Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Pajeon, The Korean Pancake

One of our favorite foods from our visit to Korea has to be Pajeon, the Korean vegetable pancake. We ate it first at a little place in Yeosu with the usual variety of side dishes - kimchi, acorn tofu, daikon, and dried or pickled fish - and a big bowl of Makgeolli, iced Korean rice wine.

Ours consisted of chopped octopus, shrimp, daikon tops, hot peppers, and onion all held together by egg and a bit of flour. Quickly fried the "pancake" is placed on a plate and served piping hot to the table. Our cousin, Grace, and her friend Jack, deftly used their chopsticks to demolish it into chunks that we eagerly snatched up to eat. A small bowl with soy sauce and minced garlic offered optional dipping.

I didn't get a recipe while there, but this one and this one are the ones I plan to try in the near future.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Weather Was Hot and So Was the Kimchi

We took a quick weekend trip to South Korea to visit a cousin and, of course, to eat! And what we found on the table before us did not disappoint in the least.

Every meal came with an array of small dishes featuring a variety of kimchis and other pickled vegetables. I tried to keep track, but it soon became nearly impossible. Moments after sitting down a variety of bowls with unknown tasty treats landed on the table, and then once we ordered another bevy of bowls arrived to crowd out nearly everything else. And then the main dish meandered in and forced everything else to shuffle and bump out of its way.

The usual cabbage kimchi was always served, but other variations also appeared usually without fail - daikon tops; fish; daikon cubed or sliced and either spicy red or sweetly vinegared; eggplant; or mushrooms - to be joined by dried or pickled fish, a bean sprout salad, or perhaps battered fish coins or battered spam. (Yes, spam.)

Fermented sometimes for years (a friend, quite rightly I think, liked to call it Korea's version of slow food) in large jars (like these we spotted at a temple in Busan) kimchi comes in a variety of flavors and colors that vary from region to region. Yeosu, the city we stayed in, is famous for a particular kind of kimchi - jatkimchi or gatkimchi- made with mustard greens. Presented at the market in its pot fully stemmed one bunch is wrapped around again with a stem. It's a spicy little bundle, but worth the time to find. As another friend said, "When you bite, you feel fresh a little."

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

USDA Census Results In!

I had no idea that the USDA took a farming census every five years tracking everything from who's farming to what kind of farming is happening. Information about specific states and the compiled results of previous surveys (beginning with 1840) are also available.

The most interesting thing from the latest survey? An increase in the number of farms (more than 75,000) with the majority of those owned and operated by younger farmers.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Little Earth Day Once a Month

Sunday morning found us trudging through a good steady rain to the Earth Day Market in Yoyogi Park. We weren't sure exactly what we would find - if anything or anyone - but we'd been trying to get here since the Earth Day Tokyo 2009 event. A little rain wasn't going to stop us now!

Damp yet enthusiastic vendors offered vegetables, prepared foods (mostly vegan and vegetarian), jams and preserves, handmade soaps and bath products, hand-dyed yarns, the biggest selection of millet I've ever seen along with sorghum and black rice, organic beer, seedlings, beans, honey, and cooking oils. Damp yet enthusiastic customers merrily jostled about with umbrellas to shop or chatted away while snacking at little tables under awnings.

We sampled an assortment of jams from both Tokotowa and Yokohama Honmoku, and wished we could have bought one of everything. Mouthwatering strawberry, blueberry, fig, and pear jams tempted us, and the tomato ketchup at Yokohama Honmoku would make Prairie Home Companion Ketchup Advisory Board proud. The flavored honey at Tokotowa drew us in, too, but we saved that one for the next time. (Delphine at Tokotowa gets credit for the title of this post, by the way.)

We bought udon noodles made from wheat raised at Mananouen, an organic farm run by a former commodities trader in Tokyo, carrot soap from azure soap, and black millet from Hitonigiri for our rice. Even though I get a veritable cornucopia of vegetables from the farm I work at here, I can hardly wait to visit the vendors again to try new things and see what else is in season!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Girl Meets Hydrangea

At the moment, hydrangea (Ajisai) bloom absolutely everywhere in splendid color - blue, white, pale purple, deep pink, nearly red, lavender, white, and all shades in between - and I now find them irresistable. Tucked in corners, peering over walls, lining garden paths, or leaning out from roadside beds the blooms just don't stop. Their blooming also marks the beginning of rainy season, making them a literal bright spot during a wet and humid moment in time.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Tochi in the Attic

Fourth in a series about our adventures in Nagano Prefecture with One Life Japan.

After thatching in Koakazawa we stopped at a woodworking studio in Oakazawa, a larger village a little further down the valley. A dozen or so gnarled and bumpy trunks of tochis (the Japanese Horse Chestnut, Aesculpus turbinata) stood sentry around the building and parking lot. The largest and oldest of these was reportedly 750 years old, and required about four of us stretching to our utmost to give it a good hug.

