Living in Japan has altered my kitchen staples, and one addition is yakisoba noodles. I usually keep a package on hand in the fridge. Each package contains three servings of noodles individually wrapped and three packets of seasoning mix (which I usually skip).
Another staple: kaeshi. The recipe for kaeshi is simple: combine 3/4 cup soy sauce, 3 Tb. of sugar, and 3 Tb. of mirin (sweet rice cooking wine) in a saucepan and heat until dissolved, then cool and store in the fridge. I put kaeshi in a squeeze bottle, which makes it easy to use while cooking. Kaeshi is called a “mother sauce” in Japanese cuisine, very similar to the stocks and sauces at the root of French cooking. If you’ve ever over-seasoned sauteed mushrooms or fried rice with too much soy sauce, then you need kaeshi in your life. The sweetness of the mirin and sugar balance the salty bitterness of soy sauce perfectly.
This past weekend I decided to cook up a quick yakisoba lunch with whatever leftovers I could find. I scrounged up a handful of kale, half an ear of cooking corn, a few bites of beef ribs, and half an onion.
The beauty of yakisoba noodles is that they go straight in the skillet with no pre-boiling. I threw away the seasoning packet and reached for the kaeshi instead. Then I cooked up the veggies and meat….
…threw in the noodles and a few squeezes of kaeshi….
…and lunch was ready!
My dining companion enjoyed one of his new favorites, cold soba noodles with dipping sauce.
As loyal martayaki readers recall, a few days ago our neighbor accidentally backed into our car Benji while turning around. Mr. and Mrs. Neighbor came over to apologize twice–once bearing I’m Sorry pastries–and both times I deployed the handy Japanese phrase daijobu, or No Worries.
After the second visit from the neighbor I reached out to an American friend who has lived here forever and speaks Japanese about maybe translating and explaining that we really, truly don’t need any repairs to our poor, beleaguered car. She consulted with her fellow-American-in-Japan husband, and they told us to expect a third apology before the neighbors finally stops apologizing. She added that we’re experiencing more of real Japan than most people do!
Sure enough, Mrs. Neighbor came by this morning with a written note in English (with impecable handwriting, of course) apologizing once more. She also apologized for not speaking good enough English to deliver said apology herself. So I think we’re good. Finally.
As for the scratch itself, I decided to buy some good ole’ American car care products to buff it out a little. Mark pointed out the folly in this exercise, considering that we’ve never washed the car since owning it. Obviously I ignored him.
After purchasing Scratch Doctor at the Navy Exchange AutoPort, I did a quick assessment lap around the car. Scratch from neighbors, check. Then I wondered about the other scratched bumper from the time a few months ago that my backup BEEPBEEPBEEP sensor failed to sound and I very slowly scraped against a white pole that hid in the backup BEEPBEEPBEEP sensor’s blind spot. So I looked for a second scratched bumper…and couldn’t find it. Then I did a second lap around the car. Still only one scratched bumper.
Then the light very….slowly….came…on.
The neighbors backed into an already scratched bumper, and their car is white–the same color as the scratch that was already there.
Now if this happened in DC, I would likely go back to the neighbor and explain, “You know, I happened to already have a scratch there, so really–don’t worry about it.” Since the Don’t Worry About It/Daijobu part of the situation here is the same–and most importantly, I’m not asking them to pay for any repairs–I decided not to muddy the waters trying to explain that the scratch was essentially a pre-existing condition.
A few quick swipes of the Scratch Doctor improved the bumper’s appearance….some. See for yourself! But alas, no Rust Doctor exists yet to solve Benji’s biggest problem.
OK, so “hitting” our car is a bit of an exaggeration. But hey, I got your attention and you clicked through. So here we go!
The other night our neighbors rang our bell and started explaining something in Japanese to Mark. After a minute of standing there silently and nodding, Mark called me over as the resident Japanese linguist (ha!). I headed outside with Mr. and Mrs. Neighbor who proceeded to explain/mostly pantomime that Mr. Neighbor accidentally backed into our car while turning around on our tight street. They showed me a white scrape of paint on the corner of the bumper without even a dent.
