“Can you cook curry?” and other stories.

It would really be an understatement to say that I originate from a foodie’s paradise. You want it, we got it.

So, when the Singapore JETs were leaving for Japan, many were exchanging recipies and carrying a whole lot of ingredients and spices and lamenting how much they’d be missing the Chicken Rice and Mee Goreng.

For me though, I felt a huge disconnect. Don’t get me wrong, I love my home food just as much as the next person…but I’m a lot less sentimental. As I left Singapore, I never once thought “Damn I’m gonna miss the food”. At most it was a “Damn, I’m gonna have to cook for myself!” I occasionally wonder if there are people who can relate with this (I’m sure there are…I mean, the world is huge).

I came to accept very early on that I was far from being the cook that my mom and grandmother are. So I’d make pasta or bake or find stuff online and try it out…or on some occasions, improvise stuff up. And it’s not like I make BAD food…but I’m far from knowing complicated recipies that take 2 days to prepare, at the tip of my fingers. I’m even further from being able to host parties and prepare everything from scratch. That’s the kind of mom and grandmother I grew up with and I have a HUGE amount of love and respect for these 2 women…but what they do requires SO much time, patience, energy and practice.

The summer before I first arrived in Japan, I actually visited India for a bit and tried to learn how to make some decent Indian food…and I did! I could make Chappatis and a decent Channa Masala (I actually talked about this in a previous post somewhere)…and then I forgot how to make it. :/  I know how this makes me sound like a terrible representative of my own culture, etc…I’ve been chastised enough (being a woman has NOT been helpful in this case)…but just hear me out on this.

Can you make curry?
I’ve lost count the number of times people ask me if I can make curry. What curry? Cuz if you mean the Japanese type that requires me to plop the roux on my veggies, I’m amazing at it. Indian curry tho…I can MAAAYBE manage 2 or 3 out of the HUNDREDS that exist. Indian food is complicated. Till maybe last month, I had no idea you could add cashewnuts into curry and blend it all into a smooth paste. I’d watched mom do it…vaguely…but never really registered it.

There’s a whole world of spices and curry powders. Depending on what is added and when it’s added and the amount added, the resulting curry would be completely different. So can you really blame me for forgetting? I’ve made enough bad curries to be weary of curry making. I miss one step, and suddenly I’m stuck with a watery, overly-spicy, meh-looking…mix of things in a pot. And while I’m all for learning from my failures, it’s also incredibly draining and time-consuming.

Mind: All that cooking’s fine and well, till the cleaning part happens.

If you read my other posts, you’d know that my schedule is just insane. This means, any kind of cooking leads to piled up pots and pans in the sink for a WEEK. Indian cooking requires a lot more than one pot. So the washing and smells add up. It’s the stuff of nightmares.

What Singaporean food do you miss?
And don’t get me started on what I miss about Singaporean food. Because, honestly, the thing I miss the most is the availability of GOOD vegetarian salads, sandwich, wraps and soups. A good salad, sandwich, wrap or soup should be a filling and satisfying meal. A good mix of fresh crunchy vegetables with some tofu or veg patty, topped off with a good dressing….mmm. That or a hot bowl of soup with some bread on the side on a rainy day.  Being vegetarian in Japan isn’t impossible, but it definately decreases all my sammich-on-the-go options.

I’m unsure about the rest of Japan, but where I’ve been posted, there are no vegetarian sandwich options in the conveniences stores  and Starbucks is a hit or miss thing depending on the seasonal offerings. We have Doutor which makes fresh sandwiches but I need to tell them not to put in the non-veg stuff and still pay the same price with no extra veggies to compensate the lack of non-veg.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not complaining when I say all this. I knew what I was getting myself into when I came to Japan. But the point I’m trying to make (long winded as it may be) is that I miss my sandwiches more than any particular Singaporean food and I have problems articulating that to people (both Singaporean and non-Singaporean) because of the reactions I get to that statement. It makes me look like a terrible cultural embassador of both my country AND my culture.

