Thursday, December 31, 2009

From 2009 to 2010

In a few more hours, we'll be entering a new decade. A new decade with newfound friendships and new perspectives. A decade which will hopefully, bring us closer to self actualisation.

In a few more hours, we'll start the countdown to 2010. We'll usher in the new year, and at the same time, celebrate Oshogatsu - the Japanese new year - not in Japan but Singapore.

Since our 1-year experience in Japan, life seems to be never quite the same again. Now, there are 2 meanings to the 1st of Jan - 1) the new year that we've always known and celebrated, the new year eve that says Auld Lang Syne, countdown etc and 2) the Japanese new year with its own meaning and traditions.

Last year, at this time, we were still enjoying ourselves at a bonenkai, organised by Wada-san. We had a scrumptious spread of Japanese Oshogatsu must-eats (including the most delicious oden), indulged in bottles of sake, shochu and cans of beer, and when the clock struck 12 we tucked into Toshikoshi Soba, a symbol of longevity. To mark the new year (also to digest the very heavy dinner), we took a walk in the cold winter to Owase Jinja, where a range of festivities took place. There, we prayed for a good year, drank amazake, sought protection from the cold with a man-made fire and got omikujis (paper fortunes). That took place exactly one year ago. I can still remember Wada-san saying that if you could dream of either a sunrise or Japanese cranes you can expect a great year ahead. He must be busy cooking for his family and the Ikedas right now.

Now, as we're back in Singapore, we will welcome the new year in our own way. Earlier today, we bought Osechi Ryori and other Oshogatsu ingredients from a Japanese supermarket. At 12am, we will make Toshikoshi Soba, and enjoy our favourite Yaa Yaa sake, flown in from Owase with the help of Izumi and Pika. We also have mochi that Ura-san bought us from Japan that we'll savour, in true Japanese fashion.

The year of 2009 has been a memorable one. First year of marriage, 8 months in Japan, 4 months in Singapore, many new friends, and lots of beautiful memories. As we reminisce the past year, we're also looking forward to 2010, and the joys it will bring.

To our friends in Owase, if you are reading this, this is our message to you.
あけましておめでとう。来年もよろしく!みんなさんがいなくて寂しかったです。近いうちにまた会いましょう。

To everyone else, Best wishes for the new year and let's all embrace the decade ahead!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Cooking up a storm in Owase

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Well, but doesn’t it apply to women, girls and boys too?

I still remember making a very realistic resolution before leaving for Japan last August – that was to master the art of making my favourite Japanese curry from scratch. To my disappointment, despite numerous enquiries, I was always greeted by the same puzzled look, followed by the slightly-amused reply that curry in Japan is made using the instant curry blocks that are easily available at the local supermarkets. The infamous Owasean rain[1] seemed to have poured down on me. My first culture shock. Having been brought up in a culture that the most delicious food is always made with fresh ingredients, I could hardly believe that my dream was already dashed before I had the chance to embark on it. Just use the ready made curry roux and viola! Needless to say, I mastered Japanese curry during my first week in Japan. It was an effortless affair which took only 20 minutes.

Despite the let-down, I quickly learnt that pressing schedules and the bento culture do not provide Japanese women with the luxury of making everything from step one. Premixes, instant sauces and flavouring are great helpers in a typical Japanese kitchen. One of my new revelations about Japanese culture.

A typical question I often get from my Japanese colleagues and friends are, “What kind of food do you normally eat?”. Apart from the famous Singapore icon, the Merlion, there was very little that the locals around me knew about my country, let alone my country’s cuisine, which I felt could not be easily explained in a few sentences.

The cuisine of Singapore is often viewed as a prime example of its ethnic diversity and melting pot of cultures. The food is heavily influenced by Malay, Chinese, Indian, and even Western traditions since the founding of Singapore by the British in the 1800s. A variety of spices from tamarind to tumeric are widely used, as with tropical products such as pandan leaves and coconut milk. In fact, food is of such importance for us Singaporeans that eating is widely known as a national past-time – and it so happened to be my husband Erik’s and mine.

