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Finally… Golden Week (part 1) August 16, 2009

Filed under: Eating,Travel — laurel @ 9:26 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Merlion
Singapore’s famous Merlion

I’ve been meaning to write about some of our traveling adventures for a long time, but it seems like the more fun things we do, the less time I have to write about them. During Golden Week (oh my goodness, that was months ago now), we took a few days off from school and combined with several national holidays that fall in the same time period, we were able to have 11 days of vacation. First we flew to Singapore. We met up with some friends and tried some of their favorite places.

On the first night, we had dinner at Din Tai Fung, the famous Taiwanese dumpling shop that also has branches in Singapore and around Asia. Unfortunately I was just getting over a nasty case of the flu and I had temporarily lost my sense of smell. I literally couldn’t smell a thing. If it ever happens to you (and hope it doesn’t) you’ll be surprised to find how many “tastes” are really smells. I could taste the salty-sour combination of soy and vinegar, and the savory meatiness of the fillings, but the real flavor from the spices, ginger, and various ingredients was absent. Occasionally, the stuffiness would recede enough to allow me a few seconds of “smell-ability,” but for the most part the meal was muted, like watching your favorite movie on a black and white TV.  I did have more of an appreciation for textures, though, since it was one thing that I could sense. After dinner, we headed down Orchard Road to Food Republic, a big food court in the Isetan shopping center, and enjoyed some freshly squeezed fruit juices and steamed coconut cookies.

orchid
orchids at the Singapore Botanic Gardens | see more photos from our trip on Alex’s blog

By day two my sense of smell was fading out less often so I could smell the flowers (sometimes) at the botanic gardens. We had a great time looking at all of the beautiful landscapes, and we especially enjoyed the ginger garden and the orchid garden. The bonsai collection was amazing too.
For lunch we ended up back at Food Republic. Mara recommended the beef soup noodles, which were delicious. It’s rice noodles with beef and vegetables served alongside a seasoned beef broth that was oh-so-good. Of course, we also got some more fruit juices, which I just can’t get enough of.

beef noodles
beef soup noodles at Food Republic

In the afternoon we went to Yixing Xuan Teahouse where we learned about Chinese teas. We enjoyed four different teas in the traditional style, using small scent cups and tasting cups and a ceramic pot that was just big enough to brew four cupfuls of tea. The little pots come in several sizes so you can choose the right sized pot for the number of guests that you’re drinking with. The cups and teapot were set on a “sea” where the excess water could be drained.
To enjoy the tea, we filled the pot to the brim and let the leaves steep for a very short time. Then we poured the tea into the scent cups to enjoy the aroma, and finally into the tasting cups to drink it. Since the leaves are brewed for such a short time, we could brew each portion 7 times—the flavor of the tea changes a bit each time. I enjoyed the flavor of the 2nd and 3rd brewings the most. We tried silver tips, dragonwell, oolong, and jasmine oolong. My favorites were the oolong and the dragonwell green tea, which had a surprisingly grassy flavor. While it was fun to drink tea this way, and all of the equipment was beautiful and clever, with each piece filling its specialized purpose, it seemed a bit too fussy for everyday tea drinking for me. However, it was a great experience that I would recommend if you have a chance.

tea 1
Chinese tea service at Yixing Xuan Teahouse

tea 2
dragonwell (lung ching) tea

We had dinner at the Newton Circus hawker center. The outdoor setting is good and the food was pretty good (though we’ve had better), but the vendors were aggressive and prices were high. If I find myself in Singapore in the future, I hope I can try some of the more local hawker centers (foolishly, I had forgotten to read up on the Singapore foodie blogs until after dinner). For dinner we enjoyed fruit juice (of course), barbecued stingray, clams, and fish.

coriander leaf
mezze platter at Coriander Leaf, clockwise from left: Fattoush salad, fried haloumi, muhammara, labne, grilled eggplant with pomegranate salad, falafel

By the next day, my sense of smell was back to normal, thank goodness. After a boat tour of the river and a visit to the Asian Civilizations Museum, we had lunch at the Coriander Leaf. We felt refreshed right away as we walked in from the heat and humidity outside and we could enjoy a nice view over the river from our table. I chose the mezze platter and smoked duck and mango salad while Alex had the tandoori chicken lunch special. I especially liked the labne and grilled eggplant with basil and pomegranate seeds. Both were very good with the homemade flatbread. On the other hand, the rest of the mezze were rather forgettable. Alex’s chicken was tender and nicely spiced. Later we had some snacks for a quick dinner before we headed off to the Night Safari.

prawn mee
Da Dong’s prawn and pork rib noodles

On our last day in Singapore we woke up early to go on the rainforest treetop walk. After a quick shower and checking out of our hotel, we had lunch at Da Dong, following a recommendation from Chubby Hubby. I forgot exactly which dish he had recommended, so I got prawn mee with pork rib soup while Alex chose just pork rib soup. The soup was rich and delicious while the shrimp, pork, sweet and tangy sauce, sprouts, and chopped coriander combined in such a delicious way. While we were eating, I realized, “why in the world have we been eating that awful hotel breakfast every morning instead of going out to find something tasty like this?” It’s not as though the hawker centers and coffee shops are expensive, so we definitely should have been exploring the neighborhood at breakfast time too. Live and learn.

