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Eating in Japan

I’ve been in Japan for two weeks, and by now have been able to sample quite a few different dishes, either famously from, or originating in Japan.

The food in Japan is quite something – for my palate at least, both in good and bad ways. At first I could not figure out why there were so many savoury dishes served with an abundance of sweetness.

The eventual understanding of this was an eye opener – mandatory knowledge actually to fully appreciate what is going on in Japanese cooking, even though hardly anybody seems to mention this when talking about Japanese food. The difference lies between the traditional food, washoku, and the fusion food, yóshoku.

I talk about that duality in the previous post. The following was written in diary form, before I wrote that.

Safety nets: my staple food

When I was in Hong Kong several years ago, I discovered a very magical Japanese item: onigiri sold from convenience stores (kombini). These are literally fist-sized triangular rice balls, at the centre of which is a filling – several types exist, but I always look for the tune, salmon, chicken or beef options, and always wrapped in a sheet of nori seaweed.

These have been my go-to items when I need to be sure I can eat something both filling and familiar, and best of all, I can buy a bunch of them in the morning and have them in my bag, to eat in appropriate spots (eating on public transport is discouraged, find a bench!)

A lot of times when I haven’t eaten my fill, I have opened up my map and searched for the nearest Seven-Eleven or FamilyMart – they both sell these, and they’ve been a life saver for me several times.

The rest is where the experience truly starts…

Sushi

For one, the sushi and sashimi whilst nice is not anything to write home about much as far as I’m concerned, apart from more esoteric things like several varieties of shellfish to choose from, and more than one cut of tuna being used in most places.

Apart from that, my feeling is that Scotland has a much fresher selection of fish, albeit a narrower one, than the big cities here. I am told that the sushi in Hokkaido is exceptionally fresh, so perhaps it’s just a thing around the big metropoles of the south. I’ll soon see. That being said, I have not had any signs of digestive issues with the sushi I’ve eaten here, so it’s certainly likely fresh enough.

One place I went to had an option of tuna rolls, for which the chef was using a minced tuna paste, squeezed out of its plastic bag container like icing. That was surprising, given what I know of food safety procedures, and that it was still otherwise raw fish, but hey, this is supposed to be an adventure….! The reviews on Google Maps were all raving about the place being great, 4-5 stars, and the freshest they’ve ever had (mostly Americans by their own avowal), whereas for my part, I’d say it’s a pretty middling 3-star.

Since writing the above, I’ve done some reading up on sushi and food safety expectations. From what I understand, to ensure food safety, all European and American fish must be subjected to a quick-freeze process below -35 degrees celcius to kill the potential parasites in the fish, often done immediately on the boat; whereas Japanese fish possibly comes unfrozen off the boat. You’d think the Japanese approach would mean fresher fish right? Well, no. The fish are just dead on the Japanese boats, and if served the same day as the catch, will probably have had at least 12 hours of “decay.” Conversely, the (compliant) European fish will have been preserved – the fact that they are flash-frozen prevents the detrimental ice crystals from forming in the flesh of the fish, and when thawed, do not lose in texture as a result.

Hence why I experience Scottish fish as “fresher.” This is all conjecture though – educated, but conjecture nonetheless.

Ramen

The other thing that many people think about when talking about “Japanese food” is ramen. Well. This has been quite an… interesting experience so far.

On my first night in Japan, in Asakusa, I felt I needed to start with a safe option, so I walked in to the first place my jetlagged brain could identify as a ramen place. I opted for a standard cha siu (barbecued pork) dish. The flavour of the broth was rather off, a little sour, and I would certainly not rate it any much above a 3. I haven’t checked the reviews online, and by now I forget where it was… I feared for the worst at this point in my ramen-loving experience, as I had once eaten a very similar fare in Paris in a well-reviewed Japanese restaurant, complete with outdoor queuing which is a common thing here, and this style has flagged in my head as now being the “authentic” Japanese taste. I was disappointed by the bolognese in Bologna, and now by the ramen in Japan. Uh oh.

My second ramen experience was on the recommendation of our Tokyo day tour guide, a place called “Ramen Nagi” (because “Ichiran is for tourists,” he said). What he failed to mention, and what is not visible on their web page, is that ALL the ramen in this restaurant, including the pork ramen, is based on niboshi, which is dried young sardines. The intense fishiness permeates through the entire dish and filled the air in the restaurant. Even the dressing sauce on the counter where you’d normally find a soy bottle, was a clear bottle with vinegar and the little niboshi infusing in it. Needless to say, not my favorite experience by far!

