Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Curry Rice: Japan's cheapest and choosiest family meal

What's the most eaten meal in Japan?

It's NOT sushi. It's not even ramen. Nope, it's this thing called curry rice.

Curry rice appears on practically every budget menu in Japan. You can buy it to go for around $3-4, when most simple noodle dishes or soups range from 600 yen or $US6.50. Curry rice is the staple of millions of ordinary Japanese families, and even more geeky bachelors, I bet.

It's even been immortalized by this miniature curry rice meal I found at Kid Robot in NYC.

So what is it?

It's basically made from a pre-packaged curry rice cube that comes in a packet - they call it a roux, and the competition to make the perfect roux is stiff.

Now of course, you can get this exact same kind of thing from India, China, Malaysia and so on.

But if you read Japan's S&B Foods site, they'll convince you that Japanese curry is the best, because the guy who made a fortune out of it sought to refine it, whereas other countries use it to "disguise the smell of rotting food". Well, that's how S&B would have you believe it.

I brought a couple of packets of the stuff back from my first ever visit to Japan this year.

I have to say it's the fastest meal in the east - just saute some root veges and a bit of meat (optional), cook in some water for 20 mins then melt the cubes into the pot until they dissolve and thicken to a decidedly brown, thickish gravy.

Of course, any pre-mix that requires next to zilch effort like this must be full of mysterious ingredients that would make you shudder if you could read the Japanese on the packet.

However, S&B assure us that the roux contains, among other mystery ingredients, "6 kinds of vegetables" which would certainly explain the slightly sweet, well balanced flavor of the resultant curry. In fact, the orange colored dressing you see on most Japanese salads is often a puree of vegetables and fruits, seasoned to taste. In comparison, I've found most other curry pastes too harsh, too hot, too heavy on one or more spices. Nothing like a vege smoothie to make a great curry or sauce base!

I'd recommend tracking down these cubes in a Japanese supermarket. There is another line S&B make called Golden Curry, which distinguishes itself by being packaged in English, but I've tried these in the past and they just don't taste as good.

Now all I need is a hungry family of 4 and a hubby that doesn't cook to really feel like a Japanese supermom. SUGOI!

More Japan on a Friday here on my Galfromdownunder Upover blog and even more Japan than you can stand at my Bike Friday in Japan 2009 report

Sunday, November 15, 2009

ALOHA: Cheap (but not Cheesy) Cheesy Hawaii foods

Here's an Gal golden oldie - a short clip from my Hawaii 2005 trip where I sampled a number of cheap'n'choosy Hawaii treats like musubi, super hygienic nori rolls and even a Hawaiian McFeast.

This was pre-YouTube, and before I knew how to wield a digital camera like a steadycam, but you get the idea!

Hawaii Food Movie Clip (a Quicktime movie)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

$10 (plus tax): Takashimaya Pressed Salmon and Cucumber Sandwich

This one barely scrapes in under the Cheap'n'Choosy banner, but I enjoyed it so much I'm going to include it.

Picture this: a rainy, drizzly day, I'm hobbling around having just returned from 5 weeks' customer evangelizing in Singapore (eating durian of all things) and Tokyo, having put my back out on the last day of the trip. Straight from the chiropractor, I need some neutral place to chill, neither restaurant nor bar nor noisy hard-chaired cafe to grab a bite where I won't be jostled or have to suffer loud music or a cooler-tha-thou 'tude, which has a bit of cushioning behind the lumbar region.

I know ... a department store cafe!

A hotel would be a close second, except they tend to be, well, a bit hotelish, and they don't stop pestering you with their pricey bar menu. A museum or art gallery cafe would be a close third, except you're talking hard floors, even harder chairs and uncosy cavernous dimensions. Oh yeah, and people pushing around dirty dishes trollies.

A department store cafe tends to be upholstered for the lunching lady set, and staff let you linger as long as you like to collect your thoughts and tally your impulse purchases, knowing you're taking a respite from spending money and thus allowing them to be paid. Suitably refreshed, you'll continue to the other floors and spend more money.

Traipsing through Henri Bendels, Bergdorf Goodman and so forth, I'm disappointed. I discover New York doesn't have the kind of spacious, elegant shopper's oases like Chicago's flagship Carston-Pirie Scott and Marshall Fields (now Macy's). The NY options are either crowded, might-as-well-be-a-bar scenes like the top floor of Bergdorf Goodman, or small afterthought nooks serving the usual overpriced sandwiches with arugula that you can make yourself.

Takashimaya's NY store is the best of the rest, because, at least it's cozy with a Japanese bent, making a bit more interesting.

So that's where I headed.

It a small space adjoining a pricey tea shop in the basement. The menu includes the priciest bento box since Iron Chef Morimoto, at $19-21. It didn't look particularly interesting after the bentos I had in Fukuoka. For a start, it contained western ingredients. Please don't give me a bento box with western ingredients, it's as incongruous as drinking Diet Coke out of a coconut shell ...

But this one sandwich caught my attention:

"Pressed Rice Salmon and Cucumber Sandwich"

It's basically 4 crustless sandwiches' using sushi rice instead of bread, pressed with cucumber, salmon, horseradish mayonnaise and a fairly generous lump of seaweed in the middle. So you could call it a sushi sandwich.

It just hit the spot. I can see it would be popular with the nibbling set (most women).

At $10 it's one of the most reasonable options on the menu.

I ordered an iced matcha and my check ballooned by another $5.50. But it's an excellent matcha, whipped with a real bamboo tea whisk. It's also a *good* matcha - perhaps the $25/200-serve box they sell in the tea shop. It certainly tasted better than the $5/20 teabag green tea I brought back from Japan.

I watched as well groomed women with smooth, blonde, sex in the city 'do's sat in twos or fours, eating and chatting, their $400 leather tote bags slouched casually at their feet. Many ordered the western style sandwiches and a glass of wine, others ordered the Bento Box.

I'd go back for the sandwich. Not that it's particularly outstanding, but sometimes you just want a break from Pret-a-manger, pizza, hoagies and paninis... care to join me?

Galfromdownunder in Japan

The Tea Box Restaurant
Basement Level,
693 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10022
phone:1-800-753-2038, 1-212-350-0100
Between 54th and 55th Street, on the east side of Fifth Avenue

Store hours
Monday - Saturday, 10:00AM - 7:00PM
Sunday, 12:00 - 5:00PM

July 4, Independence Day, 12:00 - 5:00PM