Japanese Desserts: The College Potato (大学芋)

Around autumn-time in Japan is when the yaki imo (焼き芋), or roasted (sweet) potato, trucks start to ply the residential areas, as the drivers playing an eerie recording trying to either tempt or frighten human hunger pangs.  Sure, you’ve got the beautiful fall foliage, chestnut acolytes and a gradual decrease in purgatorial temperatures, but none of those things reminds me more that I’m in Tokyo than those mystifying lorries, err trucks.

Except that, I haven’t always had the great luck in finding them.  While living in Tokyo many years ago, my interminable walks normally took me through the commercial and/or high-rise districts, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro, Ginza, and Shimbashi (for some reason; well they did have cheap eats), but I have an inkling that heading towards Nezu/Asakusa/Yanaka/even Akasaka would’ve been better ideas to pinpoint the truck’s location.

Then again, as much as I love sweet potatoes, they’re quite easy to find around the world.  Not quite as common?  Daigaku imo (大学芋), the college potato.

Daigaku imo became an instant staple food for me while studying in Tokyo, and their super sweet nature has stayed with me ever since.  In essence, they are fried sweet potatoes, coated with black sesame seeds and sugar syrup.

According to the Research Institute of Japanese Potatoes – really – the college potato most likely came about at the beginning of the Showa era (1926 – 1989), when Japan had been going through a difficult economic period.  This was made worse by the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, which almost completely flattened Tokyo.  In order for college students to pay their dues, many started to sell what we now know as the daigaku imo.

The sweet – on – sweet daigaku imo reminds me of a couple of northern Chinese desserts;  one is diced sweet potatoes fried in caramel that you’d dip in water to cool off, and the other is bingtanghulu, or sugar-coated fruit skewers.   Has anyone found college potato outside of Japan?  I haven’t yet, but there is a small consolation that deserves mention–

Although it says satsuma imo (さつまいも) yam flavor, the description mentions that it has a hint of black sesame as well, not to mention, look at the photo!  They were quite alright, and much more lenient on the incisors, but the last time I saw them was in 2006…perhaps you, the reader, knows where to get them.


I’d like to try daigaku imo in cheesecake form…how about you?

Singapore’s Kaya Toast

Many fellow travelers have played up Singapore’s role as an eating paradise.  That said, my first time there, in August 2004, I didn’t have much choice in what – or where – I ate.  That said, I was instantly fond of two foods in the Lion City.  The first, fried mantou (steamed buns), chili crab and its delicious sauce at the East Coast dining promenade.  The second?  Kaya jam and toast.

Kaya jam counts as its main ingredients coconut milk, eggs, sugar, and pandan,  a tropical leaf with a uniquely sweet flavor that has also been used to enhance the taste of ice cream, as well as on its own in cakes.  The color of kaya can be more green (as in the jar above) or more brown, depending on how much pandan is used.  I think the stuff is great, but undoubtedly sweet; after a pandan binge in Kuala Lumpur, I was incapacitated for a few minutes.  It’s common in Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, and I’ve found it in the states as well, in a few different Chinatowns.

Usually, it’s spread on grilled toast.  With butter.

What’s that…coconut and butter?  Well, just take a look:

The layer of butter is almost thicker than a slice of bread

Singapore makes it easy for you.  There’s no need to spare a moment to search the city-state for this artery-clogging delight.  As soon as you arrive at Changi Airport, make a beeline for a food court, where the fun awaits.  You say there are long queues at immigration, and you don’t have any Singapore dollars?  No worries, use your excess euros, drams, people’s money, or punts and make sure to get a “sandwich” for passport control too, it beats the unusually-flavored hard candies that they offer when you are allowed in.

Oh, and in case you think the kaya toast counters might dash your dreams and run out of butter:

Seems (US) state fair-worthy

If you have tried kaya jam before, how have you enjoyed it?  Virtual high-fives to all of those folks who eat it right out of the jar.

