Kei's Kitchen

hand made japanese in australia

Author: masako fukui

50 years ago today, we arrived in Sydney…

We first arrived in Sydney on August 6, 1968. My father had already arrived a few months prior. He was posted in Sydney as a company representative for a Japanese trading company.

He picked us up at the airport and deposited us at the Savoy Hotel in Double Bay, leaving my mum, that’s Kei, with a $20 bill to buy something for dinner.  Kei remembers thinking how the $20 looked suspiciously  like play money, but my father reassured her that it was worth about 8000 yen. An aside:  the AUD-Yen exchange rate was about 400 yen to the dollar in 1968. Today, it’s about 80 yen to the Australian dollar.

Armed with ‘play money,’ Kei took us (I was 7, my sister 9), to Double Bay Woolworths, which was across the road from The Cosmopolitan then, where she bought half a pound of rice for 9 cents. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this story, but  still, after 50 years, I love to revel in her shock of discovering that a roll of toilet paper cost 11 cents, while half a pound of rice was 9 cents.  (Paper was/is incredibly cheap in Japan, in fact loo paper was free in those days – rolls would miraculously appear at the front door a few days after leaving a bunch of old newspapers – and rice has always been expensive in Japan, thanks to Japan’s agricultural co-operative).

On the way home, my sister and I begged mum to let us stop by for a some tea at the Cosmopolitan. But Kei had no idea how much tea would cost (after all, toilet paper cost 11 cents!) so we went back to the Savoy where she cooked up some rice and grilled the dried fish a friend had given her at the airport prior to our departure (I guess he must’ve thought there’d be no himono or dried fish in Australia, so true). The fish was great I remember, and so was the ‘foreign’ rice. We were lucky  that we didn’t get evicted from the Savoy for the stench Kei inflicted on the other residents grilling the fish. Perhaps we were copped a few rude stares the following morning. Luckily, I was too young to notice.

Already in the first few hours after arriving in Sydney, the pattern of our lives in Australia for the next 50 years was  set. Kei would be in constant search for good food to feed us; we’d always be hankering for something we thought might be more exotic, only to find that mum knew best; our food would stigmatise us; and finally, my dad was always conspicuous by his absence.

Today, August 6, 2018,  it was too cold to go out to celebrate our 50th anniversary. So we decided that when the weather is warmer, we’ll go to the Cosmopolitan for a cup of tea. Here’s hoping $20 will be enough…maybe not.

by Masako Fukui, Copyright Kei’s Kitchen

Masako, stuffing her face by the Valiant

Eating out in Ginza: the old and the new

Ginza is a must go place now in Tokyo for shopping and eating: you can shop for the new, but eat in the old. Ginza has lots of what Japanese call “shinise”, old established eateries that are institutions, and thanks to the influx of new international shops like Forever 21, the disco like Abercrombie & Fitch, Uniqlo or the revamped department store Mitsukoshi (also with tons of new eateries on level 12), the once slightly dowdy mecca for “women of a certain age” and “businessmen of certain proclivities” is altogether quite groovy.

One of the more famous shinise or Japanese culinary institutions is Toraya, the venerable wagashi (Japanese sweets) establishment that does afternoon tea to perfection. Toraya is famous for Yo-kan, azuki bean jelly that is served with matcha or strong green tea. For the western version of Toraya, go to West, a cake, sandwich and tea place that is olde Europe in mood finished off with classical music. It’s tiny but well frequented, mostly by shopped out ladies. I love the ham sandwich, which is quintessentially Japanese–carefully manicured fluffy white bread with a perfectly measured hint of mustard.


Uchiyama is understated but wonderful

Lunch big in Ginza–plenty of fantastic kaiseki restaurants to go to, and most do reasonable lunchtime bento for about 3,500 yen. Like the Michelin hatted Uchiyama is a favourite of ours (see picture above and bento below)-its understated decor, the crisp personalised service, the very traditional Japanese cooking with fresh seasonal ingredients is really worth it if you want the “authentic” culinary experience. Bento lunch with Taichazuke (snapper rice with tea, served with sesame sauce, a traditional dish) is still 3,500 yen. Kei visited recently for dinner and had the seasonal kaiseki menu including crab, and raved about it. We both love the grilled gomadofu (sesame “tofu” made with arrowroot).  If you can’t get into Uchiyama, go to Asami, which also does “authentic”.  No website, but phone number is (03) 55651606 and open lunch and dinner except Sunday. Lunch about 2000-3000 yen, dinners are 15,000-20,000 yen (about $200 AUD), which is a similar price range to Uchiyama.

