Nabe party

Nabe refers to a variety of Japanese hot-pot dishes. It is a typical winter food. All the ingredients for nabe are prepared together in a large clay or iron pot. The pot is usually placed on a burner in the middle of the table and the dish is cooked at the table. Everyone gathers round and picks from the pot what they like, as the ingredients cook. This makes the eating of nabe a highly social event and therefore a perfect excuse for a party, the so-called ‘nabe party’.

There are several stages to a nabe party, involving different ingredients that are added in turn to the pot. Many varieties of nabe exist, but it all comes down to a mix of different ingredients in a broth. The nabe that I will describe below consists of stock, lots of vegetables, tofu, fish cake, thin slices of meat and rice. Dipping sauce and an egg were also involved.

nabe party stock

The stock for our nabe party: water with pieces of kombu and bonito flakes in a tea bag (katsuobushi)

nabe party vegetables

Vegetables and tofu are placed on top of the stock. The vegetables are cabbage, spring onion and daikon.

how to prepare nabe fish cake

Fish cake, sliced

how to prepare nabe

Fish cake and more vegetables (spinach and carrot) are added

Japanese nabe party

The pot, filled to the brim, is placed on a cooker in the middle of the table

As the nabe is placed on the cooker, the party can begin. Friends gather round and wait for everything to start simmering. A perfect moment to enjoy a glass of wine and a laugh together. When the broth has come to a boil and the vegetables have shrunk somewhat, very thin slices of meat are placed on top of the nabe. Since the slices are so thin, they cook in about a minute.

Japanese nabe meat

Thin slices of pork for nabe

Japanese nabe meat

The meat is placed on top of the nabe and cooks very quickly

Now the time has come for everyone to dig in. You may take whatever you like from the nabe pot. This communal enjoyment of the meal creates a very cozy feeling. A nabe party is perfect for warming both body and heart during a cold winter evening.

You might have noticed the collection of sauces on the table. They are dipping sauces for the nabe, collectively referred to as tare. Everyone has two bowls for dipping sauces. As you take food from the nabe pot, you may dip it in the sauce of your choice.

nabe dipping sauce

On the left you see ponzu, a soy sauce based condiment with yuzu (japanese bitter orange) and gomadare, which is a sesame sauce. On the right are two types of paste that are added to the sauce for additional spice. I believe the green one is wasabi based but I am not sure. The red one is a seasoned chili paste called shisen toban jan.

nabe dipping sauce

On the left sesame sauce with chili paste, on the right ponzu with wasabi (?) paste

Japanese nabe party

Table setup for a nabe party: two bowls for each guest with dipping sauce. Food is picked from the nabe pot and briefly placed in dipping sauce, before eating.

When most of the vegetables are eaten and the pot is nearly empty, it is time for the second round. More vegetables are added to the pot and everyone continues eating.

japanese nabe party more vegetables

Second round of vegetables at a nabe party

At the end of round two, when only a little of the broth and some pieces of vegetable remain, cooked rice is added to the mix. The rice absorbs the taste from all the previous ingredients and gets a porridge like texture.

japanese nabe party rice added

Round three of a Japanese nabe party: cooked rice is added to absorb the left over liquid

japanese nabe party rice added

Stirring the rice

While everyone enjoys the first serving of rice, the rice left in the pot continues to cook and starts sticking to the bottom. A raw egg is added to this crunchy rice mixture, thus turning the dish into baked rice. This baked rice forms the end of the meal.

japanese nabe party baked rice

An egg is added to the leftover rice

japanese nabe party baked rice

Rice and egg baking together. Yum!

This nabe party was such a wonderful experience. Thank you to my friends for showing me this great piece of Japanese culture and for welcoming me in their midst!

friends at a japanese nabe party

Bellies full and smiling faces. What a great night!

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New: The calendar page

Dear readers, I proudly present the latest addition to this blog: the calendar page. I created the calendar to give an overview of festivals and events specific to the Toyota City region. It is the kind of thing that I wished I had when I lived in Toyota City. It is by no means exhaustive. I listed the events that seemed most interesting or relevant. For the events that are listed, I attempted to gather all the relevant information in one place. There is a focus on ‘how to get there’ and ‘when does the event start’, information that is often hard to come by if you don’t read Japanese. I hope the calendar will be of much use to current and future expats. Enjoy!

