Easy Distance – Site News

There has been a minor delay in our regular posting schedule… but for good reason.

We are constructing the most awesome, truly unique, advanced Jack Burton Robot the science will have no answer for.

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Just kidding.

But seriously… We are going to restructure the site a little bit with separate headings for Open Kimono, Cooking in the Shower, Lessons Learned and a new section called, Love and Travel.

All these changes should take place in the next few weeks or so. You may see some shiny new things to click on and then be disappointed when they don’t go anywhere. Sorry for that. Just be glad that you didn’t unwittingly ignite a holy war between Trekkies and LARPers.

In the mean time, check out our Tumblr page for daily photo posts of Japan and other stuff!! (easydistance.tumblr.com)

Stay on the good road!

So grossed out

Over the summer I have come to realize that my entire apartment and everything in it has been and is rotting. The summer rain and humidity has caused everything to become perpetually damp. Since Japan carries some kind of vehement hatred of electric dryers, nothing ever feels truly dry.

Why, yes that does look like rain.

Why, yes that does look like rain.

Here’s my typical day in the rainy season: Bike to work in the rain, wearing waterproof gear so that I’m not drenched by the time I get to work. Get to work and realize that I am still drenched because it’s 85 to 90 degrees with 100% humidity, and I sweat all over the inside of my gear. Remove gear in the non-air-conditioned dressing room at school and hope it has a chance to dry. Try to change clothes while sweating profusely, to go sit in a non-air-conditioned office and teach in non-air-conditioned classrooms. At the end of the day, return to the locker room to put rain gear back on because it has started raining again. The rain gear is still wet, but you’ll sweat through it anyway so what’s the difference? Bike home in the rain and hang up your gear in your humid apartment. Turn on the fan and hope they’ll be ready for tomorrow. Take a cold shower and dry off with a semi-dry towel, only to go to bed and start sweating again because your bedroom is also not air-conditioned. Repeat. I actually heard someone once refer to an electric dryer as a “beacon of light” in the dark rainy season.

This horribly vicious cycle has caused totally unexpected things in my apartment to mold. Here’s what’s succumbed to bacillus acremonium so far:

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Common Mold – Image courtesy of Bob Blaylock

Shoes, that’s right, and more than one pair

Clothes (which resulted in over $100 dollars worth of dry cleaning when we got back from summer vacation).

Highly preserved foods such as maple syrup and jam

A Camera bag

Playing cards

Our front door

The bathroom

Closet walls and floors

Living in California my whole life, I was absolutely unprepared to deal with all this excess moisture. I needed someone to give me “A Dummy’s Guide to Living with Humidity” when I moved in. Tips like “Buy disposable dehumidifiers and put them everywhere” would have been useful. Even if I had been on the offensive, huge hindrances have thwarted me at every turn because of Japan’s bizarre methods of trash disposal and non-intuitive apartment design.

There are no personal garbage receptacles in Japan. You must store up your trash and take it to designated collection sites only on the designated days, which usually occur only once or twice a week. So in the mean time, you have multiple bags of different kinds of trash sitting around somewhere in your apartment. We have only one place in our apartment to put said trash; a “pantry-like” closet in our living room that is lined with raw, unvarnished wood. You’d think with all the brilliant engineers living in Japan that someone would have remember that wood absorbs moisture. Our closet absorbs all the lovely aromas coming from our accumulating pile of refuse.

In the winter, when we moved in, we didn’t realize just how bad this would become. We were given no furniture whatsoever, so the food that should have gone onto shelves and the clothes that should have gone in a dresser were piled up in these wooden closets. Then the rain and the humidity came, and the closets became rank with decay. The walls began to mold, and the ripe scent of hot trash attracted fruit flies and ants. How does the Internet say to deal with fruit flies? By leaving out rotting fruit to attract and trap them! Awesome, I’ve got plenty of that lying around, but I kind of wanted to CUT DOWN on the amount of insects and living fungus breeding in my domicile! Sometimes, I even want mold around but in the form miso paste  and not ruining my fresh produce. One of the reasons I only grocery shop on a daily basis is because the produce has already begun to decay by the time I get it home. When you’re paying $4 for peaches, this is extremely frustrating.