A little background on our car. Longtime martayaki readers may remember last year’s introduction to our ride, Benji the Orenji. Last summer Mark moved to Japan a month before the rest of us and set out to buy a car right away. He went for big enough but not too big, and cheap. We ended up with a 13-year-old Nissan Cube that set us back a whopping $1100 USD. We later learned that the rough guideline for how much to spend on a car is no more than $1000 per year you expect to stay in Japan. So we seriously underspent, and we hope that Benji will last all three years (one down, two to go!).
Benji is slowly falling apart and suffering other indignities. For instance, last fall Cy opened the door and I heard a clang of something hitting the ground. I scolded Cy to pick up whatever item of his fell out of the car, and he answered, “It was the car!”. Sure enough, a chunk of the paint rusted off and clattered to the ground. The same thing happened a few weeks later while a grocery store bagger on base helped me load my groceries into my car. I heard that familiar clunk of metal hitting the ground and knew right away that Benji shed yet another piece of himself. The bagger heard it and was all, “Something fell, let’s see what it was” and I’m all “No, no, it’s fine…”. Benji has also suffered the indignity of water and other beverages spilled on every seat, plus a melted chocolate incident. The foamy seats absorb liquid immediately and resist cleaning despite my efforts with a handheld shampooer. So Benji looks like the transport vehicle for a seriously incontinent family. Then there’s the dog and her hair…you get the idea.
So back to the other night with our neighbors. I showed them the leprous, rusty spots all over Benji and repeated one of my favorite Japanese words, daijobu.
Daijobu doesn’t really translate into one word. It’s a handy expression that basically means nah, I’m good, no worries. It’s both a question and an answer. When my dog Ruby sees another and wants to say hey, I ask the owner “Daijobu desu ka?” and he or she answers daijobu. I use it when I’m at the store and don’t need a plastic shopping bag because I have my own. If another train passenger jostles me and apologizes, I answer daijobu.
So I daijobu-ed the neighbors and thought that we were good.
The next evening Mrs. Neighbor rang our bell again. She came bearing a giant bag of pastries and even more apologies. She also insisted even more politely and aggressively that they will No Kidding fix the car.
Let’s imagine that this happened back home in DC. If I backed into a neighbor’s Piece of $!@>*^ car and left a scrape of paint, I’d also insist on making repairs. Said neighbor would likely wave off, especially if the car looked half as bad as Benji. I would apologize and thank him or her for the kindness, then offer a six pack or bottle of a favorite libation. I’d probably throw in a homemade baked good for good measure, just to be a good neighbor.
Mr. and Mrs. Neighbor will not take daijobu as an answer, and I’m at a complete loss on what to do. Saving Face is huge–huge–in Japan. Is it an insult to not allow the neighbor to repair the car, even if it’s completely unnecessary? Just how many pastries is a scrape of paint worth? How do I finally convince them that Seriously. No Kidding. Daijobu!?
I’d post a photo of the “damage,” but I’m writing this at home and don’t want the neighbors to see me taking pictures of the scrape. So I’ll take a picture later when I’m away from home and post it to an update.
I’ve reached out to an American friend who speaks fluent Japanese to help translate a conversation with the neighbors. Stay tuned!
Mark’s parents Don and Julie live in San Antonio, Texas, and we visit them at least once a year. This also means that at least once a year I buy a new pair of cowboy boots, in case any of you wondered about my rather large collection of my favorite fall-winter footwear. Though probably not this time, since it’s 100 F (38 C) degrees out.
But back to today! For this visit we asked Don and Julie if we could meet at their beach condo on Padre Island in Corpus Christi, a town on the Gulf of Mexico. Mark’s eldest brother Kevin, his bride Lisa, and their girls Anya and Lia drove down from their home in Houston to join us.
For our first full day in Corpus Don booked a charter with the Texas Floating Classroom. Captains Whitney and Bryan Curry welcomed all ten of us aboard Research Vessel (RV) Archimedes, and we got underway for a few hours of watery, educational fun in Corpus Christi Bay.
