A tour of Marukyu-Koyamaen in Uji

A tour of Marukyu-Koyamaen in Uji

Long before I’d ever heard of hojicha, I briefly thought about selling matcha. There are thousands of companies selling the green tea powder, but for some reason it never tasted as good as it did when I drank it in Japan.

Whether I’d be selling it or not, I wanted to taste the best matcha in the world. As a long-term matcha drinker and enthusiast, Francois had already done the research and found Marukyu-Koyamaen in Uji. Marukyu-Koyamaen is an award-winning manufacturer dedicated to producing teas of the highest quality. Luckily for us, they offered plant tours and had an availability while we were in Japan.

Although we were not allowed to take any pictures, believe me when I say that every step of the processing of tencha to matcha was more fascinating than the last. My favourite room was the one where stone mills were quietly grinding the tencha leaves into a fine matcha powder. The stone mills were going slowly in order to avoid overheating. Maintaining the perfect temperature was so important that it was all done in the dark. Seeing my excitement, the tour guide showed me a manual stone mill up close and I even got to grind some tencha myself.

Before the tour concluded, I learned how to make and drink a proper cup of matcha. As an inexperienced matcha maker, not to mention pretty clumsy in general, I was terrified of breaking the beautiful ceramic matcha chawan (tea bowl). I was hesitant to whisk the matcha quickly, and it showed. After watching from a distance, the director himself walked over to offer his assistance. He encouraged me to whisk the matcha briskly and demonstrated how the speed and zig zag motion was essential to dissolving the powder and producing a beautiful rich foam. The best matcha in the world takes work to produce and is deserving of skillful preparation, anything less would be disrespectful. The resulting matcha was the best I’d ever had by far.

A tour of Marukyu-Koyamaen in Uji

The final part of the tour was a visit to the tea shop. I reached for their highest grade of ceremonial matcha, Tenju 天授 (heavenly). Although Marukyu-Koyamaen only uses natural fertilizers for all of their teas, I was curious about their organic selection. Knowing I was looking for high quality matcha, they advised me that their top matcha was significantly superior to their top organic matcha. While I understood there was no comparison, I had a feeling that their organic Matcha Gold was probably still better than many other matcha brands.

During my visit to Marukyu-Koyamaen, it was evident just how essential unwavering dedication to quality and attention to detail were to the production of exceptional matcha powder. When the same level of care was applied to my own preparation, I was rewarded with the perfect bowl of matcha. Learning how matcha powder is made, and how to prepare it traditionally, has increased both my appreciation and enjoyment of the tea.


Love matcha? Then you’ll want to try hojicha, the roasted Japanese green tea.

Bread Making Tips

Bread Making Tips

Since my last post about bread making, I’ve learnt several more lessons (some painful). Baking bread is definitely a science, and my style of improvisation doesn’t always work out. But if I can do it, anyone can.

Bread Making Tips
Whole wheat sandwich bread with almond ‘cheese’ spread and a sprinkle each of black sesame seeds, white sesame seeds, poppy seeds, garlic powder, onion powder, and dried dill weed.

The most important thing I’ve learned is how to adjust the amount of liquids for each recipe. You’ll need to add more liquids if you substitute any portion of your flour with whole wheat flour. The amount of water also depends on your kitchen’s humidity. If your kitchen is dry, you’ll need to add more liquids. Finally, it’s important to properly measure the flour because too much flour will result in a dry dough. Avoid packing your flour too tightly by fluffing it up in the container. Then, scoop it with a spoon and sprinkle the flour into your measuring cup. If you have a kitchen scale, then skip all of that and just weigh it for optimal results.

Understanding the above is helpful in preventing a dry and dense bread loaf early on. However, knowing it’s never too late to save the dough was the true game changer. Once the bread machine begins to knead the dough, you can quickly tell if the dough looks like a puddle or if it’s a shaggy dry mess. Instead of baking the dough and hoping for the best, you can salvage the bread by adding more flour or liquid. Start by allowing the bread machine to knead the dough uninterrupted, as sometimes the dough just takes time to form. If the dough isn’t coming together or is lumpy after several minutes, then it is too dry. If the dough is sticking to the sides, then the dough is too wet.

