Outgoing Japanese people

When Belgian people ask me questions about my stay in Japan, they often ask what Japanese people are like. From their questions, I gather that they believe all Japanese people to be quiet and introverted. When I answer that I actually met lots of Japanese people who were outgoing and easy to come into contact with, they react surprised. When I add that, in my experience, Japanese people are a happy people who laugh a lot, they look incredulous. I wrote about these prejudices more elaborately in the article ‘Japanese people are human too‘.

Today, as I was going through the pictures that I took when I was in Japan exactly four years ago, on May 21st 2012, I found a video that perfectly illustrates how outgoing Japanese people can be. I was visiting the indoor market in Kanazawa and noticed some live crabs laying on ice, who were still moving. As I stopped to film this fascinating scene, the vendor asked me what I was doing. I said that I was making a video of the crabs but that they appeared to have stopped moving at the moment. As you can see in the video, the vendor immediately reacted by prodding the crabs and placing some more lively ones on the ice. He even took a crab and held it towards the camera, which produced some screaming and hilarity.

This kind of spontaneous and humorous exchange was by no means an exception during my stay in Japan. It shows that Japanese people, just like people all over the world, can be outgoing and enjoy having a laugh!

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Different types of sushi

Japan has a type of sushi for every occasion. In the West, we often have a very limited view on sushi. When Belgian people think of sushi, they generally think of sushi rolls, as pictured below:

Japanese sushi rolls makizushi

Sushi rolls as we know them in the West.

This type of rolled sushi, wrapped in nori seaweed, is called makizushi (which literally means ‘sushi roll’). In my experience however, this is not the most common kind of sushi in Japan. When you go to a sushi restaurant, you will mostly eat nigirizushi (meaning ‘hand pressed sushi’). Nigirizushi is a rectangular piece of rice with a large sliver of raw fish or seafood on top.

types of sushi: nigirizushi

Delicious nigirizushi. When you eat this kind of sushi in Japan, it is not unusual for the piece of fish to be twice the size of the piece of rice. Yummy!

There is also a particular kind of nigirizushi that is quite common in sushi restaurants, called gunkanmaki. Gunkanmaki means ‘warship roll’. It is the same oblong base of rice as nigirizushi, with a fish or shellfish topping, but wrapped in a piece of nori. The nori serves to keep the topping of the gunkanmaki in place. It is usually prepared with softer toppings or some kind of fish eggs, which benefit from the structural support of the nori. In the picture below you see a gunkanmaki with sea urchin roe, but the most common kind is with salmon roe.

types of sushi: nigirizushi and gunkanmaki

A nigirizushi with shrimp and a gunkanmaki with sea urchin roe

types of sushi: nigirizushi in a Japanese sushi restaurant

A snapshot of one of our sushi fests in a local sushi restaurant. You see lots of nigirizushi with one of my favourites: toro salmon. There is also a gunkanmaki with what I think is meat. That is by no means a common or typical type of sushi, but I think we were feeling adventurous when we chose that one.

But despite the dominance of the nigirizushi, you do encounter makizushi (sushi rolls) in Japan. It is possible for a meal at a sushi restaurant to include a few pieces of makizushi, but they are mostly very plain and meant to top off your meal with something cheap and neutral tasting to fill up on, rather than being the focus of the meal. They are also quite thin. This kind of thin, plain makizushi is called hosomaki, which means ‘thin rolls’.

types of sushi: makizushi in a Japanese sushi restaurant

This is the makizushi that I got at the end of my meal at a more high-end sushi restaurant. They are a lot more simple and narrow than the makizushi served in Belgian sushi restaurants. These narrow makizushi are called hosomaki.

The variety of makizushi that we see most often in the West is called futomaki. This means ‘thick rolls’. In the West, these sushi rolls are filled with a variety of ingredients, usually some kind of raw fish with several other ingredients in one roll. Sometimes they are fried as well. In Japan, futomaki are usually vegetarian. Futomaki is popular during the Setsubun holiday, when it is considered good luck to eat an entire, uncut futomaki roll while facing that year’s lucky direction, as determined by the zodiac symbol of that year.

futomaki sushi roll for setsubun

Futomaki sushi rolls for Setsubun. Eating one of those babies in one go seems like a daunting task. I guess you have to make a bit of an effort if you want to have good luck.