Captain Whitney started out her introduction with an enthusiastic endorsement of the kids’ TV show SpongeBob SquarePants. I had no idea that the show’s creator, Stephen Hillenburg, was both a marine biologist and an animator. Whitney explained that a lot of the characters and aspects of the show are based on fact–at least in the first three seasons, while Hillenburg still wrote the show. For instance, the character Plankton really looks like plankton. She also added that plankton are species that cannot swim against the current (“That means that I’m plankton,” added our comedian Cy, without missing a beat). She conceded that squirrels don’t really live at the ocean floor–but if they did, they would need scuba gear like the character Sandy Cheeks (from Texas!) wears.
The Floating Classroom is a non-profit organization; this designation also applies to churches, schools, and similar organizations that exist to educate and enrich their patrons. Whitney clearly loves her work and cares about teaching others, and I really liked how she explained the topics at hand for a varied audience. She used correct scientific terms without dumbing anything down. Our group included kids, science-y adults, and not-so-science-y adults, and she managed to answer all of our questions and teach all of us something new.
First we set trawling nets; Whitney dumped our catch into the touch tank, where we checked out fish, shrimp, sea stars, squid, and jellyfish. Kids and adults alike poked at fish, raced sea stars to see which would flip over first (answer: none of them), and delighted in the squid that inked when held.
Then we set a finer net to catch plankton. Quick quiz: do you know what makes sea water look green? It’s not the sandy bottom or reflection of the sky, as I first guessed. It’s plankton! We checked out our wiggly plankton catch with handheld magnifying glasses, then returned our catch to the bay as we headed for shore.
After bidding Whitney and Bryan farewell we popped in for a quick visit to the Texas State Aquarium next door (where I got side-eye from an elevator shark, just like my kids do to me).
We returned home to unwind for a bit, then enjoyed dinner together at Doc’s Seafood and Steaks, a Padre Island institution like countless other waterfront restaurants in beach towns across the U.S. (excellent view, O.K. food). Grandma Julie trumped all when she started twirling and singing along to Sweet Caroline as performed by the one-man band. I wish I had a photo to share, but I was too shocked to reach for my phone.
Saturday: Rolling Hills Water Park! We slid down the water slides. We lazed in the lazy river. The cousins struck silly poses. We even snuck in contraband fried chicken, then took it outside when busted by the water park manager.
Saturday night we kept the water theme going with hoppy water (beer) as we celebrated the first anniversary of Salt Springs Brewery in Saline. Friends of Joanna and Richard’s own the brewery, and both Richard and Ben contributed sweat equity to its construction. We raised a glass and enjoyed the delicious barbecue to celebrate their efforts.
Sunday morning we bid farewell to the family at an obscenely early hour as we headed for Detroit Metro Airport and our last U.S. stop: visiting with the Kane family in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Last week I took advantage of the kids’ stay at sleepaway camp to pop up to New York for a quick visit. I hit four museums in four days, saw two movies, wandered, ate well, visited with friends and family. It was great!
One such evening combined all of the friends/family/eating well elements when I had dinner in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with my childhood friend Justyna and my cousin Maya. We met at an old-school Polish restaurant called Królewskie Jadło (A Knight’s Feast). Greenpoint has been the center of Polish immigrant life in NYC for decades.
As soon as I emerged from the subway station I immediately noticed the hallmarks of gentrification: coffee bars, ramen shops, and lots of skinny jeans and tattoos. I also passed this storefront, which sums up Greenpoint in one photo:
Even though I had never visited Greenpoint before, I could clearly see the changes in the last few years. While many businesses still had Polish names on the signs, I saw at least as many with For Rent signs. Where did those business owners go? I can only guess. Perhaps retirement, or to the scattered Polish diaspora in the suburbs, or even back to Poland.
So back to the restaurant! I arrived to find Justyna and Maya already chatting away over glasses of wine, and I quickly joined in. Justyna lives in the neighborhood and knows the restaurant, so we put her in charge of ordering.
Temperatures in the 90s (32 degrees C) don’t typically leave me craving gut-busting Polish food, but I rallied. I tackled the placek wegierski (Hungarian pancake), a potato pancake filled with goulash. I arrived hungry and did my best, yet I managed to eat less than half. We also enjoyed kopitka (dumplings sort of like gnocchi), cold beet soup, and szmalec, a spread made from lard and pork.