28 March, 2007

Products of the Week: Shodoshima Olive Oil and Black Olives

I bought this fairly expensive Extra Virgin Olive oil on my trip to Shodoshima, and having eaten it almost every day since, I can tell you it's excellent. Worth the price for flavouring foods or in salad dressings, or to dip bread in.

The cans of black olives are fairly small, but reasonably priced and bursting with delicious kalamata flavour. Called simply "Black Olives" on the can, these are as good as any I've tasted.

And though they may not be extremely cheap at about 270 yen a can, you won't need too many of them to satisfy your craving or flavour a dish. Best news of all (and this is for you 6810, if you're still around) they are available on the Toyo Olive company website for online ordering.

I'm short on time now, but recipes using these products will be here soon. In the meantime, feel free to experiment.

18 March, 2007

Olives and Herbs

You see Shodoshima long before you reach it. As you enter the harbour at Kusakabe you can see a mountain ring rising all around you from the blue water. Surrounded by mountains and with a minimum of concrete buildings on the waterfront, you have the first hint that this may be the place you were looking for in Japan, one relatively unspoiled by rampant building. Suddenly you see cars approaching the port at a pace that says highway and realize that this place is completely settled. It will not be wild in the sense that some of the smaller islands are, with more overgrowth and old houses than big roads. You remind yourself that there is a thriving tourist industry here, although the ferry is sparsely populated with cars and people at this time of year.

Driving out of the ferry you see the usual town sights, but isn't there a bit more relaxation in the air? Islanders seem to be walking and driving just that tiny bit slower than those on Shikoku. On the road to Takamatsu, you have been surprised at a woman on a bicycle with a big unexplained smile on her face. It makes you realize that spontaneous smiling is very rare. But here on Shodoshima you expect smiles, even if they are your own. Because there is open space, natural softwood and pine and scrub forests instead of planted sugi (Japanese cedar), rising toothy mountains the colour of early spring, all soft browns and maroons and tarry greens, and there is the blue sparkling sea on the left, as you move away from the town in search of the origin of the Japanese olive.

I don't know much of the history of olive growing in Japan. What I do know has been gleaned from a few websites. I know that olives were planted in several places, but they only thrived here in the area known as the "Japanese Mediterranean". That is principally Shodoshima, but olives also grow on the facing coast of Okayama prefecture, in Ushimado. There they grow mainly on a hillside facing the sea, just underneath the Okayama Villa, where non-Japanese and their guests can stay very cheaply. This villa is architect-designed and offers sea views, a kind of better-grade hostel. There's a kitchen where you can cook, too. And what you might want to be cooking is something with olives. But Ushimado doesn't offer any large stores, so you had better bring supplies with you.

In Shodoshima olives grow everywhere in people's yards, but a visitor can see them principally in the "Olive Park". It's a controlled hillside, Japanese to the core in its use of Greek-replicate buildings. There's a big concrete statue of a grindstone, presumably used to grind the olives and extract the oil. I can't find much out on this trip because there's no one to ask, and I would need a lot of translation. Only the gift shop and herb greenhouse seem to be open. But there is the beautiful gray-green colour and sensuous textures of the olive leaves against the sky, and there is the whole open hillside with few people; the air tastes fresh and there is no ash or mold or thickness to it. It is fluid, like good olive oil pouring out of a carafe and it has some of the same tang.

And fake-Greek or not, it is beautiful here. Things have been done with attention to colour and space. Nothing is crowded. The white buildings look wonderful next to the green olive trees, and blue sky and the sparkling sea is visible from almost everywhere. I am starting to relax kinks that I didn't even know I had grown. I remember that this always happens to me when I get to a forest or an open space in Japan. It's as if my whole body is sighing with relief. Here, at least, is a small sanctuary.

There is a garden where you can see examples of some of the varieties of olive trees they are growing. Plaques give the names and though I'm no expert, I notice that they are growing one of my favourites, Kalamata olives.

Farther up the hillside, there is a new area of planting, with rows of small olive bushes. I notice that the soil is sandy and a bit dry. When I walk down the rows and come to the outdoor herb garden I begin to be amazed at the varieties I see. And they are all very very healthy. When I pinch small leaves off and rub them between my fingers the scents are strong and bright, much more intense than I've experienced anywhere. There's Rose geranium with a heady perfume, different varieties of lavenders and sages, each with a distinctive scent.

