Watercolour Japan

Watercolour Sushi

Watercolour Sushi

Have you heard of Waterlogue yet? In short, it’s an iOS app that lets you transform photos into watercolour paintings. Had it not impressed the very professional Kris Atomic, I might’ve passed it over. But it’s really very cool. And it takes less than five seconds for a “painting” to appear, which appeals to the instant-gratificationer in me. Of course, the app works best if the original photos are clear and detailed. And keep in mind, too, that landscapes and flowers seem to work better than selfies. But for someone like me, with little artistic ability–and even less patience–it has been $2.99 well spent.

Watercolour Robot

Watercolour Robot

Watercolour Fruit

Watercolour Fruit

Painted in Waterlogue

Watercolour Flora

Watercolour Shibuya

Watercolour Shibuya

Watercolour Arashiyama

Watercolour Arashiyama

Watercolour Cat

Watercolour Cat

Summer Strawberry Tart with Miso


The idea for Japanese baking had been floating around in my head since I got back, but only after a peek at David Lebovitz did I actually consider baking with miso paste. You see, in Japan miso is not used in desserts; only in sauces and soups. But in fact, miso can add rich, salty undertones to an otherwise traditional recipe. I don’t always like fruit-based desserts, preferring to get my sweet fix in the form of caramely, chocolaty, or buttery goodness. But summer fruit is just so perfect that it would be a shame to let it go to waste.


Note that this is not a recipe for my traditional slapdashery. I had to make the dough and pastry cream twice. It was just not my day. So a word to the wise: the pastry should be very cold as you work with it. As for the pastry cream, ensure that it thickens on the stove, because the tart is not going to be baked later. But if your pastry cream looks rather thin, as mine did, you can put it back on the heat for a few minutes until it thickens, adding a slurry of 1 tsp cornstarch mixed with 1 tsp water.

Strawberry-Miso Tart (adapted from Smitten Kitchen. Ideas from David Lebovitz, and The Wall Street Journal)

The Crust:

  • 150g (1 1/2 cups) flour
  • 128g  (1 stick + 1 tbsp) cold butter
  • 100g (1/2 cup sugar)
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 egg, whisked

The Pastry Cream:

  • 300g (1 1/4 cups) milk (not skim)
  • 1 tbsp white miso paste
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 100g (1/2 cup) sugar
  • 30g (3 tbsp) cornstarch
  • 3 tbsp unsalted butter, at room temperature

For the crust, combine the flour, sugar and salt together in a large bowl or your food processor. Blend until just mixed. Add in the butter, working it together  with your hands (or the food processor) until the mixture resembles fine crumbs. Add in the egg a little bit at a time, and mix gently. Turn the mixture out onto a floured work surface and knead until it all comes together. Refrigerate the dough for about two hours or press it into a 9-inch buttered tart tin right away.

Meanwhile, make the pastry cream: In a small saucepan bring the milk to a boil and then turn off the heat. (You do not want the milk too hot or it will scramble your eggs). Then, working in as heavy-bottomed a saucepan as you have, whisk the yolks, sugar, miso and cornstarch together until they form a thick cream. Then slowly whisk about a quarter of the milk into the eggs until combined. Then whisk in the rest of the milk. Slowly bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat and keep stirring until it starts to thicken. Pour it into a bowl. It will thicken a little bit upon cooling, but you want it fairly solid right off the heat–like custard. Actually, for even better instructions you can watch this excellent video. Either way, when your pastry cream is finished, place plastic wrap tightly on the surface and refrigerate.

Now take out your tart dough and roll it out to fit a buttered your tart tin. Push any raggedy edges back into the pie crust and pierce it all over with a fork. Put the shell back in the freezer for at least 30 minutes, but more like an hour. When it’s ready, tightly place a piece of buttered foil onto the top. This should keep it from puffing up without pie weights. Turn the oven on to 375°F/190°C and put your unbaked tart shell in for 20-25 minutes. Then take the foil off and continue to bake until golden. Don’t burn it (as I did the first time!) but do let it get nice and brown.

Now to to assemble: when your tart shell and pastry cream are cool, spoon the pastry cream into the tart shell and artfully arrange your sliced strawberries on top. Serve with heavy cream, custard, or ice cream, if you like.


What to Eat in Japan

A very happy face at one of Tokyo's food halls. Photo taken by my friend Jesse Voet.

