The Japan Series — Totoro, We’re Not In Hokkaido Anymore

Actually, we knew we would be going to Russia as part of the voyage we were on. But we weren’t totally prepared for the experience.

One day we are wandering around a small northern Japanese city — tidy, orderly, polite, clean. The next, after crossing a narrow channel of water, we have exchanged slender, scampering salarymen for buff, blonde, steely blue-eyed guys in tight t-shirts, standing around smoking cigarettes, eyeing you suspiciously. We are now in Russia.

You see, just above the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido is another island, part of the same chain, but this one belongs to Russia. It used to belong to Japan, so you’ll still spot the odd Japanese-style building sticking out like a sore thumb here or there. But Russia — claiming it was their’s originally — took it back after World War II (Crimea, anyone?).

Sakhalin Island is every bit as lush and gorgeous as Hokkaido, except that instead of gyoza you now have piroshki, where across the water were pagodas there are now onion domes, and Japan’s sleek, purposeful architectural aesthetic has been replaced by Russia’s hulking Stalinist monstrosities.

Russian orthodox cathedral

We arrived in the relatively uninteresting port city of Korsakov and boarded a bus for the regional capital of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. After a lovely 45-minute drive through rural eastern Russia, we arrived in the city, which more resembled a mid-sized Mexican city than anything we saw in Japan. We visited a couple onion-domed churches, a large and triumphant military monument of some sort, and an ice skating training facility. Next, we headed to the regional museum, housed in a Japanese pagoda-style building, which featured taxidermied bears, native Ainu costumes and Russian military artifacts.

The final stop on our tour was a large gaudy mall filled with brand name shops where Sakhalin youth wandered aimlessly and tried to keep up with larger global fashion trends. The highlight, however, was to be found at the back of the ground floor level of the mall — an enormous grocery store!

Russian salamis in the grocery store

As thrilling as museums and palaces and other historic attractions may be, I always find myself the most excited when in a foreign land by grocery stores and open markets. I gripped my rubles and headed for the back, where I suspected the meats, cheeses, charcuterie and seafood would be. Sure enough, I found cases of salamis, cured meats and fishes, and cheese. A woman was making savory blinis — crepes filled with a ground meat mixture. Those I just had to try, so I ordered a couple to go. The seafood display was not much to speak of after the array of Japanese fish markets we’d already visited.

I explored aisles of prepared food, dropping a tin of fish into my basket, and various types of jams and honeys. There were sauces galore, which I would’ve taken a chance on if I could tell what any of them were for.

Blini to go!

I paused at the caviar refrigerator, which required a store clerk to unlock for you. It is no longer legal to sell any of the famous wild sturgeon caviars — osetra, sevruga or beluga — in Russia. So you have to settle for trout or salmon. I took a tin of trout caviar, and then thought better of it (I could probably get a very similar product at home).

I’ve blogged in the past of my passion for exotic flavors of Lay’s potato chips — the delicious fondue Savoyarde chips we found in France’s Haute-Savoie, or the poutine chips I gorged myself on in Quebec. I headed for the chip aisle.

There were, indeed, exotic Russian-flavored Lays chips galore. Unable to decipher Cyrillic script, I was forced to have to speculate at the flavor based on the pictures on the package. So it seemed likely that “сыр” was cheese, and “грибы и co сметана” was mushrooms and sour cream. I bought one of each, and was disappointed to later find that I had somehow missed the “Красная икра” chips (red caviar).

Russian Lays potato chips

With the thousand or so rubles we had left, we bought an assortment of strange looking Russian chocolates with a possessed looking baby on the packaging.

On the bus back toward the port, a woman shared her traditional Sakhalin sweets of some sort, and we sampled the tasty blinis. Back on the ship, we ate weird Lays chips that reminded us of our day in rural Russia, as we headed once more toward the squid-flavored rice crackers of Japan.

*    *    *

Meat & egg blini
makes 1 doz

3 eggs
1 cup milk
3 tbsp. melted butter
1 cup flour
1/2 tsp. salt
2 lbs. ground beef
1 onion, minced
2 tbsp. butter
3 hard-boiled eggs, minced or grated
salt & pepper to taste

To make blini batter: Place eggs, milk, melted butter, flour and salt in a blender and mix until combined. Place blender in fridge.

