Saturday, September 19, 2009

Daisetsuzan National Park - A Brief Note

Fifth in a series about a recent trip to Hokkaido!

There were many reasons to head north this summer to Hokkaido. The heat and humidity of Tokyo drove us out as did the lure of the beauty of this northern island. Our friend, Ryan, had told us of the many wonders to be found there and suggested we come up for a camping trip. It took less than a second to agree to go.

We spent eight days backcountry camping and hiking in Daisetsuzan National Park. Japan's first and largest national park, Daisetsuzan contains a wide variety of landscapes, flora, and fauna. While we didn't see any bears, we took in many of the other delights of the park. Following is a sampling of our photos along with some interesting links.

Great links about Daisetsuzan National Park
Ryan has been wandering and photographing the park for more than five years now, and his library of images is awe-inspiring. He led us on a series of hikes that showed us some of the many facets of this incredible place.

The Wikitravel guide for the park is informative, of course, and offers some good hints as does the Wikipedia entry. However, we found that Ryan's page and this extensive article were more informative.

This web page offers some useful links for exploring the park, and the series of pdf's listed here was very informative and useful for getting a feel for the park.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Snack Discovery - Nanbu Senbei

Fourth in a series about our recent adventure north to Hokkaido!

Hachinohe proved a veritable gold mine for us. Not only did we find fresh fruits and vegetables and cooler temperatures, but we found a new favorite snack - senbei.

Now, unbeknownst to us we've been eating plenty of senbei all along - rice crackers just made for snacking and sipping tea - in various forms and often with long culinary histories. However, we stopped in a little store while strolling about waiting for our next train, and I grabbed a bag of an unknown looking food.

Warning: This is a risky habit that usually works out well, but not every time. We recently discovered a sweet-and-sour form of dried seaweed that just isn't for us.

This time, though, we hit it right. The senbei we found are specific to the Aomori area and are called nanbu senbei. Traditionally served as part of a dish called senbu jiru - cracker broth - they are made from wheat flour and baked in a round mold. (More commonly, senbei are made from rice flour, dipped in soy sauce, and perhaps wrapped in a small sheet of nori; however, within that realm is another of great variety.) Thin, round and about as big as the palm of your hand we ate nanbu senbei made with black sesame, and later pumpkin seeds.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Peach of a Train Station

Third in a series about our recent trip up noth to visit the island of Hokkaido and our food adventures along the way!

We left Tendo early the next morning to begin the next long string of local trains that would get us to Aomori and the night express train to Sapporo. Pivotal in getting us to our friend, Ryan, in time for our planned departure to Daisetsuzan National Park, we were a little nervous about this train. We happened to be traveling during obon, a period when Japanese people return to their hometowns to visit family and friends, and pray at the graves of their ancestors. It was not possible to reserve a seat on the train so it was a question of being first in line to be sure to get a seat.

One of the tricky parts about travel of any kind is eating healthy. In our case, whatever time we had at assorted stations was used to ensure we found the right train and got on it before it left. Missing a train drastically resets the entire schedule of travel for the day, and could easily result in missing a connection. The majority of our food consisted of prepackaged snacks and convience store sushi and onigiri. (Please note that I was reading In Defense of Food during this trip, and feeling worse and worse about my food choices.) We'd feasted on Masae's healthy treats, but I already had a taste for fresh fruits and vegetables.

Imagine my surprise then when we stopped at Hachinohe and found vendors selling local wares - honey, cookies and mochi, fish, and jam - in the station! Many of these items were being proffered as omiagi - gifts to give to friends and family when visiting their homes or staying with them - and could be purchased in lovely packaging.

But the real gem, as far as I was concerned, was to be found outside the station. We came out for a breath of fresh air, and as I looked about me I spotted some vegetable seedlings outside a shop door. Always irresistable, I walked over to discover a veritable treasure trove of fruits and vegetables.

It turns out the store is run by a cooperative group of farmers, and one of them was one hand to chat with us for a bit about the store, her farm, and the fruits and vegetables on offer. (She graciously agreed to pose for the picture at left.) Granted, "chatting" might be a strong term here. Our Japanese is lackluster at best, but we were able to convey the fact that I work on an organic farm in Tokyo and that we love fruits and vegetables. She quickly began naming off different varieties of peaches - all huge and lovely looking - and describing the merits of each. The same thing happened with the cherry tomatoes. While we only caught an adjective here and there, what came through loud and clear was her love and passion for her work and the products at hand. We bought some cucumbers and a peach, and then she offered up tomatoes and another variety of peaches for us to try.

Antenna shops like this one, also known as chiho bussan kan, are becoming more and popular with farmers and shoppers alike. As I mentioned before, the Japanese like food and will travel to a region or onsen to sample its speciality. Antenna shops in Tokyo are on the rise, and it looks like the concept is spreading steadily in all directions.

