Almost 7 months now in a Japanese shoe box and, after much mental bargaining and many stubbed toes, there is finally peace. I now look at my cute little nook and feel satisfied. It is simple to clean and functional in Japanese fashion – in one 10×8 room and a 4×4 balcony I have a dining room, home office, kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, foyer and laundry room. The space is outfitted with some of my favorite comforts of home (a small crimson and navy Persian rug my father bought on closeout sale, a sumptuous fall-colored Alphonse Mucha print, a small ceramic house wall hanging from Guatemala) and adorable 100 yen oddities like pretty plant pots and colorful dish towels. The small wood-and-ceramic Indian chest of drawers I bought in Korea adds glamour to my plain dining table/home office/vanity and the lemon yellow yukata hung on the wall brings cheer to the drab gray tapestries chosen by my landlord. My “garden” – a mamebonsai in a tiny ceramic pot and a slightly wilting and, sadly, still fruitless, tomato plant in a polka-dotted can – inspires my delight, if no impromptu servings of insalata caprese. Yessir, it took a while to learn how to best maneuver the vanity-to-dining table switches when I chose to have Carnitas, Sean, and Bob over for dinner and figuring out where to place my numerous clots of junk was challenging as well, but by the 7 month stage, I feel the pride I hoped I would eventually feel when I signed on to live here.
I am most proud of my endeavors in the “kitchen.”
This is a picture of my kitchen, taken the week I moved in. It has since become more cluttered – there are more bowls, dishes, cups and dish towels but this is the essence of what I have to work with: one burner, one sink, no disposal, a microwave resting atop the refrigerator on the opposite wall, and absolutely zero counter space, unless one chooses to use the vanity/home office/dining table – often, that is too much cleaning up for me in one evening.
It might sound like not much of a challenge to prepare dinner in such a space but as I am stubborn, I seek to go beyond boiling water for cup noodles and microwaving pouches of 99 yen curry.
I adore cooking – it was how I showed my love for my college roommates and, similarly, how I sought to show my gratitude to Bob, Sean, and Carnitas who befriended me when I first arrived in Sakiio. My college roommates no doubt remember my batches of pasta e fagioli (or “bean soup,” as they lovingly called it) and the infamous roast dinner of 2000. Likewise, I remember the loving Korean and Japanese dinners they made me. Little did I ever dream in those days that I would one day consider Japanese curry a staple or that I would experience real kim chee in South Korea.
My brain always tends to choose the most difficult path. The meals I envision almost always require more than one burner and some counter space so at first, I constantly found myself juggling. After chicken was sauteed, the pan would go into the microwave to rest while I used the now-free burner for sauteeing vegetables. After said vegetables were done, these would be balanced in their pan on the trash can while I boiled water to make some mashed potatoes. After the potatoes were soft, I would mash these in the pot while the whole thing was still on the burner. Sometimes I cooked certain parts of the meal in advance and stored it in the refrigerator to minimize the juggling. Regardless, with no counter space, the meals would have to be served straight from the pots to the waiting dishes on the table that had been pulled slightly closer to the center of the room to allow for another chair to fit around it. If someone needed to use the bathroom, they would have to climb over the bed.
Gradually, I learned to make the most of what I had – I realized that, while the quality and panache factor might suffer a bit, certain vegetables and dishes could be cooked in the microwave instead of clogging my burner while I could be preparing other things. I adore my kitchen scissors – with them I can cut vegetables over a pan without needing a cutting board. I have also bought a small 3400 yen toaster oven and have learned to use the refrigerator for storing and preparing things as well: I have become very fond of chopping vegetables as soon as I bring them home and storing them in the freezer.
So, you might ask, what can a person with lofty hopes make in a kitchen with zero counter space, a toaster oven, microwave, refrigerator and a one-burner stove?
Some quick non-ramen/bento box/frozen pizza/sandwich ideas:
Soba Noodle D-light
1 serving of 99 yen store soba
1 pot of water
several table spoons of soy sauce, dashi, sesame oil, or 99 yen store sesame dressing
Boil water. Add soba. Remove when tender (about 5 minutes). Dress with any of the options listed above.
