soup’s on at The Instant Ramen Museum


I have distinct memories of taking Cup Noodles for lunch in elementary school. I remember carefully peeling the lid back, but not all the way off, then adding the hot water before gently placing the paper lid back down. With my spoon resting on top to hold the lid in place while the noodles steeped, I waited patiently for the little dried corn and shrimp bits to rehydrate. After only a few minutes, although it seemed like much longer at the time, lunch was ready. There was always the challenge of untangling the mass of noodles while trying to slurp both broth and noodles at the same time. Having now spent a few weeks in Japan, I appreciate that ramen eating is a learned art – chopsticks in one hand, spoon in the other, with alternating slurps to enjoy all the flavours.

For those hot soup lunches, I have Momofuku Ando to thank. After WWII, in his quest to show that “Peace will come to the world when the people have enough to eat” Ando founded Nissin, first manufacturing salt, and then in 1958, launching the first package of precooked flash-fried instant noodles, called Chikin Ramen. In 1971, the introduction of a waterproof styrene container created the Cup Noodles that have become a worldwide success. All of this started in the small city of Ikeda, which is about a 45-minute train ride outside of Osaka and home to the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum. Entrance to the museum is free. You can walk through the Instant Ramen Noodle Tunnel to learn about the history of Nissin and instant noodles, test your ramen knowledge at the interactive trivia tables, or rest inside the small theatre (appropriately designed in the shape of an oversized noodle cup) and watch a short movie about how the soups are made. If you book ahead, you can join a class to roll your own ramen noodles while wearing your very own chicken bandana (note: these classes book up way in advance; they were taking reservations for five weeks out when I tried to sign up). For those who are interested in more spontaneous fun, for only 300¥ (approximately $3.20 CDN) you can design your own Cup Noodles.

This is not a task to be taken lightly. When faced with a blank canvas, the pressure is on to design something noteworthy. You may think this is kids stuff, but the day I visited, the museum was full of young adults, sitting quietly, carefully selecting colours from the markers provided, concentrating on their designs. Once satisfied with your artistic efforts, it is time to build your perfect Cup Noodles. First you spin the Noodle Shooter to fill your cup with ramen. Next, at the flavour station, you select your seasoning (classic chicken, chili tomato, curry…) and add up to four toppings (chicken, pork, shrimp, egg, corn, green onion…). Then your cup is sealed with a paper lid and shrink wrapped for safekeeping. But the most important part still lies ahead. Once your personalized Cup Noodles is ready, you place it inside a specially designed plastic bag, complete with red string handle, which gets inflated to create a protective air pillow around your cup.

The train ride back into Osaka, with passengers pointing and discussing your Cup Noodles design, is almost as much fun as the whole process of making it.

Address: 8-2-5 Masumicho, Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture 563-0041
Hours: 9:30 am–3:30 pm, closed Tuesday






Tsukiji Market tuna auction


Despite being a city that boasts an intersection where 100,000 people cross each hour and a train station that hosts 3 million travellers each day, the streets of Tokyo are empty on our 4:30am drive to the Tsukiji Market. Inside the market, however, the action started hours ago, as wholesalers, known as oroshi gyōsha, arrive at 3am to set up the tuna displays for the auction at 5:30a.m. With over $5.5 billion U.S. in annual sales, the Tsukiji Market is the busiest fish market in the world.

Only 120 tourists are allowed in each morning, in two batches of 60 people, to observe the tuna auction. Donning our blue safety vests that serve to both identify which group we’re in and to make us more visible, we file into a small strip of space set aside for watching the auction. Frozen whole tuna, each more than 3ft in length, line the floor row upon row. Overturned crates serve as tables to display samples. Potential buyers inspect the bright red tuna slices carefully, poking and prodding, occasionally sniffing, even getting out their flashlights to closely examine the flesh.

The auctioneer’s ringing bell signifies the start of the action. Buyers gather around, ready to bid for their selections. The auctioneer doesn’t so much call the auction as sing it. It’s a performance to keep the buyers engaged and get the best price for the sellers. The melodic chanting fills the cavernous warehouse as buyers raise their hands and point to signify their increasing bids. Once sold, the samples are marked and matched with the whole fish to eventually be carted off for processing or packed for shipping to their final destination.

