Can You Spot the Fish?

Last week I told the happy, if not 100% successful as it turned out, tale of my vegan munch-fest in Toronto, Canada. This week you get to join me on a brief flash-back tour of Japan, from where Alan and I recently returned. It’s quite a different story!

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I’ve been to Japan before and am aware that they seem to have an obsession with dashi – a traditional stock made from dried bonito or sardines along with seaweed. At home I make this without the fish, but in Japan it’s fishy, it’s popular, and it’s in just about everything. I made the choice to ignore the presence of dashi in my food in favour of eating in restaurants while in Japan, especially since I wanted to eat Japanese food rather than spend my holiday dragging Alan to out-of-the-way vegan restaurants serving raw food, Indian curries, or macrobiotic vegan dishes. Happy Cow (as great resource if you’re looking for vegan places to eat) lists about 10 vegan / vegetarian places to eat in the huge city of Osaka, none of which serve Japanese food or happened to be close to where Alan and I found ourselves at mealtimes. Some of the cities we visited had no listings at all. Fortunately I like the challenge of trying to find something to eat wherever we are at mealtimes rather than planning my day around the location of veggie restaurants anyway.

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So, having decided to ignore the dashi it should have been easy for me to eat like an almost-vegan in Japan, right? Wrong. Here’s a little test to get you started. This is a breakfast tray I put together in Okayama for the sake of a photo. No, I didn’t eat all the items on it. Can you spot the fish? I’ll give you a hint – it’s not in the small covered pot. That contains natto (fermented, sticky soybeans), which is a bit of an acquired taste. As a second challenge, can you the dashi-free foods?

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The fish are the small dark brown things in the white dish next to the rice. The rice, pickled radish (yellow), natto, chilled tofu and white slimy yuka puree (top left) are vegan. Probably. 

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Our first day in Japan was spent in Osaka, where we were lucky enough to arrive on the opening day of the cherry blossom viewing at the mint. We, along with “a few” other people , were treated to a spectacular show put on by the various types of cherry blossom trees. It was really beautiful (in an very crowded, hot, sweaty kind of way).

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We emerged from the viewing area and headed down to the market stalls by the river looking for something to eat. To my delight one (and only one) of the stalls had tofu, konnyaku and vegetables simmering away in stock (probably dashi), served with a blob of mustard. I’m not saying it was tasty (it wasn’t), and I’m not saying it was good (I didn’t eat the flavourless, glutinous, squidgy konnyaku), but it was the only almost-vegan food around so I was grateful.

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We were surrounded by stalls selling meat or seafood on BBQ grills or being steamed in large pots, but I was still a bit surprised when we came across a stall with a shallow tank containing small, live, goldfish. What appeared to be serving bowls sat next to the tank with a list of prices. “Do you eat these?” I asked the guy manning the stall. He looked at me in astonishment then began to laugh. And laugh and laugh. I know my Japanese is bad, but I didn’t think it was that bad. He wiped tears from his eyes before replying. “No, we don’t eat these. It’s a game for the children. They try to catch the lucky fish.” He’s probably still telling his friends about the hilarious foreign woman who thought his goldfish were food, and laughing every time.

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But, really, why weren’t they food? I’ve lost count of the number of fishy meals I had in Japan after specifically ordering something with no meat and no fish. Chilled tofu with ginger, coated in a thick layer of shaved bonito. Vegetarian noodle soups with a pile of shaved dried fish sitting in the middle. A “romantically lit” restaurant in Kyoto served me a vegetarian meal of tofu, salad and rice. It wasn’t until I ate a mouthful that I discovered the tiny white fish coating the surface of the rice. Oh for goodness sake! Fortunately I’ve mastered the art of spitting food into a tissue.

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It wasn’t all fishy doom and gloom however. On Mount Shosha, where parts of the Tom Cruise movie “the Last Samurai” were filmed, I had a very seaweedy vegan soup, which was lovely. As a bonus Alan might have visited the very same toilet at the top of the mountain which Tom Cruise himself used! It even had a heated seat! Although, as some party-pooper pointed out, Tom probably had his own trailer and never used the public washroom.