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WHAT IS THERE NOT TO LIKE ABOUT A SOY PATTY BURGER?!?

 

What should I eat in Singapore?
And then the famous: What should I eat if I go to Singapore?
I really struggle on this one because truth be told, it’s everything. You can’t possibly understand Singaporean food culture by eating JUST roti prata or laksa. Singapore is complex because of it’s roots in trade and it’s diverse population of about 5.5million people.

How to answer liddat?
(Singaporean English for: How am I to answer in a situation like that?)
I’ve dealt with this by telling people to visit food courts or hawker centers in Singapore. That’s where they’re going to find all that diversity at very cheap prices. I try to explain why it’s not as easy as telling a foreigner in Japan to eat Sushi. So far, the response to that answer has been good.

But, I mean, I TRY…

I can’t however be accused of not trying. I have a lot of love for a South-East Asian flavoring called Pandan. It’s a type of leaf that’s boiled for its’ essence and the essence/extract is added to cakes, jellies, jams, etc. The taste is really unique and whenever people ask me if I want/need anything from Singapore, I usually ask for Pandan essence.

So, recently, when my school asked me to appear on a TV programme in collaboration with the broadcasting club, I was all for it. They asked me if I could do anything “Singaporean”…so I offered to show them how to make Pandan Agar Agar Jelly. Litterally, it’s the ONLY Singaporean dish I can make with confidence because of how easy it is…and it has Pandan.

I’ll add the link in here so you can take a look, but it’s all in Japanese and you’ll have to skip a bunch of other stuff to see me make the jelly (or you could just watch the whole thing!):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uBbctAZZMEc

So…
There’s so much pressure to live up to your culture or country’s image…people always want to know about Singapore and Indian food culture. But, as harsh as this sounds, it feels very performative for me. Performative because, in that instant, I’m being expected to be a role-model Singaporean-Indian. In that instant, I’m being expected to be a cultural showcase of food even if there’s no ill-intention behind the questions.

I stand on a fine balance. I don’t want to be rude and tell people that all I need/want in life is some good tea and some sandwich/salad/soup/thing. At the same time, I don’t want to be the Singapore Tourism Board. I don’t enjoy giving model answers that I don’t believe in. So I give lengthy answers that satisfy both parties. I talk about the culture behind the diverse food culture I come from and explain why it’s so hard for me to give travel guide answers to them.

For most part, it’s been good.

 

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卒業Graduation and other happenings of March and April 2015: MAY UPDATE

 

CRAZY BACKLOG WARNING!!!
I had a really bad writer’s block for this one.


March is the time for teary farewells apparently….and unlike the farewells I remember from my JC days (which I can’t really), it seems like a bigger affair here. All the teachers wear formal black clothes and the women teachers add a little something (white flower brooches)…some male teachers, who I thought lived in their track suits, suddenly came in formal clothes…very surreal.

First there was the rehearsal. The students had to practice standing, sitting and bowing in unison without extra/unwanted fidgeting. Then, they rehearsed the National Anthem (Kimi Ga Yo), the School Song and the bye bye farewell song, which I’ve attached below (NOT the Vitamin C song).

My school’s graduation was held on March 3rd, which was also the day of Hinamatsuri (doll’s festival) which is the Girls’ festival here in Japan. I love this festival and I enjoy telling people about how similar it is to Navarathri Golu that South Indians keep.

I got this really pretty doll set at the tea shop I frequent...and if you don't put them back in at the end of the festival....you'll never get married and will have to be content with cats.

I got this really pretty set at the tea shop I frequent…and if you don’t put them back in at the end of the festival….you’ll never get married and will have to be content with cats.

Anw, back to the topic of Grad, it really was quite a touching ceremony…you could see some of the parents and students sniffling and after the main ceremony was over, the students had a goodbye thing with their homeroom teachers and then they went outside where they were sent off by the entire school. Complete with brass band. wao.

