Friday, November 16, 2012

Short Stories by Abe Kobo (Book Review)

Abe Kobo (1924-93) is best known for The Woman in the Dunes and the film based on it by Teshigahara. To me, this superb novel is indeed the crown on his work, but also in other novels, stories and plays Abe has engaged in surreal and nightmarish explorations of individuals in contemporary society. The usual comparisons to Kafka (and Beckett) are unavoidable, although, interestingly enough, Japanese commentators in the past used to emphasize the Marxist political dimension of his work - a side which to me is happily invisible. Reducing Abe's work that addresses the general human condition to the mere political is in fact absurd.


[Abe Kobo]

Since the 1970s, three collections of English translations of Abe's short stories have seen the light of day, the last one being Beyond the Curve (1991) by Juliet Winters Carpenter. I have also a collection of five stories in a Dutch translation, and it seems there were translations in many other languages as well, although most of that is now out of print. Writers have their seasons and that of Abe Kobo seems a bit past - something which enables us to have a more objective look at his real achievement. So here are first the short stories, like the novels a subtle merging of real and surreal events. An ordinary individual is suddenly placed  into extraordinary, often nightmarish circumstances that lead him to question his identity.

Here are remarks on a number of the stories:

"Red Cocoon" (1950; not in Beyond the Curve, but in my Dutch collection; it has also been translated in The Showa Anthology, 1985) is one of Abe's earliest stories which already contains the idea of alienated man that we find in his later fiction. A homeless man is wondering why he has no home. Or does he have a home and has he forgotten it? He happens to pull on a bit of silk thread hanging from his shoe and ends up unraveling his leg, then his whole body. The thread forms a cocoon around him, until his body has completely been unraveled. "I have a house now," says the man, "but there is no one left to come home to it." Alienated man seeking for a place in society has lost himself in the process.

This can also be linked to Abe's own rootlessness. He was born in Tokyo, but grew up in Manchuria, while his family came originally from Hokkaido. Abe always felt he had no real place of origin. That could also be the reason his fiction has such an international quality: it is mostly devoid of typical Japaneseness, and not linked to any specific cultural location. In that respect Abe Kobo resembles Murakami Haruki.

In "Dendrocacalia" (1949) a bewildered man called Common discovers he is turning into a rare plant; he eventually ends up in a botanical garden. The director of the Botanical Garden is called K. so it is clear we are in Kafkaen territory here!

Only part of "The Crime of Mr. S. Karma" (1951) has been translated in Beyond the Curve - which is a pity as it is quite interesting: the "crime" is that Mr S. Karma lets his name cards (meishi) get away from him and take over his personality. Without cards he has no name or identity, no self, he is hollow inside - a predicament that shows how much Japanese businessmen rely on their business cards.

"Intruders" (1951) is the only political story: a salaryman living alone in a small apartment is visited by complete strangers, a large family with grown-up sons and a daughter, who take over his apartment and his life. They use his money and he has to wait on them as their servant. They even steal his girlfriend. Although they behave very dictatorially, everything is decided "democratically" by the majority. This is a satire of the American occupation of Japan; in his play "Friends" Abe later would remove the anti-American satire and write a  more general piece about the human condition.

"Beguiled" (1957) is a very clever story. Two man confront each other in the waiting room of a small station, one the pursuer, the other the pursued... but which is which? In the end, one of them is led back to the lunatic asylum from which he escaped.

"The Dream Soldier" (1957) is a moving, straightforward story about an old police officer guarding a village during war time. An army unit is exercising in the snow and a deserter is on the loose. When the villagers find him, he has already committed suicide - it is the son of the old officer. Thanks to the subdued and indirect way of narration, this is a small masterpiece.

In "The Bet" (1960) an architect for a demanding advertising company discovers a bizarre building with doors and stairs that lead not to other spaces but to red lights and slogans. It is a satire on the efficiency of a modern company. The contest is to decide where the President should have his room. The architect finally designs "the path of the president's office as a mathematical function of the System."