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In Okayama we found a cafe serving Japanese style curry suitable for vegetarians! It was fabulous. So much so that when we found a restaurant by the same chain in Takamatsu we went in for dinner. I ordered the exact same curry, but when it came it looked…different. I poked it with my chopstick. “Is this meat?” I asked the server. “Yes, of course” she replied. I showed her the menu. “But I ordered this one. This is vegetarian?” “Yes.” she answered. “But this is meat?” I poked it again. “Yes.” she replied. “But I’m vegetarian. I don’t eat meat.” At last she understood the problem. “Ah. I’ll get the chef.” He came over and looked at the dish. “Shall I make you the vegetarian one without the meat?” “Yes please. Thank you.” And when it came, it was fabulous.

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I learned from this experience, and when I saw a restaurant in Osaka advertising a 12-vegetable curry I asked the server if it contained meat before heading to a table. “It’s vegetarian” she said. “It has 12 vegetables. It’s very good.” “But does it contain meat?” I asked. “Yes, of course.” she replied. We headed back into the rainy streets of the Dotonburi area where I had vegetables on a stick. With no fish. Although, in retrospect, there might have been both dashi and egg in the batter.

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がんばりました. Hey ho. I tried. 私は試した. 

Karen 🙂




I’m a Two-Faced Vegan

I recently had the pleasure (!) of spending time in the company of someone who turned out to be totally two-faced, which upset me greatly. As I sat in front of my laptop, metaphorically picking at old scabs and feeling betrayed, I flicked through photos I’ve taken of food. In case you haven’t worked it out yet – I love cooking. It makes me happy. Suddenly I started to smile. I may not personally be two-faced (what you see is what you get, much to the annoyance of some people) but my cooking certainly is! There were two distinct voices popping up on my screen. One said “I really can’t be bothered. Throw it in a pot and be done with it” while the other voice crooned “Nothing is too much trouble when creating a meal”. Some dishes used cans and pre-mixed spices. Others were multi-item meals, with everything made from scratch. Some looked like they were thrown together by a total slob, others were prepared to be placed before royalty. Two faces. Two types of delicious food.

It surprises me when people say they don’t have the time to cook veg#n meals, obviously assuming that each one takes a tremendous amount of thought and effort. But in reality it’s so easy to replace meat with non-meat items and basically continue to eat the same way as before. I recently spent a week in my mother-in-law’s kitchen in the UK, where we would co-ordinate our efforts to feed both the omnivores and me with minimal effort. Roast potatoes, roast veggies and lamb for them. The same for me but with the lamb replaced by vegan patties. On another day they had salmon, cooked in the oven. I threw some marinade (it was a thai salad dressing I found in her cupboard) on tofu and cooked it at the same time. One day they had new potatoes, corn, veg stir fry and steak. I had the same with Linda McCartney’s veggie sausages instead of steak. Being vegan took no more effort than eating meat. And it was a lot cheaper. One night I cooked something that I would eat at home, preparing it to feed a crowd when Alan’s sister and family were with us. I used canned chick peas, a pre-mixed curry blend, canned coconut milk and a blob of tomato paste to knock up a chick pea curry. It was served with potatoes fried with spinach and garlic. Very little effort, low cost and a very tasty little (if kinda sloppy looking) meal 🙂

Other quick and easy ideas for dinner include:

  • Spaghetti bolognaise using veggie grounds instead of meat. Top with grated vegan cheese if you want.
  • White kidney beans, mushrooms and green peppers cooked in a jar of pasta sauce on top of rottini.
  • Veggie burger on a bun, with all the usual trimmings
  • Grilled faux chicken breasts (yes, they do exist!) topped with salsa and served with a baked potato and salad

This photo below was our dinner on Monday. I arrived back in Canada on Sunday and hadn’t gone shopping. It was rice noodles in vegan stock (using a stock cube) with Chinese picked veggies (from a jar), a tomato I found lurking somewhere and general Tao vegan chicken (from a bag in the freezer). Throw it all in a pan, boil it up and eat.  Hot, filling and delicious, with the bare minimum of effort.

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The other face of my vegan cooking takes itself a bit more seriously. Home made tofu. Curries made using multiple packets of spices. A multi-item Ethiopian platter (see last week’s blog for details). When people are coming round for dinner things usually ramp up a notch, especially if they are taste-testing recipes for me. We eat a huge variety of dishes until we can’t eat any more, and then try to fit in a dessert. It takes planning, time and effort, and if we ate this way all the time I think I would go mad. But sometimes its fun to spend time in the kitchen creating a meal. Last night this is what we had:

  • Home made tofu served 2 ways
  • Edamame, daikon (white radish), pepper and mushroom salad
  • Futo maki made with white rice, enoki mushrooms, cucumber and pepper
  • Futo maki made with brown rice, rolled in edamame-wasabi puree and panko then fried until crispy, stuffed with sweet potato, yellow pepper and cucumber
  • Miso soup (from a packet on this occasion – look for vegan ones without bonito)
  • Stuffed tofu skins

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It took less time than you might think – the tofu took 15 minutes. The rice cooked itself in the rice cooker. I stuck to a small number of veggies and didn’t do any fancy chopping. But it certainly took longer than opening a can of beans 🙂

So the next time someone says “I don’t have the time to be cook veg#n food”, ask them what they think a vegan meal looks like. They might not be aware that vegan meals have two faces!