Bento at Uchiyama

Uchiyama Bento

For some innovative fusion, go to neo French Yugao. Kei did the dinner menu and was wowed. The dishes were so delicately presented and the tastes were subtle yet exciting, she reported.

Shiseido Parlour is a beautiful building, the original home of the international cosmetics brand. There’s a great modern art gallery downstairs, and one of the best yoshoku restaurants in Tokyo and busy tea room upstairs. Check out the fabulous design of the cookie tins on the ground floor. For fresh scrumptious anpan (red bean buns), go to Kimuraya.

The great tea store Uogashimeicha has a nice tea room close to the Dior store. And around the corner is also the famous Akebono store which has a beautiful seasonal window you can’t miss. Also close by is the “fruits parlour” with a difference is the well-known Sembikiya which has awesome fruit parfaits and very expensive melons that people always go gaga over.

by Masako Fukui, Copyright Kei’s Kitchen

Review of Doco ‘My Japanese Diet’

‘My Japanese Diet’ about Australian Craig Anderson’s weight loss journey in Japan is uplifting. By the end of this documentary which aired on SBS TV on 6th April, 2017, Craig loses 25kg and as a result, severely reduces the health risks he was facing because of his previous diet  of hamburgers and chips. He looks so much healthier and somewhat more content by the end of the story.

But as a documentary depicting Japan and its people and culture, this documentary was somewhat disappointing. What upset me most was the way Craig interacted with Japanese people.  Everyone he met seemed to be exceptionally gracious, inviting Craig into their kitchens and dining rooms, to family dinners, to a solemn tea ceremony,  to bathe and taste Shojin ryori at a Zen temple. Yes, I get that there was a language barrier, but was there any reason why the Japanese people had no ‘voice’?

Why were we not introduced to the  characters, why were we not allowed to get to know them better?  Who were the kids, their names, ages, what manga did they like; play soccer? Was the salaryman married? What was his job? Who was the woman making the tamagoyaki? Anything but the one dimensional depiction of voiceless Japanese just being ‘hospitable and nice’, as Japanese are often depicted in travel stories by western tourists.

I suspect that the cliched ‘weird gaijin’ act that Craig seemed to be engaged in was one of the reasons why we never had a chance to see the Japanese people as ‘real’ people. I found Craig very endearing, funny, and no problem feeling empathy for what he was trying to achieve. But I didn’t really believe he was such an uncultured white bloke out of his  depth and unable to control his chopsticks, which is how he was presented in this film.

And even if he were, that image of the Aussie tourist is so 1970s. I’ve lived here for 40 years and most Australians, especially city dwellers from Sydney like Craig, are no longer so culturally inept and are far more knowledgeable and in tune with Japan. So why present Craig as such an anachronistic caricature of a ‘gaijin’?

I guess I was hoping that not just his body, but Craig may have also undergone some transformation, become closer to the Japanese, at least to connect to the Japanese in a more meaningful way.

After all, if you’re going to declare that your diet is Japanese, then surely the historical, socio-cultural context in which a traditional cuisine exists is of some interest? I got no sense from watching this program that Craig had any desire to understand the larger picture. Perhaps those bits of film ended up on the cutting room floor.

In which case, I’m not really sure what the point of this story is, apart from Craig’s massive weight loss. But weight loss stories are never just weight loss stories are they? Especially if you are going to appropriate another culture’s cuisine as instrumental in that transformation journey.

The fact that this program was on SBS made it doubly disappointing. As a Japanese migrant living in Australia, I feel it’s my responsibility to keep a close eye on the way mainstream media depicts us, and this documentary was, alas, lacking in nuance.

Finally, for those wanting to adopt Japanese diet principles for health reasons, this program did not offer much relevant or useful information. The key cornerstones of Japanese cuisine (called the cuisine of water, because we cook in dashi rather than oil for example, is so fundamental, but the word dashi wasn’t mentioned once…), the reason why Japanese eat small portions and diversity of dishes, the importance of presentation, the importance of the five flavours and five colours…there’s so much more to Japanese cuisine than green tea and natto. This documentary missed all these points. Shame…

by Masako Fukui, Copyright Kei’s Kitchen

How to Julienne (Sengiri), Japanese style

繊切り Sengiri is the Japanese word meaning to Julienne. The kanji character 繊 (sen) means fine or fibre; 切り(kiri) means to cut. So sengiri refers to julienned fibres that is about 1-2mm thick.

A finer version of sengiri is 針切りHarigiri or needle thin julienne, 針 (hari) is needle.

In the case of Wagyu Shigureni, a sweet simmered wagyu dish we featured in our Shokado Bento class, harigiri (needle thin) ginger is required. We’ve tried to teach this in class, but even with our very sharp knives, most people end up with matchsticks at best, not needles or fibres.