In "An Irrelevant Death" (1961), a man returns home from work to find a murdered man he doesn't know in his apartment. He contemplates ways how to get rid of the unexplained and unpleasant body without incurring suspicion, but everything he does seems to implicate him more and more in the crime.

In "Beyond the Curve" (1966) a man with amnesia tries to remember his past, which exists just beyond the curve of his mind - and is symbolized by the fact that he can't remember what is beyond the curve of the road he is walking on. He has no identity, he even has no business cards in his wallet. When a woman working in a coffee restaurant recognizes him, he still fails to remember who he is and he can only try to cover up his ignorance while waiting for his memory to come back.

Photo: From Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad (Best Novellas)

He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—"The horror! The horror!"
Heart of Darkness appeared in Blackwell's Magazine in 1899, and was issued in book form in 1902. This novella is the absolute masterwork of Polish-born English author Joseph Conrad. The story is narrated by Charles Marlow, who accepts an assignment from a Belgian trading company as captain of a river boat in Africa. Besides transporting ivory, his major task is to bring back Kurtz, a trader of the company, who has set himself up as the dictator of his own small kingdom in the wilderness, letting the native tribes worship him.


The story is partly based on Conrad's own experience: about eight years before, Conrad had been appointed by a Belgian trading company to serve as the captain of a steamer on the Congo River. Congo Free State was the private colony of Belgium's King Leopold II, and as has been described so aptly in Adam Hochschildt's King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, it was one of the cruelest colonies in Africa. From 1885 until 1909, the greedy king used his mercenary army to force slaves into mines and rubber plantations, apply sadistic punishments such as cutting off hands or feet, and commit mass murder. In Conrad's story, the country is kept vague, probably to make the story more generally applicable and not just write a political book. But the novel fits in the supra-national protest movement, the first one ever, in which King Leopold II's "rape of the Congo" was harshly criticized, also by many other writers such as  Mark Twain.


[Congo River]
The "darkness" in the title not so much points to "dark Africa" - despite the misgivings of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe who has lashed out at Conrad for treating the Africans around Mr Kurtz as savages -, for the problem is not alleged African primitiveness. The true "darkness" is that of colonialism, a barbarity imported from Europe - Conrad saw the extortion, the maiming, the heavy iron chains, in short the enslavement of many Africans for the profit of the Europeans who lusted after ivory and rubber. And again at a deeper level, the darkness is also the darkness at the heart of European civilization - you can't do what the Europeans were doing in 19th c. Africa and come away unblemished yourself. This darkness in Europe built up tension and unleashed itself in the horrors of the Great European War (WWI) of 1914-18, and its sequel, WWII. As a consequence, in the first half of the 20th c., Europe became the true "dark continent" (see the book by Mark Mazower of that title).

[The "Roi des Belges," the Belgian riverboat
Conrad commanded on the upper Congo, 1889]

An interesting detail is that Marlow tells his story when seated with friends in a boat on the Thames while darkness is falling. They look at the horizon and see the silhouette of the City of London, another dark mass, where British colonial adventures were planned - Britain was just then involved in the Second Boer War in South Africa where a scorched earth technique was used against the farmers and where also the world's first concentration camps were "invented," with a death toll of 150,000.


[Colonial river post]
In short, there is an unfathomable darkness within every human being, the capacity of the human ape for committing heinous acts of evil knows no bounds. It must be that realization which made the dying Kurtz cry out: "The horror! The horror!"
Conrad's work is out of copyright, Heart of Darkness is therefore freely available, for example at Gutenberg. I read the novella in the Penguin Modern Classics edition which has an interesting introduction as well as a fragment from Conrad's African diary. Heart of Darkness formed the inspiration for the 1979 film by Coppola, Apocalypse Now.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"First Love, Last Rites" & "Between the Sheets" by Ian McEwan (Book Review)

Ian McEwan started writing in the 1970s and his first two books were collections of short stories: "First Love, Last Rites" (1972) and "Between the Sheets" (1978). One glance - even at the titles of the individual stories - suffices to show that these sinister and perverse stories are rather different from McEwan's later work, such as the celebrated novel Atonement. The only thing they share is the controlled, elegant and precise language, one of the reasons I admire McEwan's books so much. But as content goes, these  fifteen stories are utterly weird and disturbing, full of freaks and monsters who tell about their misdeeds in sickening detail. The stories are also quite varied in nature. McEwan has said that these early tales were a sort of laboratory for him, allowing him to try out different things, to discover himself as a writer.

