Food or Norse God? 

We went out with some of Matthew's students last week after their last class together. It was a cold night (because winter lasts forever in Tohoku), so oden was in order.

Oden is a winter dish made by simmering ingredients in a dashi stock flavored with soy sauce and other seasonings. Common ingredients are hard-boiled eggs, kamaboko (fish paste), tofu, konnyaku (devil's tongue jelly), bamboo shoots, and slices of daikon radish. At this shop, each ingredient gets cooked in its own little compartment of the stock vat. You choose what you want from the vat, or tell Mama-san to serve up one of everything, and eat it with swipes of spicy mustard from the lip of the dish.

Clockwise from the mustard, we had a hard-boiled egg, konbu-maki (rolled kelp), gobou-maki (burdock root wrapped in fish paste), konnyaku, bamboo shoot, ganmodoki (deep-fried ball of tofu mixed with shredded vegetables and seaweed), kamaboko, and daikon. Oden is great with either sake or beer.
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Inaniwa Udon 

Inaniwa udon is a specialty of neighboring Akita Prefecture. Unlike the more common fat, roundish udon, Inaniwa udon is very thin and flat. It has a very slippery texture, which makes it kind of tricky to eat.
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Amazake is sweet, non-alcoholic, fermented rice. It's served in winter as a traditional hot drink. Nowadays, it's usually made by dissolving kasu — rice pulp filtered out during sake production — in hot water. But "real" amazake is not a by-product of sake production, it's its own fermented product.

Real amazake is less widely available than kasu in stores, but in my opinion, it's a vastly superior product. Although only a few grocery stores seem to have real amazake, many offer packages of moldy rice. Covered with the koji mold needed to make amazake (or sake, for that matter), it's used as a "starter" for making real amazake at home.

So, here's a close-up of the moldy rice we bought last week.

Making the amazake is fairly easy, but takes about 6 or 7 hours. In the end, it was worth it: some of the best amazake we've had!
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Fish on Fridays 

I finish work early on Friday afternoons, during the time that Matthew has a break between classes. We've developed a little ritual going over to the snack shop in the mall and buying a couple of taiyaki.

Taiyaki are filled, baked treats in the shape of a sea bream. They often have a sweet filling, like anko (red bean paste) or pastry cream, although some have savory fillings like sausage and cheese. Today's taiyaki were filled with anko and cream cheese.
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Festival of the Seven Herbs 

Traditionally, January 7 is a significant day in Japan. According to Shinto custom, adopted from ancient Chinese custom, January 7 is jinjitsu (person's day), a day when criminals are spared from punishment. More applicable to the general population, January 7 is also the day of nanakusa no sekku, the Festival of the Seven Herbs. People celebrate nanakusa no sekku by eating nanakusa gayu, rice porridge with seven herbs. It is believed that eating the seven herbs on this day will bring good health and longevity in the upcoming year. It is also believed that eating a light meal of rice porridge and herbs will help settle stomachs troubled by six days of indulging in sake, beer, and osechi ryouri.

There are seven herbs traditionally used in nanakusa gayu, although it seems that what actually gets used depends on what's available in each region. You can buy the traditional seven in packaged sets.

Clockwise from left, the seven herbs are hakobera (chickweed), suzushiro (daikon radish), gogyou (cudweed), nazuna (shepherd's purse), seri (water dropwort, or Japanese parsley), suzuna (turnip), and hotokenoza (nipplewort).

We followed the recipe on the package and put toasted mochi in ours, in addition to the herbs.

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Pie Are Square 

A couple of weeks ago, we visited the local model shop. Usually when we drop by, the owner's wife sets out tea and coffee and we visit for a bit after Matthew's done his shopping. This time, she showed me a holiday edition of a Japanese cooking magazine, which got us to talking about apple pie. She apparently had a pie crust in her freezer, which she tried to give me. I had to refuse, citing our lack of an oven. Matthew had told them that he'd be back in a few days with a visiting train buddy. She likes to give us things, so I wondered whether a pie would be forthcoming.

Sure enough, when Matthew went back on Monday, he received a pie. A Japanese apple pie, that is.

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Serving Suggestion? 

Although we've been here about a year and a half, Japanese packaged foods continue to surprise us. Last night, we made a bowl of ramen that we'd received at a community event a few weeks ago (community events in Japan always involve giveaways of household items). The picture on the package showed some garnishes like scallions, dried bamboo, and a thin slice of cow tongue. Tongue isn't a common ramen accompaniment. We assumed that it represented a serving suggestion and thought the inclusion of tongue kind of odd. The picture made sense, however, when we opened the package and found noodles, soup base, sauce, and a small package of dried garnishes that included . . . a thin slice of cow tongue.
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Sun-drying persimmons are a common sight around Japan in the fall.

People hang the persimmons from a pole for a couple of weeks, until they shrivel and darken. They then store the dried persimmons, called hoshigaki, for snacking on during the winter.
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Kiritanpo Nabe 

Winter has already arrived in Kitakami, which means it's time to start making nabe. Nabe is the Japanese word for cooking pot; the term is also applied to various one-pot dishes like soups, stews, or sukiyaki. One of our favorite nabe comes from Akita Prefecture: kiritanpo nabe.

Kiritanpo is made by mashing cooked rice into a paste, then shaping the paste around a stick and grilling it. Because they get soft rather quickly, they're added to the nabe toward the end of cooking.

Chicken thigh, shirataki (noodles made of devil's tongue jelly), maitake mushrooms, carrots, and seri (Japanese parsley) rounded out the nabe. It was the perfect dish for a frigid, rainy night.

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We attended an event for the local Okinawan joint on Saturday evening. As we were leaving, the owner's sister gave us a dragonfruit that she had grown and brought from Okinawa.

Dragonfruit tastes rather like kiwi, but less tart. They're as pretty on the inside as they are outside. Some are all pink with black seeds; others, like ours, have a thin layer of pink between the skin and white pulp with black seeds

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