Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Learning how to cook Indian food in Japan

One of the things I love most about Japan is the food. Sushi, ramen, curry, tofu, tempura, soba, udon, sashimi, onigiri, yuzu, nashi, gobo, edamame and wasabi. I love it all. But man cannot live by white rice and miso soup alone.

Unfortunately, easy access to foreign food is difficult to come by in Kyoto. It's almost impossible to satisfy a craving for Jamaican patties or Russian borscht or Mexican fajitas without spending a lot of time, energy and money traipsing across town to the tiny specialty shops that may or may not have what you're looking for in stock that day.

So it was a treat to be invited over to my friend Sunil's apartment to learn how to cook Indian food using ingredients easily found in Japan. Few Japanese supermarkets carry basmati rice or a large variety of beans or the myriad of spices needed for Indian cooking. But Sunil is able to buy everything he needs online from Ambika Japan.

Sunil, who originally hails from Delhi, said he didn't know what to eat the first few months after he arrived in Japan. Being vegetarian and unable to read Japanese meant he went hungry most of the time. Tired of subsisting on rice, Sunil asked his mom to teach him how to cook via Skype. Friends told him where to buy ingredients online and thus began a year-long foray into Indian cooking. The experience was miserable at first. Sunil overcooked the rice, burned the curry, couldn't figure out the right balance of spices, couldn't prevent the bread from hardening. But he persisted and made small adjustments here and there until the food began to taste good. The more he cooked the better he got. The better he got the more he enjoyed cooking. The more he enjoyed cooking the more he began to invite people over for dinner. And the more he began to invite people over for dinner the more his reputation began to spread.

I told him I had heard about his culinary prowess in the hallways at school. He laughed and said he wasn't sure he deserved any praise but that I'd be welcome to try his cooking for myself. Even better, he said he'd teach me and a couple of friends how to cook Indian food.

We made kidney bean curry with puri. It was easy to make and even easier to eat. The curry had the magical flavour combination of garlic, ginger, onion, tomatoes and chili peppers. The puri was soft and delicious. With Sunil's permission, I have reprinted his recipe below.

Red Kidney Bean Curry With Puri Recipe


One head of garlic
One chunk of ginger
One large tomato
One medium onion
Five green chilies
500 grams of red kidney beans
One tablespoon of whole cumin
Half a tablespoon of turmeric
One tablespoon of coriander powder
Half a teaspoon of tamarind
Half a teaspoon of salt
Half a tablespoon of garam masala
Chili powder to taste
Olive oil
Canola oil
Three cups of atta (whole-wheat flour)


1. Either cook the red kidney beans in a pressure cooker yourself or buy them pre-cooked in a can. Be sure to save the water from the pressure cooker or the can.

2. While the beans are cooking, prepare the puri dough. Spread out a bunch of newspapers on a large surface and dump three cups of whole-wheat flour in the centre. Knead small drops of olive oil into the flour then add a few drops of water, little by little, kneading the flour into one big ball that is slightly hard. Set the dough aside and keep it covered until you've finished cooking the curry.

3. Grate the ginger and garlic. Chop the onion, chili peppers and tomato.

4. Set the stove to low heat and add four tablespoons of olive oil to a large pot or frying pan. Add one tablespoon of whole cumin and fry for 30 seconds.

5. Add chopped onions, grated ginger, grated garlic and chopped chili peppers.

6. Stir fry until the onion is golden coloured.

7. Add half a tablespoon of turmeric powder and one tablespoon of coriander powder. Continue stirring and cooking for a few minutes.

8. Add the chopped tomatoes. Stir for about five minutes until everything becomes like a paste. Add half a tablespoon of salt and some chili pepper to suit your taste. Add half a teaspoon of tamarind.

9. Add the cooked beans. Little by little add the water that the beans were cooked in (or the water in the can of beans). Be careful not to add too much. You don't want liquid curry.

10. Add half a tablespoon of garam masala spice blend. The curry is finished. Now it's time to make the puri.

11. Take the puri dough and rip off small chunks and roll it in your hands into small balls. Using a rolling pin, roll each of the small balls into a small circle. Use oil on the pin if the dough starts sticking.

12. Fill a deep frying pan half full with canola oil over a high flame. When the vegetable oil is hot, take a pair of tongs and place (one at a time) a single puri in the oil. Allow it to deep fry for about two seconds before turning it over to do the other side for another two seconds. The puri will puff up immediately. Remove it from the oil quickly and set it aside. Continue one by one until they are all done.

