A month ago I wrote to the editor to discuss a possible delay in submitting my column, jokingly suggesting I write a review about a restaurant in Japan to meet my deadline. Not only did she very graciously accept, but she went a step further and suggested I do more of a roundup.
First, some context. Japan is a large country that stretches from a cold, northernmost tip that’s right up next to Siberia, to a southernmost tip that just touches the tropics. It is also a highly advanced society that stands on the shoulders of millennia of civilisation.
These and other factors give us an incredible variety and polar contrasts to come to grips with, so you can imagine that I cannot write about their food if I start now and toil at it until my bitter end, let alone do the multitude of Japanese kitchens any justice on a single newspaper page.
I will, instead, briefly cover my experiences from the point of view of my often limited understanding. And I’ll start with sushi and sashimi because that’s what comes to mind when we think of Japanese food.
We know sashimi to be slices of raw fish that we dip (marinate) in soy sauce and wasabi. I was pleasantly surprised to encounter raw Kobe beef, pig offal, chicken heart and vegetables among other ingredients, so the term does encompass more than we’re used to. Add rice, and you get sushi, in the form of nigiri, or finger sushi and rolls and other shapes and sizes.
Unless you’re ensnared in a tourist trap, sushi is not served in formal courses. It is all freshly prepared and served immediately, so you’re more likely to experience a steady stream of food than a big dish with everything crammed onto it.
My favourite format for consuming sushi is sitting at a bar with an elevated marble counter. The chef prepares food just across the counter and places item after item on this marble top. You then take the piece you’re eating, dip it in a tiny plate of soy sauce, and eat it. You don’t have much in front of you bar a pair of chopsticks, your soy plate, and the bottle of sake you’ve ordered.
An unforgettable way to experience sushi is at the incredible Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. It spans blocks upon blocks of fish vendors that form a perimeter called the outer market. Within this perimeter is the inner market – a vast, chaotic auction reserved for the trade. This is where some of the most expensive fish in the world is traded.
From the point of view of the hungry traveller, the outer market is where fish vendors also cook or prepare the fish you’re buying so you can start your day at sunrise with huge Pacific oysters, grilled squid, freshly cracked crab, and scallops that gently simmer in their shells atop a smoking grill.
It is also an opportunity to taste some of the most eye-wateringly delicious tuna you will get your hands on, priced very much to suit. Expect to pay €50 for a portion of sashimi and to be glad you parted with the cash. I’m mentioning the more familiar denizens of the deep seas here and there are animals I never knew existed.
Tsukiji is vast, specific to fish, and an experience all to itself, but it is not the only market that sells ingredients that are available for instant consumption. Look out for food markets in general because they are conveniently compact ways of getting as many different kinds of food as possible within a few blocks. At the Kuromon Ichiba market in Osaka I’ve eaten Kobe beef at one stall and tuna at its neighbour, moving on to takoyaki a few stalls down.
Takoyaki is a ball of slightly gooey wheat batter with a piece of octopus inside, served with a sauce that’s like a slightly sweet Worchestershire sauce. It is one of many kinds of street food that’s best when freshly prepared and that you’ll find pretty much everywhere, even if it is a speciality of Osaka.
One should venture further and try yakitori, grilled skewers of chicken or pork and kare pan that are lovely little deep-fried buns filled with sweet and savoury fillings that are entirely unfamiliar and just as entirely wonderful.
Then there is ramen. I came close to death by ramen, if such a wonderful thing exists, and I’m glad I did so. A bowl of ramen rests on four pillars. These are the broth, the tare, the noodles, and the toppings. If it sounds simple, it is because infinite variety can be had out of personal takes on all four components. The broth can be based on pork, chicken, fish or vegetables, and usually winds up being a combination. The tare determines what type of ramen you’re eating. This salty flavoured concentrate placed at the bottom of the bowl can be based on soy sauce, miso, shio or tonkotsu.