After the auction, we wander to an area full of small restaurants that serve the many employees of the market and the curious tourists. It’s breakfast time, and given the activity of the morning, sushi seems the only appropriate choice. We pass by the famous Daiwa Sushi with its lineup and 45-minute wait, choosing instead to try a lesser-known small spot a few rows over. Seated at the counter, we watch our breakfast being made and then enjoy the fresh, soft rice and fish. No soy sauce this time…we want to taste all the nuances. The Kansai-style unagi is so good that we order seconds.

Bellies full of oishii fish and minds full of vibrant images from the morning, it’s 7:30am and about time we head home for a nap.







DIY afternoon at FabCafe


At FabCafé in Shibuya, Tokyo you can get a marshmallow latte and laser-cut just about anything you can think of, all in one afternoon. FabCafé made the press around Valentine’s Day for their innovative use of 3D printing technology. In Japan, the tradition is for women to gift chocolate to their sweethearts. So, FabCafé invited the romantically inclined to have a 3D image cast of their face and turned into a silicone mold for making chocolate truffles. So fun! Their next project is 3D men gummy candy for White Day, a sort of reverse Japanese Valentine’s Day when men return the favour and give gifts to the women in their life.

I spent a couple of fab afternoons at the café crafting a variety of projects. My favourite is my Life Should Be Delish iPhone case. With the Paper by FiftyThree app on my iPad, I drew a design using my finger. Then there was a little editing to compile the image. With a simple JPG as the output, the final graphic was soon loaded into Fab’s computer and ready to be etched. 15 minutes later, my custom leather iPhone case emerged from the laser-cutter ready to go!

Have a project of your own? Check out Toronto Laser Services.


Big Tree Farms chocolate factory


You don’t need a golden ticket to visit this chocolate factory, but you do have to be able to find it. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll drive right by the Big Tree Farms chocolate production facility, housed in the world’s largest commercial building built of bamboo. Make sure to watch for the big banyan tree, where you’ll turn off the main road, and there, tucked back in the village of Abiansemal, you’ll find Big Tree Farms.

We’re here for a tour, to learn about the company, about the building and its unique design, and about the approach to chocolate making that differentiates Big Tree Farms. Of course, we’re hoping to taste some chocolate too. Our friendly and enthusiastic guide, Ningseh, gives us a quick overview of the factory while we enjoy a complimentary warm chocolate drink (although it’s a humid 30+ degrees so we don’t need any further inspiration to warm up). Energized by the chocolate, and dressed in our mandatory ‘oompa loompa’ sanitation hats, we’re now ready to explore the factory.

Even though the grand opening took place in November 2011, the factory is still a work in progress. The current building houses a warehouse for raw ingredients, production and packaging facilities, and Big Tree Farm’s Indonesian head office. A retail store, commercial kitchen and café are being built out back to better facilitate consumer interest and tours like the one we’re taking.  Designed by an American architect, now relocated to Bali, and built with the guidance of a Balinese Master bamboo builder, it’s an unconventional structure, but it works. The walls are woven from strips of bamboo, allowing air to flow through for natural ventilation, and the third floor atrium with its tented roof is completely open, creating a cavernous loft in the treetops. Production areas all have internal glass windows so everyone can see each other. It’s part of the Big Tree Farms belief in transparency.

