Tuesday, December 24, 2013

christmas and kurisumasu

As we prepare for our third Christmas in Japan, we are remembering traditions that we grew up with and reflecting on some of the Japanese holiday customs as well. Doing this, I realized that I've never written a blog about how the Japanese celebrate this traditionally-western holiday! So here are some of the similarities and differences between Christmas in America and クリスマス in Japan.

The first thing we tell our American friends about Christmas in Japan is the KFC phenomenon. Years ago, KFC launched a campaign to sell fried chicken for Christmas dinner. Not only did this take off as a popular annual delight, but most of the Japanese we have become friends with believe that this is an American tradition. They were heartbroken to find that most Americans do not, in fact, get KFC for Christmas dinner. Starting in November throughout Japan, you can find Colonel Sanders decked out in Santa attire, and the lines for Christmas chicken can be hours long.

Colonel Santa draws customers into KFC for Christmas

One similarity between Christmas in America and in Japan is the music. American holiday music can be found in shopping malls starting in November. In most areas of Japan, there are city-wide speaker systems to alert the public in case of earthquakes, fires, and other emergencies. During the Christmas season, our town uses the speaker systems in the city center area to play holiday music in the evenings. There is nothing more beautiful than taking a stroll through downtown in the snow, looking at the lights and listening to Bing Crosby croon a classic Christmas tune.

On that note, Christmas decorations are also popular here in Japan. You won't find many houses decked out with lights or inflatable snowmen, but the town centers and shopping malls often have Christmas trees and lights all over. Our town center usually has a large Christmas display with a huge tree and beautiful lights. Bigger cities have Illuminations, entire streets covered with lights and music.

Ben at American Park at Christmas in Misawa

Musashino Illuminations in Tokyo

Roppongi Illuminations in Tokyo

Shinjuku Illuminations in Tokyo

Christmas Eve is the perfect evening to view a city or town's Illuminations or town center festivities. Christmas Eve is a time for families and couples. In fact, Christmas Eve is the real holiday in Japan - Christmas Day is usually spent at work just like a normal day. There is no mention of a manger or Jesus or church visiting. There are no cookies left out, visits from Santa, or presents to open. On Christmas Eve, though, you'll see couples (often hand-in-hand - it's one of the few times in Japan you will actually see some PDA. Usually it's kind of frowned upon...) and families spending time together and enjoying the lights, music, and companionship.

Couple holding hands at Shinjuku Illuminations in Tokyo

For a country that really doesn't celebrate Christmas, you can easily find Christmas decorations, lights, and Christmas themed food and drink just about anywhere. Bakeries will often have Santa or Christmas-themed pastries, which are always adorable!

The Japanese don't typically exchange gifts for Christmas, but often give gifts and letters/cards for the New Year. Gift exchanging is not done frequently in Japan, so when it is done, it's not something to be taken lightly. Where in America, we wrap gifts in a decorative paper bag or paper wrapping that is later discarded, gift wrapping in Japan is typically just as important as the gift itself. Often, gifts are wrapped furoshiki style, which is a large decorative piece of cloth. Wrapping a gift in Japan is like tying a scarf - everyone has their own personal and artistic way of doing it. The cloth can be used again for many different things.

Various gifts wrapped with summery furoshiki

All in all, we love being able to share our Christmas traditions with our Japanese friends and to learn how they like to celebrate as well. It's one of the many wonderful things about being able to travel and live in another country!

We want to wish all of you a Merry Christmas (or Merii Kurisumasu) and a happy new year!

Friday, September 20, 2013

pumpkin spice and everything nice: an ice cream recipe

It's almost my favorite time of year: autumn!

The recent typhoons have brought cooler weather and our thoughts are on what comes next: leaves falling, sweater weather, and pumpkin spice everything!

I've been experimenting with ice cream flavors and decided to try out a pumpkin spice. It's like autumn in a bowl!


-1 can full fat coconut milk (I prefer Native Forest - it makes the creamiest ice cream out of all the kinds I've tried.)

