Gimme Mochi Shirt

December 27, 2009

Calling all lovers of mochi, mochi balls, mochi ice cream, kinako mochi, anko mochi, zenzai and mochi on a stick!

If you love mochi as much as I do, you might want to get one of these shirts:

Gimme Mochi Shirt shirt
Gimme Mochi Shirt by alinaspencil

Mochi, rice cake, is a chewy, sticky, versatile food that is eaten in Japan as snacks and dessert. It can be fried, steamed, baked, grilled, put into soup, ice cream, and bread. It can be stuffed with sweetened beans (anko), coconut, peanut butter, or chocolate. It can be eaten sweet or savory, with soy sauce, roasted soy flour (kinako) or nori (seaweed).

Express your love of mochi with this shirt, which has pictures of various kinds of mochi. “Mochi” is in Japanese writing, plus “Gimme mochi!”

It’s traditionally eaten as the first thing on New Year’s Day…so be ready for it with this shirt.

Vegan No-Cook Spiced Apples

December 25, 2009

Looking for a quick, easy, healthier potluck or holiday dish? Try these spiced apples. There is no cooking involved, apples are in season, and you probably have everything you need already. You can throw it together in about 15 minutes.

I made these at the spur of the moment, when I had planned to make Li Hing Apples but couldn’t find my li hing powder. So I used a different combination of spices, with the goal being to create an apple pie-like flavor.

Ingredients (amounts are approximates)
3 apples, washed, cored, sliced into wedges (about 12 per apple)
1 TBS lemon or lime juice
2 tsp sugar
1/8 tsp salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cardamom
1/4 tsp ginger

Keep the peel on your apples! The peel contains boron, which is necessary for strong bones. (I personally think it plays a key role in preventing osteoporosis, but that is my intuition and based on observation and theory.)

Since apples are one of the top 10 polluted produce items, however, buy organic apples whenever possible, and wash them well.

Mix together the apple slices with lemon juice. Add the remaining ingredients. Mix well.

Taste and adjust the flavors. You want a balance of sweet, sour, spicy, with a touch of saltiness.

Keep in mind that this needs to sit for about an hour for the flavors to get incorporated fully. You’ll get an idea of what it will taste like, but now it has a harsher, more raw flavor. Later it will become well-rounded and mellower yet fuller in taste.

These are also great for a quick snack, and the spices add extra phytochemicals, plant-based health-maintaining compounds, plus variety.

My guess is that because of the sugar and salt, they will get soggy and won’t keep more than half a day or so (unless you don’t mind the sogginess…they’ll still taste good.)

(Sorry, no picture and no exact amounts. I made this in a hurry, then rushed off to the party, where it was eaten and complimented. When I make it again, I’ll write things down and edit this post.)

Vegan Penguin Holiday Appetizers

December 21, 2009

Adorable penguin appetizers--perfect for a holiday party

(I apologize for the poor quality of the pictures, but you get the idea.)

Need a head-turning appetizer to warm up the holiday season?
I made these adorable penguin appetizers for a Christmas Eve party last year, and they were a huge hit, both with the novelty/cuteness factor, and for the taste. Besides, I had fun making them, and they were vegan, so everyone could eat them.

1 carrot, preferable organic
1 can extra large pitted olives
1 can small pitted olives
Cream cheese or vegan cream cheese mixture, about 1/4-1/2 cup
Optional: about 2 TBS chopped nuts, added to cream-cheese-like mixture

I don’t recall exactly which vegan cream-cheese-like recipe I used, but there are lots online. Most call for some nuts, tofu, salt, sugar, lemon juice, and possibly other flavorings, like garlic, blended together in a blender or food processor. Anything fairly white and savory will do, but it needs to be a stiff consistency, so it will stay stuffed in the olives and hold its shape.

To Make the Penguins:
For each penguin, you’ll need
1 extra large olive
1 small olive
1 toothpick
1 slice carrot
1 tsp cream cheese mixture

What you'll need for each penguin

Cut a wedge out of the large olive. Save the larger piece to stuff; eat the smaller piece.

Cut a wedge from the larger olive to become the body.

