Saturday, March 29, 2014

Jajamen (Morioka Noodles Part One)

Is your hometown famous for anything?

If I were hard-pressed to pick a few things that locals consider famous about my hometown I might come up with hot cider donuts, rubbery mini-dogs, a whole lot of very pretentious posh/artsy attractions, and of course fueling the cold war back when General Electric (later General Dynamics) was heavily involved in building bombs.  Not every hometown story can be a proud one, I guess.

When I first started taking Japanese lessons I remember being stumped by the question of what my hometown was famous for.  It wasn't something many of us in the class had ever given much thought to.   Certainly I didn't have a ready answer for it.  "What's my hometown famous for?  I don't know... people trying to leave it, I guess?"

But in Japan that's a question that nearly everyone has an answer for.  I can tell you, without really stopping to think, what many of the towns near my old home are famous for.  My village, for example, is known for wine and a type of traditional dance called kagura.  Tono, the next village over, is famous for being the Japanese equivalent "a kingdom far, far away," wasabi beer that locals love to give to unsuspecting visitors as a joke, and its particularly delicious horses (yes, you read that correctly and yes, they were rather delicious).  Less unsettlingly, the prefectural capital is known for things like the Sansa Odori festival, cast-iron teapots, and the Three Great Noodles of Morioka.

It's also famous for crackers.  

Of the Three Great Noodles, two are fusion dishes.  Jajamen, this week's recipe, is a Japanese version of zha jiang mian / jajangmyeon (Chinese and Korean noodle dishes, respectively).  Morioka reimen, which I'll post in a few months once the weather heats up, is a version of a Korean cold noodle dish called naengmyeon.  The third type, wanko soba, isn't a specialty recipe so much as it is a unique kind of eating/politeness contest where the object is to slurp down your tiny bowl of noodles and put the lid on your bowl before the waitress who's hanging over your shoulder can refill it.  It really doesn't get more Truly Japanese than wanko soba and if you're ever in that part of the world I highly recommend it as a bit of hysterical fun (and a way to appreciate just how much people can eat when pride is on the line).

What I like about this recipe is that it's quick and fairly straightforward to put together, and that customizing it to your own tastes is very much a part of The Way It's Done. 

Jajamen (Spicy Black Bean & Garlic Noodles from Morioka)

Total time to make:  About 15-40 minutes, depending on your multi-tasking skills.
Weirdest ingredient:  Black bean sauce, used as a replacement for 甜麵醬 ("tianmianjiang"), a Chinese flavoring made from red miso paste.  Happily, black bean sauce is fairly easy to find in the pan-Asian/international section of many grocery stores, even here in a low-diversity area like rural PA.  Alternatively, if you have red miso paste on hand you could make your own tianmianjiang for a more authentic flavor.

Credits:  The recipe below leans rather heavily on this Cookpad recipe (in Japanese), with input from this one (also in Japanese), and English-language Japanese and Korean versions of the dish.
Makes:  2-3 servings.  

As a heads-up, Jajamen is a recipe in two parts.  Unlike other multi-step recipes, you have to eat the first part before you can make the second.  That's part of the fun.  Stay tuned and you'll see what I mean below.  Also, if you see pork in the recipe and are tempted to give up (I myself eat pork maybe 1-2 times a year at most -- to be honest it kind of grosses me out), know that this recipe would also be really excellent with eggplant (particularly Chinese eggplant), extra-firm tofu, or even black beans as a substitute.  

Before you get started with the stir-fry bit, put on a pot of water to boil in a pan big enough to cook your noodles.  In a separate pan, put on 2 cups of chicken or vegetable stock to boil as well (note: it's a-ok to use bullion here if you prefer).  You'll also want to pull one egg per person out of the fridge and put it on the counter to warm up a little.  

