February 2011

Food: Asia and General and japan25 Feb 2011 11:15 am

Although there is a lot of weird stuff going on in Japan, one of the strangest places (I think) is an area called American Village near a town called Chatan. It is near a few of the bases in the middle of the island of Okinawa, and so there is a high concentration of American military members and English in general.

Ballpark Hot Dogs, Chatan

This, right away, sets it apart from anything else on Okinawa. Add to this more “foreign” restaurants; Indian food, Mexican food and Thai food are scattered amongst the more traditional Japanese offerings, add a sprinkling of some “American size” clothing shops, a Starbucks outlet and a huge ferris wheel and there you have American Village. I thought it would be so horribly kitschy and touristy I could not stand it, but I guess I have been away from home long enough that I enjoy it. Your standards change when you move overseas.

Standards change when it comes to food as well. A friend recently asked me how I was coping with the different food. He meant cooking at our place, as he knows I think Japanese food is stellar, but sometimes you just need a taste of home.

You can get pretty much everything here if you look hard enough and pay enough money. Or, if you are willing to experiment, you can substitute. So the cheese is not as good as it is back home, but that’s okay, your tongue has a way of forgetting.

That brings me to hot dogs. I have not had a good hot dog in some time. I did not make it a point to even stop in at Costco or Fat Franks before I jumped ship in Edmonton, let alone make my own, so it has been a while. However, while we were in American Village a few weeks ago, we saw a new restaurant had opened; Ballpark Hot Dogs. It opened early in February 2011.

I was skeptical. I have had good burgers here, but not every burger is automatically good. Would a hot dog be any good?

Turns out it wasn’t good…


Perhaps this is a result of my tongue forgetting, but I really do think these hot dogs were quality.

Mike got the dog with chili, melted nacho cheese and sauteed onions. I got “The Nationals” or the dog with onions, chili and cheddar cheese. The buns were soft, the dogs juicy and plump and the toppings pretty fresh. They really pushed up my sodium intake, but they WERE delicious.

At the suggestion of the clerk, we also got some ranch bacon fries. The fries were a little underdone which made things a bit soggy but the bacon and ranch were a great combination.

Ballpark Hot Dogs is basically a take out hole in the wall, but there is ample indoor and outdoor seating on the top deck of Mihama Carnival Park, where the restaurant is.

The hot dogs are named after baseball teams and feature different toppings like nacho cheese, sauerkraut, salsa, onions (raw and sauteed) and various sauces.

Hot dogs run 390-450 yen which is a decent deal, since the hot dogs are made to order with fresh toppings. They also have sets with fries and drinks. The menu is bilingual and the guy who helped us had extremely good English.

Ballpark Hot Dogs
2nd Floor, Mihama Carnival Park (by Freshness Burger, by the ferris wheel)
American Village Chatan
open 11am-11pm everyday

Food and Food: Asia and japan20 Feb 2011 10:44 pm

Every week, Mike and I have an hour and a half long Japanese lesson at our tutor’s home. They are exceedingly generous hosts and in addition to Japanese instruction, there are always many cups of tea, copious Japanese snacks and candies, fruit and sometimes, dinner. This past week they made us a kimchi based nabe, or “one pot meal.”

K-sensei says that she considers one of her hobbies to be stripping bean sprouts of their root. I do not believe her, but, this is not the first time I have seen her sat down with a bag of sprouts to strip.

Nabe is a large pot with vegetables, meat and various other additions simmered in broth. It is a communal pot meal, where everyone waits for the items to cook, then they pluck out the items they want to eat when they are done. We were treated to a spicier than normal kimchi-based broth, because they know we enjoy spicy food.

Inside the pot, bean sprouts, cabbage, spinach, tofu, enoki and shiitake mushrooms, shirataki noodles, pork, all sorts of good stuff.

Normally nabe is done in a ceramic pot, but we ate out of a copper one.

All in all, a delicious home cooked meal. Nabe is an experience, and it really bonds the people together who eat it. It done during winter when the nabe pot warms the room and the people eating it. We had a lovely time. I hope we can do our own nabe before it starts to get hotter here on Okinawa.

Food and Food: Asia and japan14 Feb 2011 05:42 pm

Although this is more personal than I typically like to get on my blog these days, Mike and I started officially dating on Valentines Day 5 or 6 years ago. Neither one of us is sure, so that is how I know it is true love. Of more excitement is the fact that this is our first celebration of that momentous occasion and first Valentines Day in Japan!

Valentines Day in Japan is a, you guessed it, odd affair. On February 14th, it is mostly men who receive chocolates from women. Then, a month later on White Day, the favour is returned to the ladies.

I braved the crowds recently to go to one of Okinawa’s ritziest department stores and buy some chocolates for Mike. If this person is your TRUE love you are supposed to handmake goodies, but I made him nachosĀ  and cinnamon buns earlier in the weekend, so I think we are square.

