Strange kitchen contraption

When we first moved into our Japanese home, I noticed a strange contraption on the inside of one of our kitchen cupboard doors.

japanese kitchen

Our tiny Japanese kitchen, which I adored nonetheless. Everything was organised very efficiently. A dream come true for a home-organizing-geek like me.

strange kitchen contraption

The strange kitchen contraption beneath the sink.

I was puzzled by this strange, plastic attachment to our kitchen cupboard doors. I tried using it to hold the kitchen towels (by jamming a corner of the towel in the openings) but I soon gave this up. This was clearly not the intended use of this strange device.

Until one day, the epiphany came. I was visiting a Japanese friend’s house and we were cooking together. She asked me to take a knife and pointed to the cupboard under the sink. I opened the cupboard door and behold, she too had a similar device attached to the door, and in it were all her kitchen knives. So that’s what this thing is for! How convenient! It’s a safe place to store your knives and it saves a lot of space as well. I should have known that if something is pre-installed in a Japanese home, it is bound to be something very useful. No one does convenient like the Japanese!

japanese knife holder

Our japanese knife holder

So much sauce!

A trip to a Japanese supermarket is quite the adventure. The aisles are filled with unknown products. I feel especially overwhelmed when standing in front of the sauce stand. Any Japanese supermarket will have up to three aisles that are filled with nothing but sauce.

Sauce stand in a Japanese supermarket

Sauce stand in a Japanese supermarket

There are so many different kinds: a wide variety of soy sauce (dark, light, low salt, …), salad sauce, sauce with orange aroma, sesame sauce, sake derivates like mirin, … The list is endless. Liquids and sauces are the main condiments in Japan (as opposed to the West where we mostly use herbs). And of course I have no idea how to use most of these sauces. Even if you have come prepared and looked up a recipe beforehand, finding the sauce that the recipe requires can be quite a challenge, as most of the labels are written in kanji (chinese characters). To sum things up, facing this wall of sauce is both awe-inspiring and daunting at the same time.

tsuyu sauce in a Japanese supermarket

Most of these sauces are different brands of ‘tsuyu’ (つゆ), a dipping sauce for noodles

Ponzu sauce in Japanese supermarket

Another sauce stand, mostly ponzu (citrus sauce) and sushi vinegar

After returning to Belgium last month and seeing the selection of cheese in Belgian supermarkets, I imagine Japanese people living in Belgium must experience a similar sensation when being confronted with this vast array of cheese for the first time. How would they know the difference between young and aged gouda, or that camembert is actually supposed to smell like that. Some cheese is for cooking, other cheese is to put on bread. There is Italian cheese, French cheese, Dutch cheese, … There are so  many options, while most Japanese supermarkets only offer one kind of cheese: a very soft, synthetic cheese, with every slice in its individual plastic wrapper.

If you see a confused looking foreigner in the supermarket, desperately staring at the cheese stand (in Belgium) or at the sauce stand (in Japan), please rescue them! They need your help!

white cheese in a cheese shop in The Netherlands

A selection of white and blue cheese

dutch cheese in a cheese shop in The Netherlands

Different kinds of Dutch cheese in a cheese shop in The Netherlands

My Japanese cooking bible

Recently I’ve accepted the challenge of cooking Japanese meals at home.

I had been putting it off for quite some time but there was no escaping it anymore. While ‘just having moved to Japan’ is an excellent excuse to eat out a lot (read: every night), after two months it really was time to do some home cooking. And Western style home cooking is difficult because the ingredients are hard to find and when you do find them, they are quite expensive. So Japanese style cooking it is.

The first obstacle for home cooking in Japan is the supermarket. It’s an entire store filled with mostly unknown products. As if this assault on the senses isn’t enough, most of the product names and descriptions are in kanji (japanese characters). Try distinguishing sugar from salt while both are labeled with signs you can’t read. It makes me wish I had been a better kanji student before.

Fortunately I found a cooking book that’s been a lifesaver. It’s called ‘Recipes of Japanese Cooking’ and is written by Yuko Fujita. The special thing about this book is that it’s both in English and Japanese.

Cook book: Recipes of Japanese cooking by Yuko Fujita

Recipes of Japanese cooking by Yuko Fujita

Recipes for Japanese cooking katsu

The top half is in Japanese, the bottom half is in English

So if the recipe says to buy ‘cotton tofu’, I would normally be impossible for me to distinguish it from all the other kinds of tofu they have. Even if I knew how to say ‘cotton tofu’ in Japanese (momen-dofu), I would still not know how it’s written (木綿豆腐).

But with this book I just look on the top half of the page, see how it’s written in Japanese and compare the kanji with the product in the supermarket without even knowing how to pronounce it. It’s so convenient! I it weren’t for this book I would have to ask for help to find every single product. Or spend an hour every day looking up the translations and the subsequent kanji for the ingredients.

In addition to this great bilingual feature, the recipes in this book offer step by step detailed instructions and a lot of pictures. The book also covers basic information like the different kinds of miso, how to store rice and how to cook it (very basic knowledge that is often presumed to be innate), cooking techniques and information on seasonal ingredients.

You could probably find most of this information online. But I love having it all together in one convenient book. I recommend this book to anyone living an Japan and planning to do some home cooking.

The results so far:

homecooked oyakodon and miso soup

Oyakodon, marinated cucumber and miso soup with wakame and tofu

homecooked gyudon and pumpkin

Gyudon, simmered pumpkin and miso soup with wakame and tofu

I started with donburi (rice bowl dishes) because they seemed easier. For my third dish I tried something else:

homecooked niku dofu and eggplant

Niku dofu (meat and tofu), grilled eggplant, genmai (brown rice) and miso soup with turnip and fried tofu