 

How to make Japanese green tea

Green tea is one of the basic elements of life in Japan. I think it is safe to say that most Japanese people drink green tea every day, in one form or another. One of the most famous kinds of Japanese green tea is sencha. It is a fairly good quality of tea leaves, served to guests that visit one’s home. For everyday use, many people drink bancha. Similar to sencha, these are green tea leaves, but of a lesser quality. Other common types of Japanese tea are hōjicha, roasted green tea leaves, and genmaicha, green tea leaves with roasted brown rice. For a more complete overview of the most common types of tea in Japan, I refer you to japan-guide.com and japanesegreenteashops.com.

Japanese green tea sencha

Sencha, good quality Japanese green tea

Japanese green tea bancha

Bancha, lower quality Japanese green tea, a bit coarser and with a less delicate taste than sencha

Japanese green tea hojicha

Hōjicha, roasted Japanese green tea

Japanese green tea genmaicha

Genmaicha, Japanese green tea with roasted brown rice

Today I would like to share with you how to prepare Japanese green tea. More specifically, I will explain how to prepare sencha when receiving a guest at your home. It is possible that there is more than one correct way to do this, but this particular way was taught to me by a Japanese friend from Nagoya.

Start by arranging everything you will need on a tray:

  • A teapot. Most teapots that I have seen at people’s homes were rather small, plain red earthenware teapots. But of course teapots come in all shapes and sizes.
red Japanese teapot kyusu

This type of teapot is called kyusu. Though the Japanese word kyusu itself simply means teapot, it often refers to side-handled clay pots like those made in the Tokoname region of Japan.

Japanese teapot kyusu inside

Japanese teapots include an integrated strainer, allowing the tea to steep freely and thus improving the taste.

  • The tea leaves, in a decorative tea holder.
japanese decorative tea tin

Japanese decorative tea tin

  • Cups for all the guest. Sencha cups are smaller than mugs or even Western teacups.
  • Saucers for the cups. The use of a saucer adds formality. To serve the cup without a saucer could be perceived as a bit rude. Wooden saucers can be used in all seasons. Openwork woven saucers are only for summer. If you serve cold tea, it is also best to use an openwork saucer. Instead of a saucer, you could also use some kind of coaster.
japanese tea saucers

Japanese saucers for sencha tea cups, wooden saucers on the left, openwork woven saucers on the right

  • A small plate with some kind of sweet for each guest, with a small fork or spoon if need be.

The total setup should be something like the image below:

serving sencha final setup

This setup, although not exactly as I described, gives you a general idea of what I mean. Image from everyonestea.blogspot.com.

japanese tea

This is one instance where I was served tea when visiting a friend’s home, on an afternoon in July. What a lovely and welcoming image!

Now on to the actual instructions for making the tea. It is best to make sencha green tea with less than boiling water. Boiling water burns the leaves, ruining the delicate taste of sencha green tea. To reach the desired water temperature, water is first brought to the boil and then passed into several different vessels (like the tea-pot and the cups) to drop the water temperature. Every time water is transferred into a different vessel, the temperature drops by 10° C. There is also the added advantage of preheating the cups with the hot water. Proceed as follows:

  • In the kitchen, pour the boiling water from the kettle into the tea-pot. At this point, there are no tea leaves in the tea-pot yet. The reason you are doing this in the kitchen, is to hide the kettle from your guests. Since it is very hot, your guests might burn themselves. By hiding the kettle, you show concern for your guests safety. Showing great concern for your guest’s comfort at all times is very important in Japan.
  • Then take the tray, with the teapot and everything else on it, to your guests. In front of your guests, pour the water from the teapot into the cups. This way, the water cools further and the cups are preheated.
  • Put the tea leaves into the teapot, about one tablespoon for each guest.
  • Pour the water from the cups back into the tea-pot.
  • Steep the leaves for a few minutes.
  • Pour the tea from the tea-pot into the cups. Start by pouring a little into each cup, then go back to the first cup and pour some more into each cup. The reason you are doing this, is because the first tea out of the pot is the weakest. The tea at the bottom of the pot is stronger. It is believed that the last drop from the teapot is the best one, so make sure that the last few drops are divided over all the cups and that the tea-pot is completely emptied.
  • Give each guest a cup and saucer, as well as a small plate with a sweet.
japanese tea

Tea served by my calligraphy teacher when I visited her home in April.