When I've finished wandering around outside there is a large green house full of starter plants to buy. It is full of light and there are large Rosemary plants in full flower, covered with thousands of tiny purple blossoms. There is peppermint, spearmint, apple mint and even cat mint, though I passed that up, thanks, since I've already got the smell from a few Tom cats visiting my back garden. There's an intense Mexican sage, that I can't imagine using in cooking unless it was in a very spicy sauce. I found a delicate chervil plant, and bought seeds for spicy Rocket and Sweet Basil. A small Chamomile plant in early bloom, I bought just for its appley summer scent. And I bought a small peppermint to replace those that were in my garden, but burned up in the summer sun 2 years ago. Okay, I'll stop now, but perhaps you've figured out that I am passionate about herbs and that this was one of my favourite places in Japan.

After looking around and smelling to my heart's content, I bought a few things at the shop. I got some extra-virgin and pure olive oils and some cans of black olives to try. There were no testers so I was a little reluctant to get too much without tasting. Then I and my friend ended the visit at the cafe upstairs with a relaxing cup of herb tea. Mine was "Olive Fantasy" with just a hint of olive tang and cool peppermint. It was delicious.

Apparently Shodoshima also produces a famous soy sauce. On the boat going back, next to our car was the shiniest silver tanker truck I had ever seen. My companion told me it was a soy sauce truck. It was so clean and shiny that I thought they must have some junior employee polishing it every day. Unfortunately, a little sleepy from the trip back, I didn't get a picture. The boat is very comfortable and the seats are really cushy arm chairs that even recline if you like. So with the vibration from the engines, its easy to fall asleep.

I loved my trip to Shodoshima. But my stay was a bit too short. I wanted to find out more about olive oil growing and production, but I will have to do a bit of research and find out where the Toyo company (the name on the bottles of olives I bought) is and if I can get a look at it. But I will welcome any excuse to go back. In fact, I hated to leave it. I haven't seen even half of the island. Apparently, there is a beautiful gorge to hike.

And I want to see olives on the trees next time.

17 March, 2007

Spicy Carrot Soup

On a rather infrequent visit to the nearest town with a bookstore with an English section of any size, I picked up the latest edition of Kansai Time Out. Skimming through I found not one but three vegetarian-friendly soup recipes that can be made without stock. Stock is usually the sticking point for vegetarians as its often made with meat or fish. Vegetable stock is very possible, but it's on my list of things to learn to do. So I was really happy to see a recipe for carrot soup that seemed just right to start off a Sunday morning before a trip. I'm going to Shodoshima Island today in hopes of tracking down the elusive Japanese olive. I'll try to get some pictures, though I doubt now is the season for olives on the trees. Still, I'm excited.

To calm the belly and add just the right amount of filling comfort to a Sunday morning, try my adaptation. I used finely chopped dry coconut soaked in hot water for a bit more of a mealy texture, but the recipe would be made smoother, and creamier, if you use the canned coconut milk. I also used a dried chili pepper which I toasted in the oil first and then pureed with about 2/3 of the soup.

Carrot Soup for a Sunday Morning
adapted from Spiced Carrot Soup in "The Great Restorer", by Aidan O'Connor

500 g carrots thinly sliced
2 small or 1 large onion thinly sliced
2-3 cloves garlic chopped
1 2-3 cm piece of ginger, cut in matchsticks
1 dry red chili pepper
2 Tb oil
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp turmeric powder
1 can coconut milk or a few cups of dry coconut and soaking water
water as needed
parsley to garnish

In a large pan, heat the oil. (I used my lovely blue-as-the-sky enameled wok from Paul Bocuse, but any largish soup pot or wok would work.) Toast the seeds and garlic in the oil for about a minute, then add the sliced onions and cook a few more minutes until they are a bit brown and carmelized. Add carrots and turmeric and lower the heat. At this point, season with a sprinkle of sea salt and some freshly ground pepper, but not too much. You can adjust the seasoning at the end. Here you just want to imbue the vegetables with some flavour. I believe in layering the seasoning as I've found the cooking-in adds something special. Stir around, adding about a quarter cup of water to start the cooking. Add a bit more water if it evaporates, just to lubricate things. After about 10 minutes of cooking and stirring, add the coconut milk and water as needed to make a thickish soup. Simmer until the carrots are tender and turn off the heat. When its cool enough, put in the food processor in batches and puree to the degree you like. I pureed about 2/3 and left some chunky onions and carrots because I love texture. You might like it smooth. Add salt and pepper to your taste and serve warm garnished with a bit of parsley, if you have it. I think a bit of grated fresh ginger on top might also add a bright flavour.

