I don't think I've ever blogged about the food I've cooked in Japan. As with many foreign students, the main motivation for learning how to cook is either because we're homesick or because we can't get certain foods in the country we're living at.
For me, it's a little of both, plus the fact that I like variety in my food. As Malaysians we're so spoilt with choices - Malay, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, French, Thai, Indonesian, mamak, Italian, American and virtually anything you can think of. There's so much variety that you can eat different dishes for each meal everyday for at least a month.
However, in Japan, there's only sushi and sashimi, noodles like udon, ramen and soba, pan-cooked like okonomiyaki and monja, and the rest such as tempura, don, and yakitori. Of course there are more to that, but these are the main food groups. And contrary to what you all think, we don't eat sushi everyday. Same goes for sashimi and okonomiyaki. Daily dishes are usually teishoku* at the cafeteria or noodles.
So you can see why I got bored rather fast and decided to learn how to cook so that I didn't have to die of boredom.
The following are some of my maiden attempts while living in my humble apartment when studying Japanese in Niigata University.
20 Apr 2006
We had found a nice little shop selling bento just next to the university, and they had delicious karaage* that was the closest to KFC. After days of eating healthy naturally-flavoured Japanese food, we were craving for something a little more oily and fatty, so this fried chicken cured our longing.
It went well with our butter-fried salmon rice and vege soup.
Come to think of it, I didn't realise I put so many tomatoes into the soup. Tomatoes must have been quite cheap back in Niigata.
21 Jun 2006
After months of eating the best rice in the world, I decided I had to cook myself some Western food. I tried to follow the illustration on the fusilli package since I could not read kanji.
This was as easy as making soup dishes since I basically threw in the ingredients and mixed them. Shredded tuna and lemon juice completed the dish.
I must have thought I was able to cook finally because I actually made this dish for my host family when I stayed with them! Looking back, that was probably something to feel proud about even though a kid could have made this dish with both eyes closed.
3 Jul 2006
My weekly trips to the supermarket allowed me to try the various marinated meat sold there. I got inspired to emulate the taste and decided to experiment with various ingredients.
Graduating from the usual salt and pepper, each experiment became more elaborate as I added more spices. This concoction of Sauce X, Spice Y and chilli flakes came to be my signature dish because no one could ever guess that the combination above would produce something that looked like grilled spicy chicken.
I became more confident of having friends over and cooking for them after this. I'm glad everyone who ate this always had compliments and I get very amused when they try to find out the recipe.
19 Jul 2006
Slowly I graduated from single soup and salad dishes to having balanced meals of rice and 2 side dishes. That's me cooking Chinese-style.
That's the only plate I had in my kitchen, whereas the 2 smaller glass ones are from students who had graduated from Niigata Uni.
Whenever we had gatherings, my classmates and I would all chip in with all the cutleries from each of our kitchens. Even though the forks and spoons were mismatched and not all the cups were of equal sizes, and sometimes we had to eat from the pan or pot because there were not enough serving plates, those never mattered.
The fact that each of us tried our best to cook for our friends and serve them with the little that we had was what I remembered.
24 Jul 2006
I seriously don't remember what this dish was supposed to be. But I think those were overcooked brinjal with minced meat.
My downstairs neighbour Alden was a better cook than me, and I would secretly try to see if I could come up with something similar. Oh well, the taste was there but not the colour!
Together with the yellowed brinjals, I decided to make lotus root soup. I have been craving for Chinese-style home-cooked soup especially since such soups aren't part of the Japanese diet. Whatmore, those that have been brewed for hours with chicken bones.
By this time I had found out about a local wholesaler in Niigata city, about half an hour's drive away where I bought myself these frozen lotus root, together with tonnes of boneless chicken to last me for months.
24 Aug 2006
During my first trip down to Tokyo, I was brought to Ameyoko in Ueno where Asian foodstuff were sold. By Asian, I mean the rest of Asia not including Japan.
I was thrilled to find that South East Asian ingredients were sold in abundance there. Pastes, sauces, dried food, spices and even frozen meat. Since I was just a student and still very amateur at cooking, I only allowed myself a pack of mihun and a jar of tomyam paste (each about JPY400).
The above was my attempt at making seafood tomyam soup. After half a year of living in Niigata and having my stomach acclimatised to bland food, sipping that tomyam soup awakened my senses and motivated me to improve my cooking skills.
5 Sep 2006
Not too long after that, I made mihun tomyam soup with prawns and quail's eggs.
No words could describe how heavenly that dish was to me that time. All of my favourite ingredients and flavours.
Since there was only 1 pack of mihun and 1 jar of tomyam paste, I made sure I only used them sparingly and when I wanted to treat myself. In 2 weeks I was to shift to Urasa where it was more rural I didn't know if I'd ever have a chance to travel down Tokyo in the near future.
6 Sep 2006
After our intensive language lessons had ended, Alden and I tried something we (at least me) have never cooked before - nasi lemak!
It was a risky venture because we didn't have all the necessary ingredients so we had to make do with whatever we had left in our kitchen. All I remembered was us mixing in the Korean chilli paste, his Malaysian fish head curry powder and a lot of other stuff to come up with something that resembled sambal!
Our attempt came out well and we were able to serve our Ivorian and Bahrain friends what Malaysia's national dish (come to think of it, do we actually have one?) tasted and looked like.
That's the best part about being overseas, we're all good cooks in the eyes of our foreigner friends. I don't think that would pass as nasi lemak back home!
8 Sep 2006
This was one of my last dishes before my Hokkaido Hop. Trying to finish up remaining ingredients in the fridge and kitchen. Too busy enjoying the last of our Niigata days and planning for a getaway in the northern island to escape the summer heat.
*定食 【ていしょく】 (n) set meal; special (of the day)
空揚げ; 空揚; 唐揚; 唐揚げ 【からあげ】 (n,vs) fried (e.g. potatoes, chicken)