Monday, February 24, 2014

Why I Love Green Tea

Better to be deprived of food for three days, than tea for one—ancient Chinese proverb

I could say it’s because green tea helps fight cancer and cardiovascular disease, lowers blood pressure and bad cholesterol, fights tooth decay, and reduces weight. But is that why I drink it?...Well, no…
The Chinese knew about the medicinal benefits of green tea since ancient times. They used it to treat everything from headaches to depression. In her book Green Tea: The Natural Secret for a Healthier Life, Nadine Taylor tells us that green tea has been used as a medicine in China for at least 4,000 years.
Today, scientific research in both Asia and the west is providing hard evidence for the health benefits long associated with drinking green tea. For example, in 1994 the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published the results of an epidemiological study indicating that drinking green tea reduced the risk of esophageal cancer in Chinese men and women by nearly sixty percent. University of Purdue researchers recently concluded that a compound in green tea inhibits the growth of cancer cells. There is also research indicating that drinking green tea lowers total cholesterol levels, as well as improving the ratio of good (HDL) cholesterol to bad (LDL) cholesterol.
What makes green tea so special?
So why is green tea so good for you? For one thing, it’s rich in catechin polyphenols, particularly epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which is a powerful anti-oxidant. It not only inhibits the growth of cancer cells; it kills cancer cells without harming healthy tissue. Green tea also lowers LDL cholesterol levels and inhibits the abnormal formation of blood clots. The latter takes on added importance when you consider that thrombosis (the formation of abnormal blood clots) is the leading cause of heart attacks and stroke.
Links are being made between the effects of drinking green tea and the "French Paradox." For years, researchers were puzzled by the fact that, despite consuming a diet rich in fat, the French have a lower incidence of heart disease than Americans. The answer was found to lie in red wine, which contains resveratrol, a polyphenol that limits the negative effects of smoking and a fatty diet. In a 1997 study, researchers from the University of Kansas determined that EGCG is twice as powerful as resveratrol, which may explain why the rate of heart disease among Japanese men is quite low, even though approximately seventy-five percent are smokers.
Why don't other Chinese teas have similar health-giving properties? Green, oolong, and black teas all come from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. What sets green tea apart is the way it is processed. Green tea leaves are steamed, which prevents the EGCG compound from being oxidized. By contrast, black and oolong tea leaves are made from fermented leaves, which results in the EGCG being converted into other compounds that are not nearly as effective in preventing and fighting various diseases.
Other Benefits
New evidence is emerging that green tea can even help dieters. In November, 1999, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published the results of a study at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Researchers found that men who were given a combination of caffeine and green tea extract burned more calories than those given only caffeine or a placebo. Skin preparations containing green tea, from deodorants to creams, are also starting to appear on the market.
What About Matcha Tea?
I’ve been told that the health benefits of matcha tea exceed those of green tea because you ingest the whole leaf, not just the brewed water. One glass of matcha, I’m told, is equivalent to 10 glasses of green tea in nutritional value and antioxidant content.
An unexpected benefit matcha drinkers experience a boost of energy that is not, as formerly thought, from the caffeine in matcha but from a combination of its natural properties. Another recent study found improved physical endurance in matcha drinkers. An extra bonus is that matcha is nearly calorie free and additionally boosts metabolism. So, matcha also burns fat. While it’s doing that matcha is calming and helps to reduce stress. It doesn’t’ raise blood pressure or heart rate, which makes it a safe alternative to questionable quick fixes.
A recent favorite for mine is the matcha latte. My good friend Nina Munteanu, barista par excellence, tells me that it’s easy to make a matcha latte at home. You just need the matcha powder, which you can get at any good tea shop, milk, sugar (optional) and a whisk or frother. For one cup, all you need is a teaspoon of matcha powder. Add a little hot water and mix thoroughly into a wonderful deep green froth. Add sugar (Nina uses honey or agave) to taste. Heat the milk without boiling and add. You can use a whisk or frother to create foam before adding to the matcha slurry. And, voila! Matcha Latte!
Green Tea & Chocolate
Truth be told, I love the taste of green tea. Particularly in chocolate. It’s good in ice cream but chocolate brings out the grassy, bamboo notes of green tea.  Now, here’s the thing: the chocolate must be of the very best quality. Don’t go buying green tea chocolate in a grocery store—unless you’re in Switzerland, of course. But in North America, you must look for superior chocolate, found in specialty stores.

