Tag Archives: food

Japan Part 2 – Tiny, Cute Pieces of Healthy Food in Cute Boxes

I was eating a bowl of kale with chopsticks at a noodle bar in downtown Woodstock, New York, when I thought about how different the mainstream American diet could be. I railed against the typical American way of eating before I went to Japan and, then after nine days in Japan, I experienced just how screwed up we are in the United States when it comes to balanced eating (as well as many other things, but this blog focuses on travel). This is what you usually find at American airports, which reflect what you find in many American neighborhoods.


McDonald’s and Starbucks can be found in Japan, but thankfully they don’t dominate a street corner. In Japan, I ate fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I ate seaweed and pickled vegetables with my fish. I ate a few things I couldn’t identify. Instead of a basket of bread while you wait for the main course, we received a bowl of cabbage leaves coated in a light, tangy vinaigrette, which was delicious, and, as Mike noted, a more nutritious alternative than nachos. Many of my meals had a slice of roasted acorn squash, and I got to the point where I so looked forward to this fleshy crescent chunk of food that I was disappointed when my entree didn’t feature acorn squash. Thanks to Japan, I have an acorn squash sitting on my kitchen counter at home, waiting to be roasted, sliced, and added to just about everything except breakfast cereal.




I’d like to say we were among the throngs that waited for breakfast at the famous Daiwa Sushi at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, but we weren’t. Perhaps next time. Tsukiji Fish Market has a ton of cheap eateries, so we opted for one without a line and enjoyed some of the freshest sushi, specifically the chu toro, a tasty cut of tuna, and I don’t even think we spent $20 USD. Walking around Tsukiji Fish Market, there’s so much on the chopping block every single day, you wonder if there’s anything left in the sea. Japan accounts for 30 percent of the world’s tuna consumption. After having fish three meals a day, several days in a row, I now think that nothing at the Tsukiji Fish Market goes to waste.




And then there’s that lunch in Kyoto’s Gion District that my daughter refers to as “the lunch with too many eyeballs.” Whole shrimp had been tossed into all of our entrees, and a shrimp antennae was eerily waving from Anna’s bowl of broth. I tried to fish out the rest of the shrimp body before Anna noticed what was floating beneath her noodles, but, failed.



Eyeballs aside, our meals always featured vegetables, even at breakfast where little salads were often served alongside a “Western” buffet of eggs and bacon. Japanese serving sizes were small and always filling. Everything was lightly flavored and not buried in sauces. No one felt gassy, bloated, and bursting at the belt buckle with regret. The Japanese are known for their love of perfection and presentation, and every entree we received, from takeout sushi at Tokyo’s “Family Mart” convenience chain to the Bento boxes on the bullet train to Park Hyatt Tokyo’s bountiful breakfast buffet to the Mexican Bento boxes in Kyoto were thoughtfully arranged. Nothing ever, ever looked thrown together by a cook who had lost his appetite for the job. Even “the lunch with too many eyeballs” was attractive and deceptively appealing (I’m not a shrimp lover, whether it’s just the tail or a tail attached to eyeballs).



I’ve said this on Twitter and I’ll repeat it here: why hasn’t the Azuki bean taken off in America? Ok, maybe Americans don’t associate the word “bean” with dessert. My first introduction to Azuki bean sweets took place fifteen years ago at a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia, and after that I was hooked. Why can’t sweet Azuki bean paste be added to the Pop-tart? Americans don’t know what they’re missing. I’m not saying ditch chocolate, but rice cakes with sweet Azuki bean paste are delicious, they go great with green tea, and are the perfect way to cap a meal of fresh fish, rice and vegetables. For folks craving more Western style desserts, Kyoto offered beautifully crafted “Nature Doughnuts,” as they were called, that were too cute to eat, and did not contain Azuki beans. Japanese sweets are always beautifully wrapped and the sweets themselves sometimes looked like dried flowers in glass.