The protagonists of the stories are often isolated, sexually-deviant males. The first story in the first collection ("Homemade") is about a young teenager who tricks his little sister into incest. The sexual initiation strikes the precocious adolescent boy as comical rather than anything else, in what is perhaps a nod towards Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint.

More evil is the protagonist in "Butterflies:" a lonely and misshapen man (a dwarf) meets a little girl on a deserted path along a canal, befriends her but panics after he touches her, and ends up drowning her in the waters. The deed is terrible, but so is his realization of lifelong solitude. McEwan deftly tricks the reader into an improbable sympathy with the outcast.

In “Pornography,” a man who is the owner of a porno shop leads a despicable life: he is sleeping with two different nurses, passing on a venereal disease to both. When the women by chance meet each other, they decide to take revenge by applying their clinical skills with brutal efficiency, acting out their fantasies in a scene that is even more violent than the most awful BDSM books the man sold in his shop.

There are also comical stories, although the situations remain weird. In "Solid Geometry" a man reads the diaries of his great-grandfather in which a "geometrical" method is described to make people disappear into another dimension. As his wife has started to disgust him, he tries it out on her, with great success. In "Reflections of a Kept Ape" the narrator hangs on kitchen cabinets and behaves not really human, although he has a relation with the woman, a writer, with whom he lives. Gradually it becomes clear to the reader that the story is told by an ape. In "Dead as They Come" a jaded millionaire buys himself the perfect mistress and plunges into a hell of jealousy and despair, as he fears this stunning beauty can't be faithful to him. And that, while the "mistress" is a mannequin, acquired from a shop window...

McEwan dissects his characters as in a laboratory. Reading these dark, experimental stories almost feels like an act of voyeurism. But here also lies the kernel of McEwan's authorship, allowing readers of McEwan's books to understand how he has evolved as a writer. And certain elements, such as the dark humor McEwan finds in human foibles, are a constant in his work - take, for example, On Chesil Beach.


Kamakura Museum of Literature: Lawn above the clouds

There is not much to see in literature museums, but in the case of the Kamakura Museum of Literature you come for the great house and spacious garden. A Western-style villa right in the middle of the old warrior capital! The art deco manor was built in 1936 by the Maeda family, who had been the feudal rulers of the rich fief of Kaga, now Ishikawa prefecture with capital Kanazawa.

Many famous politicians used to come here, as prime ministers Eisaku Sato (after retirement he spent his weekends here) and Shigeru Yoshida. The house also figures in Yukio Mishima's novel Spring Snow. It was donated to Kamakura City in 1983 and after renovation became a literature museum.

That is not such a strange choice, as Kamakura has deep ties with Japanese literature. Kamakura already appears in the ancient poetry anthology Manyoshu. It also feautures in the Tale of Heike and other war literature, as well as in travelogues of the Middle Ages. One of the most important Kamakura poets was the Minamoto shogun Sanetomo, whose work has been collected in the Kinkai Wakashu after he was murdered on the stairs of the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine in 1219.

Modern authors were attracted by the shrines and temples of Kamakura. Some, as Natsume Soseki, came to practice Zen meditation; he also situated his novel Kokoro in Kamakura. The haiku poet Takahama Kyoshi lived in Kamakura as well. Others came here to spend the summer, for recuperation, or to visit the charming vestiges of the old capital.

