The ExPat Returneth

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Yaki Soba: the Ultimate Festival Food to Eat at Home

Yakisoba -- ramen style noodles stir fried with vegetables and meat -- are one of the most common foods found at festivals in Japan. They're also a cheap snack or meal at the food court counters in department stores and supermarkets. It's also easy to make at home, and although the festival/food court variety can be of a dubious nutritional nature, you can make a healthy version as easy or as complicated as fits your cooking style.
Festival cook frying up meat & veggies

There are instant varieties of yakisoba in both dried and frozen/refrigerator sections. The instant yakisoba is your basic cup o' noodle type bought for 99 cents or thereabouts. You can add veggies and meat for a quickie meal that gets the job done, although not well. However, the kind you can find in the freezer section of Asian supermarkets are pretty good and commonly eaten in Japan. Defrost them in the fridge and you have fresh noodles that can be cooked with a little water with a seasoning packet for the sauce. Saute veggies and thin slices of meat and you have another quickie meal that's much better than the instant noodles.
One type of Nama "Fresh" noodle
found in fridge or freezer sections at Asian markets

That's the kind of "kids meal" I make when the girls and I are eating alone. Super quick, easy, and a child (and grownup) pleaser.

Another version is to buy dried noodles or use fresh soba noodles if you can get them. I can even buy dried "chuka soba" noodles at my local Kroger, which is a good and healthier substitute than real ramen noodles. Real ramen noodles are fried before drying (which is why they taste so delicious). In a pinch you could use thin spaghetti.
Dried ramen noodles:
Chuka Soba is not buckwheat "soba" noodles!
Note the yellow/white color
Boil the noodles according to package directions. Chuka soba and ramen will cook fast -- 3 to 5 minutes -- so I cook my veggies and meat while the water is coming to a boil. You have a choice for the sauce -- what makes yakisoba taste like yakisoba -- buy it premixed or make it yourself. The bottled sauce is a great shortcut. You just squirt it on the noodles mixture for a quick cook. It's a specialty item though, so you'd have to look for it in the Japanese sauce section of an Asian supermarket.
A popular brand of Yakisoba sauce.
This bottle is from Japan, hence the Japanse script.
Behind it is an American-version bottle for Okonomiyaki sauce just to give you
an idea of what the American version of would look like.
Yakisoba (cooked noodles) (serves 3-4)
1 T vegetable oil (divided)
1 chuka soba package of noodles
8 oz of thinly sliced meat; traditionally pork or uncured bacon but you can use chicken, shrimp, pork rib, bacon, or sirloin. I've seen recipes that use hamburger although I've never tried it. Seems kind of weird to have crumbled meat, but whatever floats your boat.
About 2 -3 cups of chopped veggies: 1-2 c. sliced cabbage is standard; onion; peppers; carrots; bean sprouts. Scallions, eggplant, zucchini, and mushrooms will work. Any veg that holds up with sautéing and doesn't take too long to cook. You can also add finely chopped garlic, but don't let it scorch.
salt and pepper
4-6 Tbs of yakisoba sauce (to your own taste)

Traditionally it's served with pinkish-red pickled ginger (beni shoga) and ao-nori (powdery dried seaweed) but whatevs.

Homemade Yakisoba sauce:

3 Tb oyster sauce
1 t soy sauce
1 t sugar
1 t sesame oil
fresh pepper

If you're using dried noodles, set the water to boil and just before it boils, heat 1/2 T oil in a large skillet (altho this would be the time to pull out that wok you got in 1989). Stir fry your meat and sprinkle with salt and pepper; remove just before cooked through to prevent overcooking. Add additional 1/2 T oil if needed (depending on your meat). Cook your veggies until al dente or as you like, but don't let them get too soft. Add cabbage last. 

Get your noodles boiling while the veggies are cooking. Drain them and add to the veggies. Add your meat back in. Add the yakisoba sauce by taste. Stir and flip everything around so it's covered in sauce and hot.