Make filling: Melt the butter in a skillet over medium, and add the ground beef and onion. Saute, stirring occasionally, until meat is all cooked and browned, approximately 10 minutes. Remove from heat. Toss in egg, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Make crepes: Brush a crepe pan or non-stick skillet with a little oil, and heat over medium. Pour enough batter into pan to make a thin crepe, let firm up for about 1-2 minutes, and flip. Cook for another minute, and remove from and set on a plate. Brush a little more oil, and repeat, stacking crepes until all are cooked.

Fill: Lay out each crepe, and fill with 2 heaping tablespoons meat/egg mixture. Fold as you would a burrito, and repeat until all are filled. You may keep warm in a 170-degree oven if you wish, or serve at room temperature.

Serve with a fine ice-chilled vodka.

 

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The Japan Series — Salvation at the 7-11, Big Pig and More!

Our flight arrived in Japan around 3:30 p.m., which for us was 9:30 p.m. the previous evening. We left Los Angeles at 11 a.m., and flew 10 hours in daylight, although when we arrived in Japan it was the next day. On the flight, they served breakfast, lunch, and then breakfast again.

It was around 6:30 by the time we figured out how to take the trains into Tokyo and locate — on streets that do not have names — our Airbnb. We were hungry, although we weren’t sure if we were hungry for dinner or breakfast. I offered to go out and find some take-out while the family got settled, which suited everyone just fine.

Flynn and Willa at the Airbnb in Kanda

Tokyo, from a non-Japanese-speaking westerner’s perspective, is a bit confusing at first when it comes to food. There are many, many restaurants — our little pedestrian walking area of Kanda was chock full of them — but it is challenging to figure what many of them serve. You look into the dark restaurant, there are six seats, and bodies are hunched over plates of something. Many restaurants serve only one thing — eel, for example, which would not have gone over well with 3/5 of my family. The point being, that a jet-lagged gaijin fresh off the plane trying to find some quick, not-to-exotic takeout in a non-tourist neighborhood of Tokyo was not going to have an easy time of it. More

The Japan Series: An Ode to Ika

I always figured I could make a successful business helping the Japanese correct the English on their packaging and signage. That intuition was only reinforced on our recent trip to Japan, who’s sensational and rather wacky culinary culture I shall explore in a series of posts beginning with this one.

Squid cracker package

Helpful squid-centric Japanese observation #1: A good way to keep your kids from eating the rice crackers you brought back from Japan: Choose squid flavored. More

Year of the Sandwich — A Soft Spot for Soft Shells

Spring is a really good time for food. And several great seasonal items appear around this part of the year.

One of my very favorites is the morel mushroom, which they sometimes (rarely) get at Whole Foods. So driving down the street the other day, rather than shaking my head sadly at all the people mortgaging their futures to shop there when the Whole Foods came into view, I pulled in.

Soft shell crab sandwich

There were no morels.

I continued back to the seafood counter to see if there was anything interesting there. And my eyes nearly escaped their sockets when I realized it was also the time of year of one of my other most favoritest things: soft shell crabs. And on sale, no less!! More

The Best Restaurant in Havana

Javier, one of the staff at the Airbnb where we are staying, was walking us through the dusty streets of Central Havana when he paused to point out a crowd of well-dressed people milling in front of a rather grand Baroque portal. A sign above the entrance read: “La Guardia.”

“That’s the best restaurant in Havana,” he struggled in his limited English. “Robert de Niro and Natalie Portman eated there.”

Javier was leading us to another restaurant just around the corner from La Guardia. We had asked him about good, authentic Cuban food, and he assured us that the deceptively named Notre Dame des Bijoux was the place to get it.

Jesus Gomez at his rooftop grill

We walked through a much less impressive portal into what seemed to be someone’s home (many of Cuba’s restaurants are run by people out of their homes). And quite a home it was — an explosion of tropical plants grew up from the floor, one wall was plastered with teacups, another was covered floor to ceiling with framed photographs. And in a throne-like chair, in a satin fuchsia robe with rings on every finger, surrounded by his ten toy dogs, was Tommy Reyes Martinez, a flamboyant former Cuban National Ballet dancer who owned the restaurant. More

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