24 October, 2007


Making tea doesn't require a sharp mind, but it does require a few things. Attention to the quality of ingredients, water, fire to heat it up to the right temperature, choosing the brewing time you prefer, balancing the quantities of tea and water, and then drinking it in the short time before it gets cold.

That requires you to be in the present moment. Ready to drink and receptive to the tea's poetry. You sip, you meditate and look out the window at the mist rising off the sea beyond, or chat with your companion about the flavour, whether you want sugar, milk, or lemon, small talk about food, or the garden, things you see around the room. This is the time to talk about the pattern of the wallpaper, not about the mortgage, this relaxing time after the work of eating is done.

Of course you can do a lot more. Japan has made a science and art of the tea ceremony. If you live here awhile, you realize that the tea ceremony is more about "oughts" and the ritual of the dance of tea rather than merely about the quality of the drink. The flowers are as important as the tea. The decoration and choice of vessels is as important. Comportment and ability to turn the bowl so that the front faces away from the server, and then back again after drinking are important. The choice of guests, and the order of serving them is important. Measuring the tea on its tiny bamboo stick, and even the direction of stirring it are of considerable importance. Even the slight snobbery of the idea of "look at us all being cultural" with its undertones of mutual congratulation is a factor. Yet.

Tea can be made on a campfire in a tin pot. It can be drunk from plastic camping cups during a breakfast that raises the spirits and the body temperature so that people can un-stiff the kinks in bodies and minds grown accustomed to rolling out of a monster orthopedic kingdom and flicking a switch on the coffeemaker on their way to the shower. It can be as good, or better from that plastic cup, because tea ministers to the spirit as the spirit requires. And we all know fresh air, and getting closer to our natural animal habitat makes us feel more alive, and that invigorates appetite. Even unwillingly.

Tea is good for the spirit. It is almost unreservedly offered here if you visit a home or office. Offering tea is a gesture of welcome, and does indeed succeed brilliantly at that even when the product is virtually undrinkable. For a tea cup in the hand has the power to relax us under the most stressful of conditions. Perhaps it is the warmth of our hands around the cup, as much as our slow sipping of the liquid, that reminds us of our first nourishment. Perhaps it is that tea is offered in times of stress as a comfort. "Let's sit down for a cup of tea" provides a spot of refuge, a chance to change pace and focus on the physical, remind ourselves that we are alive, and while so, should appreciate these moments.

Apart from the tea itself, which is available in Japan in thousands of variations, where it may be appreciated more than any other country on earth, water is the thing that tea needs to be right. The water in Kagawa is not all that tasty. It is certainly chlorinated, though not so heavily as that I have tasted in the bigger cities.

Because it doesn't taste good I grew into the habit of drinking bottled water, along with millions of Japanese. Water from France, or even other parts of Japan tasted reliably better and fresher. Because there are drink machines on every corner, it was easy to buy a bottle or choose from a half dozen varieties of bottled teas. I believe that teas here actually outsell soft drinks like colas.

But usually I've made my tea at home from tap water, which is more palatable after being boiled. I think some of the chlorination must be released by boiling. The tea is not bad. Nor wonderful.

Recently I discovered that drinking tap water is better for the environment than bottled water. It made a lot of sense to me that flying water from France would not be as environmentally-friendly as water from the local catchment. I also learned that tap water may even be safer since it is more regulated than bottled water. Bottled waters don't have to say what's in them. With a little effort you can discover the quality of the local water by contacting your local government. Since that's a little difficult for me here with the advanced Japanese it would require, I have taken to filtering my water, using a Brita filter. The tea has improved.

I often make tea to take to work rather than buying from the machines. If you want to do that, and are new to green tea, here is how I do it. If you make a pot for breakfast and let half of it cool, you will be able to bottle it up before you leave near lunch time. I do use an old PET bottle, washing in between, because it is the lightest for me to carry on the trains. I figure it is pretty safe for the few hours the drink remains in it before I drink it. You might like a thermos, if you travel by car or bicycle.

I bought myself a Japanese teapot with the screen that fits inside the rim and holds the tea leaves. Filtered water is boiled and allowed to cool for a moment, if it's loose green tea, sencha, that you are making. You don't want to "scald" the tea. Use a good tablespoon of tea per cup of water and one for the pot. After sitting for about 30 seconds you can start to pour it, or leave it to steep for a few minutes if you like a darker, more bitter brew, higher in anti-oxidants. In any case, when it's as you like it, you simply remove the screen holding the tea. You can let it drain on a saucer and then put it directly in the compost or garbage. No teabags to waste or add off-flavour.

