According to Wikipedia Japanophilia is an interest in, or love of, Japan and anything Japanese. One who has such an interest or love is a Japanophile. That about sums me up I guess.
I’ve had an obsession with Japan since first visiting the country on a working holiday after my first year of university and falling in love with the fascinating culture and people. On this first trip I was fortunate enough to stay with an amazing ‘host family’ the Watanabes, who have become like my own family over the years and on the many subsequent visits to work, live and travel in Japan. The connections to this awesome group of islands don’t stop there however, as my older brother has resided in the mountains of central Honshuu for over 16 years now, running an outdoor adventure business (Canyons Japan) and bringing up three children with his Japanese wife. Needless to say, I have plenty of reasons to keep going back there but with a young family of my own, financial constraints and worries about lingering radiation, I won’t be watching the rising sun on those shores anytime soon.
Still, one of the things I remember most fondly are the amazing festivals or matsuri’s which are on throughout the year but particularly busy in the summer months. In addition to the famous larger festivals, each town or village holds its own celebrations to mark everything from the seasons to folklore, buddhist or shinto holidays, but mainly its just a good excuse for a party. The Japanese really know how to put together great family events, so there are plenty of fun activities for kids and adults (the latter mostly consists of copious eating and drinking) and there are even quite a few national celebratory days and festivals specifically for children such as girls day (Hinamatsuri), boys day (Tango no Sekku) and Shichi Go San (literally 7-5-3, for children of these auspicious ages).
If you visit Japan any time from late June to late August you are pretty much guaranteed to come across quite a few famous and smaller local festivals, with all of these expect Japanese festival-goers to be dressed in brightly coloured Summer Kimono, side-show style games, Taiko drumming and a plethora of hot food stalls selling delicious snacks such as sweet miso-dipped dango balls (glutinous rice), yakitori skewers, anko confectionary (sweet bean paste), Yakisoba (stirfried noodles with vege and meat) among other tempting bites.
A few of the popular nation-wide goings on:
In July there is Tanabata (star festival) where adults and children write wishes on strips of brightly coloured paper which are then hung on bamboo poles in the garden or housefront and the streets are decorated with ornate versions of the same.
Omikoshi festivals, held throughout the summer, are one of the most lively and hilarious from a visitor viewpoint. Linked to shinto shrines, townspeople carry a large wooden mobile shrine believed to contain the spirit of a deity around their village, dancing, singing, shouting and generally enjoying themselves in a ridiculous fashion. For those who think the Japanese are a serious, straight-laced bunch, a visit to an Omikoshi festival will quickly disabuse you of the notion. There is usually a considerable amount of Sake consumed by the shrine bearers as they stop at stations around the town to refresh themselves, needless to say the progress of the procession gets rather eratic and drunken by the end of the evening!
Of course festival season wouldn’t be complete without the Hanabi (fireworks) displays, which I’d wager are among the best in the world, even in the smaller towns. Tokyo is famous for its yearly display but I prefer the smaller gatherings in countryside villages where there is hardly any light pollution and you can get a viewpoint from a mountainside.
At the end of the summer calendar is Obon which celebrates and remembers family members who have passed away, but it’s certainly not a sombre affair and everyone takes part in Bonodori dances, which are not to dificult to master even if you are a Gaijin with two left feet and no rhythm. As with most festivals there is a good deal of eating and a carnival like atmosphere prevails however it ends with the more poignant ceremony of illuminated paper lanterns floated down rivers symbolically signaling the ancestral spirits’ return to the world of the dead.
For families, these festivals are a highlight of the year and a chance to shake off some of the more rigid aspects and stresses of daily life. Whole neighbourhoods and communities join together in a spirit of participation and cooperation that is both harmonius, fun and everyone looks out for everyone elses kids. Sweet.
With the dreary weather this UK ‘summer’ (more like a Monsoon season) I have been dreaming of the warm, humid Japanese summer evenings filled with the aromas of sizzling festival food and blooming with beautifully coloured summer kimonos. I guess I am also a little homesick for Japan, which over the years I’ve come to regard as one of my spiritual homes, with many lifelong friends made there.
Oh well, in lieu of actually being there in person, I’ll don my own summer kimono and the Squigglet can wear hers, we’ll make some yakitori and Somen noodles and sit out in the garden under colourful paper lanterns with friends and of course plenty of Sake!