There was much hugging and flower giving and presents and selfies.

And even though I never really taught this bunch of students, I found myself missing them quite a bit as one of them yelled “Hey! Yagu! I WON’T remember you! Yea! hahahahahahah!”

TAT “I’ll miss you too kiddo!”

I also found out that the first (and only) kid that I coached for Eiken (a private English proficiency test like TOEFL) passed his Level 2.5 test!!!!! Yay!!!!!!!! I turned some heads when I screamed “yattaaaa!!!” in the staffroom. 😛 But really, I’m super proud of the boy.

At my special needs school too, we had the grad ceremony for the elementary, junior high and high school students. It was a very emotional event especially for a number of parents. I saw them crying as their children went up to reciece their certificates one by one (this was a difference from my base school where only one representitive got a cert). They also got a grand send off at the school hall. Going outside would have been waay too cold especially for some of the wheelchair bound students.

I found myself extremely happy and proud of these kids.

Also, end of March, staff changes were announced.
Teachers who were retiring…
Teachers who were moving schools…
Goodbye parties…

Amidst this, the founding PM of Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew also passed away.
I have so much to say on this topic, but when I try to type it out…I realise there’s really nothing to say about this because SO MUCH has already been said and done. But I remember that late March day being particulary cold and it snowed unexpectedly as my Singaporean friend and I went out for a quiet dinner.

And, as if I wasn’t busy enough, I’d also planned my trip to Osaka, Uji (Kyoto) and Nara.

It was mad.

Don’t get me wrong, I had an AMAZING trip. I visited USJ, met friends, ticked things off my bucket list and had a ton of fun.  But, it was overwhelming.

And there really was no rest to things.

Just as suddenly, when I returned to Toyama, the new teachers arrived.
I found out who I’d be teaching with.
New students filed into the school.
I got a new schedule.
Sakuras burst into existance.
And not even a week later, my parents and cousin landed in Toyama.
We did Hanami at the castle park.
We visited Gokaya and Shirakawa-go.
Sakuras fluttered away giving way to fresh green leaves.
Dad and Cousin left Toyama
Mum and I visited Takayama and Furukawa (Gifu Prefecture) where we watched the Furukawa Matsuri.
We hosted my teachers and some of my friends at home…AMAZING indian veg food for all.
We went to to the Tonami Tulip Fair.
Then, Mum left (right after the Tulip Fair)
Golden Week happened and I went  to Nagoya, Inuyama (Aichi Prefecture) and Ise (Mie Prefecture).
……
Yesterday was Mothers’ Day…I visited SOL, a vegetarian restaurant, with some of my new friends…
Bought some plants for a balcony garden that I’m trying to start…Lavenders, Tomatos and Basil…
And I’m here now.

It’s hard to believe that just a little more 2 months have passed between now and then.
Now being May, then being March.
Which is why I guess this post was particularly hard to update on.
Everytime I came to it, something else happened.

But that’s what life is like here. Something always happens.
That’s also one reason why I’m so glad to be staying on for another year…
How could I possibly digest everything in a year?

So yea….I just take a deep breath and stare at the sky a lot.

My Most Amazing Vegeteranian Post of All Time…with a heck ton of disclaimers

So here’s my long overdue veg post.
Disclaimer: I’m not here to argue about the pros and cons of vegging. I’m not here to tell people about the benefits of vegging. I’m not here to convert anyone into a plant eater. I’m not here to denounce my meat-loving friends. I’m not gonna give you any recipes cuz i improvise my food a lot on the spot. I’m just talking about my life as a plant grazing herbivore.

I should probably start out with some definitions…I trawled the web for some good explanations and here you go. This is a list of various diets and hopefully it’s helpful.