Okay, so the first step in making the sauce is to saute up a generous handful of mushrooms.  Use whatever kind you have on hand, I say.  I had shitake, but you're not going to feel left out if you use something else.  For this recipe I'd say about 1 tsp vegetable oil and 1/4 tsp of sesame oil is a nice combo to use in a skillet on medium-high heat:

While the mushrooms cook (about 3-5 minutes, just enough to soften up), you can dice up two pork chops into very small pieces.  Alternatively, use ground pork or veggies such as the ones suggested above.  I used pork chops because they were on sale:

Once the mushrooms are softened, the pork goes into the skillet as well.  Depending on how small your pieces are the meat will take anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes to cook all the way through.

Put together the sauce while the pork is cooking.  Gather the following up in a bowl:  2 tablespoons of miso paste (either red or white), 1 teaspoon each of ginger paste and garlic paste, 1 teaspoon sugar, 1 tablespoon of rice wine (cooking sake), 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of mirin (or else add an extra tablespoon of rice wine and two teaspoons of sugar), and 1 tablespoon of the black bean sauce:

Whisk all that together into a smooth sauce:

And when your pork is completely cooked through add the sauce to the skillet:

Turn the heat down to low at this point, cover it, and let it simmer for at least another 5 minutes to let the sauce soak in.

While the sauce is simmering, slice up some cabbage (optional) and thin cucumber slices.  

When the veggies are cut, drop 2-3 servings of noodles into the boiling water you prepared before you got started with the stir-frying.  Does it matter what kind of noodles you use?  Yes and no.  I've seen udon, soba, Chinese noodles, and even ramen (minus the spice packet) used for this dish.  I say go with whatever you like best.  I used udon.  Follow whatever directions come on your noodle package in terms of boiling time, then drain the noodles and rinse them briefly with cold water to prevent them from over-cooking.

Now we get to the arranging part.  Noodles go in the bowl first:

Followed by the cabbage and cukes:

And then the sauce.  

Now, if you're going for complete jajamen authenticity then you may want to puree the sauce so that it more closely resembles a thick paste than a stir-fry.  That is totally up to you.  I have this weird pet peeve where I hate washing my blender so I didn't puree the sauce, though it did change the texture and feel of the dish somewhat to skip that step.  If you do puree the sauce then just be sure to let it cool a bit before sticking it in your blender to avoid damaging anything.  A tiny bit of broth or sesame oil can help if it's too sticky to blend properly.

When eating jajamen in restaurants it's very common to get a wide array of condiments to mix with it, such as extra garlic, La-Yu (chili oil), chili paste, scallions, and even vinegar.  I myself love a deep spicy kick to my noodles, so I opted for a dash of sriracha:

Tadaa!  Dig in!

"But wait," you say with concern and dismay.  "What about the egg and the chicken broth from back at the very beginning?"  

I'm so glad you asked.  Eating the noodles is the first course of the meal.  You can choose to completely empty your bowl, leaving only the leftover sauce  or -- my preference -- leave about 1/4 of the noodles in the bowl:

At which point you crack the egg into the bowl (really!):

And immediately top it with the boiling chicken or vegetable stock you've had sitting on the stove.  Use your spoon or chopsticks to whisk everything around for a minute or two, thereby tempering the egg and making an impromptu egg-drop soup.  

Note: if the idea of cooking the egg in this way weirds you out too much, or if you want to leave no doubt that your egg is totally cooked through, crack the egg(s) into the boiling stock on the stove, whisk, and let them cook for 2-3 minutes that way.  The only real difference is that you'll end up with chunkier egg pieces rather than a rich, eggy broth.  That said, whether you add the egg to the soup or the soup to the egg it'll still cook through and will be delicious.  I promise.  But I do totally understand the queasiness some folks might feel about putting a raw egg into their bowl, so no judgment here if you choose to do it the other way.

So now you get to have soup as a second course!  Yum!  

This is a really great dish to warm you up on chilly day, especially around this time of year when winter hasn't quite given up its hold yet.