Fill the large olive piece with filling. Fill the small olive with filling.

The smaller and larger olives, stuffed.

Cut a small triangular piece from the slice of carrot. The small piece will be the beak; the large piece will be feet.

One carrot slice becomes a beak and feet.

Very carefully, cut a slit into the small stuffed olive, going only about halfway through it.

Insert the carrot triangle “beak.” You may need to cut a larger slit, or make thinner carrot slices.

Head with beak inserted.

Insert the toothpick down through the olive “head,”

Toothpick through the head...

then the olive “body,”

...add the body...

and finally, through the carrot “feet.”

...and feet.

Stand your penguin up and smile.

Voila! Vegan Penguin Appetizer!

I stuck them into the bottom of an old foam take-out food tray, so they would remain standing and not fall apart. They looked like an entire colony, socializing.

You can use all larger sized olives, but I thought it looked better using a smaller size for the head. This would be a fun thing to make with kids.

In fact, they don’t need to be for the holidays at all, but they seem perfectly suited to winter and festivity.

Give them a try, and I guarantee your appetizers will get lots of attention and comments.

Vegetarian Thai Cooking Class

December 6, 2009

The first thing I did upon arrival in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was head to May Kaidee’s Vegetarian Restaurant. It’s on Ratchapakinai Road, next to the Sumit Hotel, about 4 doors up from the Thai Red Cross office, which is easy to spot.

Look for the plants in front of the tiny shop.

I had a bowl full of something luscious, with coconut milk curry and vegetables, and I was immediately happy.

Last time I was in Chiang Mai, I took a cooking class from The Farm, an organic farm about 20 minutes out of the city. It was a well-organized class, the food was delicious, and it was a nice break to get out of the city and spend a relaxing day making mouth-watering food. I highly recommend it.

This time I wanted to take a class that was specifically vegetarian, not just a cooking class that substituted vegetarian ingredients. Since May Kaidee’s had a cooking class available, I had to taste the food before signing up.

No use taking a cooking class from somewhere with tasteless, or worse, awful food.

So I was relieved that the food was delicious and that it was close enough to my guesthouse, which meant I would be coming back often to eat. (I did–I went every day except when I was out of commission due to food poisoning…grr.)

Class started at 9 am with a bowl of fruit and yogurt for breakfast. Then the other three students and I, plus Duan, May’s sister, who runs the Chiang Mai restaurant with her husband, daughter, and brother, set off for the local market.

There Duan pointed out and explained several ingredients crucial to Thai cuisine. She showed us sticky rice, kaffir limes, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, holy and Thai basils.

Choy sum swarming with bees

Most of the produce was already familiar to me, including long beans, choy sum (Chinese greens with yellow flowers that the bees were swarming around), gailaan (sometimes called Chinese broccoli, and what Duan called kale), round and long eggplant, pumpkin (large, flat, and brown, like a more rowdy cousin of the Japanese kabocha).

The Thai papayas are enormous, at least eight inches long, orange and shaped like a cylinder. The papayas in Hawaii are much smaller, shaped like yellow pears on steroids.

We also saw the rice noodles that people ordered by width and watched the vendor chop them with her cleaver before putting them into a tiny plastic bag secured with a rubber band. The thin version, like fetuccini, are what is used to make Pad Thai, the popular fried noodle dish. The uncut sheets are the wrappers for uncooked spring rolls.

After filling our baskets, we walked back to the shop, past a rotund yellow dog that took up half the road. Cars, people and motorcycles inched around it to pass. We couldn’t decide if she was pregnant or just obese.

The Somphet Market Dog--fat or pregnant?

Back at the shop, we chopped some baby corn, greens, and cauliflower before heading upstairs with bottles of drinking water, to get to work.

Each of us had a station with a wok and shared areas with dark and light soy sauce, chili paste and already-chopped garlic and chilies.

For each recipe, Duan walked us through the steps. “Put one spoonful of oil in your wok. Now add chilies, half spoon, and garlic, half spoon.” Spoons were the Asian soup spoons, the long ones with handles bent upwards, that come with bowls of gau gee min and ramen, Asian noodle soups.

“Now, quickly…KHON!