09 March, 2007

Product of the Week: Peppermint Extract

Peppermint smells so good that I almost like washing the dishes. I add about a teaspoon to my dishwashing liquid, just for the pleasure of reminding myself of Peppermint Patties, Christmas candy canes, and somehow even the summer beach breezes of childhood. I love peppermint. I love peppermint tea, and peppermint candies. I even love peppermint soda.

Not to drink, though I probably might like that too, but as a natural cleaner and deodorizer for the kitchen. Good old baking soda, put in a bowl and sprinkled with about a teaspoon of peppermint extract. I stir it around with a fork and put it in a washed jar. It makes a glorious cleaner for anything stainless steel, like sinks or kettles, or porcelain. Just shake it on, moisten with water or a bit of dishwashing liquid and scrub clean. Rinse well to a natural shine.

You can put a bit, in an open jar or cup, in a cupboard or the refrigerator to absorb odours just like regular baking soda. And you can sprinkle it on a cutting board to absorb odour overnight.

You can put water, plain alcohol, or white vinegar into a spray bottle with a teaspoon of extract and use it for a bathroom or room spray. It's much better than those nasty-smelling aerosals.

In Japan everyone uses car deoderizers. I taught my students to make natural ones by moistening a cotton ball in peppermint or vanilla extract and putting it in a small jar or baggie, open in the car. You can refresh it with more essence, a new cotton ball as needed. About a hundredth of the price and about a hundred times as nice.

Shhh. Don't tell the Body Shop but you can make your own Peppermint foot cream. Just add a few drops to a regular creamy body lotion. And baking soda, on it's own, without the peppermint, makes the perfect face exfoliating scrub.

Where did I get my love of peppermint? Maybe from my grandmother who used to slip me one or two peppermints from her purse during those long church services, or who kept a big bag of the white pillowy old-fashioned ones with the powdery coating somewhere in her house. It was my job to find them and liberate one or two, occasionally, though I usually asked.

I got the inspiration for most of these peppermint goodies from a great book by Karen Logan,“Clean House, Clean Planet”, which has a lot more suggestions for natural cleaners. You can get it from Tengu Natural Foods online, or maybe try a search from Amazon.co.jp. I promise you it is money well spent because you can save a lot not buying regular cleaners, not the least of which is your health. All those commercial ones can irritate your lungs, and just sitting in the kitchen they outgas into your breathing space.

Where do I get the peppermint extract? I've been ordering the organic one, called Flavororganics, from Tengu Natural foods. It's wonderful, and though pricey, lasts a long time. You could use the regular one from the cake section of your grocery. Either way, it will make your home, whether it's a tiny apaato or a larger mansion, smell sweet and maybe add a little lift to your dish washing. If it's organic, and put into organic dish washing liquid, like mine, so much better for the planet and the health of us all.

(I forgot to mention that giant size bags of Arm and Hammer baking soda are available for a reasonable cost from The Flying Pig.com and if you're not in Japan, try the nearest bulk store.) People in Japan, see my Shopping list for links to online shops where you can get everything.

05 March, 2007

Kanji Shopping List

Here's a simple food kanji list I made from 6810's post and a few kanji I looked up. If there are any mistakes, and there well might be, they are mine. Please leave a comment if you see anything needing correction of if you have any additions. I've made this in the form of a table. It's intended to be a list that you can print and put it in your pocket or bag to take with you to the store. There's a bit of room at the end to write in anything of your own. It may not be perfect, but at least it's a starting point for vegetarian shopping.

Another note; I was not able to upload the table as an image file. In fact, I had to cut and copy and some of the things shifted a bit.I had to take out the colour coding. If anyone knows how to upload tables to Blogger and can give me some instructions, I'd be grateful.

Food Ingredients Kanji

shio – salt

乳糖 ;

nyuutou/lactose ; rakutoosu -
derived from milk


satou - sugar

tamago - eggs


mizuame – glucose syrup


tamago - eggs


aminosan /MSG/hydrolysed protein


tamago - eggs

鶏肉; チキン

toriniku; chikin – chicken


konbu – kelp, seaweed


chikin ekisu – chicken extract


konbu - kelp, seaweed


gyuuniku – beef

mame - beans

ビーフ エス

bifu ekisu – beef extract


komugiko – wheat


pooku ekisu – pork extract


raimugiko – rye flour


butaniku – pork/pigmeat


oomugi - barley


hamu – ham


oomugi - barley


bekon – bacon


ootomiiru - oatmeal

sakana – fish

黄粉; 黄な 粉; きなこ

soy flour; kinako - toasted soy flour

; かつお

katsuo;katsuo dashi/ fish soup stock

海老 ; えび

ebi – shrimp


shurimpu – shrimp (in katakana)


