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(Homage to Japan, #3) I have a Dream

wall of wishes at buddhist temple in japan

I have a dream, a fantasy

To help me through reality

And my destination makes it worth the while

Pushing through the darkness still another mile

Even though my reality is not dark at all, these lines from that old song “I have a Dream” by Abba have been following me ever since my latest return from beautiful Japan. Because already on the plane back home a dream started to form and slowly but surely take over my entire mind, the entire time.

I am dreaming of my dream trip: All I need to realize it will be an open end ticket to Tokyo, a Japan Rail Pass that will get me  on all rides of the new Hokuriku Shinkansen (and any non high speed trains thereafter, of course) and a wallet that allows me to reside in a different Ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel with baths, and usually such provided by natural hot springs) every single night. Crazy? No, it’s a dream, and a wonderful one for that matter.

shinkansen, more plane than train

ryokan, bed ready

kaiseki are high end meals consisting of many little plates

The open end ticket to Tokyo does not have to be discussed here. Any one can get it (depending on their amount of money, patience, set or not set travel dates, individual expectations, etc. Getting an open end ticket to Tokyo is not a spectacular undertaking.)

kissing shin

The Hokuriku Shinkansen, though, is a different story. It debuted on March 14, 2015, and runs from Tokyo through mountains of 3,000 meters (9’000 feet), various rural and still very traditional areas, along the Japan Sea to the city of Kanazawa. Roughly spoken, it turns north west from Tokyo and from there in a flat semi circle westbound down again to Kanazawa. It takes travelers through the gorgeous prefectures of Tokyo, Saitama, Gunma, Nagano, Toyama, Ishikawa, Fukui, Gifu, Niigata and Shiga, showing them the slight differences between each.  No wonder it’s called the “Golden Route”: The stops happen at places famous for their (sea)food, gorgeous landscapes and/or various arts and crafts.

sun dawn at the japan sea

rural hokuriku with cut rice fields

Not just because of its maximum speed of 320 km (200 miles) per hour, the Shinkansen is state of the art. On the super cool outside, reminding of an airplane more than a train, a copper colored line on the bright white wagons represents the traditional copper crafts the Hokuriku region is famous for, and the blue one stands for the sky along the railway line. Together they express the fusion of traditional and futuristic, or the future of “wa”- “something Japanese oriented”.

There’s three class levels on this bullet train, featuring new technologies like car vibration detectors, but also automated reclining seats, individual power outlets for every single passenger, etc. The Japan Rail Pass that grants one seats in those luxurious trains functions like a credit card, and gets automatically reloaded when falling under a certain amount. It can not only be used to buy tickets but also to pay for food in train stations – the glorious food of train stations, but more about this later – and the ubiquitous and fascinating vending machines. Just make sure not to get distracted by the vast selection of hot and cold beverages these little refreshment centers offer: The Shinkansen is more accurate than a Swiss watch, and never departs even a second too late. You better be there and ready.

IMG_6066 IMG_6067 IMG_6070

So what about that train station food? Well, it is unlike any other you ever have experienced. Prepared food, yes, but fresh, of local ingredients, in accordance with the seasons and regional traditions. Dislocating from one station to the next, and eat at each single one, a person can discover the local specialties, see what raw goods have their roots in this specific area and surely will enjoy a different and delicious meal at every single place. Brochures of train stations and their foods can be found at each info booth, and people spend a lot of time to pick very consciously which Bento Box (Lunch Box) or single item they will pick once they arrive at their station. The displays of the various kiosks and stores are beautiful and artistic, and clearly based on craftsmanship and pride.

the food selection display at the train station in takasaki

rice cakes, simple and gorgeous

Speaking of stations: The new Hokuriku Shinkansen made big waves even before it started to run. Companies close to Shinkansen stations remodeled their buildings and offices or added museums, and some of those that originally weren’t close to a station moved their quarters in its vicinity. Of course the towns that got blessed with a stop of the bullet train undertook everything possible to impress the travelers (and make them stay). The result are ultra modern, über clean, attractive and interesting train stations. Pretty cool.

one of over 136 exhibits of regional crafts

brand new train station of shinkansen in kawazana, modern meets old

another craft demonstration at the train station in kawazana,

And then, on my dream trip, there will be the Ryokans. Total bliss: Traditional Japanese inns that, for logical reasons, nowadays exist in rural regions much more often than in big cities. When checking in to a Ryokan, be prepared for spacious rooms with sliding doors, tatami mats, futons, and, oh, those fabulous baths – from hot springs, if you picked your place wisely. But even if not, and the bath is prepared with regular water: It still is pretty awesome to be able to take a revitalizing swim at 5 in the morning. Or a calming one just after midnight when you lay on your futon jet lagged and restless. Most all Ryokans give much pride in the food they serve. Incredible breakfasts and dinners consisting of what seems like a little bit of everything. Small portions, meticulous presentation, cleanest, most balanced food, and every single one comes with its own purpose. Pure, divine delight.

