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Happy new year!  In Hawaiian we say, Hau’oli makahiki hou and in Japanese, akemashite omedetoo. Growing up, Christmas was not the most important holiday for us but new year’s day was.  Like the Scots, the Japanese have a big clean of the house to welcome the new year and thus, it metaphorically starts the year off with a clean slate.  Traditionally, a large feast was prepared and put into containers that would last three days (because you are not supposed to work the first three days in January).  Most items were salted, sweet or preserved somehow and meant to be served cool/room temperature.  This feast is called osechi ryori and today in modern Japan, most people purchase their feast pre-made from restaurants, department store food halls and even 7-eleven!  I have read of some osechi ryori costing as much as $10,000USD per person (CRAZY – I hope it comes with a diamond!)

Growing up, my grandmother used to make it and we would help out.  I can’t recall what she made each year (as it would change) but what I loved most was the kazunoko (herring roe) that was served.  They are expensive and hard to get so it was a special treat.  Very crunchy and salty, I loved the texture more than anything, dipped in some soy sauce.  The next best thing was kobu kazunoko (herring roe on kelp) – roe that somehow clung onto pieces of thick kelp.  Black sweet soy beans (kuromame) were another thing that I remember well and various types of fish cakes and sweet egg.

The other mandatory thing to eat on new year’s day is ozoni – a brothy soup with ingredients that change depending on what part of Japan you are from and what your family likes to put in.  In the Kanto area (Tokyo) the broth is clear while in the Kansai area (Osaka), they add miso paste.  My maternal side of the family came from Shimabara in the south and their specialty is guzoni, ozoni that is filled chock-full of ingredients and eaten not just on new year’s day.  The one similarity and obligatory ingredient is mochi or rice cake, for good luck/strength for the new year.  A piece of grilled mochi is placed into the soup and it becomes sticky and gooey and oh so lovely!  People who didn’t grow up with this texture may find it challenging (like my husband) but it is very filling and comforting for me.

This year, I spent new year’s day in Noosa, Queensland in tropical Australia.  My friend’s parents have a beautiful holiday home on the river and invited us to spend a few days there.  As a way to thank them, I wanted to cook a Japanese new year’s day breakfast (as best as I could) but it was quite a journey to figure out where to source the ingredients in a different state.  Prior to going to Noosa, we spent a few days in the Gold Coast and stumbled upon a small Japanese grocery store in Robina but it was still quite a few days before the new year so I waited to go to another store closer to Noosa.  This second store had more frozen goods and I was able to buy roughly what I needed to make this feast.  My biggest mistake is that I forgot to buy dashi – essential in Japanese cooking – fish stock!!  Needless to say, it was interesting making this in someone else’s kitchen in the tropical heat and without all the right ingredients.  My grandmother was proud of me for being able to make this as many young Japanese have lost the skills of traditional cooking since it can so easily be bought.  She doesn’t believe me when I say that it was her that made me a good cook.

Although the meal was not totally traditional, it turned out pretty well despite a few hicks – forgot dashi, sushi rolls were a bit small, rice for sushi was very sloppy (had to make it twice – over the stove with gas), and rolled egg was a bit overcooked.  For the ozoni, I grilled the mochi on a grill rack instead of the traditional grill used in Japan and it did a great job.  The kuromame (black soy beans) were made mostly out of my instinct and memory of what it should taste like but I had no idea they’d take nearly five hours to cook!  I also think that they were the most challenging item as most people couldn’t work out whether the beans were for dessert or to be eaten with the meal.  I guess it’s sort of like eating candied yams at Thanksgiving – many people who encounter it the first time think that it is a dessert and find it strange to be eaten alongside all the other savoury stuff.

I served two different sakes with the dish – one Australia-made and one Japanese-made and what was awesome was that the meal was eaten by a Scotsman, three Kiwis, one South African, one Australian, one Englishman and an American…now that’s what I call international!

Setting up the ozoni before I add the broth in.

The spread.

L to R: datemaki (egg), namasu (pickled veg - didn't have daikon available), kamaboko (pink fish cakes), kuromame (black sweet beans), california roll.

Nimono (stewed root veg - lotus, burdock, bamboo, taro, carrots & shiitake).

The Cameron family and the gorgeous view we had.