An example of excellent quality chocolate is Vosges Haut Chocolate, a Chicago-based chocolate maker that offers quality chocolate with exotic ingredients like spices and bacon. Based on ethical sourcing, and green initiatives, the chocolatier offers delicious chocolate-stories of incredible imagination and originality.

Katrina, founder of Vosges Haut Chocolat, describes eating a Japanese Matcha Green Tea deep milk chocolate bar as a complex six-stage experience. It starts with breathing and smelling: “Engage your senses,” says Katrina. “Take three deep ujjayi breaths, quiet the chattering mind, and be in the present moment.” Rubbing your thumb—or paw—on the chocolate helps release its aromas. Then there is something she calls the snap: “Break the bar into two pieces,” says Katrina. The crisp ringing pop indicates a well-tempered chocolate bar. Dark chocolate produces the loudest snap, milk a soft break, and white a faint whisper. Then there is taste:  “Place a small piece of chocolate on your tongue and press it to the roof of your mouth,” says Katrina. The chocolate will slowly melt and as it does you will breathe in the grassy, bamboo notes of the green tea followed by a nutty astringent finish.

Now, go enjoy one of life’s deepest most delicious pleasures and be healthy. Meow!  

Saturday, February 22, 2014

I’m in Love with Hello Kitty: Confessions of a Stuffed Cat in Japan

She swept into my life like a summer storm, her face radiating with an ethereal and innocent beauty. I was struck like lightning. Almost scorched my stuffings and set my little kokoro pitter-pattering.

I’d been scampering up the Sannen-zaka Steps of Kyoto’s Higashiyama District, when I first saw her. She wore a beautiful pink kimono, which set off her guileless face to perfection. It was a very simple face. Eyes like jewels in the sun and a little button nose.

She said nothing. She just looked at me with those kind eyes and I imagined her smiling at me. In fact that was impossible because she doesn’t have a mouth; but the poets among you will tell us that we smile with more than our mouths.  

I’m a sophisticated cat. I’ve traveled the world. I’ve eaten with a royal prince in Switzerland; motorcycled my way around Cozumel; climbed a Mayan temple and come face to face with a poisonous snake; experienced a tornado in Kentucky; felt the effect of a Caribbean hurricane on a cruise ship; sailed in Nova Scotia; downhill skied the Sudan Couloir on Blackcomb, British Columbia…

I’m not a pushover.

What was it about Hello Kitty that so discombobulated me? I think it was the fact that she doesn’t have a mouth … She appeared to me like a dream, reflecting me. Is that not what a perfect friend does? Reflect your own beauty back to you?

When interviewed by Time Magazine about Hello Kitty’s lack of this facial feature, Yuko Yamaguchi (the current official designer) wisely responded, “It’s so that people who look at her can project their own feelings onto her face… Kitty looks happy when people are happy. She looks sad when they are sad. For this psychological reason, we thought she shouldn’t be tied to any emotion—and that’s why she doesn’t have a mouth.”

I was truly smitten and realized very soon that while I was in Japan I couldn’t escape her; I began to see her images and other likenesses of her everywhere. On the buses and commuter trains. In little shops and boutiques outside shrines and temples. On posters advertising tourist attractions (like the Golden Temple). On people’s clothing, purses, stationary and magazine covers and newspapers. On cell phone covers. On nori containers. On my friend’s pink watch. Even in the foam of my latte in the morning! Wherever I went and looked, Hello Kitty was there!

Elisson at "Cheeseaisle" tells us that "Hello Kitty is beloved by the Japanese: to say that she is their answer to Mickey Mouse is a damn her with faint praise." 

