Category Archives: Japanese

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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Filed under Asia, fish, food, food stalls, Japan, Japanese, noodles, restaurant, rice porridge

Brazilian Days, Vol. 2

Ever feel like you’ve been through some sort of time warp, doomed to a Bill Murray-like existence living the same day over and over again? That is what this interminable trip is starting to feel like, despite the loveliness of the setting and friendliness of the people.

There is plenty of both in Gramado, a Southern Brazilian town famous for its German and Italian communities, Swiss-style buildings and ludicrous number of fondue restaurants for a town of 30,000, a minute fraction of whom are actually Swiss. We are here for Marcelo and Renata’s wedding, joining 298 others in a heavy-duty bash (in case this is news to you, Brazilians like to party) incorporating an all-you-can-drink caipirinha bar, 40 bottles of whisky, 40 bottles of vodka and a whopping 220 bottles of champagne. Win and I, old farts that we are, battle valiantly to stay up past midnight. We make it to 12:30am, failing to outlast Marcelo’s 10-month-old cousin and 80-year-old grandmother, who is still out on the dance floor when we skulk out of the ballroom, pretending to make a call.

When it comes to food, however, we do our part, gorging on bottle after bottle of the local Merlot and sparkling wine and a uniquely Brazilian version of fondue bourguignone that doesn’t actually involve any fondue — a hot plate is coated with salt to keep the beef from sticking, and it is accompanied by a dizzying array of dips ranging from the usual (rose and tartar sauces, garlic-parsley butter and curry mayonnaise) to the, uh, unusual (wasabi, caramelized onion, candied pineapple, strawberry jam). Alas, the 9:30-10:00pm dinnertimes render me a gassy menace to society, snarling my digestive system and making me a deadly weapon in enclosed spaces like cars (sorry, Marcelo’s brother).

So despite the absolute loveliness of Marcelo’s and Renata’s families and promises to visit each other’s respective cities, it is with a certain sense of relief that we are left to our own devices in Sao Paulo, where no one is stuck with me but my husband and I can eat dinner at 7pm like any other tourist. Called the “locomotive of Brazil”, Sao Paulo is nearly everything Rio is not — fast-moving and unwieldy in a way that recalls Bangkok, but way more efficient; where two kisses is a common salutation in Rio (and three in Gramado), in Sao Paulo you get away with only one (time is money, after all). Sao Paulo is also way bigger than Rio: at last count, its population totaled 40 million.

It’s not much of a surprise, then, that Sao Paulo is also home to the biggest Japanese population outside of Japan. After what feels like months of going without Asian food, I insist on trying both ends of the spectrum of Japanese food in the city: slick and high-end vs. “authentic” everyday.

Kinoshita's crispy salmon

At Kinoshita (Rua Jacques Felix, 405, (11)3849-6940) you will get plenty of slick (minimalist, expensive decor, smooth service) and a whole lotta high-end (65 reals for a glass of Hungarian Tokaji). Food — with the exception of a nifty gazpacho with shrimp roe and sea urchin, some nice seared fish eggs with a dollop of wasabi and salmon drenched in ponzu and topped with tempura dribbles and ebiko — stands at the intersection of Mundane Avenue and High-Concept Hotel Dining Street. In other words, it’s the culinary equivalent of an Aman Resort: pretty and well-designed but somehow similar to somewhere else. Of course there is a foie gras course, cubes of it pan-fried and set atop cushions of Kobe that are only seared, so that the marbled fat in the meat isn’t activated. Why bother then?

More satisfying (and easier to do) was the ramen at Lamen Kazu (Rua Thomaz Gonzaga, (11)3277-4286), in the “Japan town” known as Liberdade. The menu is simply a succession of ramen variations: miso, salt, shoyu, with the usual varieties of toppings. All the same, I enjoyed my “Hokkaido” (corn, seaweed, pork, spring onion and a pat of butter) despite getting hangry (hungry+angry) and scaring the waitress and our neighbors at the table next to us.

"Hokkaido" ramen

In the end, we find we’ve explored only the tip of the iceberg that is Brazil. There is still the gorgeous green expanse across the north, and the awe-inspiring forest known as the Amazon. And imagine the food that remains uneaten! It would take weeks and weeks to do the country justice. We’ve only just started.

All the same, I feel like I’ve been on the road for a long time. The memories seem minted long ago: dining on a tableful of oysters at Kaufhaus des Westerns (KaDeWe) and rifling through stacks of scarves and evil-eye jewelry at the Turkish market in Berlin; stumbling through icy streets in Denmark and Finland on a bellyful of schnapps; discovering delicious cream-filled semla buns in Stockholm.

Semla at Vete-Katten in Stockholm

I love exploring the world through my stomach, and I can’t believe I’ve been lucky enough to actually do it for a month. But home beckons, finally. What’s for dinner?

Peppers at the Turkish market in Berlin

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