Jajamen (Morioka Miso-Garlic Udon)

  • water for boiling noodles
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock (from scratch, can, or bullion)
  • 2-3 servings of udon, soba, or Chinese noodles
  • one egg per person
  • 1 tsp vegetable oil + 1/4 tsp sesame oil
  • generous handful of mushrooms
    • note: for a more Chinese/Korean feel to the dish, other vegetables (e.g. zucchini) can be used in addition to or in place of the mushrooms
  • 2 pork chops, finely minced
    • can sub ground pork, diced eggplant, cubed extra-firm tofu, black beans
  • 2 tablespoons of miso paste (either red or white)
  • 1 teaspoon each of ginger paste and garlic paste
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of rice wine (cooking sake)
  • 1 tablespoon of soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon of mirin 
    • can sub an extra tablespoon of rice wine and an extra two teaspoons of sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of black bean sauce or sweet bean paste
    • see long-version of the recipe, above, for notes
  • small handful each of shredded cabbage (optional) and thinly-sliced cucumber
  • condiments according to preference, common options include:
    • scallions
    • La-Yu sesame chili oil
    • rice vinegar
    • garlic
  1. In separate pans, put the water for the noodles and the stock on high heat.  Let these come to a boil while completing steps 2 - 8.
  2. Add the oils to a skillet on medium-high heat.  When the oil is hot, add the mushrooms and cook for 3-5 minutes or until softened.
  3. While the mushrooms cook, dice the pork.
  4. Add the pork to the skillet, stirring occasionally, and cook through (5-15 minutes, depending on size of the pork pieces).
  5. While the pork cooks, whisk together the miso, ginger, garlic, sugar, sake, soy sauce, mirin, and black bean sauce and set aside.
  6. When the pork is cooked through, add the sauce and reduce the heat to low.  Cover and allow to cook for a minimum of 5 additional minutes.
  7. (OPTIONAL:  Allow the stir-fry to cool until lukewarm and puree in a blender or food processor to make a thick paste.  If desired, return the paste to the stove and re-heat.  This step is not shown above although it makes a more authentic-looking end product.)
  8. While the sauce is simmering, slice the cabbage and cucumbers into small pieces.
  9. While the sauce is simmering, add the noodles to the boiling water prepared in step 1 above and cook for the amount of time indicated on the package.
  10. When noodles are done, drain & rinse briefly with cold water.
  11. To serve the noodle course:  layer the noodles, cabbage & cucumbers, and sauce in an individual-sized bowl.  Top with any condiments as desired.
  12. To serve the soup course:  Leave approximately 1/4 of the noodle course in the bowl.  To this add one egg and top with the boiling stock that you prepared in step 1.  Whisk using chopsticks or spoon for 1-2 minutes or until egg is cooked in the broth.  
  13. (Alternatively, drop the egg(s) into the broth while it is boiling on the stove and allow 2-3 minutes to cook through before adding to the bowl.)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Dal Makhani (Creamy Lentils)

It's hard to believe how fast time passes.  It was just over three years ago, around Valentine's Day, that Doc and I got engaged.  We'd been kicking around the idea almost as long as we'd been dating (about four years at that point) and had finally decided to throw in the towel and settle down.  Our lives and differences in culture being what they were, this was an adventure for both of us -- not just in the idea of merging our very different views or lifestyles, but in telling our relatives.  I don't think anyone was shocked, exactly: we'd been living together for a few years and weren't springing anything on them suddenly, but it was still nerve-wracking for both of us since it was very much a first for both families.

We kept the secret to ourselves for about a month, until Doc's family came down for a visit over spring break: just a small party of his parents, grandfather, and four aunts & uncles on an eight hour road trip.  We had a sense that they'd be arriving around noon on Saturday, but then again maybe not.  They were going to eat lunch with us, or then again maybe on the road.  No, definitely on the road.  On second thought, though, they were only an hour away at this point so they'd drive straight through and have lunch with us after all.

Luckily, I anticipated that they might show up hungry (or at the very least that I should have something on the stove when the entourage arrived), so I put on some dal makhani, or creamy lentils.  It was one of the few Indian dishes I felt halfway confident about at the time, so I hoped it just might help seal the deal.

I think in the end everything turned out okay.  Nobody died of food poisoning or a broken heart that week, and that's pretty much the best outcome we could've hoped for with seven houseguests.

Concise recipe at the bottom, as always.