The key is to carefully add one tablespoon of either water or flour at a time. As I’ve learned, pouring water from the Brita onto a tablespoon above the dough isn’t going to end well.

The type and even the brand of your flour may also affect the amount of liquids needed. My unbleached all purpose Canadian flour has a higher protein percentage than American flour. This means that I might need much less flour than listed in the recipe. Although you can always adjust the liquids during kneading, the flavour and rise of the dough will be affected when the difference is too great. The ratio that works best for my flour and machine is 3 – 3 ½ cups of flour, 1 cup water, and 2 ½ teaspoons yeast. When you figure out your ratio, you’ll get better at identifying recipes that will result in a successful loaf. You’ll also be able to adjust any recipe that lists more flour for the same amount of water and yeast you require.

After baking your own bread, your patience will get tested while you wait for it to cool. Know that slicing your bread will be much easier once it is properly cooled. If that isn’t enough incentive, then keep in mind that the bread continues to bake outside of the bread machine. Let the bread complete its cooking process, and you’ll be rewarded with a better tasting loaf. Achieve the best results by removing the bread from the pan as soon as it is done baking. Place the bread on a cooling rack to ensure you won’t end up with a soggy bottom. Then place the bread in the oven, and leave the door slightly open. Cool the bread slowly to avoid a wrinkly crust.

The last time I baked bread, I was so eager to get it to cool that I burned my arm while flipping the pan over. Always use long oven gloves to carefully remove the freshly baked bread from the still very hot pan. If you’re curious, the bread turned out great and is now my go-to sandwich bread.

Below are both of my favourite recipes so far, though I suspect this French-Style Country Bread with poolish starter is going to taste incredible. Cooking with poolish could fill another whole post, but I’ll just say that it gives bread (and pizza dough) an amazing restaurant-quality flavour.

Maple-Glazed Water Challah

The original recipe & method: https://www.thespruceeats.com/vegan-water-challah-2121423

My modified recipe (which I usually halve)

  • 200 ml water
  • 4 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 teaspoon pink Himalayan salt
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons bread machine yeast
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil

Notes

Although the order recommended by my bread machine is liquids followed by dry ingredients, I prefer to let the flour fully hydrate first. I add all of the ingredients into the bread machine in the order above, except for the olive oil. Then I turn the machine on the dough cycle, and after exactly two minutes I add in the olive oil while it’s still kneading.

Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread

The original recipe & method: https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/100-whole-wheat-bread-for-the-bread-machine-recipe

My modified recipe

  • 1 ¼ cups lukewarm water
  • 1 tablespoon lemon or orange juice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1/4 cup local lavender honey
  • 2 ½ cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup unbleached flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons bread machine yeast yeast

Burger Buns

The original recipe & method: https://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/hamburger-or-hot-dog-buns-recipe

My modified recipe:

  • 50 ml water
  • 150 ml non-dairy milk
  • 2 teaspoons maple syrup
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 2 ¼ cups whole wheat bread flour
  • ½ teaspoons salt
  • 1 ½ teaspoons bread machine yeast

My modified method:

  1. Add all of the ingredients into your bread machine according to your manufacturer’s recommended order (mine is liquids first).
  2. Run the dough cycle.
  3. Divide the dough into 6 equal buns, and place on a silicon mat for a second rise.
  4. Brush each bun with a mixture of maple syrup and soy milk before sprinkling with sesame seeds and baking.

 

 

 

Hawaiian Acai Bowl

Hawaiian Acai Bowls

Instead of taking the subway from Umeda Sky Building, I decided to walk back to the hotel. This way I could explore different neighbourhoods in Osaka, and make it to my room before dark. The walk would take about 40 minutes, and I wondered if that was too long of a wait for dinner. Exploring would be more enjoyable if I wasn’t worried about getting hungry and then having to find food without wifi.

Hawaiian Acai Bowls

The nearest place with vegan options was Mauloa Acai and Cafe. The cafe has great reviews, and it helps that I already love acai bowls. As I walked in, the beautifully decorated cafe transported me to Hawaii. Or at least how I pictured Hawaii looks and feels. The greeting was also as warm as I would imagine. There was so much to see, and take pictures of, that I almost forgot about ordering.