That meant “Stir!” in Thai. We spent many hours that day khon-ing.

“Next put tofu and vegetables….khon faster!”

And so it went. After the first three dishes, I lost track of how much of what went into what. Fortunately, all the recipes had been printed out for us, so we stopped after a few to make notes about substitutions and anything else not already written for us.

Duan prepares rice wrappers to make uncooked spring rolls.

Each of us had a tasting spoon, which we kept in a pocket in the front of our aprons, for sampling the dishes as we finished. This was an interesting part of the course, because we learned how much of a difference in flavor small substitutions could make.

For example, clear Tom Yum, coconut Tom Yum, and Tom Kha soups were identical, save for the amounts of coconut milk we added, but the flavors were more different than you’d imagine.

Four hours later, we had a spread large enough to feed us all for lunch and dinner. Fried noodles, soups, several kinds of curries, and the famous Kao Soi, a northern Thai curried noodle specialty.

The finished uncooked spring rolls: light, fresh, chewy, crunchy, spicy, and refreshing, all at once.

We also made lip-smacking peanut sauce, and May Kaidee’s famous and possibly the most popular dish on the menu: Pumpkin Hummus. Various seeds, spices, chilies, and cooked pumpkin were pounded with a mortar and pestle. The end result was creamy, complex pumpkin magic.

Duan said it was their mother’s special recipe. She used to make it for them growing up, and they ate it with everything, from balls of sticky rice, to spread on bread as sandwiches, or as a dip with vegetables. It was easy to see why this was such a popular dish.

The only non-vegan things were the yogurt in the morning, plus the egg noodles in the Kao Soi. But that was a variation on a curry dish, so you could leave them out.

I gave my leftovers to my Thai massage friends, since I did not have a fridge in the guesthouse and did not want to tempt fate with even more food poisoning.

Thank you, Duan, An, Nain, and Opal, for delicious food every day, and for your help! Khob kun mahk kha!

If you are interested in taking the cooking class, visit the restaurant and talk to one of them. I highly recommend it.

May Kaidee Vegetarian Restaurant, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Organic Lunch in Tokyo

December 5, 2009

On the way back home from Thailand, I opted to take a 12-hour layover in Tokyo and go into the city to walk around. I miss Japan just enough after having lived there sixteen years ago to want to visit every now and then, and I had some spare yen to spend.

I took a train on Japan’s precisely on-time and efficient railway system, transferring trains with ease, buying my tickets at windows or asking for help when necessary. It’s immensely easier to travel when you know enough of the language to help you get around and ask basic questions.

One thing I have discovered from traveling is that all foreign languages are stored in the same folder in my brain. When I travel somewhere, and I try to use the language to communicate, I sometimes spew out words and realize it’s the right word, wrong language. Dangit!

And it’s horribly difficult for me to switch back and forth if I haven’t used one of them in a while. I kept almost saying “thank you” in Thai instead of Japanese, because although I can use either one with ease, I had been using Thai for the past two weeks and was used to saying it.

(The fact that the flight attendants on all three of my flights back home seemed to be a mix of Chinese, Japanese, and Thai-speaking women only confused my tired brain even further. Half the time I couldn’t tell what language they were making the announcements in, so I just gave up trying to understand them and hoped they weren’t saying we needed to brace for a crash landing.

They weren’t…and I’m home.)

Where was I?

Oh yah, getting around Tokyo asking for directions.

Except that I couldn’t remember if migi and hidarimeant “left” and “right” or “right” and “left.”

This led to a pissed-off security guard at Meiji Jingu Shrine Park, when I asked for directions to the nearest train station and he told me to go hidari, and I swore I had just gone that way, but there was no train station there. Turns out I had left and right mixed up, because I was listening to them in the train but looking backwards…are you confused yet? So was I…!

Back to food…

I had decided to go to the Omote Sandoarea of Tokyo, not because it is noted for fashion and style (which I care absolutely nothing about), but because it is supposedly rich in vegan eating places.

However, despite having several names, addresses, and asking many, many Japanese people, including clerks at the Body Shop and some aromatherapy shop–likely places, no?–nobody could point me toward any vegetarian or vegan eating places, nor could I find any of them. Grr.