So, we convinced ourselves that tasting is believing, and that food had to be the best way our new friends could experience our culture. We decided to throw our first ‘A Taste of Singapore’ dinner party. On the menu were authentic Singaporean dishes which included Bat Kut Teh, Curry Puffs, and Curry Chicken.

I guess we managed to surprise our friends with the interesting spread. As dinner took place, we avidly discussed about the similarities and differences between Singaporean and Japanese culture. We chatted about how Japanese curry is sweet, compared to Singaporean curry – that is red hot and flavoured with a variety of spices and coconut milk. We joked about how chili in Singapore comes in all forms, and the many ways in which they are used.

The party was a great success. Not only did it break the ice with the shy locals, it provided a meaningful avenue for cultural exchange.

Spurred on by the positive response, we subsequently organised many more “A Taste of Singapore” nights for our new friends. While it was often raining cats and dogs in the rainy town of Owase, we were always cooking up a storm inside the house. The process was tedious, but always enjoyable.

Inspired, I felt it was time to bring my passion for food out of my kitchen and into the schools.

As the only municipal ALT in Owase, I was tasked with teaching English in all the 11 elementary and junior high schools there. School visits could vary from once a week to once a month. I was always moving from school to school, and it was almost impossible to build up rapport with the teachers and staff because I hardly ever saw them. But I was determined to overcome the barrier and start reaching out.

It was a Monday morning and I was at an elementary school I visited biweekly. It was business as usual. Teachers were busy, dashing in and out the staff room. When the bell calling for the first break of the day rang, I immediately dished out my home-made pineapple tarts and went around offering them to the teachers and staff. Immediately, eyes lit up, tired faces brightened up and to my delight, exclamations of “Umai!” could be heard. “What are these made of?” asked a few teachers. It was a conversation starter which got some of my very shy colleagues to lighten up. For the first time, an extremely reserved school clerk spoke to me, and even asked me to try a piece of the cheesecake she had made. Two weeks later, we managed a long conversation about Chinese New Year (widely celebrated in Singapore) and Japanese New Year, in part English and part Japanese. I realised that new friendships were beginning to form.

Soon after, I decided it was time to bring the concept of cooking and creation into the classroom. There I was, in an elementary school classroom. The menu for the day was fruits. For this lesson, I had aimed to teach my grade 4 kids basic conversational skills on how to purchase fruits, so that they could to create their own original juice recipes. The goal of the lesson was to get the kids to learn the English pronunciations of fruits, as well as to practise using the word “please”. For example, “Orange, please”. After “buying” the fruits from the “shop assistants” (played by the homeroom teacher and I), the kids were then to paste whatever they bought onto a piece of paper before making a short presentation to the rest of the class. At that point a gregarious boy shouted mischievously, “Nori (glue), please!” I knew that I was on the right track to getting my kids use English more frequently. More interesting classes soon followed with the children, where I taught with real ingredients and students had to put their cooking skills to work.

Interestingly Erik’s and my passion for food paved the way for a number of Singaporean cooking classes, which were well received and attended by members of the community. Yong Tau Foo, Roti John, Peanut Cookies, Prawn Omelette, Sweet Potato Soup, Agar Agar – some of the dishes on our menu. Coming up with the menu was no easy task, as we were constrained by time and had to use ingredients that could be easily purchased from the local supermarkets. We had to consider the Japanese palette and so extremely spicy food was a no-go. We were forced to delve even deeper into our roots and consider what kind of dishes were most representative of Singapore and could be easily executed in a classroom setting. I guess we triumphed. I later learnt that some attendees at my cooking classes had attempted to teach their friends the recipes they had learnt, albeit modified for the Japanese palette. Excellent proof of culture assimilation.

