Yakuzen, a healthy alternative to health food

learn_bannerI hadn't heard of yakuzen cuisine until today. As usual I'm late to the party. For those of you scoffing at my ignorance, I can only say I'm old and I don't get out much anymore.  If, like me, you live under a rock, you may not yet know that yakuzen is "medicine food." If that sounds delicious don't stop reading! There's more to it than that. Oh yes, much more.

yakuzen1The concept of Yakuzen cuisine is more or less the practice of using the ancient tomes of Chinese medicine as cookbooks--using Eastern medicine to decide what's for dinner.  It's like having a Chinese grandmother in your kitchen, making chicken soup with deer antlers and dried worms.

Fortunately, so far, I haven't been in that kitchen. I've only been exposed to yakuzen at a couple local restaurants. If I was eating deer antlers, nobody let me in on it.  Turns out the old adage holds true: What I don't know makes me stronger... Or kills me. Since I'm not dead, I guess yakuzen cuisine was a success.

The fact is, much of what makes up the mysterious Eastern remedies are herbs... and really sharp needles under your skin. Well, apparently if you mix those herbs up in just the right way they have a profound effect on the flavor of your food. (Your Chinese grandmother has known this all along, but you never asked.)

yakuzen2So that health thing is all fine and good, but how was the food, you ask? Straight up, I'm not a fan of most vegetarian restaurants. There's nothing I hate more than the phrase "It tastes just like meat," uttered by a waiter who hasn't eaten meat since the last time the music of the spheres announced the planets had once again aligned.  But yakuzen isn't like that at all. All the rules are different. Meat and fish, while not to be used as staples, are not off the menu.  Still your vegan friends should be able to find something satisfying too. Spices abound, and the flavors of the sauces are as aromatic and complex as Indian curries, but without the heat. Everything tastes different in a yakuzen restaurant. And so far, everything I've eaten tastes pretty darn good.

I didn't expect to like yakuzen. I was tricked into going to my first yakuzen restaurant. (I made the mistake of being hungry in an "ex-hippies with BMW's" neighborhood--yes I was also surprised that they exist in Japan too.) But so far I'm a convert. Everything I've eaten thus far: sato imo soup, hayashi rice, two types of curry, lamb shoulder, kabocha and beans, matsutake omelet with eggs that have been fertilized (apparently that's a good thing)... Everything has tasted great. Really fresh, unique, and exciting with complex, deep flavors. Yakuzen cuisine is certainly worth a try. I might actually find myself enjoying healthy food.

The Yellow Cloud

learn_bannerIt rolled in yesterday like a spectre from another world. The yellow cloud. We ran for our lives seeking shelter anywhere, in buildings, under bridges, in our tiny cars or underground shopping arcades. The yellow cloud settled over our lands blocking the sun and filling our hearts with darkness and our lungs with pieces of plastic Walmart packaging.

IMG_1616

that round ball is the sun! Beautiful in a toxic way.

This is the famous yellow dust I've heard about leaving Chinese factory smokestacks daily and filling the air over Chinese cities with a yellow-green haze. Except now the winds have changed and blown a little puff of that toxic smoke our way--settling on the Pacific coast of Japan and Korea. I'm from Los Angeles, so it really just feels like lung practice to me, but for the locals, it's a real shock. Authorities and doctors are insisting that people stay inside until this thing passes over, probably Monday or Tuesday. People are walking around with masks. It's like chemical warfare. And, unfortunately, this is the weekend of the Nagoya Marathon.

I think the most amazing thing about this pollution is how real - how palpable - it really is. If this is what it's like to live in Beijing everyday there is a real and substantial health problem for those people. There is not a cloud in the sky, yet the typical blue skies of Nagoya are completely replaced with a gradient that begins with white overhead and ends near the horizon in a dirty yellow grey. Maybe I'll think seriously about this cloud next time I go to buy something from the Gap or Uniqlo...

Chaucer and Giri-Choco

learn_bannerIt all started in 1412, 80 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Chaucer wrote the words that would, from then on, seal Valentines day to romantic love. Five hundred years later Hallmark and Russell Stover did the rest. In the postwar era Valentine's Day has floated ashore in Japan, but like most waterlogged holidays, it has changed slightly in appearance.
IMG_1603First of all, Valentine's Day in Japan isn't really about love. They have Christmas Eve for that. Valentine's Day is about chocolate.
It's realistic. Until very recently in Japan chocolate was more important than love anyway. Lately love has gained some ground for the young, but realists know it'll never be as fulfilling as chocolate. For example love is still not always a legitimate reason for marriage, but the lines flow out the door and down the street at Godiva on Valentines.
Enter giri-chocolate, or giri-choco for short. Giri means "obligation." Giri-choco refers to the long standing practice of women giving all the men in their lives chocolates on Valentines Day. This means dads, sons, bosses, coworkers, even golf instructors. The women don't particularly want to do it. They have to. It's a little like those elementary school days when you had to give a valentine to everyone in class--girls and boys. Giving Valentines to boys seemed odd to me, but then again, so did Big Bird, so I was equipped to roll with it.
In elementary school I always tried to pick the nicest valentines for the girls I actually liked. I guess in modern Japan, the price of a box of chocolates may be a similar gauge. It's a good gauge of your magnetism. You know should bathe more often when you get half a Hershey's bar wrapped in cello-wrap.
But, if you think about it obligation chocolate really has two meanings. One is the obligation that the women feel to buy chocolates for all those men. the other is the obligation they create in the men when they give them all that chocolate. It's just an ongoing spiral of "you owe me one."
To satisfy this obligation a day called White Day was created. In 1965 A marshmallow company in Fukuoka (too bad, of all confectioners A marshmallow company) decided that Marshmallows on March 14th was the perfect way to do so. Before that a specific day of obligation to return the favor wasn't clearly stated. Fortunately the marshmallow thing has kind of dropped off, although the name White Day stuck. So enjoy your giri-choco men of Japan, but remember, come March 14th marshmallows aren't going to cut it anymore.  
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