I finally found an organic cafe in the basement of Bulgari Department Store.

When in doubt, go to the basement of any department store you can find. The food shops are always down there. On a good day, you will stumble into an enormous grocery/deli/souvenier floor, where you can choose from groceries, already cooked foods ready to go, and packaged specialty items from the area, just perfect for fulfilling the obligatory Japanese custom of taking omiyage, souveniers, to all your co-workers, neighbors, and friends back home.

I wasn’t so lucky. But I did find Cinagro, Organic Kitchen and Market, that had a lunch special. I opted for the soup and salad bar set for 800 yen (about $9.00 U.S.–very cheap by Japan standards, pretty ridiculous, from ours.)

I chose Green Potage, which was a velvety deep green mix of green peas, broccoli, spinach, Welsh onion and milk.

Green Potage Soup

The flavors of the vegetables were the clear stars, which is nice, since in many dairy-based soups, the cream is relied on to impart flavor. In this case, the milk flavor was nearly nonexistent.

I filled up with the salad bar, which contained mesclun, tomatoes, marinated carrot salad, marinated dried tomato and cabbage salad, seaweed, blanched broccoli and green beans, a stew of deep-fried vegetables in soy sauce, and fried onions, walnuts, and toasted, slivered almonds as topping. Dressing choices were umeboshi (pickled plum), olive oil, or Japanese style (soy, ginger).

I swear there were salad greens under there! You can see the shaved gobo in the 7 o'clock position on the plate.

I enjoyed the braised root vegetables, which were thin shavings of gobo, burdock root. That’s the first time I had seen it prepared that way. Normally it is cut into matchstick-like pieces and cooked with chilies and soy in kimpira gobo, where the texture is almost like eating damp, chewy wood. I preferred this style, which was a much friendlier texture.

But because I wasn’t sure it was completely vegetarian, I only had a little. The main seasoning in a Japanese dish like this is always dashi, broth typically made from bonito fish flakes, and I’m allergic to seafood, so I wasn’t about to risk anaphylactic shock for a few slices of gobo,delicious though it may have been.

Afterwards I was tempted to try something from a crepe sidewalk booth, which had an extensive display of options. Crepes were partially rolled, so they were V-shaped, and filled with everything from blueberries and cream cheese to chocolate, and everything in between.

I decided I didn’t need what was probably hydrogenated fats, not to mention all the saturated fat and sugar it contained. Instead, I hopped into a mini-mart and picked up a few Meiji Black dark chocolate bars, and one green tea chocolate bar for a friend to try.

I’m not a green tea fan, although I will likely try a bite before giving her the rest; it’s hard for me to pass up a new, unusual flavor combination.

Besides, how will I ever know I don’t like something if I’m unwilling to even try it? Just because I don’t like green tea doesn’t mean I won’t like chocolate and green tea, right?

Isn’t everything better with chocolate?

Sweet Thai Snacks

December 4, 2009

Despite my uncomfortable and worrisome, bubbling and unstable abdomen, I decided to brave the trip to Warorot Market, an enormous warren of shops.

Typical of markets throughout Asia, this one filled the three or four stories of the concrete building, plus all the space in the side streets adjacent to it.

At home, we go to a supermarket to find everything we need in one place. We go to a department store to find all manner of items under one roof.

In Asia, the exact opposite is true. When you want shoes, why not have all thirty shoe stores side by side, back to back, so you can comparison shop and get the best bargains?

Why go to three different groceries to get those fresh greens, when you could walk down one aisle and peruse the produce from fifty vendors in a matter of minutes?

The sheer number of vendors can become overwhelming, and not being able to read things, coupled with unfamiliar sights and bizarre smells, was almost unbearable. I passed several booths with animal parts hanging for sale to eat, and the smell of death and fermented fish sauce just about made me puke right there.

I knew what I wanted to get, so I tried to find it as quickly as possible. I bought some dried strawberries, which I use in my Christmas variation of Trail Mix Clusters (find the recipe here,) and spiced cashews. Cashew nuts are fried with oil, chilies, sugar, salt, garlic and kaffir lime leaves.