It is possible to use the same tea leaves for a second brew. For the second brew, the water should be slightly hotter. Since you can no longer use the tea-pot or the cups to transfer and cool the water, the boiling water is transferred into an extra tea-pot or water container in the kitchen and then brought to the guests, where it is poured into the tea-pot. Steep the leaves a bit longer than on the first brew, then serve the tea in the same way.

If you want to know how to brew bancha, hōjicha and genmaicha as well, this Japanese video explains it:

How to take a bath in Japan

One of the many things that I love about Japan is the bathing culture. Of course the onsen (volcanic hot water baths) are famous, but I also love the way Japanese people bathe at home. The key difference with bathing in the West is that Japanese people wash themselves at a faucet before getting in the bath. When Western people take a bath, they wash themselves in the bath and then soak in the soapy, dirty water. Even before travelling to Japan, I had never been a fan of Western baths. It goes without saying that I was delighted to discover the Japanese way of bathing.

Japanese bathrooms have a particular layout to facilitate the Japanese style of bathing. In a typical Japanese bathroom, the sink area and the shower/ bath area are completely separated. Usually the bath area is in a small, separate room with a bath tub and a low faucet next to the tub. The faucet has a shower head attached to it, which also provides the option of taking a shower for those who prefer it.

traditional japanese bathroom

A typical Japanese bathroom, with the (covered) tub on the left and a faucet with shower head on the right

If you travel in Japan, you will see this style of (communal) bathroom in many small hotels and ryokan. How to take a bath in such a typical Japanese bathroom? You undress in the dressing area right outside the bathroom. Leave your slippers outside as well. Then you enter the bathroom and sit on the stool in front of the faucet. The hotel usually provides soap, shampoo and conditioner, or you can use your own. Use the shower head to hose yourself down and then clean your body thoroughly with a wash cloth and soap, while sitting on the stool. Wash your hair if you like. Make sure to rinse off all the soap when you are done. Sometimes you also get a small plastic wash basin. This is used to hold water to soak your wash cloth, and it is used to pour water over one’s head. But the introduction of shower heads has made the wash basin mostly obsolete.

Now it is time to soak in the warm water and relax. Because everyone enters the water after a thorough wash, all the guests share the same water. There are a few etiquette rules when it comes to the bath water:

  • No soap should enter the bath water. Rinse thoroughly before entering the bath.
  • Don’t soak your wash cloth in the bath water. The cloth is considered dirty since you have used it to wash yourself. You may rest the cloth on your head if you like.
  • Don’t immerse your head in the bath water (not 100% sure on this rule though).
  • In hotels, most baths will have a cover to keep the water warm. You are of course allowed to remove the cover by yourself when you want to enter the bath. Make sure to put the cover back on the bath after you are done. It is considered very rude towards the other guests to let the water cool off.
typical japanese bathroom

Communal bathroom in a Japanese low-budget hostel. Faucets for washing on the right, a bath tub for soaking on the left.

typical japanese bathroom

Put the covers back on the bath when you are done!

Families also use a cover to keep the water warm, as different family members take their turn in the bath. So in terms of water and energy usage, the Japanese way makes a lot of sense. In the West, everyone who takes a bath has to fill an entire tub just for themselves.

In traditional Japanese culture, the order in which people of the same family or household use the bath is determined by their social status, with higher ranking individuals entering the bath first and thus having the freshest water. For example, if a guest is visiting the house, the guest usually gets first dibs on the bath.

Another thing that I love about Japanese baths, is the dimensions of the tub. In the West, bathtubs are lower and longer. But if a tall person like me tries to lie down in a Western bath, either my knees or my feet will stick out and be cold. I also tend to get a sore neck in Western baths, because you have to rest your neck on the porcelain edge of the bath if you want to lie down (sitting up, your torso sticks out above the water line and again, gets cold).

typical western bath

A typical western bath

Japanese baths are shorter and higher, so that you sit upright in the bath with your legs pulled in. This way, the whole body is under water and I also find this posture more comfortable.

typical japanese bath

Our typical Japanese bath at home. It is a lot deeper than a Western bath. The size is perfect for me!