From a business that started out in 2000 as an organic produce farm on just under an eighth of an acre, Big Tree Farms has grown into a vertically-integrated, multi-product food company with over 14,000 local farming partners and customers around the world. The philosophy is to build a business that works both economically and ecologically, not just for the owners, but for the farmers and communities Big Tree Farms relies on. As we wind our way through the factory, seeing chocolate making in action, we can appreciate the emphasis on transparency and sustainability at every step of the process




To make their organic chocolate products, Big Tree Farms works with over 2,000 farmers on the island of Bali, and another 1,000 farmers in Aceh. The ‘beans’ (which are actually seeds from the cocoa pod fruit) are harvested, fermented and then dried. To keep their products ‘raw’ (raw foods are thought to maintain more of their nutrients that their cooked counterparts), Big Tree Farms never heats the beans above 45 degrees C. Then the beans are crushed to remove the skins and turn the whole beans into nibs. I tried to do this manually – which Big Tree sometimes does at the request of certain customers – and couldn’t even get one flake of the skin to come off. It takes practice and patience to peel the beans. The nibs are inspected and sorted – by hand – for quality control to ensure all the skin has been removed. Approved nibs are then pressed for 8 hours to make cocoa powder, and then further refined for 12 hours to create an even smoother paste. From here, the paste is pressed to separate out the excess oils. This is where the cocoa butter you find in lotions comes from. The cocoa paste is mixed with the right balance of oil and sugar and then tempered to prepare it to be transformed into consumer products. In addition to chocolate bars, Big Tree Farms sells raw cocoa powder, whole cocoa beans, and cocoa nibs.

To sweeten the chocolate, Big Tree Farms uses organic coconut palm sugar, another one of their food products. As it is unrefined and has a lower glycemic index, coconut palm sugar is the current darling of nutritionists. Dr. Oz and other high-profile health experts are touting it as the next ‘big ingredient’ and suggesting it is a better choice over traditional refined cane sugar (your basic white sugar used in many commercial food products and one of the targets in the obesity crisis).



Organic, raw, nutritious chocolate – is this the ultimate feel-good, guilt-free indulgence? You’ll have to try it and decide for yourself. Big Tree Farms is certainly working hard to give you as many reasons as they can to help you feel good about their sustainable food products.  And they might just be having a little fun while doing it. Willy Wonka would be proud.


Here is a recipe from Big Tree Farms for their Spicy Morning of the World hot cocoa drink.

This is the Jamu of Cacao that gets our blood flowing in the morning.  Morning elixirs are an important for the majority of we humans, everywhere.  Every culture, in their own way, greats the morning with some kind of ritual that bridges the dream time to the awake time. Our morning ritual uses our cold pressed raw cacao powder, our SweetTree coconut palm sugar and various spices that not only awakes the mind, but also invigorates the body.  Cacao is a stimulant in that it is one of the best vasodilators in the world, which means it expands your veins, allowing more oxygen to flow into your body.  So your cells feel alive and awake without the jittery caffeine manky manky.

Recipe (always adjust for personal preference):

2 cups hot water
4 heaping tablespoons Big Tree Farms raw cacao powder (6 tablespoons if you like it really rich)
4 tablespoons SweetTree coconut palm sugar (or sweeten to taste)
2 tablespoons CocoHydro coconut water powder (original flavor)
1 Pinch of Big Tree Farms Balinese sea salt
2 Pinches of cayenne pepper
Dash of freshly ground nutmeg
Sprinkle of cinnamon

Stir the above ingredients in an oversized mug that requires you to use 2 hands to bring it to your lips.  After all, this is a morning ritual and using two hands tends to make you appreciate the moment all the more. We love using coconut milk to give it a little bit of extra richness and mouth feel, but you can you use whatever kind of milk you prefer.

Amlapura market

We weave through the narrow laneways, passing women balancing their purchases atop their heads. It’s 8:30 on a Monday morning and the market is packed with locals doing their regular shopping. Fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, spices, sweets, housewares, secondhand clothing (including an Abercrombie & Fitch hoodie), it’s all here at Amlapura market.

The permanent location of this Balinese market is under construction, but this temporary venue has not deterred shoppers. The alleys wind up, down and around, with vendors packed into every nook and cranny. One seller is cleaning her fish, and we try to stay out of the way of the bright turquoise scales that fly about. Around the corner, chickens are being butchered into all different cuts. Down the pathway, live ducks await their fate, likely to become bebek betutu, a traditional slow cooked duck dish that you must order one day in advance.

