The Chai Shop

Hidden away in the basement of an apartment complex in the middle of a quiet neighborhood near Umeda sits a tea and coffee shop called Cante Grande. IMG_8940

It’s exterior resembles the front of a private residence, rather than a cafe, so it’s easy to pass it by if you aren’t looking. True to its slogan, “if you want to relax, this is the only tea shop around here.”

The shop offers authentic Indian cuisine, freshly brewed coffee, and a wide assortment of herbal tea – specifically chai. A few of their Indian-inspired original chai spice blends include mint, cardamom, ginger, and anise. Bags of their loose tea leaves are also available for purchase, so you can sample a blend and brew it at home.

Though Cante Grande prides itself on its assortment of specialty chai’s, hence the “chai shop,” my favorite thing about the place wasn’t the tea at all, but the extensive collection of imported Indian and Hindu-inspired items – from incense sticks scented almond, grass, musk, and even cannabis, to animal statuettes and figurines, to patterned fabrics, to bowls of individually handcrafted beads. It’s a peculiar, haphazard assortment, but it’s a display worth seeing. I’d recommend the shop to anyone just for the display – and for the perfectly-steeped chai tea beverages too, I suppose.

 

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Here are the directions.

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Ume

In Japanese, 梅:うめ or ume, meaning plum. It’s actually an apricot, but always referred to as a plum. They’re light green when unripe and redden as they ripen. They’re inedible, ripe or unripe. Apparently they’re sour and bitter and a little poisonous. 

Ume are in season right now. They’ll be in season until mid-July. The grocery stores are stocked with bags and bags of these little plums. And stores are also well-stocked with bags of special rock sugar and cartons of white liquor, which you need to make your own umeshu, or plum wine.

Today I watched an old woman fill her cart with lots of liquor and sugar and plums and I imagined her making plum wine. She’s been making her own plum wine for years and years. She probably learned from her mother. When she was younger I bet she thought the preparation process was tedious. But now she finds it soothing: she likes removing all the stem ends from the plums with a bamboo skewer, finds satisfaction in discarding the plums with any brown or blemished spots, enjoys layering the glass jars with plums, rock sugar, plums, rock sugar, liquor. She probably stores these two jars in a compartment under the floorboards, where she keeps all of her other jars of umeshu. Maybe some jars are 3 or 4 years old now, maybe as old as 10. When she opens the compartment to place the fresh jars inside, she takes out one of the older jars, removes the cap, ladles the alcohol into a glass, takes a sip. She calls her husband, who’s out in the garden. He comes in and take a sip from the glass and utters a grunt of approval. She smiles, then screws the cap back on and places the jar back in the compartment, where it’ll continue to wait patiently for a little while longer. 

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Here’s an article about how to make your own umeshu for anyone who’s curious.

While in Okinawa: coffee on Zamami

Across from Zamami Island’s main port, there’s a neighborhood made up of several apartment complexes, a few guesthouses for tourists, and scattered homes with tiny backyards. Hidden within this tiny neighborhood are a handful of family-owned cafe/restaurants that I wouldn’t have known existed if I wasn’t looking.

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The first cafe my friend and I found was called Cafe Amulet. It had a sign outside that said it sold pasta and ice cream. We stepped inside. A bell rang as the door closed. A young couple standing behind the bar, who I assumed were the owners, greeted me welcome and motioned for us to sit where we wanted. I chose a table next to the shelves, which were stocked with plenty of books about travel, culture, and of course, coffee.

IMG_8748The young man brought us a cup of water and took our order. I couldn’t decide on a tea, so he offered me wine, even though it was 1pm. I opted for iced coffee.

IMG_8747For a while, my friend and I were the only people in the cafe besides the couple, and their little girl – who wandered around the cafe and took books from the shelf and read them at the bar while swaying back and forth in the swivel chair.

It was nice there, cozy and comfortable. We lingered after finishing our drinks and didn’t feel rushed to leave.