13. Enjoy! Serves five.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Shirahama Beach: Japan's Jersey Shore

Summer in Kyoto is a little slice of hell. The humidity is oppressive, the heat is sweltering, and the sun is scorching. The temperature hovers around 35 degrees Celsius for weeks on end. The rivulets of sweat drip like a leaky faucet. The cicadas never stop screaming. The mosquitoes are omnipresent; the cockroaches even more so.

Escape, if only for a few days, is essential. Which is why four friends and I decided to leave the city behind last week. We hopped on a bus bound for Shirahama, a resort town on the Pacific Ocean about 150 km south of Kyoto. It seemed as good a destination as any. Shirahama, which means "white beach" in Japanese, is one of the country's most famous attractions ("famous" meaning "crowded"). The tourist propaganda describes it as popular destination but neglects to mention that the beach is more of a Japanese Jersey Shore than a scenic getaway.

Every Japanese beach-goer was armed with two essential accessories -- a beach umbrella and an inflatable life preserver. The umbrellas were used to create a little patch of shade. The life preservers were used by children to stay afloat and by women to keep their heads high enough above water to avoid getting their hair and makeup wet. Each one of these women could have been a Jersey Shore cast member with their teased, sprayed, dyed hair and full-face makeup -- foundation, powder, blush, lipstick, eyeliner, fake eyelashes, eye shadow all the way up to their drawn-on eyebrows, eyelid tape (if they hadn't already had eyelid surgery), and those creepy "big eye" contact lenses that create the appearance of a bigger, wider iris. There's nothing wrong with wearing that much makeup but wouldn't it be more fun to swim in the ocean without worrying about your face sliding off?

Not that there was much room to swim. The water was so crowded it felt like we were fish in a tank. We kept bumping up against other swimmers and when we weren't bumping up against other swimmers our bodies were brushing up against candy wrappers, plastic bags, newspapers, and other assorted bits of garbage. The flotsam and jetsam were a fitting accoutrement to the noise pollution. The entire beach was ringed with loudspeakers spaced a few metres apart. Every five minutes a recorded voice would remind us to be careful, "Attention everyone! Please be careful." That was about as specific as it got. Occasionally there were live announcements, usually concerning nondescript lost children, "Attention everyone! Mrs. Tanaka is looking for her six-year-old son. He is wearing a black shirt and blue shorts." And then, inevitably, the follow-up announcement, "Attention everyone! We have found Mrs. Tanaka's son. He is safe. Please be careful!" Over and over again.

This is one of the things about Japan I don't think I'll ever really understand. It's as if anything that is naturally beautiful or unique (as I imagine Shirahama Beach once was) is exploited by developers who demolish the surrounding area and build ugly hotels and line the streets with shops selling cheap junk and put down parking lots the size of shopping malls so that hundreds of buses can drop off thousands of tourists who mill around taking pictures of whatever it was that once made this place so special before everything around it was razed to the ground and encased in concrete. The worst offenders are the places marketed as the country's top three famous spots (such as the top three famous views, top three famous castles, top three famous beaches, top three famous mountains, etc.). Japanese tourists, with their limited vacation time and limited desire to get off the beaten path, descend on these famous places en masse, take some pictures, buy some souvenirs, eat some food, and then leave before the next busload of tourists arrives to take their place. It's not my idea of fun but people here seem to enjoy it.

Maybe I'm just a spoiled Canadian, unable to appreciate natural beauty if it isn't in full-screen format -- a wide vista of open spaces and wild places. I can't narrow my field of vision the way Japanese people can. They seem to be able to block out the concrete and the neon signs and focus instead only on the small beautiful thing nestled amongst the urban ugliness. I can't focus on the beauty of a cherry tree if it stands on a riverbank strewn with garbage. I will always see the whole picture, not its individual parts. That's not to say my North American way of seeing is better. Just different.

Still, there are beautiful areas to be found away from Shirahama's main tourist strip. We stayed at the Kyoto University research house, which is located in a forest a 20-minute walk away from the main beach. It was a bit out of the way but it's hard to complain when you're only paying $10 a night (being a student has its privileges). The best part is that the research house had its own private beach, which was much nicer and cleaner than the main beach. Because our beach wasn't "famous" it was completely deserted. It was so empty that we were able to go skinny dipping in the middle of the afternoon (much to the delight of the lone male researcher who showed up at the exact moment one of us was letting it all hang out on the beach).

