June 2011

Food: Home Cookin' and japan26 Jun 2011 10:25 am

Alright, another weekend ruined by another typhoon. This one was not quite as bad as the last one that rolled through, but I welcome the chance to work on cooking, which is something I seem to find myself doing when we are housebound during these storms.

This time, pancakes. Or as they call them in Japan, hotto-keki (ホットケーキ). The recipe is a McCall family secret so I am not able to share it with you, but trust me – these pancakes were delicious. I experienced some humidity related problems, but all turned out well. Double baking powder and sifting the flour were key. I have only sifted flour once for a recipe and that was macarons, which demand it, so it felt weird doing it for such a basic recipe.

A little whipped cream spun up, some sweetened blackcurrants and bam – I predict a heavy downpour of delicious pancakes.

Food: Asia and Food: Home Cookin' and japan24 Jun 2011 09:01 pm

I knew one of the best things about moving to Japan would be the food. And my weight gain in the past year has shown that to be true.

I also knew that one of the hardest things about moving to Japan would be the food. I knew I would miss so many things – experimenting with baking, farmer’s market foods and the treats from back home that I liked to indulge in. (Elm Cafe lattes or nachos from Hudson’s, anyone?)

Luckily there are ways to adapt here. There are many import food services which we have used a few times. It is otherworldly to order cheese and other cold products and have them arrive at your door fresh and cold via a delivery man in a refrigerated truck. The prices are high, but you will pay. Yes, you will.

Okinawa is a bit of an odd beast since the American influence has brought a few products to grocery stores that might be hard to find in other parts of Japan. While we do not have access to on-base (military) food, it is also there. It is a bit complicated and I seriously could not be bothered to ask someone to go through that for me, although parents of one of my students have offered. You need US cash, you need someone to shop with you, escort you in…it is like bringing someone into Costco, only harder.

So, I rely on the local grocers, and big suitcase allowances when I come home from vacation in other cities. Luckily there is a selection of stores that offer up some amazing finds. I am trying to cook with more Japanese ingredients at home, but sometimes you just want chili or a plate of nachos, dammit.

First up is Jimmy’s. There are a few different locations of this Okinawan chain around the island. The first few I went to were just tiny bakeries, with stale “American Taste” cookies and tasteless pies. However my birthday cake was from Jimmy’s, so it is not all bad. I just thought every location was as sad as the one nearest my home.

But when we got a car and my mom came to visit, we stopped in at a larger location – one with a grocery and cafe on top  of the bakery. I was blown away.


This is the Jimmy’s just north of Naha on the 58. Very easy to find, even by bus. Just take any bus going from the Naha bus terminal to Chatan, and look for Jimmy’s on the right about 20 minutes out of Naha.

While I tend to order tortilla chips from aforementioned foreign food supplier, it is nice to have expensive emergency chips if I need some guacamole dippers. Most of these bags run $3-7.

I shudder to think of eating such MSG salt laden fat popsicles, but I cannot deny that being overseas does weird things to people, and there may come a day when I crave these Johnsonville “sausages.” These are about $8.50

Lots of baking ingredients. When I made nanaimo bars at Christmas it took me a few weeks to source and buy the products. If we had a car at that time, I could have been done in about 15 minutes.

Everyone will tell you how hard it is to find pit stick in Japan. EVERYONE. However, I have been seeing it everywhere recently, although not all places have as good a selection as Jimmy’s.

Huge bags of baking soda for cleaning and deodorizing.

TimTams. Oh god, TimTams.

It is weird to say this, but maybe I can because I once worked in a grocery store – but the store is merchandised in a more western way which is oddly comforting. It is a little cramped and busy on the eyes. Maybe because they have so many products.

Some okay pies from the bakery. They are good, but missing the zazz my mom’s pies have, in the form of cinnamon and other spices. It is weird to eat an exclusively all fruit apple pie.

There is also Mitsukoshi My Kitchen. Mitsukoshi is a well known and respected department store in Japan. It got started in 1673 selling kimonos. They know their shit. In Okinawa they have a formerly glitzy department store with a smallish depachika (basement food hall) in downtown Naha and this really nice grocery store called My Kitchen, on a manmade island.

Hahahaha! I wonder how many Canadian JETs wasted their baggage allowance on bottles of maple syrup as gifts. (Not me, I just brought maple candy. Score!)

Bakeries are abundant in Japan, and Mitsukoshi has some fine vendors. This is a  bamboo charcoal bread loaf.

Some nice looking fresh soba noodles.

They also host cooking lessons, but my Japanese is no where good enough to go yet and not be a burden.

Obviously a great fish selection.

Again, lots of well marked baking products. It was a challenge before I could read to find out what these things were, so I appreciated any bit of English to help decipher the numerous white powders and flours.

How dare you, no I did not. I did kind of love that it was with the legit Italian pastas, though.

Lots of imports – from southeast Asian, Italy, Germany and England. And also some Japanese onigiri kits.

This is the peanut butter we bought before I started ordering in Costco sized jars from the foreign food club.

Mitsukoshi is also a great place to buy cheese and deli meats. One of my favourite memories this winter was coming home from school lunch to have a charcuterie plate instead.

Candy cigarettes!

As if anyone eats potato chips with tongs.

There are also  a few other more common grocers who carry a few different items. You just need to remember where you saw what when the time comes.

You can also check out my post on A-Price, another store that carries western imports, in western sizes.