A very happy face at one of Tokyo’s food halls. Photo taken by my friend Jesse Voet.

It should come as no surprise that the Japanese are as committed to perfection in food as they are to perfection in everything else. Food halls and convenience stores alike are laid out beautifully. Everything is orderly, neat, and logical: my convenience store onigiri came with a separate plastic coating so that the seaweed sleeve would not get soggy.

But perhaps I was led astray into thinking that I would find square watermelons and fugu on every corner. (I did not look very hard, but I never did find them!) Nevertheless, I had many other food experiences which were equally delicious, and very “Japan.”

Coffee Jelly: Unsweetened coffee turned into Jello, often mixed with ice cream. This bizarro delicacy can be found in plenty of cafes, and has even made its way to Starbucks:


Kit Kats: I had heard rumors about strange-flavoured Kit Kat bars, and was very glad to pick up a few boxes at the airport (in matcha, sakura, red bean sandwich and chili flavours). Most convenience stores seem to stock only one or two flavours, so it’s best simply to buy at the airport.


Matcha: Matcha, or powdered green tea, is a Japanese tea ceremony staple. Over the course of my two-week holiday I tried matcha cake, matcha ice cream, matcha tea lattes, matcha Kit Kats, and a matcha croissant from this place. It was one of the most delightful croissants I have ever had.


Natto: The beans on toast of Japan, Natto is a fermented soybean dish that you mix together with mustard and soy sauce to serve on top of rice. It has a very strong smell and becomes slimier and stringier as you stir it, so it is definitely an acquired taste. But it is cheap, ubiquitous, and very nutritious, so there’s that.

Onigiri: In this category I include all convenience store snacks like inari sushi, rice crackers, and my favourite triangular onigiri, which can be filled with tuna, salmon, cod roe, smoked shrimp, kombu, etc.

Red Bean Cakes: Japan on the whole is not big on sweets, so even desserts are a bit “earthy.” But red bean paste is delicious and features in many North Asian desserts.


Sushi: Sushi chefs train for eight years–I repeat, eight years–before they are said to have “mastered” nigiri hand rolls. Knowing that I was extremely appreciative of our fine chef at the Mandarin Oriental. This meal was expensive, to put it mildly, but worth it for the lovely view of Tokyo and getting to sit two feet away from a master chef. Sadly, we did not get to Jiro’s restaurant, or even get to speak with a member of his staff, but this place was just as lovely–and with the added bonus of a very chic black-panelled interior.




23 Things I Noticed about Japan

Back alleys of Shibuya

Back alleys of Shibuya

I thought I had seen some big cities–Shanghai, Seoul, and even Moscow all have more than 10 million inhabitants. But Tokyo felt–and, according to some sources is–bigger than any of those. Maybe it’s the high-rises, the vertical shopping, the crowds of people on the metro, the tiny apartments, or the fact every square foot is made useful (and beautiful). It feels big. It was at times thoroughly confusing, but also completely impressive. I spent three entire days shopping, unable to tear myself away from all the shops. Every brand I’d ever heard of–and plenty I hadn’t–was there. There are Comme des Garçons, Hermes and L’Occitane cafes. Marc Jacobs bookstore with Marc Jacobs Sharpie? Why not. 12-floor Uniqlo flagship? Even better. But I find browsing through hundreds of stores in giant cities thoroughly enjoyable, so Tokyo is for me. And Kyoto is rather lovely too–it runs at a slower pace, and has the beautiful traditional streets of Gion.

Everything in Japan seems to have this secret logic to it that I don’t understand yet: ways to eat, ways to navigate train stations with 12 different exits, ways to flick on the lights in a high-tech apartment without clicking 25 buttons. I was a bit nervous about stepping out of line, culturally speaking, but I really needn’t have worried. Like everywhere else, foreigners often get a faux-pas pass:

Sumimasen: If you are committing many faux-pas, saying “excuse me” is an important phrase to know. It’s said to you when you come to a store, to get people’s attention, and when you inevitably bump into them. Its importance is only surpassed by “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you very much).

Umbrellas: Almost everyone carries the same kind: the clear plastic domey variety. They’re designed to be the kind you use for one downpour, then throw away, so everyone buys them from the ubiquitous konbini (convenience stores).

Black Suits: Are a uniform for the salarymen. Maybe you’ll see navy blue or a light (I mean light) pinstripe.

Women: Always look put-together, often with heels and nice makeup. Speaking of the face…

Skincare: Is sooooo good, just like Korea. But a bit pricier, and sometimes fancier.