Valued both for their nuts as well as the wood, these woodland giants are often tucked away along wooded stream and river beds in lower mountain areas, making it a challenge to harvest. According to one of the carvers, close examination of a local road map can show where a great tochi once stood. As construction moved along someone spotted a tochi they wanted, and the road subsequently swung through that spot.

The carver showed us a recent creation - a table - made from a piece of tochi trunk cut lengthwise. The wood absolutely flowed with light - palest gold to chocolate - under our hands. Glimpses of the original tree remained in soft bumps of bark here and there on the edge, and in the crackle of grain where a burl formed on the outside.

The tochi seed, closely resembling its American buckeye cousin, is no easy nut to crack. Once gathered they require a fairly long processing period - about a month - to remove the bitter flavoring and loosen the shell before grinding can begin. A shortage of wood ash as people transitioned away from the traditional open hearth home along with the availability of easier to process and store foods marked the decline in the preparation of this traditional food. (We saw it most often in the form of tochimochis - rice "cakes" filled with tochi meat or a half rice half tochi rectangle grilled to perfection and eaten with soy sauce.) Now an aging population of tochi experts is taking with them knowledge of this traditional and natural food source.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Aphid Update

Well, the aphids are still around, but the most effective means I've found of eradicating them is the old-fashioned rushing water method. I simply pour water along the stem of the plant and do a little squishing as I go. It is still rather disgusting, but at least I've been able to save the Swiss Chard. And the kale seedling is also suriving.

The "deadly tea" I brewed seemed to have no effect on them, but I will say that I still found it a very satisfying procedure.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Japan's Tasty Secrets - Itadakumasu!

I've been perusing a new booklet just published - Japan's Tasty Secrets - covering a myriad of regional food favorites in Japan. Complete with a map, color photographs, and good basic descriptions it quickly moves the reader beyond the stereotypical sushi and rice (although these are also present in fantastic forms) to flavors, textures and ingredients that embody Japan through the seasons. Beginning with favorite Japanese foods eaten all across the country the booklet includes a large section on signature regional favorites that in some cases have been served for hundreds of years.

The short descriptions include a bit of story (as all good food does) to further whet the appetite. Knowing it is difficult to grow rice further north in colder areas such as Nagano makes the popularity of soba (buckwheat noodles) clear to me at last. (Buckwheat requires a shorter growing season and is a good source of nutrition.) Imagining food shortages after WW2 gives the Ikinari dago (sweet potato dumplings) a different flavor, as does knowing that Karashi rennkon (lotus root stuffed with spicy miso) started being served about 300 years ago. The sheer variety of ingredients - tofu, wild and tame vegetables, duck, chicken, pork, salmon (meat and roe), pufferfish, trout, wild boar (seriously), beef, konnyacu, ginger, garlic chives, chestnuts, etc. -shows that this list only scratches the surface of a rich culinary history.

Even if a traveler can only stay in Tokyo, this handbook opens a door to a variety of tastes that can only be found in Japan. (To be frank, eating here can sometimes be intimidating, but this booklet will take the edge off.) Organized by the Rural Development Planning Commission, a division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries, (and translated by Adam Fulford), the booklet is meant to encourage exploration of the countryside. (Something I would highly recommend, too!) Information on getting a copy before coming to the country is available here, but it can also be found at Japan's international airports.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Kiwi Season!

We found a big bag of beautiful fresh-picked kiwifruit available at a local farm stand yesterday morning. I've shopped other local stands at farms in the areas for vegetables and had heard fruit was also available, but this was the first time I'd ever encountered it. Utterly thrilled is one of the best ways I can describe how I felt seeing those fruit sitting there ready for the taking. We could see more getting ready to be picked in the orchard, along with a selection of othersthat we will be delighted to eat once they are in season.

As I've mentioned before, a number of local farms in our area have small stands where seasonal fruits and vegetables are sold. I travel about looking to see what's available at the moment. Usually, the stand sits at the edge of the the fields, with bags of produce organized and ready for the taking. The shopper scans the shelf, chooses what they want, and pops the appropriate number of coins in a cannister. With the exception of larger stands on busy streets, the grower is hardly ever present to monitor inventory and take money. The prices are always at least comparable or more than fair in comparison to the local market. It's also, of course, a chance to give my money directly to the farmer. I like to think this helps keep the land under cultivation rather than under another building or parking lot.

Our area of Tokyo, Musashino Shi, was at one time agriculturally based. Now, small farms, like the one I work at appear on city blocks between high rise buildings or not too far from train lines. There is something terrific about being able to live in one of the world's major cities and bike to a local organic farm to buy produce. It feels a bit like a treasure hunt at times - rumours fly about a great little stand somewhere over there or here - but it's always well worth the search. We usually find any number of good things along the way - blooming hydrangea bushes, a sweet little garden path to an old farmhouse surrounded now by modern homes, a little park, or a great noodle shop - and come home with a basketful of summer bounty.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Good Folks Doing Good Work

I know it's been a bit chilly, but there's a not-to-miss event coming up on Sunday, June 14th not too far from Ann Arbor and in one of the prettiest little corners of Washtenaw County there is to visit.

