Every five years, an adult delegation from Cupertino, Calif., visits Toyokawa, Japan, as part of their sister city program. Cupertino and Toyokawa have been sister cities for nearly 30 years and have an ongoing student exchange program.d062e243ec11dda4f59880394c12bd16-2

This year, my husband and I were fortunate to be part of the delegation. All delegates stay with local host families and experience the real tastes of life in Japan. The efficient staff of Toyokawa City Hall planned our delegation’s daily activities, which varied from meeting the mayor and attending a tea ceremony, to touring a Toyota factory. Evenings and the weekend were reserved for spending time with our hosts.

We stayed with our host family, Masaru and Kimiko Shirai and their son Yuzuru, for a week. Armed with a “Japanese to English” dictionary and a small vocabulary of “hai” (yes) and “nei” (no), we were nervous about communicating with Masaru and Kimiko. But we soon realized that despite not having a common language, we could have a lot of fun. After all, hand gestures are a very effective conversation tool, and we can all laugh without an accent.

Masaru and Kimiko opened their homes and hearts to us and made us a part of the family. Every evening we cooked together. Kimiko is an excellent cook, and I watched her whip up a wonderful breakfast and dinner every day. We were keen to eat the local foods and requested that Kimiko make traditional dishes. The challenge that I gave Kimiko was to make each meal vegetarian! Homemade Japanese food is very refreshing, tasty, and healthy. There is definitely more to the cuisine than sushi, tempura, and teriyaki chicken. A couple of nights, I took up the challenge of cooking an Indian meal for them with the spices and ingredients available in their kitchen. I managed to spice the meal with ginger, garlic, and black pepper.

We tagged along with the Shirais to the grocery stores and farmers market. The Japanese green market reminded me of the vegetable markets in India. Fresh organic seasonal produce, vibrant in color and flavor, were picture perfect. I was surprised to see that the Japanese radish was gigantic in size and deep purple in color, very different from the one we see in Indian or American markets.

I was apprehensive at first to eat rice and miso soup for breakfast, but I felt in love with miso soup from the first spoonful. After that, I could not wait to slurp on the miso soup, which is the soul food of the Japanese, for breakfast. Miso soup is basically a brothy soup made with miso paste and tofu cubes. The base of the soup is made from dashi, which is a mix of kelp (sea weed) and bonito (small fish). Kimiko made a different miso soup everyday, varying the ingredients in the soup with shitake mushrooms, green onions, vegetable greens, fried tofu, or silken tofu.d062e243ec11dda4f59880394c12bd16-3

During the weekend, Toshiharu and Uriko Okajima, good friends of the Shirais, invited us to their mountain-top house for lunch. There, we cooked together a very traditional dish calledgoya mochi. Rice is cooked in a rice cooker; while hot, it is pounded with a four-inch diameter wooden rod for 10 minutes until it becomes a gelatinous pulp. It is then molded into popsicle shape with a wet towel and stuck on a skewer. This rice popsicle is then barbequed for five minutes. Just before serving, a special sauce of dark miso paste and walnut powder is applied to the rice stick. I insisted that an addition of a spoonful of chili paste to the barbeque sauce would give it a unique taste. At first they were hesitant, but after tasting it, they were fascinated with the chili-miso combination. It was a fine blend of Japanese cuisine and Indian chili.

Masaru also took us to a world festival, which is similar to a wine festival here. The delicious hot food served at the festival compensated for the cold weather and rain that day. I tasted a warm, sweet rice soup, amazake, which is very similar to Indian kheer, but the spice added was ginger instead of cardamom.

We also enjoyed a culinary feast at the Shirais’ favorite restaurant, Kokisan, which Kimiko affectionately called her “other kitchen.” The chef, Mr. Kurachi, keeps a vegetable patch next to the restaurant where seasonal vegetables are grown and picked before cooking. Mr. Kurachi  cooked right in front of us on a giant sizzling hot griddle embedded into the countertop. He made a scrumptious veggie-egg pancake, okonomeyaki, which resembled an uttapam from South India. An egg and green onion crepe called tamagomaki was rolled like a masala dosa.

The meals I enjoyed in Toyokawa will be etched in my memory forever, and I now have a sense of the rich and varied cuisine of Japan. The trip was enriching and rewarding, and enabled the realization that there are more similarities than differences between cultures of the world.

Vegetarian Miso Soup

To make the soup vegetarian, I have omitted dashi mix, and replaced it with an extra spoonful of miso paste and tomato chili sauce.

5 cups water
3 tablespoons miso paste
1 cup shitake mushrooms, sliced
1 cup spinach or bok choy, sliced
½ cup green onions, sliced
½ cup silken tofu, cubed
1 teaspoon tomato-chili sauce

Bring the water to a boil and add mushrooms, spinach, and tofu cubes. Boil for 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat and keep aside.

Add miso paste to a ½ cup of water and make a smooth puree. Add this puree along with the tomato chili sauce to the vegetable broth. Stir well and serve piping hot with green onion sprinkled on top.

Hema’s Hints: Do not boil the soup after adding miso paste.

Kimiko’s Special

One night Kimiko decide to create a special seaweed snack for us. I think it is wonderful alternative to chips.

4 seaweeds, cut into 2-inch pieces
½ teapoon oil
½ teaspoon chili flakes

In a pan, add oil and seaweed and remove it within 30 seconds. The seaweed becomes crisp. Place it on a plate and sprinkle chili flakes on it before eating.

Stirfry Greens (Kimiko style)

½ teaspoon sesame oil
1 bunch of mustard greens or spinach, washed
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted, and slightly crushed

In a wok, heat oil and add the greens. Stir fry on high heat for 2 minutes.

Add soy sauce and sugar and place in the bowl. Finally, garnish with sesame seeds.

Hema’s Hints: This dish was served for breakfast with miso soup and sticky rice.

Sweet Potato Surprise

2 sweet potatoes, peeled
1 tablespoon honey
6-8 walnuts, toasted and chopped

Chop sweet potatoes into 2-inch cubes. Place it in the baking pan and bake at 325 degrees for 35 minutes.

Drizzle honey over the roasted sweet potatoes and sprinkle walnuts on top.

 

Hema Alur-Kundargi is the producer, editor, and host of the television show Indian Vegetarian Gourmet (DVDs now available at the Sunnyvale and Cupertino libraries in Northern California). Visit her website at www.massala.com 
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