Other highlights included a walk to the Senjojiki rocks and the Sandanbeki cliffs (sadly famous for being one of the top suicide spots in Japan).

Of course, the pictures don't tell the whole story. How do you capture the feeling of skin covered under layers of sweat, saltwater, sunblock, bugspray, mosquito bites, and melted ice cream? How do you capture the warmth between friends and the sensory experience of summer -- the long days and the even longer nights? The noisy cicadas and the burning sun? The rivulets of sweat and the freedom of the open ocean? As crowded and as tacky as Shirahama was, it was a trip that embodied the best of summer.

Monday, August 22, 2011

You will be missed

It is fitting that at the exact moment I read the news that Jack Layton had died, thunder rumbled overhead and the rain began to pour. It was as if the universe was grieving along with me.

His death came as a shock and I felt as sad as I would have if a friend had died. I never met Jack Layton. I didn't know him personally. But I felt like he knew me. Or he understood what was important to me. He fought for the things I cared about. He was more of an activist than a politician, and he had a strong sense of what was right and wrong, what was fair and unfair. He fought for what was right and he fought for what was fair. He fought for human rights, social justice and the environment. He fought for ordinary people not for powerful corporations. He marched proudly in the Gay Pride Parade every single year. He rode his bicycle to work. He was kind, compassionate, and caring. He spoke plainly and honestly -- always with hope and optimism. He was funny and intelligent. He was a man who devoted his life to the greater good.

It is unfair that his life should be cut short by cancer when he was only 61 and fitter and stronger than many people half his age. But it is especially cruel that his life should be cut short just months after he managed to lead the NDP to official opposition status. The party owes its historic success to Jack's charisma. He deserved to enjoy the results of his tireless hard work for much more than a few months. He would have made an excellent Opposition leader.

What will happen to the NDP now? Who will hold our Prime Minister accountable? Who will speak with a voice as strong and persuasive and reasonable and respected as Jack's when our Prime Minister promotes policies and measures designed to make a country that once stood for peace and human rights and compassion unrecognizable? We lost Jack Layton when Canada needed him most.

Two days before he died, Jack wrote a beautiful letter addressed to all of us. His last words were the most moving:

"My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world."

Farewell, Jack. You will be missed.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Taking the Canon S95 out for a test drive

I finally bought a new camera to replace the one that died on top of a mountain in the pouring rain many months ago. It took me all of about five minutes to decide on the Canon S95, which had less to do with the camera's features and more to do with wanting to get in and out of the electronics store as quickly as possible.

Japanese electronics stores are like torture chambers. If I was a spy and the enemy was trying to get me to spill some top-secret information, all they'd have to do is take me to a Japanese electronics store and I'd crack in less than 10 minutes. These stores are an all-out assault on the eyes and the ears. The fluorescent lighting is so bright it feels like your head is being squeezed in a vise grip. Your eyes dart wildly all over the place, unsure where to look because every square inch of space is plastered with ads. They hang from the ceiling, they line the walls, they take up more shelf space than the electronics. Too much clutter, too many colours. It makes you dizzy and nauseous. And the noise. The noise! There are more salespeople than customers and some of them are shouting out random greetings, others are using megaphones to advertise special deals, and the rest stalk their prey like commission-hungry carnivores. The overhead speakers blast the store's theme song over and over again (these theme songs usually feature a woman singing in a high-pitched voice over happy-sounding but crazy-making synthesizers). Every television in the store is turned on. Every stereo system is thumping out music. The result is a toxic cloud of noisy gibberish under blinding lights and aggressive advertising selling shiny plastic things in unnatural colours. The whole place is madness.

My tolerance level for these stores is about five minutes. I went in knowing exactly what I wanted -- a small point-and-shoot camera. And it had to be Canon. My old camera was a Canon and it was good. (I have the soul of an 80-year-old: I know what I like and I stick with it.) As much as I would like to upgrade to a digital SLR, I can't imagine lugging the damn thing around all the time. I like the little point-and-shoot cameras. I like their compact size and their light weight. You can take them everywhere. The Canon S95 was on sale and it looked good. So I bought it. And got the hell out of the store.

Two days in and I'm pretty happy with my little camera. I took it for a test drive yesterday. Just taking some pictures of a typical Monday here in Kyoto. I took some pictures at the lab. I took some pictures on my walk home. I took some pictures at the grocery store. And I took some pictures from the roof of my apartment. So far, so good.

I am especially fond of the "miniature" setting, which makes everything look like a little model version of the real thing.

The "macro" setting works nicely as well.