Before we knew it, the locals were beginning to open up. Tea and dinner party invitations started pouring in. We were treated to scrumptious feasts that included home-made okonomiyaki, sushi, wood fire pizza and even spanish cuisine! True to Japanese fashion, these dinner parties were always topped with many glasses of beer, shochu, sake, a lot of good conversation and merry-making. We exchanged new words, be it Japanese, Owasean dialect or English, and during the process attained a better understanding of each other’s culture. Ironically, it was also during these times that I realised how little I had known about Japanese culture, despite having majored in Japanese Studies in university.

In addition to the parties, we also organised recipe exchange sessions. A particularly memorable one was when Erik and I were at Nishi-sensei’s house to show my colleagues Nishi-sensei and Izumi, how to make Singapore’s traditional peanut cookies. In return, Nishi-sensei taught us how to make my favourite Japanese sweet, ichigo daifuku. As we were midway through it Nishi-sensei’s husband returned home and we were introduced to him for the first time. After exchanging a few words he asked Erik if he had ever seen or held a katana. It was then that we found out that Nishi-san is a kendo teacher – in fact, not just a kendo teacher, but a former prefectural kendo champion! Before we knew it, Erik was all decked out in a kendo outfit and for the first time in his life, learning how hold a katana, the samurai way.

Two different nationalities and cultures, can food serve as a common language between people? I think it’s a ‘yes’, for my Japanese colleagues and friends now know what a Singaporean’s definition of karaguchi (spicy) is. Erik’s Japanese teacher, Wada-san, now enjoys dipping sashimi in chilli sauce instead of soy sauce and wasabi. Already, four of my colleagues at the Board of Education have made a five-day trip to Singapore in August. Another group of Owaseans will be visiting this December.

One year later and I am back in Singapore. Looking back, although I am still clueless about the secrets behind fresh Japanese curry, I’ve learnt how to make delicious home cooked Japanese dishes with the aid of pre-made sauces and filling, which I’ve found to be an essential part of daily Japanese life. I have grown and made new discoveries about not just Japanese culture but also my own roots, through my dinner exchanges with my new friends.


[1] Owase has an annual rainfall of approximately 4,000mm – the second highest in Japan.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Back to Singapore

well, it’s been a long time since we updated this blog.. partly due to the lost of the free & easy life we had back in Owase.

Lots had changed since our return, to cut the story short, my beloved grandmother pass away whilst we were still in Tokyo resulting in a drastically amended schedule to change the flight back.

Thereafter, we had a trip to Guangzhou shopping for furniture and to open our eyes to how China had grown. It was amazing!

I’ve started work back at my old company Certis CISCO but at a different department.

There is also a switch of role as its Mrs Tan Tan’s turn to take a break now. 

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Bye Bye, Magic

There is a dull pain in my heart. In less than 24 hours we will be leaving Owase. Strangely, we have both been taken ill these 2 days. Maybe it’s because we have been worn out by the frenzy of farewell parties and packing over the last few weeks. Maybe, as Erik puts it, it’s because subconsciously, we do not want to leave.

The past year has been magical for us. To leave the magic behind is tough. But I believe we will be able to relive this magic again. Someday.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

It’s hard to say goodbye

In 2 weeks, Erik and I will be leaving Owase, our home for the past year.

It’s not easy, because there are a number of people whom I have grown to love during our time here and whom I know I may never get to meet again for a very long time.

It gets even harder when the kids I teach start getting emotional about my leaving. Every time a school holds a farewell ceremony for me and the kids and teachers are singing at the top of their voices, I find myself trying very hard to fight back the tears.

I was most touched during the farewell ceremony at Kata Elementary School, when the kids did a public recital on what they have learnt to-date in my English classes. Particularly memorable was what the 5th graders did - an imitation of what I had previously taught them for self-introductions (basically spoofs of Ponyo, Obama and myself). How I wish I could video the entire event. It was the best farewell gift they could ever give me, by remembering what I had taught them.

During the last 11 months, Erik and I have experienced the purest of hearts, the kindest of souls and the most innocent of smiles. We’ve met many people who have gone out of their way for us not because they want anything in return but because they genuinely care and want to be our friends. We’ve led a back-to-basics life, deriving pleasures from simple hobbies, dinner parties and stunning sceneries, which is in stark contrast to our fast-paced, often materialistic culture in Singapore. These are my favourite memories of Owase.