Crawling in my skin, I try to take refuge in the one place where personal hygiene remains sacred, the bathroom, only to be yet again thwarted by Japan’s inane shower system. Is there no respite from the mold?! Furious by now, I curse this country I now call home and angrily demand how the Japanese can live like this? Oh yeah, they stay at work for twelve hours a day, go out to eat, bathe at a public sento and basically only use their apartments for quick naps. Damn you! How are us poor slobs who can’t afford the lifestyle supposed to stay clean? Perhaps my new tactic for getting a raise at work should be to come dressed in my molding apparel, offending the noses of everyone near me and eliciting sympathy as I slowly melt into a pile of fungus a la the Wicked Witch of the West…

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ASIMO Robot – Honda
Courtesy of Momotarou12

While I wouldn’t label myself a “clean freak,” I value basic sanitary conditions, and have found myself so grossed out since the rainy season started that I now disparage the idea of Japan being a “clean” place, or even a first-world country. What country can dedicate their energies to developing state of the art robots and yet be at a loss for designing outdoor trash cans? Why isn’t there a robot that hunts down and kills mold? WHY? How can they demand that people use less air-conditioning to conserve energy while still perpetrating the idea that one must be totally covered up in public? Even more frustrating is that Japanese personal hygiene is also causing problems. How can a culture so obsessed with body cleanliness be so laissez-faire with mold, insects and the home?

At our schools, air-conditioning isn’t typically available (one or two rooms might have it), but it is required that you wear a suit until June 1st. How can the Japanese retain the belief that depriving air-conditioning from children in school is necessary to “toughen them up” when 1,488 people in June were recently admitted to hospitals in Japan for heatstroke? Answers to these questions have been posited by others with more education and cultural sensitivity than I. If you are interested in some answers, here’s a great place to start.

All of you who have experience with humidity and/or monsoon season can feel free to laugh at my dismay and pat yourselves on the back for learning to put up with a truly awful aspect of having to live on planet Earth. For those of you planning to come to Japan, read the suggestions offered by the websites below before the rainy season and avoid my mistakes. I haven’t even touched on taking care of tatami mats yet…

Surviving Japan.com – Surviving Summer

Surviving Japan.com – A guide to dehumidifiers

Nagoya Int’l center – Dealing with Mold

Daily O-Nigiri – On Drying Clothes

Frugal Japan – Drying Tips

Japan with Kids – Cleaning Tips

Cooking in the shower – Coconut Curry Beef Soba

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The name alone just sounds amazing right? That’s what I thought when I came across this recipe from Cooking Light, my go-to source for easy, delicious and healthy meals.

What you'll need

What you’ll need

So I had to try it! Not all of my magazine recipe experiments have paid off while here in Japan, but fortunately this one was exactly what I was looking for. It’s a whole meal, so no need to cook side dishes! If you’re here in Japan you might have to search to find coconut milk and curry powder, but I assure you they do exist. It’s rare to find limes, but many stores sell lime juice by the bottle. You might not find spinach leaves, but there are all sorts of leafy greens in the Japanese market that will work great. And if you are in Japan, you can disregard the recipe directions to buy a steak, freeze it and thinly slice. Just buy the shabu-shabu ready steak sliced at the market!

For those of you without markets that pre-slice your meat paper thin, take an inexpensive steak to the butcher counter and ask them to do it for you. Another note on this recipe is to disregard the call for peanut oil, any light oil will work fine. Does anyone making these recipes think we’ll taste the difference between a tablespoon of peanut oil and vegetable oil? You can make this dish with one pot, if you keep wiping it clean between uses, but I use two to expedite the process. I cook the soba and greens first in the large pot and set aside in the colander when finished. Then I saute the coconut sauce in the large pot while I fry up the beef in a smaller pan.

Cook your soba and wilt the greens first

Cook your soba and wilt the greens first

Saute the garlic and ginger and add curry powder

Saute the garlic and ginger and add curry powder

Add your coconut milk mixture to combine

Add your coconut milk mixture to combine

While the coconut sauce heats, fry the beef

While the coconut sauce heats, fry the beef

Thin sliced beef will only take a couple minutes to brown

Thin sliced beef will only take a couple minutes to brown

The coconut milk makes this dish so rich and quite un-Japanese, which is great for a rainy day when you’ve had your fill of gas station sushi (the butt of a joke in the states, but a viable dining option in Japan).  The recipe says it serves six. When I make this, I follow the directions for the sauce quantities exactly, along with the beef and soba. I definitely don’t use 8 cups of bok choy, maybe two, and this makes enough for two people. I suppose by eating the equivalent of three servings, it stops being “healthy,” so if this concerns you, make the serving size correctly and add some veggies on the side.

Cooking in the shower – U.F.S.

Unidentified Fish Sandwich

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Maybe you can tell what kind of fish this is…

I am posting this sandwich recipe at Andrew’s request, mostly because he flattered me and said it was one of his favorite sandwiches of all time. With an endorsement like this, you must be dying to know how to make this for yourselves. Luckily, it is ridiculously simple and basically foolproof. Not that you’re a fool, that’s not what I meant, I’m sorry…ugh. *face palm* Way to alienate your audience Shana.