Manado’s Tinutuan (Indonesian Food)

Working in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, had been an incredible eye-opener to the (understatement of the year) diverse world of Indonesian food.  Specifically, I’m referring to makanan Manado, or food from the mostly Catholic city of Manado on the island of Sulawesi.

My office at the time was a three-minute walk to a Manadonese eatery, which first introduced me to the fiery, no holds-barred cuisine.  It is best known for its smoked cakalang, or skipjack tuna, spicy sambal, or chili pastes, and for cooking basically anything.

After a visit to what is likely one of the world’s more colorful wet markets in Tomohon, Indonesia, I was inconveniently feeling peckish.  I say that because, I went to the market specifically on an empty stomach, but left with an even emptier one.  None of the wet market stalls had anything ready-to-eat, so it was up to visiting neighboring street vendors for a bite.

After a few days of chowing down on a veritable Noah’s Ark, it was time for something…tame.  Enter, tinutuan/bubur Manado, or Manadonese porridge:

OK, so the word tame was used above in somewhat jocular manner.  You see, although tinutuan is a hot watery local rice porridge made with pumpkin, corn, water spinach, and other ingredients less likely to harry PETA worshipers, it is still typically served with a piquant sambal.  Tinutuan, like bubur in other parts of the country, is much more common as a breakfast dish; it’s fast, ingredients are cheap and plentiful, and no street vendor ever has to worry about washing dishes for the next customer.  Whoops, the cat’s out of the bag.

By the way, the Indonesian version of “there’s no use crying over spilled milk” is nasi sudah menjadi bubur.  Which is to say, “the rice has already become porridge.”

A Brief Tour of Some of My Favorite Tokyo Buildings

Of the many cities that I’ve visited around the world, Tokyo is easily my favorite.  I like how you can seamlessly bike all over the place, even if you can’t park your bike anywhere.  I like how address number 1 could be next to number 550 which can be next to number 78.  And, among many other reasons, I like the truly bizarre things that pop up from foundations – you know, buildings – and the things that stick out from buildings.  Funny though, before the 2, 080 feet-tall Tokyo Skytree was finished on February 29, 2012, I never thought of the city as a place with a prominent or skyline that could be recognized by a mere silhouette.  Of course, this is partially as a consequence of existing in an area prone to earthquakes.

Tokyo Skytree…Not a Favorite

Now, for the elephant in the room.  Since Tokyo was almost entirely destroyed twice – first, by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and then by US air raids during World War II – very few historic structures were left standing.  However, with the US helping to get Japan back on track right after the end of that war, new ideas, businesses and population booms flourished.

Thus, with leisure travel to the Japanese curtailed for nearly everyone currently outside of Japan, let’s take a brief (Part 1) tour of the city…

Huh, that’s not a building.  You’re right…but I am including this roller coaster – known as the Thunder Dolphin – as a result of its nuance.  Located next to the Tokyo Dome stadium – home of the Tokyo Giants baseball team – in Tokyo Dome City, the Thunder Dolphin is a steel coaster that has top speeds of around 78 miles per hour (~130 kph).  What I think is cool about it is that it not only passes through a sliver of a neighboring shopping complex (you can see it in the above photo, on the left), but it also goes through the center of the Big O Ferris Wheel!

The Thunder Dolphin was probably the most enjoyable roller coaster I’ve taken until now, but I really must check out Falcon’s Flight next.

When I first walked past the Shinanomachi Rengakan (信濃町煉瓦館 rengakan = “brick building”), I thought it was a government building, for instance a mint, or something else having to do with finance…or doubled as a  movie villain’s not-so-secret lair.

Nope.

The Shinanomachi Rengakan, a stone’s throw from the Shinanomachi metro station, forms the southeastern corner of the Shinjuku (district) branch of Keio University.  The curious structure was finished in 1995 (in Japanese), and today primarily houses offices of medical and media companies.

For Tokyo architecture buffs, Nakagin Capsule Tower needs no introduction.