Enjoying locally-grown tea is not only environmentally sound but it makes a satisfying basis for a snack. Here we often eat small sweet-bean jam filled cakes called manju with the tea which cuts the slight bitterness perfectly. Beautifully-shaped into fruits and blossoms of the season and decorated with small coloured leaves at this time of year, they are food for the eyes as well as the stomach. With or without ceremony, in community or alone, tea is a lovely celebration of being alive.

Autumn manju with white bean paste and chestnuts.

And if you're feeling in need of a little extra healing or want to aid digestion, try this spicy recipe for Healing tea, my version of Yogi tea, which is also great but a lot more expensive.

Healing Tea

1/8 cup dried lemongrass (or try a stick of fresh if you can get it, chopped and crushed)
1-2 sticks or a small handful of cinnamon stick shards (Mine are from Indojin.com.)
1-1 1/2 tsp black peppercorns, crushed
2 inches (5 cm) piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
4 cups of water, filtered or plain

Take a small saucepan. Into the pot put the dried lemongrass and the cinnamon. Take out your suribachi or a mortar and pestle and break up a teaspoon or so of black peppercorns. Put them into the pot with thin-ish slices of the peeled fresh ginger. Cover with about 4 cups of water, bring barely to a boil and simmer on low for a few minutes, around 2-5. Pour the liquid through a strainer into a tea pot and enjoy as many cups as you like. Be well and happy!

14 October, 2007

5 Simple Things Even I Can Do

Snapshots throughout the post are from today's Sunday Market. (Click to enlarge.)

I had planned a post about reusing and re-cycling ideas but decided it might be better to simplify a bit, get down to the nitty-gritty of things since there will be a whole lot of us bloggers posting on the environment for Blog Action Day today, and you just might like to read a few of them. I know I will be reading as many as I can.

This is first time I have have participated in Blog Action Day, since this is my first year of blogging. I find I'm really excited. Being from that now somewhat faded generation known as "the flower children" I find more than a bit of joy in returning to my youth-driven ideals through re-discovering vegetarianism and trying to educate myself to be a better citizen of Earth. It's fun, I tell you. I feel joy in discovery every day and that's something that feels brand new, no matter how many years between those days and this. A lot of that I credit to the inspiration and learning from reading so many of your blogs. I feel inspired when I see people who care enough to live thoughtfully and share those thoughts with me and the world through their generous gift of blogging. Let me take this time to thank you all for that. It feels great to be doing this together, all 14oo81 of us, as of the time I write this.

Tonight I was watching the Discovery channel and happened to see a documentary on the great heat waves that hit Chicago in the 1990s and Paris and much of Europe in 2003. I was shocked to see that about 50, 000 people had died from nothing more than getting too hot and not being able to cool down their body temperatures. Politicians didn't help, mostly ignoring the problem until it was too late. Since then, they have put some warning measures in place, but they predict that these kind of heat waves will only increase as the planet warms up. I don't think we can depend on political will to protect us from disasters.

It's pretty hard to ignore this problem if you live in Japan where summer temperatures in the cities now routinely top 40 degrees. This year we had record high temperatures here and the summer was so long and hot that most people were starting to become bone weary of it by September. And it killed some of the elderly and physically weaker or disadvantaged of us. It does every year. That's truly sad.

For those of us it doesn't kill, it drains our energy, defeats our appetites, muddles thinking and takes the joy out of exercise, being outdoors, or doing much of anything at all. For me it makes concentrating on delivering a lesson a challenge, while sweat streams down my face and body. I spent most of July and August teaching with a sweat towel draped around my neck. And this year the ex-Prime Minister, Mr. Abe, (at least I think it was his idea) suggested that businesses turn down their air conditioning and workers wear lighter clothing. A good idea in theory, but in practicality it meant bosses felt free to turn off the air conditioning and allow us to cook in our own juices, not exactly the kind of culinary event that I usually enjoy.

To get back to the point, and to cut myself off before this becomes a book, when a book is not called for, I'll just say that I've decided to make a list of five suggestions of simple things I (or anyone) can do if we want to start to take a few steps to halt the runaway heat. Easy steps that may lead on to others. Every good thing has a beginning. Today might be the perfect day to do that.

1. Shop at a farmers market.

You'll reap the benefits of better flavour and the prices are great. Everything is healthier because it's fresher and full of vitamins. You can meet your neighbours, support local farms and keep the farmland in use, and inspire yourself with the great panorama of the living and edible art you see to make yourself some delicious food.