-2 T. raw cacao powder

-1/4 cup agave nectar, coconut nectar, 100% maple syrup, or even pure honey (I only use 1 tablespoon, but I don't like my ice cream very sweet)

-2 T. pumpkin spice blend**

Whisk until blended and then pour into an ice cream maker. **If you don't have one you can put in the freezer for six hours, stirring every hour.**

If you are looking for some crunch, I sometimes add a few Enjoy Life crunchy cookies after pouring the mix into the ice cream maker. Crumble 'em up and toss 'em on in!

**Pumpkin Spice: I make my pumpkin spice blend in bulk but you can put less of each in the batch if you don't use it often:

-1/3 cup ground cinnamon

-1 tablespoon ground nutmeg

-1 tablespoon ground ginger

-1-1/2 teaspoons ground cloves

-1-1/2 teaspoons ground allspice

Thursday, July 11, 2013

folsom fare: a gluten free guide to eating in folsom (part 1)

We made it back to Reno late, and got up early the next morning to head to Folsom. By this point, I had my cooking gear packed in a way that we could easily take it with us. When we moved from Folsom a few years ago, they had just begun construction on the Whole Foods, so I knew that I'd have some options even if I couldn't find any safe restaurants.

One place I was really looking forward to going was Cooper's Coffee House. This had once been an It's a Grind franchise, but the owners wanted to branch out and offer more alternative options, so they left the franchise and reopened as Cooper's. I have been following them on facebook since we left Folsom, and had seen posts on gluten free options and dairy-free alternatives. I hadn't had coffee since coming back to the states, and was excited to finally be able to do so!

Stacy was the one who helped us when we came in, and walked us through some of the pre-packaged gluten free pastries. She wasn't sure about the coffee but was extremely helpful in letting me see the ingredients and allowing me to check company websites to see if the brands were gluten free/corn free. They were, and she made sure to sanitize all the equipment before making my drink. I got an iced vanilla latte with coconut milk and it was spectacular! The pastry was dry and crumbly, so I didn't order any more of those. We went a few more times while in Folsom and had great experiences with the coffee every time.

For lunch that same day, we went to BJ's. I was excited to learn a few months ago that BJ's had a gluten free pizza made from rice flour that would be safe for me. When I checked with our server, she had the manager come out and let me know exactly what ingredients were in what I had ordered. I really felt like they cared about my well-being and we felt confident in our choice to eat there! Ben and I shared a thin crust pizza and I got a house-brewed root beer to go with it. Everything was delicious!

**Edit as of 7.11.14: BJ's brewed root  beer is no longer free of corn syrup, which is really too bad, as it's delicious. They do, however, have Crispin apple cider on tap - this is a delicious cider and is gluten/corn free.**

One of the things we were excited to do in Folsom was to shop. They have great outlets and a beautiful new outdoor mall area. Being fourth of July weekend, it was 104 degrees and after a few hours of shopping, we were craving something cold. I went into the Pinkberry, not expecting to be able to actually get any frozen yogurt. The woman behind the counter answered all of my questions, though, and it turns out she has gluten intolerance and has family members who are celiacs. She told me what she usually gets and I took her suggestions, getting a mango fro-yo with fresh fruit toppings. Delish!

Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon!

oregonian options: a gluten free guide to traveling and eating in oregon

It's easier to find gluten free options in a large city, but what about when you're on the go, road tripping? We had some hits and misses while traveling.

After Portland, we headed to the beach. We found a restaurant in Tillamook (Pacific Restaurant) via the Find Me Gluten Free app, and decided to try it out. Typically, I call a restaurant ahead of time to confirm they have gluten free options, ask about possible corn free options, and to ask what precautions they take to keep cross contamination to a minimum. In this case, though, we didn't have signal and were not able to call ahead.

The restaurant was easy to find, and when we walked in, I asked all of my questions to the busboy. He was not positive of the answers and went to ask the chefs (always a good sign in my book - asking the chef means they are taking me seriously). He came back a few minutes later and said that there were some options that would be safe for me, so we got a table and a menu.