The Nakagin Capsule Tower, which can be found close to the upscale Ginza and Shiodome neighborhoods, is one of the most iconic buildings in Tokyo.  Built in 1972 by architect Kurokawa Kishou (黒川 紀章), Nakagin Capsule Tower is the clearest realization of Kurokawa’s Metabolist architectural movement.  Metabolism stresses flexibility, convenience, and the concept that cities should be able to adapt to future changes; for each of the two towers, individual prefabricated “capsules” replete with a small bathroom, desk, and radio (in other words, everything the burgeoning salaryman class of the 1960s would need) were fed into a single column.

Maybe you can even check out the Nakagin Capsule Tower once international travel resumes.

Not far from the the Nakagin Capsule Tower, we have another shining the Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center (静岡新聞静岡放送ビル).  It was completed in 1967 by Japanese starchitect Kenzo Tange (丹下 健三), who also designed the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building – Tokyo’s current City Hall, Hiroshima Peace Park, the Fuji TV Building, and, stadiums for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, among many other edifices.

The Shizuoka Press and Broadcasting Center has one tower into which thirteen individual office modules are “plugged-in.”  At the time, space was left in between groups of 2-3 modules so that others could be connected to the central tower, though this growth never materialized.  Given how densely packed cities have become, might we see a Metabolist renaissance somewhere in the world?

Menacing, no?

This otherworldly edifice is called the Reiyuukai Shakaden (霊友会釈迦殿), or the Spiritual Friendship Association Hall of the Buddha Shakyamuni.  Easy peasy.  

The Reiyuukai sect of Buddhism was established some time in the early 1920s, and formally recognized by the Japanese government in 1930.  Although the Reiyuukai Shakaden was built in 1975, since its religious origins stem from the time of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, it stores hundreds of tons of water, in the event of another disaster.  Furthermore, it houses a concert hall, and additionally (at least, prior to COVID-19) offers free Japanese language and calligraphy classes.

Ever wanted to have your very own Polyvinyl Chloride (err, PVC) model of jambalaya, a squid shooting its ink towards a plate of pasta, or fugu?  Then, you just have to find the “Niimi Chef,” perched above the Niimi kitchenware world building, finished in 1961.  To the right of this 7-story structure (that is, if you are looking directly at the chef), you will find the Kappabashi shopping street, known for stores selling cups, bowls, shop signs, chopsticks, fake food models, and many other items commonly found in a (Japanese) kitchen.  In that sense, the Niimi Chef building is a landmark for me, a reminder that at last, I’m back in my favorite city.

ADDRESSES


Have you/would you want to visit Tokyo?  Which buildings would you include among your favorites?

Bingtanghulu (冰糖葫芦), A Supersweet Chinese Treat

Bingtanghulu at Wangfujing Night Market, Beijing, China

China’s 冰糖葫芦 bīng​táng​hú​lu are what you offer to someone who has grown tired of having teeth.  I suppose you could say it’s China’s version of Coca-Cola.  Basically, a skewer of bingtanghulu is a blanket of sugar around pieces of fruit.

This street food is more popular in northern China in the winter months, though I have spotted it at touristy markets during the summer, too.  Since bingtanghulu is a snack in the mainland, pretty much any fruit (botanically or not) is at risk of becoming impaled on the bamboo stick.  Thus, cherry tomatoes, plums, melon, kumquat, bananas, strawberries, haw, smoked duck necks – most of those, anyhow – will do.  Here are an English recipe and a Chinese recipe for your indulgent pleasures.

Have you tried bingtanghulu?  Would you compare it to coating baklava with a layer of spun sugar?


Chinese Lesson
冰 bīng “ice”
糖 táng “sugar”
葫芦 húlu “calabash/bottle gourd”

Waiter, There’s Salt Outside Your Restaurant (Japan)

Years ago, before I went to teach English in Shenzhen, China, I happened upon a satirical video about the traditions of eating in a Japanese restaurant. What can one do, besides wax famished about those daily searches for good eats?