2. Buy organic food.

Whenever you can buy organic produce and other staples because it will add to the health of you and your family since you will be eating fewer pesticides and artificial hormones. You will also encourage more farmers to go organic, and add to the health of the soil and water we all drink, add diversity to our food supply, and if you believe in karma, I'm sure reduce your lifetimes by a few hundred . :) You can help finance the extra cost of this by also shopping at farmer's markets.

3. Drink tap water.

We've all become addicted to bottled water but as many people are starting to recognize, tap water is better regulated than bottled water, hasn't travelled halfway around the world burning fuel to get to you, and isn't bottled in that modern scourge of landfills, the almost indestructible PET bottle. I've switched to tap water, filtered with a Brita filter (which I recycle) since the local water doesn't taste very good. The filtered water does.

I have almost eliminated my use of PET bottles, and this recycling day I had none to put out. By making and bottling my own tea and coffee to take to work I have been saving around 4000-5000 yen a month!

4. Hang up your clothes to dry.

If you live in Japan this is a given, because almost everyone already does this. We have wonderful little carousels with attached clothespins that maximize the laundry you can put out in a small space, like on a balcony. Outside clothes smell much better (assuming you don't live in a congested city) and the electricity we save by doing this must be considerable.

5. Carry a cloth or other re-usable shopping bag and refuse all plastic ones.

I know many people already do this, but many still don't. In Japan we are literally drowned in these bags. And they're put around things which are already wrapped in cello packs or other packages. It's easy to fold up a used grocery bag and fit it in your purse. If you drive a car you can keep a few bags in there.

09 October, 2007

Homemade Sauerkraut!

A few days ago I wrote about sauerkraut and how it was a staple of meals at my mother's table. She always made it in a stew pot with spare ribs, so that the smoky flavour blended into the sauerkraut and added some tang to the meal. It was a traditional Nova Scotian meal that "grew on you". I don't think it was any child's favourite, but we seemed to grow into our appreciation of it, until long after we had left home, we were happy to see it on the menu on any visit back.

I'm years away from that meal, both in space, since I'm in Japan now, and in diet, because I don't now eat meat. But I do remember the goodness of the sauerkraut and mashed potatoes, which might have been my favourite part of the meal anyway. We always gilded the mashed potatoes, made fluffy and dry in our family, with a small pat of good butter. Melting on top of the mound of potatoes, with a good share of pepper sifted on, and paired with the tangy 'kraut, it made satisfying eating.

Since I hadn't eaten sauerkraut in a few years, I decided it was a taste long overdue. And felitiously I discovered a recipe for home-made sauerkraut in the Wild Fermentation book I got recently. If any of you in Japan want it, it's available from Amazon.co.jp. I recommend this book if you are at all interested in wonderful alchemy of fermentation. You can make everything from idlis to soy yogurt to sauerkraut with the pointers that Sandor Elix Katz has in it. It's lots of fun to experiment and you may think you've hit culinary gold when you see how easy it is to make many of these recipes.

When I read that sauerkraut needed nothing more than cabbage and salt, and a jar to make it in, I thought that it would be the perfect food to make here in Japan. Sauerkraut can sometimes be obtained canned through some of the imported food providers, but it's not that cheap, and it's shipped a long way, so why add to the planet's carbon and pay all that money when it's so easy to make?

In order to try out my first batch of sauerkraut, I went shopping at the farmers market and bought a likely-looking new cabbage. The regular kind, not the milder "curly" one, as I thought that would give the best flavour. I got it for a mere 100 yen from the table of one of my regular farmers.

I peeled off a few of the outer leaves and then shredded one whole small cabbage with my chef's knife. Not that hard. As I went I lightly salted the layers of cabbage in a bowl with organic sea salt. I think any salt will work and hear that rock salt is sometimes used by the professional makers who seal the kraut up into barrels. I continued shredding until the cabbage was all used up and then used my clean hands to mix the salt and cabbage well.

What to put it in? Enter the large glass mason jars with hinged lids that I was using for storage. I got a few at the Hyakku-en shop a while back for keeping things like flour and rice in. They were each 100 yen, or less than 1 American, and now Canadian, dollar. Big and sturdy, 1 and 1/2 quart size. So into my glorious glass jar I packed the kraut, by hand, pushing it well down into the jar, actually tamping it down, and then weighted the whole thing down with a lid with a cup of water on top. I used a small plastic lid and a disposable cup filled with water, which fit inside the mouth of the jar and under the lid, which I left open overnight, covered with a tea towel.