Our server, on the other hand, did not take the same care and consideration. She tried to convince me that the fish and chips were gluten free since they were rice flour, and then argued with me when I mentioned that cooking them in the same oil vat as regular food means there will be cross contamination. She acted as if I were the highest maintenance person in the world when I asked her to check and see if their salad dressing contained any corn syrup, and if it had not been for the busboy who already had answered my original questions, I would have gotten up and left right then.

Luckily they had a few things that were truly gluten/corn free. I ordered clams in a cream sauce with a small side salad. While these were not nearly as filling as a regular meal would have been, I was grateful to be able to eat anything there without getting sick. The clams and sauce were delicious, but the salad was sparse and the dressing (small containers with olive oil and vinegar) left much to be desired. If you are visiting Tillamook and are eating at Pacific Restaurant, I recommend speaking to a chef personally to make sure the food you are ordering is truly gluten free and is not cooked in the same oil or on the same pan as gluten containing food.

During our stay at the beach, I only ate the food I had brought with me, purchased at the Whole Foods in Portland and the Fred Meyer in Tillamook. Traveling back to Reno, though, we had to stop a few times along the way. Before we left, I researched restaurants within a hundred miles of where we had planned to stop for lunch. After talking on the phone with all three, Thai Bistro in Medford seemed like the best bet. The woman on the phone said they handled people with food allergies all the time and it wouldn't be a problem to make my food gluten free.

We arrived and were at the halfway point between Portland and Reno. We were glad to have a place to stop for a while, and walking inside, it smelled delicious! I went through my spiel with the server, and as nice as she was, she (like the server at Pacific Restaurant) just didn't seem to understand the effect of cross contamination. After stressing that my food had to be prepared on clean surfaces and with sanitized utensils, she asked me if I wanted to get a side salad from the salad bar. I explained that I could not eat from the salad bar because other people may have touched the tongs to their food and contaminated them, and she looked at me like I was crazy.

Honestly, this should set off warning bells in my head, but I had had such good luck so far that I figured it was just me being paranoid.

The food was delicious and well-priced. I got pad thai and chicken satay. It hit me the next day, though, and I was sorry that I hadn't listened to my gut and opted out of eating. There was definitely not gluten IN my meal, because the effects would have been much worse, but there was cross contamination that was bad enough to cause a panic attack, migraine, nausea, and a plethora of other symptoms.

If you are only gluten sensitive, I highly recommend Thai Bistro because of the price and great tasting food, but if you are anywhere near as sensitive as I am to cross contamination, I'd steer clear!

portland provender: a gluten free guide to eating in portland

prov-en-der: food. I didn't realize I had some great alliteration going in the Seattle Snacking series, so I decided to try and keep it up throughout our summer travels. I even learned a new word!

Traveling as a celiac can have its ups and downs. Ups include getting to try so many new and unique gluten free options, but downs include having to do massive amounts of research before finding places to safely eat.

Just as we were getting comfortable in Seattle, we headed down to Portland and began the search all over again. Since Ben's sister lives in Newberg (a smalllll town) there weren't too many options nearby, but Portland and the surrounding areas had a lot to offer!

The first provender establishment we tried was Tula. I had done some research and found some entirely gluten free restaurants, and this was one of the only ones that had several corn free options. 

We immediately fell in love with this inviting little bakery! The staff was friendly, the atmosphere was bright and cheerful, and the food was labeled. ALL OF IT. Every single item had a great little sticker on the display, letting customers know which possible allergens might be in it. I didn't even have to ask about corn products, because the stickers were already there!

Everything on the menu looked fabulous. I had been craving a panini since landing in Seattle, and this one was worth the wait. We got a cinnamon chocolita bar to split after our lunch. Everyone, including my non-gf family members, were impressed by the food and prices at Tula!

