This blog post is written by my partner Mike, who joined me in Japan. I hope you enjoy his narrative on delicious, and sometimes wacky, Japanese cuisine.
I have the daunting task of telling you about Japanese cuisine. On a “small” island country, that’s simple, right? You may think it’s sushi every day, all the time. Wouldn’t that be heavenly? There’s more to Japanese cuisine than uncooked fish with or without its usual bag of accessories. On one hand, the food varies by region. Don’t you dare think that ramen in Tokyo tastes anything like Kyoto’s noodles. On the other hand, your venue will influence what food options will be available. In a country with a lengthy and rich history, tradition competes with contemporary style. And then, there are the unique things that you will find only in Japan.
Bar food and street fare
Wandering around the busiest train station in the world in the administrative and commercial district of Shinjuku in Tokyo, we walked past the neon lights in search of beer. We wandered through the wooden doors of a basement izakaya. In a difficult exchange of broken English and Japanese, we ordered our beers and scoured the menu for Japanese pub fare. It’s the kind of place where tapas meet soy sauce and ginger. Kushiyaki (grilled skewers), karaage (fried chicken), edamame (soybeans), and agedashi tofu are the usual suspects here. Rice and noodle dishes are rare in an izakaya where sake (alcohol made from fermented rice) takes their place. I opted for tonkatsu, a fried ham and cheese cutlet with a crispy tempura batter exterior. Yum!
We moved on to Kyoto where we explored the Nishiki Market. There are blocks of covered market space with foods that you can find only in Kyoto (dried mini sardines, pickled everything). Despite the surge in food trucks in North America, eating and walking is frowned upon in Japan. In the Nishiki Market, though, it seemed acceptable. We stopped at one stand that sold kamaboko, a mixture of fried fish paste and dough mixed with a variety of sea creatures or vegetables. Doesn’t that sound delicious? Alex chose octopus and I went for red ginger. You can see us gobbling them down. They’re something that you should try…once. We chased that with dango, a Japanese “dessert” consisting of dumplings on skewers and coated in a sticky sauce. It was hard to tell if these glutinous balls fell into the sweet or savoury category. Again, something that you should try once…
Even the food is quirky in Japan
Now, we arrive at the weird and wonderful; those things that you can find in Japan and Japan only:
Vending machine drinks
In any Japanese city, you’ll find vending machines lining the roadside. They don’t sell bags of chips or chocolate bars. Instead, you can get instant cold and hot drinks, including scalding canned coffee. Yum! It’s a good thing that these vending machines are available, because a basic coffee in a coffee shop often costs 500 yen (~$5.00 USD) or more!
Japanese grocery stores
I love exploring grocery stores. We found one while walking through the Meguro district in Tokyo. It was nothing special on the outside, but all of the treasures were hidden inside. Individually packaged fruit. Apples large enough to replace a single meal. Enough packaging to drive environmentalists crazy.
This was more of a cultural experience than a memorable culinary experience. Nobody comes to this place for the food. Okay, maybe the presentation. Who doesn’t love rice styled and decorated to resemble a cute dog’s face? The Lonely Planet recommended the @ Cafe where the staff sport French maid costumes. They entertained us by snapping Polaroids, playing rock-paper-scissors, and teaching us Japanese expressions (“moe moe” which I now see that Urban Dictionary defines as “the fetish for or sexual attraction to idealized people, usually a fictional perfect girl”).
Lunch at Kabuki
We attended a traditional Japanese theater performance (Kabuki) where you can purchase a boxed lunch (wrapped many times over) consisting of noodles and fresh fish.
A conveyor belt and constant supply of sushi dishes? Yes, please. There were old favourites and some new flavours. Alex tried raw horsemeat and mane. We’re still not entirely sure what mane is…
I didn’t know that toast was turning Japanese. Just a few storefronts beyond our capsule hotel, we found a “French” cafe offering toast with a twist. For just 200 yen, you can have toast with cinnamon, bacon and eggs, and basil and cheese to name a few. Honey and cheese was the definite winner!
Kaiseki: a traditional feast
We finished off our trip with a visit to Shibu Onsen, a traditional onsen (hot spring) town outside of Nanago. The thing to do in Shibu Onsen is to stay at a ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) and enjoy kaiseki (a many-dished Japanese meal). You never know exactly what you’ll get with kaiseki, but with over a dozen small plates making their way to you through the meal, you’ll find something that you like. You’re almost always guaranteed to have some form of fried fish, sashimi, tempura, pickled vegetables, soup, and a bowl of rice (of course).
If you don’t like the food on offer (and some fellow tourists clearly did not, judging by their sour expressions), not all is lost: you can always help yourself to an egg soft-boiled in natural hot spring water.
Each “prefecture” (jurisdiction) in Japan prides itself on unique foods and flavours. There are three famous noodle dishes (ramen, udon, and soba) in Japan and we were able to sample all of them. Tokyo is ramen central. Kyoto is famous for its chubby udon noodles and Nagano for its buckwheat noodles. For the ramen naive, it is a delicious, often beef-based broth filled with Chinese wheat noodles, greens, and rich meat. When in doubt, ramen is a wallet-friendly, go-to meal. In Tokyo, you’ll find thousands of noodle shops where the flow of dishes is controlled by a vending machine. Insert your payment, pick your dish, and hand your ticket to the chef. Minutes later, your hot noodle bowl is ready for slurping. The sign of a trusty ramen shop is measured by the volume of slurping.
Within each prefecture, you will find a range of venues from fancy Michelin star restaurants to formal, traditional meals (kaiseki) to casual Japanese pubs (izakaya) to street food vendors. For the fancy foodies out there, Tokyo boasts the record for the highest number of Michelin star restaurants of any city in the world, beating out places like Paris and London. We did not eat there. Our wallets wouldn’t approve. We sampled just about everything else though.
Home-style cooking lesson
The first written records of Japan date back to the third century and its history likely dates back hundreds of centuries before that. With all those years comes a rich tradition. On the food scene, there’s a constant battle between tradition and modernization. We took a cooking class at the Cooking Sun in downtown Kyoto where we learned to prepare the following home-style dishes:
- Miso soup
- Dried sardine in an apple and cucumber salad
- Miso-dengaku tofu
- Chicken stew with seasonal vegetables
- Chicken and cabbage rolls with sour plum sauce
- Soboro Don (fried rice with egg and minced chicken)
The class was kappo style in which food is enjoyed immediately after it is prepared. These plates appear in Japanese homes and rarely show up on restaurant menus. Miso, light and dark soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sesame oil are the key flavouring ingredients in almost all dishes. We learned about the various forms of miso. In Tokyo, you would use a dark brown miso and, in Kyoto, or for fancy occasions, you would opt for the sweet white miso. We started with the core component, dashi. It is a mild broth, flavoured with seaweed and benito flakes. We added two tablespoons of miso, wakame seaweed, and tofu cubes to transform dashi into one of the best miso soups we’ve tried. The most unique dish was the sardine salad. We added tiny, dried sardines to a mixture of pureed apples (have we mentioned how big the apples are in Japan?!) and cucumber slices. Surprisingly, the sardine flavour was mild and blended with the tart dressing. We followed the salad with miso-dengaku tofu. We crisped slice of tofu in sesame oil, then coated them with a miso dressing. The most exciting part was the finishing touch: skewering the slices and torching the glaze like a savoury crème brûlée.