Toraya: A King of Kakigori

Although I’ve only been in the states for a couple weeks, I’m already craving the delicate and immaculately prepared foodstuffs of Japan. My mouth waters for saikyo-yaki fish and miso seared vegetable, for crispy seaweed strips and for the wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) flavors of matcha and anko.

When it comes to consuming those mildly sweet, subtle wagashi treats, in my mind, there is only one place to go. Toraya.

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In Japan, kakigori are a signature of summer. Although similarly composed of shaved ice and flavored syrup, these treats are a totally other animal from your average county fair sno-cone. Traditionally, kakigori are marketed as street food. Strawberry, melon, or blue hawaii – take your pick!

Unsurprisingly, Toraya puts a refined touch on an old favorite. During the summer months, at any Toraya franchise (to the best of my knowledge), one can order the mountainous creation pictured above. A daunting mass of the most exquisite shaved ice is doused with a subtly sweet matcha syrup. It sits atop a layer of anko where it can and should be supplemented with chewy mochi rounds.

Demolishing one of these summery treats is a unique and unparalleled eating experience. The flavors complement each other flawlessly, and the textures to boot! Available until mid-September, one these kakigori is worth a trip to Toraya any time, any day.

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In a country that thrives on seasonal specials, Toraya reaches a new extreme. Yes, that’s right, the summer specials vary from shop to shop. While Tokyo Midtown offers only matcha, Akasaka has an apricot variety on tap, Ginza a strawberry sensation.

After sampling the original at Midtown and then realizing that there was an apricot option (one of my mother’s favorite flavors), we had to go back for more. So, the day for I hopped on a plane for the US, not to return until long after kakigori season, we headed down to Akasaka for that final hit of wagashi.

The original stood its ground, but I will admit that the tart tang of apricot almost gave it a run for its money!

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Ryokan Repast

As I type, I am sitting in my tatami mat room at a stunning Hokkaido ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. Recently reconstructed, this Noboribetsu ryokan is a creative blend of East and West built with comfort in mind. Beautiful baths, cozy couches, gorgeous green scenery, what’s not to love? But a ryokan stay would not be complete without an intricate kaiseki dinner. Last night’s food was rich, delicate, and oh so plentiful! It was so good that I forgot to document nearly half the meal. With that in mind, I thought I’d take this opportunity to showcase a May meal from a ryokan in Nagano.

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The dauntingly long, yet promisingly delicious menu.

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Our appetizers.

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Next up, sashimi!

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And… one of my favorite spring dishes: mountain vegetable tempura.

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Your basic nimono, or simmered dish.

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Polished off with pickles and rice.

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Of course, it wouldn’t be a true ryokan meal without a, shall we say unusual, fruity desert.

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Farmers’ Market @ UNU Tokyo

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Every Saturday and Sunday, a sizable farmers’ market sprawls out in the middle of Tokyo. Situated in front of UN University in Aoyama, this market boasts fabulous produce and cottage industry food items. From unusual Japanese citrus and interesting vegetables like gobo (burdock root) and manganji (peppers indigenous to the Kansai region) to freshly baked bread, frozen yogurt, and newly picked greens, this collection of covered vendors seems to have it all. In Tokyo this summer? Looking for incredible ingredients? This is the place to be.

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Farm-fresh-froyo

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Sweet and sour citrus (with samples!)

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The Very Best Baked Potatoes

Pippi, my family’s little yellow lab, had to go the vet last week, meaning a 45 minute trek to Tokyo’s suburbs. In the corner of the gravel parking lot across the street from the clinic stood a small vegetable stand. We bought some fresh cukes and a bag of baby taters before taking the dog for a turn around the neighborhood. On our walk, we passed a fairly large vegetable patch. Perhaps the origin of our produce? Gotta love fresh food.

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Anyways, the next morning, while hemming and hawing over breakfast possibilities, we remembered our baby potatoes. Why not? We thought.

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After thinly slicing the tots, we tossed them with a bit of olive oil, sea salt, and pepper, and stuck ’em in the oven. Crispy and warm, these potatoes made for a delicious, if unconventional day-starter.

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Recipe

Adapted from Donna Hay’s Salads and Vegetables

You’ll need…

  • some of the freshest potatoes you can find
  • olive oil
  • sea salt
  • pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 200ºC.

2. Thinly slice the potatoes as far down as possible without cutting all the way through.

3. Toss with a small quantity  of oil (gauge by the number of potatoes) and sprinkle with sea salt and pepper.

4. Bake for roughly 40 min, or until cooked through.

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Three Cookies

 

I find making cookies to be immensely satisfying. Not only is dough doable in 20 minutes, but the the ingredients they call for rarely requires a trip to the supermarket and they’re ready to go after a mere 10 min in the oven! Over the past couple weeks, I’ve taken a few recipes for test drives. Here are my results:

No. 1: Ghirardelli Milk-Chocolate-Chip Cookies

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I rarely cook with any chocolate other than bittersweet. But with a couple bags of milk chocolate chips in the freezer, I thought, why not?