One of my goals while in Portland was to visit Crave Bakeshop. I had heard so many great things from friends and bloggers, and I knew I couldn't leave Portland without stopping there! The next day, we drove from Newberg to Oswego to find the little bake shop. While pricier than some of the other places we have visited, our stop was well worth it!

Kyra and her staff were amazingly helpful! Not only did they help me to pick out some goodies without corn, but also pointed us in the direction of an awesome restaurant for lunch! We got some cupcakes for the family and some amazing hamburger buns for sandwiches for the beach trip.

Armed with the information from Crave, we headed toward Portland to find Jade Bistro. Were we in for a treat! I wasn't sure at first, because the gluten free items weren't listed anywhere that we could see. The cashier gave us a menu, though, and walked us through how to find gf items and all the precautions the staff go through to ensure there is no cross contamination. We felt secure knowing we would be taken care of, but then came the hard part: choosing what to eat among the huge variety of delicious looking entrees and appetizers!

Eventually, we settled on a few different items. We got the sesame balls, spring rolls, and fresh salad rolls to share. Ben got a beautiful artisan (non-gf) sandwich and I got the garlic lemongrass chicken. What came out was a TON of food, and we were happy to take it home for leftover meals later on!

Overall, our time in Portland was fabulous. We had a great time exploring, spending time with family, and trying out some of the amazing gf cuisine! If you're ever in the Portland area, I highly recommend all three of these establishments!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

seattle snacking: a gluten free guide to eating in seattle! (part 2)

Because we are just visiting Seattle, I don't have access to all my gluten free kitchen items. While we have picked up a few basics to have with us on vacation, eating out is just something we can't avoid. I realized a few days into our trip, though, that this didn't have to be a stressful thing to deal with! With some research, planning, and iPhone apps like Find Me Gluten Free, we have found several safe restaurants, bakeries, and snack shops around the Seattle area!

To see the first set of Seattle restaurant reviews, check out the first Seattle Snacking blog entry!

Our week in Seattle has been extremely packed, with airport trips, college reunion, engagement parties, and catching up with people. We've got several friends here, all of them having different tastes in food (and some with allergies and preferences of their own). Friday's challenge was to find a restaurant that catered to Celiacs as well as vegetarians/vegans. A friend of ours suggested a restaurant called Plum Bistro, a completely organic and vegetarian restaurant with some gluten free options. They also had a few corn free options as well, so we didn't have to modify any of the menu items to find something safe for me to eat. Our party included a few vegetarians, several avid meat eaters, and of course, one Celiac. Plum had several options to satisfy all of us, though I did have to walk through the entire menu with the server to find something that was truly gluten free. Some of the options had no gluten ingredients but were cooked alongside other items that weren't necessarily safe. They were incredibly knowledgeable, though, and helpful in letting me know what would be safe for me as opposed to someone who might just be avoiding gluten for other reasons.

I finally settled on the tempeh vermouth, which was absolutely fabulous! The vermouth added a smooth taste to the tempeh, and the olive oil base and kalamata olives paired nicely with the pan-seared mashed potatoes and brocolli. Even the water tasted good, served in canning jars with cucumber and lemon.

Everyone else seemed pleased with their choices as well, and though the food was a bit pricey, it was well worth the visit! I highly recommend this restaurant, especially if you have friends who are vegetarian or vegan.

Saturday was a foodie feast! I spent the day with Victoria, who lives in the U District. Though she doesn't have any food allergies or vegan preferences, she does try to eat whole foods without all the chemicals when she can. She pointed out that a vacation is all about visiting and eating together, and she was adamant that she was going to give me that experience despite my limitations.

We went to lunch at a restaurant called Thrive, which was one of the first completely gluten free and vegan restaurants in the country. They are also 95% organic, 95% raw, and 100% delicious.