The most notable modern author who resided in Kamakura is of course Nobel Prize winner Kawabata Yasunari. Kawabata also situated important novels as Thousand Cranes and The Sound of the Mountain in the historical town. In addition, filmmaker Ozu made several of his postwar films here, marvelously capturing the relaxed residential atmosphere; Ozu is buried in Engakuji Temple (see here for directions).

The display in the beautiful house consists of manuscripts and photographs. Most interesting is perhaps the large garden, which has azaleas, roses and a lawn, that slopes down the hill. When you stand on the terrace of the house, you see the green grass of the lawn and immediately behind that, Yuigahama beach. The town is blotted out. It is as if you live in the clouds, far above the hustle and bustle of ordinary life, like all those Maeda marquises and politicians did.
Tel: 0467-23-3911

Hrs: 9:00-16:00. CL Mon.

Access: 7-min walk from Yuigahama St on the Enoden Line.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Ramen

Ramen

Chinese-style wheat noodles

ラーメン

Also called Chuka-soba (中華そば). Ramen is a form of the Japanese-Chinese (Chuka) cuisine, as this dish does not originally exist in China. A type of ramen was first sold in Japan from around the 1900s, both in restaurants and food stalls. After WWII, the popularity of ramen soared as cheap wheat became available from the U.S. In 1958, instant ramen was invented by Ando Momofuku. It became a popular food among students, salarymen living away from their families on tanshin funin basis, as well as harried housewives. In the 1980s a veritable ramen boom started, making this noodle the king of the B-Gourmet scene. There are countless magazines and books devoted to ramen and ramen restaurants, as well as manga and films.


Ramen noodles contain four ingredients: wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui (an alkaline mixture) or eggs, lending the noodles a yellowish hue and a firm texture. Ramen noodles are kneaded, left to sit, then stretched with both hands - this is also the probable origin of the name, as "ramen" literally means "stretched" or "pulled" noodles.

Ramen noodles are served in a hot soup based on stock from chicken or pork, plus a choice of other ingredients as kelp (konbu), bonito flakes (katsuobushi), dried baby sardines (niboshi), shiitake mushrooms, salt, miso and soy sauce.

Based on the soup, four basic types of ramen are distinguished:
  • Shio-ramen. Light and clear soup. Made with salt and any combination of chicken, vegetables and seaweed. From Hokkaido.
  • Shoyu-ramen. Clear brown soup. Based on a chicken and vegetable stock with plenty of soy sauce added. Savory, yet light. Originally from Tokyo. 
  • Tonkotsu-ramen. Cloudy, white colored soup. Made with pork bones (tonkotsu). Hearty  flavor and creamy consistency. A specialty of Kyushu, particularly Hakata in Fukuoka.
  • Miso-ramen. Thick soup based on miso with chicken or fish broth. Robust and hearty soup. developed in Sapporo (Hokkaido) and nationally popular from around the mid-1960s.
The quality of the soup determines the quality of the whole ramen dish.

Popular toppings include sliced pork (chashu), bean sprouts, spring onion, nori, kamaboko (often in the form of Naruto-maki, thinly sliced fish-cake with a pink inset resembling a whirlpool - named after the whirlpools of Naruto in Tokushima) and brownish shinachiku (lactic fermented pickles of bamboo shoots). Other possibilities, especially for tonkotsu-ramen, are boiled egg, cloud-ear fungus (kikurage) and red pickled ginger (benishoga). A popular seasoning is black pepper.

There are many regional styles (Sapporo, Kitakata, Tokyo, Yokohama, Kyoto, Wakayama, Hakata/Kyushu, etc.) as is already clear from the above.

Related types of noodles are: Nagasaki champon, tsukementantan-men, wantan-men and reimen.

Ramen noodles are central to Itami Juzo's great film Tampopo, which has been called a "ramen Western."

And talking about national dishes... in Japan ramen is more popular than sushi...