The next day I checked the level of the water that had been released from the cabbage and topped it up with filtered water (plain water will work too) and re-weighted it. The level of the water was enough to cover the cabbage. I snapped the lid closed, covered it with a tea towel and waited.

When I checked the next day, the water level had gone down, absorbed by somewhat dry cabbage. I topped it up, and from then on checked once in awhile to make sure the sauerkraut was below the level of the liquid. Occasionally, curious, I opened the lid and smelled or tasted a tiny bit. One week and two days later I had edible and very tasty sauerkraut, which I wasted no time in cooking up and eating with a nice bowl of mashed potatoes, improved by a bit of pepper and a small drizzle of olive oil. The sauerkraut was just a tiny bit crunchy. It wasn't Tancook sauerkraut but it was good, and darn comforting to boot.

If you are like me, in Japan or anywhere where sauerkraut may be scarce, try whipping up a batch. It's still warm in Japan now, so the sauerkraut won't take that long to develop. Expect a longer waiting time if you're in a cooler place. But it's easy, and once you put it up in the jar, there's not much to be done but to wait and enjoy.

Homemade Sauerkraut (about 4-6 cups)

Remove the outer tough or discoloured leaves from a firm head of cabbage.

Quarter the head and shred it into the size you like, removing the core if you like.

As you put the cabbage into a big bowl sprinkle salt on the layers (about 2-3 Tb in all).

Use clean hands to mix the salt and cabbage well and pack it into a large non-metal jar.

Tamp it down with your hands or a spoon and add a weight.

Cover the jar with a tea towel to keep out insects and dirt. You can tuck it around and under the jar and put it on a shelf.

The next day check the liquid level and add water as needed to cover the cabbage. Shut the lid.

Check the next day and do the same. From then on there should be enough liquid.

Watch the sauerkraut and taste and smell it until it's developed the sour smell and flavour you like. (Make sure the cabbage remains submerged to prevent discolouration and mold.)


04 October, 2007

Blog Action Day -- October 15!

Watch this video for Blog Action Day and join bloggers around the world to post, read, or discuss The Environment on October 15th.

Vegetable Japan invites you to post up your best ideas for reducing, re-using, or recycling in support of the environment. You can start any time from now until October 15th and I'll post them on that day. Together we can make a difference!

01 October, 2007

Poppy Seed Sourdough No-Wheat

I like bread. I like sourdough in bread. It gives a smoothness to the dough and a nice mellow flavour. I think it helps out gluten -free breads. Gluten-free sourdough breads have a flavour reminiscent of traditional breads. And that's what we ex-wheat lovers are aiming for in our breads, taste and texture approaching traditional breads. Just without the wheat that will make us sick.

For the past two months I've been experimenting with sourdough in breads from Bette Hagman's Bread book, because I wanted to start with breads that I knew would have a good structure, and then improvise on that. After trying out several batches of about four of the breads, I've some up with one that I'd like to share with you. This one approaches the most closely to a traditional wheat taste, the texture is nice and open, and the crumb dry, not too cake-y. If you want to roll up your sleeves and start a batch of sourdough that you can keep around in the fridge for baking, I suggest that this one is one you might like to try.

Unfortunately it doesn't photograph that well, and I'm no expert, so I have edited the photo a bit so that the texture more closely resembles the original.

When I was a full-time homemaker, living in Labrador with three teens and one husband coming home from school for lunch each day, I baked a lot of bread. Because we ate bread almost every day, I tried a lot of kinds, both to add variety to the table and keep myself interested. I confess I tried almost every recipe in any book I could get my hands on from Swedish Limpa to Russian black bread, from flat breads to Challah, and even pretty good French baguettes.

One of the breads that we didn't seem to tire of was a poppy seed whole wheat inspired by one of the Frances Moore Lappe Diet for A Small Planet books. This was a crusty bread, with a wonderful slightly "stringy" texture that showed clearly when the pan rolls I often made of it were pulled apart. And the poppy seeds were a perfect accompaniment to the whole wheat, good plain and spectacular toasted. Besides poppy seeds I remembered that the bread had a bit of milk and honey in it, and that that added a nice brownness and nutty flavour to the crust.

So last week, when I was improvising on yet another version of a sourdough bread from the book, this time starting with the recipe for Seattle Sourdough, I remembered the poppy seed whole wheat that my family liked so much. Why not, I thought, add a bit of honey and soy milk along with some poppy seeds? Couldn't hurt to try it. So when the bread was all mixed up, at the last minute I poured in some soy milk and a bit of liquid honey. I didn't measure anything, just added enough to make the dough just a bit creamier, waited for it to rise, and then baked it up.