The Iron Creek Properties Workday is a chance to spend time helping restore a lovely piece of land otherwise not open to the public, and to talk with the landowners about what's been done so far. Truly, it's not to be missed. Organized by the Raisin Cluster of The Stewardship Network, these workdays take place on the Kolon and Kellum family properties and are named for the creek that makes the border between them. (If I weren't in Japan, I'd be out there getting my own taste of a Michigan Spring.)

This workday will cover a review (and most likely musings) on the after effects of a series of controlled burns, invasive plant control techniques, and lots of hands on work. Go on out and get dirty!

Iron Creek Properties Workday
Sunday, June 14th
10am to 1pm

Sunday, July 12
10am to 1pm
Woody invasive removal - hard but incredibly satisfying work with nice people in a beautiful place. I might just fly home...

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Aphids Beware

I have an aphid problem. In Michigan, they attacked my tomatoes, and I did a great deal of squishing. (I never found the method of blasting them off with a jet of water very effective.) In Japan, they are attacking everything - swiss chard, nasturtiums, parsley, cilantro, johnny-jump-ups - on both porches. Birds and bugs (neither of which I can identify at this moment) are helping as they can, but when they attacked my kale seedlings I drew the line.

Aphids reveal themselves in spring and will hang out for a whole season if one is not attentive. They will overwinter in woody plants, so diligence is required for a season or two to say the least. Much to my dismay, they at some point develop wings (hellish things), and fly off to find a new buffet. Ants will apparently also move them about since the ant enjoys the honeydew the aphid desposits as it snacks.

I read that a strong chamomille tea would encourage them to leave, so I thought I'd give it a shot. (I can't find a reference now for that, but suffice it to say the tea is made.) And after I spotted them on my kale seedling, things got ugly. The pitcher contains not only chamomille tea, but three hot chillis, two bags of mint tea, some cilantro, and some fresh mint. I added water to all of this and set it out in the sun to brew. Oh, and some nasturtium blossoms that needed to be pinched. (There are a variety of home remedies for assorted bugs and diseases that are worth checking out.)

It looked quite pretty as it started, and now it looks downright lethal. I plan to use a small amount mixed with water and dish soap, and we'll see what happens. My only fear is that I may have created a plant killer as well.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Yui on a Thatched Roof in Japan

Third in a series recounting our adventures in Nagano Prefecture on a trip with One Life Japan

Golden Week 2009 found us rumbling along mountain roads in Spring. Dry rice fields rimmed small villages, rows of tulips, blossoming wild cherries and mountain rivers nearly bursting with meltwater greeted us as we made our way to Koakazawa. There we joined other volunteers to rethatch the roof of a traditional Japanese farmhouse.

Built originally from locally harvested materials – from the timbers to the thatch (kayah) - a home like this once was a regular feature of the rural Japanese landscape. Sheltering animals along with the farm family the home would have featured a central fire vented through a hole at the peak of the roof. As the smoke rose it would also dry the additional grass (kayah) stored in the rafter for future roofing needs. The flexible structure and simple design (a box, really) also made it possible for friends and neighbors to literally push it back into shape if an earthquake struck or heavy snow caused it to slump. These same neighbors would also pitch in (a community effort referred to as yui) to rebuild or rethatch as the need arose.

The angle of the roof paired with the natural insulative quality of the kayah makes a nearly ideal roof. Rain and snow melt quickly run off while with some minimal care and patching, a thatched roof can last anywhere from ten to forty years. The wide eaves send offer shade and send water away from the foundation. Grown in communal fields thatch renewed itself each year for easy restocking and drying as needed.

Harvested from nearby fields the previous fall (by another group of volunteers), the kayah stood more than six feet tall. We shaped it into bundles the professional thatchers wove into place with wire and one of the biggest needles I've ever seen. The final (quite literally) step had us all standing in a line and stomping (and I mean STOMPING) the kayah into a tight, insulative layer.

As we worked along and later rested with warm tea and mountain vegetable tempura I marveled at the burst of energy and enthusiasm brought to this little hamlet, and how beautiful as well as efficient our final product would prove to be. Yui, in a slightly different shape, but still alive and well.

Additional Information

This little booklet about thatching in Devon, England offers good examples and diagrams of thatched roof construction, and this Japanese organization dedicated to thatched roofs offers very in-depth information about the tradition, tools, materials, and process from past to present. And here's a presentation done at Kyoto University in 2007 comparing traditional and modern home construction that was thought-provoking. 

Markedly better photos than those here (or ever found here from my camera) can be found at this stunning blog done by Kevin over at One Life. You won't be able to help enjoying yourself.