Hello Kitty officially hales from the suburbs of London, England on November 1st. Her favorite food, I’m told, is Mama’s homemade Apple Pie. She likes to travel, listen to music, read and eat cookies (and her mom’s apple pie, of course!). Another favorite hobby of hers is to make friends. Well, that’s obvious! Purrrrrr….

Hello Kitty is a character by Sanrio, a Japanese company that designs, licenses and makes products that focus on the kawaii (cute) segment of current Japanese popular culture. Hello Kitty has now swept into North America and Europe, enchanting young and old alike with her guileless and simple beauty.

I left Japan a short while ago and said goodbye to her. But, she still resides in my little heart (I guess some goodbyes aren’t real goodbyes… She is called “Hello Kitty”, after all, not Goodbye Kitty)… I’ll miss you, meow!

Friday, February 21, 2014

Experience Japan: Finding the Forest for the Bamboo…

Feeling like a squirrel, I ceased my manic scamper and centred myself.

I stood in deep green, surrounded by the whispering hush and soft clanking of bamboo trees. I was lost in Arashiyama's lanky forest just outside Kyoto Japan. No matter, I thought; all paths lead to bamboo. Wait. That didn't make sense...or did it? 

I craned to gaze up at the vaulting canopy of velvet green. Did you know that bamboo is, in fact, an exotic giant grass that evolved from  prehistoric times? And by virtue of its somewhat magical properties (e.g., size, lightness and strength) bamboo is considered an "extreme product of nature"? Bamboo is stable, incredibly strong and durable, in addition to being an extremely light and elastic building material.

Bamboo has inspired Japanese artists and artisans for centuries. Its elegant linear form features in teahouses, interior designs, fences, in the martial arts, music and art of Japan. By the 10th century, bamboo had become a crucial part of Japanese culture and was considered "the incomparable finest material" for everything from arrows and spears to ladles and whistles. 

I leaned closer to examine one of the smooth segmented trunks. According to Environmental Graffiti, bamboo posses a higher tensile strength than many steel alloys, a higher compressive strength than various cornets, and is--bonus--indigestible to termites. Bamboo is incredibly smooth; it has no knots or rays like most wood you and I are familiar with. Its fibres give it both great strength and great flexibility. For instance, houses built from bamboo have withstood earthquakes of 9.0 magnitude. Bamboo gets its strength from the lignification of the tube walls that--like our hard woods--conduct nutrients and water in the giant grass. 

Bamboo also grows faster than any other woody plant in the world. Some species of bamboo can grow four feet in just a day (24 hr). Most species of bamboo grow up in just five years, and some are known to double in size in just a single day. Bamboo can regenerate its full mass in six months after being cut; it takes most trees at least 30-50 years. Hard woods like the oak tree barely grow an inch in a week and cat take up to 120 years to reach maturity. Its rapid growth makes bamboo a highly renewable resource. It can be re-harvested every three years without causing adverse effects on the environment.

Bamboo is fast being recognized throughout the world for its versatility in providing an alternative choice for a variety of things from dishier to highly absorbent clothing!

Bamboo shoots (sprouts) are of course edible and commonly used in Asian dishes and broths. The new bamboo culm that spouts out of the ground is rich in potassium (good for maintaining normal blood pressure and steady heart beat). Conical and creamy-coloured, the tender shoots are cut from the bamboo plant when they're about 15 cm (6 inches) high. They have a pleasant mild "nutty" flavour, resembling artichoke and a soft-crunchy texture.

Here's a wonderful recipe from for Shrimp and Bamboo Shoot Curry:


2 lbs medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons peanut oil or 4 tablespoons corn oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped (3/4 cup)
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 inch fresh ginger, finely chopped
3/4 cup chopped fresh tomatoes or canned tomato
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 tablespoon hot red chill pepper flakes (of less to taste)
4 cups fresh bamboo shoots, sliced into thin julienne strips (can substitute canned)
1 cup fresh coconut milk (or canned coconut milk plus 1/2 cup plain water)
3 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander, for garnish

Instructions on Preparation:

Bamboo forest in Arishiyama Japan
1. Marinate the shrimp in the lemon juice and salt for 1 hour

2. Heat the oil in a pan, add the onion, and stir fry it over moderate heat until it turns light brown. Add the garlic and ginger and stir fry another minute. Add the tomato and mix well.

