Monday, February 14, 2011

Well, This Is Awkward.

 Valentine's Day is actually a thing in Japan, though with a twist: it's the day when women give men chocolates. I know. A month later, we have White Day (why stop at one made up holiday?), when men give women chocolates and/or gifts. The problem is that the Valentine's stuff is clearly more interesting, particularly since white chocolate abounds for White Day, and I am not so into it. Plus, it gives men the upper hand--if you already know what her gift is, say, a month in advance, then you can match it without worry. No risk of going overboard or looking cheap. Even though girlfriends might score some goodies, wives routinely get ripped off, which is just wrong. Call it a cultural difference if you want to, but when a woman is denied gifts of chocolate, I call that oppression.

I like the idea of conversation hearts, but not the taste. So I made these awkward conversation heart cookies. I feel like they would actually be helpful in some situations. Although in some cases, you are going to need a much bigger cookie.

And now some uncomfortable moments brought to you by the sweets aisle at the convenience store.

Where to begin. They are actually kind of a cookie coated with a Nestle-crunch-type chocolate. The Crunky bar is basically crispy rice and milk chocolate, and I think the name is meant to suggest crunchiness, as opposed to Mary J. Blige's "Doesn't matter if you're white or black/Let's get crunked 'cause Mary's back." But what the unfortunate choice of "Nude" is meant to tell us, I have no idea.

Speaking of racial politics. That's a chocolate melon pan-- a sweet-crusted bun--that shows through the package as a fro. (Oh, and for a great poem about Afros, check this out.) I actually think there should be more Black Power snacks.  And this one is so Mod Squad. And tasty. What bothers me is the idea of eating something that doubles as hair on the package. See what I mean? Awkward.

Friday, February 11, 2011

They Are Not Playing Around at the New Mitsukoshi

Lurid piles of kimchee and other Korean delights at the new Mitsukoshi
Department store basements in Tokyo are a cornucopia of yumminess from all over--iterations of foreign and Japanese foods spill forth from the stalls, many of which change week to week. The hawkers (upscale hawkers with nice clean aprons, mind you) often ply one with samples on little plates or proffered toothpicks. Mitsukoshi, that famous department store at the main intersection in Ginza, has incredible "depachika" floors, as they are known (depa= department, chika=underground), and may forever ruin your enjoyment of weekend samples of frozen taquitos at Costco. The new Mitsukoshi branch is just around the corner from the original, and is something like a Death Star--not a real planet, but capable of tremendous things.

About those samples: I am powerless before them. Note the little cups of picks in the lower left corner of the kimchee photo. This is a system that relies equally upon honor and an assumed sense of personal shame. Sometimes this stymies me--how many varieties of pickles, or chocolate, or ham, for example, can one nibble at one stall before one is obligated to either purchase something or slink away? Luckily, I have plenty of experience feeding my feelings, so when I get nervous, I just buy something tasty. 

Mom's favorite--satsuma-age--mild, fluffy fish cakes. These here are made with onion and bacon.
More fried goodness: shimeji mushrooms and pumpkin.
And yet, the sample is a double-edged sword. Or toothpick. Because you also need to be strong in the face of samples you do not want. That whole thing about the Japanese being non-aggressive falls apart here. You don't colonize half of Asia without being a little pushy, folks. Once, when snacking my way through a depa-chika with a Canadian friend, I was presented with a stewed grasshopper on a toothpick. The little old lady had jammed the toothpick in my hand saying, "Inago! Oishii!" At that time, I knew oishii meant tasty, but the very important noun before it--not so much. It was almost in my mouth before I realized what it was. I couldn't insult the lady, and I was not about to back down in front of a Canadian. The grasshopper was not bad, after all--something like the small, sharp-shelled shrimp cooked in heavy soy sauce and sugar for new year's--but I didn't feel the need to bring any home.
Italian delicacies, including breaded cutlets and tripe
Ham and cheese rolled up, breaded, and fried. The Professor calls this "haute trailer."
Nothing beats a bag full of depa-chika treats when you don't feel like cooking. It's a game changer, since all the delights you are never going to cook at home (deep frying? whole duck on a hook?) suddenly become options for a weeknight. 
Char-siu pork and roast Chinese duck
Um, those are huge sushi rolls wrapped in plump, succulent, cooked and shelled crab legs.
The gentleman above is working in a plexiglass booth, like a culinary David Blaine, but not creepy. This draws a crowd now and then, since rolling up those massive crab futo-maki is a feat. It's engrossing watching someone truly skilled up close. I once stood in a supermarket with a crowd of housewives watching a whole tuna being filleted with what could only be called a sword. Now that was a show.

A sandwich shop's open-faced display case
Spicy ham and cheese baked in french bread
Over-specialization is not a problem for me. The shop below deals only in sweet potatoes, which are displayed on a bed of hot stones in a glass case. Some are yellow and chestnutty inside, and some, native to Okinawa, are a crazy, bright purple.  They sell them baked, or in the form of puddings, yokkan (blocks of pureed bean or potato cooked with sugar), and tiny, dense cakes that are moist like cheesecake, but even less Atkins friendly.
Yakimo! A high-end display of the baked sweet potatoes often sold from trucks.
Sweet potato confections
When it comes to pastry, French is king in Japan (sorry, Italy and Austria). And like so many things, Japan has taken the refinements and the presentation and run with them, sometimes surpassing the original. (Sorry, France.) The little individual cakes, puddings, and tarts are like jewels under glass. Pretty, pretty, pretty. Who could not feel joy looking at all those little pastel macaroons? Of course they get a Japanese twist, with flavors like green tea and yuzu citron. Watching Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, which was a huge hit with the ladies here, it occurred to me that a life spent eating colorful desserts and trying on endless pairs of shoes might actually be enough to make me happy. In that moment, I knew the depths of my shallowness. Thanks a lot, Sofia.

Meringues! Mont blanc! Strawberries and spongecake!
Let them eat macaroons! You know, the whole "let them eat cake" thing was only mean because she didn't actually come through with the cake. Seriously, a basket of muffins. Something.
Double-cream puffs with whipped cream and airy custard; delicate roll cakes filled with fruit and cream