Dal Makhani (Creamy Lentils)

Total Time:  Around 1.5 - 2 hours, most of which is simmer time.  This is unfortunately a dish that takes some time to do, so think of it like a good chili: a day project that you can make in big batches to freeze later (or bring to a party).
Credits:  When I was first learning this recipe I relied heavily on Sanjay Thumma's Dal Bukhara video, though at the time I didn't realize there were measurements in the doobly doo and so found myself quite frustrated over instructions like "a little bit of turmeric" or "extra chili powder," because I had no sense of scale.  After half a dozen tries I ended up with a process that mirrored his but a set of measurements that were more or less guesswork.  It was only after I'd gotten my own groove that I discovered the intended measurements in the original recipe, so please feel free to use those instead.  I can't pretend to compare with a trained chef here.
Weirdest Spice:  Fenugreek leaves.  Unlike a lot of recipes, I'd say that for this one the fenugreek leaves really make the dish.  They're very aromatic and earthy, and until I add them the dish just doesn't smell right.  That said, I'd say if you're making this for the first time and are unsure if you want to spring for a weird spice just for one recipe, go ahead and make it without.  You'll also find some other recipes here (turkey currykhichuriegg curry) that use fenugreek, too, in case that helps you use it up once you've got some.

Traditionally this recipe is made with red kidney beans and black gram lentils ("urad dal"), though as often as not I just use the black turtle beans (frijoles negros) that are more commonly available in local supermarkets.  You've got two options here:  used canned or boil up some dried beans.  The dried option is cheaper and has less in the way of added salt/preservatives, but honestly this dish already takes quite a while to make so no judgment here if you decide to go with canned.  One can of each should do the trick, or else you can do what I did and use 1 cup each of black beans and kidney beans:

If going the dried beans route you'll want to either soak them overnight or quick soak them.  How long they take to cook through will depend on the age of the beans -- generally I plan on 1-2 hours for this part.  If you're using a pressure cooker then go with whatever setting you use for kidney beans.  Either way, you'll want to cook them until they squish between two fingers but not to the point they're completely mushy:

And then set them aside.  Save some of the liquid if you'd like (see below for discussion of re-using bean liquid).

In a separate pan you'll want to do the medium-high heat + 0.5 tsp oil + 1 tsp cumin seed routine that I'm sure you're a pro at by now:

Give the cumin seeds 10-30 seconds to sizzle, then add 2 tsp each of ginger paste and garlic paste:

Stir that about for around 2-3 minutes or until fragrant.  Then add 0.5 tsp turmeric:

And stir that all around for another minute or two to "cook" the turmeric.  Next up is around 3 cups of tomato puree (use canned if you prefer), and turn the heat down to medium-low.

Let this cook, stirring occasionally, for about 20 minutes.  It takes that long for the tomatoes and turmeric to lose their raw flavor and begin to turn into a tomato sauce.  Just be sure the heat isn't too high because you don't want your tomatoes to scorch.

After that, go ahead and add:  1 tsp red chili powder (or to taste), 0.5 tsp paprika, and 1 tablespoon coriander (yes, that much):

Stir that up and let it simmer for another 10 minutes on medium-low, stirring now and then to prevent burning.

This next part is where the "makhani" part of the recipe comes from, makhani meaning "butter" (cf. murgh makhani, butter chicken).  If making this recipe vegan I think you can honestly skip the butter altogether.  The purpose of the butter is to add richness to the sauce.  In the original recipe he uses about a quarter cup of butter, which makes for a very rich but also very calorie-dense sauce.  I usually skimp and max out at around 2 tablespoons of butter:

You can see how the cooked tomatoes changed color there, too.