sashimi course at kaiseki dinner

perfectly balanced little composition of fish, vegetables and pickles

By now I hope you are able to read my dream: Traveling on a shiny Shinkansen by day, being able to take in the changing landscape while relaxing, but also to do some reading or even checking e-amils, stop for lunch breaks in gorgeous train stations, and finally crash in a Ryokan. Which translates as: Getting welcomed in a more personal and friendly way than in any other hotel. Maybe have tea in the lobby for a start. Then slip out of your shoes in the hallway of your room (which often resembles a suite more than a regular room), drop off the bags and enjoy the freeing feeling. Go enjoy a bath, a long, hot bath. Back to your room, into the Yukata (robe that is suited to be worn publicly), and off to dinner. A lavish dinner, yes, but one that never makes you feel guilty. Then another bath. At least one.

the rooms of ryokans are spacious and feature tatami, futon and sliding doors

slippers to wear in the ryokan room

private onsen in ryokan

But back to those dinners at the Ryokan. What dinners. Kaiseki is their name, and wherever you are and whatever you accept to eat (or not), you will be presented with a long, long, gorgeous series of artful little compositions. There will be fish and snails and seafood in the raw as well as cooked; seasonal vegetables and fruits in the form of pickles, pastes, salads, stews and soups; meats from very lean to very fatty, with or without bone, from totally uncooked to stewed over night. Tea, water, sake, beer. Tofu, often. Rice, always. Miso or some broth based soup always, as well. Lots of beans, usually in transformed ways. Lots of mushrooms, usually just very clean and plain, as they appear in nature. Everything served in tiny portions. The spices are bold yet subtle, the flavors deep yet always balanced. – In other words: The perfect cuisine.

sashimi

mushroom course at kaiseki dinner

squid course

So let’s wrap it up: Luxurious and most efficient way of traveling (Shinkansen), combined with experiencing very populous food throughout the day (Bento and train station food) and then getting the treatment of the spoiled at night (Ryokan, Kaiseki and baths), and repeating this day after day, equals: Best way to explore Japan!

It’s a dream.

I have a dream, a fantasy

To help me through reality

And my destination makes it worth the while

Pushing through the darkness still another mile…

(Photograph #6 and #25, the one of the four Shinkansen facing each other, and the second to last one, the Hokuriku Shinkansen rolling into a station, are courtesy of Keisuke Yamamoto.)

hokuriku shinkansen

artistic presentation of the kaiseki dinner

 

(Homage to Japan, # 1) The Ten Commandments

another world

“By the time you read this, I will be across the big pond.” This is how my very last post on this blog started, many months ago.

So by the time you are reading this, I have just arrived back home, from yet another big trip  across another big pond, and in the opposite direction than that time before. I spent the past two weeks in Japan, a place I first had visited and fallen in love with 25 years ago. This recent trip showed up on my horizon fast, furious and completely unexpected, and of course I was not just beyond excited but mighty curious about how things would be different now, or how not. (Just a hint: They are even better now than what I remembered them from back then. Seriously. Japan is stunningly clean, has beauty and art everywhere, is easily and totally safely accessible, and full of friendly folks. About the food, that glorious food, I will talk – many times on this blog – later.)

soba lunch

This post is the beginning of “Homage to Japan”, a series on Japan and its food, traditions and specialties. The articles will be served in tiny portions or multiple courses, as a one-pot-affair or an elaborate, staged story. Just like the Japanese cuisine shows up on the table, basically, depending on where and what you chose to eat that day. I will weave in other, non Nippon posts, now that I am happily back to blogging again, but please be prepared for some steady and pleasant rains of recounts from the “Land of the Rising Sun”.

As a starter, today, i am presenting you “The Ten Commandments”. This is a simple but functional list of restaurant and food related habits, tips and rules I observed and learned by eating, well… lots of foods in lots of different places (to say the least). Look at it as a pocket sized, basic but practical guide to make most of eating out in tasty Japan. Itadakimas! (Bon appétit!)

seafood bowl Continue reading “(Homage to Japan, # 1) The Ten Commandments” »

Happy, Happy and A Big Thank You!

cheese cake for birthday

It has been exactly one year since Happy Stomachs was born. And what a year! I have met interesting people and made new friends, discovered a few things and changed some others, come up with more ideas and exciting projects – and enjoyed every single step along the way. Thanks to you, my friends in food, who read and support, enjoy and get inspired by, share and comment on my beloved little blog.

You might not be surprised that my cake is a savory rather than a sweet one. To be exact: It is one made of cheeses. I couldn’t help… But I believe that, once you have read the simple instructions, you might be happy to have this ridiculously easy and flexible idea up your sleeve. Use it in the case you have barely any time, need something different – or simply want to change up the usual cheese platter. Or the traditional birthday cake, for that matter.

So here we go: Choose your cheeses depending your and your guests taste buds as well as the number of people the selection should feed. Keep in mind that soft and semi hard cheeses will allow you to cut the cake into wedges, while you will have to disassemble your oeuvre if  you incorporate hard cheeses (like Manchego, Gruyère, Cheddar, etc.) before you can enjoy them. Also, the subtler and runnier a cheese, the higher up on the tower it should be placed (in order to have as less as possible other weight on top of it). Pick your accompaniments according the season, your mood, a color or taste pattern or to match the cheeses flavor profiles.