Apartments: Are generally beyond me. Our posh-ish place in Kyoto locked not with a key, not with a card, but with a remote control.

Cute Haircuts: Are all around. Kind of making me want a natty bob like this girl.

Ginza: Is amazing. 10-storey Zara. Massive Uniqlo. Swoon.

The Metro: Is pretty confusing. Be sure you don’t attempt to help anyone who falls in, like this guy:


English: Is everywhere. You’ll be fine. 

Cat Cafes: Hee!

In my natural habitat.

In my natural habitat.

Shinjuku Station: Is the WORST. If you have to go through here, plan ahead and leave yourself lots of time. I found it extremely confusing.

Prices: Are high, but not higher than London or Moscow. For example, a tall Starbucks matcha latte which I ordered, ahem, more than once, is ¥415, or about $4.50.

Shopping: As I alluded to, is hands down the best I’ve ever seen. Where to begin!? Omotesando, Shinjuku’s Isetan mall, Shibuya’s backstreets, all of Ginza. Just go.

Eating: Is generally done in a restaurant, at home, or on a long-haul train. It’s frowned upon to eat or drink on the street.

Children: Are the absolute cutest in the world.

Basement food halls: a.k.a. the depachika in most malls, surpass even Harrods for quality and beauty.

Rush Hour: Is an exercise in zen. People are rushing but no one is pushy or unfriendly. I didn’t witness it, but apparently it’s all true: white-gloved guards do come to squeeze you onto the train, asking nicely all the while.

Strange-flavoured Kit Kats: Exist! But pretty much only at the airport.

Money: When you pay for something you put your cash or card on a little tray for the attendant to pick up. But then they return the change to your hand. This happens in Russia sometimes too, but usually your change will be put back on the tray, not into your hands.

Shrines: Are really beautiful, but if you are lazy like me you will only make it to two. Make it count!

Shrines of Kyoto

Shrines of Kyoto

Trash Cans: Are almost non-existent. I heard that the reasons are twofold: security and cleanliness. I was advised to look for garbage/recycling bins near the source, meaning the convenience stores or beside vending machines.

Matcha: The best tea in the world, is ever-present. More on that soon!

(Oh! And you may like to read last year’s notes: 21 Things I noticed about China)



Challah, the traditional Jewish egg bread, is a special thing: not too sweet or rich, it makes the perfect toast and, when it gets stale, even better bread pudding. It’s made by braiding bread dough and then sometimes sprinkling the loaves with poppy seeds. Delicious! I’ve heard, too, that the traditional way to make it at Rosh Hashanah is by braiding the dough into a crown, sometimes adding more sugar, sometimes adding raisins, and sometimes both.  Or you can try this version for an ultra-rich take on a classic.

Challah (adapted from James Beard’s Beard on Bread, the 1973 classic. Use this book, and your bread shall not disappoint)

  • 21g (3 packages) active dried yeast
  • 300mL (1 1/3 cups) warm water (warm to the touch, not boiling)
  • 13g (1 tbsp) sugar
  • 17g (1 tbsp) coarse salt
  • 45g (3 tbsp) softened butter
  • 3 eggs, at room temperature
  • 625g (5 cups) all-purpose flour
  • 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tsp water
  • poppy seeds, if using

Put the yeast into a large bowl with the warm water and leave for five minutes to proof. Add the sugar, salt, butter, eggs and the flour (slowly!). Beat the dough with a wooden spoon, adding more flour until you have quite a stiff dough.

Wash your bowl and then put the dough back in it to rise until it has doubled in size, around 1.5-2 hours. Punch the dough down gently, then divide it in half. Divide each half into three equal pieces and braid into a loaf like the picture above. If it’s been a while since you’ve braided your hair or, um, a loaf of bread–it’s left over middle, right over middle, left over middle and so on. Cover your loaves with clean tea towels and leave to double in bulk again. Sometime in there preheat your oven to 400°F. Brush the tops with the egg wash and sprinkle with poppy seeds, if using. Bake for 40-45 minutes until golden, and the bread sounds hollow when tapped. Place on racks and slice when coolish.

Makes two loaves

Great Russian Movies: The Tragedies

Nobody does beautiful despair like the Russians:

Брат (Brother): At his mother’s behest Danila goes to visit his brother Viktor, a low-level gangster, in St. Petersburg. Turns out that, of the two, Danila is the better criminal. Friends have told me that when this movie came out Sergei Bodrov, who plays Danila, was heralded as the great new Russian star. Tragically, he was killed in an avalanche only a few years later.