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A few people eventually came and went, all of whom – to my surprise – the owners knew by name. One person even brought the couple a gift (a bag of salt from the main island I think, from what I could hear), which the wife sounded pretty excited about. The way the couple interacted with the guests who stopped by made me want to stay in Zamami and become a local too, just to visit Cafe Amulet and hang out with the family and bring them salt. (And to drink wine at 1pm.)

In the end I decided against that, but here’s the address if you ever take a trip to Zamami Village and want to bring the family salt for me.

 

While in Okinawa: “smallest coffee shop in town”

The cafe was small – really small. True to its name, I suppose. I’d never been to a cafe the size of a walk-in closet before. I wondered about what kind of people frequent the “Smallest Coffee Shop in Town.” Locals, I’m sure… Maybe the owner’s close friends, friends of friends, wanderers stopping by to rest for a bit and share about how their weekends went.

There was no one there when I entered – I had to knock on the wall a few times, and then call out excuse me when, still, no one returned. I could hear jazz playing softly from a speaker somewhere near the back.

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A few chairs were lined up at the counter. I sat down at the one nearest me and waited. Kettles and coffee pots, stained and worn from use, sat on a gas stove against the wall.

It was a small space, but there was more than enough to look at; there were Okinawan hairbands for sale on a shelf beside me, jars of brown sugar crystals on the counter, stuffed rabbits sitting on the windowsill. I felt a little odd, sitting there alone, but comforted too. In a way, it made me feel like I was at a friend’s kitchen table, passing time while they finished preparing our meal.

A woman, who I assumed is the owner, eventually returned. She gave me a look when she saw me – I couldn’t tell what kind of look it was. Probably curiosity, or interest, or surprise maybe. Or, a mix of all three(?). She had crimped hair dyed light brown and was wearing a hat with a lace rim.

I greeted her good morning and asked for iced coffee. She poured her brew into a plastic take-out cup, handed me the cup and little cartons of creamer and sugar and charged 200 Yen. I hadn’t expected it to be so cheap – probably because I’d paid 600 for a cup of coffee at the cafe I’d gone to the day before, which was just down the street. The coffee was good too – strong, not bitter. I enjoyed it, and as I sipped my 200 yen cold brew I regretted that I wouldn’t have the chance to go back. But I’m grateful I stumbled upon it at least; it’s not everyday that I find a coffee shop – which happens to sell delicious, exceptionally priced coffee – that’s smaller than my bedroom.

Quality Dining at 7-11

A few weeks ago, I went to a local 7-11 to pick up tickets for a concert. (Oddly enough, in Japan it’s common to purchase tickets online and pick up the hard copies at a 7-11 – I don’t know why.)

After collecting my tickets, I decided to buy tea before heading home. But on my way to pick up a drink, my eyes happened to wander to the food section, as they always do…

Convenience stores always have ready-made meals available all day long, like rice balls wrapped in seaweed and bento boxes with meat and vegetables. When I first arrived in Japan, I was obsessed with the idea of convenience store food. I tried all the rice bowls, the fried fish and veggies – I practically lived off of convenience store food for two weeks! But after being in Japan for seven months now, I don’t find it very exciting – or appetizing – anymore.

But at this particular 7-11, the food on display was different: the options, the types of meals, the quality – I’d never seen anything like it before! I rarely give the food section at convenience stores a second glance, but I was so impressed by this display that I thought it was worthy of a photo shoot.

IMG_E8385IMG_E8391The shelves were stocked with just about every kind of hearty Japanese comfort food you could imagine –  soba, udon, curry, pork katsu, grilled marinated meats with a heaping side of rice… And all were a reasonable 400-500 yen, or $4-5.

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Yakisoba with a hearty sesame-flavored glaze.

There were plenty of “Western” inspired options too, like bowls of Neapolitan spaghetti with sliced ham, sausage, tomato sauce, and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

IMG_E8389My favorite thing about this display, though, was the abundance of meals catering to the health-conscious customer. While there were quite a few carb-heavy dishes, there were also just as many light and healthy dishes available too – like bowls of broth-based soups filled to the brim with steamed vegetables. IMG_E8388

IMG_E8386This Korean-inspired bowl with pork, tofu, kimchi proudly states that it has “1/2 serving of your daily recommended vegetables” – definitely not something you’d expect to find at a convenience store. IMG_E8392

And, of course, there were salads too – the healthiest of the bunch. But really, why buy a salad when you can buy a plate of spaghetti the size of your face?