From there it was on to the airport and our next stop, Java.

See more photos at Alex’s photoblog

Our first (most excellently delicious) trip to Singapore in 2008 page 1 | page 2

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Shiso Juice August 5, 2009

Filed under: Cooking,Four seasons in Japan,Japan,recipes — laurel @ 11:19 pm
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shiso juice01b
shiso juice

After making ume jam last month, I got caught up in what I call “the cycle of gifting.” You see, a gift isn’t just a gift in Japan. Often, there is an unspoken obligation to reciprocate with another “return gift,” usually worth about half the value of the previous one. Depending on the manners of the parties involved, this can develop into a long series of exchanges.

So after I gave Mr. Y two jars of jam made from his ume, he brought me some homegrown plums as a return gift. Unfortunately, I was on vacation that day, so I got some frantic calls from my supervisor wondering when I would be back and where was a good place to leave the plums. In the end it was decided that a bag of immaculately ripe plums was not going to be edible after three days of Japanese summer heat, so I imagine they were passed around the staff room or met some other delicious demise. (I took the call at a rather noisy train station, so I actually thought he said “a plant” not “some plums” so I was really surprised when they told me they’d been eaten).

Feeling guilty for causing stress to my supervisor and Mr. Y over my absence, I made sure to bring them both some dadacha-mame omiyage from my trip to Yamagata. Omiyage is another longstanding gift-giving tradition where you bring your coworkers a small edible treat from wherever you’ve just returned from. This has led to a profusion of mediocre individually-wrapped cakes in pretty boxes from every town in Japan, but there are some good ones out there if you can get some advice from local folks. For example, this dadacha-mame cake was quite tasty.

dadacha mame
dadacha mame

In return for the omiyage (a gift with so little value it never obliges a return gift), Mr. Y brought me a bottle of his wife’s homemade shiso juice. “It’s very healthy,” he told me. You just mix the concentrated juice with some water and enjoy. The resulting drink is a beautiful ruby pink and tastes refreshing and summery. It’s also a good way to use up the forest of aka-jiso (red shiso) that many people grow to make umeboshi with if there’s a bad ume harvest like this year.

I enjoyed this new taste so I asked for the recipe for the juice. A search online produced a few alternative recipes too. Since aka-jiso grows like a weed here and it’s used in great quantities for making umeboshi, it’s very cheap—a big bunch is typically only 100 yen or so. Following the recipe, I stemmed and washed the leaves and boiled them in 2 liters of water (I had to split the recipe into two pots since even my biggest pot can’t accommodate 2 liters of water and 2 bunches of shiso leaves). The leaves blanched from maroon to green in the water’s heat and the liquid turned a murky purple hue (dried splashes turned a bright violet, but in the pot it wasn’t very appealing). I stirred in a teaspoon of citric acid, and the color instantly brightened to a lovely deep pink. Finally, I was about to add the sugar and citric acid when I took a look at the 1-kilo bag of sugar in my hand. I couldn’t bring myself to use the whole bag, so I quickly reduced the amount of sugar that I’d use by 30%. That still meant that my “healthy drink” had almost the same amount of sugar as my other favorite cold beverage (which has earned me the nickname Coca-Lora).

I bottled up the juice into two 1-liter jars (which are also great for iced tea and mugi-cha, another delicious summertime drink). If you take a look at the top photo you can see my favorite storage jar. I love that it’s Pyrex, so I can fill it up with hot liquids or brew tea right in it and that there’s no handles or hardware to catch nasties in the sink or get rusty. What a great design, and it was only 500 yen. I think everyone could use one of these. The last surprise was that the finished juice was significantly more than two liters, so some of the liquid must have come from the shiso itself.

After we’d finished drinking most of the first batch, I thought I’d try again to make a more healthful version. I mixed up the juice (this time just a half batch to save room in the fridge) and slowly tinkered with the ratio of sugar and citric acid until I was satisfied with the flavor. The final amount was 225 grams of sugar and 1 1/2 teaspoons of citric acid. I’m not sure if it’s really healthier or if I’m just diluting it less when I serve it, but it’s a change that I can feel good about at least.

To serve the shiso juice, you just dilute the concentrate with 1 or 2 parts water. Mixing it with club soda instead makes a refreshing summer sparkler, and the soda somehow gives the drink a more berrylike flavor than water alone.

shiso001b
aka-jiso

Shiso Juice

1 big bunch aka-jiso (red shiso) leaves
1 liter water
pinch salt
225 grams sugar or honey
1 1/2 teaspoons citric acid

Your bunch of shiso should be quite large, about 350 to 500 grams. Remove and discard the large, woody stems (the remaining leaves should weigh at least 200 grams). Put the leaves in a large bowl, bucket, or sink, and wash them thoroughly with cold water. Bring one liter of water to a boil. Put the shiso leaves and water in a large pot and boil them together for about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the leaves steep in the hot water for at least 10 minutes more (the longer you wait, the more intense the color will be). Stir in the citric acid and sugar. Strain the juice into jars, squeezing the leaves to extract as much of the juice as you can. The juice can be stored in the refrigerator for several months, if it lasts that long.

To serve, mix with water or club soda and drink chilled.