Hawaiian Acai Bowls

After a quick look at the menu, I noticed a sign for their newest acai bowl called PB energy. It sounded great, and tasted even better. The cute mug shaped bowl was bigger than expected, and it kept me full with the addition of peanut butter. I also ordered a few extras to be sprinkled on top even though it already included granola, banana, blueberries, honey, cacao nibs, hemp seeds, and almonds.

Hawaiian Acai Bowls

Acai bowls seem to look and taste better when made at a restaurant, but I can’t wait to buy some acai and add it to a smoothie at home.

Hawaiian Acai Bowls

Winter brunch with freshly baked bread

Winter brunch with freshly baked bread

It’s that freezing time of the year where I dread going to the grocery store (I don’t drive). In addition to my usual planning and stocking up the freezer, I borrowed my friend’s bread machine. The bread machine came with a recipe booklet, but most of the recipes included eggs and dairy. Since baking is more exact than cooking, I looked up a vegan whole wheat bread recipe instead of improvising. I then bought a giant bag of whole wheat flour, before realizing I had to go back to the store to buy bread machine yeast. At least these two ingredients will last me for several loaves. Luckily the seeds and vital wheat gluten were listed as optional as I had just used the last of them earlier.

Before getting started, I figured I should wipe the machine down. Turns out it needed much more than a quick clean. Below the bread pan was a horrifying mess. I thoroughly cleaned the machine, and then turned it on bake mode for 20 minutes just to be safe. Finally, I was ready to get baking.

The first ingredient was warm water, so I got started while the machine was still warm. Even though the order goes from liquid to dry ingredients, I should’ve measured them all out to avoid having to wash and dry my measuring cup and spoons half way through. The last ingredient was the yeast, and I’d forgotten the recipe explicitly stated that it should not come into contact with any of liquids. Oops. I rushed to start the machine in the hopes that it wouldn’t matter if it started kneading the dough right away. After a few minutes, I noticed that I had accidentally put it on bake mode. I tried to switch it to the whole wheat cycle, but this didn’t go smoothly either as now the machine was too hot to start. Several minutes later with the lid open, and the machine was finally cool enough.

In the excitement of watching the machine knead the dough, I forgot all of my worries. Then the window fogged up during rise time. While waiting, I planned my next loaf of bread. Turns out milk powder is only used because many people put their machine on a delay, and without a delay I could easily substitute it with non-dairy milk or even yogurt.

When the bread begun to bake, the room filled with the lovely aroma of the honey lavender included in the mix. I was tempted to devour it right as the machine beeped, but instead I carefully removed the bread pan to cool in the oven. I left the oven door slightly open to avoid a crinkly and soggy crust.

The wait was worth it. As I sliced the loaf, the texture was perfect. I had a plain bite, and the taste was incredible. It was perfect alone, or with a simple spread of margarine or coconut oil. But I was inspired to quickly whip up a healthier cashew spread with just a hint of honey.

While thinking of other toppings like almond butter and bananas, I tried to come up with a savoury option that wouldn’t overpower the delicate flavour of the bread. There was a fresh bunch of carrots in the fridge, and I always had extra chickpea flour around, so I decided to make some chickpea omelettes. I even had some chickpea milk, but any non-dairy milk would do (even water works in a pinch). I usually only make enough batter for two, but this time I made enough omelettes for the entire week. A perfect winter brunch. I usually drink a matcha latte when I wake up, as I don’t like eating breakfast too early. Then by the time I’m done sipping on my tea and planning the day, I’m ready for a meal.

Winter brunch with freshly baked bread

The omelette sandwich tasted great with the cashew spread and topped with alfalfa sprouts. It would also be great topped with fresh cucumber, cherry tomatoes, or peppers. The only thing left to improve is the size of my slice. I’m still getting the hang of it, but while my slices are this thick I’ll just have to stick to open-faced sandwiches.  

Kitsune Udon at Umeda Station

Kitsune Udon at Umeda Station

After a busy afternoon tasting hojicha and matcha in Uji, I spent the following morning relaxing among the cherry blossoms at Osaka Castle Park. The area was beautiful with plenty to see. Last time I visited the park, I went straight to the castle. However, this time I wanted to explore the quieter spots by the river.

