Fetishizing food is encouraged in Japan. Much like how having an opinion on the best chicken rice or egg noodle in Bangkok lends you social currency among a certain set in Bangkok, the genuine appreciation of a certain dish or ingredient — in the right season, of course — is considered cultured, even necessary. Knowing about this stuff seems to be part of what being Japanese is all about.
So it’s not surprising that I always enjoy my trips to Japan … even though I almost always end up committing some horrible faux pas on some poor unsuspecting Japanese person (people). Once, as a guest in a holiday house with its own onsen bath, I was offered the opportunity to bathe first. Now, I’m not a total idiot: I knew I would have to sit on a teeny tiny stool and clean myself out in the cold before actually going into the bath, which was very hot and the size of a baby pool. But maybe pulling the plug after I got out wasn’t such a great idea. They had to fill it all back up again with new water after I left the room. To this day, they have never mentioned the appalling thing I did (and I’ve never mentioned it either. Call it a game of embarrassment chicken). That level of politeness also seems to form a part of being Japanese.
One of my favorite dishes to search out when I go to Tokyo is ochazuke, which is rice served with whatever topping you feel like (raw fish, pickles, or fish eggs are common) and broth on the side. You yourself decide how soup-y (or mushy) you want your porridge (I don’t like too much broth). Rice porridge doesn’t sound like it would set many hearts a-flutter, and not many people order it outside of Japan, but to me there is no better lunch (if you are wondering, Aoi in Bangkok serves versions topped with pickled plum, salmon, baby sardines or spicy fish roe). I could eat it every day: with a different topping for each day of the week, of course.
It’s not a hard dish to get right, but it’s a difficult dish to really excel at. Which is why I think the taichazuke (sea bream porridge) at Chikuyotei (5-8-3 Ginza, across the street from Mitsukoshi and next to Nissan) is so exceptional. The morsels of fish are freshly sliced and then left to “marinate” for a bit on a tangy sesame sauce spiked liberally with sesame seeds and strips of nori seaweed. There is a big bowl of rice and pickles, and the all-important kettle of broth. It’s simple but deceptively disarming. I blame the sesame sauce.
A pity I’ve been eating it wrong all these years. Apparently, you are supposed to “savor” the delicate taste of the fish in the sauce with the dry rice before drowning all those poor rice grains in fish broth and your grody drool drops and then pouring that mishmash down your open face hole. Oh well. The long-suffering ladies who serve here must deal with this kind of stuff all the time (not really. I never see any gaijin there). They also serve a raw tuna version that is less good, but more substantial, for those days when you really want to pig out without looking like you are pigging out (or you can just suck it up and order oomori, or a large-sized portion). Really, these triumphs in the art of rice porridge cookery are not bad for a restaurant that supposedly specializes in unagi (eel). Yay, porridge!
A great surprise, then, that the culinary wasteland known as Narita Airport also boasts its own ochazuke restaurant, in the “mall” adjacent to the check-out counters — a place I never go to normally because I am usually so late getting to the airport. Wasting your entire day at Narita might be worth it, if only for the 15 minutes that it takes to find Dashi Chazuke En, order your porridge at the counter (they also have their own raw tuna and sea bream versions, as well as fish eggs, pickles, and a cold version topped with thinly sliced pickled cucumber), and slurp that whole shebang down your throat before your waitress even knows what’s up. Sure, it’s the “poor man’s” chazuke, the Joan Collins to Chikuyotei’s Liz Taylor, but who on earth is choosy at the airport?