Category Archives: Japan

Turning Japanese

Otaru street food: grilled oysters

My friend Karen, while in college, once sang this golden oldie by The Vapors while waiting in line at the college cafeteria. A person nearby (who was not Asian, btw) told her she was offended by the song. This one anecdote tells you a lot about Bryn Mawr College. But very little about Japan.

Since I too can look up things on Wikipedia, I discovered that “Turning Japanese” is actually a song about youthful alienation and becoming something you didn’t expect. Well, if that is the case, many of us are Japanese. And intrinsic to this image of being “Japanese” is the idea — not too far removed from reality in Tokyo, at least — of a life perpetually on the go, snatching sustenance, T. Rex-like, any way one can, greedily and quickly.

That’s the instinct that coaxed ramen from China into Japan. But it’s not the only Japanese “street food” out there. Unlike Thai street food, which is, quite literally, food enjoyed or at least purchased while on the street, a lot of Japanese street food hews closer to the Western idea: portable food that you can eat while walking (Thais hate to eat while moving. Don’t know why, but that’s the way it is).

A good snapshot of this type of Japanese street food can be had on the 200 meter-or-so walk up to Sensoji Temple in the Asakusa district of Tokyo. This walk melds the everything from the expected taiyaki (baked sea bream-shaped cakes stuffed with red bean paste) and senbei (freshly-made rice crackers, often wrapped in nori seaweed) to handfuls of surprising delights like lacquered, grilled chunks of sweet potato and aisumonaka, which are basically ice cream sandwiches. Yum!

Kibidango-mochi are grilled rice cakes dipped in a sweet sesame powder; as with everything that is served on the skewer, you are meant to eat it right there and return the skewer, which kind of ruins my whole point about this type of Japanese street food. Oh well! There is manju (steamed Chinese-style buns stuffed with savory fillings like minced pork) and agemanju (fried buns), in this case usually stuffed with something sweet and for that reason, infinitely more popular — the most popular stand boasts every type of filling from pumpkin to green tea to cherry.

Nothing, however, touches my favorite, the bizarrely-named wazatokowashi, deep-fried, light, fluffy dough cooked in front of your eyes and bearing an elusively salty flavor reminiscent of Cheetos. There is nothing better than Cheetos.

The best thing ever

Hokkaido has its own kind of street food. A good city to sample it is Otaru which, while seen as “too commercial” by my Japanese friends, is at least charming, tourist-friendly and has these mini-stands set up by smart seafood wholesalers catering to people who simply can’t wait until they get home for a taste of the Japanese ocean. The grills are inside, just past the doorway, fronted by tables where diners cluster like hobos over chopsticks and bottles of soy sauce.

For your street food consideration

Yes — not only is that hulking big sea snail thingie (sazae) available, but so are scallops grilled with miso, giant sea crab legs, clams and oysters, cooked in their own juices. It is good, and it is cheap. A shame that it is also freezing.

An unlikely street food that has almost completely obliterated its humble origins is a food that everyone knows and associates with fine dining: sushi. Believe it or not, it started out as a street food in Edo (basically ancient Tokyo), where fresh fish is in abundance and easy to obtain. Today, Edo-style sushi basically refers to nigiri, but not the big ol’ slabs of fish flesh that are so trendy in a lot of sushi bars abroad. What makes sushi such a great experience in Otaru is that it has taken a cue from Sapporo’s numerous ramen alleys and created its own “Sushiya Dori”, a street lined almost completely with sushi bars. Heaven on earth or what?

Otaru omakase (chef's choice) platter

One thing you might find at your sushi bar (but is definitely not a street food): shirako, which I’m told means “white children”. My friend Yukari first introduced it to me when I moved to Tokyo, but waited until I finished my bowl of creamy, cloudy glob drenched in ponzu to tell me what it was. Some other Japanese people (who work in tourism PR, go figure!) then tried to tell me it was not what it was, but guys, I know how to Google. It’s the sperm sacs of male cod. See, it’s hard to pull a fast one on me (if I have an Internet connection).

Luckily, it tastes much better than human sperm. Sorry, humans! Better luck next time.