More importantly, what does Shenzhen have to do with this?…

Once settled in there, in order to spice up my daily Chinese meals, I went looking for Japanese food.  After stumbling upon a vertical “Japantown” in Luo Hu, the old commercial center of Shenzhen, I started to explore different floors of the building.  Seedy stuff – with discounts for Japanese businessmen – was located on the top floors, whereas just below those were restaurants.

Hungry, I alighted to find something that had been making me chuckle since watching the sushi video above:

Just what am I pointing to?

Salt.  Right outside of a Japanese restaurant.

The mound of salt is known in Japanese as 盛塩 (morishio).  Why was it there?  I asked the manager, and she didn’t know.  Though, one theory says that it was placed out front by the door sill in the event that your meal wasn’t salty enough.  Other possibilities include a nobleman being present in the restaurant, or that when you pass through the door you’ll be purified.  Another two mention that salt is placed there for good luck for the owner, or to keep evil spirits away from one’s abode (in Japanese).

Imagine at your own discretion, but please, the next time you reach for a bit of salt, think of your kidneys.

Morishio, “lucky salt,” outside of a Fukuoka Sushi Restaurant

Have you noticed this when you’ve gone out for Japanese food?  Have you taken advantage?

Sapporo, Japan’s Miso Ramen (味噌ラーメン)

Considering that today is thus far 2021’s coldest in New York, I feel like there’s no better time than now to talk about the hearty miso ramen.

In addition to Japan’s most well-known home-grown soup, miso soup, there have historically been othershoutou, with pumpkin, mushrooms, and meat, and miso nikomi made in a clay pot – that employ both noodles and miso, or fermented soybeans. Miso is beneficial for immune and digestive support, and has a fair amount of protein, given that it is made of soybeans…there are even different flavors and colors of miso.

However, contemporary miso ramen hails from Sapporo, Hokkaido, having only been created in 1954/5 by Mr. Morito Omori at his Aji no Sanpei restaurant. Two versions of the story exist; one entails Mr. Omori noticing in a Reader’s Digest about how foreigners liked miso, another simpler one recounts a customer asking him to add noodles and vegetables to miso soup.

Either way, Sapporo miso ramen is my favorite bowl of ramen.

I used to think that the broth solely consisted of miso, but in fact it is red miso added to a standard chicken, pork or other type of broth first. Throw in the usual menma (bamboo slices), green onion, and springy noodles, then top it with two Hokkaido specialties, butter and sweet corn. 旨ぇぇぇ! (So tasty!)

What am I still doing writing about it, when I should be making it? This always happens.

Stay warm, folks!

The Wazir Khan Mosque of Lahore (Pakistan)

Thankfully, there’s an amusing anecdote regarding how I learned of the Wazir Khan Mosque.

I was sitting in front of the Lahore Fort, one of the primary tourist spots of Lahore, Pakistan.  To my surprise, an older man came to sit next to me, trying to preach about Jesus.  After telling him where I was from, he decided to invite me to his apartment in the labyrinthine old city for some delicious raita, chapatti, and curry (curiously, only the men in the family were allowed to eat, but the women helped serve the food):

We chatted for a couple of hours, during which point he mentioned the Wazir Khan Masjid (Mosque) as worthy of a visit.  By then it was nighttime, so I thanked him, and made my plan for the following day.

After an embarrassing attempt at playing cricket with some local youth, as well as an excellent glass of ginger, lime, and sugar cane juice, I finally located the Wazir Khan Mosque.

Construction of the Wazir Khan Mosque took place between 1634 and 1641, and was headed by  Hakim Ilmud Din Ansari, a government physician upon whom the title Wazir (minister) Khan was bestowed.  Though the structure is the best-preserved example of Mughal architecture at a mosque, it was built during the reign of Shah Jahan, the Mughal Emperor who had the Taj Mahal mausoleum created for his wife.

The Wazir Khan Mosque was built surrounding the site of the tomb of a Persian Sufi mystic named Miran Badshah who had come to Lahore in the 13th century.