I came close to death by ramen, if such a wonderful thing exists
Shio means salt but it is actually a mix of salt, dried seaweed, dried fish and basically a whole concoction of umami – the fifth flavour. Tonkotsu is an even less likely one – it is a flavour made from pork bones.
The better ramen restaurants make absolutely everything from scratch. They prepare their own noodle, buy obscure soy sauce from regional micro-brewers of the legendary sauce, mix up their tare from secret recipes, and cook toppings like half-boiled eggs, sous-vide pork, or even tempura based on the recipe they believe to be the best bowl of ramen in the city.
This means ramen restaurants are ruthlessly ranked, sometimes Michelin starred, and they don’t take reservations. Queue outside, sometimes for hours, until there’s a space for you to eat. Once inside, place your order for the base, the size of the noodle portion, the toppings, and a drink – usually at a coin-operated machine near the door. Then be polite to the chef and slurp your noodles loudly.
In the West we’ve come up with all sorts of nonsense to keep us from truly enjoying a meal. The best way to savour a flavoured broth is to create as much air flow around the noodle as possible, allowing your sense of smell to work in concert with your taste buds. And it is when they work together that the symphony that is ramen can be seared into your memory, right next to Brahms’ finest concerto.
One interesting variation is tsukemen, or dipping noodles. Choose whether you want cold or warm noodles and these will be served next to a bowl of broth. You then dip noodles in the broth as you go along.
I’ve had an incredible tsukumen from a tiny ramen restaurant (six seats, two chefs) when I’d queued for an hour to find out they’d run out of ramen. The chef apologised, offering this variation instead and I was treated to a thick, sesame-based broth with chili oil and tiny, dried fish as toppings.
With little space left to cover what is essentially food from a different planet, I’ll cover some essentials in brief, mainly to highlight the sheer spectrum of cuisines I was exposed to.
Western influence is clear in the form of Tonkatsu. This is normally a cutlet of pork loin or tenderloin that’s been coated with a breaded batter and deep fried. It is served with rice and shredded cabbage and with a special sauce to go with it.
Depending on where you decide to eat Tonkatsu, you will be given a choice of branded pork, depending on pig breed, rearing location, breeder, diet and taste in music. I’ve been to random tonkatsu restaurants where I was encouraged to create my own sauce by grinding sesame seeds in a pestle and mortar first, then working my way up. I’ve been to one particular Tonkatsu that’s highly rated and enjoys prime real estate in the unbearably fashionable Omotesando area. In each case, I felt I was eating battered, deep-fried, pork. It’s tasty but it remains fancy fast food to me and a clear warning to Japan that imitating the West is almost always a bad idea.
Taking a leaf out of the Korean cookbook is a much smarter approach. Yakiniku, a fancy take on beef barbecue, gives diners the opportunity to choose their own cuts of beef, again from an array of branded cows, and cooking these to your liking at a barbecue that’s at your table.
I seem to have left out the common practice of serving one ingredient on a bed or bowl of rice. Unagi (eel) for instance, is simply unbeatable when barbecued and served with a slightly sweet and mostly fragrant sauce with pickles on the side. And once you’ve started to figure out the basics, they go ahead and mix things up so you are well within your rights to order a tonkatsu curry on rice or vegetable tempura atop a bowl of soba noodles in a soy based broth.
I’ll leave you with a few pointers for when you decide to visit Japan. Obvious as it sounds, be polite when entering a restaurant and acknowledge the staff, ideally in Japanese.
Also obvious but worth considering is that you will not find Western cutlery as a matter of course. Chefs have taken the trouble to prepare food that can be consumed with chopsticks so if your technique isn’t on point, show some respect to the country that’s graciously hosting you and brush up before you go.
Perhaps less intuitive is the fine art of queuing. In a road with several restaurants, eliminate the ones with menus that have been translated to English. Then consider the rest and go to the one with a queue outside. You will be rewarded every single time.
And finally, should you want to truly take in staggering variety, leave your opinions at the passport control and enter the country with a properly open mind.
There’s a good chance you’ll be well and truly smitten.
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