Delicious, super quick, healthy and a 4-serving 99 yen packet can yield 4 lunches … or breakfasts, if doing things Japanese style.
99 yen store curry
1 packet of 99 yen store “curry vegetables mix” – i.e., potatoes, carrots and onions in a vacuum-sealed pouch
1 box of 99 yen store curry roux, any brand or level of hotness desired
2 or 3 blister packs of 99 yen store pre-prepared rice.
2-3 tablespoons of canola oil
meat – any kind will do, but I like chicken in my curry. Beef is a great option.
Add canola oil to a large deep pot – enough to cover the bottom. Sautee meat and curry vegetable mix. Once all elements are cooked, add enough water to create a soup of sorts and bring to a boil. Skim the copious fat that will appear. Once water is clear, add about 3/4 of the block of curry roux and simmer until thick. Microwave the rice and serve into bowls. Ladle the delicious and fragrant curry over the rice and enjoy with edamame and beer. Never as good as Peaches’s or Koko’s curry but it’ll have to do.
Spaghetti al pomodoro
The fancier, more impressive version of this sauce is sauteed in a pan with olive oil and garlic but for the limits of my pico-kitchen, I make the sauce in the microwave while the spaghetti boils on the stove. The results are still delicious.
Pasta (regular Italian-style or, if you’re watching carbs, this is quite nice with soba, too)
Tomatoes (one per person eating)
2-3 tablespoons of olive oil
salt to taste (at least 1/2 tablespoon)
pepper to taste
While the pasta is boiling (in water that has been sufficiently salted – the water ought to be cloudy but, of course, not opaque white), chop tomatoes into chunks and toss them in a bowl with olive oil, salt and pepper. If you can refrain from eating the tomatoes, microwave them for about 4 minutes. Once out of the microwave, press the tomatoes with a fork to make the mixture chunky and juicy. Serve over al dente pasta with parmesan cheese and, if you have it, basil (I don’t have it but I want it desperately). This is the ultimate comfort food.
All right, all right. Sounds decent and convenient, but what if you want to have a more complicated dinner – something with 3 or 4 components?
Try a few of my proudest menus on for size … and please keep in mind that I’m no gourmet; I have zero talent for figuring out what to serve with what, am an “eyeball” cook and often don’t know what certain cuts of meat or cooking techniques are called. But this is what I’ve managed to do in my kitchen-tini. And it tasted darn good.
Dinner for friends
Tortellini in brodo
Roasted Potatoes with Rosemary
Fagiolini al pomodoro
Tortellini in brodo (cooking time: ~20 min)
- 1 package of tortellini
- 2 blocks of chicken bouillon
- parmesan cheese to taste
- pepper to taste
Sauteed Pork with white wine (cooking time: ~20 min)
- thin cuts of pork
- white wine to taste
- salt to taste
- pepper to taste
- paprika to taste
- 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil
“Roasted” potatoes with rosemary (cooking time: ~45 min)
- several potatoes, cut into small chunks (~2 per dinner guest)
- 2-3 tablespoons of rosemary
- 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil
- salt to taste
- pepper to taste
Fagiolini al pomodoro (cooking time: ~7 min)
- green beans
- tomatoes, cut into chunks
- olive oil
Pat salt, pepper and paprika into thin cuts of pork and, in a shallow pan, sautee them in olive oil. Add a splash of white wine.
As the pork is sauteeing, cut several potatoes into small cubes. Toss in bowl with olive oil, salt, pepper and rosemary. Transfer to sheet of foil and wrap into a tidy little bundle. In a toaster oven, cook the potatoes at 1000 watts for 30-45 minutes (the timer will have to be reset, naturally).
When the pork is finished, transfer slices to Tupperware and store in the fridge. Boil a pot of water and add 2 cubes of chicken bouillon (more if water tastes bland – again, I’m no precision cook). Once the water is boiling, add a package of tortellini (I got mine in a care package from my mother). As the tortellini cook, toss green beans, chopped tomatoes, salt, pepper, and olive oil in a bowl. Microwave until the beans are cooked. When the tortellini are tender, ladle the soup into bowls and top with Parmesan cheese and pepper.