Although the cookies on their own were nothing special, they turned out to be exceptional ice cream vehicles. A chocolate chip cookie eaten on its own must to be jam-packed with chocolate in to be delicious in my book. However, add a little vanilla (or better yet, hokey pokey!) ice cream to mix, and they become otherworldly. These cookies are chewy, but at the same time just stiff enough to hold their own against a sandwiched scoop of melty ice cream.

You can find the recipe here. My only advice: add extra vanilla, chocolate, and pecans, while decreasing the white sugar by at least a quarter cup.

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No. 2: Donna Hay’s (Relatively Healthy) Chocolate Chip Cookies

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Let me be frank. Never, ever, use a chocolate chip cookie recipe that calls for oil instead of butter. In theory, these cookies sound great. No butter, a limited quantity of sugar, some of the flour replaced with oats. In reality, if you’re going to bake cookies, make the real thing, not some sort of facsimile.

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The dough looked great, but even at that stage it seemed like something was off. The taste wasn’t quite right. When the cookies came out, they were cute-looking and bite sized, but lacked that essential cookie chewiness, not to mention that gooey chocolatey, buttery, flavor. I should probably hedge this by conceding that I did not use high quality chocolate for this batch, as it was another attempt to deplete my freezer full of chocolate. Nonetheless, even the dough itself was unsatisfactory. When it comes down to good old chocolate chip cookies, the Joy of Cooking recipe is the way to go.

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No. 3: Peanut Butter Blossoms

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A couple days ago, I was twiddling my thumbs looking for something to bake, when I ran across a bag of mini hershey’s kisses stashed away at the bottom of a drawer. Turning the package over, I found the directions for peanut butter blossoms, one of my all time favorite cookies. Tweaking the recipe to suit my taste (and the contents of my fridge), I baked my third batch of cookies in two weeks. These cookies were sensational. Nutty, sweet, chewy, and of course chocolatey, they were perfect. Here is my take on peanut butter blossoms. Enjoy!

Recipe: Peanut Butter Blossoms

Adapted from Hershey’s

You’ll need…

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup crunchy natural peanut butter
  • 1/3 cup white sugar (plus extra for rolling)
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tbsp nonfat milk
  • 1-1/2 cups flour (sifted)
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • at least a tbsp of vanilla extract
  • Hershey’s kisses–full sized or mini

1. Preheat the oven to 190ºC (375ºF).

2. Beat together the butter and peanut butter. Add the sugars, followed by the egg, milk, and vanilla. Slowly add in the flour, salt, and baking soda.

3. Roll the dough into 1-in sized balls. (They will expand quite a bit so keeping the size small is key.) Roll each dough ball in white sugar to coat it. Place them on a cookie sheet, leaving plenty of space.

4. Press kisses into the tops of each cookie–one if they’re normal sized, three if they’re mini.

5. Bake for 9-10 min. Allow to cool on the cookie sheet for at least 5 min before transferring.

(Note: the photograph above does not display a full batch of cookies. You can expect to make roughly 45 from this recipe.)

 

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Tokyo’s Little Slice of France: A Tale of Two Dinner Dates

Foodies are fun. There’s no doubt about it. Thus, when I discovered that a fellow debater was equally into eats, we had to hang out. Following a few–mostly successful–cooking sessions, we decided to go out to eat.

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Tucked into a quiet second story nook, Le Soufflé is one of Tokyo best-kept secrets. Although they have more to offer than simply soufflés, you can’t dine there without ordering at least one–or six in our case. (My sister came too, trust me, we were as reasonable as possible.)

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At each place setting, preserved under a glass table top is a series of diagrams illustrating the proper way in which to consume one of these creations. We followed these guidelines… more or less.

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The soufflés at Le Soufflé puff up out of their ramekins unlike any soufflé I’d seen before. Aerated and light, yet packed with flavor, they are sinfully good.

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For the savory portion of the meal, the three of us narrowed our choices down to three: mushroom, carrot, and salmon. These were promptly passed around until their disappearance. The salmon was unusual, but a little overwhelming, flavor-wise. The mushroom was tasty, but, taking us by surprise, the carrot stole the show. Slightly sweet, and thus perfect when eaten with a touch of the accompanying cream, it was dainty and delectable.