Anyway, I think I’d still prefer my lunch to be made at home than from a convenience store refrigerator, but if I were in the mood for convenience store curry, I’d head to this 7-11 without a second thought.

Jazz and ginger tea at Cafe Bazz Light

One of the (many) things I appreciate about Minoh is its abundance of well-decorated cafes. After finally crossing Salunpowaku off my bucket list, I made it a goal to visit every cafe in the area around my apartment – which doesn’t sound difficult, but you’d be surprised at just how many cafe’s can fit into one neighborhood in a tiny Japanese town.

My next stop was at Cafe Bazz Light, less than a five minute walk from Minoh station. The cafe is located on the bottom level of a tiny plaza behind a bike parking lot and is tricky to spot if you aren’t looking. My friend and I were actually planning on visiting the owl cafe (a cafe with live owls on display), which is located on the second floor of the same plaza. But, sadly, the owl cafe was about to close just as we arrived.

Spotting Cafe Bazz Light’s brightly lit windows on the bottom level, we decided to stop there instead for our daily dose of tea and coffee.

Stepping inside, we were welcomed by the owner, who sat at the front counter during our stay. We sat ourselves and took our time perusing the menu, which included meal sets and a long list of drinks.

My friend ordered a regular black coffee and I ordered ginger tea; our drinks arrived on a tray (which I’ve come to learn is typical of cafe’s in Japan) and came in lovely ceramic mugs stained army green.

The cafe was warm and cozy. And it smelled good – kind of woody and smoke-y, like a fireplace. With the heater on high, clippings from American newspapers pinned on the walls, and jazz music playing faintly in the background, I felt right at home. Out of all the cafe’s I’ve been to so far, I’ve felt most comfortable at Cafe Bazz Light. Though I have a long list of cafe’s left to visit, I’ll definitely go back to Cafe Bazz for the ambiance alone.

My fascination with wrinkly persimmons

It’s 柿 season in Japan!

柿, pronounced “kaki” is the Japanese word for persimmons. If you’ve never seen one before, they’re perfectly round, the color of pumpkins, and have cute clover-shaped stems. Persimmons aren’t very common where I’m from in the States. I rarely saw persimmons in my local supermarket, and if I did, they were either expensive or of mediocre quality, or both. But in Japan, persimmons are everywhere – literally! Not only is there a section in every grocery store dedicated to persimmons, there are also persimmon trees in nearly every backyard and all along the streets, which means that there are persimmons on the ground sometimes too.

At first, I was shocked by the sudden explosion in persimmons. As I’d make my way through the produce section during my weekly trip to the grocery store and come face to face with yet another persimmon display, I found myself questioning the appeal. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the taste of persimmons, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to purchase a pack of six.

But everything changed when I tried my first 干し柿、or hoshigaki – dried Hachiya persimmons:

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I know what you’re thinking – ew, right? I know, I know. That’s what I thought too the first time I saw one. In comparison to their fresh counterparts, hoshigaki are shriveled and wrinkly and much less appealing in appearance. But what they lack in presentation, they make up for 10 fold in taste.

As dramatic as it sounds, when I say that my first bite of a hoshigaki was life-changing, I’m not exaggerating! It was unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. The insides were nothing like a fruit at all – they were more the texture of softened jelly. The chewiness of the outer skin, in addition to the jelly-like insides, provided a unique and wholly satisfying bite. The hoshigaki itself was also incredibly sweet, like sucking on a spoonful of pure honey.

Unfortunately, hoshigaki are twice the price of regular persimmons – about $8 or $9 for four. Desperate for another succulent dried persimmon, but unwilling to cough up nearly 1000 yen, I wondered if I’d be able to make my own instead. I mean, leaving something out to dry can’t be too difficult, right?

Well, it turned out to be much harder and a lot more intensive than I thought – making hoshigaki requires care, effort, attention, and quite a bit of time. In fact, the process is so detailed and so intricate that I’d go as far to say that the act of making hoshigaki is an art.