Whatever you decide to cook this week, enjoy it. Perhaps you could try something new, quick, tasty and healthy. Maybe even something vegan….

Karen 🙂

Sweetcorn for my Sweetheart

Those of you raised outside of the UK will need a slight vocabulary lesson in order to understand today’s blog. It’s about corn, or sweetcorn as it’s known to us ex-pats. When I was young my parents sometimes took me and my siblings on holiday to Ashford in Kent: a long, long, long drive from northern England for 3 kids in the days before i-pods, i-pads and in-car movies. Or rear seat belts, if you want some idea of how old I am. We sat on pillows and wedged ourselves in with the bags which wouldn’t fit in the trunk (or boot, if you prefer) and played games like “I saw a red car and you didn’t so ya boo to you!” and “Get your head off my shoulder! If you want to sleep then lean the other way onto your brother, not onto me!” and other such fun stuff. Oh, the good old days. Every now and again one of us (usually me) would beg our father to turn on the radio, hoping for the Top 10 on Radio 1, but if he turned it on at all he would tune it into the Radio 4 shipping forecast, just to annoy us I assume. We were miles from the coast and had no reason to know that the summary for the day was “Low Shannon 988 expected Wight 1000 by midday tomorrow, low just west of Bailey 991 losing its identity”. It was a long, long drive for all of us.

Here’s a link to a shipping forecast if you want to really annoy someone you love:

While in Ashford we stayed in an apple-pickers’ hut in the middle of an orchard, with a sloping metal roof, horse-hair mattresses and no fridge. The “bathroom” was a shed next to the hut, containing a large garbage can with a toilet seat on it. Ah, luxury. The orchard itself was home to numerous sheep and geese, who would happily wander into the hut if we left the bottom half of the door open, invariably going native on the floor before leaving. It was fabulous. We had some good times there and were sorry when the owner modernised the buildings and sold them to people as permanent homes.

Anyway, back to the vocabulary lesson. When we were in Ashford we often walked down to the river, trudging through CORN fields as we went. By “corn” I mean wheat, not the tall corn plants with ears of yellow seeds found in the US and Canada. We call that SWEETcorn. Which is why the title of this blog is “Sweetcorn for my Sweatheart”, not “Corn for my Companion”, which, honestly, just doesn’t sound as good. Got it? Hurray!

It was Valentine’s Day on Saturday, and I wanted to make something nice for my hubby for lunch. Nothing says “I love you” more than a meal which doesn’t contain animal fats, processed sugar or other things which might shorten his life. I served him a steaming hot bowl of sweetcorn soup, steamed brown rice and home-made tofu (the recipe for this will appear at some point!) along with a card telling him how totally fab he is.

Japanese Sweetcorn Soup

Fresh corn, when you can get it, makes the best soup. Frozen corn is also good. In a pinch you can use canned corn (not the pre-creamed variety), drained and well rinsed.

  • 1 tbsp canola oil (or use water if you don’t like refined oils)
  • 6 green onions, thinly sliced
  • ½ red pepper, finely chopped
  • 5 large ears of corn, simmered in water for 5 minutes (or about 2 cups kernels)
  • 1 cup soy milk
  • 1 cup vegan dashi or water
  • 1 vegan chicken flavour stock cube
  • Garnish:
  • 2 tbsp fresh Italian parsley, finely chopped
  • Japanese 7 spice powder (shichimi toragashi) to taste – you can find it in Asian stores and some major grocery stores

Heat the oil in a medium size pan and fry the green onions and red pepper over a medium heat until softened, about 3 minutes. Cut the corn kernels off the ears then put the corn, soy milk and dashi into a blender and process until smooth. A bit of texture is OK, but you don’t want any lumps. Add to the red pepper and green onions and add the stock cube. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer gently for 5 minutes. Stir in the finely chopped parsley and divide between 4 soup bowls. Serve topped with seven spice powder to taste.