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After the success of our savory strategy, the three of us didn’t think twice before ordering three soufflés to split, once again: lemon, cassis, and praline. This time, not only was the soufflé itself flavored, but the accompanying sauce as well. Lemon and praline outshone cassis in my book, but it was a tough call, and one that we three debaters simply had to discuss at length.

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On to dinner number two. The cuisine? Once again French. This time, the crêpe place my French foodie friend goes to for a taste of home: Le Bretagne.

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We sat down at our little outdoor table, enjoying the cool June-night air that’ll disappear the second that rainy season, or tsuyu, hits. Boy, do we think alike. One savory galette and sweet crêpes it was. Not buts about it. The tomato-zucchini-cheese number disappeared rapidly, leaving us lying excitedly in wait for the main events: Valrhona chocolate with caramelized banana and “caramel complete,” salted butter caramel sauce and ice cream.

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You really can’t go wrong with caramel at crêperie. It’s always so perfectly sweet and salty. Just irresistible.

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Although we’ll be on separate continents come August, at the end of the evening, it wasn’t really goodbye–I see more foodie-fests in our future.

 

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That’s All

Last week, I crossed the stage, accepted my small black diploma, moved my tassel from right to left, and graduated from high school!

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Before heading out to a fancy celebratory dinner, we tucked into the sea of cupcakes awaiting us at the school’s reception.

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Having accepted congratulations, said goodbyes, and… taken a few irreverent photos, I waltzed out of high school, once and for good.

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Our next venue was Honda, a small Italian-ish restaurant with the most refined cuisine.

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The feast kicked off with fresh-squeezed blood orange mimosas and light, crunchy bread sticks.

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After hemming and hawing over appetizer options, I finally decided on carpaccio finished with vinaigrette. Meanwhile, having been in a similar dilemma, Mom picked white asparagus with a butter sauce and raspberry foam.

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The focaccia was incredible. Surprisingly, the rasin-pine nut variety gave the more traditional tomato olive type a real run for its money.

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Up next, pasta!

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While Dad had his with little fish and truffles, I opted for a cold tomato angel hair with mozzarella. Mmm, mmm, mmm.

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As exceptional as its predecessors are, the last savory course was the clear winner. Sautéed kinmedai with roasted seasonal vegetables, including an old favorite of mine–baby corn!

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Dessert was a slightly more solidified incarnation of pistachio crème brûlée–a petite sweet to tie off the dinner.

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It’s hard to believe that the secondary school chapter of my life has closed. Next year I leave my routine of the past 15 years behind for a brand new one. It’s exciting, yet bittersweet–much more sweet than bitter–but bittersweet nonetheless.

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That’s all.

Molten Chocolate Cake

Remember Araxi and that insane molten chocolate cake? Well, it was too good to live without.

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With a cakey around the edge and a gooey, chocolatey mess, in the middle it is not to missed and is even better when consumed with a generous dollop of ice cream!

(The recipe is available as part of the google books preview of Araxi’s sensational cookbook.)

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Misuzu-kan

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Located in the mountains of Nagano, in a town called Ueda, Misuzu-kan is famous for its classic jam candies. On our way to Bessho-onsen for an overnight ryokan trip, we hopped off the shinkansen at Ueda and headed up the street to Misuzu-kan.

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Still situated in its original 1924 building, Misuzu-kan seems to have hardly changed since its inception.

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We step inside, only to be greeted by a little man pouring tiny cups of fresh apple juice, textured and tasty.

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I admire the space, the antiquated aesthetic, the stunning old light fixtures that Mom adores.

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Then, we approach the counter, where each product is laid out beautifully, scores of samples at our fingertips.

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I work my way from one end to the other. First, the nama-zeri, directly translated to fresh or raw jelly–the kind that is totally natural, with even its sugar content at a minimum.

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These samples were followed by a jar of special sugar jellies, along side a dish of red bean paste, or anko.

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But the real standouts were Misuzukan’s signature jams and fruit jellies. With a bowl of every flavor of jam on offer, as well as massive pile of individually wrapped jam candies it was tough to decide what to taste, let alone buy!

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In the end, we settled on apricot and plum jam, a large box of traditional jam jellies, and a container of sugar encrusted ones to boot!

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The wrapped up our purchases and we headed out to the onsen, large shopping bags in hand.

 

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Peanut Butter Nutella Cupcakes

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Smooth, moist peanut butter cupcakes crowned with nutella buttercream. If chocolate and peanut butter are a match made in heaven, then adding hazelnut to the mix makes this a combo forged in outer space.

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The recipe I used comes from here. It’s great on its own, but filling these cakes with something gooey and peanut buttery would only add to the effect. Next time, I’m planning on whipping some peanut butter up with cream cheese and a splash of vanilla (natch!) and piping that into their centers. Mmm, mmm, mmm.

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