Other articles online do a much better job at explaining the process than I can; I highly recommend reading this one if you’re interested in learning more. But in short, hoshigaki are made by hanging peeled Hachiya persimmons for about two weeks until they’ve shriveled and formed a white coating on the surface from natural sugars.

HoshigakioutsideMost hoshigaki are made on farms, where they can be mass produced by the hundreds, but occasionally, I’ll find some hanging outside of someone’s home. Here’s a picture of a balcony I pass on the way to work every morning:

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Once I realized how difficult it is to make hoshigaki from scratch, I gave up on trying to attempt it myself. Splurging every so often on a pack at the store is much simpler than hanging them by a string on a bamboo rod from my balcony.

I have a strong feeling that hoshigaki won’t be available in stores when I return to the States, so I very well may end up needing to try drying persimmons from scratch in the future! For now, though, I’ll let the experienced farmers do the hard work for me.

Frohe Weihnachten!

Up until this year, I’ve celebrated Christmas at home in the States with my family. It’s pretty similar ever year; we eat a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and Pillsbury Doughboy biscuits, gather around the Christmas tree to talk about  Jesus’ birth, open up our presents one by one, and then spend the rest of the afternoon preparing enough turkey and Boursin mashed potatoes to feed a village (or two) – a classic, comforting, American-esque Christmas day.

And that’s how I expected to spend my Christmas every year… not at a German night market eating seasoned bratwurst and drinking mulled wine in the middle of Osaka, Japan.

But that’s what happened!

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One of the largest winter events in all of Osaka, this German-themed Christmas market is held every year from November 17th to December 25th under the Umeda Sky Building, where guests can wander among colorful, brightly lit stalls offering quintessential German fare, from seasoned Thuringian Bratwurst to a piping hot sauerkraut soup, to foaming mugs of Krombacher beer, to Haribo gummies.

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With such a wide range of appetizing German-inspired treats on display, it was difficult to choose what I wanted to eat – I totally would’ve bought every gingerbread cookie, bag of candied almonds, and imported wine available for purchase if I had the stomach (and the money) for it. Though, my pork-based soup and sausage were surprisingly satisfying, so I managed to abstain from buying up the whole market.

Alongside the food and drink stalls, there were also several offering all sorts of handcrafted items, such as toys, ornaments, cutlery, and intricate sculptures – imported straight from Germany, of course! (Or, at least I’d like to believe they were.)

IMG_E7857Though I was tempted to purchase an ornament or two, I couldn’t bring myself to dish out the equivalent of $25+ for a wooden Santa Clause the size of my thumb. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed browsing the wide variety of trinkets and Christmas-y knickknacks – and sneaking a few photos of them too.

I must admit that tinsel-decorated stalls selling hot wine on tap is difficult to beat, but I’d say that my favorite part of the market had to be the Christmas tree standing at the center of the market, complete with animated lights and a golden star on top. Being greeted and welcomed by a 50 foot tall Christmas tree as I sipped from my stomach-warming, cinnamon-scented beverage made the event all the more memorable.

And it was reassuring to know that there will always be a few things about Christmas that remain constant, no matter where I am in the world.

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In comparison to the last 20 years of my life, my Christmas experience this year was one-of-a-kind. I do have to say that I still very much prefer spending the holidays with my family (and I’d still choose roast turkey over sausage any day), but this is one Christmas that I know I’ll remember for a long, long time.

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A (long overdue) visit to Salunpowaku

When I found out that I’d be living in Minoh, the first thing I Googled while researching the city was “cute cafe’s.” (True story.) And Cafe Salunpowaku happened to be the top result.

Browsing past reviews on Cafe Salunpowaku – all of which were overwhelmingly positive – I discovered that the cafe not only prides itself on its use of all-natural, organic ingredients, but also specializes in gluten-free, vegan cuisine. Veganism isn’t as widespread in Japan as it is in the States; in fact, I’ve heard from a few ex-Vegans that practicing Veganism is nearly impossible in Japan. Gluten-free products, too, are extremely hard to come by in Japan. I couldn’t believe my luck – I’d stumbled upon perhaps one of the very few all natural, 100% vegan cafes in Osaka. And it just happened to be less than a minute away from Minoh station!