Stir the butter around until melted.  Next up is 1 cup of liquid.  The original recipe calls for using liquid left over from cooking your dried beans.  (Note: please don't use the liquid that comes with canned beans, because ew.)  I did that at first, too.  The bean liquid brings a smoothness and density to the sauce that's hard to achieve otherwise.  At the same time, I find that cooking black beans means that the water turns black and I just can't shake the feeling that it's also maybe full of what specks of dirt I couldn't quite rinse off the beans, even though I'm pretty obsessed with rinsing them very, very thoroughly.  I think you'll be 100% a-ok if you use the bean water.  But if you're using canned beans or if the dried bean water creeps you out, then you might do what I do, i.e. use 1 cup of vegetable stock instead:

You can see there that I'm using some veggie stock that I'd frozen a while back.  Water would also do in a pinch here if you don't have stock on hand.

Dial up the heat back to medium-high and let that stock cook in for about 5 minutes or until it achieves a slow, gentle boil.  (Don't forget to stir every few minutes.)

Then, at long last, it's time to add in the beans:

Along with 2 tsp fenugreek leaves and 1 tsp garam masala:

Stir that up, dial the heat back down to low, cover it, and let it simmer for at least half an hour, stirring occasionally.  You can let this cook on a low simmer for longer, if you'd like.  As with chili, the longer it slow-cooks the deeper the flavors will be so don't be shy if you want to pop this dish on the stove in the early afternoon and let it do its thang for an hour or two.

The very last step, just before you serve, is to drop in 0.25 cup of cream and garnish with an optional dash of fresh cilantro.

Salt to taste and you're done!

I've never subbed in nondairy milk (e.g. soy, coconut, almond), but I think if you wanted to experiment that probably would be a nice way to keep the creaminess of the dish without jacking up the calories.

At any rate, this dish freezes exceptionally well (as do most bean dishes) and is a nice way to get some vegetarian protein.  Personally I love it atop rice and alongside a simple salad.

Dal Makhani


  • 1 cup each of red kidney beans and black beans (either urad dal or black turtle beans), soaked over night, rinsed, and cooked until just mushy enough to crush easily between two fingers
    • can sub 1 can of each, if preferred
    • optional: reserve 1 cup of the cooking liquid [dried beans only, not the liquid from canned beans] to use in place of vegetable stock, below
  • 0.5 tsp oil or ghee (clarified butter)
  • 2 tsp ginger paste
  • 2 tsp garlic paste
  • 0.5 tsp turmeric powder
  • 3 cups tomato puree (fresh or canned)
  • 1 tsp red chili powder (optional, adjust to taste)
  • 0.5 tsp paprika
  • 1 tablespoon coriander powder
  • 2 tablespoons butter (optional, adjust to taste)
  • 2 tsp fenugreek leaves
    • tip: crush these between palms before adding to release extra flavor
  • 1 tsp garam masala
  • 0.25 cup cream
  • scant handful fresh cilantro (optional garnish)
  • salt to taste

  1. Heat a large pan on medium-high until warm.  Add oil.  When shimmering, add cumin seeds.  Allow to cook 10-30 seconds or until sizzling.
  2. Add ginger & garlic pastes, saute 2-3 minutes or until fragrant.
  3. Add turmeric, saute another 2 minutes.
  4. Add tomato puree and turn heat down to medium-low.  Cook on low, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes.
  5. Add butter, stir in until fully melted.
  6. Add vegetable stock (or bean liquid, if using).  Return heat to medium-high and cook until just barely beginning to gently boil, stirring occasionally (around 5 minutes).
  7. Add cooked beans, fenugreek leaves, and garam masala.  Stir to mix, then turn heat down to low.  Cover and let simmer for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  8. Before serving, remove pan from heat and add cream, cilantro, and salt.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Indian Brunch Part 2: Parsi Eggs (Akoori)

Hi there!

You'll find Part One here, in case you missed it.  Since I did a fairly long intro there I'll err on the side of brevity here and just give a little background before launching into the recipe.

Akoori, also called Parsi eggs, are a kind of spicy scrambled egg with middle-eastern-slash-south-asian influences.  What, you might ask, does that mean?  Well, to be quite honest it means that there's any spice at all -- at least compared to how I grew up on them, where black pepper and parsley were about the height of egg adventurousness.  If you've had a southwest scramble before these are in the same vein: veggies, egg, and a little kick.  I made them a two weeks ago alongside upma (savory cream of wheat) and a modified raita where I swapped out the cilantro and veggies for lemon zest, mango, and blueberries.