One of the many busy chocolate counters at the depachika, or department store basement food hall I visited

Handmade chocolates fall into the “honmei-choco” category; or chocolate for your true love. There are also pricier chocolates that are fancier and more individualized to the man’s interests and hobbies which could be given in this instance. The best of these probably come from department stores.

I pored over the chocolates left at the department store, looking at chocolate golf balls, truffles, liquor chocolates…I finally settled on something I know Mike loves; animals.

There was a line of “zoology” chocolate (“Zoology, The Chocolate World” from Matsukazeya company), with beautifully realistic looking chocolate animals. The detail was mind boggling. There were crocodile sets, including “eggs”, full zoo sets with stats on the animals and beautiful miniature solid turtles, gorillas and chimpanzees. Unfortunately by Saturday the coolest sets were gone, but I got some awesome little pigs for Mike, and a pack of chocolate “cigarettes.”

Mike said the chocolate was pretty good. I was just happy the department store wrapped it all up for me. They do such a great job.

There are also less expensive and impressive obligation chocolates, or “giri-no-choco.” These chocolates are mass produced and are given to men you have a working relationship with (hence the “obligation” part.) So in my case, I gave small pre-wrapped chocolates from the grocery store in little decorated baggies to the men of my school. These are not meant to indicate anything other than mutual respect or friendship. Although I felt foolish giving my “giri-choco” out, I am glad I did. They seemed well received.

That’s it for this Valentines Day…

…maybe next year I will be able to secure something even tastier and amazing from a Tokyo chocolatier. I am already thinking about it…

Food and Food: Asia and japan13 Feb 2011 07:50 am

I am alternately excited and nervous when I am invited into the personal home of a member of the community here. It is no small gesture, and I often feel like I need to prepare for the event.

For Chinese New Year, we were invited to the home of one of Mike’s pottery teachers. The house was full of people of all ages coming and going, beer, oranges and food. Lots of food.

Just photos this time. It is really interesting to see how people eating sushi at home serve and eat it. There was a mix of seafood, vegetables and pork, as well as Okinawan favourites and more classically Japanese dishes.

Crab and vegetable salad to start

Mixed platters of scotch eggs, maki rolls, atsuage tofu (bricked tofu, fried), tempura, root vegetables.

Vinegared sashimi in the center, ringed by sashimi.

An Okinawan nimono, or simmered dish of pork and daikon.

Maki rolls of tofu, root vegetables such as the very delicious burdock root and vinegared rice.

Later, there was hot zenzai, a dessert dish of savoury fibrous azuki beans in a sweet syrup with glutinous mochi balls, and an agar agar based jelly dessert with fruit. For the kids, roasted soybeans for mamemaki or a ritual this time of year meant to drive out evil from the new year and bring luck in. The kids throw the beans at a member of the family dressed up like a demon to symbolize this. The members of this house also ate the number of beans equal to their age.

It was a nice way to ring in the Lunar New Year.

Food and Food: Asia and japan12 Feb 2011 12:59 pm

When things started to cool off here and turn to fall, I remember hearing a horrible wail in the streets. It was like the sound someone made when they are in deep mourning, praying, crying, voice strained against the pain within. I could not decipher any of the words being said. I looked out the window expected to see a sort of funeral procession, perhaps. Elections had just wrapped up and so I even though it was one of the candidates taking to the streets in a van with a loudspeaker as they love to do here.

But, all I saw was a small truck that appeared to be selling something. Chestnuts? I thought. I went back to huddling under blankets and thought no more of it.

Then a few weeks later, the sound returned, louder than before. I looked off the patio, camera in hand this time, and saw the little truck again. As my language skills duplicate weekly here (do not get excited, 2 words doubled is still only 4 words) I could barely make out the song being sung…but I heard “…-imo, yaki-imo…” which I recognized from school; baked sweet potatoes and potatoes!

Although I had just eaten dinner and was not hungry, I would have liked to indulge in one of the fresh hot potatoes that are cooked OVER OPEN FLAME in the back of the truck. Safety conscious? Not so much. Delicious? So I hear. Especially during the cold winter months.
Here is a recording of the truck’s wail. If you listen carefully you can hear the kids riding by the bikes at the start singing along with the truck. Still creeps me out to hear this song though. The one played in super markets is much less…menacing.

Food and Food: Asia and japan11 Feb 2011 08:45 pm

Full disclosure:

CoCo is a very big, very popular chain restaurant in Japan.

And: I wanted to hate it!

Now that I have that off my chest, I feel I can write about this place.

I pretend not to be a food snob, but the reality is that I sometimes am. More so in North America where I feel I can effectively judge a restaurant’s food by several factors before dining thereĀ  (another blog post, another time) but here, in a foreign place with little to guide me I tend to throw caution to the wind and experiment A LOT more. And so my mom, Mike and I found ourselves at an outpost of the popular CoCo Ichibanya one evening to dine on Japanese curry.

I know this looks like a dog’s breakfast (and it kind of is) but stay with me now.

