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Portugese Patterns

portuguese tiles

ceramic tile

Portugal has been one of those few European countries to which for some reason both my husband and myself never had been to. We had often been very close by, in Spain, we had seen pictures, heard recounts and read articles though. According to them, every pore and place of this history laden little country sounded fantastic, and a few weeks back we finally decided to go see for ourselves and travel to Portugal.

What a great decision this was! Even though our expectations were high, we did not get disappointed in any way. The cities are charmful and pictuesque, full of art and beauty stories, the villages and landscapes ever changing, rural and genuine. There’s colors and gardens and architectural styles, orchards and green spaces and traditions. The people act calm, friendly and helpful towards strangers, and seem like a happy and serene bunch between themselves.


vineyards in the duoro

And the food, oh the glorious food, is an entire story on its own. Portugese food is down to earth and does, what food first and foremost used to be and (at least there, how refreshing to witness) still is intended to do: It nourishes. Both the body and the soul, and abundantly so. There is little Froufrou in Portugese food, and much honesty. Animals and plants are used in their entiety. So one will get served pig ears instead of just the loin, turnip greens instead of just turnip, or tiny, whole fishes, eyes, fins and all. Continue reading “Portugese Patterns” »

(Homage to Japan, #4) Signed Up

japanese sign to protect peoples head

When I traveled in Japan for the first time, 25 years ago, I was impressed – and annoyed – by the many, many signs I didn’t understand. I kept on wondering what it would take to learn this obviously very complex language, and realized how intensely I dislike to be dependent.

instruction sign for purification before entering temple

instructions on how to work in fishing restaurant

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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.


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, #2) When Renunciation results in Brilliance


buckwheat harvester

Eating out in Japan lets one realize – in the tastiest way possible – that limitation does not have to lead into dreariness, and renunciation indeed can result in pure brilliance.

There are no “something for everyone” restaurants in Japan. You won’t find a place that serves both sushi and noodles, or nabe and bbq, or curry plus pizza, for that matter. Restaurants focus on one type of food (preparation). So if you are in the mood for table side cooked food you will go to a place where each guest sits in front of an individual little wood burning oven and combines, cooks, mixes and matches his or her foods at each’s own pace. And every one around you will do the very same. If you step into a Teppan Yaki house, each single guest in there will be eating Teppan Yaki as well. The only menu handed out usually is the list of drinks.

soba broth, assembled

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Liebesbrief an Za’atar


(This post is a contribution to tierfreitag, a website and ever growing collection of articles by the Austrian food journalist and author Katharina Seiser. The German name of her site, tierfreitag, has two meanings: “Animal Friday”, but also “the day on which animals are off” (the duty to serve us as food, that is). Seiser invites people to – on Fridays – either post (in German language, please) animal free recipes (with no substitutes!) or descriptions of farms and concepts that treat animals in a respectful and above average way.- For your convenience, this article was posted in in Englisch earlier today. So just scroll down to read it in English. Thanks for your support and interest. And thank you for tierfreitag, Katharina. It is a great source of information and inspiration.)


za'atar herb for same named dip

Za’atar, liebster Za’atar, warum habe ich Dich nicht früher kennen gelernt?

Ich habe mir diese Frage vor ein paar Wochen gestellt, als ich Za’atar, wie so oft, begegnete und meine warmen Gefühle ganz plötzlich wieder aufflammten. Zum ersten mal getroffen hatten wir uns vor etwas mehr als vier Jahren, als mein Sohn einen dicken Bund des Krautes nach Hause brachte. Seine sanft-grüne Erscheinung, die samtige Oberfläche, der exotische Geruch sowie sein ungewöhnlich süsser, ein ganz klein wenig betäubender Geschmack übermannten mich auf der Stelle. Ich war verliebt, Hals über Kopf.

