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.
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)
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??
Shanghai: My last summer stop before Korea. I got clothes made, stayed in an industrial-chic hotel, ate Häagen-Dazs, went to Belgian beer bars with French staff, had spicy hot pot, and ate dumplings. Far too many dumplings. One of the best things I did in China was take a dumpling tour of Shanghai with Untour, a company I had actually bookmarked (and almost forgotten about) a couple of years prior. Yes, a dumpling tour is a real thing, and indeed, it is the best idea ever. There we were, walking around the city eating steaming hot dumplings while Shanghai had its hottest July in 140 years. Here’s the rundown:
1. Street Hawker Potstickers on Gao’an Lu, between Jianguo Xi Lu and Zhaojiabang Lu. Wheat dumplings stuffed with pork. Fried.
2. Harbin Dumpling House on 645 Jianguo Xi Lu, near Gao’an Lu. Steamed wheat-based dumplings, one kind filled with pork, the other filled with seafood (see photo at top).
3. Hengshan Café on 290 Wanping Lu, inside Xujiahui Park. Lighter rice dumplings and shredded bean curd. Rice (not wheat) dumplings are more common in Cantonese cuisine; rice needs the intense rains of the southern Canton region, but wheat grows better in the hardy North. Hong Kong, too, is a part of Canton, so those of us who have had dim sum will be most familiar with rice dumplings.
4. Heng Yue Xuan Dim Sum, 290 Wanping Lu, inside Xujiahui Park. This restaurant was beautiful and, crucially, air-conditioned. Tasty, tasty sesame rice balls and watermelon juice. So refreshing on a hot day.
5. Qin Huai Fang on 196 Guangyuan Lu, near Tianping Lu. I cannot remember what this one was about, but I am positive it was delicious.
6. Nanjing Soup Dumplings on 641 Jianguo Xi Lu, near Gao’an Lu. Classic wonton soup. As the sixth round of dumplings I could barely finish my soup. But finish I did.
And after all this food, we went on a tour of one of the wet markets: frozen dumplings, pickled eggs, fresh eggplant, greens and swimming fish. This is why it’s fun to go on tours, I think–to find out about places we never would’ve discovered otherwise, and to have a guide help us out when those five words of Mandarin just won’t cut it.
If you’re in Ottawa, The Urban Element holds very nice, high-quality cooking classes set in a beautiful converted fire station. There’s pretty much nothing I love more than a cooking class (which you will have noticed here, here and here). I love the spaces, the expert cooking equipment, the chefs, the like-minded nerds. True to form, this bread-baking class was a lovely mix of bearded stay-at-home dads, public servants, and the woman who casually mentioned that she hand made eight dozen croissants over Christmas.
This class was five hours long, so we made a lot: iced lemon loaf, herbed biscuits, gingerbread waffles, challah, raisin bread, grissini (aka breadsticks), lavash, and these dougnuts. It took three whole hours before I could think about carbs again. I was almost sure that my leftover doughnut dough was going to waste away in my freezer, like deep frying was “hard,” but need I remind you that it is January and outdoor temperatures have been hovering around -20. The dough is a little precious, yes, but it mostly just involves waiting and using your stand mixer. And yes, a stand mixer is probably going to be necessary, for reasons you shall see in a second…
Brioche Doughnuts (adapted from Anna March at The Urban Element)
The measurements look a bit loopy because they had been converted back from grams. Just know that if you have to choose between dough that is slightly too dry or slightly too wet, choose to keep it on the wetter side. Oh, and one of the most interesting discoveries from this class was that flour can be quite different even between Canada and the U.S., especially with pastry flour. So you needn’t bother with any special bread flour here, all-purpose is fine.
- 3 1/2 cups + 3 tbsp flour
- 1 tbsp instant yeast (quick-rise)
- 1/4 cup + 2 tbsp sugar
- 1 tbsp salt
- 3/4 cup + 1 1/2 tbsp milk, warmed to 75°F
- 2 eggs
- 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, or 1 vanilla pod, scraped
- 2 ounces soft butter, cut into small cubes
- canola oil, for frying
- cinnamon sugar/powdered sugar for tossing your doughnuts
- Place the flour and yeast in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix for about 15 seconds to distribute the yeast. Add all remaining ingredients except for the butter and mix for about four minutes.