I decided to make fish sandwiches one night, utilizing Japan’s awesome Panko breadcrumbs, and whipped up a quick homemade “remoulade” of sorts. The results were delicious, so without further ado, here’s what you’ll need:

Fish- I would tell you what I used, but I have no idea! (Cue X-files theme) Unless it’s swordfish or salmon, I generally can’t tell what I’m buying at the market here in Japan because I’m illiterate, in Japanese…obviously. If it’s white, free of bones and eyes, that’s what I buy! If you are in the states, you will have many more options. Pretty much any white fish you like will work great. According to Oceana, 33% of the fish sold in the US are mislabeled anyway, so don’t worry about it (The TRUTH is out there)! Since the fish will be breaded and slapped between some French bread, it doesn’t need to be fancy, so grab what’s cheap. Cod, snapper, tilapia, all good. Leave the halibut for a special occasion. On a side note, I never understood why people would come into the seafood restaurant and substitute the cod for halibut in fish and chips. Yeah it sounds good, but pretty much any fish beer-battered and deep-fried sounds good. Way to waste $20 on fish and chips, true story

French bread- whatever manifestation you like best. I would avoid the baguette and stick with something wider and softer. One loaf should serve two to three people. If you want to be all healthy, you could do wheat I guess…

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Panko

Panko- This crust-less breadcrumb is available everywhere, even outside of Japan. Look in the Asian foods area of your grocery, or sometimes even where the standard breadcrumbs are kept

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“Remoulade”

Sandwich fixin’s- I used a little lettuce, red onion, tomato, and a couple pickled jalapeno slices, but feel free to add or subtract as desired. I also added cheese once, yummy, something like white cheddar or pepperjack is good

Egg- one egg, beaten, used for dredging

Mayo-based spread- If you don’t feel like anything fancy, you can just slap some mayonnaise on your bread. I finely chopped a tablespoon of capers and mixed them with a couple tablespoons of mayo, a squeeze of lemon juice and fresh ground pepper. A little hot sauce might not be a bad addition either…

One sauté pan

Put your panko crumbs in a shallow dish and add a little fresh ground pepper and salt. Put the beaten egg in a bowl next to the panko. The closer these dishes are to the stove, the smaller the mess. It is always smart to throw down some paper towels too. Slice your bread and place in the toaster oven, optional to butter the slices first. If you want to use cheese, put some slice on the bread now. I chop all the sandwich fixings first and arrange on a plate. Whip up your remoulade sauce if using and place near the toaster oven.

Heat your sauté pan to med-high with a little oil. One piece at a time, take the fish filets and immerse in the egg to coat. Then place the fish in your panko dish and cover both sides with crumbs. IMG_0949Place your breaded fish directly onto the pan, cooking on both sides for a few minutes until crispy and cooked through.IMG_0952

Use these few minutes while the fish are cooking to turn on the toaster oven and wash a few dishes if possible. A great home cook will always clean as they go. Once your bread is toasted, slather some remoulade on half and arrange your fish. IMG_0954

Garnish with your favorite toppings and enjoy!

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You can serve this sandwich with pretty much anything you like. If you want to keep your cooking to one pot like me, go with a cold salad or coleslaw. This is a super-easy way to bread fish in general, so next time you want fish sticks, keep panko in mind!

Voila!

Voila!

Cooking in the shower – Lettuce Wraps

Even when I wasn’t attempting to diet here in Japan, I made these lettuce wraps for dinner. They are light, delicious, fast, and only need one pot to make! This recipe is an amalgamation of different online sources I found when I Googled “P.F. Chang lettuce wraps.” If you haven’t tried these at P.F. Chang’s, definitely do, but I think you will be pleased with the outcome if you try these at home. Plus they won’t break your budget like P.F. Chang’s will… IMG_0962

What you’ll need:

lettuce leaves: You want something big enough to hold but pliable enough to fold, if that makes sense. Stay away from super-crisp lettuce like iceberg that won’t wrap. Just stay away from iceberg in general… Butter leaf will work, or romaine, whatever is your favorite. Even cabbage is great for this, I prefer the Chinese Nappa. If it’s your main dish, have at least four large wraps per person, six if they are smaller.IMG_0963