Lasagna Birthday Dinner
(I made this for Sean, only to learn that, in Ireland, lasagnas are made with … cheddar cheese!!!!!)
Lasagna Bolognese (yields approximately 4 servings)
- Barilla oven-cook lasagna sheets (670 yen at my foreign grocery. gulp.)
- 1/4 lb ground beef (Bolognese sauce)
- 1/4 lb ground pork (Bolognese sauce)
- 1/8 lb ground chicken (Bolognese sauce)
- 1 clove garlic (Bolognese sauce)
- 2-4 tablespoons olive oil (Bolognese sauce)
- 4-6 tomatoes, chopped (Bolognese sauce). Variation: 2 chopped tomatoes plus 1 can of SALTED, UNSUGARED crushed tomatoes. I prefer it with the latter but couldn’t find crushed tomatoes here, at least none without sugar.
- 1/2 – 1 tablespoon of salt (Bolognese sauce)
- 1/2 tablespoon of pepper (Bolognese sauce)
- 1/2 onion, diced (Bolognese sauce)
- handful of mushrooms (Bolognese sauce)
- 3/4 carrot – chopped (Bolognese sauce)
- 2 tablespoons flour (Bechamel)
- 1 cup of milk (Bechamel)
- 8 pats butter (Bechamel)
- pinch of nutmeg (Bechamel)
- fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced into chunks
- 4-5 asparagus spears, steamed
- 8-10 slices prosciutto
- 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
- handful of pitted black olives (optional, of course, Cheech)
- half a block of fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced thinly
- 1 tomato, sliced thinly
- grissini, broken in half (thin Italian-style cracker-crunchy breadsticks)
- from Cantevole in the train station – my oven was busy so I patronized one of Sakiio’s lovely little bakeries. This cake had a chocolate brownie base, was dusted with powdered sugar and shaped like a star!
- conbini candles
- conbini cigarette lighter
Salsa Bolognese (~1 hr)
The bolognese sauce for the lasagna was tweaked to add mushrooms (which Sean loves) and it’s lovely with or without. I made my bolognese sauce the night before since I knew I was getting home late and didn’t want to deal with making the burner compete between the sauce and the bechamel. If you have some sauce leftover, save it by all means. It’s good on just about anything.
In a deep pot, add enough olive oil to cover the bottom and set to medium heat. Roast a whole garlic clove until brown and throw it away. Add chopped onions, carrots and mushrooms. Sautee until the onions turn clear. Add mixture of ground beef, pork and chicken to the sauteed vegetables and cook until brown. Then add chopped tomatoes, salt and pepper. Bring mixture to a boil while stirring to ensure that the chopped elements don’t stick to the pan. Reduce heat to simmer, cover and allow the sauce to simmer for roughly 45 minutes.
Bechamel (~10 minutes)
In a small to medium size pot, melt butter over medium heat. Slowly, bit by bit, sift flour into the melted butter, stirring all the while to ensure that there aren’t any clumps. Stirring, stirring should yield a thick, cream-colored mixture. Very slowly, add a warmed cup of milk, stirring continuously. The result should be a smooth, clump-free cream sauce. Add a pinch or two of nutmeg and mix well.
In a small, deep pan layer:
- lasagna sheets
- bolognese sauce
- fresh mozzarella cheese
- bolognese sauce
The top of the lasagna should finish with a lasagna sheet and be covered with bolognese sauce, drizzles of bechamel and bits of mozzarella cheese. Be sure to spread the sauce liberally over the dried pasta – while not soaking it – to ensure that the pasta is thoroughly cooked. Too much sauce will ensure soupy lasagna. Bake for approximately 30 minutes at 1000 watts. The timer will, of course, have to be reset after 15 minutes.
As lasagna is baking, line the rim of a medium-to-large plate with one slice of tomato followed by one slice of mozzarella, one after the other until the entire plate is lined. Each slice should slightly overlap. Place a small bowl at the center of the dish and fill with grissini.
