Friday 20 December 2013

So This Is Christmas

 Fried Chicken!


Santa on a Cross!

Tacky Commercialization!



Barely Concealed Racism!

I think that’s everything. Please let me know if I’ve missed any of the traditional expat tropes. It is frightfully difficult to keep track.
In other news, after ordering a bird that was a little on the small side last year, this time we’ve massively overcompensated to the point where I’m not sure it’ll fit in the oven. I’m seriously considering smoking the thing in the kettle BBQ, but can’t say I’m too keen on all the ‘standing outside at six in the morning in December’ that will entail if we want to eat anywhere near lunchtime. It will, however, have the advantage of freeing up space for the roast potatoes and mince pies.

Made mincemeat from scratch this year as well, what with the import stores I’ve got it from in the past apparently deciding it’s not worth stocking any more. Will let you know how that goes as and when, but it did make the kitchen smell all christmassy, which is a large part of the reason for it in the first place.

I appear to care about this stuff now which, I don’t mind admitting, comes as something of a surprise. For what I can only take as a purely secular tradition, I’m finding that doing it ‘properly’ is getting more and more important. It’s not just the arrival of kids, either, though that’s undoubtedly a factor. My wife’s side of the family is fairly compact, numbers-wise, and so I find myself trying to make up for the christmases of my youth spent with a dozen or more cousins, aunts, and uncles. Or perhaps more accurately the christmases I remember from my youth: looking back with adult hindsight there were clearly any number of sherry-fuelled disagreements and tensions bubbling away alongside the tinsel and crackers. But you don’t know about that as a kid. There’s a tree, there are presents under it, and at dinner you get to eat as much as you like followed by cake and pudding after which Uncle Dave will fall asleep on the sofa and Auntie Janice will trip up repeatedly on perfectly flat floors and cry uncontrollably because she’s ‘in one of her moods’. Who wouldn’t want to hand down those traditions to the next generation?

Part of it is also undoubtedly absence making the heart grow fonder, an absence that is both geographical and temporal. Is it just me going in for all this introspection, or is it part of living in a place where you’ll always be something of an outsider? I guess a large part of growing up is realizing that adults don’t have all the answers, that your parents and all the other figures of authority you thought had all the answers were flying blind most of the time, getting by on a mixture of desperation, panic, and ill-conceived improvisation. Christmas always seemed like such a set thing: we would turn up at our grandparents’ house, eat, sleep, get presents, and go home again. It all just happened and it’s only as you get older that it becomes apparent how much it needed to be constructed as an event.

Again, that act of construction is probably more obvious because I’m in a place that isn’t really geared up for it (christmas, I mean. Japan is clearly more than capable of constructing its own arbitrary cultural touchstones). Everything needs to be sourced and made from scratch, whereas back home you can just pluck it all off the shelf. Thanks to the internet it’s definitely easier than when I first came to Japan, which wasn’t all that long ago to be honest but back then it was the Foreign Buyers Club or nothing, unless you had a friend who had access to a US military base.

At the risk of banging the same rather old and tired drum, I actually quite like that about the place. Christmas is no more inauthentic or artificial here than anywhere else you care to mention, it’s just more obviously so. That’s no bad thing, as far as I can see. Problematizing cultural norms is an important first step towards necessary change, however unwittingly it might be done. If the joins are showing then you can better see how it’s all put together, and when you start thinking about the ‘how’ you must inevitably consider the ‘why’, and once you’ve got that you can start to get at what’s really important.

Making marzipan is a legitimate route to enlightenment. I’m off to buy some almonds.


  1. Brilliant summative introduction. My eldest will remember this Christmas, so I'd better make more effort than the argument I had with the J-wife this morning: "No, you are not buying him a one-mat sized 'play tent' to take up the only remaining space in our living room!"

    You are more ambitious than I on the cooking, except when you say such a large bird are you meaning a turkey? Feh! Dry bird only appropriate for Canadian or American thanksgivings I should think: Christmas, goose; Easter, lamb. Mine will be duck again, as I cannot get a goose here for anything, but also because I have a small group and the Japanese cannot process a proper joint of meat. At least the protein will not be ravaged into scraps and drowned in the locals' salt-based condiments, for a change.