3.  Add the cumin, coriander, turmeric and chill flakes and stir for a minute or two to integrate all the seasonings. Add the shrimp and marinade, bamboo shoots, and the coconut milk and water. Simmer the mixture over low heat for 15-20 minutes. Adjust the salt if necessary.

4. Remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let stand for 10 minutes, which allows the coconut milk to be absorbed by the shrimp and bamboo shoots. Garnish with the fresh coriander.

5. Serve warm with while rice and a variety of table chutneys and pickles.

OK... Now I was definitely hungry... time to find my way out of the forest and into one of Kyoto's finest restaurants... See you there! MEOW!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Experience Japan: the Historic Higashiyama District of Kyoto

Ninen-zaka Steps of Kyoto's Higashiyama District
It was a short scamper from the Super Hotel along Shijo Street, through quaint Gion to the main entrance of Yasaka Shrine on Higashiyama Street. Within minutes I was trotting through the shrine grounds and associated Maruyama Park, along the scenic lower slopes of Kyoto’s eastern mountains.

In search of “Old Kyoto”, I left the shrine grounds by the side gate and immediately plunged into a warren of winding narrow lanes and steps, wooden buildings and traditional merchant shops. I was in the heart of the Higashiyama District, strolling toward Kiyomizudera Temple through one of the city’s best-preserved historic districts.

Filled with visions of the old capital city, I negotiated the milling crowd of Ninen-zaka slope. I strolled past quaint tiny shops, cafés and restaurants in traditional design that had been serving pilgrims for centuries. I gazed with huge glassy eyes and felt my nose twitch at the colorful local specialties: Kiyomizu-yaki pottery; pickles from all kinds of things and Wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets): like green tea cake, Sakuramochi (rice cake filled with red bean paste), Hanabiramochi, Karukan (made from rice flour, sugar and Japanese yam), Uiro (Japanese steam cakes), Mitarashi Dango (Japanese dumplings on sticks), Monaka (sweet red bean paste inside a crisp mochi wafer), Yokan (jelly dessert of red bean paste, agar and sugar), and one of my favorites, Warabimochi (a jelly-like confection made from bracken starch and dipped in kinako, sweet toasted soybean flour), Kuzumochi (mochi made with starch powder from the root of the kudzu plant), Kusa Mochi (made with powder from Japanese mugword plant leaves), Gohei-mochi on a stick, and another favorite, Yatsuhashi (a specialty of Kyoto, soft mochi with soft read bean paste filling and cinnamon). says it this way about Yatsuhashi: “If you ever liked pinching raw cookie dough behind your parents’ back, or would even have preferred eating the Christmas cookies raw than baked, eating yatsuhashi will feel like a childhood dream come true.” Thanks to my Japanese friend, Tomonori, I brought back a box of these to Canada!

View down Ninen-zaka slope
Merchants, left and right, called out their wares and offered free samples of many lovely though questionable foods. One happy merchant offered me a free sample of hot soup. Another gave me some Yatsuhashi (mochi with bean curd and cinnamon), which I savored with twitching whiskers. I browsed craft shops, incense stores, had a green tea ice cream and introduced myself to Hello Kitty in a big way (giant smile).
All this happy rambling made me hungry!

Tummy rumbling with thoughts of noodles (the ice cream wasn’t enough; Japan makes you hungry), I spotted a noodle place, obvious by its wooden sign. The Omen is a traditional Japanese noodle restaurant that gives you the chance to design your own meal experience. The friendly waiter provided me with the noodles in a broth to which I could then add any number of ingredients and condiments, most of which I had no idea what they were. I blithely and faithfully added almost everything I saw into the complex noodle mixture, let it steep for a bit, then sipped and slurped a sensual dish of exquisite taste and texture. Highly recommended!