You're done. 
Quick and dirty, my favorite kind of recipe.
My child can cook yakisoba!
Send me your favorite Quick & Dirty recipes! I love to try new ones and would love to include yours!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

We Came, We Saw, We Ate: Japan Fest; Festivals to Recapture the Expat Experience

The past weekend was Japan Fest in Atlanta. Atlanta has hosted Japan Fest since 1981 in different forms. Sponsored by the Japan-American Society of Georgia and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce, it's one of the biggest Japanese festivals in the U.S. now, taking over an entire convention center for crowds exceeding 19,000. We've enjoyed Japan Fest for many years, but after returning from living in Japan with our children, we find it an important way for our children to reconnect with the culture that they miss.

Japan Fest Atlanta 2012
With Okinawaan exhibitor
If there are festivals like these in your area, be sure to visit. Like many countries, Japan has diverse cultural aspects that lends to a variety of fans. The festival has something for everyone. It's also a great way to find out what's going on in your area in relation to your host country.
Atlanta Bujinkan Dojo
Yamaha demonstration
Atlanta Bonsai Society
Anime enthusiasts

Booth with traditional festival food
Besides the wide spectrum of Japanese culture -- martial arts, crafts, sake and beer, tea, flower arranging, bonsai, taiko drumming, company demonstrations, anime -- there are food and traditional Japanese festival booths. That's what my family loves. Trying to recreate the festival experiences we miss. The children even want to wear their yukata, summer cotton kimonos that are still commonly worn to festivals in Japan.
Playing yoyo fishing game a common festival game
Yoyo balloons caught

traditional Japanese toys

And the food... We get to sample some of our favorite foods and drinks we miss.

The past two years, the festival has also been a great fund raiser for the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami relief.
From a poster at the festival:
A message from Japan to the US thanking our military
for helping after the earthquake
"You are the best friend ever!"
How about festivals in your area? Are there any you'd recommend? Share the dates and places!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Risk Taking Heroines

I'm still on my blog tour, which means a small hiatus from my ex-pat centered posts. Today's post comes from Sherry Isaac's Wildflowers blog called HAIL THE RISK TAKERS! To read the full post go here.

When I begin playing around with a new story idea, I start with a “what if” scenario, but then immediately begin imagining my heroine. My heroines come from varied backgrounds, look and speak differently, but they all have one thing in common. They are risk takers. In fact, all my favorite heroines in books, movies, and musicals (Yes, musicals!) are risk takers. And I didn’t even realize this until I sat down to write about my favorite heroines. Huh.

But did I hear you say, aren’t all heroines risk takers? And I’d say, no. I don’t count the gals who are thrown into a situation and deal with it the best they can. I’m talking about the girls who take the bull by the horns and play offense.

Now I’m a fan of Jane Austen. She writes a great love story. PERSUASION is probably my favorite. I swoon for Captain Wentworth and I love Anne, but she will never make my heroine list because she’s not a risk taker. Our heart breaks for her because she’s so full of self-sacrifice, but there are times when you want to slap her.

In comparison, Jane of JANE EYRE is a risk taker. She doesn’t have much choice in her early life, but I love how crabby she is about her circumstances as an orphan. She gives her horrible relatives the nineteenth century version of the Forget You. She’s willing to risk her heart with Mr. Rochester, seek the truth about his (Spoiler Alert) crazy wife in the attic, and then dump him for having a crazy wife in the attic. And then return when he’s at his worst (and crazy wife is dead). Risk taker. Love that Jane.

Lucy from the LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE (and other Narnia tales). Does she flinch at the sight of another world through a cupboard? Maybe a little, but not enough to stop her from following and helping the fawn and dragging her siblings back to save Narnia from the evil White Witch. Named my daughter for her.

Honor Harris from THE KING’S GENERAL by Daphne du Maurier. She’s a foolish risk taker as a teen lover to Richard Grenville. She stands up to his nasty sister Gartred, walks for miles in the middle of the night to tell him she’s supposed to marry someone else, and has no problem making out with him after getting sick from roasted swan at a party. That takes guts. And then turns Richard down when she becomes crippled. She’s so prideful. Later, she’s willing to face down soldiers (to the detriment of her relatives) to hide Richard’s son and Richard. And in the end, she’s willing to risk a broken heart. Honor makes Scarlet look weak. She can’t walk but she can kick some English Civil War butt.