Kitsune Udon at Umeda Station

As part of the Japanese tradition of hanami, everyone was quietly adoring the blooms. Then as soon as it got windy, people rushed to capture the petals falling to the ground known as hanafubuki.

Kitsune Udon at Umeda Station

At lunch time I made my way to Umeda district. The giant station and surrounding malls offered a variety of food options. Even with the wide selection, it was tough to find something plant-based. Since I was craving noodles, I came up with the idea of ordering Kitsune Udon without the dashi broth. I explained the reason to ensure they wouldn’t worry about my enjoyment of the dish and they kindly accommodated me. The Kitsune Udon came with udon noodles topped with flavourful deep-fried tofu, a sprinkle of seaweed shreds, and sliced green onion. Even though I’m sure other people thought it was crazy to be eating noodles without the broth, the noodles tasted amazing with a drizzle of soy sauce.

Kitsune Udon at Umeda Station

Just to be sure I wouldn’t leave hungry, I also ordered the Inari sushi. This type of sushi is usually vegan by default as it is simply rice stuffed in the same deep-fried sushi pocket that comes with Kitsune Udon. After this filling and delicious lunch, I was ready to go looking for dessert.

If you’re interested in tasting my favourite hojicha from Japan, join the Hōjicha Co. newsletter to receive a subscriber exclusive discount this Friday! 

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji

As I crossed the Uji-bashi Bridge, I stopped to enjoy the Uji river view and the surrounding hills before finally arriving at the famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji. The short road leading to the Byodoin temple is chock-full of tea shops selling the best matcha in the world.

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji
Statue of Murasaki Shikibu

Although I had a list of matcha brands I wanted to buy, I strolled down the street looking for a quiet teahouse to relax in after the train ride from Osaka. Terashimaya is the first tea shop that caught my eye. The shop had hundreds of wooden tea crates and was extremely busy, which was a good sign, but what drew me was their outdoor seating area.

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji

One of the shopkeepers was surrounded by customers sampling genmaicha, and so I approached another and asked if they had ceremonial matcha. After gesturing to explain I wanted to drink the tea, the shopkeeper lead me outside. The tranquil seating area was sheltered from the sun and the noise from the street.

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji

While I had planned on trying to ask for their highest grade of matcha, I lost all of my courage when the shopkeeper didn’t come back with a menu. Instead, I was presented with a beautiful black and red tray. The tray had a hot cup of sencha, a bowl of vibrant green matcha, and two matcha flavoured Japanese sweets. I sipped on the first matcha of the day and relaxed.

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji

The matcha served as part of the standard set was good, but not amazing. I later learned that many shops don’t allow you to taste their highest grade matcha. Luckily, I had done my research and was now eager to buy my first tin of the finest matcha powder.

Ramen tastes better in the winter

Ramen tastes better in the winter - Danielle Geva

When I travelled to Tokyo, I got hooked on ramen. Due to jet lag and poor planning, I even had ramen for breakfast. Once I returned, I tried replicating the dish at home. My ramen was pretty good, but it just wasn’t the same.

After looking up all of the ramen shops in Toronto, I narrowed it down to the places that offered a vegetarian broth. The vegetarian option was usually topped with a soft boiled egg, but I hoped it could be made vegan by removing the egg. Then I learned that most places exclusively use egg noodles.

One time the waiter was kind enough to bring the noodle packaging over so I could confirm the ingredients were vegan. The rest of the time, I’d be seated and then awkwardly leave after discovering the ramen wasn’t vegan. Since I felt bad about wasting their time, I started only going to places that had reviews mentioning a vegan option. There weren’t many, but over time more and more ramen shops started offering a vegan noodle substitutions.

Ramen tastes better in the winter - Danielle Geva

Only after eating at Jinya Ramen, I finally found a vegan ramen that really hit the spot. Jinya Ramen has two vegan options. The first is called Vegetable Soup Ramen. It is either vegan, or can be made vegan upon request. The vegetable broth reminds me of the one I enjoyed in Japan, but it is piled high with greens and vegetables. While this option is very good, it doesn’t begin to compare to the Spicy Creamy Vegan Ramen. The fact that the second option has vegan in title is already a huge win. I don’t have to double check for hidden fish sauce, or worry about egg noodles. The flavours in the Spicy Creamy Vegan Ramen are complex and layered, making each bite taste completely different.