I’ve posted a short video of the sengiri/harigiri ginger technique on our facebook page.

This is a good technique to know and crucial in Japanese cooking. The idea is to cut ALONG THE GRAIN, not against. Along the grain preserves the needle/fibre shape and texture of the vegetable. If you cut against the grain, the vegetable will fall apart once cooked or transformed in some way.

Katsuramuki, Japanese Carbon Knife

Kazu san demonstrating the katsuramuki technique with daikon.

We use this sengiri technique with carrots a lot too, and also daikon, cucumber and other vegetables that end up in aemono or sunomono dishes.

Of course, sengiri is how the finely shredded daikon garnish for sashimi is made. To achieve this, you have to be able to do katsuramuki (see pic) first to produce the paper thin strip of daikon, which is then sliced using sengiri/harigiri. This is excessively difficult! We covered this  in our knife skills class some years ago with Kazu san. (There’s no shame in employing a shredder or mandolin in this case!)

Here is a good video that demonstrates sengiri and harigiri techniques. It’s in Japanese, but you’ll get the drift.

by Masako Fukui, Copyright Kei’s Kitchen

No more Kei’s Kitchen markets….after 14 years

On April 3rd, 2016, the very last Good Living Growers Market at Pyrmont was held, 18 years after the very first one.

Kei flogs the dressings, at our last market stall

Kei flogs the dressings, at our last market stall

Kei and I first opened our Kei’s Kitchen stall selling hand made Japanese sauces and dressings  in 2002, so that’s 14 years of 4 am awakenings once a month. In fact, in the past 14 years, we’ve also had stalls at the North Sydney Growers Market, the Entertainment Quarter as well as the Frenchs Forest Organic Market. I reckon we deserve a hearty pat on the back for all that stall holding.

The greatest part of being part of the  markets was meeting people–people who enjoyed our food, other stall holders, our friends who came to visit us, customers who became our Feeding the littles at the marketfriends. We’ll miss them all, not least our four legged friends.

We’ve also seen an evolution of the market scene in that time. On the face of it, there seems to be a burgeoning of so called farmers’ markets. According to an estimate by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, there are about 300 produce markets operating in Australia now, a doubling from about 152 in 2011. If you include markets that also mix and match craft or bric a brac stalls, then I’m sure that number is even higher. This is a trend that mirrors other western nations like the U.S. where around 8000 farmers markets now exist, up from 1700 in 1994.

Yet in Australia, only 4 percent of consumers shop at the markets, and the bulk (70 percent) of food expenditure in Australia is sucked up by the main grocery chains–you know, the Voldemorts of retail.

That’s disturbing because we know that farmers’ markets (despite their many problems, we’ll get to that in another post) have huge far reaching benefits. Firstly, there’s the undeniable freshness. Darling Mills cos lettuce lasts nearly two weeks crisp and green, and Adelong Fresh farm eggs are so new, the yolks wear a halo. The straight-from-the-farm-and-into-your-mouth benefits can’t be overstated.

More importantly, there’s the warm fuzzy feeling associated with knowing that your money is going directly to the grower, many travelling overnight to deliver just-picked produce you can arrange daintily in colourful Oxfam baskets.

Our favourite heroes on that front include the legendary Les Langlands from Young whose persimmons (and other stone fruits) could make Kei’s face squishy with delight. “Alan the banana man” as he calls himself drove all the way from Coffs Harbour area to deliver his bounty of big bananas and avocados, but both retired from the markets some years ago, alas.

As for packaged or hand made products, we love how Dhiren Pillay’s Taj Mahal samosas are sometimes a bit spicier than at other times, because we know they are hand made, made by people, not stainless steel coloured factories. The idea that there are actual people behind the products who are passionate about what they sell is the best part of handing over my hard earned cash.

And perhaps the most unique thing about farmers markets is the narrative that comes with the produce. You get a chance to talk to the producers about how the drought is affecting the cherries, or how every 6 years, mandarins grow unbelievably juicy and sweet (that was in 2014) or how sesame from South America is bitter compared to India, hence the crappy sesame sauce (that was in 2015).

The grocery chain duopoly stranglehold in Australia has been the subject of much consternation and ACCC investigation in the past. While markets aren’t necessarily cheap, may not always have what you want and aren’t all that accessible as they’re not open all hours like the big chains, they still offer an alternative to the Voldemorts. Surely that’s a significant consideration as a conscientious consumer..

We’re sorry we’ve retired from the markets because we are committed to them, but it’s hard work and Kei deserves to retire…she’s 80! You can still buy our products at our Online Deli.

by Masako Fukui, Copyright Kei’s Kitchen

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