I’m stalling on this post, about our trip to Japan, or more accurately, Osaka, Kyoto and Kurokawa. This happens sometimes, either when the trip itself was too brief, or in this case, even with a sufficient duration to ponder, I find the place… difficult to compute. Truth is, I’ve always had mixed feelings about Japan. Mixed, but not foreign. After all, I’m from Taiwan, hardly a stranger. Since awareness I guess, Japan has been a place with unescapable elements everywhere deep inside its social fabrics that, to me, are both deeply seductive and also repulsive. It’s a festival of confusions, to say the least, the reason why Lost in Translation was transcribed here, and perhaps the reason why I hesitated to come for years. I didn’t know if I was more afraid to love it, or hate it, and either way, why did that matter? I wasn’t sure of the answer either. It’s a country where people pay for their dinner through vending machines, but spend hours drinking a cup of tea. The country runs on the most highly efficient and developed system of high-speed rail that few others can compete, but the information kiosk of which, in the Osaka station, is still being organized in old-school filers. It’s a country that is famed for its obsession in cleanliness and manners, but one of the few still left in the developed world where I have to endure second-hand smokes in restaurants. A culture that is widely associated with its quiet, distilled form of beauty, that wabi-sabi life, and yet, the major cities within which are wild labyrinths of neon lights and carnivals of giant moving octopuses.
Slow, fast. Quiet, loud. Polite, yet perversive. Allures, and frustrations. Which one is true? Or perhaps all is.
A country that thrives in contradictions.
I didn’t know what to make of it. I still don’t.
I wanted to, like everyone else, just focus on its beauties, which are nothing but pure pleasures. The yakitori (skewered/grilled chicken) in Wabiya Korekido in Kyoto comes close to an art form. The beef heart sashimi from Maru in Osaka could not have been the revelation that it is anywhere else. The amount of philosophy that goes into making a bowl of ramen cries for admiration. A dip into the tinglingly warm hot spring, the liquid silk that percolates from deep within earth in the stillness that is Kurokawa, it is hard, real hard, not to fall for it all.
But with every enjoyments, comes with a blinding contradiction that seemed to overturn the previous experience. Was my experience authentic rituals, or rehearsed theatrics. Was this a sanctuary, or a theme park? What the world is infatuated about Japanese’s deeply philosophical way of life, was that even a real part of their lives, or just advertisements? Or maybe they are two of the same thing, a double-sided mirror.
I’m sure most of you don’t know what I’m talking about, a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. I have failed to explain it, and for that I’m going to stop.
Maybe Japan was never something to be understood, but to be pondered upon. Was never a maze, but growth-rings on a black pine trunk.
To get it, I gotta eat more ramen.
SRIRACHA SENBEI/JAPANESE GLUTEN-FREE RICE CRACKER:
Senbei is a very traditional, very common snacks in Japan that comes in many different flavours and shapes. They are essentially rice crackers that are toasted and puffed over grills or inside the oven. Being made completely with rice, it is conveniently gluten-free and vegan-friendly, with a great sturdy crunch and porous interiors. I made a little twist here, seasoning them with sriracha and sugar crystals for that perfect balance of spiciness, saltiness and sweetness.
- 1/2 cup (100 grams) cooked, room-temperature rice (see note)
- 1 1/2 cup (240 grams) sticky rice flour / mochiko
- 2 1/4 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 1/2 cup + 2 tbsp (150 grams) water
- 1/4 cup (52 grams) vegetable oil
- 1/4 cup (102 grams) sriracha sauce
- 2 tbsp (37 grams) dark soy sauce
- Enough raw sugar crystals for sprinkling
- MAKE SENBEI DOUGH: Preheat the oven on 400 F/ 200 C (would be best to turn on the oven fan if available). In a food-processor, add the cooked/room-temperature rice and pulse until it's blended into a sticky blob. Add the sticky rice flour, baking powder, sea salt, water and vegetable oil, then pulse/run the processor until the mixture comes into a stiff but pliable dough. The mixture will look more crumbly in the beginning, and you may have to scrape the bowl a couple times, but it should eventually come together. If the dough has difficulty coming together after 2 min, then add JUST 1/2 TSP MORE WATER to adjust.
- Divide the dough into 10~12 equal sized balls. Place the ball on a parchment paper and press it down to make a small disk. Fold the parchment over to cover the disk, then roll it out into 3/8" (4 mm) thick disk. Place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet with 1" (2.5 cm) space in between. Bake ONE SHEET at a time at 400 F/ 200 C for 30 min, then lower the heat down to 300 F/ 150 C for another 10 min until the crackers are faintly colored. You can finish making the rest of the dough on a separate baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap until needed.
- TO GLAZE: Meanwhile, evenly mix sriracha sauce and dark soy sauce together. Once the crackers are baked, brush a thin layer of the sriracha mixture on the entire surface of the cracker, then sprinkle raw sugar crystals all over until evenly scattered. Place the glazed crackers on a baking rack over the baking sheet, then return into the oven for another 8 min, then turn them over and bake for another 4 min until the glaze has dried. Transfer to a cooling rack and repeat with the second batch. LET COOL COMPLETELY before serving.
I've tried this recipe with both cooked Thai jasmine rice, and Japanese short-grain rice. Both works fine, but I quite like the faint fragrance jasmine rice brings to the party. It's important to use ROOM-TEMPERATURE rice so that it doesn't prematurely activate the baking powder, but I wouldn't use refrigerated cooked rice that has lost its moisture.