Eureka! It was pretty good. Just to make sure it wasn't just me who thought so, since I haven't tasted regular bread in so long, I tested it out on my Saturday students. Two women, one younger, one older and to cap it off, two teenage boys. They ALL liked it.

So, just to be sure that it was as good as it could be before I put up a post about it, and because that one lonely loaf hadn't lasted long when we all got our teeth into it, I baked up another batch on Sunday night. This time I made the medium size batch which made one small loaf pan and another small pate sized pan. This morning I ate the bread for breakfast, just slightly dried out, but not stale. The slightly dried-out I discovered actually adds to the sensation of eating wheat bread. I recommend you keep your non-gluten bread in a paper bag rather than plastic, and freeze it if you will keep it more than about two days.

This bread is the closest I have tasted to wheat bread. It has that honest grain flavour, a good stong texture and it isn't too sweet at all. I used Kinnikinnick-Quik mix for the flour element and added one whole egg rather than the amounts the recipe called for. I eliminated all the other ingredients like salt and sugar, which are already in the Kinnikinnick-Quik mix. I used the 3/4 cup of sourdough called for and no extra yeast. I find adding yeast with the sourdough is unnecessary and the bread actually has a better texture without it. I added about 1/4-1/2 cup of fresh soymilk and about 1-2 Tb of liquid honey, just mixed into the blended dough, right at the end. Also I didn't and don't use a hand mixer for these sourdough breads. I just give them a few good beats with a heavy wooden spoon. That seems to be enough.

I've altered this recipe enough that I feel I can post it as an "inspired" creation. Inspired by the great Bette Hagman, and with thanks to her, I call this one Poppy Seed Sourdough No-Wheat.

Hope you enjoy it and don't forget to try it toasted.

Poppy Seed Sourdough No-Wheat (1 sweet bread loaf-sized pan and 1 small pate pan)

Put into a big mixing bowl and combine:
1 whole egg
3/4 tsp white vinegar

3/4 cup sourdough starter*

4 1/2 Tb salad oil (I used a mixed organic oil)

1 & 1/2 cups
warm water

Add to the liquids in the bowl:
3 cups Kinnikinnick-Quik flour mix (or any other you'd like to experiment with)

2 1/4 tsp agar or kantan

1-2 Tb ground almond meal

About 2 Tb poppy seeds

About 2 Tb white sesame seeds

Mix this up well and beat for a few seconds with a strong wooden spoon. I actually use a salad serving spoon with the slots on the end
as I find it grabs the dough well. When it looks smooth and creamy add by pouring on top:
About 2 Tb liquid honey (I used organic Acacia, but use your favourite)

About 1/4 -1/2 cup fresh soy milk.

Mix it up smooth with a few good turns of your spoon.
Oil generously and flour two loaf pans. (Or you could use one larger one). Remember that gluten-free bread only rises to half again it's original height in the pan, not double like wheat breads. Set it somewhere warm to rise. You can put on your oven for a few seconds and then turn it off and put the loaves to rise in there. When they are risen, after about 40 minutes - 1 hour, turn the oven to 400 degrees F (about 200 C) and bake for around 40 minutes to 50 minutes or a bit longer, depending on your oven. Take a look and when it's the brown you like, take it out. I've found that if this bread is allowed to brown well without burning, the taste will be more similar to wheat bread.

Let it cool and then make sandwiches, toasted or not, or enjoy it just the way it is.

* Sourdough starter is easy as 1-2-3.

1. Put 2 cups of water in a non-metal container.

2. Add flour (about 2 cups, just to get a creamy batter consistency). Regular gluten-free flour mix is okay, but I
use about 1/2 c brown rice flour to 1& 1/2 cups of the mix in mine.

3. Add a pinch of yeast (you don't have to but this ensures success)
. Stir it up, cover it with a cloth and put it somewhere warmish for a few days. When it bubbles and foams up and smells pleasantly sour, you can put it in the refrigerator. If you want to use it, take it out a few hours (or overnight) before and let it reactivate. You can add another cup of water and cup of flour any time if you think it needs to be "fed" or you want to replace some you use. It's very forgiving, and after a few weeks will have become strong and healthy and ready to add good flavour to your breads. You may just find, like me, that you don't want to make bread without it. If so, go on, try out some recipes, and be sure to let me know what they are, so I can try them too!

This post is dedicated to J-f who got me thinking about this poppy seed bread when we were talking about soup and bread. Thanks!