1 pound ground chicken: or turkey, or pork. I don’t think ground beef would mix well with the rest of the ingredients. If you want to go vegetarian, use tofu or other preferred meat substitute. I sometimes add tofu to these wraps to make them a little more hearty. If you have a chicken breast that’s lying around, you can cut into small pieces and use that instead of ground meat. One pound will serve four if you have complimentary dishes, otherwise two people can make this their whole meal.

white or yellow onion finely chopped: some recipes say to go with a whole onion, I’m usually happy with half. Use however much you prefer.IMG_1291

2 cloves chopped garlic

1 ½ tbsp ginger, peeled and minced

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp rice wine vinegar

hot sauce of choice: you can go with Tabasco if you like it mild, sambal oelek for an extra bit of garlic, Sriracha for heat, cayenne pepper, chili oil, whatever floats your boat. Or use real chilies (which I don’t have access to in Japan) like serranos, jalapeno, etc. How much to add is also up to you, I do at least 1 tbsp of sambal oelek.

hoisin sauce: I have come to adore this stuff, which I never used extensively before coming to Japan. It just makes light meat like chicken and pork sing! Start with a couple tablespoons and taste to see if it needs more. It really gives the meat a nice color as well when it’s all mixed in

handful of chopped green onions

sesame oil

Heat a non-stick skillet to med-high and add your chicken, breaking up the meat to cook evenly. IMG_0967When chicken begins to look opaque and cooked through, add the white onion. Saute together for a couple minutes to soften the onion. IMG_0969Add the garlic and ginger, mixing to combine. IMG_0970After thirty seconds, add the soy sauce, vinegar, hot sauce, and hoisin as necessary. Lastly, add your green onions and a drizzle of sesame oil for a little extra flavor. IMG_0971

Prep and cook time place this recipe around 15 to 20 minutes. There are also lots of ways to vary this dish if you want to try it again differently, or use up random veggies you have lying around. I add tofu, but sauted mushrooms would be good for umami as well. If you want some extra crunch, try any of these:

water chestnuts  IMG_0974

peanuts

bean sprouts

carrots

bell peppers

zucchini

daikon

jicama

IMG_0965These wraps come with dipping sauce at P.F. Chang’s, and although they taste great on their own, feel free to add any side sauce you enjoy. I usually serve alongside a bottle of sweet chili sauce, but I’m sure a savory peanut sauce, hot Asian mustard or a creamy cilantro dressing would be good too. This is another great “foundation” recipe that can be tweaked in so many delicious ways. IMG_0973

You can even ditch the “wrap” altogether and add some chopped cabbage to the pot (or kimchi if you’re like me) and serve over rice for a whole meal. This is good for larger groups, as you can pre-cook everything up until the hoisin and green onions and store in the fridge. When you’re ready, warm it up and finish it in the skillet. It would probably even be tasty as cold leftovers, I haven’t tried it yet since there are never any leftovers at my house! I don’t even have a picture of actual said lettuce wrap because I ate it too fast, so send me yours after you make this!

 

Cooking in the shower – Rockin’ peach salad

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Peaches, watermelon and cucumber are spruced up with a little fresh basil

As I’ve probably mentioned before, cooking in the summer is a drag. It’s hot and a tiny kitchen with no windows is the worst place you can choose to be, which is why my strategy for summer meals involves a lot of cold items that take minimal amounts of prep, but are still delicious. Utilizing produce that’s in season will “up” your meals on the deliciousness scale, and even with all the different nutrition data out there, whole foods are still generally your best bet.

I am attempting to do Weight Watchers here in Japan (a more in-depth post on that coming soon) and fruit counts for zero points, so every meal of my day is accompanied by some sort of fruit. By dinner time, I try to find a way to use fruit in a savory context, and it just so happens that savory fruit salad is simple to prepare and requires no cooking whatsoever. Since peaches are in season at the moment, I have been eating this delicious peach salad on a regular basis. Here’s what you’ll need:

peaches: I use one peach for two people, so up the quantity as necessary. I keep the skin on, slice around the pit like a mango and slice into strips.

watermelon: seeded and sliced into bite-sized pieces.

cucumber: one cucumber thinly sliced.

basil: I slice my basil using the classic chiffonade method. Stack leaves on top of one another, roll them up like a cigarette and slice in thin ribbons vertically. For this salad I use at least five large basil leaves, adjust to your taste. Mint will work in a pinch, but I prefer the savory quality of basil. Sweet, lime, Thai, any type of basil is fine.

vinegar: I use white wine vinegar because it is what I can find here in Japan, but champagne vinegar, riesling vinegar or any manifestation of a white vinegar will work.

honey: whatever floats your boat, organic or the stuff that comes in that cute bear-shaped bottle.