Japanese curry is in and of itself a special thing. It is a bit like Indian curry in that there are occasionally potatoes and vegetables floating around, and there is a cumin and curry spice mix in it. But it is very soupy (like Japanese pasta), looks like gravy and, yes, even unappetizing at times. It is also served with the very moist, sticky Japanese rice which makes for a different experience from long grained basmati rices traditionally served in Indian curries. The most familiar of Japanese curries to westerners is probably Glico curry.

I cannot speak for everyone living abroad, but personally I become exhausted by the thought of eating here once a week or so. On these nights, I do not want to think about where to get ingredients for things I am craving. I do not feel like deciphering menus in other languages with hand written scripts that are difficult for even native speakers to read. In fact, sometimes I would rather not eat than figure stuff out, and I get extremely testy when asked “What are we having for dinner?”

You do not know the true freedom of pouring your own water until you come to Japan

CoCo is a great option on nights like this I think because it has the holy grail for restaurants for foreigners in Japan.

  1. not only an English menu, but a multilingual, regularly updated menu
  2. many locations
  3. western sized AND half sized portions at affordable prices
  4. a personal carafe of water at your table.

Add to this the ability to highly customize your meal, and the place is down right addictive. No wonder it is so popular with the US military members living on the island.

You could eat a different curry every day for a year. (Well maybe not, but I forget how to do permutations) You can pick the curry base (pork or beef) and the choices are nearly endless from there, from spice to rice amount and toppings.

So what did we get?

This first photo is my mom’s dish. Level of heat was a 0 (on a scale up to 10) and she got the lightly fried crisped chicken, not to be confused with straight up fried chicken, because they have that too. She got no toppings.

Meanwhile, I got the same base meat (the deliciously light, juicy crispy perfect chicken) at a spice level of 2 and went nuts on the toppings, getting cheese, eggplant and garlic bits. I drew the line at spinach, but I did add the free pickles they have at the table.

Off. The. Hook.

I was so pleased by my choices. The curry was slightly cinnamon-y and cumin-y, just hot enough for me, and my rice was not drowning in sauce as it had the toppings to help soak it up…yum.

While Mike contemplated the seasonal special of deep fried oysters, he ultimately went with the same thing my mom and I did: lightly crisped chicken, with a side of a soft boiled egg. He got a spice level of 4, and said it was fairly spicy. I agree; I could never finish a plate by myself. The spice levels are so subjective you naturally could never get it right on the first try, but if you have a tongue for spicy curries straight out of Thailand, you will likely be satisfied with a 4 as as a starting point.

Allergy restricted menu and the main stay when eating spicy foods: milk!

What more is there to say? CoCo is quick, fairly fresh for fast food and tasty. They even have low allergen menu items, which is something that can be very difficult for people with eating restrictions (egg, milk, wheat, nuts etc) to manage when in Japan. I would not say it is worth wasting a dinner on if you are only in Japan for a short vacation, but is great if you are stuck, overwhelmed or just need a safe English harbour in the storm of Japanese.

I’ve gone on long enough. CoCo is just kind of a cool place. Both Mike and my mom woke up in the middle of the night with heartburn, but oddly enough I was fine, even though I have a very touchy stomach at times.

CoCo “Ichi”

Various locations all over Japan and Asia
open late to 24 hours depending on the location
Multilingual menu (English, Russian, Arabic and others)

japan and Travels08 Feb 2011 07:44 am

I find myself weeks behind in food blog posts, but can sit down and crank out a (admittedly shoddy) video in an evening or two. Just more into that at the moment I guess.

Food and Food: Asia and japan01 Feb 2011 01:27 pm

While checking out nearby outlet shopping and a grocery store nearby with my mom one night in Tomiton in Tomoshiro City (a newish area south west of Naha,) we were beckoned by a large neon ice cream cone to a location selling the Okinawan favourite, Blue Seal ice cream.

Production of Blue Seal started in 1948 on Okinawa, when Formost brought their ice cream making equipment to satisfy the American soldiers on the bases here. In 1976 they spread their product offbase to the rest of Okinawa, and a legend was born.

Blue Seal remains very popular on Okinawa, especially for tourists during brain meltingly hot summer days. They offer an array of original Okinawa flavours, including shiquasa citrus, goya (bittermelon) salt cookie, sugarcane, sweet potato and various tropical fruits. It is a nice combination of weird Japan and classic America.

They have a $35 multi scoop ice cream bowl dubbed “Big Mountain” that would probably feed 10 people but I think would make a great eating contest conquest.

Some of the more tropical flavours in single serving take home sizes; Banana Papaya Coconut, Coconut and Sugarcane.

I got Caramel Macchiato flavour. The ice cream tasted of real espresso and was very creamy, fresh and rich.

My mom got soft serve which was very fresh and a bit tangy.

This location has a kind of Dairy Queen “Hot Eat/Cool Treats” thing going on and offers crepes, burgers, pasta, hot dogs and bubble tea with soft serve. Mike’s mango bubble tea was good, but quite sweet.

Blue Seal Big Dip
Various locations all over the island
Tomiton Location open 10-22:00 daily