Japan (and a Buckwheat Cake)

When I was growing up, my one food rule was no Japanese deserts. I consider myself a pretty adventurous eater, and I was definitely an adventurous eater for a kid, but my mother once brought home a log of some sort of bean or grass jelly–which she herself loved–and that was it for me.  As time went on, and others tried to tempt me with red bean, an admittedly less frightening prospect than a log of jellied vegetables, I still felt that the Japanese had largely confused dinner and dessert.

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When I lived in D.C after college., however, there was this tiny Japanese grocery store near my house. They sold, among other treasures, the most delicious mochi in the entirely non-threatening flavors of coffee and green tea. I made an exception to my rule.

I mention all this because I just returned from a two-and-a-half week family vacation in Japan, where once again my status as an adventurous eater was put to the test. Not, this time, by dessert, (I spent most of the trip on a quest for the best mochi and matcha ice cream I could find), but by things that looked like this:

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I should have guess that seafood would be the problem when, on our first morning in Japan, I eagerly dug in to a small roast fish from the hotel breakfast buffet only to grimace and pass the rest to my mother. It was just too fishy for me, which is saying something given the tins of anchovies and sardines we go through in a normal week.

I don’t mean to suggest that I didn’t spend the rest of the vacation eating sushi with relish. But, I will say, I found myself seriously questioning my status as an adventurous eater as I decided I just didn’t like sea urchin and octopus pancakes.

Putting aside, the challenges Japan posed to my self-image, we did eat a lot of delicious and beautiful food. My mochi quest led us to strawberry stuffed mochi, purple yam mochi with such brilliant colors that it exactly matched my Marimekko bracelet, green tea mochi that finally surpassed those of my D.C. days, and, fortuitously, a mochi making festivals in Kyoto where we had mochi in red bean soup that I actually liked.

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In Kyoto, I also fell in love with yuba, soft and creamy bean curd skin. I ordered it everywhere we went until we finally found our way to a many 100 year old restaurant that specialized in yuba. There we had my favorite meal of the trip: a set-menu lunch of yuba sashimi, yuba salad, black soy bean tofu, fried yuba, pickled yuba, and yuba with wasabi and soy sauce over rice.

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It was all accompanied by the most delicious tea I had ever had, one that tasted deeply of caramel. I tried to convey to our waitress that I wanted to buy it from them, but the language barrier was too high. I then spent the next three days trying to explain what I was looking for in every tea shop in Kyoto only to find it being sold by the bag at Kyoto’s monthly flea market. It’s made from black soy beans.

Over the course of the trip we ate sake candies (possibly the Sake’s highest form), amazing matcha tea, and more onigiri than I can count. Japan is quite an easy place to be gluten-free. I overdosed on miso soup and oyako donburi, chicken and eggs over rice, two of my long-time, ultimate comfort foods. This has posed a bit of a problem for what to eat now that I am home. I’ve put a moratorium on all rice-based, dashi-based, and egg-based meals for at least the next few weeks and am also doing my best to avoid chicken.

All that said, there are flavors from the trip and that I want to keep eating and that will actually broaden my pallet. Those are shiso leaves, dried persimmons, and buckwheat–all flavors and foods that were somewhat unexpectedly everywhere.

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If anyone can tell me where to get shiso leaves or dried persimmons in New Haven, I would be forever grateful. Buckwheat, I know where to find. After, I spent a month experimenting with this chocolate-buckwheat cake recipe in preparation for my mother’s 60th birthday, I have a bags and bags of leftover buckwheat in my freezer.

So, yesterday afternoon I took a break from work to bake a buckwheat cake. I followed this recipe so exactly that I don’t think I can, in good conscience, post it here as my own. The only change I made was to replace the lemon zest with orange zest.

The end result is a cake that has I think, the flavor of Japan, but is notably not a Japanese dessert (in you still identify with the rule of my childhood.) It also, unlike so many gluten-free cakes, gets real height, which is a pleasure if you are used to the crosses between cake and tart or cake and mousse, that define so much gluten-free baking. It’s quite smooth and finely grained. I think it’s perfect with a cup of tea, which my mother insists, is the point of all Japanese desserts as well. Noah wants me to note that it is so dark it looks like a chocolate cake, which is true. As someone who does not much like chocolate cake I think this is nice. Noah thinks it leads to disappointment. Whether or not you love chocolate cake, now that you know what you are in for, may I suggest you go on over to the Traveller’s Lunchbox and give it a try.

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