One final advantage of Japanese baths, is that they are, like so many things in Japan, high-tech. Look at the control panel for our bath at home: so many buttons! I especially love that it is possible to keep the bath water at a constant temperature. The ‘auto bath water fill up’ function is also very convenient. You don’t have to keep an eye on your bath while it is filling up. Convenient really is a good word to describe Japan!

control panel for a japanese bath

Control panel for our Japanese bath at home

How to send a New Year’s card to Japan

In Japan, it is customary to send out New Year’s cards, or ‘nengajou’. While in the West, traditional Christmas and New Year’s cards are gradually being replaced by electronic versions and e-mails, in Japan cards are still being sent through the mail (which I quite like).

Japanese New Year's cards 2014

A few examples of the New Year’s cards that the Japanese postal services offer for 2014. Since 2014 is the year of the horse, many cards feature horses. Usually one side of a Japanese New Year’s card will have an image and/or a message, and the other side is for the address (featured on the bottom right).

New Year’s cards are big business in Japan. Every year, millions of cards make their way into mailboxes all over Japan. It is not uncommon for one household to receive up to 200 cards. Traditionally you are supposed to send a card to everyone you have some sort of relationship with or social obligation to. That includes all of your coworkers, for example. But these days not all youngsters comply with this rule.

The postal service is of course well aware of this massive card sending habit and organises its service accordingly. All the cards posted before December 26th are guaranteed to be delivered on the 1st of January. That’s right. Not on the 31st, not on the 2nd. No, when the Japanese provide a service, they mean business. Postal workers work on the national holiday to ensure that everyone receives their cards on the 1st.

Every year I gladly join in this Japanese New Year’s card extravaganza. Having lived in Japan for a year, I met many people who really did their best to make me feel welcome and who were very generous towards me. Sending New Year’s cards to my Japanese friends seems like the perfect way to show them that they remain in my thoughts and that I am grateful for everything they have done for me.

At first, writing New Year’s cards in Japanese and figuring out the correct way to post them seemed like a daunting task. Once I finally figured everything out, I decided to write a guide for other people who might like to send cards to Japan as well.

Sending New Year’s cards to Japan: a guide

Make sure to send the card well in advance. It should arrive in Japan before the 26th of December. Another important point to note is that according to Japanese custom, you shouldn’t send a card to someone who has lost a loved one in the past year. But don’t worry if you are not sure about the addressee’s family situation. According to a helpful comment by Ayako Mathies, the original custom is that it is alright so send a card to families who have lost someone, but these families are not expected to send out cards or replies themselves.

Choosing the card

Since it will be difficult to find the typical Japanese New Year’s cards abroad, I recommend sending a card that is typical of your home country. For example, being from Belgium, I opted for cards with Christmas trees or cute little shops covered in snow. I tried to choose cards that invoke the romantic European winter feeling.

Writing the message

If the addressee speaks English or is familiar with foreign cultures, you may of course write whatever you like. If you are going for a traditional Japanese message, here are some things you could write:

Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu.
明けましておめでとうございます。
Happy New Year! Unlike letters, Japanese New Year’s cards do not require a ‘dear x’. You can just open with the New Year’s greeting.

You may follow up with:

Honnendomo [addressee’s name + san] ni itte yoi toshi de arimasuyou oinori moushiagemasu.
ほんねんども [addressee’s name + さん] にとって よいとしでありますよう おいのりもうしあげます。
For formal situations (like writing to a teacher or someone who is a lot older than you).
Kono ichinen ga [addressee’s name + san] ni totte sutekina toshi de arimasuyouni!
のいちねんが [addressee’s name + さん] にとって すてきなとしでありように!
For informal situations (like writing to a friend or someone you know quite well).

After this, you can add a personal message or you can add words of thanks, requests for continued favor or wishes for health. Some examples from japanese.about.com:

Sakunen wa taihen osewa ni nari
arigatou gozaimashita.
昨年は大変お世話になり
ありがとうございました。
Thank you for all your kind help
during the past year.
Honnen mo douzo yoroshiku
onegaishimasu.
本年もどうぞよろしくお願いします。
I hope for your continued favor
this year.
Minasama no gokenkou o
oinori moushiagemasu.
皆様のご健康をお祈り申し上げます。
Wishing everyone good health.

Sign with your name at the end.