Since the mosque was constructed for imperial Friday prayers for rulers taking the short walk from the Lahore Fort, its walls and minarets were ornately designed with frescoes, plaster, tile mosaics, and Persian calligraphy quoting the Quran.  It also came with its own pay-to-enter hammam, or bathhouse, as well as a row of shops, called the Calligrapher’s Bazaar.


Indeed, the Wazir Khan Mosque is a must-see in Pakistan if architecture and design appeal to you.  Since visiting the Great Mosque of Córdoba, Spain in 2003, I’ve been captivated by Islamic art.  My number one travel goal is Iran, in large part due to its immense history.

Besides, I have another anecdote about being thought of as Iranian…

Relics of the Future (Hong Kong, August 2003)

The first time I visited Hong Kong, I was in awe of the countless apartment complexes juxtaposed on the subtropical hills, the myriad roads that could easily double as parts of Manhattan’s Canal Street, and a health form asking me if I had a fever, cough, or other common ailments.

What?!

That’s right, the time was August 2003, when the SARS pandemic was still on every Hong Konger’s mind, even while case numbers were decreasing.

Although SARS did reach Ontario, Canada, it was mostly focused on China – where it originated, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.  However, given that it was much less contagious, all I recall regarding plans to prevent its spread was a temperature check at Hong Kong’s airport, that flimsy health form, and some prescient leaflets at hotels and restaurants dotting the metropolis:

See anything familiar?  What’s it like eating out – if that’s still possible – in your area?

Japanese Sewer Covers: The Trading Card Edition. Yes, Really.

Firstly, Happy 2021 everyone!

I’m kicking the year off with a post dedicated to a country to which I was supposed to have relocated last year.  Might 2021 make good on that?…

Oh, Japan, you weird, endlessly fascinating archipelago.  In one moment, you’re on top of the world, donating memorable antagonists to such movies as Gung Ho, and snapping up coal mines in such regions as Manchuria.  万歳 (ばんざい), banzai!

Next, however, you’re introducing to manic hobbyists sewer cover trading cards.

Manhole Cover/Card in Kodaira, Tokyo, Japan

Wait…WHAT??

In April 2016, the 下水報道プラットホーム, or Sewer PR Platform, decided to capitalize on Japan’s increasingly popular マンホールの蓋/ふた, or manhole cover designs, and introduced the first set of limited edition trading cards.  Although April Fool’s Day is not Japanese holiday – nor is it a holiday in any country, for that matter – the first edition was issued on April 1st.  And collectors are called manholers.

There’s got to be a joke somewhere in there.

Manhole Card Sign at Fukui City Hall

Roughly every quarter since then, a new batch has been introduced, showcasing manhole cover art from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures. To get them, it might be as simple as going to a visitor information center next to a train station, or more awkwardly by paying a visit to a city/town hall or sewage treatment information center.  Whatever it is, the cards are free, and you’re limited to one per visit.  As far as I know, English versions of the cards also exist.

Having first noticed these sewer covers a number of years back, I just wish that these were printed way back then, if for no other reason than to learn the background story to the designs.  The front of a card shows a colorized manhole cover and city coordinates (and some type of manhole card collection legend in the lower right), and the back, a description of the art, as well as when the design was first executed:

Fukui City Manhole Card, Front Side
Fukui City Manhole Card, Reverse Side

After checking the invaluable Sewer PR Platform website, I decided to check out one of these sewer cards with my own eyes, this time in Fukui, the prefectural capital of Fukui…prefecture.

Although it’s best known for dinosaur fossils, according to the above, with Fukui suffering from the calamities of earthquakes and air raids, the city government adopted the 不死鳥 (ふしちょう・fushichou), or phoenix, as its symbol, and as the design on its manhole covers.  Though plenty of other Japanese cities could join them in choosing the phoenix for the same reasons, the backgrounder goes on to note that the phoenix was selected in 1989, to celebrate the centennial of the establishment of Fukui as a city.  Huzzah!


If you’re a Japanophile and keen to learn more about its history and pop culture, you’ll probably want to grab a couple of these manhole cards…or, you could do simply as a secondary source of vending machine income.