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.
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)
- 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.
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.
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!
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!
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
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.
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.
I am excited to announce that my next holidays will be taking place in Japan! In a month! If you’ve been paying attention you’ll know that, for me, formula number one for a successful vacation is a set of terrific food experiences. Here’s what/where I hope to be eating:
Sukiyabashi Jiro: Jiro dreams of sushi at his original Ginza location or his son’s branch in Roppongi Hills. The meal can take as little as 15 minutes, costs 30,000 yen ($300) and is adjacent to a metro station. But the sushi is supposed to be incredible. So good, in fact, that it is the subject of an entire documentary.
Planetarium Cafe: Could anything be better than drinking under the stars in a climate-controlled environment? How about drinking surrounded by exotic fish? Or in a vampire cafe? So many options.
Square Watermelons: What a cute, clever idea, Japan! However, now that it’s been confirmed that they are $80+, I’m not sure I’ll be buying one any time soon. But I definitely at least want a photo of me stacking them, Lego-style.
Owl Cafe: Just like the cat cafe only…with owls. Some cafes even have owl-themed snacks! But, um, the restrictions for holding the animals are a little different:
Wriggling Squid: An experience I declined in Korea but I think I might try it now. The squid is still wriggling as you eat it…
Fugu: I’ve never started dinner with a warning before, but if they slice the pufferfish the wrong way, you can die. Challenge accepted!
Japanese Beauty Drinks: Hyaluronic acid and collagen are important ingredients in anti-aging beauty creams, and in Japan you can get them in drink form for a not-that-bad price. Perfect skin will be mine!
Cafe Anniversaire: Seems like one of those trendy, traditional cafes with good coffee and drinks: like Cafe de Flore in Paris, or the fancy Bosco Cafe at GUM in Moscow. Perfect people watching.
Streetside Ramen Houses: After reading a lot of Murakami, nothing sounds better than going to one of Kyoto’s many ramen shops to eat noodles, listen to jazz, or just reenact this futuristic scene:
Bento Box: Damn, all I want in life now is a Totoro bento box! Is there a restaurant I can go to for this? If not, I may have to find myself a Japanese mum. Apparently, in Japan, your child’s lunch will ideally consist of five+ colours. If it doesn’t, other children will ridicule their ugly lunch and comment that their mother clearly doesn’t love them. Please note that the lunch below has not five, not six, but TEN different colours!
Japanese Coffee: Specifically, Kyoto slow drip coffee. I’ve heard Blue Bottle Coffee in the States uses this method, and there may be others in North America too. But I can’t wait to get my hands on the real deal. And look how beautiful those glass kettles are, too.
Anything else I should eat in Japan? How delicious (or not) is fugu? Which coffee shop should I head to first??
I’ll keep it short: think of these as little clouds. Soft, melting clouds to serve with afternoon tea on what we can only hope to call the very last days of what has been a very cold winter. Provided you have a stand mixer, meringues are easy indeed. They do require a bit of time in the oven, but will keep very well.
Cinnamon and Almond Meringues (adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi)
- 100g cold, fresh egg whites (3-4)
- 130g (1 1/4 cup) superfine sugar
- 70g (1/4 cup) dark brown sugar
- 1/4 tsp cinnamon
- 20g unskinned almonds, coarsely chopped
Preheat your oven to 225°F/110°C and line one or two baking trays with parchment paper.
Fill a saucepan halfway with water. Heat the water to a low simmer and place the egg whites and sugars in a heat-proof bowl. Put the bowl over the water, making sure it doesn’t actually touch the water, and stir occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until the mixture is hot and the sugars have dissolved.
Pour the mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whip on high speed for about 8 minutes, until quite glossy and firm, and it holds its shape.
Sprinkle the cinnamon on top and fold in gently with a spatula.
Take apple-sized dollops of the mixture and plonk it onto the baking trays using two spoons, being careful to allow some space between the meringues. Using the spoons, shape the tops into spiky dollops, then sprinkle over the chopped almonds. Place in the oven and bake for 1 1/2 – 2 hours, until the undersides are dry but the centres are still a little soft. Let cool. Packed in a sealed container they will keep well for several days.
I like to think that when you have only 90-120 minutes of screen time, every frame has to count. There’s no point in showing someone peeling potatoes, or sitting down to a steak dinner, if it doesn’t also serve the plot or characters in some way. That’s why I like these–they’re all enjoyable and don’t waste any details. It helps that a couple of these, like In the Mood for Love and I am Love, are also very beautifully shot.
Bonnie and Clyde: Just looking at this still, it’s easy to see the connection between passion, physicality and violence in this movie. Gangsters and food are made for each other; someone has even written a dissertation on the subject.
Estomago: Things are looking good for drifter Nonato when he gets himself a place to stay, a job as a cook and a girlfriend…of sorts. But his passion turns sour, the knives come out, and you don’t even want to know what he ends up cooking for dinner.
I am Love: Emma, a Russian housewife living in Milan, longs to leave her dull husband for her restauranteur lover. Ukha, the traditional fish soup, plays a role.
In the Mood for Love: Every day would-be lovers Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan meet at the noodle shop, forever crossing paths but never to be together.
Waitress: Jenna is pregnant, poor, and living in the South with her dreadful husband. But every time things get really bad, she thinks up a new pie to bake.