After a week of fish and rice, we all started to crave some familiarity. While strolling Kyoto near Ponto-cho, part of the Hanamachi district there, we walked by a gleaming avocado which turned out to be a sign for Cafe Dining Avocado Mexican. I’m a guacamole junkie so lunch was Mexican Bento boxes, an avocado cappuccino, a broccoli-kiwi smoothie (yes, my favorite color is green), delicious cactus ice cream served with slices of fresh avocado and “Day of the Dead” spongecake with fruit. The place appeared popular among locals; few waiters spoke English though they offered an English menu, as was common around Kyoto, and the restaurant was filled with trendy-looking Japanese ladies who lunch. It was interesting to experience a Japanese interpretation of Mexican food; again, the servings were small, but appropriate, and absolutely delicious and spicy. Anna was relieved to eat something she recognized, and everyone enjoyed the break from the seafood and rice. Our other “Western” caving was a quick evening bite at Mos Burger, which isn’t yummy, but is certainly visually entertaining. I kept a menu as a souvenir.

Cafe Avocado 1

Cafe Avocado 2

Cafe Avocado 3

Back to portion control in America and eating my bowl full of kale. The bowl overflowed with kale and ended up providing three meals over the weekend. Three meals for $11 may feel like a bargain, but I would’ve much preferred half that bowl of kale, which would have filled me up, for half the price. Mike’s chicken entree took up more than half his plate and was swimming in sauce. I know complaints about US food portions tend to focus on fast food chains, but the kale came from a chic noodle bar and the chicken came from a fancy schmancy restaurant. Why do we dish up so much for a single meal? Are these large portions rooted in our frontier origins…are we really that worried about finding our next meal? I longed for Japanese balance on my plate.

Back to Japan, where portions were appropriate and opportunities for walking off breakfast, lunch and dinner were boundless. After filling up on small servings of healthy foods, we strolled Japan’s cherry blossomed streets because everything was in full bloom while we were there. This was the view outside Cafe Dining Avocado Mexican in Kyoto near the canal. This Mexican joint is in a beautiful neighborhood known for geisha houses, traditional tea houses and the preservation of classic Japanese architecture. There are cobblestone streets and small lovely private homes, restaurants, and shops along the way. This area is what you think of when you imagine “Kyoto” for a few blocks away, you encounter more of the urban artery with department stores lining block after block. What you do learn from walking around Japan’s streets is whether it’s a historical neighborhood or a busy thoroughfare, the Japanese take a lot of pride in their cuisine, and just about anywhere you go (except maybe Mos Burger), you’ll find something delectable and thoughtfully, artfully crafted.

Strolling Kyoto

The 40-Year-Old Montreal Virgin

It’s amazing, yet true, that I grew up near the Canadian border, have traveled extensively, am about to turn 40, and just made my first trip to Montreal this year. And it was worth the wait because there’s a chemistry there, and I’m going back for more.

Like Paris, what sparked the trip to Montreal was an art exhibit, the Clark family Impressionism collection making its one and only stop to Canada at the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Montreal. The exhibit was closing January 20 and we were there January 19, along with hundreds of other Impressionism fans. After a half hour of rubbing shoulders with people speaking every language under the sun, vying for a spot in front of Degas’s sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” and the 74 Monets, Manets, Pissaros and other Impressionism superstar paintings, we gave up and headed downstairs to the modern art world, which was fun, quiet, and delightfully on the whimsical and saucy side, with Italian artists making polyfoam beds that look like nests, and murals with eyes watching you walk by, as shown here:


Art Museum 2

Art Museum

Montreal on the outside, despite Arctic temperatures, was just as hot and saucy as Montreal museums on the inside. Stately churches share curb space with glass towers. True, you don’t see street vendors here in the middle of January, but step inside any bistro, restaurant or cafe, and there are plenty of hot treats to be had, from fondue and grilled salmon to poutine and spicy wings. On a Friday night, PoutineVille in downtown was packed, with diners filling out menus cards like sushi orders as they customized their toppings for their plates of poutine. We had such a great time there, Mike was inspired to make poutine for Superbowl Sunday. Everyone has written about the Montreal food scene, which rivals Paris and New York. I don’t have anything insightful to add to the din except as I said above, I’m going back for more. More macaroons, more poutine, more salmon, more fondue…more of all of it.