Skim to the bottom for a condensed recipe.

Parsi Eggs
Total time:  10 minutes to prep, 15-20 to cook.

We're going to start this adventure like we do so many other recipes here:  add 1 tsp cumin seeds to 0.5 tsp oil that's been heated on medium-high heat.  Wait until the seeds sizzle (about 10-30 seconds):

Now, what veggies you use is totally up to you.  I went for a fusion touch because I like mushrooms in my eggs.  If you want to skip any of these veggie choices or sub in your own (eggplant, kale, spinach, chard, peas, zucchini, whatever, etc.), then please do that.  If mushrooms are your thing, cook those first:

Give them about 5 minutes and plenty of space ("don't crowd the mushrooms," as Madame Julia used to say).  Then add minced onions:

Give those about 3-5 minutes to soften up, then about 0.5 tsp each of ginger and garlic (minced or paste):

And, after letting that cook for 2-3 minutes, add in any other squishy veggies you like.  I added a tomato and some bell pepper:

I let those continue to cook on LOW heat (as in, turn it down at this point) while I mix up my eggs and that seems to be enough time (about 2-3 more minutes) to bring the whole shebang together.  If you'd like, go ahead and add 0.5 tsp cumin powder and/or 1 tsp fresh minced cilantro the stir-fry.

As for the eggs, I used 2 eggs, a dash of milk, 0.5 tsp turmeric, and 1 tsp chili powder (please adjust to your own taste):

When the eggs were all whisked I poured them in the pan over my veggie stir-fry:

And then just let them cook for a few minutes until the eggs started to firm up.  This part works just like regular scrambled eggs, so I didn't bother to take extra pictures of that process.  Once the eggs start to firm up just push them about gently until there's no more runny bits, and you're done!

They're more traditionally served with toast or flatbread, not unlike the scrambled eggs you're probably used to.  I always feel so accomplished starting off my day knowing I've already gotten one serving of veggies in.


  • 0.5 tsp oil
  • 1 tsp cumin seeds
  • Apx. 1/4 cup each vegetables of your choice.  Some suggestions to get you started are:
    • mushrooms
    • onions
    • tomatoes
    • bell peppers
    • chili peppers / jalepenos
    • green peas
    • zucchini, squash, or eggplant
    • dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale, or chard
  • 0.5 tsp minced ginger or ginger paste
  • 0.5 tsp minced garlic or garlic paste
  • 0.5 tsp cumin powder
  • 1 tsp minced cilantro (fresh coriander)
  • 2 eggs, whisked with an optional dash of milk
    • NOTE:  the milk isn't vital, but adding a tiny splash to eggs when making an omelet or scrambled eggs helps it to puff up and helps to stretch your eggs a little further.  That said, it should be known that this is kind of a ghetto kludge and is frowned upon by Real Foodies.
  • 0.5 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp red chili powder (optional, adjust to taste)
  • salt & pepper to taste


  1. On medium-high heat, cook the cumin seeds in hot oil until they sizzle (about 10-30 seconds).
  2. Add any vegetables that take longer to cook, such as mushrooms or onions.  Allow 3-5 minutes each for these to cook until soft. 
  3. Add ginger and garlic, saute with veggies 1-2 minutes or until fragrant.
  4.  Add soft veggies such as tomatoes, leafy greens, or peppers and turn the heat down to low.  
  5. Add cumin and cilantro, stir occasionally on low heat for 2-3 minutes while whisking eggs.
  6. In a mixing bowl whisk together eggs, milk, turmeric, and chili powder.  
  7. Pour egg mixture over stir-fry and allow to cook until the eggs are just beginning to set.
  8. Using a spatula or wooden spoon, gently push the eggs around the pan once, breaking them into smaller pieces.  Continue to stir occasionally until eggs are cooked through.   (Note: be sure the pan is on low heat before starting this step.)
  9. Serve hot with toast or flatbread.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Miso Soup by Candlelight: Why I'm Furusato Sick (帰心)