Japanese Food Dictionary

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

"My Name is Red" by Orhan Pamuk (Book Review)

The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, who was in 2006 granted the Nobel Prize in Literature, was born into a wealthy, upper-class Istanbul family. He was originally interested in architecture and painting, but changed course during his studies and after graduating from the Institute of Journalism, became a professional writer. His first novel, a traditional family saga in the style of Buddenbrooks, was published in 1982. From his third novel (The White Castle) on, his work has been translated in English and many other languages. From that time on, his books also became more adventurous with a definite post-modern quality. My Name is Red was his sixth novel, published in Turkey in 1998 and a few years later appearing in a prize-winning English translation.


The interesting thing about Pamuk is that all his novels are different in style and intent. My name is Red is a historical thriller in the style of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, and also has echoes of Borges. The postmodern quality can for example be found in the way each chapter is narrated in an alternating voice. There are even occasional unexpected voices as a coin and the color red, while the first chapter is told by a man who has just been murdered and dumped into a well.

Most of the recurring voices are those of Black, a former miniaturist who has returned to Istanbul from 12 years absence in Persia and in the story functions as amateur detective; Enishte Effendi, uncle of Black, in charge of the creation of a secret book for the Sultan in the Venetian style, who will become the second murder victim; Shekure, Enishte's beautiful daughter but also a (probable) widow with two young sons, with whom Black is in love and who later becomes his wife; Master Osman, the head of the Sultan's workshop of miniaturists; three miniaturists called Stork, Elegant and Olive; Esther, a Jewish peddler and matchmaker; etc.


[Ottoman miniature painters]

The book contains a murder mystery and a love story, but is above all a philosophical and historical novel about art and reality, and the cultural division between Islam and Western thought. This division is made tangible in the theme of painting. Islam originally forbids figurative representation, but in Persia in the Middle Ages the art of book illustration by decorating the margins of the pages with abstract representations, gradually led to a miniature figurative art. This art, however, was very different from European painting, as for example practiced in Venice: the miniaturists did not observe perspective and other rules basic to Western art, but made idealized pictures where hierarchy was taken into account (the sultan was drawn in the center and extra large, a human figure could not be taller than a mosque etc.); moreover, as in other non-Western pre-modern societies, human figures were not drawn as individuals, but as generalized, unrecognizable persons. In the novel, we meet the miniaturists who were making this type of illustrations at the court of the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, just at the juncture that some wanted to go in the individualistic direction of European painting, while on the other hand fundamentalists were clamoring to stop all figurative expression. The last group won. In this way the novel also symbolically reflects modern societal tensions in Turkey.

This piece of art history, lovingly and in great detail presented by Pamuk, was also new to Turkish readers, for modern Turkey has largely cut away its historical, Ottoman roots. Even more so for Western readers, it is a lot of new information (with the names of numerous miniaturists, sultans and famous illustrated books), making the pace of the novel a bit slow at times, but I wouldn't want to be without it - the cultural comparison is indeed compelling.

The clash of ideas leads to murder and mayhem in the novel, until the mystery is solved by Black, with the help of his wife Shekure. The characterization of Shekure as a very elusive and enigmatic woman is finely done by Pamuk. And the "end good, all good" ending is turned on its post-modern head by having in the last paragraph Shekure ask her son Orhan (!) write down the story we have just read, "although she knows that for a delightful story, there isn't a lie he wouldn't deign to tell..."

Note: The "family saga" mentioned at the beginning if this post, is The Silent House and has by now also been translated into English.

Comprehensive Orhan Pamuk website.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Tonkatsu (Breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet)

Tonkatsu

"pork cutlet"

豚カツ, とんかつ

[Tonkatsu with shredded cabbage that serves as a salad[

Tonkatsu is a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet one to two centimeters thick and sliced into bite-sized pieces, generally served with finely shredded raw cabbage, rice in a bowl, miso soup and tsukemono. Either a pork fillet (hire) or pork loin (roosu) cut may be used; the meat is dipped into beaten egg and coated with panko (bread crumbs) before being deep fried (furai).

