24 October 2012

A Japanese take on salads.

I love having people visit. I love the company; I love seeing the usually-far-away faces sitting in my living room drinking coffee; I love the special tingly feeling I get in my stomach to know people care so much as to fly across the world to come and see Amos and me. Ah, it gets me, guys, right to my core.

Perhaps what I love most of all is showing people Japan. The way people line up for the subways. The izakayas full of salary men. The fabulousness of Japanese ramen. The efficiency and ease of the Shinkansen. The green soft mountains that somehow look exactly as I pictured them before we moved here. The watermelons that cost $35 and the pearl headbands that also have (pearl) cat ears attached.

When I have visitors, I get excited about Japan all over again. I re-fall in love with matcha and daikon, with department stores and their asiles of mini-sized kitchenware, with the bento boxes and fake eyelashes, with the fish markets, and the Alps, and the fall leaves. It wakes me up from the monotony of living here and reminds me: Dude, you live here.

Sometimes visitors stump me. They ask questions that I used to ask and have since forgotten. They innocently wonder where to get such-and-such, or, wow, don't I miss this-or-that. Suddenly, I'll have a hankering for those things, which is unfortunate since I usually can't get this-or-that over here, and such-and-such requires a 6km bike ride and is five times the price it is back home. (I'm looking at you, peanut butter.)

The thing is, I don't want to fight Japanese food. I don't want to spend all my time wishing I could have a, b, and c, instead of really appreciating the x, y, and z that exist here (I'm looking at you, sashimi grade tuna). I've jumped into Japanese cooking, with miso and mirin in the cupboard, and I'll grown to love things like onigiri and wasabi peas.

But then, these delightful visitors of mine, they ask these innocent questions. About apples. And salads. And once these ideas are planted in my brain, they are oh-so-hard to get out. Which is explain why I went on a wild goose chase for apples this week. Crisp, tart, fall-has-arrived apples, and I needed them to be less than $4 each.

It took a couple days and a fair amount of kilometers logged on my bike, but I've found them. (At this point, let me officially profess my love for the Lawson 100 Yen shop. It's kind of like the dollar store, but so much better.) Not quite as tart or crisp as I'd like, but perfect for Apple Ginger Carrot soup I had for lunch yesterday and a yet-to-be-made coffee cake. I now feel poised to officially welcome in the fall season.

Then there are the salads. My dear friend Emily, a semi-pesco vegetarian who doesn't really like fish and to whom soy gives a mildly upset stomach, innocently asked about salads. The big, hearty, an-entire-meal-in-one-dish salads that are one of the best things to come out of of American cuisine.

In this country of extremely healthy, trim folk, salads seem surprising scarse. Vegetables are juillined into miso soups, lightly pickled as a garnish, or tempura'd next to white fish. All of these are all -- frankly -- delicious, but none has the uumph of a robust salad. One dish meals aren't very Japanese. One dish meals full of raw vegetables seem even less Japanese. I used to hunt for them when we first arrived in Nagoya, then I slowly stopped.... right until Emily planted that seed in ma' brain. It went something like this: salad. salad. salad. apple. salad. salad. salad. apple. salad. salad.

My little Sun Ace grocery store has lettuce, but it never looks that good. I've gotten it before, sure, but it always tastes a little watery. I dunno. The cabbage, however? Fresh. Cheap. The bean sprouts? Stocked every time I'm there. Carrots? Giant and plentiful. Green onions? Oh so many, and some are even pre-washed and chopped for you. Yes, please.

I combined all of this with my newest obsession of soba noodles. (Seriously. I am eating them about 3 times a week. Poor Amos.)

I threw them together, and Amos had regular soba noodles with a bit of cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, and the like. I, on the other hand, had cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, and the like with a bit of soba noodles thrown in on the side. Soba salad. BAM. Look at me go.