As we walked in, all I could think about was the smell of cilantro wafting through the door, as I wondered if I could find something on the menu that might blend that cilantro with cucumber. We walked in, and the kitchen manager (Jorge) pointed at each of us in turn and predicted our orders. We kind of smiled at him and then looked at his suggestions. Mine, the Buddha Bowl, had...you guessed it...cilantro sauce and cucumbers in addition to toasty kale chips, bella burger crumbles, quinoa, and cashew onion sauce. Knowing I had the choice of anything on the menu (ALL gluten free AND corn free!!) was such a liberating feeling, so I looked through the menu before settling on his first suggestion.

I wasn't sorry - it was a fresh blend of warm and cold deliciousness and we both felt that "just-enough-food" fullness when we finished our half bowls. We also had smoothies, of course. I had the Sweet Tart, which was a perfect blend of strawberry and lime juice, while Victoria got a mint+chocolaty paradise called the Oh My Wonka. We were also given complimentary shots of the Nourish (a green smoothie consisting of kale, banana, almond milk, dates, and celery) to finish up the meal.

What a wonderful experience! I am hoping to visit Thrive again before we leave Seattle!

After we left Thrive, we headed toward a bakery Victoria was positively adamant about visiting. Jodee's Desserts, like Thrive, is vegan, organic, and gluten free. We had a great time talking with Jodee and learning her story. She had relatives with food allergies and medical problems. She knew that food additives, overuse of refined sugar, and unhealthy eating had a huge effect on overall health, so she sought to create food that tasted great and was made of healthy ingredients. She attended Living Light Culinary School in Fort Bragg, California, where she learned to create raw, vegan foods and desserts. Eventually she moved back to Seattle (where she originally worked at Thrive!) and then opened up her own bakery.

She had several questions about our time in Japan and we had a great time chatting and talking about personal experiences. What a great company and a great lady! I had a slice of the chocolate peppermint pie, which was light and airy, with a delightful coconutty crust.

We noticed Jodee had bread displayed, and she mentioned that it's made by a local pizzeria. I've been trying to find a gluten free bread that consistently tastes good and can be shipped to us in Japan, and she said she'd look into it, so I'm excited about that possible prospect! Jodee also suggested we stop by the pizzeria to try the bread before spending the money to ship it all the way to us.

Later that afternoon, we visited Razzi's Pizzeria to inquire about the bread. What we got was a meal and a story. Amir Razzaghi was the franchise owner of Romio's Pizza on Greenwood in Seattle. A few years ago, the Romio's chain did a gluten free promotion. The response at the Greenwood location was unprecedented, with a large number of new customers consistently eating at the restaurant. Romio's eventually ended the promotion, much to the chagrin of many of their customers. Amir was unyielding in his desire to continue offering gluten free options, and eventually left the franchise and reopened the restaurant with the name Razzi's Pizzeria. Since then he has continued to expand and perfect his gluten free menu. He offers four different menus, including gluten free and vegan options.

I explained to him that we had talked to Jodee about the bread, and he told us to go sit down and he'd bring some out. Little did we know he had made us fresh breadsticks and pita bread, complete with dipping sauces! All of his gluten free breads are made from organic sorghum, and they are delicious! In fact, it was so delicious that I took Ben back there for a late dinner after our friend's engagement party.

We decided to each get a small pizza so we'd have leftovers for the next day. I got a vegan/gluten free pizza with Italian sorta-sausage and Daiya cheese - it was spectacular and it was nice knowing I could get a pizza that was not only gluten free, but lactose free as well. Ben got a gluten free pizza with Gorgonzola and we split some vegan mozzarella sticks. We were both happy with our choices! When our server asked if we wanted dessert, I remembered Jodee saying that Razzi's used her pies on their dessert menu so I made Ben get a piece so he could taste what I had been talking about all day! His consensus matched mine and it was the first time we felt a little sad that we didn't live in the states.

Overall, we miss Japan immensely already and are excited that we get to visit the states but return to Japan in August. Knowing that we can find restaurants that are healthy and won't make me sick, plus taste great with a nice variety, has already made our summer trip an amazing one!