My little cake is built of a French goat Brie (Chèvre des Crèmiers), Munster, Pico (another, smaller and looser goat Brie) and a hunk of an Australian Feta. The accoûtrements are red raspberries, toasted pumpkin seeds and Nasturtiums, a widely available, edible flower with a nice peppery after taste. – A rich, creamy and rather lush affair. But hey, it’s my baby’s birthday after all!

cheese cake for birthday

Carpe Diem #7 – Quick, Quaint, Quail

finger food with quail eggs sunny side up

quail eggs

I hadn’t even planned to fix some food. I had had a little lunch, and supper still was far away. But all of a sudden I remembered those quail eggs in my fridge.

So I decided that – instead of trying to find excuses and reasons why, indeed, I should fix some food – I just would go into the kitchen and start working. On what, I had no idea yet. I only knew that quail eggs would be involved. Contemplating and rummaging through fridge and pantry, eliminating what I didn’t want to do or eat – no scrambling of the eggs, no filling them, no peeling or prepping vegetables, not prosciutto and no smoked salmon either – I finally opted for a super simple canapé.

pepper jam on bread

quail egg cooking in skillet

A miniature one, to perfectly accommodate and honor the tiny, heavenly eggs; and one that combined just a few very fine and complementing ingredients. So onto slices of Baguette went my sweet & spicy pepper jam, and on this a generous smear of duck liver & black truffle mousse. While the butter became hot in the skillet, I carefully cracked the nifty egg shells with a sharp knife, one by one, and then briefly fried the quail eggs until the white had set and started to brown around the edge, just about a minute or so.

Now it was the little sunny side up’s turn to take stage on the canapés. I sprinkled a little black lava salt onto the eggs, and a wonderful afternoon delight was born. We ate, raved, and were happy. (So next time you remember a dear ingredient in your kitchen, take a break and go play. It’s food, so it’s always worth it.)

face made of eggs, play with your food

canapé with quail egg

Eggs Peru-Dict (or: How Aji and Benedict Found Each Other)

Version of eggs Benedict

I love Ceviche. And even more than the common citrusy one, I love Tiradito. This is the Peruvian interpretation of a Japanese Sashimi, so to speak, where the fish is cut into thin slices and served raw, in a creamy, dreamy, slightly hot sauce called Aji or Aji Amarillo. – Ah, Tiradito, yes, I adore you so much, I might suffer a case of obsession…

And still, when I was gifted with a big basket full of bright little yellow peppers that turned out to be Aji Dulce, or Peruvian Lemon Drops – the main ingredient of Aji -, it was not fish that came to my mind. It was a plump, sexy, poached egg that suddenly was dancing in front of my inner eye. Eureka! – I would provoke my Lemon Drops into a hefty flirt with Eggs Benedict. In a way, that ultimately would lead to marriage. She would take on his last name, but still keep hers. Eggs Peru-Dict. Perfect.

aji amarillo pepper

Aji is very easy to prepare. Aji Dulce – don’t let you fool by its name – is a hot pepper with bright, citrusy flavors that can be substituted with Tabasco or Cayenne peppers, or also with the dried Lemon Drop, Aji Mirasol. In case you get your hands on a copious amount of fruit, simply fill the sauce into small containers or ice cube trays and freeze it, so that you can pop it out whenever the craving strikes. The one for Tiradito or the one for poached eggs. Depending on your mood.

paste of lemon drop peppers

Aji Amarillo Paste

(makes 8oz)

  • 1 lbs Aji Dulce
  • 2-4 tbsp vegetable oil

Put Aji into a large pan, fill up with water and bring to a broil. Let boil 5 minutes, drain. Repeat twice, using fresh water each time.

Cut off the stems of the peppers, cut into halves lengthwise. Remove the seeds and glands.

In a food processor, purée Aji, adding the oil in stages, until the paste reaches the desired consistency. Store in the fridge or freezer.

lemon drop peppers, cooked

Tiradito

(makes plenty for 1 serving of Eggs Perudict)

  • 1 tbsp Aji Amarillo Paste
  • 1 pce Peruvian Lemon Drop pepper, washed, deseeded and finely chopped
  • 1/2 tbsp garlic, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp vegetable or olive oil
  • 1 tbsp lime juice, freshly squeezed
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a small bowl, mix all ingredients into a smooth, not too thin sauce and set aside.

poached eggs on a green bed

Eggs Peru-Dict

(makes 1 serving)

  • 2 handful Arugula, washed and dried
  • 1/2 pce Avocado
  • 1/2 pce Lime
  • 2 eggs
  • 4 tbsp Tiradito
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Arrange the Arugula in the center of a large plate.

Cut Avocado into slices, drizzle Lime on each slice and arrange on the Arugula.

Fill large pan with water and bring to a boil. Crack the eggs open and carefully slide into the water. Cook 2-3 minutes, remove with a slotted spoon and put on paper towel. Carefully pat the eggs dry.

Arrange eggs on top of the Arugula-Avocado nest, pour Aji Amarillo on top. Add salt and pepper to your liking. – Bon appétit!

whole peruvian lemon drop peppers

messy poached eggs with greens