Monday, 25 February 2013

Japan, I'm coming to eat you!

Week 8 of the year, Week 5 (is that all?  it feels like I've been slogging through this forever...) of term.  It has been a rather uninspiring week on the food front, at least as far as new experiences go: I've eaten the same dinner (carrot and coriander soup) on four nights of the week and been to four restaurants that I've been to before: Kro Bar for lunch, Try Thai and Zouk for dinner and Tribeca for Sunday brunch.

One thing that I hope will get me out of this (both gustatory and general) rut is the fact that I'm off to Japan tomorrow!  The trip is the product of a most welcome work invitation that also gives me the opportunity to explore this fascinating country further, by way of a few days in Tokyo and then nearly a week in Kyoto.  It also gives me two reasons to post:

The first is that, in preparation for two weeks away (I'm coming back via a weekend in the Netherlands) I need to clear the crisper drawer of the fridge.  Four days of carrot soup still haven't managed to use up my root vegetable surplus, and the cucumber I bought in a fit of salad-days optimism (what was I thinking?  It's still winter!!) one week ago is sitting there entirely untouched, plus there's a wedge of cabbage and a stray onion.  The carrots and cabbage might just last out the fortnight, the onion probably, but the cucumber -- no chance; it was already going soft at one end.  This means: Pickle Time!

There are bazillions of pickling recipes out there that vary in the amounts of vinegar, sugar and salt called for.  Some explicitly state they are meant to be eaten within a few days; others, with proper sterilisation techniques and a higher ratio of acid, sugar and salt to Other Stuff, will last at least a year.  I'm going for a decent whack of the chemical preservation agents heated to boiling point, a sterilised jar, and a good dash of hope that when I get back, my pickles will be crunchy, delicious and above all edible -- as opposed to a rampant source of botulism.  Pictures when I get my phone connected...

The second Flimsy Excuse For A Post is that I'm not ashamed to admit, one of the things I'm looking forward to on my Japan trip is the food.  I went to Japan for the first time last year; I loved every bit of it, but the eating and drinking experiences definitely ranked among the highlights -- my first venture into a restaurant in Osaka where there was not a word of English on the menu, and my triumphant delight at being able to order a bowl of delicious noodles nonetheless; sampling real okonomiyaki in Osaka, the home of the dish; making new friends over sake tasting in a tiny bar in Nara; the sashimi bar where, to our mixed horror and titillation, we realised those strange characters on the menu translated as 'whale'...

So, in anticipation, I thought I would share with you some of the food experiences I'm looking forward most to repeating on this return visit, along with some of the memories (in picture form) from last year's trip:

My first takoyaki, fresh and hot from the grill

Giant angry octopus!
Takoyaki (literally "octopus-fried") are little spherical savoury pancakes, delectably tender and moist, each with a small morsel of octopus inside and served with a drenching of tonkatsu sauce, a drizzle of Japanese mayonnaise and a sprinkle of dried bonito flakes and aonori.  I've had Chinese street versions before, but the real thing -- first tried at an Osaka takoyaki joint with a giant angry octopus climbing up the neon sign out front -- was entirely different, and a revelation. 

Tori Kizoku is an izakaya (Japanese pub) chain that apparently originated in Osaka, which possibly explains why I managed to find them all over Kansai.  Liking Tori Kizoku, I suspect, is possibly the equivalent of liking KFC or McDonald's.  But I can't help it -- I loved them!

The start of the night at Tori Kizoku
Everything is 280yen, which makes it easy to calculate the bill and far too tempting to order just one more -- be it one more sake ('reishu', chilled, was my preferred style) or one more dish.  I had to try yakitori, of course, which were grilled right in front of me amidst clouds of billowing smoke; other delicacies included an eggplant pickle, and there were all manner of grilled-chicken-bits-on-sticks that I could have ordered.  Possibly my favourite, though, was "tako-wasa": raw octopus pieces marinated with a wasabi dressing, and utterly delicious. 

It may be a dumbed-down version of izakaya made simple for Western tastes (there was an English menu), but the ever-friendly staff and the cute yellow chicken made this place one of my fondest memories of Japan -- so much so that I bought a little Tori Kizoku keychain, with an enamel chicken on it.  It still makes me smile.

Fish-testicle sushi is not, in itself, an experience I'm hanging out to repeat; then again, neither is it something I'd avoid.  It was reasonably tasty: salty, sea-tasting, fresh and slightly creamy-textured.  I'd picked it off the belt before I knew what it was, and then had an interesting exchange with the waitress, who spoke about as much English as I spoke Japanese (ie, very little), trying to work out what it actually was.  Much amusement ensued, and the waitstaff seemed impressed that I actually ate it in the end!

Anyway, I might eat it again if it passes in front of my nose, but what I'm really looking forward to is the array of fresh seafood and seeing how the high-end sushi chefs live, at the Tsukiji Fish Market.  I'm morally conflicted about the tuna auction and the fishing practices in general (Unsustainability R Us?) but interested to see the sheer size and scale of the place.  Apparently one has to arrive very early in the morning to get in and watch the action; my hotel just happens to be under a mile away, so this may well be possible.

Gyoza... 'nuff said.  These dainty, bite-sized morsels of amazingness are even better when paired with sake from an elegantly-shaped-yet-mass-produced bottle.  These particular samples came from a small gyoza restaurant in Gion, the famed geisha district of Kyoto.  I took the sake flasks home with me as a souvenir -- again, to the amuseument of the waitstaff!  At least I am keeping the service industry of Japan entertained.

The Nishiiki Market in Kyoto is a veritable Paradise-on-Earth for foodies.  It's about a mile-long covered alley lined either side with shops selling all manner of foods, both ready-to-eat and ingredients for further preparation...

Sashimi on sticks and every imaginable flavour of tsukemono were just some of the delights to be sampled here!

(This was also the home of the Japanese-menu-only sashimi bar where we discovered whale on offer...)

And finally, depachika: Japanese department-store food halls.  If I lived in Japan, I would probably never cook; I'd just live on scrumptious ready-to-eat goodies from the plethora of stalls in the food hall basements.  Everything from sushi and sashimi to korokke, ready-made salads, all kinds of side-dishes, fresh and pickled vegetables, onigiri, inari pouches, bento boxes...  Even supermarkets have a pretty impressive array of to-go foods, still with less of the plastic feel than UK supermarket ready-meals.

Other than that, I somehow managed to go the whole time I was last in Japan without getting a picture of ramen; that's not to say I didn't try it (traditional chashu ramen at a shop in central Osaka; tsukimi ramen at the Kiyo-mizu-dera Temple in Kyoto), but I understand Tokyo is particularly well-known for its ramen shops, so I shall be checking out a few of its best while I'm there, if I can!

I may not have done everything I need to do here before going; I may not have done everything I'll need to have done to go (packing?  what's that?), but Japan, I am coming to eat you.  Watch out!

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