Addressing the envelope

Japanese addresses can be a bit tricky at first. If you are sending a card from abroad, you will most likely have a horizontal envelope in a standard size. Here’s an example of how to address an envelope to Japan:

nengajou Japanese New Year's card address example

Example of how to address a Japanese New Year’s card

Write ‘NENGA’ in big, red letters in the top left corner (or in kanji: 年賀). It should be clearly visible. This tells the post office that it is a New Year’s card and that they should hold it until the 1st of January. In Japan, it is acceptable for cards to arrive after the 1st of January but not before the 1st. Make sure to never write a person’s name in red ink. This is considered bad luck because names on graves are also red.

If you write the address in romaji (our Western, romanized letters), make sure to write very clearly. It is difficult for Japanese people to read our handwriting. If you can write Japanese, try to write the address in hiragana or even in kanji. If you opt for kanji, double-check that you write the addressee’s name correctly.

Write your own address on the back of the envelope. And of course don’t forget to put a stamp on it.

All finished! Your card should be good to go!

Homecooking: miso soup

If asked what the most typical Japanese food is, I would probably say miso soup. I already imagine some of you raising your eyebrows at this point, thinking to yourselves “what about sushi?” Contrary to popular belief in the West, sushi is not a part of daily meals in Japan. Sushi is more of a restaurant food, enjoyed on special occasions or on a fun night out with the family.

Miso soup, however, is very much part of Japanese home cooking. I think it is safe to say that most Japanese people still eat miso soup (almost) every day. Rice and miso soup make up the basics of most Japanese meals. When I found myself missing Japanese food after having moved back to Belgium, the taste of miso soup was what I missed most. It is just so typical of Japan.

The recipe for miso soup is very simple. The first thing you need is of course miso paste. Miso is made by fermenting soy and/ or rice and barley. The result is a thick, salty paste. It comes in many varieties. Most common are white miso (shiromiso 白味噌), which has a mild taste and the more spicy red miso (akamiso 赤味噌), which is typical of the Nagoya region.

Japanese miso

Japanese miso

The other basic ingredient for miso soup is fish and seaweed stock (dashi, 出汁). These days most people use dashi powder that can be added to water, rather than making their own stock from scratch. Other than miso and dashi, you can add anything you like to miso soup. Typical things to add are wakame seaweed and tofu, or daikon and fried tofu.

miso soup ingredients

Ingredients for miso soup: on the left instant dashi to be solved in water and on the right miso paste

When I had just arrived in Japan, the task of making miso soup at home seemed daunting. There were so many overly complicated recipes on the internet, while in fact it is very simple to make miso soup. I will therefore describe my own, easy way of making miso soup. Of course you are more than welcome to leave suggestions or remarks in the comments section. I’m always open to learn more!

Japanese miso soup with wakame and daikon

1. Soak the dried wakame in water for about five minutes or until it has stopped swelling. Drain the water and rinse the wakame. Don’t take too much; perhaps start with a teaspoon. The quantity of dried wakame can be deceiving since it swells so much in water.

daikon and dried wakame

daikon and dried wakame

2. Cut off 1/3 of the daikon. Peel it, cut in half lengthwise, cut in half again and then slice it.

peel the daikon

peel the daikon

slice the daikon

cut lengthwise and then slice the daikon

2. Heat water and add the instant dashi according to the instructions on the package.

3. Add the swelled wakame and the daikon to the dashi and boil for a few minutes. At this stage you can replace the wakame and daikon with other ingredients of your choosing.

miso soup recipe

4. Remove the soup from the fire. Take a spoonful of miso paste and dissolve it in the soup. You can add as much as you like. It depends on everyone’s individual taste. Start with a large teaspoon and add more if you like. Never bring the soup to the boil after having added the miso.

miso paste

miso paste

miso soup

It is possible to dissolve the miso paste directly into the soup but I prefer to use a small strainer. It makes dissolving the miso easier and you avoid finding chunks of undissolved miso in your soup afterwards.

miso soup finished

Miso soup finished. I used a lot of miso since I like the taste to be quite strong. If you use less miso, the soup will be a little less opaque.

Et voila! You have the basis for a simple Japanese home cooked meal. Enjoy!

basic japanese homecooked meal

Simple Japanese meal with salad, brown rice (genmai), miso soup (miso shiru) and pickles (tsukemono). The solid ingredients in the miso soup are eaten with chopsticks. The liquid is drunk directly from the bowl. The miso drops to the bottom of the bowl after sitting for a while. This is normal. You can stir it with your chopsticks before drinking.