Montreal Bagels

Delicious, fresh everything is found at Jean Talon Marche, where we bought some of our groceries for the week before heading home. We bought a pint of the strawberries shown here and they were gone in two days. Going back for more of those, too.

Jean Talon Marche

Also like Paris and New York, Montreal is a city best enjoyed on foot, whether you’re above ground braving the subzero cold or below in underground metro tunnels where city residents flowed like streams. We bundled up and walked around Vieux Montreal, enjoying cupcakes (because that’s just what we do no matter where we go), absorbing the silence and grace of Notre Dame (much needed after some parenting drama along the way), and window shopping (with some actual shopping mixed in).

Outside Notre Dame in Vieux Montreal…
Notre Dame 2

Inside Notre Dame, reminiscent of a Faberge egg…

Window shopping, literally…

photo (40)


Macaroons are available everywhere in Montreal and are so popular, someone turned them into miniature jewelry boxes.


City Hall

Downtown Montreal

Aside from hearing nonstop French, which is the sexiest language on the planet no matter who is speaking it (like those Montreal cops walking by), one of the most interesting cultural experiences was seeing ads for travel to Cuba, obviously not something you see in the United States. Caribbean beaches beckon during Canadian winters, and this mural in the Bonaventure subway station immediately caught my eye for both its bright orange hues as well as its positive positioning of Cuba. When we visited Cuba in 2003, there were many Canadians in Havana and at the beach resort. I’m envious of Canada’s relationship with Cuba, but here’s hoping things will change.

Cuba Ad 2

Montreal metro stations were immaculate. I may be partial to New York City’s bagels, but Montreal’s underground mass transit system was spotless, not scary, not filled with people wanting to mug me, and sometimes even felt like an art gallery with its many murals and mosaics. When I saw this one, I took it as a prelude to our upcoming trip to Japan.


And finally, what made Montreal the best first date vacation I had ever had–the outdoor rooftop swimming pool at the Hilton Montreal Bonaventure in downtown. I don’t even recall how I stumbled upon this place except that it was through some random Googling, but thank goodness I did because I’m never letting go. Swimming in the snow is as meditative as it sounds. The pool is heated at 87 degrees and you enter the pool through an indoor annex so from the neck down, you are never exposed to the frigid air while wearing your bathing suit. Surrounded by snow and steam, this pool was enjoyed around-the-clock during our weekend, from parents tossing kids in the water (and into the freezing air…I didn’t get that) to older folks getting some laps in before dinner. This pool was the perfect way to loosen up and burn off some poutine, and felt fantastic after a day of sightseeing. Paddling through warm water while looking up at the stars, the half-moon sky and snowflakes hitting your nose felt dreamy and surreal, like a Dali painting. Montreal is now our family’s East Coast Los Angeles, a city we will visit again and again and again, exploring different neighborhoods and searching for new experiences while staying at the same place every time. Montreal is a city for the senses, even in winter when streets are muffled by snow. I need to see Montreal when the sun is hot, when the leaves turn orange, when the daffodils are saying hello. Time to book our next visit there because I’m in love.

The pool during the day…

The pool at night…
Hilton Pool

Sweet -n- Low

Savannah’s kitchens were humming long before Paula Deen arrived, and, like the ghosts said to haunt the land there, these kitchens will continue to crackle and hum for centuries to come. There’s so much to taste and try in Savannah, so leave Paula Deen to the Food Network and simply sample your way across town. Low country boasts the unapologetically hearty low country boil, but the region’s cooks are just as skilled in satisfying a sweet tooth.

My trip to this port town was a reunion with college friends, one of whom is a Savannah College of Art and Design graduate. We had visited her in spring 1999 and decided to circle back and check out Savannah’s 21st century revitalization, for much had changed in the past decade. I’m not entirely sure how the economic downturn affected Savannah, but the area was sprouting new businesses on every corner where we walked, new restaurants, new shops, new art galleries, many of which appeared to have opened in the past decade, one even in the past few weeks.

