Ah, the weirdness that you can find in a Japanese food store.
I suppose it’s subjective — something weird to us isn’t necessarily unusual in its home market.
But in this case, R&D (research & development) might have gone a little overboard in the drinks category.
Late last summer, I was investigating new snacks to try at a convenience store, called konbini (コンビニ) in Japanese, when my peripheral vision caught a glimpse of this trio: a sweet potato shake, a zunda shake, and some type of buttery drink.
Let’s go with butter juice; it has a catchy but misleading ring to it.
To me, oyster crackers have always been reminiscent of being slightly less salty versions of Saltines.
But what if I told you that there’s a “leveled up” version of these so-called oyster crackers that actually contain the aphrodisiacal mollusk?
For a sample of those, you might have to go — or these days, find an awfully generous local — to grab you these snacks. Why?
Because they’re in Japan.
A random stop in Kurashiki, a pleasant little canal town known for its centuries-old rice warehouses, helped lead me to bicchu kurashiki Setouchian (in Japanese, 備中倉敷 瀬戸内庵). This particular store specialized in local gastronomy, and I must say they had some delicious offerings that you may never have expected to see; for instance, I remember going back for sample after sample of their orange butter and (famous in the region) peach butter.
I did end up buying a jar of the peach butter, but what struck my attention for a bit of Japanese food fusion was the oyster senbei:
Senbei (煎餅・せんべい) are rice crackers, local snack staples throughout much of the country. Many are flavored with sesame seeds, seaweed, and/or soy sauce. This one, however, had oysters BAKED IN, ostensibly from the nearby Setouchi Inlet.
It was an umami feast, but after a few of those, I needed something sweet.
So that’s where the peach butter came into play ….
Since my first visit to Brazil in 2007, it occurred to me that I still didn’t know much about the culinary landscape in that massive country. Sure, there’s the crowd-pleasing açaí, and the churrascaria that makes you walk at a 90-degree angle after indulging a bit too much, but what else is there? A second visit to Brazil in 2016, via Manaus to visit Iguazu Falls and Rio de Janeiro, helped me learn just a bit more about the vast Brazilian culinary landscape.
As I mentioned above, my layover in Manaus – the largest city in the Amazon basin – was not only long, but also from 22:30 ’til about 05:00. With those hours, and without having visited the city before, I decided to wander around the mostly deserted streets looking for snacks to check off the list.
Finally, I ended up at some casual late-night outdoor cafeteria with a welcome list of tropical fruit juices and shakes. Though acerola was tempting, it’s rather easy to find added to drinks in Japanese convenience stores. So, cupuaçu – sem/não açúcar (without/no sugar, as usual) was the easy choice.
It wasn’t a terribly memorable flavor though. Somewhat creamy, slightly sweet and sour, but nothing too inspired. What the heck, Amazon?? Even the Brazilian tap water had more going on.
Pão de queijo, aka cheese bread, usually made from cassava flour and Minas cheese.
This is by no means an ad for the above chain; it wasn’t good. However, it’s my only surviving photo of pão de queijo, taken at a time where sleep had been missing from my schedule for nearly 36 hours.
In any event, these too, are difficult to stop eating. If they were all mashed together into one giant pie, I wouldn’t have even tried them this time. Damn their convenient take-away size.
A couple of friends had mentioned that I should check out a casual Rio chain called polis sucos to have a glass of açaí.
After trying it a few times during that trip, I really didn’t take to açaí. The flavor transported me more to the Pacific Northwest of the US – which is usually a good thing for food – than to anywhere tropical, though it was by no means as dull as the cupuaçu. Also, the tapioca sandwich was grainy and probably has a cousin in sandpaper.
Thankfully, the exchange rate between US dollars and Brazilian reais was still favorable. Consequently, I had to try one of the all-you-can-eat barbecue places. In addition to the numerous cuts/types of meat, they also had some Lebanese/Syrian and Japanese items, likely due A) to the influences on Brazil by immigrants from those countries, and B) to common places of origin of tourists. The drink is cashew apple juice.
Do you think a comida foi na moral (the food was better than expected)? What would you try?
Due to the pandemic, many businesses had shutdown, particularly in the erstwhile backpacker hub of Kuta, where I stayed due to its proximity to the airport. And whereas Kuta has a heady mix of international and Indonesian restaurants, it’s not where you’d go for top eats in Bali.East meets West meets East meets what the???
Having previously lived in Indonesia, there were plenty of local foods I was longing to eat again. Of course, it’s easier to find regional Indonesian cuisines in Jakarta, but with Bali being much easier to enter in March 2022, it was good to explore somewhere I hadn’t been in seven years.
Still, while traveling for extended periods, every now and then I want to eat something reminding me of home, like a burger, katmer, or pizza.
Ah yes, pizza. As much as I enjoy eating you, you are not reliable in the least. At the lower end of the spectrum, there was that Origus buffet pizza in Beijing which had custard and red beans as a topping, and Imo’s with provel “cheese.” At the other end, this. But where would a place like Pizza Hut factor in to the equation?
You’re joking, right? Pizza Hut can tempt me all they want with their newfangled, limited time, east meets west offerings like dim sum pizza, but until they …
wait, WHAT?? dim sum pizza???