I originally planned to visit Salunpowaku the week I’d arrived in Minoh, but I’d slightly underestimated just how hectic getting adjusted to life in a brand new country would be. Salunpowaku slid down my list of priorities, as things like “figure out how to apply for a credit card” and “how to unlock bike without key??” took its place.

But after finally settling into my apartment, and after unlocking my bike, I finally found the time to make the long awaited trip to Salunpowaku.

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With the help of Google Maps, I found my way to the front of the cafe – a friendly sign with the menu (declaring its vegan and allergen-free meal options with pride) greeted me at the front entrance. I could easily tell from the sign that I’d arrived at the right place.

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My friend and I visited the cafe around 10am, so a little too early for lunch, unfortunately. We asked for their drink menu instead and were pleased to see a diverse selection of beverages available, from herbal teas to hand-drip coffee, to lattes steamed with organic, non-GMO soy milk.

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Upon the waiter’s recommendation, I ordered the 豆乳よもぎオレ, or the soy milk yomogi au lait. Yomogi is an herb made from the Japanese mug wort plant and is known for its distinct, vibrant green color. My friend ordered the strawberry black herb tea. Both of our drinks were brought to our table on little wooden trays with flowers painted on the surface, which I thought was a lovely touch!

At first, I didn’t want to taste my drink – it was too pretty to ruin! But I’m glad I did, because the flavor was even better than the appearance. Everything about the drink was perfectly balanced – the bitterness from the yomogi, the frothiness of the milk, even the temperature. There was a counter near the tables with little jars of brown sugar and syrup, but the drink was flavorful enough on its own to not need additional sweetener. Overall, the au lait was a light and refreshing mid-morning treat that I strongly debated ordering again.

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I ended up not ordering another, but I definitely plan to during my next visit. And I’ll be sure to go during lunch time, so I can sample their brown rice chickpea curry (which I could smell simmering in the kitchen, by the way, and it smelled incredible!).

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For anyone who happens to be in the Osaka area and is interested in visiting this cafe for a meal or a freshly brewed beverage, here’s the link to the address on Google Maps. I highly recommend Cafe Salunpowaku to all – vegan or not!

Where to find nachos in Minoh

The farewell dinner at my final JET orientation in Los Angeles was Mexican food – tacos, chips and salsa, and churros for dessert. Enjoy it now, the coordinator said to us, since you’ll probably be without Mexican cuisine for a while. And she was right; good Mexican food – or any Mexican food at that – is nearly impossible to come by in Japan.

But after feasting on fajitas at the Mexican fiesta in Umeda last month, my fellow JET’s and I made it a goal to find decent Mexican food in the area.

And that we did – with La Costa.

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About a 15 minute walk from my apartment and 3 minutes from the main train station, La Costa is the only restaurant in Minoh serving up authentic Mexican cuisine. Some of the popular menu items include soft tacos with handmade corn tortillas, chicken fajitas with stir-fried bell peppers straight off a grill, and piping hot nachos topped with plenty of jalapenos. I never thought I’d get so excited by the sight of melted cheese.

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The place is run by the owner and one waiter. The owner also happens to be the chef – he cooks every dish himself on order, so the food is always freshly prepared (and with impressive presentation).

And not only is La Costa’s food high in quality, taste, and authenticity, its interior is too. From the tables to the chairs to the posters on the wall, the decorations throughout this tiny establishment make a commendable effort to create an authentic dining experience.

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(We asked if they really do sell tacos for 99 cents on Tuesday – they said no.)

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Honestly, I’d go back to La Costa for the interior alone! (The food is an added plus.)

The prices are a bit expensive for the portion size, but considering that this is the only Mexican restaurant for miles and miles, I don’t mind splurging a bit. And I’m relieved to know that ready-to-use bottles of Cholula hot sauce are only a 15 minute stroll away.

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For directions to La Costa, click here.

To see more photos of La Costa’s food, (since that’s the best part about restaurant reviews right?) here’s the link to their Tabelog site.

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