Seither hat sich unsere Beziehung als ruhige und stabile erwiesen. Wir tun nicht alles und jedes zusammen, teilen jedoch viele gemeinsame Interessen, und respektieren gegenseitig, dass jeder von uns Zeit und Raum für sich braucht. Und immer mal wieder zwischendurch, schmeissen wir eine zünftige Party. Za’atar hat über die Jahre für grossartige Fleisch-Marinaden gesorgt, überraschende Suppen kreiert, fantastische Fisch-Gerichte und zahllose unvergessliche Aha-Momente provoziert. Ja, wir leben heiter und zufrieden miteinander.

all ingredients for za'atar condiment

Oder taten das, genauer genommen, bis ich Za’atar’s andere Seite kennen lernte. Himmel! Ich verliebte mich erneut, als ob es nicht bereits geschehen wäre. Und dieses Mal sogar noch heftiger! Za’atar, warum konntest Du Dich mir nicht von Anfang an in Deiner Gesamtheit offenbaren? Wir könnten mittlerweile so viel mehr wertvolle Erinnerungen miteinander teilen. Du bietest so viel mehr als das Kraut, das ich in Dir lediglich zu sehen pflegte. – Nun, ich weiss jetzt mehr. Und werde Dich deshalb in all Deiner Komplexität und Schönheit geniessen. Viel bewusster als bisher, zweifellos.

Za’atar ist nicht nur der Name eines Krautes – das zur Oregano Familie gehört, interessanterweise in Arabisch jedoch Thymian bedeutet -, es ist auch die Bezeichnung einer Gewürzmischung, welche im Nahen und Mittleren Osten verbreitet ist. Za atar setzt sich grundsätzlich aus Sesam-Samen, Sumach-Pulver, Oregano und Salz zusammen. Natürlich existieren schier zahllose regionale Varianten, in denen auch mal gemahlener Kreuz-Kümmel, Thymian, Marjoram,  Koriander, Baumnüsse oder Zimt-Pulver vorkommen können. Za’atar wird üblicherweise als Dip genossen: Serviert mit einer Schale Olivenöl und geschnittenem Brot, das erst im Öl getunkt und mit dem hernach die trockene Mischung aufgenommen wird. Za’atar kann aber auch über Hummus und andere Aufstriche, Suppen, Salate, Yoghurt oder Labneh gestreut werden. Oder auf einen dünnen, salzigen Teig, um eine Art Foccacia oder hauchdünne, würzige Plätzchen zu backen. Die eigenartige Mischung kann unzähligen Gerichten eine zusätzliche Dimension von Konsistenz, Ausschauen, Geruch und Geschmack verleihen. Spielen erwünscht!

za'atar and pita bread and oil

Da ich den richtigen Za’atar eben erst entdeckt habe, halte ich mich (jedenfalls für den Moment) and eine simple Version: Ich röste Sesam-Samen, verwende Sumach – ein Pulver, das aus der tief roten Beere des Sumach-Baumes (verwandt mit dem Cashew-Nuss-Baum) gewonnen wird, und gleichzeitig sauer, erdig und sehr fruchtig schmeckt -, und ein grobes Meer-Salz. Und natürlich ersetze ich den Oregano mit Za’atar (dem Kraut). Ich meine, der ist mein bester Freund uns stiller Liebhaber, seit Jahren nun, und tummelt sich dauernd in meiner Küche rum. Er gehört ganz schlicht in mein Za’atar. Und nun, da ich ihn in seiner vollen Pracht kenne, endlich, werde ich auch mutiger werden und mehr Neues mit ihm ausprobieren.

Ja, mein geliebter Za’atar, ich bin glücklich Dir mitzteilen, dass ich die Selbst-Vorwürfe aufgegeben habe. Es bringt nichts, nach hinten zu schauen und böse zu sein, dass wir uns nicht eher getroffen haben. Ich liebe Dich, innigst, und das ist alles, was zählt. Geniessen wir einander, jetzt und immer!

za'atar, ready to be dipped

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