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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

 

Reading # 5 – Preserving the Japanese Way

Preserving the Japanese Way

I got this book for my birthday, a couple of months ago, and read it from the first to the last page. Then I put it by my other “canning” books. After my return from Japan last week, this book was the first thing I pulled and put onto my table in order to re read and plan my preserving schedule. At every meal, every market, in each store in Japan I had been mesmerized with the pickle selection. This book not only shows techniques and recipes, it also tells stories and the history, contains many beautiful pictures, and is in depth yet easy to read. I can’t wait to serve my own little pickled side dishes very soon. (By Nancy Singleton Hachisu, Andrews McMeel Publishing.)

Star Stuck

carambola ready to be pickled

I live in Florida. And it’s September. And together, that means Star Fruits. – Not a few, here and there. No, it means loads of them, over and over again.

So we eat Carambola – as this star shaped, deep golden colored fruit also is called -, whole, just as one would eat an apple or pear. We slice it up and let the lovely little stars infuse our water. We cut it into slices, dehydrate it and nibble on star shaped chips. We juice it. We cook it (with the aid of lots of pectin!) into jam. We chop it and make it into salsas and chutneys. We decorate salads or crudité platters with the yellow stars.

And, because even after all of the above there usually still are way too many Carambolas around – I pickle them. I have experimented with different brines and solid partners, and by now stick to red onions as a perfect companion to the Star Fruit, and a simple apple cider vinegar liquid. Pickling Carambola is quick and easy, so I recommend to make the little extra time to take out the seeds. It is not a huge effort, and the result is a very pleasant eating experience.

carambola bounty

carambola

Pickled Star Fruit are most probably not part of any cook book recipe – and therefore mobilize one’s creative juices. They can be added to savory sandwiches or be part of a big mixed salad. They have turned out to be the just perfect companions to specific cheeses. They marry merrily with all kinds of fatty meats and charcuterie (Foie Gras, anybody? Rillettes, Pâtés?). They make baked fish very happy, and simple rice dishes right out fancy – especially when there are some warm spices involved (think curry, turmeric, cumin, coriander, etc.).

Not to mention that they taste fruity and sweet and tart and summery just plain out of the jar. – So, being star stuck isn’t a bad thing after all.

pickled carambola in jars

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Circle of Friends

White Anchovy fillets on toast, with olive

I don’t know what was first, the tiny little pin or the tray of boquerones. I tried to recall, but I really can’t. It could have been both ways around. But then, it doesn’t really matter, after all.

Fact is, that an old Spanish friend once gifted me with a little brooch. It shows a bullfighter and his beast and was given to me so that I always would remember San Fermin, the 9 days long celebration dedicated to the art of bullfighting – and my dear old friend. Fact also is, that I very recently received a tray of beautiful boquerones – Spanish white anchovy filets – from another friend. Both these two presents made me realize that today, July 10, marks the middle of San Fermin. And so I decided to wear my brooch and put the boquerones to good use. Not because of an affinity to bullfighting, no. Because is was in the mood to honor my friends, here and overseas, to let memories float and, yes, to eat well. Which my beloved Spain is all about.

White Anchovy fillets in tray

San fermin bullfighter pin

I prepared two very simple, very quick versions of tapas. For the first one I covered a slice of toasted bread with the boquerones. I did not even bother to dry or drain the fish fillets, but let the olive oil and vinegar – in which they had been resting – slowly mingle with the bread. I added an olive for a new flavor dimension – and for the eye. I served this flat tapa on top of a glass of wine. Which, as a matter of fact, is the very original way and purpose of tapas (meaning: covers).

White Anchovy tapa on wine

Then I made some banderillas. These are tapas that are served on a toothpick or small skewer (the familiarity with the bullfighter’s weapons is pure coincidence, but I like the idea.) They are especially popular in northern Spain. What goes onto the toothpick depends on the region and ones individual taste. Cured meats, canned fish and seafood, potatoes or eggs will do as well as fresh or grilled vegetables, pickled foods and even some sauces to dip the whole thing in. Banderillas are supposed to be eaten in one bite, so the key is to vary and balance textures, flavors and colors. I picked crunchy, sweet red pepper, organic Manchego, buttery olives and the smooth, meaty boquerones. This was seriously good finger food. An edible ode to my circle of friends, in more than one way.

Skewer tapa with olive, cheese, pepper and boquerones

Spicy pickled eggs (or Last minute Holiday gift)

Spicy pickled eggs make for a quick Holiday gift

I love spicy foods. I love pickles and making them. I adore, absolutely adore eggs. And ever since I have had brunch at “The Old Fashioned” in Madison, WI – during the annual conference of the American Cheese Society (ACS) this past August – I am obsessed with spicy pickled eggs. They came as a separately ordered side dish at the restaurant and were divine. (The bold Bloody Mary I drank surely didn’t hurt the euphoric experience.)

Back home I started my quest for the ultimate spicy pickled eggs. I read and recreated some recipes and quickly realized that there only were slight nuances between most. So I decided to set out on my own and come up with my personal favorite version. And so should you!

The first step is to choose your vinegar. I love red wine vinegar for its fine flavors and at first was fascinated by the idea of pink hued eggs. For some reason though I didn’t like the very pale pink on the outside in combination with the white and yellow once I cut the egg in half. So I settled on apple cider vinegar, a staple in my kitchen not only for its round and robust flavor but also for apothecary qualities.

The ingredients that will make the eggs spicy

For the peppers I chose a combination that I hoped would result in a balanced flavor mix: Very hot Habanero, spicy Jalapeno and sweet red Bell pepper. Which turned out to not only add a deep but not numbing heat yet to also look very pretty in combination with the white eggs. The idea for some quick but delicious Holiday gifts was born.

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