This post is dedicated to all my wonderful friends and family in Nippon xx
Ok so as you can see from the picture, this is not your typical tagine we’re talking about here as although they are delicious I don’t usually have the time or patience to go the whole hog, but I do love the flavours so I whipped up this cheats version thats also easy for kids to eat. It was a few weeks ago now so the quantities may be a bit freelance but you can adjust to taste. Likewise add whatever vege you like, the following worked well but the options are endless depending on what you prefer and it’s a good dish for those nights when you can’t really be arsed to think about what to cook!
500gms of lean lamb mince
1 punnet of cherry tomatoes
1 courgette chopped into small pieces
1 coloured pepper – I used a mixture of red and yellow
1 red onion roughly chopped
A large handful of raisins or sultanas
1/2 tsp cinnamon powder
1/2 tsp cumin powder
Generous pinch of corriander powder
1/4 cup of vege stock (although add slowly to taste – you may need less)
3 Tblsp Japanese Mirin (rice wine vinegar)
Cup of fresh pomegranate seeds
This is a pretty easy one to throw together, brown the onions and mince together with the spices then add the vege, raisins, stock and mirin and cook until liquid has reduced, mince is cooked through and vege is lightly done. Pop on some cous cous and serve together with a smattering of fresh pomegranate seeds on top. Absolutely scrummy and very ‘moor-ish’ ( bad pun I know!)
Did someone say licquorice? Aniseed? Five Spice? Star Anise? Hello I’m your best friend, please invite me to your house for dinner……I love these flavours. I’m not sure when and how and the love affair started by it would probably be a tie between aniseed wheel sweets and licquorice straps back in the day, well my early days that is. Anyways, you get the picture, I’m a fan, but oddly not so much of the similar flavoured alcoholic drinks like Ouzo, Opal Nera, Arak etc which probably has something to do with close encounters with the carpet, as in faceplanted into the Berber weave or planting myself unexpectedly in a random garden after consuming too many of these in one sitting back in my wayard youth/life before children.
So, where were we? Oh yes, cooking. So I got the sudden craving this week for a Vietnamese-style Star-Anise hit and a couple of Google clicks later I had found enough recipes in a similar vein to sort of wing it, whilst adhering to the key ingredients. At some point I’ll get around to writing a post on my top collection of spices, sauces and condiments from around the globe that just work with almost everything, or at least I think so but I do have peculiar tastes sometimes. It just so happens that Chinese Five Spice is one of those super spices that goes well with chicken, beef, pork….not sure about fish but I could be tempted to try!
Moving right along, I decided to make a version of Bo Kho – Vietnamese Beef, Tomato, Star Anise and Lemongrass stew with quite a good dose of ginger to give it a kick. Vietnamese food is amazing, well what I’ve tried of it which to be frank isn’t much but I adore the fresh rice paper rolls with egg and shrimp or tofu and snow peas dipped in a pungent/sweet sauce…….I ate this every day for a week in Siam Reap (yes I realise thats not Vietnam but it was close!)
Good grief. So without further ado I give you my extremely tasty version of Bo Kho, which only uses 1 pot – bonus non-washing up points!
I got the recipe from www.culinate.com and apparently it is from the book Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nyugen, but have changed it around a little to suit my tastes. I also just stumbled across the following food blog which is awesome, I’m going to try some of the recipes on there asap! have a look at www.anappleadaynutrition.com.au
700gms lean stewing steak cut into generous chunks
1 large stalk of Lemongrass, fresh or preserved
3 Tbsp. fish sauce
3 tsp. Chinese five-spice powder
2-3 Tbsp. peeled and minced fresh ginger
3 tsp. brown sugar
1 Bay leaf
3 Tbsp. stirfry oil (combo of sesame and canola, maybe peanut oil)
1 white onion, finely chopped
1 can of chopped tomatoes or 2 cups of fresh chopped
Generous ½ teaspoon salt
3 Star anise
3 cups water
1 large carrot chopped into short sticks
8 baby corn chopped into thirds
1 giant field mushroom or if you can get them try Japanese Enoki mushrooms as I think they’ll work well
1 cup chopped fresh Vietnamese coriander or Thai basil leaves
This is the original method although I sped up the cooking process by turning up the heat but the meat was still pretty tender
- In a bowl, combine the beef, lemongrass, fish sauce, five-spice powder, ginger, brown sugar, and bay leaf. Mix well with chopsticks to coat the beef evenly. Set aside to marinate for 30 minutes.