"Ton" means "pork" and "katsu" is short for "katsuretsu," "cutlet." Tonkatsu was derived from the European breaded cutlet.

Tonkatsu is eaten with a thick dark sauce (called soosu), which is a Japanese version of Worcester sauce. In other words, it is not pungent but sweet and contains pureed apples as its main ingredient. Usually, a dab of Japanese mustard is also served on the side. Each restaurant (chain) has its own "secret sauce."

Although formally Yoshoku, tonkatsu has traveled back home to the Japanese cuisine, as is shown by the fact that the rice is not served on a plate, as was originally the case, but in a rice bowl with pickles and miso soup. Neither is it eaten with knife and fork (or a spoon, like that other perennial Yoshoku, curry rice), but with chopsticks. You can use the same sauce on the shredded cabbage, if you prefer, but usually there is also a salad dressing available.

[Sometimes sesame seed (goma) is added to the sauce. One restaurant chain provides a suribachi where you can grind the sesame yourself]

Tonkatsu restaurants are popular in Japan - especially among students because "katsu" also means "wining" (for example, in the examinations). Moreover, most restaurants offer free extra helpings of rice, shredded cabbage and miso soup. Besides the basic "hire" and "roosu" mentioned above, the menu usually offers various kinds of tonkatsu, for example: with cheese, with a shiso leaf, with ume paste, with minced meat (menchi-katsu), with daikon-oroshi (in which case it is eaten with ponzu sauce), or combined with other types of furai as large shrimps and oysters, etc. Sometimes especially expensive pork is on the menu as an extra option, that of black pigs (kurobuta) from Kagoshima.

In Nagoya and surrounding areas, "miso katsu," tonkatsu eaten with the local  Hatchomiso-based sauce, is a specialty.

Besides being served as a meal set (teishoku), tonkatsu meat is also used as a topping for curry rice (katsu-kare), and a sandwich filling (katsu-sando).

Tonkatsu can be very good and is not as heavy as it seems at first blush. It is both filling and inexpensive. As a true symbiosis between east and west, it is one of my favorite dishes.

Japanese Food Dictionary

Friday, November 2, 2012

"The Lower River" by Paul Theroux (Book Review)

Paul Theroux is an author with an incredibly high production. Although in the first place famous for his travelogues as The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), he has also written 32 novels and short story collections. The fiction often is inspired by the travel; in The Lower River we find echoes of the trip through Africa described in Dark Star Safari (2002), but also of Theroux' 1963–1965 Peace Corps teaching experience in Nyasaland/Malawi.


So far, I had been more interested in Theroux the travel author than Theroux the novelist. I have tried several of his early novels but somehow always got stuck in the book without finishing it. The first fiction by Theroux that trapped my attention were the three novellas about India collected in The Elephanta Suite (2007). And now The Lower River... this book again far surpasses these novellas and is indeed a great novel, putting anything that went before it in the shadow. It is a novel about aging; about the meaning of life; about altruism and the lack of it in the world; and the sad plight of Africa where Western aid agencies have for the last 50 years destroyed the economy in many parts of the continent by enslaving the population with dependence on "aid" (China is wiser: by giving practical assistance in the form of building infrastructure, it has won the hearts of the Africans and so also gained access to Africa's minerals).

A middle-aged American called Hock has reached the end of the tether in his work and marriage and burning all ships behind him, returns to Malawi, a small African country he fell in love with 40 years ago when he lived there as a Peace Corps teacher. Instead of reestablishing his dream, Hock arrives in a failed state where the people are lazy, disillusioned and greedy, living off the handouts of the Western aid agencies. The country has also been ravished by AIDS. The school Hock built 40 years ago lies in ruins, and nobody wants it rebuilt.