There are some other types of sushi that I mostly came across outside of sushi restaurants. One of those is temaki. This literally means ‘hand roll’. I saw this kind of sushi at sushi parties at people’s homes. At a sushi party, people put all the ingredients for sushi out on the table, the guests compose their own sushi cone to their liking and eat it at once. The procedure is repeated until everyone has had their fill.

sushi party with temaki in Japan

The table setting for a sushi party at my neighbour’s house. You take a piece of nori, put some rice on it, add the ingredients of your choice, roll it up in a cone and eat it directly to avoid the nori getting soggy.

Sushi party in Japan

Another sushi party. On the left, you can see the start of a temaki, with the rice on the nori. Too bad I didn’t take any pictures of the finished cone. The cone usually looks quite messy, but since you eat it right away, that doesn’t matter at all. And the taste is delicious!

Inarizushi is another type of sushi that is fairly unknown in the West. Inarizushi does not contain any fish. It is an oval rice ball, wrapped in a pouch of fried tofu. It is one of the cheapest kinds of sushi. Inarizushi is a popular ingredient of homemade bento lunch boxes.

types of sushi: inarizushi

Making a big bowl of inarizushi. On the top right, you can see the fried tofu pouches soaking, and they are being filled with sushi rice.

Another lesser known form of sushi is chirashizushi, which means ‘scattered sushi’. This is a bowl of sushi rice (i.e. rice seasoned with vinegar), topped off with raw fish. It is typical of Hinamatsuri, the doll festival on March 3rd, but it is also eaten the year round.

types of sushi: chirashizushi

A big bowl of chirashizushi for dinner at a friend’s house. Underneath all that delicious raw fish is sushi rice.

Finally we might consider sashimi, which is raw fish and shellfish. By many Westerners, sashimi is mistakenly considered to be a form of sushi. While sushi and sashimi are often served in the same restaurant, they are not the same thing. The main difference is that sushi always involves rice while sashimi is raw fish without rice. Sashimi must always be eaten with chopsticks while sushi may be eaten with the hands if one so chooses.

sashimi at an izakaya in japan

A plate of delicious sashimi at an izakaya in  Toyota City. As you can see, there is no rice in sight.

What is your favourite type of sushi?

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:

The sushi train

Ask anyone to name something typical of Japan, and it is highly likely that they will say ‘sushi’. After my return to Belgium, I have often been asked if Japanese people really eat sushi every day. The answer is no! Japanese cuisine is incredibly varied and there is so much more to it than just sushi.

Since I am not a fan of these stereotypical ideas about Japan and did not want to encourage them further, I have put off writing about sushi for more than two years. But despite all my ranting, I cannot deny that sushi is in fact a part of Japanese cuisine. Moreover, it is an extremely delicious part of Japanese cuisine. By the end of my stay in Japan, I could be found in a sushi restaurant on a weekly basis. (*´∀`*)

So it seems that the moment has finally come. It is time for a post about sushi.

In Japan, sushi is often enjoyed at a restaurant, rather than at home. There are many different kinds of sushi restaurants, ranging from extremely high-end places where the chef personally prepares each delicacy in front of you, to the more moderately priced conveyor belt restaurants (kaiten zushi 回転寿司 in Japanese). Even in the conveyor belt category, there are different prices and qualities. Today I will talk to you about the lowest of the lowest: Kappa Zushi. Although this is not a great introduction for a restaurant, I assure you that compared to most European (or at least Belgian) sushi restaurants, the quality is still very good.

kappazushi logo

Kappa Zushi logo

kappa_zushi_mascotte

Interior of a Kappa Zushi restaurant. The mascots of Kappa Zushi are these two green creatures. In Japanese, kappa is a water monster from folk tales. But it can also mean a sushi roll with cucumber in the middle. Hence the choice for kappa as mascots I guess. Despite their best efforts to make these kappa seem cute, they still scare me a little – image from the Kappa Zushi website

kappazushi conveyer belt

Kappa Zushi conveyor belt

tuna sushi on the conveyer belt

Tuna nigiri zushi on the conveyor belt

At conveyor belt restaurants, the kitchen prepares a standard selection of different sushi dishes and places them on the conveyor belt. The sushi passes by all the tables and the customers take off whatever they want to eat. Usually the colour of the plate determines how much the sushi costs but at Kappa Zushi, all the sushi costs 105 yen per plate (about 1 euro at the time we were in Japan). At the end of the meal, the plates are counted to determine the price to be paid.