Friday, June 21, 2013

seattle snacking: a gluten free guide to eating in seattle! (part 1)

Okay, let me just tell you now that this is in no way a complete guide. It's merely a review of some of the restaurants we had the pleasure of visiting while in Seattle.

This is the first time I've been in the states since my Celiac diagnosis and I was very nervous to leave the safe confines of my gluten free kitchen. I did a lot of research prior to our trip and was pleased to see that the Seattle area has a huge variety of gluten free options. Of course, I knew I'd have the added difficulty of finding places that also have corn free items!

Our first stop after leaving SeaTac was Haley's Corner Bakery in Kent. I had emailed Janet, one of the owners, about the possibility of corn free products and she said there were several menu items that would be safe for me to consume. When we went to the store, they had a handy allergen menu. It listed every item on the menu and possible allergens that each item might contain. It was so easy to figure out what I could and couldn't have, and it was a breath of fresh air to know I didn't have to worry about cross contamination since it was a 100% gluten free bakery.

We each had a slice of the deep dish pizza, which was fabulous, and I took home a few burger buns. I later used these to make some delicious sandwiches with other ingredients from Whole Foods! I recommend that if you get the buns, you use them within 24 hours of your purchase. The first one tasted great, but the second one was more dry and crumbly.

Our second restaurant experience was an Asian restaurant in downtown Seattle: Wild Ginger. I had read a few reviews on this restaurant and had heard they had a great selection of gluten free options. I didn't call ahead, figuring that an Asian restaurant probably wouldn't use corn in every dish. That's what I get for assuming, I guess...

Apparently all of their gluten free dishes are made with corn oil, which is used to velvet the chicken. Our server was extremely knowledgeable and accommodating, though, and she checked with the chef to see if something could be worked out. We had been prepared to find another restaurant, but they worked to modify the item I wanted so it was safe to eat. I ordered the pad thai - they used a different oil and left the chicken "nude" (in her words). She had warned it might not taste as flavorful, but said they would do everything possible to make it a safe meal.

She brought it out and it smelled divine. It tasted even better - I was expecting a meal that wasn't up to par compared to what my non-gluten free companions had ordered, but it was spectacular! My modified gluten free/corn free pad thai was the essence of perfection and we could not have been happier with our experience at Wild Ginger!

Our third restaurant (keep in mind that most of these were not in the same day!!) was the Old Spaghetti Factory. Anyone who has known me for almost any duration of time knows that this is one of my absolute favorite restaurants ever. When I found out several months ago that they had gluten free items, I was so excited! Then, came the corn allergy. Their gluten free noodles are, of course, made of corn. I went to the location in Lynnwood, because that specific restaurant had the best reviews concerning accommodations and cross contamination. Figuring the answer would be a resounding "no," but knowing it wouldn't hurt to ask, I spoke to a manager and let him know my situation. I had found some gluten free/corn free noodles at Whole Foods and asked if it were possible to have the chefs cook those noodles with their sauce so I could eat there. The manager I spoke with made it sound like it was impossible and he couldn't believe I was even asking. After checking with the general manager, he begrudgingly said that the general manager had said it'd be no problem, but said that our wait time would be longer so I'd have to come in during a time that wasn't busy. I was ecstatic that the general manager had said we could do it, and was perfectly fine going in at a time they weren't typically busy!

We called ahead to let them know when we'd be coming in, and planned our dinner for 8:00 on Thursday. The last thing I wanted to do was stress out the cooks, so we planned a time that we figured the restaurant would be at its slowest. Our server was awesome and made sure to wash her hands before touching my plate (and to-go-box). The food was delicious as always, and it was such a relief to know that I could eat at my favorite restaurant without getting sick. For those who are gluten free, there are a few salad dressings, menu options, and desserts to choose from. For those who also have corn allergies, you can safely order the balsamic vinegarette dressing (with no croutons, obviously), but no spumoni. May was happy to claim mine, though, and we had a wonderful time!

Click here for Part Two of the Seattle Snacking series!