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Adelaide doesn’t have a huge Japanese population compared to the big three (Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane) but we do have our share of half-decent sushi places (that are actually run by Japanese, which most aren’t).  Our Chinese and S.E. Asian population on the other hand is very healthy and growing each year.  I am happily able to get a really good won ton mein or Pho or Kuay Teow but we didn’t have a ramen restaurant at all – until now!!  I was sooo excited when I heard that a real ramen restaurant arrived in Adelaide!  In Japan, there are reportedly 16,000 ramen restaurants (in a country small enough to fit into the state of California!)

Outside Ajisen

Outside Ajisen

Inside

Inside the Restaurant

Cheery Little Napkin

Cheery Little Napkin

Fried Garlic to the left, Japanese Chili on the right

Fried Garlic to the left, Japanese Chili on the right

Chashu Ramen

Chashu Ramen

Spare Rib Ramen

Spare Rib Ramen

Ajisen ramen, a chain from Kumamoto, Japan has opened a small outlet on Leigh Street (the tiny lane off Hindley St).  They are open everyday except Sundays and are open for lunch and dinner.  Every time I pass by the place, it is packed!  I had to make a reservation one lunch with two girlfriends so that we could guarantee ourselves a table and that’s rather unheard of in noodle joints!  BusinessWeek Asia says that Ajisen (meaning a “thousand tastes”) is planning to open about 500 outlets in China alone!

Ajisen’s signature broth is the tonkotsu or pork broth with its slightly cloudy, white colour.  Tonkotsu is very different from miso, shio, or shoyu ramen that you can get in Japan.  It is my absolute favourite broth in a ramen and I was very excited!  Because I was judging for authenticity, I decided on a traditional Chashu Men, or in Chinese, Char Siu Mein. Japanese style pork tenderloin sliced thin, floating on fresh noodles in pork broth ($10AU).  Yum!  My friend Katie also ordered the same but Jacqui ordered the ramen with Spare Ribs in the same broth.  Both the pork tenderloin and the ribs were melt-in-your-mouth tender and the noodles were cooked just right, with a slight bite to them.  There were about 20 different ramens to choose from including stir-fried yakisoba.

No ramen eating experience is complete without gyoza.  Although our server forgot about it until after we had practically finished our ramen, the gyoza tasted homemade, was very generous in size with a lovely crisp skin and juicy pork filling.

Gyoza w/Dipping Sauce

Gyoza w/Dipping Sauce

Don’t forget to try some of the fried garlic topping sitting on every table to sprinkle on your ramen.  Beware, it’s very strong!  What I found interesting is that the bottle is written entirely in Japanese with NO translations anywhere but I suspect that people will eventually figure it out.

All in all, you get a lot of food for very little money and I would definitely recommend it (just don’t expect much from the service) – and not because it’s the sole ramen restaurant in Adelaide.  It is definitely a great fast meal before seeing a movie.  Service was rather forgetful and confused but I usually give up getting much service in this city so it wasn’t a huge shock to me.  Definitely a tasty, inexpensive and warming meal – especially in winter!

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I LOVE oysters.  This is surprising because I hated them as a kid and when I tried my first raw oyster in the mid-90s (at the London Beer Show) , I got violently ill.  Instead of putting me off of oysters for life, I fell in love with them and even did an in-depth study on oysters and pearls in literature for a senior thesis at university.  No one loves oysters as much as my friend Jacqui, who can knock back more raw oysters than anyone I know.  Jacqui was also the friend who introduced me to some of the best oysters I ever had in my life, straight from Barilla Bay farm near Hobart, Tasmania.  We have gorgeous oysters in South Australia as well, especially from the Eyre Peninsula.  Just remember that oysters tend to spawn in the summer and if you happen to eat them in the summer, you may notice a creamier texture (which I do not like at all).  Most people would agree that they are at their best in the winter.

Japanese Fried Oyster

Japanese Fried Oyster

Deep-frying oysters is also delicious.  In Japanese restaurants you’ll often see it sold as “Oyster Fry” or Kaki Fry” (Kaki has a double meaning of both oyster and persimmon in Japanese).  The recipe is super easy and there is no measuring that needs to be done.