A couple days later, I was flipping through my newest cookbook and came upon -- you guessed it -- a soba noodle salad. It had chicken in it, which sounded pretty good, and red cabbage instead of green, but it seemed pretty similar to mine.

Just like that, I felt very legitimized. Soba Noodle Salad! It's a thing!

It's what we ate last week. It's what I'm eating for lunch today. I made my friends eat soba noodles about five times during the two weeks they were here, and -- for that -- I hope they forgive me. The soba salad seems a way to keep the my salad itch scratched while really enjoying the food that's available here.  I know that whenever we end up back in the States, I'll be well and good until someone mentions something deliciously Japanese (miso! okra! persimmons!) and I'll be off on another wild goose chase. Just wait for it.

Soba Noodle Salad

8 ounces soba noodles
2 blocks fried tofu (my way) or 2 chicken breasts (Real Simple's way)
3 Tbsp rice vinegar
3 Tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp freshly grated ginger
1 tsp mirin
Squeeze of siracha, wasabi, or shake of red pepper flakes
2 cups cabbage, thinly sliced (I like a mix of red and green. Fancy!)
1/4 cup scallions
1 1/2 cup julienned crunchy vegetables, such as carrots, cucumbers (with seeds scooped out), bean sprouts, radishes, or bell peppers

Cook the soba noodles according to the package directions. Mine package directions are in Japanese, so it's a guessing game of what looks right and what I think the pictures are trying to convey. Basically, bring a (unsalted) pot of water up to a boil. Gently drop in the soba noodles and press down with a pair of chopsticks (Japanese cooking, yo! Get into it!). Cook at a gentle simmer (not a roiling boil) for 6-7 minutes. Drain the noodles and fill the pot back up with cold water. Dump the noodles in and stick your hands in there to wash the noodles. Rub each noodle in the cold water to remove any extra starch. Surprisingly this makes a big difference, so don't skip this step. Drain the noodles again, and give them a final wash in running water. 

If you're using the tofu, slice it up finely and reheat in the oven for about 5 minutes while your soba is cooking. If you're cooking chicken, put some olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Wait a tick, then add the chicken. Cook until each side is golden brown and the chicken is cooked through. Remove for heat, wait another tick, then slice into strips. 

In a small bowl (or mug, if you're classy and low on dishes), mix the vinegar, soy sauce, and ginger. Sometimes I add some wasabi or hot sauce to this. Taste it as you go along and adjust. It's pretty hard to screw up.

Spread it all out on the counter, and go to town. I'm a fan of more cabbage, less soba, and Amos is the opposite. Add the dressing on top and mix it all together. If you round out the meal with a cold Sapporo or some sake, you have my blessing.

Serves 4-ish.

13 October 2012

traveling (so... brb)

I forgot to mention that I'd have friends in town... And that I'd be taking them around Japan for two weeks... And that I'd not have time to write much. To be fair, they are very good friends and we are having a very good time. I'll be back 'round these here parts soon.

In case you missed it, I was up on east side bride last week, dishing out travel advice on Japan. Dude, you should probably go read it.

To new readers: Hello! Welcome! Yay! 
To those who left such sweet and thoughtful comments: You made me feel very special. Thank you. 
To those who are new expats and a bit lost and lonely: It gets better, okay? I promise.

03 October 2012

Downsides of Expat Life :: Saying Goodbye

Photo © of Flannery O'Kafka via Lapin & Me

I lived abroad once before. It was during my junior year of college, and I studied in Seville, Spain. The program was short but intensive: I lived with a host family, worked at an internship, attended classes, and was completely immersed in español. It was chaotic and overwhelming and did not involve the copious amounts of lounging around drinking Spanish wine and coffee that I had previously imagined. (That was disappointing.) Part of me would do it again in a heartbeat. Part of me wants to throw up just thinking about it. Quiero vomitar.