  • Jain Vegetarian:No meat. No fish. No seafood. No egg. No honey. No to anything that comes from harming an animal. No onion. No garlic. No alcohol.  Strict followers: No root vegetables. No dairy products.
  • Vegan: No meat. No fish. No seafood. No egg. No dairy products. No honey. No to anything that comes off/from an animal.
  •  Lacto vegetarian (my parents): No meat. No fish. No seafood. No eggs. No to anything that comes off/from a dead animal. Yes dairy products.
  • Ovo vegetarian: No meat. No fish. No seafood. No dairy products. No to anything that comes off/from a dead animal. Yes eggs.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian (me): No meat. No fish. No seafood. No to anything that comes off/from a dead animal. Yes eggs. Yes dairy products. 
  • Pollotarian: No red meat. No fish. No seafood. Yes white meat. Yes eggs. Yes dairy products.
  • Pescatarian (Pescetarian): No meat. Yes fish. Yes seafood. Yes eggs. Yes dairy products.
  • Halal: No pork. No alcohol. No meat that is not prepared in proper Halal methods. (I’m not an expert in this but there’s a specific method of ensuring the animal does not feel any pain/panic as it is killed.) Yes fish. Yes seafood. Yes eggs. Yes dairy products.
  • Hindu: No Beef. No cow killing. Yes to the rest.


Ok…so I’m not an expert…and if I’ve made any mistake I’ll be grateful if someone corrects me on this…or if someone wants to add on.

Reasons
I can’t speak for everyone. Everyone has their own reasons for their own diets. For me, I was born into a Vegetarian Hindu family…and no…not ALL Hindus are Vegetarians. But the way I explain it here is that, my family used to be a “monk” family and just like some buddhist monks who eat “shoujin ryouri” or vegetarian Japanese food, a monk’s family in Hindu culture tends to be vegetarian.

….again, this is just MY explanation. I’m not advocating for any caste system…just stating what my family used to be.

Daily Life and Seikatsu-ing.
So after living here for the past 6 months…….here’s how things go most of the time.

(IN JAPANESE)
Yagu walks into restaurant
Yagu looks at menu….
Yagu looks for waiter/waitress
Yagu: Sorry…I’m vegetarian…so I can’t eat fish or meat or fish/meat extracts….do you have anything I can eat? Or is there anything you can MAKE vegetarian?

Waiter/Waitress sucks in breath.
Waiter/Waitress: aaah……give me a moment. let me check!
Waiter/Waitress talks to manager and comes out. 

The above scene usually happens ALL the time. Unless it’s a Veg friendly restaurant. Or it’s in the centre of a big city with many many gaijins who come by all the time.

After that convo I get several outcomes.

Outcome 1:
Waiter/Waitress/Manager-san comes out looking super apologetic.
Waiter/Waitress/ Manager-san: Sorry, we use chicken stock in everything and the rest is Yakiniku. Why did you even walk in? 

That’s a bit of an exaggeration…but I actually had a restaurant in Tokyo tell me that they had chicken bunion in every. single. thing. Including the Italian dressing for their salad.

But…luckily, this usually NEVER happens.

Outcome 2:
Waiter/Waitress/Manager-san comes out looking super panicked.
Waiter/Waitress/Manager-san: em…we can make this…but it has cheese/egg/milk in it…and I think it has garlic…
Yagu: I’m perfectly ok with all that. Just no fish and meat. 😀
Waiter/Waitress/Manager-san: OH! Then ok! How about we take out that bacon and make this for you? Is that ok?
Yagu: Yes please! Thank you!

So this is the most common outcome. The reason for the panic is because Vegging is not really a big thing here. So the only type of Vegging most Japanese know is the more traditional Shoujin Ryouri Vegging which means no egg/dairy/garlic (similar to Jain). As a result, they don’t know if I can eat anything at all.

Luckily, they’re super nice about it once I explain myself to them and they make fantastic stuff for me! 😀

Outcome 3:
Manager-san comes out looking a little nervous
Manager-san: emm, miss…we don’t really have it on the menu…but we can put something together…is that ok?
Yagu: I love you!!! Yes!