Better than you think

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Filed under Asia, fish, food, food stalls, Japan, Japanese, restaurant, seafood

Working for it: Sapporo

Smart people avoid generalizations, but I’ll just go ahead and wade on in there. Japan is a country of serious foodies. And it’s not just about the massive clusters of fine restaurants — Japanese, French, Czech, what have you — that lurk, barnacle-like, in every other basement or third floor in every big city in the country. It’s the Japanese commitment to all levels of food: the telltale chairs that stand outside popular eateries that don’t take reservations; the astronomically priced produce, swaddled like newborn babies in the supermarket; the long queues snaking through the department store basement, stacked with gourmets awaiting the next great fresh cream cake.

Sure, there is the strange-smelling beef bowl at Yoshinoya, cheap conveyor belt sushi and the bizarre affection for KFC for the holidays — but for every one of those things, there is the dazzling aging-beef display at the Tokyo Mitsukoshi, four different kinds of obscure Kentucky bourbons on sale, and mammoth albino strawberries the size of a child’s fist. Food in Japan is like Manolo Blahniks to a Carrie Bradshaw: aspirational. As with all aspirations, you have to work for it. This stuff doesn’t come cheap. And if it does, it doesn’t come easy.

Hokkaido in February for me is a whole different brand of Working For It. I don’t take to chilly temperatures; here, it’s -12 degrees Celsius in the daytime. The sky periodically drizzles snow — so much snow, in fact, that the sides of the roads loom skyscraper-like above the pedestrians, threatening avalanche at any moment.  Food, any kind of food, requires trekking out in that weather in your most unattractive snow boots, a balaclava shoved over your head to keep your nose from falling off your face.

But in Sapporo, there is plenty to make up for it. Big vats of nabe — DIY stews bristling with the freshest seafood or gently cooked slices of meat, studded with cubes of tofu and enoki mushrooms and crackly greens that somehow end up soft and sweet. One of the easiest kinds of nabe to obtain here is one featuring kani — snow, hairy or king crab, which hails from the region and is a genuine treat.

Crab and co., ready for the nabe pot

Restaurants specializing in crab — marked by a giant crab above the entrance — are scattered all over Japan, but the one we found in Sapporo, chosen solely on its proximity to the train station, was luckily also delicious: Kani Honke, which claims to be the first in Japan to focus solely on the mightily yummy crustacean. The many course menus are pretty epic: crab served as sashimi, in sushi, atop grated mountain yam, in stew, simply steamed, and finally, butter-roasted and grilled atop a hot stone. Best of all, the leftover broth from the nabe is eventually added to rice and reduced until a thick, sweet congee is formed — the best possible way to end a delicious crab menu.

Kani Honke's crab congee

Crab is not the only thing Hokkaido is famous for. Sapporo is also the lucky, lucky home to not one, not two, but THREE “ramen alleys” — small walking streets lined by all manner of ramen shops, which offer, in Sapporo at least, the ultimate street (or alley-side) food: quick, warming, filling and relatively cheap. You can get your very interesting ramen history here, but if you are like me and think clicking is far too onerous a task, I will attempt to summarize: ramen is delicious. Just kidding. Adapted from a Chinese noodle dish in the early 20th century, Japanese ramen has since branched out into basically three main types — the tonkotsu, or pork bone-based cloudy broth of Kyushu, the clear soy sauce-based broth populated with thick noodles, and the miso-based broth of Sapporo. We visited the original “Ramen Yokocho” (Ramen Alley) and found it charming, with just about any type of ramen on offer.

Inside Ramen Alley

Of course, we were there for the miso ramen, and so opted for a shop featuring a relatively basic menu of miso, soy sauce, salt, tonkotsu, spicy, extra pork or butter (with a miso base) ramen. You can probably guess which one I went for:

A bowl of butter ramen

It turns out I’ve found a new love. Few things are better than that extra-creamy Hokkaido butter. I will be searching for it in all the Japanese supermarkets I can think of in Bangkok.

