A Taste of the Familiar: ‘bucks and Burgers

I’ve been pretty terrible lately in terms of writing new posts. Not a single new one in over a week and a half! I’m mostly chalking that up to a.) being busy with lessons and planning things for my trip home in a few weeks and b.) having days off for Golden Week.

Golden Week’s this fantastic holiday period in Japan that encompasses the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May. Because of some convenient rearranging of public holidays, it means that we have a three day weekend, a three day week, and then a four day weekend. If you’re savvy about using paid leave, you can get nine or ten days off and only have to use four days of leave. Last year, I did exactly that and jetted off to Hong Kong for some much needed sun and relaxing on the beach. This year, though, I stayed put in Aomori.

Though that might seem like it would mean I’d have plenty of time on my hands to write posts, I wasn’t in my house or by my computer very much. Instead, I was out and about, enjoying the views of the blooming 桜 (sakura, cherry blossoms) that finally graced Aomori with their presence. More on that, though, in a later post or two. For now, I’m focusing on food. (No real surprise there.)

Even when I’m seven thousand miles away, food is what makes me feel connected to my home and family in America. Whether it’s my mum’s comforting tuna noodle casserole – seriously, the first time I made that by myself, my stomach wept tears of joy – or a bowl of hot oatmeal for breakfast, food is an indulgence that provides a link to my “past” life. (That’s not to say that I don’t eat Japanese/Asian food. Trust me. I do. In vast quantities.) Usually I keep my diet pretty healthy, but once in a while, the mood strikes and I need something wholly, shamelessly America. That happened this past weekend.

A month or two ago, a new Starbucks opened its doors in my city, a mere twenty-minute bike ride from my house. I’m pretty fond of the green mermaid-adorned beverages, so you’d think that I’d be treating myself to loads of chai tea lattes, but my mentality was that as soon as I started going, it would become a regular, expensive, unhealthy habit. So I held off. That is, until one of my newly-graduated students came back from university last weekend and asked if we could have coffee together. I gladly agreed, let my resistance melt away, and arranged to meet up with her at Starbucks.

Oh, Japan. How well you understand (and tempt) me.
Oh, Japan. How well you understand (and tempt) me.

And this glorious thing greeted me. Tiramisu frappacino! I go pretty mad for tiramisu, so it took a pretty hefty dose of willpower to resist ordering one of these bad guys. We’ll see if I can restrain myself until it goes off the menu in early July. You can also order a white chocolate-based version topped with caramel drizzle. This is a limited edition drink, and it even comes with a special wide straw to ensure that you can suck up the cocoa cookie and white chocolate brownie crumbles with ease. And the usual whipped cream topping? It’s been replaced by a cream cheese mousse. Seriously, whoever thought this concoction up deserves a gastronomical medal (or a good scolding from the American Diabetes Association).

Japan puts a lot of emphases on “limited edition” products, and that means that our Starbucks gets drinks that aren’t offered anywhere else. Two autumns ago, we got the mouthwateringly delicious Apple Crumble Latte, and this fall, there was the Crunchy Caramel Macchiato (bitter caramel drizzle and topped by candied almond pieces). It definitely makes up for the fact that we don’t get Pumpkin Spice Lattes (which I can make at home, anyway).

Excuse me while I just stare longingly at this picture.
Excuse me while I just stare longingly at this picture.

A day after I’d indulged in a chai latte, I really went off the dietary deep end. This might just look like a standard American hamburger, but let me tell you, trying to find a genuine burger in Japan is like trying to find a beef needle in a country filled with 合い挽き(aibiki, a blend of pork and beef) haystacks. Japanese burgers are still pretty tasty, but they just don’t measure up to their American counterparts (in my humble opinion). So when a restaurant in nearby Hirosaki opened and started offering genuine Stars ‘n’ Stripes burgers, JETs from all over the prefecture were salivating. And for good reason. This burger was heaven. Thick, juicy, and so substantial that I could barely fit it in my mouth for a bite. And the bun…oh, the bun. Japanese white bread is more akin to marshmallow fluff than anything else, and to circumvent that, the restaurant owners specially import their buns. The company of a thick, frigid vanilla shake made the whole meal even better. Eating it left my fingers slick with greasy residue (gross, but also so, so good) and my stomach close to bursting.

I went for a standard burger for my first venture, but the next time I go back (and there will be a next time), I’m thinking that I’ll be going for the tropical, grilled pineapple-topped burger.

Maybe it seems quite silly that basic food as simple as a Starbucks drink and a hamburger can deserve a lengthy wall post. And true, maybe I put too much emphasis on my culinary choices. But the truth is, sometimes I do really miss America and the life I had there. It doesn’t happen often, since I’m well and truly happy with the life I have in Aomori. But on the days where I’m feeling a bit homesick, the right epicurean choice turns my mood right around. For people living abroad, away from friends and family, a mouthful of food made “just the way Mum/Grandma/my favorite café used to” can make a world of difference. Familiarity can do wonders; it’s the reason why so many expats freak out if someone sends them a care package filled with something as mundane as Reese’s Pieces, Girl Scout Cookies, or peanut butter. And I figure that if the way I stay connected to my first home is by having an occasional burger, I’m doing just fine.

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