Mitsukoshi MyKitchen

Tomiton, Okinawa
豊崎ライフスタイルセンターTOMITON 1F
Map and more

locations all over Okinawa

Food: Asia and Food: Home Cookin' and japan21 Jun 2011 08:00 pm

There is a lot of weird candy here in Japan. I have a number of care packages waiting to go out from here full of the weird stuff. I am just waiting on that Canada Post strike to end. I hope it is okay sitting here in the heat and humidity…

However, one of the newest fads in kids candy – one of the weirdest sectors of the Japanese candy market – is “at home cooking.” It is effectively molecular gastronomy for children.

The series of Popin’ Cookin’ candy has a bunch of different items you make at home using water, gelatin and sometimes your microwave. These include ramen, gyoza and even sushi. I found this video recently which gives an absolutely amazing look at the packages.

I did not care to drop $3 on sugar and water that I might not be able to prepare properly because of my illiteracy, but after watching the video I might give it a go. How the ikura or salmon roe is prepared is gobsmacking.

postscript: I just have to revel in my slowly decreasing level of illiteracy actually. I just read the title of the sushi box and it translates to “enjoy mr. sushi” or “tanoshi sushi-ya san”

Food and Food: Asia and General and japan08 Jun 2011 10:12 pm

When I was about 7 years old, my parents started a birthday tradition of bringing me to the Japanese Village in downtown Edmonton for a little teppanyaki fun. The last year I went – the year I turned 10 – the staff took a Polaroid of me wearing a huge Japanese wig hairstyle thing…and that was the end of that tradition. Partly because we moved to the UK and partly because even at age 10, the idea of wearing a wig thousands of other of people had worn and “wearing” an experience thousands of others of people had turned me off. Yes, I was a snob even an an early age it would seem.

Twenty years on I think I have returned to my roots. While themed restaurants are not my first stop, I am less likely to turn my nose up at them. Perhaps out of nostalgia or out of expat desperation. While looking for a fun experience for my mom’s last night on Okinawa back in January, a friend suggested taking her to one of the restaurants in the Sam`s Group.

These restaurants (owned by three American brothers) tend to be teppanyaki restaurants. As the idea of a chef  “performing” just for us cooking frozen seafood likely imported from another country made me cringe more and more, I decided to take one for the team and see what it was like.

Seafood display at the front of the rather large restaurant

I might be able to sit at that bar for hours if it had the right view


I was pleasantly surprised. The Sam’s Group has been on Okinawa since 1970, and they know what their patrons want. They mostly appeal to young American military families going out for special occasions or entertaining and to tourists from mainland Japan looking for an American experience in Japan. It is a really weird contrast in diners.

The location we went to, Sam’s by the Sea Awase, was one of the original restaurants. It is loaded with tiki torches, moais, outriggers, rattan furniture, shells, and all sorts of fun Hawaiian bric-a-brac. It could be tacky and gaudy and messy, but somehow it isn’t.

I think the there were three factors in a great experience at Sam`s.

  1. my expectations were low. I was not expecting much from an Americanized Japanese restaurant idealizing America in Japan. (wrap your head around that one)
  2. we chose to visit the one restaurant in the group that served entrees as opposed to teppanyaki style
  3. we had a coupon and dammit, we were going to use it

Nerdy fun with GIFs and my shark mugs.

The drinks were really good, and we walked away with four free themed cups which brought me more joy than you can imagine. One man’s junk is another woman’s treasure, I guess. My mom got a margarita and Mike got a pina colada. As I was driving, I stuck to the virgin drinks.

I’m not kidding when I said besides my mom visiting and some tacos I made on New Years Day, these cups were the best part of my January.

We started with escargot and cheese tempura. The escargot were fresh, garlicky and buttery. They could have come with a bit more toast for sopping up the butter in my opinion, but they were still delicious. The cheese tempura were basically glorified cheese sticks. But when you have not had cheese in some time, you take what you get.

Then a small salad that was alright, served with our choice from four different dressings. Following that, a bowl of housemade piping hot Indian curry soup. People rave about this on Okinawa web forums, trying to figure out the recipe for when they go home. I thought it was alright – better and more unusual than most standard complimentary restaurant soups.

Finally, our entrees.

Going all out I got the theatrical sounding “flaming sword shish kababs.” Out came the chef with a sword laced in … fuel, and placed my rare steak chunks and veggies on my plate. It was a nice experience, but I wish I had just gotten regular steak after tasting my mom and Mike’s beef. My meat had a sweet marinade on it which was good, but I really love the taste of just straight up beef.

I’d place the steak on a level above the Keg but below Carnevino in Vegas, which was the last truly awesome steak I had in North America. It is probably unfair to even make that comparison, actually. But, this is better than average steak for a restaurant, and the presentation and fun atmosphere make it a great destination restaurant.

With a last minute change of order, I switched my side of bread to garlic rice, at an extra cost. I am glad I did, and recommend it to others, even if you are “riced out” – a situation that does not happen to me often here as the Japanese rice is so good. Sam’s rice was tender and flavourful. The bread was decent at Sam’s, but the butter was tropical fruit infused and was a bit sweet and fruity. At first we thought it was the bread itself, but that was not the case.

Chevron-shaped impressively high coconut cream pie…sadly not as good as I had hoped.

We closed out with a piece of mile high coconut cream pie. I had been eyeing it across the dining room, but it was probably the weakest element of the meal. The meringue was a bit sticky and soggy, not fluffy and light. I would probably forgo dessert next time and just get another tropical drink.

Sam’s has been around on Okinawa for over 40 years, churning out steak, seafood and classic cocktails to soldiers and tourists alike. They are good at what they do, and I know we will return there again sometime in the future.

Sam’s by the Sea, Awase
(other locations in the chain, visit Sam’s Group for more info)

ps: while my photography on the blog is normally standard at best, thank you for sticking through this substandard stuff. Not my best. It was part of the reason I delayed this entry so long, actually!