All you need to serve two portions:

– 12 to 16 oysters (depending on whether you are having it as a main or an appetizer)

– plain flour

– 1 to 2 eggs

– Japanese panko breadcrumbs (don’t substitute this)

– salt & pepper

– oil

– cabbage

– tonkatsu sauce  (Tasty Island Blog has a great post on tonkatsu sauce) http://tastyisland.wordpress.com/2008/01/13/tonkatsu-is-all-about-the-sauce/

Directions:

Shred cabbage very thinly by hand or with a mandolin.  Divide between serving plates.  It is meant to be eaten with the fried oysters.

Put raw oysters in a bowl and rinse with cold water (you can use salted water but I don’t think it’s necessary).  If you happen to have some grated daikon handy, you can also use the daikon to “rinse” the oysters and then rinse with cold water.  Pat dry with paper towels or tea towel.  Put about 1/2 cup of flour on one plate, a cup of panko on another plate and beat an egg (w/a couple of tablespoons of water) into a separate bowl. Meanwhile, start to heat the oil.

Season the oysters with a little salt and pepper.  Then get yourself situated so that the closest plate to the hot oil is the panko, then the egg, then the flour.  Roll as many oysters as you can into the flour to coat and before dunking them into the egg, dust off excess flour.  Once coated with egg, dip them immediately into the panko and dunk straight into the hot oil.  If you start running out of flour, egg or panko before finishing all the oysters, just simply add more to finish off.

If using a deep-fat fryer, fry until golden brown.  If using a shallow fry-pan, let oysters become golden brown on one side and turn over with cooking chopsticks or tongs until both sides are golden brown.  Let drain on paper towels. Serve with Japanese tonkatsu sauce and hot Japanese white rice.  I like to have miso soup with this as well to round it off to a complete meal.  🙂

Here is a link to another version of this dish from about.com:

http://japanesefood.about.com/od/seaweed/r/friedoyster.htm

Shredded Cabbage & Cucumber as Accompaniment to Oysters

Shredded Cabbage & Cucumber as Accompaniment to Oysters

Oysters Dusted in Flour Ready for the Egg

Oysters Dusted in Flour Ready for the Egg

Oysters Frying in Oil

Oysters Frying in Oil

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Sydney Layover

Practically every time I want to leave Australia to go back to the US, I have to stopover in Sydney for a few hours. Sometimes I schedule my flights so that I have a whole day to hang out in Sydney before I board my (usually) evening flight home. This time, I decided not to spend the extra $$ and leave my small carry-on at airport luggage storage and lugged it around the city – bad idea. Living in Adelaide makes me forget what living in a really big city is like and I forgot that there are tons of people and lots of crazy freaky people as well. Dodging traffic and people while rolling my carry-on proved too exhausting so my jaunt lasted only a few hours. In the few hours, I was able to eat at my favorite Japanese hole-in-the-wall restaurant that I ALWAYS manage to eat at (at least once) whenever I go to Sydney.

KURA, Shop 3, 76 Ultimo Rd

Haymarket NSW 2000

Phone (02) 9212 5661

Located in Chinatown (Haymarket area) across from the famous (and tacky tourist trap) Paddy’s Market is a cash only, tiny (about 14 seat capacity) joint that often has a long queue at lunchtime. If people are waiting, you go inside to get a number and wait for your number to be called before going in. On this occasion, because I was alone, I was seated with another single young man in his early 20s eating his lunch. Normally it’s not a big deal to me being seated with a complete stranger but this table was so small that I was less than two feet from him! If I leaned over even slightly, I would be able to kiss his forehead! Needless to say, I didn’t complain but we were both rather uneasy with the intimate space we were sharing in complete silence. We didn’t even glance at each other nor did we make eye contact (he was listening to his iPod). The food is so good that I was willing to put up with this type of discomfort (and that’s saying a lot)! It isn’t gourmet but it is good quality, home-cooking at fantastic prices! Everything is good here but I especially come here to get either the chirashi or sushi combination with only costs about $10. They have daily lunch specials that come with miso soup and the takoyaki here is authentic and tasty.  This time I couldn’t help but get the six-piece aburi (lightly grilled on top but kept raw underneath) salmon sushi and mini udon special even though I knew I’d get fed soon on the plane. Yummy! This place is pretty authentic and is a great place for good Japanese food for a great price. Just remember that just like in busy restaurants in Japan, they want you to pay for your meal right after you order it so don’t be surprised by their polite request for you to do so!

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