As we exit the covered area and head out into the sunlit street, we come across a collection of produce vendors. The mangoes tempt us, as does a pint-sized pineapple. I am curious to try durian, a common Southeast Asian fruit with a pungent odour whose reputation precedes it. Search durian online and you’ll find a range of descriptions, from “almonds, rotten onions, turpentine, and gym socks” to “compost” to “sewage, stale vomit, skunk spray and used surgical swabs”. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Because of the smell, durians have been banned from certain hotels and public transportation in Southeast Asia. Our guide, Made, deters my purchase, afraid I will offend the rest of the guests at the villa if I bring the durian back. I’m not giving up though. We have a week left in Bali, so I will keep an eye out for durian and somewhere I can try it in a, perhaps, more private setting.

Navigating the market means wading through the sea of colours, sounds, and smells. It’s an experience that helps us to understand not just the flavours of our favourite dishes, but Balinese culture as well.


flavours of Indonesia

We arrived in Bali at the beginning of the dry season. While the rice paddies were vibrant green, much of the hillside was a very dry brown. As a tourist, I hope for a rain-free visit, but I can appreciate the importance of the rainy season to the environment and to the farmers. Along the roadside we passed small farms with cows, pigs, and chickens. These chickens bring new meaning to ‘free-range’ as they roam here, there and everywhere, with all different breeds mixed together. One chicken even flew into our car as we drove by – I know, you’re saying ‘a flying chicken?’, but it really did happen. We also had to stop the car once to allow a chicken to cross the road. Yes, really. And we had to stop for a large lizard, a flock of geese, and some monkeys. I thought the motorbikes were the road hazard, but it appears animals can cause just as many traffic jams.

Our guide Putra took us to Bali Re, just west of Pemuteran, to a local market. The maze-like set up offered rows and rows of vendors with fruits, vegetables, spices, peanuts, and fish. There were many fruits we recognized, like mangos (only $1 for a kilo), and many that were exotic, like jackfruit and rambutan. Locals shop every one or two days for fresh ingredients. We saw some enterprising Balinese load the back of their motorbikes with a specially fitted woven box to carry produce, which they will re-sell to people who cannot make it to the market to shop themselves.

A day trip to Java took us along roads lined with beehives, leading to a wonderfully productive mixed rainforest growing Arabica coffee and cinnamon. Cinnamon is the dried bark of the cinnamon tree. There are two species of cinnamon trees, with cinnamon cassia, often called a cassia tree, being the more common, but considered to be of lesser quality. Unless you are seeking out true cinnamon, much of what we buy is cassia labeled as cinnamon. To harvest the spice, first the outer bark of the tree is removed, and then the inner bark, which is dried and rolled into the cinnamon sticks we are familiar with, sometimes also called quills. Holding a fresh piece of bark, right off the tree, I was surprised as the citrus notes, like orange zest, that I could smell. The bark is moist and very light in colour on the interior side. Apparently it dries quite quickly, so must be processed and rolled shortly after the bark is pulled from the tree or it will dry out. The bark can also be ground to make powdered cinnamon.


Along the side of the road were many beehives, set out in single layers, not stacked like we often see at home. It can get pretty hot in there with all those buzzing busy bees, so add the Indonesian sun, and it could become a bee sauna. It turns out that Indonesian bees are actually a different species, related to the giant honeybee. One study showed that Indoensian honey had comparable antibacterial and healing effectiveness to the popular Manuka honey from New Zealand. Perhaps we’ll soon be seeing more Indonesian honey on the shelves back home.

In east Java, the Arabica coffee variety is widely grown. Now I know why we sometimes refer to a cup of coffee as a ‘cup of java’. Coffee beans are actually the seed or pit found inside the red coffee fruit, often called a coffee cherry. The seeds are white, and then roasted to become the dark brown ‘bean’ we are used to seeing.


It hasn’t all been just seeing the flavours of Indonesia. There’s been lots of tasting too. So far my favourite two dishes are Nasi Goreng and Balinese peanut sauce (not really a dish, but a super delicious addition to many of the dishes we’ve enjoyed).