This isn’t so common…but this is my favourite reaction. It’s only happened a couple of times but I’ve gotten some amazing food out of them every time…and i feel super extra special for getting the non-menu food.

Iggy in the super market!!!
Jiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii O_O
yea that’s me having staring contests with food labels. I have never missed English more than when I shop for food at the super market.

But there’s the sensation of glorious victory when you realise that the bottle of salsa that you’ve been staring at for the past 5 mins is safe for consumption.

No really…i remember walking into the organic store this one time…and I was staring at stuff…and then i saw this thing called “soy-ham” or something. And I kid you not, this victorious song began playing in the background as I picked it up and realised i’d hit jackpot. The store is like 3 mins from my house and i don’t think i’ve ever been that happy to see mock anything.

Coping
It’s not easy…but it’s also not impossibly difficult. A simple search tells you how to communicate your dietary needs. It’s definitely isn’t like Singapore where most people understand what I can and cannot eat…but it’s not impossible.

I’ve also learnt how to make what I can’t buy. My cooking has gotten amazingly creative.

I use every chance I get to explain Vegetarianism…and I get a lot of “don’t you ever want to try _______ (insert non-veg thing here)?” and “isn’t that a pain in the ass?” or “you mean you can’t have Yakiniku???” aaaaand “but how do you get your ________ (insert nutrients)?” I suppose I could get offended…but what’s the point in that? I just take it as a chance to explain myself. And my choices are usually respected.

I say usually because I HAVE had some not so nice encounters…or uncalled for comments.
BUT this is not unique to Japan as I have faced the same response back home.
That’s just how people are.

But usually, people get that it’s not that I hate Japan or Japanese food…I was (literally) born this way.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Recipes to recommend?
Leave it in the comments below. 😀

Indian cooking

Nandini, my cousin, recently told me that as an Indian I should of course be able to do Indian cooking.
I think in many cases this might seem like an obvious statement, but I guess it just wasn’t the same for me. So to reply to her comment, I decided to make a post of this entire topic matter since it got me thinking.

I love Indian food. But then again, as long as something is vegetarian and well cooked, I’d eat it with equal happiness. That’s just me. But prior to this year, I’ve never seriously tried to learn any Indian cooking. I’ve got Italian, Mexican, British, Japanese…all kinds of cooking under my belt. But not Indian.

Which sounds really odd to many people… but I have a good reason for it.
My mum and grandmother are both super-duper awesome at what they do. And in comparison, I’m nothing short of sloppy and I do a lot of things at my own pace. I’m not particularly self-conscious about this, and neither do I feel inferior to them (I still trump them at international cooking :P)…But when it comes to Indian cooking I found that I just couldn’t REMEMBER the damn recipes every single time.

I realised recently that this probably came to be because I’m not used to taking cooking instructions or naming my ingredients in Tamil. : \ oh boy, that’s another can of worms there huh? *shoots foot*

BUT, I like to think my cooking skills aren’t too shabby either. Before I ship myself off to Toyama, mum and I were determined to get me to learn as much Indian cooking as we can. So during my India trip, I managed to pick up the art of chappati making and how to make some easy side dishes for my fantastic Chappattis.

And to be honest, it’s really heartwarming to eat my own Chappati and Channa. I nearly cried, and I’m not saying this out of self-praise….but just the feeling of “ah, so I can do this!” made me feel extremely satisfied with myself.

So MUST Indians know how to cook Indian food? I’m still inclined to say no, cuz I’m sure there are many Indians out there who just never grew up cooking or eating Indian food everyday and I’m sure there are Indians who just don’t like Indian food and I’m sure there are Indians who live in places where the ingredients are just NOT THERE.

And who am I to judge?

But I DO know that this cooking will ward of at least 10% of potential homesickness so I’m grateful for that.