Everything Tastes Better in these Handcrafted Japanese Bowls

A bowl of udon

Just like beer tastes better in a proper glass than a can, and cappuccino tastes better in a ceramic cup than a paper cup, it’s no surprise that Japanese noodles taste better served in a proper, handcrafted noodle bowl.

As soon as we received these new donburi (bowls for noodles or rice) from Koito Pottery in Japan, we knew we’d have to give them a try. That night we whipped up some ramen noodles (NOT made from scratch – that is not something that can be whipped up), and it was honestly the best quick-made ramen we had at home. The next day I made some tofu-tamago-toji-don (stir-fried tofu and spinach encapsulated in a fluffly egg-omelette-type thing, served over rice), and again, the bowls somehow turned it into a fancier, tastier version of this rather basic meal.

So yes, these noodle/rice bowls are magic. The blue-black coloring – a unique characteristic of the pottery made by Dai at Koito Pottery – enhances the visual appeal of the food it contains. The not-so-smooth texture gives you a tactile experience of the wabi-sabi concept. Each bowl is one-of-a-kind, a product of a 100% manual process that requires steady, expert hands and decades of experience.

Last night we had some left-over tempura (thanks, mom!) so naturally, we had tempura udon. I was ready to dig in when I remembered at the last second to snap a photo – so let it be known that taking this photo delayed me attacking my bowl of udon! But boy, was it delicious. I don’t know when I can enjoy a hot bowl of udon in Japan, but at least with these bowls, I can have a little taste of Japan at home, anytime I wish.

SUPER Quick and Easy Japanese Cod Roe Pasta Recipe

Japanese Cod Roe Pasta

Japanese Cod Roe Pasta
Japanese Cod Roe Pasta with Nori Seaweed Topping

As a kid and recent immigrant to the US, I remember being teased by a classmate because “you people eat raw meat!” As a kindergartner, I must have been offended by his derogatory tone – but what I remember more clearly is my amazement at how misinformed he was. “Are all Americans this ignorant?,” I wondered.

Thinking about it now, that kid was probably referring to our consumption of raw fish … something that was probably considered barbaric by the average American way back then. But fast forward a few decades … and my bets are on the grown-up, hippy version of that kid being a “woke”, proud, self-proclaimed lover of sushi. I supposed we have come a long way in cultural acceptance, at least in the food – or foodie – sphere.

Cod roe pasta is not something new to the Italian menu, but the Japanese version of it has such a wonderful mix of flavors that it’s become a popular item on the Japanese menu.  Butter and soy sauce is truly a match made in heaven, and the addition of the cod roe elevates the umami to a whole new level. This pasta is incredibly simple to make – yes, you can prepare the sauce while the pasta is boiling – and requires just a handful of ingredients. If you can get your hands on some tarako (Japanese salted cod roe), the flavor-to-effort ratio is off the charts!

Ingredients:

  • One pack of dry spaghetti (1 lb)
  • Two sacks(?) of tarako (Japanese salted pollock roe) – or mentaiko (spicy version)
  • 1/3 Cup milk (I used whole milk)
  • 1 tsp soy sauce
  • 3 Tbsp butter
  • Cut nori (dried seaweed) – optional
  1. Cook the pasta in plenty of salted water – keep it al dente, and reserve some pasta water
  2. While the pasta is cooking, mix the tarako, milk and soy sauce in a small bowl
  3. When the pasta is ready, drain and toss with butter
  4. Mix the tarako sauce into the pasta, add pasta water (1/2 Cup or more, to desired consistency)
  5. Sprinkle with cut nori and enjoy!!

I know it’s only 10am, but I am already looking forward to my lunch …  leftovers!

Kewpie Dolls: A Revelation

Kewpie Dolls in Takayama
Kewpie Dolls at the Miyagawa Morning Market in Takayama

I came across these adorable Kewpie dolls at the Miyagawa Morning Market in Takayama, Japan. The dolls were not handmade, but they were wearing little handmade 浴衣(yukata, or a casual version of the kimono)! When I laid eyes upon them, they immediately brought me back to my childhood – I couldn’t remember if I actually owned one, or they were so pervasive back in the day that I just felt like I owned one. I picked one up and showed it to my soon-to-be three year old daughter, hoping she would show some level of interest, leaving me no option but to indulge in her childish desires. Lucky for me, she obliged.

When my husband asked me what it was, I proudly explained to him that Kewpie dolls come from a famous brand of Japanese mayonnaise, called Kewpie Mayonnaise. It was not until I returned home from Japan that I discovered the real origin of Kewpie dolls…

According to Wikipedia, Kewpie dolls were first produced in Germany, based on a cartoon illustration that appeared in the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1909. So it wasn’t the squeeze-tube mayonnaise that made the Kewpie dolls famous after all! Dang, I hate being wrong. Worse yet, I now have to go back and tell my husband that I was misinformed … or, I can just see if he’ll read this blog post.