[Mountains in Northern Malawi]

Hock is taken a virtual prisoner in his old village, Malabo, that is governed by the cynical and dictatorial Manyenga, a sinister chief who used to work for the aid agencies. Hock has been warned: “They will eat your money ... When your money is gone, they will eat you.” And that is what happens, in a world where altruism has been swiped away, Hock has to fork out dollars for every small service he receives. When he has been fleeced to the bone and his money is all gone, Manyenga decides to sell him to a group of punks who will then try to ransom him.

The only light in this darkness are Hock's former girlfriend, Gala, who gives him sound advise; her 16 year old granddaughter Zizi, a tall and slim fairy tale figure who attends to Hock; and a dwarf named Snowdon. An attempt to flee misfires when he is caught in a Lord of the Flies-like village of abandoned feral children suffering from AIDS. Here he also witnesses a helicopter food dropping by two pop stars working with the "Agence Anonyme": after the heli flies away, elder boys on motorbikes steal all the dropped food in order to sell it. The self-interested do-gooders have corrupted the population with their "good intentions," perverting the local ecology and economy. Western paternalism is still enslaving Africa.

The Lower River has reminded reviewers of Heart of Darkness, with Hock as a Kurtz who is not saved from the jungle; but the novel reminded me even more of A Handful of Dust where the protagonist is "caught" in the jungle as well. One could also think of the dark musings of an author like Coetzee (Disgrace, for example). Although the book is about Africa, it has a much wider resonance for the human condition.

If The Lower River seems a dark and claustrophobic book, that is only partly the case. It is also a book full of humor, a tight thriller, and a book with patches of tenderness. And the end - although a bit deus ex machina-like - is certainly uplifting.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Yuzu

Yuzu (Citros junos) is a Japanese type of citron with a distinctive aroma and tarty flavor. Yuzu has been cultivated in Japan at least since the 7th century. It is believed to be a hybrid of the sour mandarin and Ichang papeda, and probably originated in China.

[Yuzu]

Yuzu grows on small trees which contain many thorns. Yuzu trees are planted at high elevations on mountain sides, as the cold at night makes the fruit sweeter. Harvest is from late October through November. The largest yuzu cultivation takes place in Kochi Prefecture (almost half of total national production), followed by Tokushima and Ehime.

The fruit resembles a small grapefruit with an uneven skin, usually between 5.5 and 7.5 cm in diameter. It can be either green or yellow, depending on ripeness. Although there are subtle differences in size and flavor, yuzu resembles the sudachi, another Japanese citrus fruit.

Besides the yuzu used in the Japanese cuisine (called hon-yuzu, or "true yuzu"), there are two other types of yuzu: shishi-yuzu, with a knobby skin, and hana-yuzu. This last variety is purely ornamental and only grown for its flowers.

[Yuzu trees in Kochi Pref.]

Uses in the Japanese kitchen (yuzu is seldom eaten as such):
  • Aromatic yuzu peel (the outer rind) is used to garnish soups (suimono) and other dishes such as chawan-mushi.
  • Yuzu and yuzu peel are added to miso to create yuzu-miso.
  • Yuzu juice is used as a seasoning (like lemon in other cuisines). One way of using it is in ponzu sauce, a combination of yuzu juice with dashi, vinegar and mirin. Another product is yuzu vinegar, rice vinegar flavored with yuzu juice.
  • Yuzu is combined with honey to make yuzu-hachimitsu. Yuzu-hachimitsu is used to make yuzu tea, or cocktails as "yuzu sour." There is also yuzu sake!
  • Yuzu is also used to make jam or marmalade.
  • Yuzu can be used as a flavoring for sweets, as yuzu cake.
  • Yuzu pepper (yuzu kosho) is a combination of green and yellow yuzu rinds with chili peppers and salt.
  • Yuzu juice is now a popular soft drink (often with honey mixed in).
In winter, yuzu is also sometimes added to the bath water (yuzuburo), especially on winter solstice day. This is said to guard against colds, rough skin and warm and relax the body. It is a custom that goes back to the 18th c. The yuzu can be floated whole in the bath (sometimes in a cloth bag), or cut in half.