Beyond Sushi and Tempura

Every 5 years, an adult delegation from Cupertino visits Toyokawa, Japan for a week, as part of their sister city program. Cupertino and Toyokawa have been sister cities for nearly thirty years and have an ongoing student exchange program each year.
Last year my husband and I were fortunate to be part of the Cupertino delegation to visit Toyokawa. All delegation members stay with local host families and experience the real taste of life in Japan.

We stayed with our host family. Masaru and Kimiko Shirai and their son Yuzuru for a week. Armed with our ‘Japanese to English’ dictionary and a small vocabulary of Hai (yes) and Nei (No), we were apprehensive as to how we would communicate with Masaru and Kimiko. Luckily they could talk English quite well with some help from their dictionary. We soon realized that one does not have to be fluent in the language to have lot of fun; we all could laugh without an accent. After all, hand gestures are a very effective tool of conversation too.

The efficient city staff of Toyokawa City Hall planned the daily activities for all the delegates. It varied from meeting with the mayor, visiting the council, attending the tea ceremony, to the touring of the Toyota factory. The evenings and weekend was to spend time with the host family.

Masaru and Kimiko opened their home and heart for us and made us a part of the family. Every evening we all cooked together. Kimiko is an excellent cook and I watched her whip up a wonderful breakfast and dinner every day. We were keen to eat the local foods and requested Kimiko to make traditional dishes. The challenge that I gave Kimiko was to make the meal vegetarian! Homemade Japanese food is very refreshing, tasty and healthy There is definitely more to Japanese cuisine than Sushi, tempura and teriyaki chicken. A couple of nights I took upon the challenge of cooking an Indian meal for them with the spices and ingredients that were available in their kitchen! I managed to spice the meal with ginger, garlic and black pepper.

Often we tagged along with the Shirais to the grocery stores and farmers market. The Japanese green market reminded me of the vegetable market in India. Fresh organic seasonal produce, vibrant in color, flavor and were picture perfect. I was surprised to see the Japanese radish was that was gigantic in size and deep purple in color, very different from the one we see in India or American markets.

The first day I was apprehensive to eat rice and Miso soup for breakfast. With the first spoonful of Miso soup and I fell in love with it. The next day I could not wait to slurp on the Miso soup for breakfast. Miso soup is the soul food of Japanese cuisine. It is basically a brothy soup with miso paste and tofu cubes. The base of the soup is made from Dashi (a mix of kelp (sea weed) and bonito (small fish) Kimiko made a different miso soup everyday. she varied the ingredients in the soup with Shitake mushrooms, green onions vegetable greens, fried tofu or silken tofu

Toshiharu and Uriko Okajima, a good friend of Shirai invited us for a luncheon on the weekend in their mountain top house. The view from the house was breath taking and special food that we all cooked together was very traditional food called as Goya Mochi.

The rice was cooked in a rice cooker and while hot, it is pounded with a four inch diameter wooden rod for 10 minutes till it becomes a gelatinous pulp. It is then molded into Popsicle shape with a wet towel, and stuck on a skewer. This rice Popsicle is then barbequed for 5 minutes. Just before serving a special sauce of dark miso paste and walnut powder is then applied to the rice stick. I insisted that an addition of a spoonful of chili paste to the barbeque sauce would give it a unique taste. At first they were hesitant, but after tasting it they were fascinated with the chili-miso combination. It was a fine blend of Japanese cuisine and Indian chili.

Masaru took us to a world festival, which is similar to the wine festival here. It was an outdoor event and it was very cold and raining. The delicious hot food served at the festival compensated for the cold weather and rain. A warm sweet rice soup, Amazake is very similar to the Indian kheer, but the spice added was ginger slices instead of cardamom. There were the popular rice ball sticks, Dango, which had generous coating of miso sauce. The rice flour is cooked in water and steamed; the dough is then made into small marble shaped balls and skewered together on a stick, and finally roasted on a grill for 5 minutes. A special miso sauce is applied to the rice ball before eating.

It was a culinary feast when we ate at the Shirai’s favorite restaurant Kokisan, which Kimiko affectionately called as her ‘other kitchen’. The chef Mr. Kurachi and his mother have a vegetable patch next to the restaurant where they grow the seasonal vegetables. Vegetables are picked from the yard before cooking. Mr Kurachi cooks it right in front of you on giant sizzling hot griddle, which is embedded into the countertop. . We all sit around it and enjoy the fresh food cooked on it. He made a scrumptious veggie-egg pancake, Okonomeyaki , an egg and green onion crepe, Tamagomaki. Mr Kurachi served a very interesting dessert, Yalciimo. Sweet potato was peeled and sliced into one-inch diameter discs. It was then placed on the iron griddle for 4 minutes on each side. It was served with a drizzle of honey and pinch of salt sprinkled on top.

The meals I enjoyed in Toyokawa have been etched in my memory forever. The weeklong stay gave me a glimpse of the rich and varied cuisine of Japan. Thanks to the sister city program of Cupertino and Toyokawa. I have a twin sister, Kimiko in Japan. We both have same personality, height and built. ( Just ignore the blessed bulge around the waist on one of us).

The trip to Toyokawa was enlightening, enriching and rewarding experience and a realization that there are more similarities than differences between cultures of the world.

Vegetarian MIso Soup

To make the soup vegetarian I have omitted dashi mix, and replaced it with an extra spoonful of miso paste and tomato chili sauce

5 cups water
3 tablespoon miso paste
1 cup shitake mushrooms, sliced
1 cup spinach or bok choy, sliced
½ cup green onions, sliced
½ cup silken tofu, cubed
1 teaspoon tomato-chili sauce

Bring the water to a boil and add mushrooms, spinach, and tofu cubes.
Boil for 3-4 minutes.
Remove from heat and keep aside.
Add miso paste to a ½ cup of water and make a smooth puree. Add this puree with tomato chili sauce to the vegetable broth. Stir well and serve piping hot with green onion sprinkled on top

Hema’s Hints: Do not boil the soup after adding miso paste.

Kimiko’s special

One night Kimiko decided to create a special seaweed snack for us. I think it is wonderful alternative to chips

4 seaweeds, cut into 2 inch pieces
½ teapoon oil
½ teaspoon chili flakes

In a pan add oil and add seaweeds and remove it within a 30 seconds.
The seaweed becomes crisp . Place it on a plate and sprinkle chili flakes on it. Enjoy !!

Stirfry Greens ( Kimiko style)

I loved Kimiko’s simple style of cooking greens.

½ teaspoon sesame oil
1 bunch of mustard green or spinach, washed
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted , and slightly crushed
In a wok heat oil and add greens. Stir fry on high heat for two minutes.
Add soy sauce and sugar and place it on the bowl. Finally garnish sesame seeds over .

Hema’s Hints:

This vegetables was served for breakfast with miso soup and sticky rice.

Sweet Potato Surprise

2 sweet potatoes, peeled
1 tablespoon honey
6-8 walnuts, toasted and chopped

Chop sweet potatoes into two inch cubes. Place it in the baking pan and bake at 325 degrees for 35 minutes

Drizzle honey over the roasted sweet potatoes and sprinkle walnuts on top.