13 more days, and we shall continue to cherish every moment, before it’s time to say goodbye.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The best sushi in the world

Owase is known to have some of the freshest and best seafood in Japan, and it is of no wonder that the best sushi is also found here. We’re not talking about sushi found in the kaiten zushi (conveyor belt sushi) shops, but the real stuff served in the real sushi bars.

Since ala-carte orders at such sushi bars usually come at killer prices (sometimes up to 70,000 yen for a meal), the most cost-effective choice is to go for the sushi moriawase (mixed sushi), which are usually priced from 1,000 yen for for the lowest quality and smallest portion. The top quality deals start from 3,000 yen. Extremely reasonable prices, I think. Note: “lowest quality” in Owase equates to “top quality” in many places, including the Japanese cities. Even our Japanese friend from Osaka (where conveyor belt sushi originated from) attests to the fact that sushi in Tokyo and Osaka cannot beat the ones you find in Owase’s supermarkets. As for Singapore’s case, I think “lowest quality” in Owase would be equivalent to the “highest quality” you can ever find in the city.

After trying out some of the most popular sushi bars in Owase, we've decided on our favourite – and that is Hana Zushi 華ずし. For its’ lively ambience, extremely friendly and generous owner/chef and lady boss, and its’ great value for money.

The art of making great tasting sushi requires great skills. In the most delicious sushi bars, the sushi chef dips his hands into ice cold water before shaping the rice to ensure that his body temperature does not affect the temperature and texture of the sushi. Hana Zushi is where you can find such a chef. His hands are as red as a lobster from the constant contact with the icy water, and maybe that is what you call professionalism – something that we really admire.

At Hana Zushi, we’ve tasted the best of sushi – including abalone, hon maguro/kuro maguro toro (tuna belly of black tuna, or commonly known as the original tuna and the king of fish. For the record, a black tuna is often auctioned for millions of yen in Japan), and most recently, live akaashi ebi (translated as red legged shrimp) sushi. To be honest, we had the fortune of eating these delicacies without really having to pay for them. All thanks to the wonderful owner, who seems to just want his customers to have a good time.

That’s not all. Hana Zushi serves a mean chawanmushi too – so good that to say it is gourmet is an understatement.

If you are a sushi or chawanmushi fan, come to Owase and you will understand the world of difference.

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The extremely friendly owner/ chef. 

 

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Left: Hana Zushi branded teacup; Right: the heavenly chawanmushi.

 

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Colourful and gourmet sushi.

 

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Left: “Live” red legged shrimp; Right: Hon maguro toro (black tuna belly).

 

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The TanTans and friends enjoying every bit of their “live” red legged shrimp treat.

Witness the freshness for yourself!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Japanese English Jokes!

We just had dinner at our favourite tempura restaurant and these are some of the jokes our elderly Japanese friends told us:

When a Japanese tells you “Agetofu” (literally: fried tofu); he or she is trying to say: “I get off” in English.

When he or she says “Saito Shingu” (literally: Saito family’s worship items); he or she is trying to mean: “sightseeing” in English.

When he or she says “Hota imo ijiru na” (literally: Don’t tamper with the picked potatoes), he or she is trying to mean: “What time is dinner?” in English.

Here's another common joke: Whenever I go, "I will show you...", kids would exclaim "shoyu!", thinking that I am talking about soy sauce.

And this is what I tell my kids when I teach them days of the week.

Monday: Manjyu (Japanese bun) Day.

Tuesday: is Tuesday. I couldn’t think of anything funny.

Wednesday: Ue (up there) nesu Day.

Thursday: Tasukete (Help!) Day.

Friday: Ebifry (fried prawns) Day.

Saturday: Satsuma imo (sweet potato) Day.

Sunday: ichi, ni, san (1, 2, 3) Day.