Take a couple tablespoons of your vinegar and mix with at least a teaspoon of honey. Add more for a sweeter dressing. Whisk until blended. Toss the sliced peaches, basil, cucumber in a bowl and drizzle with the vinegar dressing. If you want to prepare ahead of time, chill the salad in the refrigerator and add dressing at the time of serving. A little fresh ground pepper on top never hurt anyone.

Peach salad with avocado

Peach salad with avocado and radish

Mix and match: This salad is great because the above are the basic building blocks, and almost any fruit you can think to add will be delicious. I added avocado once, plum another time. Adding all this at once might just send your taste buds into a state of nirvana. I’m not sure, you ought to try it and let me know. Thinly sliced apples would add a nice crunch; sliced grapes would lend moisture and pineapple or mango would add sweetness. The possibilities are virtually endless, I would only suggest abstaining from banana. Keep the bananas at breakfast where they belong. For some reason after writing this, the image of a lonely banana sitting in a corner labeled “Breakfast” came to mind, and now I feel very sad…

But seriously, even if you feel bad for the bananas, leave them out. Other savory additions that could be enjoyable include red onion, radish, shallot (good luck finding this in Japan because I sure haven’t), a squeeze of lime juice, and a couple drops of chili oil. So have fun experimenting or take this to a summer potluck and have fun experimenting on others!

Cooking in the shower – Japanese Curry

Something I have discovered that I did not expect from Japanese cuisine is curry. In the states, our Japanese restaurants are limited to sushi, tempura and teriyaki. Never before have I seen a bowl of curry on a menu back home. So imagine my surprise when on my second day in country I was handed a bowl of delicious beef curry. Japanese curry is rich, aromatic, filling, easy to make and inexpensive to cook. Here’s what you will need to serve one person: IMG_0848

Package of Japanese curry base: Japanese curry is not a paste or powder, but comes in the form of blocks. Each block usually has four sections that break apart. When I cook for two I use the whole block, so you may only need to use half. You can buy these in any market or convenience store in Japan, and Asian markets in Western countries should have them too.

Beef: If you want a vegetarian curry, simply omit this. Look for a cheap cut of beef steak that is at least half an inch thick. This isn’t always easy to find in Japan, so my decision to make curry for dinner usually occurs when I see a piece of meat I can use. Andrew once bought me thinly sliced beef on accident, which wasn’t terrible, but nice hearty chunks are a better texture for curry. If you have better access to beef, use any Top Round or Sirloin cut, trimming extra fat as desired. Cut into bite sized cubes.IMG_0849

Potato: In Japan, the common potatoes I see at the market tend to be quite small, which is very frustrating when you want to peel them. If you are using small potatoes for one serving, you only need a couple. If you find the large ones, definitely one will be enough. Peel and chop into bite sized pieces.

Carrot: Japanese carrots are also a little stubby compared to those in the states, but just one will do the trick. Peel and thinly slice. I usually cut the bigger rounds in half again, but it will depend on the width of your carrot.IMG_0851

Onion: White or yellow onion will work, again these tend to be smaller in Japan. For a single serving you need less than half, more if you really like onions.

Rice: I suppose you could eat this curry sans rice, but why would you want to? Rice is what makes this a really filling meal. I use one cup of uncooked rice for two people, so halve that if you want a single serving.

If you make the rice in a rice-cooker, this recipe becomes a one-pot dish. Start the rice first and it will be ready when your curry is done. Heat a large pot on medium and add a neutral oil like vegetable or grapeseed, which I recently found at the market! Chop your onion into small pieces, but not minced. I cook the onion first so that is has a chance to get soft. Sauté for a few minutes or until the onion looks translucent. Add your bite sized beef to the pot to brown for a few minutes. IMG_0853

Once brown all over, add the potato and carrot. Let these all sauté together for a few minutes, stirring occasionally to let the carrots and potatoes soften. IMG_0854

Add water just enough to cover your meat and veggies. You want to boil them so they are soft, but you also want a thick curry, so you don’t want too much liquid. IMG_0857

Bring everything to a boil and then lower the heat to simmer for around ten minutes. I test the potatoes with a fork after ten minutes to see if they are soft. If not, continue to cook a little longer. Then add your block o’ curry. If you are cooking for one, start with half the block.IMG_0856

The liquid will darken but it will seem thin at first. Allow the mixture to continue to cook for a few minutes to thicken. IMG_0858The consistency should be like stew, thicker than soup but not as thick as gravy. If it’s still thinner than you would like, keep adding those curry blocks as needed. Put your rice in a bowl and ladle your curry on top. Itadakimasu IMG_0861