Moving forward in publishing time, my next risk taker is Claire Randall from OUTLANDER by Diana Gabaldon. Did I hear you sigh without even mentioning the name Jamie Fraser or the word kilt? From her background as a nurse in the war, to keeping her head after falling through the “way back machine” stones, to acting on her instincts in marrying and saving Jamie, and her pig-headed moves to try to get back home, Claire Randall makes one risky move after another. Again and again and again in each subsequent novel, too.

Best risk taker heroine in a musical? Annie from ANNIE GET YOUR GUN? Maria from WEST SIDE STORY? How about Anna from THE KING AND I? Think of the historical implications of a nineteenth century widow taking her son to live in Siam (Thailand) and stubbornly facing off with the king on issues related to personal freedom, female liberation, and slavery? He’s a king! Dang that girl has guts. Plus she can sing and dance.

You can see why my heroine, Cherry Tucker from PORTRAIT OF A DEAD GUY, had to be a risk taker. She doesn’t always make the best decisions. She can be headstrong, opinionated, and mouthy. She has issues with falling for beautiful men. But she’s willing to put herself on the line to seek justice. And a good plate of hot wings.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Rocking Your "Otherness": The Creative Benefits From Living Abroad

Today we have Sabrina Gail visiting the ExPat Returneth. Sabrina is a writer and fellow traveler. Her novella, FIRES OF JUSTICE, debuts on October 17.

Fall semester junior year I woke up one day to discover my crew had all applied to be somewhere else for Spring semester and my ex-boyfriend lived on my ceiling. Scrambling to cope, I found myself in Vienna, Austria learning German, living with the Countess and having my otherness blast off my skin like neon in the darkness. Growing up, feeling different was something I worked hard to avoid—unsuccessfully I might add. My goal had always been to fit in, conform, be like the "in-crowd" and maybe I'd be okay, I'd belong.

Living abroad changed all that for me. My experience in Austria got me addicted to the otherness rush for a while. As soon as I got home, I turned around and got myself to Italy and then later the UK where I lived—by definition and by choice—as not one of the crowd.  I was a visitor, a tourist, someone from a different place and people found me interesting BECAUSE I was other. 

Abroad, knowing I was an outsider allowed me to distance myself psychologically and emotionally from slurs and snark and snide comments that would have had me running for cover in the States. In the UK, when that seriously hunky dude I met at a party looked down his nose at me proclaiming loudly "I don't like Americans," it was way too easy to snark back "All 250 million of us?"  Having someone dislike me for something as stupid as an accent or a birthplace drove awareness through my gut that really, that's what most people's nasty, judgmental opinions are—unfounded and uninformed. Balance that with the cockney woman at the Fish and Chips shop at the end of my block who waxed poetic one day on how much she liked my accent. My brilliant but glib response--"Huh?" 

Her answer had my jaw slapping against my chest. "Because when I speak, everyone makes assumptions about me from my accent,"—UK has an alarming number of accents, all with their own stereotypes—“when you do, we don't have a clue so we have to get to know you."  Doesn’t that just explain it all?

The accent—my freedom—her cage. When I came home, did I find myself reinserted in the cage? Perhaps at first, which explains my eagerness to go back abroad. Over that time, I got used to, and then learned to take pride in, my otherness, in the things that make me, well, me.  

I came home humbler, more creative from having some of my limits ripped apart having to look at things from multiple angles and a lot less judgmental.  What is true in one country about how the world works is not so in the other. Common sense isn’t when you cross the border. 

It made a better person and a better writer. Not stuck in one set of rules of the world works, makes it easier to build new world increases the compassion needed to write and love flawed characters and being open to all possible story lines. Characters often lead a writer in new and surprising places.

So with a warm pint of beer in one hand and a gelato in the other, I salute otherness, the part of me that flourished abroad.

Sabrina Garie is on a journey to create the most kick-ass heroine romance fiction has ever known and the hero who can take her. My debut novella Fires of Justice launches on October 17 from A believer that big, audacious goals spice up life, she relies on coffee, red wine and laughter to make those goals (and her characters) come alive. When not at the computer, she wrangles vegetables and extra helpings of homework into her fashion-loving progeny, kowtows to a fat cat and reads, a lot. Since it is more fun to travel in packs, come along for the ride. Catch the train at