gyuunyuu – milk


chouseibunnyuu–modified milk



dasshinyuu/dasshifunnyuu – skim

milk powder


katoufunnyuu – sweetened milk



zenshifunnyuu – whole milk powder


oei - whey (milk)


chiizu – cheese

01 March, 2007


My first experiments with herbs must have been when I was about 12 or 13 and got inspired by something I had seen, maybe by watching Graham Kerr galloping through his kitchen or perhaps a picture in a teen magazine. It was a glowing golden vision of airy delight, tenderly folded onto a plate and decorated with a bit of parsley, perhaps. As exciting gastronomy, it was perhaps not perfectly qualified, but in the tiny village where I grew up, it seemed to promise a whiff of the kitchens of Paris, fancy hotels of New York, or even more fascinating, chefs whose arcane magic whirled up bowls of batter and sauces that levitated onto plates of gold, and were eaten by the exciting and literate while they spoke of cabbages and kings.

With my head full of visions I set out to reinvent the omelette. I say re-invent because my house was a house of no cookooks, and my town a town of no bookstores. The only library was the school library and we were likely to find nothing more exciting there than collections of Romantic poets, falling apart at the seams, or maybe a single copy of the latest Nancy Drew. So with only an idea of what I was going to make and no directions to make it, I began the first of many experiments, feeling my way towards that omelette heaven I imagined. I burned a lot of eggs, so much so that my mother called them my "kitchen messes". Every one was a disappointment. I expected airy delight but all I got was the taste of ....eggs. So I tried whipping the egg whites, shaking the pan, scrambling the heck out of them, wooden spoon, metal fork, different size pans, everything I could think of. I quickly discovered I needed a small pan and that a few eggs, no more than three, were best. I don't remember how long it took me to understand that the pan had to be very hot and that there should be a mixture of butter and oil, or oil alone and that there had to be enough to encourage the eggs to puff up when they were put in, the exact degree of breaking up the eggs that was needed, and how to dance the eggs around in the pan. It wasn't a waltz, more of a tango.

I do remember learning how long to cook them before folding in the filling and that the mushrooms needed to be sauteed before they went into the centre of the just slightly runny eggs. Somewhere I discovered that good seasoning and a bit of parsley, basil or fresh sage made the flavour sing. I discovered heating the plates to keep the omelette from deflating before we could get our mouths 'round it. And I learned that lifting the edges of the omelette, so that the uncooked eggs would run underneath, led to an even and well-shaped result. It took me a good few years to learn everything, and I must have picked up hints from cooking shows and cookbooks along the way. Today food art is everywhere. We can see famous chefs cooking on TV, cookbooks are as handy as online shopping, and food blogs abound. There is no longer the thrill of imagining omelettes in the air. But still, there is the thrill and love of discovering new tastes that seem to carry the romance of entire countries and continents with them.

And there is still the thrill of cooking and eating a now airy and delicious, golden omelette.

Take a small steel or non-stick pan; the ones especially made for omelettes are the best. If you keep this pan for omelettes only, then it will always give good results, but if you have to share it, then make sure it is really clean and wipe it out with a little oil just to make sure.

Beat up your eggs with a fork, two or three medium or large should do. Don't overdo it, you just want to combine the eggs so they look almost uniform in colour. Add a few tablespoons of olive oil to the pan until the bottom is covered well. Heat the oil until it is hot but not smoking. Throw in the eggs and as soon as they begin to puff around the edges, start to lift them with a spoon or fork and tilt the pan so that the uncooked eggs run out to the sides and start to cook. Do that all around until the centre of the omelette is just a bit moist.

If you are using a filling such as mushrooms and herbs, or a mixture of cooked onions, garlic, chopped tomatoes, peppers and basil, have it already cooked and waiting and slide a likely amount in a fat line on the centre of the omelette. If it's cheese then have it grated. Fold the omelette over once, about a third of the diameter from the top down, and then slide it onto a warmed plate, folding again onto the plate, so that the two sides are folded under and you have a rounded top. Garnish with whatever herbs you like, and some people even like to gild it with a small pat of butter. Herb butter is sensational.

It's also good plain, eaten fresh and hot, sprinkled with just a little sea salt and freshly ground pepper.