I was not naive enough to think these two experiences -- living abroad and studying abroad -- would be that relatable. It's apples and oranges. (Errr, maybe more like oranges and grapefruits?). I had no Japanese 101 (or 102, or 204, or 303) to fall back on. Unlike romance languages, I had no lifetime of exposure to Japanese to draw upon once we landed. I couldn't even read! But living abroad, we have relocation assistance, corporate support, a Vonage phone line, our own apartment. No one insists or expects that we speak Japanese for every single interaction. I don't have to call home from a pay phone with an international calling card, and I'm not limited to internet access from a computer cafe (Ouff, dating myself much here?). In Nagoya, our home is ours, meaning Amos is with me and not across the ocean like he was last time. We also are making money this go-round, as opposed to the 'take-a-loan-and-worry-about-it-later' strategy I employed during college. On a probably related note, I have drank more Spanish wine and ate more tapas here than I ever did in Spain. The Japanese seem to have an affection for Spanish food, and I am making. up. for. lost. time.

Living abroad is, in many ways, much easier than my study abroad experience, but there is one thing that was simpler before: friendships. Amigos. ともだち. Everyone in my program arrived at the same time and met in the hotel. Everyone was overly-eager to make friends; everyone was in similar states of overwhelmedness, shock, and excitement. (I know 'overwhelmedness' isn't a word, but it should be, so go with it.) We went through all the adjustments of moving abroad together. We had class together, our internships together, we took weekend trips together. We lived in the same neighborhoods. At the end of our program, we all left within hours of each other.

Life here is so different. Very, very few people are on the same part of their journey. Not everybody gets here at the same time, or with the same company; no one's assignment is the same length, and, heartbreakingly, no one leaves at the same time. While I knew that on paper, it was a different beast to confront in person.  During my first week here, I went to lunch with a fun group of women. Some had been here months, some years. Some were getting ready to move to another international assignment, others to begin repatriation. My newly minted expat soul was crushed when I learned one would be leaving next week, one within six weeks, and another within two months. "Are you kidding me?" I wanted to ask. "But I just GOT here."

It was really hard not to future trip. I wanted to close myself off and ask everyone "How long are you here for? Longer than me? Okay good, we can be friends then."

(I didn't do this, but I really wanted to. I also didn't know anyone, so I decided to STFU and just make some friends already.)

It almost got harder as I made close friends. I've met wonderful people, only to have to bid goodbye to them while I am still living here, with months upon months left on our contract. Our assignment will end before others' and they will have to say goodbye to me. At the end of these teary Sayonara Parties is the daunting task of making new friends: inviting new people to coffee, to get drinks, to grab lunch. You have to psych yourself up to once again push through the initially awkward small talk so you can one day fall into the easy rhythm of friendly conversation. There is the thing you want to do (bitch about it, spend hours on Facebook, become increasingly bitter) and then there is the thing you need to do (call friends still here, invite new people out, brush your teeth). You have to work to keep your heart and spirit perpetually open to people as they pass in and out. Imagine a really, really crowded hallway. People are going to pass you by. Sometimes they walk with you a bit, sometimes they don't. Hmmm... that's not the best analogy. Maybe I should use a revolving door instead? Or a sushi conveyor belt to bring it back to Japan? No, that doesn't make any sense. Oh, screw it. You know what I mean. People come, people go. Everyone is on a different schedule. It sucks.

September was a daunting month, with a very good friend leaving on September 1st and another on September 30th. It reinforced that this is a part of life here, a trade-off to the tapas, Spanish wine, and language support that I enjoy on this go round. "Relax, man," I tell myself, tapping my inner Rastafarian."There are people in front of you that aren't gone yet." There's nothing to do but lean into the temporariness of the situation; dwelling over when everyone is going to leave only ruins the lunch that you are having with them right now.

In a way, carpe diem seems to hold more weight the older we get, the more 'established' our lives become. I remind myself that this is living life on life's terms, and to be present and grateful, which I think means making (uneasy) peace with the revolving door/crowded hallway/sushi conveyor belt. And wine. Lots of Spanish wine.
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