Утомленние Солнцем (Burnt by the Sun): The year is 1936 and Sergei Petrovich, former revolutionary hero, hopes to spend a relaxing summer at his family country home. But when his wife’s cousin Dmitri returns after some time in Paris, things start to go sour. Stalin’s powers are increasing and Dmitri’s visit is no accident. For your info Nikita Mikhalkov, who stars here, was also in Walking around Moscow some thirty years earlier.

Иди и Смотри (Come and See): During the Nazi occupation of Belarus young Flyora finds a rifle in the sand. That marks the beginning of the end. As the war continues things become more exaggerated and more intense as Flyora and his companion Glasha sink deeper into despair. This one is tough to take–I recommend a couple of sittings.

Летят журавли (The Cranes are Flying): Veronika and Boris are in love. But when Boris goes off to war his musician/slacker cousin starts making increasingly obvious advances to Veronika. This is a particularly beautiful film because Tatiana Samoylova, who plays Veronika, has such an expressive face. Some of the camera angles are just incredible too and have been discussed extensively.

Гамлет (Hamlet): You may think you have seen Hamlet, but have you seen the version with a text translated by Boris Pasternak, a score composed by Dmitri Shostakovich, and a performance praised by Laurence Olivier? That’s this one. And for a bit more gossip, the protagonist, Innokentiy Smoktunovsky from Watch out for the Automobile (an honest-to-goodness comedy!) plays Hamlet.

Иваново Детство (Ivan’s Childhood): This was Andrei Tarkovsky’s first major film, and my favourite. Ivan’s family is killed on the Eastern front and Ivan, only twelve years old, vows to avenge their death. Very, very sad but very, very good.

Крылья (Wings): Nadezhda used to be a famous fighter pilot and was fiercely loyal to The Party. Now, some years later, she is finding her life as a headmistress unfulfilling. Say what you will about feminism in Russia but Larissa Shepitko, the director of Wings, was getting nominated for film awards in 1966. The first woman nominated for an Oscar for directing came only 10 years later, with Lina Wertmüller. Incredible.





Great Russian Movies: The Comedies

This’ll be quick–the only five comedies in all of Russian cinema! Actually there are lots but, linguistically and culturally, I can’t always follow the humour. Fortunately, the following five are very accessible, and very well known. They’re even on YouTube and the excellent Mosfilm site, so you don’t have to pay a cent. I have even more to say about Russian cinematic tragedies, which are numerous, so stay tuned.

Берегись автомобиля (Beware of the Car): Yura is a modern-day Robin Hood, an insurance salesman who steals cars from the rich and gives them to the poor. His best friend is the police officer working on the case. Very silly, but very well done.

Ирония судьбы (The Irony of Fate): Every year, on December 31st Zhenya and his friends go to the banya to relax and drink a bunch of vodka. His friends remember that one of their group has a plane to catch and so bring Zhenya to the airport to fly to Leningrad. As it turns out, it’s the wrong friend and when Zhenya arrives he is so drunk he takes the nearest taxi to his Moscow address: “Builders’ Steet.” This being Brezhnev-era Russia, the cities’ street names are standardized and Builders’ Street exists in Leningrad too. Mayhem and romance follow. A popular rewatch around New Year’s Eve, think of this as Russia’s answer to It’s a Wonderful Life.

Иван васильевич меняет профессию (Ivan Vasilievich Changes Professions): Perhaps you thought that time travel and Ivan the Terrible would never meet in the same film. Well think again! Ivan the Terrible was apparently quite the riot.

Москва слезам не верит (Moscow doesn’t Believe in Tears): Two college girls are house sitting for a family friend. They invite two gentlemen callers over, one thing leads to another, and Katya gets pregnant and becomes a single mother. Fast forward 15 years and she meets a nice man. Trouble is, he thinks that he’s the provider. What he doesn’t know is that, as a glavnii engineer, Katya is more than capable of taking care of herself.

Я шагаю по Москве (Walking around Moscow): I saw this only a few weeks ago, but it has quickly become one of my favourites. It depicts one day in Moscow, walking around, going to the shops, getting married, meeting a pretty girl. What can I say, it’s delightful, and at 75 minutes, goes down easy.