Monday, August 1, 2016

Culinary Review of Japan

We just returned from a trip to Japan. The land of beautiful food. Food that is as much for the sense of sight as it is for the senses of smell, taste and touch. (And sometimes hearing! Let's not forget that.) Done poorly, it's sensory overload. Done correctly, it's pure heaven.

Here are some of the best examples of food in the past few weeks:

Ramen. The broth is thick and filling and the noodles are chewy. The perfect way to deal with jet lag. Incredibly economical. The place at which we ate, Rokurinsha, located in the basement level of the Tokyo Train Station, had a line with a 45 minute wait and is considered one of the best in the area. You buy a ticket from the machine at the entrance for what you want and hand the ticket to the waitress when you sit down. The food comes within five minutes and as soon as you eat, you leave. Making room for the next people in line. The noodles were separate and dipped into the broth (a form of ramen called tsukumen). We had ramen a few other times but this was definitely the best.
Cute pies. We found a place in the Shibuya district of Tokyo called "Pie Face Happy Pie Home." The pies were sweet or savory and yes, every single one of them had a face stamped on the top. Except the apple pies, which had a lattice crust. They were delicious. Another night in Kyoto I found fish shaped pies stuffed with either sweet potato or red bean filling. Terrific.

Sweets of various kinds. Mochi, particularly with red bean filling, is a favorite in our house, but we also came across an incredible assortment of mochi-like things. This one is a Kyoto specialty: chestnut paste, surrounded by red bean paste, entirely encased in rice and then wrapped in a leaf. Also in Kyoto were little sugary sweets that tasted a lot like bubble gum but formed into swirls, spirals and fruit shapes. We discovered them while attending a tea ceremony and learning about matcha (green tea powder) and how to prepare it. It is traditional to serve a small sweet before the tea.
Not to mention, the sheer variety of KitKats is astounding. These are sake flavored, which were quite good. We also tried matcha, wasabi, strawberry, melon, and strawberry cheesecake KitKats. Plus grape and melon Pocky.
Sushi, of course. We went to the famous Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo and waited in line for 3 hours to have breakfast at Sushi Dai. It was worth it. I have never had mackerel or sea urchin that didn't taste fishy before. The sushi chef never made us feel rushed even though we knew there were over 50 people waiting hours to get in to this little 14-seat stall at the market. He even got the 11-year-old to eat egg, the first time that's happened in 10 years. After this we generally stopped eating sushi because we were worried that it all would pale in comparison.
Fatty Tuna that melts in your mouth
Sea urchins

Sea urchin nigiri

Horse Mackerel
"Fast" food. It was easy to get food at the train stations and it tended to be reliably better than a lot of the on street restaurants. Particularly before a long train ride, it made sense to grab a bento box. This was the most beautiful one I had, on the way to Kyoto. Added kudos for the aloe and white grape juice drink.
Okonomiyaki. This is more from the Hiroshima/Osaka/Kyoto region of Japan. It's a crepe, and noodles, and meat, and an egg, and cabbage, and pretty much anything else you can think of thrown onto it. Oh, and sauce. Cooked on a flat grill. You leave it on the grill and cut off a bit at a time. We used a side plate, another customer was eating it straight off the grill.
Shabu-shabu. This was dinner on our last night. High grade beef brought to your table by waitresses in kimono with tea, rice, appetizers, and a plate of vegetables, glass noodles and tofu. You cook the meat, tofu, noodles and vegetables in a hot pot of broth. There were two sauces for dipping: ponzu and miso. The 11-year-old declared this the best meal of the trip. Despite the tofu.

Crazy themed places. Osaka and Tokyo apparently compete in this arena. In Osaka we found an Alice in Wonderland themed restaurant. The staff all wore Alice dresses except the host was the Red Queen and there was a Mad Hatter somewhere. We wore bunny ears throughout dinner and everything had a face made out of food on it. Case in point, the Cheshire Cat pasta. It was probably the most entertaining of dinners.

Other categories: we also ate Yakitori one night. This tends to be bar food and, in Japan, one can still smoke in a bar. It's amazing how much we've gotten away from that and how much it affects the experience. The kids were rather unhappy with the smoke but loved the yakitori, including skewers of rice dumplings with various sauces. We did eat at a conveyor-belt sushi place (before Sushi Dai) which sent special orders to your table via a little Shinkansen (bullet train) on a track above the conveyor belt. It was pretty good for what it was.

Ice Cream. In crazy flavors. Matcha. Red bean. Chocolate-banana-charcoal. Black Sesame. Milk Salt. Grape. Peach. It was over 90 degrees and incredibly humid every day we were there so cold treats were most welcome. Shave ice was also abundant, sometimes just with flavored syrup and sometimes with actual fruit purée.

Finally, a word about drinks. Approximately every 30 feet there is a drink machine on a corner. Or in a temple. Or a parking lot. Or the train platforms. Everywhere, really. For about $1.25 you can get water, flavored water, energy drinks, juices, iced coffee. Almost every drink machine had a trash can next to it or built into it for recycling the bottle. People generally don't walk and eat or drink at the same time. They buy the drink, consume it, and ditch the bottle and then move on. Considering there were four of us, and we were constantly hot and thirsty, we were always buying drinks. The peach flavored water was the most popular in this family.

Now we're back, dealing with jet lag, and wishing we had some of that ramen.

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