I bought the peanut version of this addictive snack when I was here four years ago but couldn’t find it this time. Perhaps too many people are allergic to peanuts these days? I got two bags, so I can try to recreate the flavors at home.

The other thing I wanted to try was a sampling of the intriguing sweet snacks. Asian sweets tend to be served not as dessert, but as snacks between meals, and often include ingredients we don’t use in Western desserts, such as taro, corn, and beans.

I stood for several minutes just staring at the spread at the most popular shop in the market. (Oddly, I only saw one shop of this type…why not one dozen?!)

A dizzying display of dental decay-inducing delights.

Eventually I snapped some photos and picked out one each of a half dozen or so snacks. The woman got disgusted with me when she asked me to choose between pumpkin or sweet bean cupcake-looking thingies.

I shrugged and shook my head, because making decisions can be difficult for me on a good day (I’m a Libra, okay?), and I was already out of sorts, with the scary, unstable stomach thing going on. I really did not have a preference for either one, nor did I have the presence of mind to try to say as much in Thai (not that I know how), so I just stood there, feeling like an idiot, yet not willing to make a choice.

She said, “Choose one!” and scooped up a bean cake and threw it in a bag for me.

I took a tuk-tuk (motorcyle in front, spacious covered wide seat in back) back to my guesthouse and cooled off for a bit before heading to visit my massage therapist friends.

The tuk tuk ride home

Here is what I got:

Thai sweet snacks

The round sweet bean cupcake was okay, nothing I’d necessarily long to try again.

The custard rectangle (Mao Geng Hai) tasted like ordinary custard, not something I like.

The green sticky rice cake was yummy, flavored with coconut milk. It was called Khao Niaow Ghao.

The green round balls with coconut, Ha Tom Kiaow, I did not like at all. They were obviously flavored with pandanus leaf, a palm-like leaf used to impart a nutty aroma to desserts and rice dishes throughout much of Asia. The taste and smell reminded me of steaming ti leaves to make lei in Hawaii, not something I want to be eating.

The brown and clear, multi-layered rectangle that smelled like coffee (Woon Cafe) tasted slightly sweet, slightly salty, like a coffee gelatin.

The reddish-brown rectangle Peua Gwan is similar to Hawaiian kulolo, a chewy, sticky cake made from taro and coconut milk. But this one had a more refined consistency, as though it had been made from mashed and strained taro, rather than the more chunky texture of the dessert back home. It was a little like bubble gum when you first start to chew it, after you get the stiffness out, but before it becomes rubbery: soft and a little chewy.

The whole bag of snacks cost me 80 baht (about $2.40 U.S.).

My massage friends didn’t want any sweets and warned me that eating so much would make me sick to my stomach (although that was already the case, so it was kind of a useless warning.)

But I explained I only wanted to try them, so I cut a sliver off the end of each one to taste. I only liked the green sticky rice, which was too sweet to have more than one bite, and the taro cake. I set aside one bite-sized piece of that one to have after dinner.

My friends were much more pleased by my gift of a bag of large Fuyu persimmons, which are just coming into season. They ranged in price from 35 to 60 baht for a one-kilo bag (approximately four hefty persimmons.) Guess which ones I bought? Yup…35 baht. Actually, 36, since she didn’t have correct change. (About $1.05 U.S.) It pays to shop around, even when you are spoiled for choice.

Thai Crepes and Batik Class

December 3, 2009

I spent the day at Chiang Mai Batik Painting School with Ann, the teacher, at her home.

She served me some snack/dessert cakes she had gotten at her daughter’s school.

Thai mini dessert crepes

They were like miniature crepes, stuffed with a filling like you’d find in eclairs, and rolled like burritos. The Thai name sounded “like Tokyo,” she said. (Don’t ask me about pronunciation, however…when I tried to tell my Thai massage friends about it later, I said “Tokyo” several times, trying different high-low-middle-rising-falling tones in combination, before they finally figured out what the heck I was talking about!)

I resorted to basic batik techniques to make a pillow case, keeping my elephant friends in mind:

If you have free time in Chiang Mai or are interested in batik, get in touch with Ann. She offers beginning and advanced classes.