Considering that Indonesia has a small but prominent Chinese minority, and that Cantonese food is popular throughout much of the country, it’s not so unusual to see dim sum on the menu. But atop a pizza? That’s a new one.
I could have gone for satay, grilled fish, banana pancakes, but no, I opted for another primrose path.
To be fair, the dim sum pizza was edible, with crust housing the shrimp dim sum, and the pizza lined with mushrooms. Though, edible enough to return to Pizza Hut? Nah.
Kandy is an historical city about 2-2.5 hours east of the commercial hub and largest city of Colombo. If you still maintain that Colombo is the political capital, oh no, that title now goes to Sri Jayawadenapura Kotte or Beijing, depending on your level of cynicism. Anyway, Kandy is known as home to the Temple of the Tooth, a sacred Buddhist relic, tea plantations and a pleasant botanical garden, all of which make for a fine weekend trip from Sri Lanka’s largest city.
When I visited years ago, no meals were served on the train between Colombo and Kandy. No problem, that’s not necessarily standard practice, and there were plenty of options around both train stations.
When returning to Colombo, I was in a bit of a rush, and bought a few grease-laden fried potato snacks, often packaged in local newspapers, but this time, mysteriously wrapped in someone’s health records.
It seems your kidneys are fine, Sanjeewa. Just keep away from the fried potatoes.
Kawagoe is one of the sweet potato centers of Japan; this was particularly important for the region during the war, as other foods were quite scarce, and more susceptible to pests/extremes in weather.
Although I referred to the character 芋 to refer to sweet potatoes, that character can also mean potato, or country bumpkin. You see, the other part of Japan best known for sweet potatoes is present-day Kagoshima prefecture, on Kyushu island. A section of that prefecture used to be called Satsuma, which begets another way to say sweet potato, 薩摩芋 (さつま・いも/satsuma ee-mo). More still, loanword enthusiasts would appreciate the term スイートポテト , which literally reads “suii-to poteyto.
Stroll through Kawagoe, and you’re bound to come across numerous food shops and souvenir stores vending this hardy tuber; sweet potato noodles, a sweet potato-centric set menu, desserts, ice cream, candies, and who knows what else?
Fortuitously, I found one of my favorite sweet potato snacks, daigaku imo (大学芋/ dai-gakoo ee-mo). It means college potato, and is made of caramelized sweet potato sprinkled with black sesame seeds. The sign showing its name is written in Japanese above, and the dish itself is photographed below:
My time in Kawagoe was rather limited – if judged solely by the food I didn’t get to try – so I must revisit. That said, here are a couple more delights sampled on that day:
Grilled sweet potato-coated karintou (花林糖・かりんとう). Karintou are sweet, deep-fried snacks made of flour, yeast, and often brown sugar. Though they often look like things you’d find crawling across the floor, to me, they’re delicious.
Termites! No, no. Actually, these いもかりんとう饅頭/まんじゅう (ee-mo karintoh-man-juu) were excellent. Manjuu are typically made with rice powder, flour, buckwheat, and red beans (adzuki), but these used burdock and carrot powder for the outside, and sweet potatoes inside.
Are you as big of a fan of sweet potatoes as I am?
I was inadvertently introduced to lablabi (لبلابي) while walking around Monastir, Tunisia. Some local market workers were taking their lunch break to crowd a small kiosk in the middle of a pedestrian block. Nearly twenty more people got in their orders before I was noticed, even though I was perched in front of the chefs all along. Now that I know the name of the snack, I greatly look forward to wildly mispronouncing lablabi.
Counting chickpeas as the base ingredient, garlic, cumin, and olive oil make up the rest of the vegetarian dish. Piquant harissa – a North African hot sauce made with regional Baklouti peppers is often added on top, and stale bread is used to sop it all up. Olives and pickles are staple accompaniments of this Maghrebi country.
To explain a bit about what Finding Food Fluency can represent, I’d like to introduce to everyone today’s meal, mehari-zushi (sushi becomes zushi, depending on the preceding sound), coming to us from Japan.
Mehari-zushi – 目張り寿司 – is one of the oldest recorded fast foods in Japan, dating back hundreds of years to Kumano city in Wakayama prefecture (source, in Japanese: https://gurutabi.gnavi.co.jp/a/a_613/). At the time, Kumano was in a state called Kishuu (紀州), which comprises of parts of present-day Wakayama and Mie prefectures. Mehari-zushi is simply a ball of vinegared rice enveloped in pickled mustard leaf. That’s right, no fish, no bait, no mayonnaise, just two major components.
The origin of the name is amusing; since the mehari-zushi clumps used come quite big – with each one intended to be a snack for hungry workers – the Japanese name roughly translate as “sushi that makes your eyes open wide,” since opening your mouth wide does the same for the eyes (見張る/みはる).
Although it’s much more common in the Kansai area of Japan (where Wakayama, Osaka, and Kyoto are), a new mehari-zushi restaurant, めはりと鶏天みふく (Mehari to Chicken Ten Mifuku) opened on April 20th in the Tsukiji district of Tokyo.
As a huge fan of Japanese food and Tokyo, I can’t wait for international tourism to restart, particularly in Japan. Knowing that mehari-zushi aren’t so easy to find in the capital makes me want to add this take-out shop to the endless list of places to try.