kappa zushi stack of plates

Our stack of plates at the end of the meal

In case you don’t find what you are looking for on the conveyor belt, you can also order  directly from the kitchen (for the full Kappa Zushi menu, click here –  click on each category to see more sushi). Kappa Zushi has a computerized system for those orders. You operate it with a touch screen above your table. Not an easy thing to do if you can’t read kanji. There is one button that summons a waitress. I am afraid we accidentally summoned the poor lady twice before we figured it out. But if you press enough buttons, you will eventually end up in the orders menu.

kappa zushi touch screen

Kappa Zushi orders menu. You might notice some unusual sushi like tonkatsu sushi (fried pork cutlet) and beef sushi. You will definitely not find any meat sushi in a high-end sushi restaurant.

hamburger sushi

Another special sushi: hamburger sushi. I guess you can pretty much slap anything onto a piece of rice and call it sushi.

Now comes the best part: the orders are delivered on a special sushi train! It is shaped like a shinkansen and swishes over to your table in no time. You take off the plates and the train goes back to the kitchen. Never mind sushi quality, that train in itself is a reason to visit Kappa Zushi!

Something else that I love about Japanese conveyor belt sushi restaurants, apart from all the sushi, is the table side tap of hot water. You get a cup, a tin of green tea powder (different from matcha) and you serve yourself from the tap at your table. All you can drink green tea and an endless stream of sushi passing by under your very nose… pure bliss!

kappa zushi tea

Tea can in the bottom left, cup in the middle, and the tap is below the conveyor belt, next to the red box with pickled ginger. The black box holds the chopsticks. Each table also has their own supply of soy sauce and wasabi.

If this post has made you hungry, or you want to see the sushi train for yourself, you can find your nearest Kappa Zushi restaurant on this map (Japanese only). This is the Kappa Zushi in Toyota City:

KappaZushi_ToyotaCity

Kappa Zushi in Toyota City – image from Google Maps Streetview

My first bowl of matcha green tea

After having lived in Japan for over a year, a bowl of matcha green tea seems like the most normal thing in the world to me. But I can still vividly remember the first time I came into contact with this magical substance.

Matcha tea is produced by drying and grinding green tea leaves into a powder. This powder is then placed into a bowl, hot water is added and the tea is whisked to a uniform consistency with a bamboo whisk. The end result is a bowl of bright green, foamy tea with a soft, slightly bitter, slightly sweet taste. Matcha is most famous for its use in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, but in Japan it is also enjoyed on more informal occasions like a touristic temple visit or as an afternoon treat.

making matcha

Making matcha: the tea powder has been scooped into the bowl. Hot water is ready to be added. Then the tea is whisked. You can see the bamboo whisk in the bottom right.

Of course I didn’t know all of this when I first arrived in Japan. I had never even heard of matcha. My first introduction to matcha was at a small lunch restaurant (Mamean 豆庵 in Toyota City), popular with elderly Japanese ladies. I noticed all the ladies were consuming some bright green beverage after lunch, which fascinated me tremendously. In my beginner’s Japanese, I tried to ask one of the waiters about it. In reply to my halting “are wa nan desu ka” (lit. “what is that over there?”), the waiter provided me with a very elaborate explanation, of which I of course understood absolutely nothing. I just practiced my smile and nod technique, which is my go-to solution for such situations, and was rewarded with a steaming bowl of matcha tea.

my first matcha

This is the result, my first bowl of matcha tea

I think ‘interesting’ would be the best way to describe my first taste of matcha. It is somewhat of an acquired taste. Some foreigners just plainly dislike it, but I have grown very fond of the taste. In Japan you will encounter it frequently, since it is also used as an additive for sweets, cakes and ice cream. Starbucks Japan even serves matcha flavoured latte and frappuccino.

Starbucks Japan matcha

Azuki Matcha Latte at a Starbucks in Japan… while one could argue about the taste, it is certainly very Japanese.

matcha ice cream

My first taste of matcha ice cream (the green scoop on the top) wasn’t really a big hit. I later discovered that the taste can differ greatly from place to place and occasionally it can be very good. Therefore my advice is: avoid the Baskin and Robbins matcha ice cream, try it somewhere where it is homemade.

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.

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