 

 

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Glutton Abroad: Tokyo Drift

Hanging in Tsukiji

I love Tokyo. Unlike Madame Bangkok — always striving to keep up with the Lees, obsessed with what the “neighbors” might think — Tokyo is unself-consciously, unabashedly itself: scruffy in patches, unafraid to be a little seedy, but always surprising in the best kinds of ways. It has its glam side, its traditional “Nihonjin” side, its gaijin side. But you have to look actively for all of it. And at the center of all this, the spirit of the city somehow remains the same, never-changing. Of course, the flip side to this is that Tokyo can also be crushingly lonely. Alienation is also very “Tokyo”.

Well, you may not know it, considering the inexplicable fondness harbored by the Japanese for KFC, but Tokyo is a food town. The great friendships I have made here started out of food or drink. A tranche of sweet white fish simmered in soy sauce at a cooking class; a mentaiko/mayonnaise dip with snow peas before that week’s showing of Paris Hilton in “The Simple Life”; a brimming shotglass of something quick ‘n vile at Geronimo’s — these are all ageless reminders of a specific person.

As is the incredible bounty at Tsukiji fish market. Also known as the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, this is the biggest wholesale seafood market in the world, handling more than 2,000 metric tons of seafood a day (according to Wikipedia). The market has been doing this daily since 1935; it, like much of the rest of Tokyo, remains constant.

Mollusks on display at the market

Aside from the seafood for sale, there is a cluster of sushiya on the far end of the market that we would visit on a regular basis for a quick breakfast before heading off to work. Turning right at the kooban (police box) into what looks like the parking lot for a football stadium, walking about 200 m and turning left into an alley leads you to “aisles” 5 and 6, where the most famous sushiya in the market are located — most with the kanji for “dai” (big) in some part of their names. The most famous of these is “Daiwa” — where the hostess conscientiously ensures you are lined up properly before heading inside — but there are others, all with their own unwieldy, intimidating queues. Inside, you might get something like this:

Unidon at Tsukiji

Also in season is shirako, a collection of creamy, mild coils that someone had once told me was fish sperm. Later, a group of Japanese people would tell me that this was not true; someone was pulling my leg. And then after that, I would look up shirako in the Japanese-English dictionary and discover that shirako is “milt; fish semen”, usually taken from the cod, anglerfish, or fugu (pufferfish). So there you have it. Shirako is not fish sperm. It is, as one kind Japanese waitress explained, “man eggs”.

Shirako for sale at Tsukiji

Somehow, that did not turn me off of this seasonal delicacy. Another popular way to have it is simmered gently in a nabe, a sort of catch-all term for anything that is served in a hotpot, like shabu shabu or sukiyaki. Or this, served as part of an incredible eight-course “washoku” menu at tempura specialist Uofuji in Ochanomizu (+813-3251-5327).

Helmed by a husband-wife team (the husband cooks, the wife is hostess), this is one of many husband-wife restaurants serving “washoku” (traditional Japanese cuisine) across the country. But the search for this unassuming restaurant is worth it: the tempura is light and fluffy and the menu changes daily, depending on what the husband has found in Tsukiji. On that particular day, there was sea cucumber in a pool of ponzu, freshly made shiokara (fermented squid innards), a single gigantic miso-glazed oyster. And while service is a little bit slow, the waitresses sure are free-handed with the sake samples and “tastings”. Leaving the restaurant that evening remains a blur; I believe Kiguchi-san had to escort us to the taxi herself, God bless her.

But it’s hard to pry me away from the sushiya for long, especially one where a meal can be an elaborate string of yummy fish-based mini-dishes. Sushiya no Yoshikan in Gakugeidaigaku (+813-3793-6261) is well-known for their otsumami (appetizers), which they continue serving you until you indicate to them you are ready for the sushi. We managed five: shirako, grilled this time with a salt crust; tuna “shabu” in a sweet miso sauce; poached sea eel in a pickled plum sauce; an oyster in a sabayon; and best of all, a freshly-grilled scallop in a “sandwich” of nori seaweed.

What I took away from all this, however, was the ever-present fact that I am getting old. I couldn’t keep up with my friends at the sushi counter — too soon afterwards, I was signalling for the soup (apparently osuimono, or clear broth soup, is what traditionalists say goes with sushi best, although everyone prefers miso nowadays). What can I say? Some things do change.

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Filed under Asia, fish, food, Japan, Japanese, markets, restaurant, rice, seafood