    I have never made a Yorkshire pudding work, and strictly speaking I suppose one doesn't make it with fowl; however, can you imagine how good it would be done in duck fat?

    1. Yeah, it's a turkey. Got a few people coming round this year so anything smaller won't work and like yourself had no luck getting a goose. Though we got sprouts through the Meat Guy this year thanks to your recommendation, so thanks for that. The trick in keeping it on the right side of dry is to shovel a fuckton of seasoned butter under the skin and baste. Usually works out ok.

      On the few occasion I've tried a Yorkshire Pudding, I've found it works best when the fat is so hot it's smoking. Not sure I'd trust that to one of the oven/microwave combi we've got right now though.

    2. If your oven is like mine it heats with a lamp from the top, only (making pizza ever a disappointment). Forgive me as you've likely figured this out, but the thing to do with a bird is start it breast side down, and keep it such for most of the duration, turning it only to colour the breast at the end. Nobody gives a if the back is scorched. Also, what fat is in a turkey runs down to the breast.

      A thought I've not put into practice on the Yorkshire pudding is to get my iron frying pan very hot on the stove, pour the batter into that, then throw it into the oven, somewhat getting around the many limitations of even larger Japanese 'ovens'.

    3. Another thought: 'barding fat'. Since that's difficult enough to get home, and impossible here, just can lay fatty bacon over the breast. If nothing else, better gravy!

  2. Smoke it. I would never ever even try it another way. Soak it in a salt brine for 10 hours and the meat will drip off. Just pick it up by the back bone and the meat slides off. It's pretty amazing when compared to what dry nightmares most folks cook up.

    2 25lb/13kg turkeys simmering in their own soup for 9 hours......epic awesomeness!!

    1. I can only imagine! There's a whole different paradigm in American outdoor cooking and smoking than we Canadians and Brits are used to. Have to try it sometime back in 'the Great White North' when it's worth getting the equipment, and I have more than a balcony to cook on (I used to barbeque on my Saitama JET balcony, but it scandalized the locals: "Kaji-da!"). I very much want one of those 'big green egg's or 'komado'.

    2. I know a Canadian on a BBQ forum that has a smoker he tows with a truck. A truck.
      They do that in Texas as part of being a state member I think but Canada got the big rigs too. I have to clarify and state clearly I would never eat a turkey that was not brined and slow smoked. It's just another level. Worth the work and honestly cooking a big bird is gonna take time however you do it the only diff is the attention to coals and longer cook time but good things often take time so that variable is acceptable.

    3. I just had a bad day, preparing for Christmas in Tokyo.

  3. Thank you both. It turns out that it IS too big to fit in the oven, so even though I was leaning towards the smoking option the decision has kinda been made for me. It's on there as I type - there's nothing quite like trying to light a BBQ when it's dark to make you appreciate the little home comforts. I'll update when as and when...

  4. Couple of comments: first, yes, smoke the turkey. Huge difference. (Completely impossible in my former Kyoto home, but now I live in the decadent West and am considering building an entire smokehouse in my backyard.)
    Second, I talked to my son's kindergarten class this year about holidays abroad, and got to give the usual rundown of Japanese Christmas. Mostly they were appalled at the "Spend Christmas with your girl/boyfriend" bit. Exactly the opposite of the Christmas talk I gave every year at Japanese schools, followed by everyone singing the pushiest lines from "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." (Bring us some figgy pudding!)
    Finally, we're busy constructing our own Christmas here too. I dunno if it's the Japanese wife part or not, but I have as much trouble putting a coherent Christmas season together here as I did in Japan. Different trouble, but same amount.

    1. Turkey turned out pretty well, in the end. Lessons to learn in the end, but apart from the early rise not having to juggle everything in the oven made it all considerably easier that previously. Definitely the way forward.

      This christmas has actually gone pretty well thus far. Got the in-laws visiting tomorrow for the traditional mid-winter cold food buffet, so not quite out of the woods yet, but the end is in sight.