And that is what I captured on camera, not the cemeteries and gardens I had intended to photograph but shops, cafes and store front windows where guys and gals wearing hair nets and vintage aprons spun sugar and revved up the community for Halloween. My trip was cut short due to Hurricane Sandy. This was the second time one of our vacations was affected by an East Coast storm and resulted in a long road trip. The day I was supposed to visit historic cemeteries and gardens and parks, the one sunny day we had in Savannah, my flight was cancelled and New York City was shutting down airports and train stations in preparation for what proved to be a brutal storm. This time last week, I was in a rental car cruising across the Carolina borders questioning whether it was wrong to pull over to a Le Creuset outlet store on Interstate 95 while my husband and daughter braced for a hurricane (it was). As I approached the New York skyline, I passed a fleet of utility trucks and ambulances, dozens of them. New York was getting ready for a wallop. Eight hundred and fifteen miles later (I didn’t even have to turn, just stayed I-95 the whole way), I pulled into my driveway at 11:40 pm Sunday, full of McDonald’s snack wraps and classic rock favorites after hours of local radio. The drive took 13 hours and I stopped for bathroom and gas breaks four times. Hurricane Sandy arrived in full force the following afternoon.

So back to my almost-48-hours-in-Savannah. I captured what I could. We were there the weekend before Halloween; Savannah was in full regalia party mode with middle-aged men wearing kilts with a T-shirt that said “Spank Me” and twenty somethings outfitted in either very clever, colorful, coordinated costumes or whatever was lying around the closet floor that night. There were jack o’lanterns, ghosts, and skeletons dressed to impress, for Savannah is the second most haunted city in America (New Orleans is the first) and Halloween is the city’s new year, when living and dead rock it out arm-in-arm til dawn.

I’m not waxing poetic here, I do think Savannah is haunted. The city is alive with life and death, its history both faded and vivid for the two are now too intertwined to survive without the other. Folks at restaurants we went to knew national television ghost hunters by name, as if they were regulars at the bar. Every one had seen something, heard something, or saw something. I admit, during our ghost tour carriage ride, I didn’t like it when our carriage stopped. Houses, lit and darkened, watched us with narrowed eyes. Many of the ghost stories were domestic disputes that went too far, and I wondered if every married couple in 18th century Savannah argued at knife point instead of the subtitled, seething bickering we’re all used to now. Did humidity drive people mad? New York may be the city that never sleeps but Savannah is that city that never rests. Such spookiness called for comfort food.

And that’s where spun sugar comes back in. Walking through downtown Savannah, along the river front, through Savannah City Market, or just down some random street, someone somewhere handed out candy. Taffy was being pulled. Pralines were being stirred. Peanut brittle was being chopped. Caramel was being drizzled. Walk into Savannah Candy Kitchen, someone hands you a warm chunk of chewy, nutty, praline. Didn’t buy anything at the store? No worries. As you walk out, that same person will robotically place another warm chunk of chewy, nutty praline in your hand again. In the shop, free sample, out of the shop, free sample, on to the next shop, more free samples. This is how it went Saturday afternoon.

Down the street from Savannah Candy Kitchen, the Savannah Bee Company–a new business that opened its doors in 2002–also offered free samples, which were paired with cheese and sliced apples. Beekeeping is big business in the American South. I sampled the Tupelo and Winter White honeys, and honestly would have lapped up any fallen drops of honey off the floor because it was that good. Savannah Bee Company sold all of its varieties in TSA-friendly three-ounce jars, so I got a jump on some holiday shopping and loaded up (turned out I didn’t have to worry about flying home).

Buzzed on sugar, I needed more. So we strolled to Sweet Carolina Cupcakes, a very new business that just opened in September, and exercising restraint, split two cupcakes–a Whoopie Pie and a Sweet Georgia Brown–among the four of us.