Remember in the early 2000s, when we were all excited about President’s Choice Memories of Szechuan sauce? Well, Balinese peanut sauce puts it to shame. It is rich in flavor and much deeper and darker in colour. We have enjoyed it with veggies, with satays, and with lumpia, a Balinese spring roll. I am very happy to say that Jero, a wonderful Balinese cook, showed me how to make it. Recipe to come soon. Like me, Jero doesn’t really cook off of a recipe. She just uses a little of that, some more of this. So I am working out quantities for the recipe. And figuring out how to recreate kecap manis, a sweet soy sauce, that is common in Indonesian dishes.

Which leads me to Nasi Goreng, considered by some to be the national dish of Indonesia. With over 237 million people spread across more than 17,000 islands, I can imagine it would be difficult to find one dish they all shared. But as Nasi Goreng translates to ‘fried rice’, it is a simple and versatile dish that can be adjusted to create many variations. The basic ingredients are stir-fried rice, sauces, and vegetables, seafood, or chicken. Jero also showed me how she makes Nasi Goreng. Again, recipe in the works. This dish also calls for kecap manis, so all the more reason to find a Toronto-friendly way to recreate a similar flavour.

The exploration continues, as I head to northeast Bali to an area known for its small fishing villages. Until then, silahkan menikmati.


outstanding in the field: Vermont

100+ people.  30+ degrees.  2-acres.  1 long table.

1 amazing dining experience.

We arrive at Half Pint Farm in Burlington, Vermont curious, hot, and hungry. We’re here for the Outstanding in the Field (OITF) farm dinner event that is being hosted by Mara and Spencer Welton of Half Pint Farms. Founded by Jim Denevan, chef and organic farming supporter, Outstanding in the Field travels to farms across the US (and even made it into Canada this summer to Bradford, ON for their first Canadian event) hosting communal dinners as a way to showcase the talented farmers and chefs committed to supporting local agriculture.

With a glass of wine in hand, we split into two groups and tour the farm. Mara and Spencer are model-farmers for the new farming movement. Young, hip (how many farmers do you know that wear aviators?), and determined to prove that you can make a living as a farmer. Managing 2-acres within the Intervale Centre, a 350-acre farmland area along the Winooski River, Mara and Spencer specialize in baby vegetables, hence the name Half Pint Farm. They are supporters of the RAFT alliance, working towards Renewing America’s Food Traditions. By employing sustainable agriculture techniques as they grow heirloom and unique varieties of produce, they are helping to restore the diversity of American food traditions. Mara and Spencer sell at the farmers’ market and directly to restaurants in the area, and their CSA program is in year two, with a total of eight members.

After the farm tour, we make our way to the table. Guests have been asked to bring their own plates. It helps reduce the inventory the OITF team has to trek from event to event, but also creates interesting conversation around the table. I, having traveled from Toronto and not wanting to lug my plate, borrow one of the OITF selections, collected along the way from forgetful guests. We chat with our tablemates. We have diners from Boston and New York on our left, New Jersey on our right. Some guests are here for their second or third OITF event, while many, like us, are first timers.

First course arrives. It’s a heaping platter of sliced heirloom tomatoes and field cucumbers, topped off with local Vermont feta. It’s exactly what we need to quench our hunger in the roasting heat. Although it’s almost 6pm, the sun is still beaming down. Wine pairings accompany each course, and we are treated to a Vermont “Traminette” from East Shore Vineyard. Our meal is prepared in partnership with guest chefs Steve and Lara Atkins and the crew from local restaurant Kitchen Table Bistro. Courses are served family-style, allowing us to get to know our fellow diners as we pass second servings of the roasted carrots and potatoes and the lovely local pork tenderloin. By the time dessert arrives, I am not sure I can eat anymore. But then the cream cheese pound cake with blueberries is being passed to me and there is no way I can say no.

Enjoying a meal with friends outdoors, talking to the farmer about the care that goes into the raw ingredients, and watching the chef turn those ingredients into something that nourishes and creates so much joy is a very magical experience. Cheers to the Outstanding in the Field team for a truly outstanding evening.