- In a heavy-bottomed 5-quart Dutch oven, heat the oil over high heat until hot but not smoking. Working in batches, add the beef and sear on all sides, then transfer to a plate. Each batch should take about 3 minutes. Reserve the lemongrass and bay leaf from the marinade and discard the rest.
- Lower the heat to medium-low, add the onion and cook gently, stirring, for 4 to 5 minutes, or until fragrant and soft. Add the tomatoes and salt and stir to combine. Cover and cook for 12 to 14 minutes, or until the mixture is fragrant and has reduced to a rough paste. Check occasionally to make sure the tomato mixture does not stick to the bottom of the pan. If it does, stir well and splash in some water.
- When the paste has formed, add the beef, lemongrass, bay leaf, and star anise. Give the contents of the pot a bit of a stir, and cook, uncovered, for another 5 minutes to allow the flavors to meld and penetrate the beef. Add the water, bring to a boil, cover, lower the heat to a simmer, and cook for 1¼ hours, or until the beef is chewy-tender (a sign that it is close to being done). To test for doneness, press on a piece; it should yield but still feel firm.
- Add the carrots and return the stew to a simmer, adjusting the heat if needed. Cook, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, or until the carrots and beef are tender. (This stew may be made up to 2 days in advance. Let cool, cover and refrigerate, then bring to a simmer before continuing.)
- Just before serving, do a final taste test. Add salt or a shot of fish sauce to intensify the overall flavor. Or, splash in a bit of water to lighten the sauce. Transfer to a serving dish, removing and discarding the lemongrass, bay leaf, and star anise. Garnish with chopped Vietnamese coriander or Thai basil leaves.
We ate it as is without any starches to accompany it but you could serve it over steamed rice as the flavours are pretty intense and the rice would nicely soak up the sauce. Otherwise it would make an awesome salad topping the next day maybe with some Asian coleslaw. Have fun cooking!
To truly appreciate this dish you should attempt to make it in the style it was conceived, by walking three flights of stairs down to the kitchen, forget some of the ingredients so repeat the stair climb in reverse and then nearly burn it whilst trying to placate a post nap toddler tantrum. Now that you are in a suitable state of Chaos, you can begin cooking.
This yummy warm salad is really easy to throw together, which is lucky as I don’t do precision very well. It makes an awesome lunch on its own or as an alternative side-salad to the usual green lettuce affair. I have a bit of an obsession with salads, in fact I could be accused of salad snobbery on many occasions as it irks me no end that many restaurants and cafes are so unimaginative with their offerings in this department and offer up a limp and rather bland iceburg lettuce with shredded carrot and mushy tomato number. This is the salad equivalent of white sliced bread, boring and not very nice to eat! I apologise if this is how you like yours, as I said I am a salad snob but I can acknowledge others may like it just the way it is.
My salad ingredient du jour, actually not just du jour but every day, is rocket, or ruccola if you happen to be Italian or girgir in the Middle East. I use it as an accompaniment for all sorts of meals as it has a delicious peppery taste, (yes it has taste!) which goes well with almost anything you choose to mix it with. I guess it is my lettuce substitute, it renders lettuce unecessary with its delicious bite size brilliance. Anyway, enough waxing lyrical about the wonders of rocket and on with the show.
Warm Roast Squash (or Pumpkin), Yellow Pepper and Goats Cheese Salad
NB: In NZ an Aussie use Pumpkin for roasting as it has a fuller flavour than the watery ones in the UK. Elsewhere – experiment with whichever gives you a better taste
1 average size squash or pumpkin (depending on how many you’re feeding)
1 yellow pepper
3-4 cloves of garlic (I’m a fan)
1 packet of creamy mild goats cheese
Splash of Tesco’s stirfry oil (contains blend on sesame oil sunflower oil I think which gives it a nice nuttyness but you can use olive oil)
Handful of fresh rocket baby leaf salad
Simple as! Chop the squash/pumpkin into chunks (I leave the skin on but you can skin it if you prefer). Smash some garlic with the flat surface of a knife blade and rub in a pinch of salt, then chop it roughly. Chop pepper into strips. Throw all of the above in a roasting dish with about 2-3 Tblsp of oil and roast on about 180-190 c until soft, and before its burnt preferably! Should take about 20 mins. Skin the pumpkin pieces and arrange on a bed of rocket baby leaf salad, add the peppers and goats cheese chunks and then dress with balsamic and olive oil. Amazing!
I you have a young baby in the house, you can always mash or whiz the ingredients up (you might want to go easy on the garlic and oil and check the goats cheese is pasteurized) and serve as gourmet mush!