Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Tomato Sandwich

No photos, as my camera batteries are dead but...

Imagine, if you will, that you are walking through a small neighborhood market in Japan. Your basket is laden with twelve tiny, incredibly sweet local tangerines, two skinny, glossy purple eggplant, ten pale green asparagus spears with tight, fat, rounded heads (almost like a cartoon of asparagus, or pale green Sharpie markers) in two bundles of five fat spears each. You nod and smile at the other shoppers, mostly little old ladies shuffling along like hump-backed snails or young mothers moving at the speed of light with silent infants in tow. (If you're me, you're probably imagining yourself as an integral part of this community, "The Interesting American" as opposed to just another clumsy, loud Navy Wife with a beat-up car. Enjoy this dream while you can.)

After looking over the various prepared foods -- fried octopus, sushi rolls with what looks like a filling of hot dog and lettuce (!!), various rice preparations decorated with nori -- nothing seems quite right with the humid, heavy summer weather outside. Instead, you're drawn to that distinct,slightly spicy scent of summer, the display of large, dusty rose, locally grown tomatoes. How about tomato sandwiches for dinner? Thick slices of scarlet summertime on bakery bread with a little mayonnaise, a little kosher salt, a grinding of black pepper...light, yet luscious, full of childhood memories.

Carefully you select a single fat specimen, fragrant and perfectly ripe -- the kind of tomato that would be delicious tonight, possibly tomorrow, but overly sweet and mushy by the next day.

You peruse the mostly incomprehensible labels on the shelves, selecting (you hope) a small squeeze bottle of the delicious, silky, not-as-heavy-as-American mayonnaise (Kewpie brand, which makes you smile). You've heard the lowfat Japanese mayo is not as sweet as the American brands, so you take the chance on the stuff that has (you think) a quarter of the calories of the regular stuff. Into the basket it goes, and you hold your head high, proud of your health-conscious behavior.

Bread...hmm. The loaf of white bread is cut far too thick, and would be cottony and hard to swallow. There are no whole-grain options, as this is a very small Japanese bakery, running more towards little pastries and loaves of white bread with no heels. Besides, the right summertime tomato sandwich begs for soft, plain bread, not a hearty loaf. Oh, perfect! A package of flat, pale, soft little buns, each with a small sprinkling of black sesame seeds. Each one is just a tiny bit larger than the circumference of your single tomato. You imagine splitting a couple of these, filling them and making that dinner, along with perhaps a little cucumber salad. You even grab your favorite tart lemon soda as a treat, "70 lemons' worth of Vitamin C in every bottle" it proclaims in English.

You check out, proudly using your few words of Japanese with the harried cashier as she rings up your purchases. "Konnichi wa. Arigatou gosaimasu. Arigatou." Nod as if you understand when she tells you how much, sneak a peak at the register display, and hand her your money. When she offers you your trading stamps with an incomprehensible question, refuse them and gesture that she give them to the next person in line, who collects them. She smiles and bows. The cashier smiles and bows. You smile and bow. Once more, with feeling, "Arigatou gosaimasu."

You unpack your bounty at home, and begin supper preparations. You carve the perfect tomato carefully, and taste the mayonnaise (yes, it's amazingly good for lowfat!). Get out the salt and pepper. Open the package of beautiful rolls and pull out two, wrapping the rest for later. Use your serrated knife carefully, so you don't smash or tear the bread.

Wait...the roll is dragging at the knife in a really odd way. The knife emerges smeared with something thick and purply brown. What the...?


These aren't little white bread dinner rolls. These are dessert buns filled with a paste of sweetened adzuki beans. Good? Sure...a little bland, a little heavy, but not bad. But for tomato sandwiches? Not even close.

The dream of "The Interesting American" fizzles away, as you slink to the freezer to pull out a Lean Cuisine, hoping it isn't too frostbitten.

Oh well. There's always tomorrow. And now you know the kanji for "adzuki bean paste."


Unknown said...