Just for laughs!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A trip to Matsumoto & Hakuba Day 2

Day 2 in Nagano was an early start with the Tan Tans visiting the famous ski jump competition ground during the Winter Olympics in 1998 before breakfast was served at 0730hrs. It was quite a nice place other than there was no snow since it’s summer already…   ;(

IMG_2588jpgIMG_2574jpgIMG_2587IMG_2583jpg IMG_2573jpgIMG_2597jpgIMG_2591jpg Measurements for the landing zone. All the pros landed beyond 120 metres.

After the breakfast, the Tan Tans took a stroll around the area near the Minshuku that they were staying in and discovered a shrine as well as a small playground. It was just a great lazy morning

 IMG_2599jpg IMG_2600jpg Saw tons of daisy.

IMG_2603jpgNice shrine with a huge sacred tree.

 IMG_2606jpg IMG_2608jpg Swing!! Tan Tans loved it!

IMG_2615jpg Departing from the minishuku that the Tan Tans stayed in. The Tan Tans were also told that for the wild plants cuisine, one have to book it one week in advance.

 

Our second stop for the day is a popular ski resort in winter but was turned into a natural park in summer (or spring in Nagano area). Tsugaike Natural Park

 IMG_2618jpg Before taking the cable car ride the Tan Tans chanced upon this race that took place. Cycling upslope to a height of 1,860m was no joke. Hats off to all of them.

 

IMG_2631jpgIMG_2634jpg The Tan Tans were overjoyed with the sight of snow though Mr Tan Tan was not really geared for this.

IMG_2638jpg However, Mr Tan Tan could not resist the wonderful wild strawberries soft-serve that was waving to him and calling out “eat me. . . eat me”

IMG_2640jpg Entrance to the natural park… love the snow alps behind though it would be even more fabulous if the sky were clear.

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This was the mizu basho or skunk cabbage that we were there for. From what we learned, it’s impossible to plant this and hence, can only be found in the wild.

 

IMG_2672IMG_2675jpg IMG_2665jpg IMG_2667jpg The Tan Tans had to hike through dirty melting snow which ain’t easy with the stupid shoes that they were wearing.

After the tough hike, the Tan Tans had the best soba in Japan. Shinshu Soba. It was served on a traditional bamboo tray and Mr Tan Tan version came in 3 dipping sauces. From left to right. First sauce is daikon (radish) juice and it’s meant to be mixed with the miso paste, spring onion and bonito flakes (white tray just above it), second sauce was the traditional Japanese dip for soba which consist of soy sauce with dashi (stock made with bonito flakes and kombu {seaweed}) and it’s meant to be mixed in with the wasabi, spring onion and grated daikon (tray on top). Lastly, the final dip was the most interesting and it was made with Kurome or walnut. Extremely great dipping the noodles between the 3 sauces and the sauces were not wasted as a pot of water (from boiling the soba) was brought to the table and it was to be added to the sauces becoming sort of a soup.

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The next stop was the last stop before the Tan Tans had to make their way back to Owase. It was a famous Wasabi farm in Nagano area and one of the main producer of Wasabi in Japan.

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And the first thing that Mr Tan Tan did upon arrival? Have a nice cool Wasabi soft-serve, what else do you expect?IMG_2716

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  • Left: Watermill channelling the cool and clear river water in the farm
  • Right: Wasabi plants. The Tan Tans were told that wasabi can only grow in places where there are constant flow of clean and cold water. A shortage of any of the factors and you cannot grow any wasabi. Maybe that explain for the not so cheap prices of fresh wasabi.

 

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 IMG_2734jpg Saw this river fish in the water, that explained how clean the water is. A further 10mins walk led the Tan Tans to a small shop selling grilled river fish.. hmmmm

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The wasabi with the “special promotion of 3 for 1,000yen ($14) as well as the more expensive 1 for $2,500 yen. ($32) The Tan Tans wondered what was the difference.

With the wasabi nuts that the Tan Tans purchased, they made their way back to Owase and bid farewell to Nagano.

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IMG_2766Sunset along the way back.

IMG_2773jpg Nagoya bridge.