tales from high mountain by tara austen weaver

A couple of years ago, I discovered a blog called Tea and Cookies — it was listed by the London Times as one of the 50 Best Food Blogs in the World. I was hooked instantly by Tara Austen Weaver’s fascinating stories of food, travel, cultures, family and friends, and oohed and ahhed over all the gorgeous photos in each and every post.

Just found out that “Tea,” as Tara’s friends call her, has written a book about the first few months she lived high in the mountains of central Japan. Always up for an adventure, she set forth for Takayama when she was just 22, fresh out of grad school. Tales from High Mountain: Stories and Recipes from a Life in Japan is a chronicle of her immersion in a foreign culture, living in a centuries-old, rural town with an established family. There are feasts, festivals,  ancient temples, and many new “rules” and customs to learn.

The best part? Tea has written the book as a fundraiser to help the Japanese torn apart by this year’s earthquake/ tsunami disaster:

I’m sending the little book I’ve written out into the world. It’s not the full story of my five years in Japan—just the first part (if there is interest, I will continue it). I’m selling it as a fundraiser, to raise money to continue supporting people who have had their lives shattered. A portion of the money will be donated directly to organizations doing work in the earthquake zone, a portion I may use to put in place some morale boosting efforts. There will be more information about that in the next month or so, along with some creative ways you may be able to participate (this could be fun!). They have to do the hard work of rebuilding, but we can cheer them along, remind them of hope and kindness.

Along with raising money, I’m hoping this little book takes you into a world you’d never know about otherwise. A world of deep traditions, ritual, and reverence for family. It might help you understand why relocation from the earthquake zone is so traumatic (home has a very different meaning in Japan). And it will feed you too, because I’ve included ten of my favorite Japanese food recipes. I’ve tried to give you the flavor of my Japanese home.

I’ve just read the first three chapters and can’t wait to read more. Her beautiful prose is duly informed by her background as a travel, food and arts writer, and her spirit of adventure, natural curiosity about and respect for her adopted country are palpable. I’m sure you’ll enjoy her unique insights on the Japanese.

Tales from High Mountain is only available in electronic format — you can purchase it from Amazon for your Kindle, or download a PDF to read on your computer — for just $3.99. I got the PDF because I wanted to see the color photos that are included, especially for the recipes. How about some soba (buckwheat noodles), homemade udon (wide wheat noodles), Japanese Curry, Sekihan (Red Beans & Sticky Rice), or this:

photo credit: Tea & Cookies/flickr

NIKUJAGA: Japanese Meat and Potatoes
(serves four)

Japanese food is probably not what comes to mind when you hear the term “meat and potatoes.” Nikujaga is a mixture of beef, potatoes, and carrots simmered in a savory-sweet broth until soft. It is a fairly modern dish, but it’s extremely popular and perfect for cold autumn or winter meals. This version includes ito-konnyaku (also called shirataki or yam thread noodles), a jelly-like noodle sold packed in water. You can easily make it without, if you cannot find them or don’t like the rubbery texture.

1 tbs vegetable oil
1 large onion cut into 3/4-inch dice (about 1-1/2 cups)
1/2 lb. thinly sliced beef
1 large carrot cut into 3/4-inch dice (about 1-1/2 cups)
2 large potatoes (thin skinned) cut into 1-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
14-oz. ito-konnyaku (also called shirataki, yam thread noodles)
3 tbs sugar
2 cups dashi or mushroom soaking liquid (see note at end of recipe)
5 tbs soy sauce
5 tbs sake

In a large stewpot (cast iron or enamel works well), heat the oil over a medium high flame and add the onions. Sauté two minutes before adding the beef slices and browning on both sides. Add the carrots and cook a further three minutes, stirring regularly.

Add the potatoes and stir to coat with the oil. Sauté 2-3 minutes.

Add the dashi. If you don’t have dashi, or prefer not to use it, I often use the soaking liquid from reconstituting dried shiitake mushrooms (whenever I need mushrooms for a recipe, I soak them in warm water and then keep the water in the freezer for use in other dishes).

Sprinkle in the sugar, add soy sauce, sake, and the ito-konnyaku (I cut it into smaller threads for ease of eating). Stir to mix and turn down the heat to a strong simmer.

In Japan they have something called a “drop lid” that is used for the type of cooking where ingredients are simmered in sauce (nimono is the name for this sort of cooking). Drop lids are smaller than the circumference of the pot and make sure the ingredients are kept under the level of the sauce, so they cook evenly and absorb all the flavor they can. Drop lids are sometimes made of wood, sometimes made of metal, and often come packaged with the pots you buy. Because I don’t have a drop lid, I improvise and use the top to a smaller pot, which works fine.

Mushroom soaking liquid: whenever I use dried shiitake mushrooms, I save the hot water used to soak them in as it retains some of the mushroom flavor. This can be frozen, then be added to soups or sauces. It is not as flavorful as dashi, but better than using water.


There are nine more recipes in Tea’s book, and I really hope she sells oodles of copies of Part 1 so she’ll continue telling us more.

It’s been a little over five months since the Japan earthquake and tsunami, and the people there are still struggling to heal and rebuild. For the cost of one frappuccino, you can help us show them we haven’t forgotten. Please do it!

Click here to read Tea’s post about Tales from High Mountain and learn more about why she was moved to write it.


*Special thanks to Tara Weaver for permission to post the recipe for Nikujaga.


Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.