The chance for fresh fruits and vegetables seemd out of the realm of possibility on the train, much less an opportunity to meet and talk with the grower, yet the next leg found us with peach juice on our chins and gazing at ever more mountainous scenery while savoring yet another great flavor of Japan.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Pickled in Tendo

Second in a series about our recent trip to Hokkaido and some of the food discoveries along the way!

As I mentioned in a previous post about this first meal, Masae also served an assortment of homemade pickles. Okra, eggplant, and cucumber pickles she'd made the night before graced the table, and were perfect for a summer's evening meal. Also known as tsukemono, these pickles can range from simple overnight varieties to those left in jars for long periods of time. Pickles offer a chance to cleanse the pallette between types of sushi or dishes in a meal.

We ate in what I call "family style" - fishing out this or that directly from the serving bowl - and bringing it back to the rice bowl or small accompanying plate. If the pickle, tofu or tomato made it to my rice bowl (versus flopping onto the table or another serving bowl) it added a nice bit of flavor or worked well in combination withh something else I snagged earlier.

Masae's Pickled Eggplant
1. Slice washed egglant in half and cut in a cross-hatch pattern on the skin side. (If you closely examine the picture at left you can see the cross-hatch pattern in the eggplant slices.)
2. Fry the eggplant briefly to soften it some and to let it absorb a bit of the oil.
3. Plop the eggplant bits in a container of dashi and mentsuyu and marinade them overnight in the refrigerator.
4. Serve in a bowl with a bit of the marinade, and prepare to battle your dining companions for the last piece.

Masae's Pickled Okra
1. Boil the okra briefly, maybe two or three minutes or as long as you would for blanching.
2. Plung the okra in a bow of dashi and mentsuyu, and marinade overnight in the refrigerator.
3. Serve with a bit of the marinade, and again prepare tactics to get the last one to your plate and keep it there.

Some other good sources of recipes can be found here as well as here, and a nice bundle of recipes can be found here along with a book recommendation, too!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Dashi (Seven Vegetable Relish)

Recently, we took a series of local (read "slow") trains north to Hokkaido. August is the height of travel season in Japan, and we found most trains, ferries, and planes sold out or out of our price range. Luckily, Japan Rail (JR) offers a rail pass that for a flat fee allows travelers to puzzle together a series of local trains to their desired destination. We broke our trip into three days, and spent our first night in Tendo with a Couchsurfing family. We enjoyed our evening with them immensely, and of course, the food was amazing.

Dinner consisted of cubes of deep-fried tofu (dredged first in rice flour and sesame seeds) with a series of pickled vegetables - eggplant, cucumbers, okra, and tomatoes - along with rice and dashi (seven vegetable relish). We drank glass after glass of mugicha, and finished off the meal with sweet, sweet watermelon long chilled in the refrigerator. It was a quinticessential summer meal similar in tenor to those shared with my mother in the hot summer evenings when I was a kid.

Dashi, it turns out, is a Yamagata Prefecture speciality. A mix of seven vegetables chopped up, mixed together, served cold and eaten with rice, it is wonderfully flavorful and colorful. It is a bit slimy in texture, but don't let that deter you from trying it. I'm not a big fan of slimy texture, but this ended up being my favorite dish from the trip! Masae, mother of the family pictured at left, shared the family recipe via Yohei, her camera-shy son and now the house dashi-maker.

Yamagata Dashi
10 shiso leaves
3 mid-size eggplants (keep in mind that eggplants usually tend to be smaller and thinner in Japan)
20 centimeters long onion/green onion - only the white part
5 cucumbers (keep in mind also that cucumbers commonly seen in Japan are also long and thin)
3 mioga (a member of the ginger family)
2 shakes of dashi powder (made from dried sardines and often used for making miso)
1 pack, natto kombu
Two second pour, dashi sauce (soy sauce could be substituted if necessary)
Ginger root, to taste
Chilli pepper, to taste

1. Pour hot water (about 300cc) over the dried natto kombu. If the water isn't hot it might not make the kombu viscous enough. Add the dashi sauce and chilli pepper to the mix. This mixture decides the taste of the dashi for the most part. The shiso, ginger, and mioga also affect the flavor, of course, but the dashi is the foundation. If it seems a bit too salty at this piont, Yohei and Masae urge patience. The final product will be less so when all of the other ingredients are added. Give the mix a stir periodically to give yourself small breaks during the next step.

2. Cut the vegetables. Yohei, who's taken over the making of dashi from his mother, chops them quite fine and warns that this is the time consuming part.

3. Mix chopped vegetables with natto kombu mixture. Yohei and Masae recommend letting it chill (literally and figuratively) in the refrigerator for awhile before eating. The flavors meld and the cold dashi is quite refreshing.

Masae also suggested adding chopped tofu or konnyacu to make it into the "old-timer" version of dashi. I may give this a go at some point to add a little protein, but then again why mess with what already tastes like perfection?

Interesting Resource for Further Perusal
This post about dashi powder from Just Hungry was quite helpful, as is the entire blog. As a recent subscriber I'm finding plenty of great information to help me sort out various recipes and ingredients while I'm here in Japan.