CORNSOUP (Copy)So, that’s your vocabulary and cooking lesson for today. If only someone would explain to me about British turnips and Canadian turnips….or are they rutabagas? Or is a British swede a rutabaga? I really have no clue! Obviously I don’t cook a lot of turnips or I might have worked it out for myself by now.

Karen 🙂

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Chillin’ Out!

Winter up here in the frozen north goes on and on and on and on. So much so that even I get sick of hearing myself complain about it. “Why don’t you go out and do fun activities in the snow?” people ask, usually while drinking hot chocolate in front of a roaring fire, or from the comfort of a warmer climate in another country. Do they really think I’d never thought of that, after being here for over 20 years? “Wow!” I cry “Why didn’t I think of that before? I could spend the winter outside!!!!!!!”. OK – let’s get real here people. Today it’s a balmy -15’C, but it’s going back down to -25’C in a couple of days, plus a wind chill. I’m not going out there “for fun”. Not anymore. Perhaps I should sit outside on my swing and ponder the situation? snowchair (Copy) When the kids were small we all learnt to skate, and it didn’t take long for 3 out of the 4 of us to realise we really didn’t like it. We tried skating in arenas, hoping to avoid being knocked over by speed-skating small children. We tried skating on outdoor rinks in the local parks, competing for ice space with hockey players. We even tried skating on the canal (Ottawa’s canal is the world’s longest ice skating rink) but didn’t enjoy being tripped up by hot dogs and beaver tails frozen on the lumpy ice. So we hung up our skates and moved on.

We took skiing lessons for a number of years, going to the slopes every single frozen Sunday for months on end, whatever the weather. Alan got icicles in his beard. Our eyelashes froze. Our faces went numb. Oh yes, we had fun (that’s sarcasm, in case you missed it). Alan genuinely enjoyed skiing, and still does it once a year with a friend. My eldest son continued to ski until he ended up on crutches after an incident with a patch of ice, some frozen shrubs and a snow-filled ditch. My youngest son hung up his snow board when he broke his right arm a year after he broke his left arm at the same place on the same hill. As for me – I had a private ski instructor for years, and while I mastered the art of skiing I never mastered the art of enjoying it. When Chris hung up his snowboard I hung up my skis right there next to it. I don’t know who was more relieved, me or my instructor.

This photo documents the last time I voluntarily went wandering around in the snow. Alan and I are at Station 5 on Mount Fuji, standing in a sunbeam with the peak of the volcano behind us. Just as a weird side-note – you can buy Mount Fuji toilet paper in a shop at Station 5. Just in case you ever want some.

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In a desperate attempt to find something fun to do in the snow, inspired by my happy memories of Japan, I’ve made the popular Japanese summer dish of chilled udon noodles, but instead of cooling it in the fridge I’ve popped it into a snow pile. Pretty eh?

Chilled Cucumber Noodles

  • 4 bundles (about 800g total) udon noodles
  • 1 unpeeled cucumber, thinly sliced
  • 4 cups dashi
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp sake

Dipping sauce:

  • 1 cup dashi or stock
  • 5 tbsp soy sauce
  • 5 tbsp mirin

To serve:

  • ½ cup daikon, peeled and grated
  • 1 tsp dried crushed red chillies
  • 2 green onions, finely chopped
  • Ice cubes (optional)

Put the dashi, salt, soy sauce and sake into a small pan. Bring to a simmer then remove from the heat. Allow to cool slightly then put into the fridge until well chilled. To make the dipping sauce, put the dashi, soy sauce and mirin into a small pan. Bring to the boil then allow to cool slightly before putting into the fridge to chill. Mix the grated daikon with the chillies and put into the fridge to keep cool. Bring a large pan of water to a boil and cook the noodles for 4 minutes, or as instructed on the packet. Drain and rinse well with cold water then drain again. Divide the noodles between 4 small bowls and top with the chilled stock. Toss in some ice cubes if you want and float cucumber slices on top. Serve with dipping sauce on the side into which daikon, chillies and green onions can be added to taste.


I’m now going to take the noodles back inside, think about heating them up in the microwave, and serve them with some lovely hot tofu and veggies.

Have a great weekend, whatever you chose to do. Hurray for winter!

Karen 🙂

If you would like to follow my blog (and I really hope you will), look for the small “Follow” icon in the bottom right hand corner of your screen. Click on follow, add your email address, and all my pontifications will appear in your email, without you having to put in any effort at all. You can, of course, unsubscribe at any time.