At the foot of the Ninen-zaka Steps, I stopped in at the Café Garakuta, known as the three umbrellas. Its gallery upstairs features artwork about the district. I sipped an exquisite café crème on their patio and watched an unending stream of tourists and exotic “Geishas” pour down the steps.

A while ago some smart merchants (actual maiko houses and studios) introduced the concept of being a geisha for a day. Soon houses and studios opened their doors to tourists everywhere in the district, offering young tourist girls an authentic apprentice geisha (Maiko) experience for 9,000 yen (~$90). The process takes five hours and consists of a full transformation. This includes getting made-up with the white face and red lipstick, red and black accents around the eyes and brows, and the traditional kimono with heavy dangling obi and pocketed sleeves called furi. The geishas all featured the traditional shimada hairstyle with high chignon, decorated by elaborate hair combs and hairpins (kanzashi) and tottered raised wooden clogs, called geta or okobo. Who ever came up with that idea was a real smarty-pants. The young tourist experienced Old Kyoto from the perspective of a real geisha while adorning the district with her exotic beauty.  

Coffee finished, I scampered up the Ninen-zaka steps with renewed vigor and strolled along the incline of Sannen-zaka lane. Ninen-zaka" means "slope of two years", and "Sannen-zaka" means "slope of three years".
The saying is that you would die within two years if you fell on Ninen-zaka and you would die within three years if you fell down on Sannen-zaka. I wondered if that too had been a clever tourist device to tame potential unruliness; no one hurries on the lanes or stone steps. The kanji characters of Sannen-zaka also mean "slope to pray for a safe delivery". Young pilgrims have walked this lane for hundreds of years hoping to be blessed with good fortune and love at the Kiyomizudera Temple.

At the Sannen-zaka Steps I met a young student who was celebrating her birthday that day; one of her gifts was to come to Higashiyama and dress up as a Geisha for the day. Honoka had just come home from Australia and spoke in a lilting Japanese English accent spiced with Australian twang. My little stuffed heart went pitter-patter as she tenderly took me into her hand for a picture. Meow! :-3

The two kilometers between Yasaka Shrine and Kiyomizudera Temple can be walked in half an hour; it took me the better part of an afternoon to fully experience the district.

Sannen-zaka Steps
The shops and restaurants in the area typically open around nine or ten in the morning and close relatively early around five or six in the evening, except during the ten day long Hanatoro in March when thousands of lanterns line the streets of Higashiyama and many of the area's temples, shrines and businesses offer extended hours.
If you enjoy walking like I do, I recommend hiking from the Yasaka Shrine past Chionin and Shorenin Temples to Heian Shrine and Nanzenji and the Philosopher Path to Ginkakuji Temple. If you time it right, you can catch the area during the cherry blossom festival (in mid- to late-March) when the trees riot in explosive bloom and pale pink petals flutter to the ground like confetti at a wedding.

History of Kyoto and the Higashiyama District:

Toulouse with his new friend in Kyoto
The Higashiyama District represents the culmination of several restorations over Kyoto’s turbulent history, mainly during the Taisho Period between 1912 and 1926.
Kyoto was actually destroyed during in the 1860s, particularly during the Hamaguri rebellion in 1864. The rolling hills of Higashiyama, east of the Higashi-oji-dori River, feature narrow winding roads and lanes that mimic the old capital of feudal times. While the townscape did not in fact originate during feudal times, its architecture was designed in the authentic traditional style using traditional materials.  Most Japanese associate Kyoto with these narrow alleys, particularly the view of Yasaka-no-to (Yasaka pagoda) seen from Yasaka-dori.

The Gion District of Kyoto was originally developed in the Middle Ages, in front of Yasaka Shrine. The district was built to accommodate the needs of travelers and visitors to the shrine. It eventually evolved into one of the most exclusive and well-known geisha districts in Japan.