Honestly, one of my favorite entries! I kept waiting for the "but" that I knew was coming with no idea of what I was actually waiting for. Great "suspense" and detail!


thepassionatecook said...

i love that... and you know what, when i opened the contents of your parcel, i went through a similar exercise. could have sworn that these sesame crackers were savoury, for example!
"interesting austrian" is certainly not what people round here think when i demand that my ham be cut wafer-thin instead of 1cm slices like the british seem to do - or insist that they open a fresh pack of beef fillet instead of what's been out on nthe counter since the wee hours of the morning. or if i insist that i want to pick out my own fruit at the market stall to make sure nothing mouldy ends up in my bag... or when i bring back a corn cob which is completely dried out the day i buy it! bloddy foreigner, more likely, if not something much worse ;-)

エミリ said...

ii hanashi desu ne! Great blog entry! hahaha!! I was cracking up, as would anyone who lived in Japan and tried shopping off base. My 'hot-dog' buns looked so delicious, however when I went to put my grilled hot dog in the bun I had to wipe out what seemed to be a gallon of butter from inside the bun. Surprise! haha! I love reading your blog.... I can't wait for your next 'Adventure'.
anata no itoko,

Carolie said...

Thanks, Hillary! Glad you liked it! I've enjoyed your blog's cool to see another view of the same place! Hope to see you soon, I miss talking!

Johanna, thank you for stopping by! Yes, those crackers surprised me too, but I sure liked 'em! You cracked me up with descriptions of picky behavior at the market -- I could picture it! Yes, I try to dream I am the "Interesting American" but I know in a lot of places I must be "that damned American!"

Em, SO glad to hear from you! Thanks for the kind words. Yes, I just got an e-mail from a friend here who got a "hot dog bun" that was filled with coffee pastry cream! But of course, the bun is not's like our hot dog buns. I actually got a little sandwich made with white bread that was stuffed with whipped cream...I thought the photo made it look like it was egg salad. NOPE! Love you! Write and let me know what's going on in your life! Wish I could make it to Kate's wedding, but I can't. Waah!

q said...

A~ah, anpan...
I love red bean paste, though most people don't find it tasty - I can't imagine why.

Say, how people react to you speaking Japanese? =3

Carolie said...

Thank you, Q! Yes, that's the word I couldn't think of...anpan! I love the cartoon character Anpan-man, who is a giant bean-filled sweet bun! Very funny, at least to my American eyes! And I don't have much cousin Emiri, above, speaks it MUCH better than I do, but I have struggled to learn some. I can stumble along in a VERY basic manner, but people are so kind and friendly (and surprised!) when I struggle to use the little bit I know. It's wonderful when I am understood, and when I can communicate with one of the older folks, as they don't have as much English as younger people. Usually, between my few words of Japanese, their few words of English and a lot of charades, smiles and bows, we manage to understand each other! It's embarrassing that so many Japanese know so much English, but we Americans can't be bothered to learn even the basic please, thank you and excuse me!

Mary Witzl said...

Funny post, Carolie, but I knew what was coming the minute you mentioned those sesame seeds! My two daughters still speak longingly of anpan and anpan-filled mochi, but I wonder how they'd like an anpan-and-tomato sandwich...

One of my husband's most miserable experiences in Japan was during his first Christmas there, all alone in a freezing cold apartment (and with a broken heart to boot). He had little money at the time, and decided to buy himself a Christmas treat to cheer himself up. He purchased what he thought was a donut, and as he bit into it, cold, partially congealed curry sauce ran out of it and down his chin, only adding to his general misery. He still speaks of this experience with horror.

Bacchus said...

I love this story. Thanks for the comment. I love the traveling journal. A friend of ours stole a gnome from his mother's garden and sent it on a journey. We each had to take pictures of the gnome around our city. I can't wait to see where it goes next.

Anonymous said...

Funny!! I can't wait unti I move to Japan and that sort of thing starts to happen to me!

Carolie said...

Mary -- loved the poignant story of your husband and the congealed curry sauce! Let me know...I'd be more than happy to ship your daughters some anpan (but without tomatoes and mayo!)

Bacchus -- thank you so much for stopping by. I was so thrilled by your happy news, and will be back to visit your blog again!

Soon-to-be Sasebo wife -- thank you for reading and for commenting! Please don't hesitate to e-mail me at carolie(at)wordmagix(dot)com with any questions, comments, etc. If you're headed this way soon, do you have a sponsor and someone to pick you up at the airport? Let me know...hope to meet you soon!

Namito said...

Oh the denial!

And especially with those perky ripe tomatoes all ready to eat.

Hope they lasted another day for you. Nothing like a little taste of childhood...particularly when you are far from it.

Carolie said...

Thanks for stopping by, RtC! I actually ate the tomato that evening (since I'd already sliced it!) and it was delicious. But...I'm going back for more tomatoes, and bread that I KNOW isn't stuffed with bean paste this time! :)