Marcopoloni to Donate Proceeds to Japan Relief Efforts

“starting 5pm PDT on April 19, and through midnight PDT on May 8, Marcopoloni will donate 5% of net proceeds from our online sales to the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund through GlobalGiving.org.”

GlobalGiving
Any natural disaster that destroys lives and livelihoods is horrific, but the recent earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Japan hit me really close to home. I was born in Tokyo, and my relatives are all there, living in and around Tokyo. I also have close friends there as well. When the disaster struck, it took us a couple of long worrisome days before we were able to ascertain the whereabouts of our loved ones.

Like many people, I felt like hopping on the next plane to Japan – to hand out supplies, to be a shoulder to cry on, to do anything I can to help. But reality is that the best way to help is by donating to support the folks who are already on the ground doing these things, professionally. So we donated what we could.

But still, I was left with that feeling of wanting to do more.  I felt guilty eating three hot meals a day and sleeping under my down comforter when the people in the shelters were so thankful for the small ration of rice balls and using curtains as make-shift blankets.

Baby Girl Rescued from Tsunami Rubble
This photo made me cry. A baby girl miraculously rescued from the rubble three days after the tsunami.

That is why starting 5pm PDT on April 19, and through midnight PDT on May 8, Marcopoloni will donate 5% of net proceeds from our online sales to the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami Relief Fund through GlobalGiving.org. We are limited in what we can do, but as the Japanese people say, “even dust can amass to become a mountain.” Thank you for helping us help a people in need, and for keeping them in your thoughts and prayers.

What Makes a Good Ramen?

Ramen is a Japanese noodle soup that is a staple of the Japanese diet. Although many non-Japanese will think of the 29¢ (or however much they cost these days) packet of instant bachelor food, true Ramen is an artform, to say the least.

I used to love Ramen because they taste good,without knowing why or caring enough to find out. Then one day, I caught a Japanese documentary on TV that followed one man’s fight to revive his struggling Ramen shop. I never saw a bowl of Ramen the same way again.

This poor man, let’s call him Mr. R, was on the brink of losing his Ramen shop. But  his failure was completely self-induced; he had no respect for his own profession. Walking into his shop one would be greeted by a dark, dingy space, laundry hanging in plain sight, and an almost creepy, unmotivated middle-aged man reading the paper . The TV show then hired one of the top Ramen chefs in Japan (not to be confused with Top-Ramen chefs) to whip Mr. R into shape and help him turn his failing business around.

Mr. R  had to start over from the basics. What particularly struck me was how he would wake up at 3 in the morning to start preparing the dizzying number of raw ingredients that make up the Ramen broth. Then he would return to the shop a couple of hours later to check on the progress of the broth. Finally, after hours of simmering and readjusting, the broth would be ready to be evaluated by the top chef … only to be told it is not worthy of any customer. He had to keep trying , day after day, until he got everything exactly right.

To his credit, Mr. R made a remarkable turn-around … but only after he changed his attitude towards the art of Ramen-making. He went from a lazy bum who was trying to make ramen to make a living, to someone who is passionate about what he does, and who sacrifices his blood, sweat and tears to achieve the perfect bowl of Ramen. His reward would be a thumbs-up from a satisfied customer … something he probably never experienced until that day.

So if you ask me, a good bowl of Ramen is more than the toppings or even the ingredients … it’s Ramen that embodies the spirit of its maker.

Japanese convenience store dessert: mass-made can be handmade

Last night I was watching a Japanese TV program showcasing a wildly popular item sold at a convenience store chain in Japan. It’s a cafe-style roll cake: a ring of fluffy, moist sponge cake loaded with real whipped cream.

Premium Roll Cake

Now, let me take a step back and explain the concept of the konbini, or Japanese convenience store. You can start with an image of your typical neighborhood ampm or 7-11 store … open 24/7 selling snacks and basic sundries. But the similarity stops right there. In a konbini, you can find anything from fresh produce to makeup to bento (lunch) boxes; you can even print photos, ship packages, or pay your bills. And there are a couple of them on every block.

Japanese convenience stores brand their own snacks and other products, so it’s not surprising that one of them has come up with a “premium” dessert to cater to the sophisticated palate of their clientele … what IS surprising is that they decided to tackle the roll cake, the Holy grail of konbini desserts. You see, the roll cake is difficult to mass-produce: from slicing single-serving portions without squishing the creme to making a creme that maintains its light, luscious texture on the shelf, it comes with more than its share of challenges.

But one company has apparently succeeded, and the product has won the Gold Medal at the prestigious Monde Selection  – something like a Nobel Prize for confectionery.

The thing that struck me the most watching this show – asides from how I would love to live within walking distance to a konbini – was that this dessert, sold at one of the top convenience store chains in Japan, is actually made by hand. The cake gets mixed and cut by a machine, but the rest is done manually to achieve optimum quality. Now that is a dessert I would like to try!