The one thing that stays the same is the quality. Jinya Ramen consistently delivers delicious food and friendly service. The ramen is always as good as I remember it, no off days. The warm broth, the rich garlic flavour, and the spice make it the perfect dish for a chilly day (especially if you’re fighting a cold).

Ramen tastes better in the winter - Danielle Geva

Last time I went in to escape the cold, I was seated in a warm and toasty window spot. I got to enjoy the incredibly tasty ramen while basking in the sun and people watching. It was also the first time eating in public without my chopstick helper (a little device that makes it easier to eat with chopsticks). Since I often travel to Japan, I wanted to improve my chopstick skills. It wasn’t easy, but at least by eating slowly I was able to savour every slurp.

 

This Lunch Looks Better Than it Tastes

Lunch Looks Better Than it Tastes

After a bad experience at a restaurant I always wonder if I should even write about it. There is enough negativity in the world as is, and so many other great spots I could write about instead. My lunch wasn’t even that bad, the meal was just surprisingly bland. But the interesting part is that all of the factors that usually make a place great are the reasons it went poorly.

Positive Reviews

When a restaurant has tons of highly positive reviews, it’s usually a good sign. The downside though is that positive reviews elevate expectations. Since my meal was one of the more popular options on the menu, there were complementary reviews about this specific meal. Maybe my lunch had no chance against my high expectations.

Atmosphere

When a restaurant has beautiful decor and friendly staff, it usually means they are successful enough to afford investing in their atmosphere. After tasting my meal though it became clear that the resources spent on the vibe should’ve been spent on the food.

Lunch Set

A lunch set makes it easy for people to order, and can be a great way to showcase the most popular dish. Sometimes though a daily special means the restaurant is trying to get rid of leftovers and ingredients that are about to expire. I mostly ordered the lunch set because I like dishes with lots of variety. I hoped that the long wait was an indication that everything was being prepared fresh. While I couldn’t tell if anything was premade or borderline stale, I was surprised that not one thing on the plate was properly heated or seasoned.

Niche Menu

When everything on the menu is plant-based, and even organic, it’s much easier to place an order without the stress of substitutions. Since this is pretty rare to find, especially in some cities, people tend to be more forgiving about the food itself. As much as people can’t help but being honest about any grievances, they usually feel the need to give a place 5 stars when it caters to their specific dietary needs. This is exactly why I don’t plan on naming this restaurant. I’m just grateful they exist, and hope they either had an off day or will get better.

 

Ordering Ceremonial Matcha in Kyoto

Ordering ceremonial matcha in Kyoto

The good thing about arriving in a surprisingly busy area of Kyoto, was the amble choice of teahouses. In an attempt to be open to new experiences, I embraced under-planning and walked into the first teahouse I came across. After drinking matcha in Shinsaibashi in Osaka, I wanted to try a matcha flavoured food. The menu had a variety of matcha noodle dishes, and appetizing desserts. Since matcha is an acquired taste, flavoured ice cream, tiramisu, and parfaits are a great alternative for those who don’t yet appreciate ceremonial matcha.

There were many food items, but unfortunately no vegan options. Instead, I ordered a ceremonial matcha and hoped it would be served with a sweet treat. In Japanese teahouses, the most expensive matcha on the menu is the highest grade ceremonial matcha and is served with sencha and wagashi. Wagashi is a small Japanese confection, often made from sugar and rice flour. It is typically plant-based, even when it includes a filling.

The order did end up including a delicious pink wagashi. The matcha itself didn’t have that distinct umami flavour, however, it was still extremely fresh and skillfully prepared. I also ordered an iced matcha, which was smooth but much sweeter than expected as they added a generous amount of syrup.

Sometimes it’s nice to stroll around, and visit a place without looking at reviews. Though, I have extremely high expectations for my next matcha tasting as it would be in the highly regarded teahouses of Uji.