Steam asparagus spears over the now-free burner and cut in half. Wrap with one slice of prosciutto each (hopefully yours is authentic and not plasticky like the kind I’ve been able to find in Japan). Arrange each wrapped spear around the bowl of grissini, so that they look like sun rays and overlap the slices of tomato and mozzarella. Add the (optional) olives to the platter and drizzle the mozzarella, asparagus, tomatoes and (optional) olives with (non-optional) olive oil and dust with salt and pepper.
Remove birthday cake from its wrapping and plunk on a plate, conserving it in the refrigerator until time to serve. Hey, sometimes birthdays fall on nights that bring the cook home late.
Salsa and Chips
Chicken mole (20-25 minutes)
- 1 mole packet (serves 3-4)
- cuts of chicken – wings, thighs, breast pieces, as many as 3-4 people can eat
Buttered rice (3 minutes)
- 99 yen store rice packets (1 per dinner guest)
- 2-3 pats of butter
- sprinkling of parmesan cheese
- pepper to taste
Shrimp, Scallop and Whitefish Ceviche (prep time: 5 minutes. Marinating time: at least 6 hours)
- 2-3 cups of orange juice
- juices of several lemons and limes
- 1 pound white fish
- 1/2 pound scallops
- 1/2 red pepper, diced
- 1/2 yellow pepper, diced
- 1/2 pound shrimp
- 1 sprig parsley
Sangria (prep time: about 5-10 minutes. Marinating time: at least 4 hours.
- 1 bottle red wine
- 2 cups club soda
- 1 apple, sliced
- 1 orange, sliced into wedges
- 1 peach, peeled and sliced
- 2 tablespoons sugar
Salsa and chips (as fast as your little fingers can open the bag and dump the salsa)
- avocado wedges
This dinner was, I thought, my finest moment. It began to gel after I read a recipe for ‘summer ceviche’ in the magazine I worked for before moving to Japan. Ceviche is one of my favorite dishes on the planet – its cost and small portions generally force me to chew on my tongue lest I order it when I spy it on the menu at restaurants, so strong is my desire. Until I read my former colleague’s recipe, I had had no idea that ceviche was so simple to make. Best of all, it doesn’t require any stove time whatsoever. Hrmn, I thought. I did just buy a pitcher. And my mother did send me a packet of mole sauce …
The basic ingredients for ceviche are citrus juice and fish, but there are many popular variations and additions. For mine, I combined baby scallops and chunks of white fish (cut, of course, with my kitchen scissors) with the juice of 4 lemons and a couple of cups of orange juice in a deep Tupperware container. Chopped red and yellow peppers went into the mix as well, as did a sprig of parsley. I purposely conserved my shrimp to add to the ceviche closer to dinner time, as marinating shrimp can make them tough. Once all of the elements were combined, I popped the Tupperware container into the fridge and let it marinate until evening, gleefully checking it every once in a while and marveling as the fish went from clear pink to solid, cooked white. It couldn’t be simpler, or more delicious. I only wish I’d known earlier.
In the evening, I poured a bottle of red wine into a pitcher and plopped pieces of peeled apple, orange wedges and peeled peaches inside. I added the club soda and sugar and let this brew for a few hours as well.
At around 10 – I had told Bob and Sean to come up at 11ish as Sean finished work late – I followed the instructions on the back of my mole package, which involved the arduous task of combining the contents of the package with a cup of warm water and heating the whole mess in a pot, adding chicken when the mess was warm and bringing it all to a boil. As this occurred, I dumped out packages of 99 yen rice into a bowl and combined them with butter, Parmesan cheese and pepper. This, I microwaved. As it microwaved, I added shrimp to my gorgeous ceviche and set about to filling bowls with the tortilla chips I’d found in a foreign goods store as well as salsa. I decorated this bowl with avocado wedges.
Stuffed, proud – and after all of that sangria, soused as well- the only thing left to do was attend to the festering pile of dishes that seemed to loom even larger in the miniscule sink.
Fortunately, that’s what well-fed fellows are made for.