- Increase the speed a bit and slowly start adding the cubes of butter one piece of a time, waiting until one piece is incorporated into the dough before adding another. Mix for another 15-20 minutes (see?) until the dough is smooth and soft.
- Scrape the dough onto a very lightly floured surface, shape it into a rectangle and fold it in like a letter.
- Grease a glass or plastic bowl and put your dough into it, seam side down. Spread with a bit more oil, cover with plastic wrap and let it rise for an hour at cool room temperature (ideally 20-22°C).
- Using a spatula, release the dough from the bowl and again pat it into a rectangle and fold it like an envelope.
- Now you want to proof the dough by putting it back into the bowl, covering it and letting it rest in the fridge overnight.
- The next day take it out and roll the dough out into an 11-inch round, which should be a couple centimetres thick.
- If it’s hard to work with, put it in the freezer for 10 minutes. I had no problems, though, so I just went on to slicing. With a round cutter, stamp out as many doughnuts as you can. If you’re going to fill them after (with jam, custard, lemon curd, you name it), leave as is. If you want your doughnuts to have little holes, then you can find a smaller cutter or do as I did and just use a sharp knife.
The final stages:
- Put your formed doughnuts onto baking trays greased with canola oil and set aside to proof for 60-90 minutes. They should be roughly doubled in size. Now, you can cheat with the first proof, but not this. They will puff up quite a bit in the oil, but you do want to make sure they’re looking risen and fluffy at this stage.
- Now heat your oil to around 300°C. Conventional wisdom is to go to around 350-375, but that was making my doughnuts burn, so 300 seemed to work better. Keep in mind that frying in oil on the stove is never going to be as fool-proof as with a deep-fryer; on the stove the temperature regulation just isn’t there.
- Keep a wire cooling rack and your powdered sugar nearby and start frying! You’re looking at about 30 seconds each side, depending on how big your doughnuts are. When they’re browned, take them out and put onto your cooling rack. You want to roll the doughnuts in the sugar while they’re still hot. As you may have gathered, these are best eaten soon after frying.
[Me: Ahh!! I’m at a cat cafe!]
[My sister: Um…what?]
[Me: It’s exactly what it sounds like! You drink a latte and pet some cats!]
The cat cafe is a brilliant idea and I have no idea why it hasn’t come here yet. I mean, it’s the perfect concept–you can pet some extremely cute kitties without having to feed them, remove burrs from their fur, or try to vie for space in your own bed at night. It’s genius. Another glorious thing about CCs is that you get the chance to pet so many different kinds of cats–Siamese, Persian, Maine Coon, and my favourites, the beautiful Russian Blue.
When I went to Seoul I had three things on my list: 1) Spend time with my dear friend Mae, 2) Buy some crazy Korean makeup, and 3) Go to a cat cafe. There were actually many more of these cafes than I thought. I went to Tom’s because it had good write-ups, but anywhere you find in swish Itaewon or Hongdae are good bets.
Tom’s seems to take things extremely seriously: you remove your shoes, sanitize your hands, put your handbag in a white plastic bag and then come in. It’s the equivalent of about $7 to enter, but you get a free coffee and there’s wifi (duh). I was really pleased to see at least ten sweet, happy-seeming cats. In fact, they’d had so much attention already that I had to chase them around to pet them. Let me pet you, cats!!
The space was really nice and airy, with a bright white interior and lots of helpful information so you don’t accidentally hurt a cat. They’re open till 11 every night (though don’t try coming before 1) and are located on the third floor, 358-125, Seogyo-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul-si.
All those cats were cute, it’s true, but nothing beats our young Christopher here two Christmases ago. Here he is, ignoring his perfectly nice cat bed in favour of…a box.