And this was how I left Savannah, full, wired, and a bit fuzzy on what had just happened over the weekend (probably the claim of every SCAD student every Monday morning). I woke up Sunday morning last week camera-ready for a walk along Spanish moss and marble statues and ornate fountains. I wanted to capture the pristine stillness of angelic faces staring off at the heavens because my 1999 hard copies of these graves are lost in a box somewhere. And yet I was balancing a hot cup of coffee while steering a minivan north, nibbling on a praline left on my pillow the night before by the hotel maid.


During my four days in Quebec, I’ve consumed the following: duck, cow, pig, chicken, wapiti, chocolate, cheese, spinach-mushroom crepes, brie with mushrooms, more cheese, maple fondue, baked beans, French onion soup almost every day, Quebecois tortiere, salmon torte (twice), poutine (which means more cheese), McDonald’s (yes, once), macaroons, carrot cake, a handful of strawberries, one dreadfully messy croissant, wine, coffee, hot cocoa and the most expensive glass of orange juice ever to touch my lips.

One of my favorite entrees came from Le Cochon Dingue where I enjoyed fries smothered in very silky, rich gravy, topped with cheese curd and duck confit. Here’s a sexy closeup of tonight’s dinner, which was washed down with real hot cocoa and some carrot cake.

I already mentioned Aux Anciens Canadiens in an earlier blog entry, which is a great way to experience traditional Canadian cuisine–meals that reflect both English and French influences. Here’s Mike wondering whether to order something that flies or something that roams. Both ended up on his plate.

A fantastic spot for lunch is Casse Crepe Breton where the crepes are poured, flipped, and folded right before your eyes. For about $8 you can choose from a variety of ingredients such as spinach, mushrooms, ham, and egg (I’m forgetting the others) and customize your crepe. For an additional $1.50 (all dollar references here are to the Canadian dollar, which is doing slightly better than the American dollar at the moment) you can get a delicious side salad. Another $3.75 gets you a bowl of hot chocolate, which immediately reminded me of being back in Paris where drinking from a bowl feels very cool.

For those with a sweet tooth, there are countless opportunities to spike your blood sugar. Quebec’s dinner entrees often reminded me of dining in Britain’s pubs–meats stuffed in pastries and pie shells. Quebec’s passion for sweets is where I tasted France’s influence. Near Casse Crepe Breton is the “Chocolate Museum” where the air is filled with the sweet smell of freshly ground cocoa. There’s no admission to this museum; it’s two rooms. One is dedicated to the history of chocolate and the adjoining room is dedicated to being a part of that history. Go back and forth between the two and read about chocolate while eating chocolate. Here, Anna admires the chocolate sculptures.

Several blocks away up and down steep sidewalked hills (this is how french-fry loving Quebecers keep their slim figures) is le Quartier Petit Champlain, a cobblestone street of 18th century buildings lined with shops selling painted glass, souvenir T-shirts, First Nation art and memorabilia, tchotckes, jewelry, beaver skins, and handpainted silk scarves. Madame Gigi’s Confiserie is on this street, where plates of rainbow macaroons decorate the windows. I admit the colors of these macaroons were startling at first, but don’t let an extravagant neon green cookie deter you. They come in fabulous flavors like pina colada and taste just as sinful. A delicious place for a bite and a break.

Sampling one of Madame Gigi’s chocolate macaroons before getting back on the bike:

And if chocolate and pina colada macaroons fail to quell your hunger, there are less ostentatious cookies. Many are maple flavored, but Anna received some sugar dusted cookies shaped like le laupin (the hare) and le cochon (the pig). Apologies for the suggestive positioning of the cookies…they came that way.

If you’re interested, during a museum tour today about the Huron-Wendat people, I received a brochure with some recipes, including a recipe for wapiti tartare. I’m not a big meat eater, but First Nation cuisine sounds interesting. I’m stuffed now, but maybe something to try at home? Or we just find another way to make a trip up north to Wendake, which is a half hour drive north of Quebec, and see what’s cooking.