

Stir down the batter.

Once the griddle is hot, drop batter by 1 tablespoon measure on to hot griddle and spread slightly to make a 3 inch diameter pancake.  

Pancake will be about 1/8 inch thick – do not make as thin as a crepe.

When the pancake is full of holes on top and is dry, (takes about 30 seconds) remove from heat and set aside.   

Only one side of the pancake is cooked and it will be very pale on the griddled side.

Continue until all the pancakes are cooked.


Ushta (Lebanese pastry cream):

2 cup whole milk
3 cups heavy cream
3 tbs sugar
1/2 cup corn starch mixed with 1/2 cup water
7 pieces white bread, crusts removed and torn into small pieces
1 tbs rose flower water (optional)
1 tbs orange flower water (optional)

Make Ushta:
Mix together heavy cream, milk, sugar and corn starch in a medium size pot and stir on low heat until smooth.

Tear white bread into small pieces and add to pot and stir to combine.

Once all bread is torn into the milk mixture, raise heat to med-low and stir occasionally in one direction.

Mix until custard begins to thicken, and stir until custard is very thick.  

Remove from heat and pour into a bowl. 

Mix in rose and orange flower water (if using) at this time. 

 I used just the orange flower water since many don’t like the taste of rose water (which I love).

Set the ushta on a counter top and let cool, stirring every 15 minutes or so.

After about an hour cover with saran wrap and place in the refrigerator to cool completely.  

 Attar, (A Lebanese syrup for drizzling on the Atayef before eating)

3 cups of sugar
1 ½ cups of water
1 tablespoon of lemon juice
1 teaspoon of orange (or rose) flower water

Dissolve sugar in water and add lemon juice.

Bring to a boil and stir occasionally until syrup I clear and thickens slightly about 5 – 10 minutes.

Remove from heat, stir in orange (or rose) flower water and let cool.

To Assemble Atayef:

Take one of the pancakes and pinch  the bottom half of the pancakes together half way
to form a small cone.  

Pipe or spoon some ushta into the pancake and roll the exposed ushta in crushed pistachios (or just sprinkle exposed ushta with pistachios) 

Let come to room temperature before serving if possible for best flavor and texture.