Saturday, May 5, 2012

Gastronomic Adventures Around Japan

Strawberry picking
Lots of life-y things have been happening lately. That's good, since it feels like all I've been doing is worksleepworksleepcookworksleepblogworkworkwork. I'd prefer more cooking and blogging in there vs the working aspect, but c'est la vie, right? While I don't have a recipe for you in this post, I DO have lots and lots of pictures of yummy food and cultural things and pretty flowers!

My awesome OB/GYN friend Carolyn must have been a travel agent in a previous life. She very may well moonlight as one here in Okinawa, because holy cannoli that girl knows where everything is and how to get there! It's very much a skill I wish I possessed. She and her dog Sammy go on adventure drives often and find the coolest things that I would never have thought existed here. 

I must explain to you non-Okinawa dwellers: since things here are usually not in English, sometimes it's hard to branch out of our "English bubble" of things that are written in English. There is a website we reference here often called OkinawaHai! which is a complete lifesaver because it's basically user reviews of places people have tried out, with pictures, menus and directions. It's great, but limited to places people have been to, more often than not within the English bubble.

Anyway, Carolyn found this place where you can pick your own strawberries- right off the vine! I have fond memories of this activity from Travis' time in southern California- we picked probably 2 pounds and I made quite possibly the most amazing strawberry jam in the universe. So naturally I was super excited about making more fresh strawberry jam. We got to the strawberry farm, which turned out to be a hydroponic operation (pretty cool!) but due to the language barrier it took about 15 minutes to figure out we were not allowed to take the strawberries OUT of the picking area.... it was an all you can eat type of thing. Only in Japan! It was still a lot of fun- they had strict instructions on which ones we were allowed to pick- only the most very red and ripe- and they gave us a small paper envelope for the stems.  I just wish I had not eaten breakfast beforehand!!
Anniversary cake

April 25 was our 3 year wedding anniversary. It's not only a special day because it's the day we got married, but exactly one year before the wedding, we got engaged, so it's particularly sentimental for me. Due to our jobs and never having lived in the same city prior to moving to Okinawa (5 years long distance, baby! I do not recommend it...) and we tried out a new restaurant last year which turned out to be awful food, I wanted the celebration to be as special as the day meant to me. Through word of mouth from colleagues, I found a woman on island who makes and decorates these beautiful cakes. It was pricey, but considering I just switched back to nights and only had the energy for a boxed cake mix, it was worth it. Chocolate on the bottom, carrot cake on the top, two of the 5 flavors we had at our wedding. It was slightly overkill for the two of us, but made for a special moment on our day. We even got to exchange and unwrap presents-- together, face to face, on the day of the celebration-- basically a Jordyn-Travis relationship first considering our long distance/having to work or be deployed on many holidays. The normality of it all was wonderful, albeit a little strange!

Cherry blossoms in Hiroshima
Travis and I were also fortunate enough to take advantage of a three day weekend and travel to Hiroshima for a short vacation. I had gone back in October with a couple close girlfriends, and it was absolutely wonderful, so I wanted to share the beauty of mainland Japan with Travis too. We went at the perfect time- just after the cherry blossom festival so we avoided the crowds but right before the blossoms dropped, so I got some nice pictures. The weather was crisp and cool and wonderful.

Cherry blossoms in Hiroshima 
A-bomb dome
At a flower festival on Hiroshima
Cherry blossoms on Miyajima Island
Oysters on Miyajima Island
One of the famous side trips from the city of Hiroshima is Miyajima island. You probably have seen the pictures of the famous torii, where the currently standing one has been in place since the late 1800's. It's a magical place- really it is. Quiet, quaint, picturesque- they have sacred deer wandering freely all over the place, and are also famous for a sponge like cake/cookie with different flavored fillings inside. A staple there is also their freshly caught and grilled oysters, which Travis happy enjoyed. I do not care for the texture so I was happy to take pictures of them.

Okonomiyaki with raw egg and udon noodles 
Besides the A-bomb stuff, Hiroshima is also famous for their okonomiyaki, a griddle pancake full of yummy stuff. The word actually translates to "as you like it" meaning you can basically have whatever you want plus the kitchen sink in it. There are okonomiyaki shops all over the city, and we went to some of the oldest and most famous ones while we were there, eating the pancakes every evening for dinner, since they each taste slightly different. The "pancake" part is basically a savory crepe, with cabbage, soba or udon noodles, a bbq like sauce, another pancake, bacon, eggs, green onion and and various toppings all layered throughout. You can basically get anything- fish, squid, octopus, pork, kimchee, mayonnaise, cheese- the list goes on.

The ones in Hiroshima are different than the Osaka okonomiyaki because there the ingredients are all mixed together, whereas in Hiroshima they are layered like a lasagna. Above was Travis' okonomiyaki with a raw egg and udon noodles. I did not want a raw egg so I got garlic chips and soba, which is thinner than udon. It has a more spaghetti like flavor to it, where as udon is more flour-y, if that makes sense. Both noodles are good, but Travis and I agreed that the soba held up better inside the pancake. Neither of us were able to finish our pancakes, as they are literally the size of an American dinner plate!! You are given a small metal spatula with which to cut the okonomiyaki, and otherwise you eat it with chopsticks, of course. Managing all of those ingredients can be quite interesting with only two thin pieces of wood....

Okonomiyaki with garlic chips and soba noodles
Inside view of the Okonomiyaki
Beginning stages of the Okonomiyaki
Kobe beef
On our last day in Hiroshima we were slightly A-bombed out, since that's a big focus in the city, so we decided to take the bullet train back to Kobe, where we were catching our flight back to Okinawa. We were able to have a (rather expensive) lunch there that included REAL KOBE BEEF! It's been something we have wanted to try for a very long time, so decided to bite the bullet on the price and go for it. Oh. My. Goodness. It was worth every cent!! Our total bill for the two of us came out to around 12,000 yen, which translates to $150. I tell you, it was worth it. We were not asked how we'd like the steaks cooked, and our salads were literally shoved out from in front of us once the meat was ready. The chefs there take the beef very, very seriously. It came to us sizzling on a cast iron skillet with garlic pieces, onion slices and potato. I often have trouble with beef in Japan because you can't exactly cut them into smaller pieces with chopsticks without looking like a complete idiot, and I like really small bites of food- don't ask, I don't know why, it's just a thing I have. 

Y'all.... I did not even need to worry about that with this beef. I took a small bite of the end of my chopstick and it literally fell off itself. It melted, that's how tender this beef was. Being a medium to medium-well steak person, (Travis tells me this means I like my steak "burned") I let the residual heat of the skillet continue cooking the beef ever so slightly so it was not moo-ing anymore, but it was so good I ate every last bite, not really caring how rare it was cooked. I left that restaurant so very stuffed, and it was completely worth it.

Park-wherever-you-want Okinawa
This was the sight we experienced when we found our car in the parking garage in Okinawa. They really do park anywhere they want.... I hope you enjoyed the stories of my gastronomic adventures lately. Next post will be back to normal recipes that I've made. I promise!!

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