I was going to make this week's post the continuation of the brunch series, but to tell the truth there's something else on my mind and this is as good a place as any for catharsis.  I want to take a second to talk about my heart's home back in Iwate.  This is not as much of a departure from recipes as you might think, for whenever I think of food I think of Japan and the little kitchen where I started to expand my culinary horizons:

Inevitably I also think of a gorgeous passage from Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows where he discusses the uniquely somber aesthetic of Japanese food and serving ware:

"Whenever I sit with a bowl of soup before me, listening to the murmur that penetrates like the far-off shrill of an insect, lost in contemplation of flavors to come, I feel as if I were being drawn into a trance.  The experience must be something like that of the tea master who, at the sound of the kettle, is taken from himself as if upon the of the wind in the legendary pines of Onoe.

"It has been said of Japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten.  I would go further and say that it is to be meditated upon, a kind of silent music evoked by the combination of lacquerware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark.  Natsume Souseki, in Pillow of Grass, praises the color of the confection youkan; is it not indeed a color to call forth meditation?  The cloudy translucence, like that of jade; the faint, dreamlike glow that suffuses it, as if it had drunk into its very depths the light of the sun; the complexity and profundity of the color -- nothing of the sort is to be found in Western candies.  How simple and insignificant cream-filled chocolates seem by comparison.  And when the youkan is served in a lacquer dish within whose dark recesses its color is scarcely distinguishable, then it is most certainly an object for meditation.  You take its cool, smooth substance into your mouth, and it is as if the very darkness of the room were melting on your tongue; even undistinguished youkan can then take on a mysteriously intriguing flavor.  

"In the cuisine of any country efforts no doubt are made to have the food harmonize with the tableware and walls; but with Japanese food, a brightly lighted room and shining tableware cut the appetite in half.  The dark miso soup we eat every morning is one dish from the dimly lit houses of the past.  I was once invited to a tea ceremony where miso was served; and when I saw the muddy, claylike color, quiet in a black lacquer bowl beneath the faint light of a candle, this soup I usually take for granted without a second thought seemed somehow to acquire a real depth, and to become infinitely more appetizing as well.   ...   Above all there is rice.  A glistening black lacquer rice cask set off in a dark corner is both beautiful to behold and a powerful stimulus to the appetite.  Then the lid is briskly lifted, and this pure white freshly boiled food, heaped in its black container, each and every grain gleaming like a pearl, sends forth billows of white steam -- here is a sight no Japanese person can fail to be moved by."

Over the years I came to agree that darkness is part of what makes Japanese food and culture so beauitful.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, my favorite Japanese meal of the entire three years I spent there was enjoyed by lantern-light.  Even my teeny dining room looked best just as the sun began to set over the mountain:

Why all the nostalgia, you ask?  March 11th is the three-year anniversary of the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami.  Although I was back in the States by then, I remember that day as perhaps the single most heart-breaking moment of my life.  I remember sitting by the TV for days, barely able to see through tears, as I watched places I'd known and loved swept away.  I remember hysterically emailing old friends and colleagues from the coast, desperate to hear they were alive.  In the days immediately following and in the years since there has been a lot of focus on the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.  To me that is as tragic as the rest of it, though it is less real because Fukushima wasn't my home.  I feel for the people there, but my heart bleeds for the Iwate coast.  So I hope you'll indulge me in sharing with you just some of the stunning views I experienced when I lived near there.  

For example, from my little village smack in the middle of Iwate:

Of Mt. Iwate and Morioka, just to the north:

Of the coast, where I spent some lovely summer days at a stunning pinegrove beach that no longer exists:

And of the people who made my stay what it was, who did their best to struggle uphill against a lifetime of ingrained prejudicial attitudes and small-town bigotry to make an earnest effort at showing me acceptance and love.  Maybe it's the darkness that's overshadowed my memories of Iwate that make them so perfect in retrospect, like miso soup by candlelight.  

So if you get a moment over the next few days, please spare a thought or a prayer for the people of Tohoku and all they have lost.