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Tokyo celebrates Halloween

jason

Bee Movie?

Bee Movie?

On the weekend we discovered that Japan has taken a marked interest in Halloween... Harajuku and Omote-sando were filled with costumed children and adults, some carrying plastic pumpkins to various shops that apparently were giving away small treats.

Small superheroes

Small superheroes

Some people even lined up outside department stores, presumably for some sort of treasure.

Mostly costumed lineup

Halloween lineup

Harajuku had clusters of costumed children. We didn't make it out to the annual Kawasaki-area Halloween parade, but I understand that's an even bigger event than what we spotted in Omotesando.

We can perhaps thank global commerce and expert marketing, but Halloween seems to be roughly a week-long event in Japan. Costumes start on the weekend preceding the holiday, as far as I can tell, and continued all the way into bars and restaurants on Halloween night.

Bakeries offer pumpkin filled cookie sandwiches and in the shape of Jack-O-Lanterns, and I even found a Halloween-themed tenugui, or dyed cotton cloth. Halloween is all about commerce, much as it is in the US, without all the visceral impact the symbolism of Halloween has to most Americans, weaned on ghost stories about witches and zombies, during horror movie season.

Ladybug and wizard: Off we go

Ladybug and wizard

Obon and Halloween are really the same holiday, differences in rituals aside. Since I usually avoid coming to Japan during the peak heat of summer, I have only witnessed Nikkei celebrations of obon, and those a month earlier than typical (to fit in to the more important Seafair schedule in Seattle). But both are ways for living people to come to terms with death and the unknown.

In Japan, though, any of Halloween's association with the supernatural is apparently nonexistent. Cuteness rules all costuming decisions; nobody tries to be over-the-top disturbing, and everyone appears to use Halloween as an excuse for consumption.

In contrast, I remember being at a shrine in Kamakura just after dark many years ago, and my Japanese companion was clearly slightly unnerved... I was unable to relate, as I felt none of the same goosebump-raising vibrations that come from a lifetime of association of shrines with death and ghosts. Americans, more influenced by Christian teachings that tried to quash pagan leanings in indigenous European cultures, are more likely to find their hair raised by the shadows and noises of Pan's forests.

Travel plans: October 24-November 6

jason

My little brother took off the entire semester to save up money so that he could come to Japan to attend the family wedding Hiromi and I had planned... then our plans became complicated.

William was committed to making the trip, wedding or not, so I'm dragging him along on a quite different itinerary.

The schedule that worked best for us turned out to coincide with a weekend trip Hiromi had planned with her parents in Nikko. After discussing things with Hiromi, I slightly adjusted the plan so that we'd all be able to travel together.

We're also planning a trip to Mashiko on November 4, but most of the time we'll be in or near Tokyo. I'll do my best to post photos during the trip... I've been a little sluggish about posting recently, but that's mostly due to work-related exhaustion, and other minor frustrations.

If your path might cross mine, please let me know. Perhaps we can have tea or a little lunch...

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Tortured eggplant

jason

Tomato-like eggplant

You think you're looking at fleshy beefsteak tomatoes.

But you are deceived. You're actually looking at an uncommon variety of eggplant. I picked it up from the Alvarez farms stand at the Pike Place Market a little while back.

They were surprisingly firm, which I thought would be an advantage over the occasionally quite mushy ancient eggplants I sometimes run into at supermarkets. In fact, these were firm enough you could probably hurt someone if you threw them hard enough.

Had I followed my usual impulses when playing with a new food, I'd have done my best to highlight the remarkable qualities it has and not fuss with it terribly much. I would have wanted to emphasize the remarkable color and the bold shape.

But that was not to pass. That week I had an absolutely relentless craving for comfort food, and my usual impulses were undermined by cravings for things roasted, baked, and cheese-laden.

So I chose instead to obscure my treasure by turning it into something fairly pedestrian, but certainly comforting... After slicing, salting, and removing aku from the eggplant, I pan-fried the slices with a dusting of flour, egg and breadcrumbs. While I was waiting for them to cook, I prepared a quick tomato sauce from some nice fresh tomatoes, using a heavy hand with red wine. I placed some buffalo mozzarella and parmesan on each slice, spooned over some sauce, and baked until everything was melted.

Eggplant Parmesan

food 297

As you can see, I managed to completely obscure any of the charms of the eggplant, but it did the trick appealing to my need for self-indulgence.

Surprisingly, the eggplant had a sharp edge*. The bitterness was more intense than most varieties of eggplant I've worked with, even though I did the standard salting and rinsing trick. The sweetness of the tomato sauce and the mozzarella helped counter some of the harshness, so perhaps my choice was clever after all.

I'm now tempted to see if I could tame the bitterness by pickling the eggplant, Japanese style. I haven't been at the Pike Place Market for a few weeks, though, so I'm afraid I've probably lost my chance for the season... but perhaps we'll meet again next season.

* I've since learned that this variety of eggplant, called Turkish eggplant, is generally consumed underripe; it becomes bitter as it transforms from green to orange.

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Polenta with grilled halloumi cheese and apricot sauce

jason

Polenta, grilled halloumi cheese, apricot sauce

It's hard to imagine now that Seattle's wind and rain have started to kick in, but only a month ago, local apricots were still in season.

Just around that time I had stumbled upon a beautiful bunch of apricots at the U-District farmer's market, and thought it would be nice to make anzu-zake, an apricot-infused liqueur similar to umeshu. Unfortunately, a few of the apricots I used were so ripe that a couple of them had hidden bruises. I spotted them just before they lost their color and reclaimed them from the vodka solution, and chopped up a couple more fresh ones from another source. Simmered with a little sugar, a bit of yuzu juice, a tiny knob of fresh ginger, and a pinch of salt, this makes a spirited accompaniment to cheese.

Bad puns are cruel. Sorry about that.

I happen to be a fan of the occasional grilled halloumi... that's a a cheese which comes from Cypress, most notable for holding its shape when cooked. It's best when quickly grilled and gently caramelized. Because it's somewhat salty, I tend to prefer serving it with a sweet accompaniment like quince paste, but this boozy apricot sauce was even better.

I wanted to have something more than just a big pile of cheese, so I boiled some polenta seasoned with salt and butter, then let it rest at the bottom of a small baking pan. After it cools for 10 minutes or so, it's easy to cut into rectangles suitable to rest the cheese on.

Dressed with the apricot sauce and some fresh black pepper, the strength of this dish is the relatively gentle interplay of flavors. To provide some flavor contrast as needed, I served it with some fruity olives and some pickled pepadew peppers.

When I made this, I was only in the mood for a light meal, so I had a little salad and not much else, but it would be even better to serve one per person as a nice appetizer. It looks fancier than it is; I had it on the table in about 15 minutes after the polenta was cooked, and I wasn't in a rush. You could easily substitute ready-made quince paste or probably some types of chutney...

For a little while I couldn't get enough halloumi, and I tended to serve it on a bed of Bibb lettuce instead of polenta. That's even easier... but I think this version is prettier.