My third ramen experience was in a 4.6-star-rated restaurant by Osaka Castle, called Mankai Tembashi. Compared to the previous two experiences, this one was OK, though lacking in the subtle richness I have come to expect from my regular outlet back home. Another recommended place to go for ramen was Zundoya in Shinsaibashi in Osaka, which was again decent enough, but not quite to my liking.

At this point I have to wonder – is my palate just too foreign to deal with proper Japanese ramen, or if my standards are just that insufferably high…?

Izakaya

In Japan, an izakaya is what we’d possibly equate with a pub – it serves food and alcohol and is a hub for after-work socializing. What is different though, apart from the style of food, is that everybody is eating a full meal whilst drinking just as copiously as in a British pub.

I was directed to an izakaya in Asakusa by my friends from the standing bar, in which they were purported to serve good *oden*. After I fumbled into the place and was seated by the very friendly but non-English-speaking staff, I was at a complete loss as to how to proceed. I have since learned how to operate in an izakaya a little, but at that point I just looked at the chefs behind their counter with the most apologetic expression I could muster. The chef, whose job it normally is not to take orders directly, was sympathetic and asked me directly what I wanted. “…. oden….?” I chanced, and with a smile he hollered across the room that he was serving me oden, so the waiters could tally my tab properly.

The oden promptly arrived and I set about eating. To my relief, even as strange as it looked to me, I can happily say it was a pleasant experience. I suspect the majority of items were root- and tofu-based, each with their own preparation style, and textures, mostly taking flavour from the broth they were sitting in, along with a fishcake item which was very good itself – neither too fishy nor too sweet. A win for me on that one! I might try getting oden somewhere else again for comparison; then again, I’d hate to taint my palate with a sub-par oden on my second try… we’ll see.

On the Shinjuku pub crawl, our guide took us to a few izakayas, and ordered such things as yakiton (think yakitori, but instead of chicken skewers, it’s pork skewers), fried smelt (not my thing, whole little fishies is definitely not my thing, not my thing, yaadaa!), karaage (think battered and fried chicken pieces), sahimi (just raw fish, no rolls or rice, etc), and other little things. Izakaya culture is about drinking, but most certainly about eating whilst drinking. You could equate it with north-Spanish-style tapas which is a pub style experience, rather than a restaurant one.

At the conclusion of the Deep Back Street Osaka tour, our guide Andy took us to a local izakaya and ordered a variety of items for us, including a beef and tofu stew, karaage again, takitori, and other small things, topped off at the end with taiyaki. During the tour itself he had us try takoyaki, fried dough-and-octopus balls topped with teriyaki sauce (it’s not too bad, but teriyaki is not for me on account of being too sweet) and some very special yakitori, one made from chicken hearts, the other from chicken innards. The hearts were decent enough, though I’m pretty sure I had a psychosomatic reaction in the gut and declined to try the other variety…!

At this point, if I ever do try to navigate an izakaya again, I think I’ll be alright. But only if I need to. Certainly if I come across someone culinarily adventurous, I’ll know how to do the ordering. But on my own… not too sure…!

Nabe

Nabe is a type of hot-pot dish. On two of my Tokyo tours, we were served a variation thereof. The dish as served consisted each time of an iron pot on top of an open flame burner, ingredients sitting in a stew and cooked at the table. Contents included enoki mushrooms (to date the only mushroom which I have actually found palatable to my personal tastes), chicken pieces (raw to begin with), tofu, nappa cabbage, broccoli, spring onions, noodles… anything you’d care to chuck in really, so long as it fits. It takes around 10-15 minutes to cook through, and there is likely some miso paste in the mix as well for extra flavour, so in the meantime you eat your appetizers, typically rice with various pickled vegetable toppings.

The principle itself is quite appealing otherwise, and with the right ingredients, probably quite easy to replicate at home as a one-pot. If anything, I think what I have gained is a little more confidence in the variety I can play with here. Probably the most important thing is preparing it with a *dashi* of your choice and a spoon ful of miso, amking it essentially a super-souped-up-miso-soup.

Another type of hot-pot I’ve eaten is “shabu-shabu”, which uses extremely thin cuts of meat, which you only need to leave in the broth for a few seconds, and so is served on the side. I’m not a fan of it decidedly – boiled meat really only works with tougher, salty cuts, stewed over hours, as far as I’m concerned; personal preference of course.

Breakfasts

During my stay in the Tokyo hotel, breakfast typically involved a taishoku – several small dishes on a tray. Several pre-assembled sets of dishes exist to be chosen from, allowing the restaurant to churn them out fast, and for the most part consisted of some rice dish, various pickled vegetables, and some sort of fish (except for the vegetarian meal, and the “western” breakfast).

I ended up settling most times on the “raw tuna on rice with udon side dish” as after trying the “western” dish and another one that included miso soup, this was the most filling item with the most familiar ingredients. The western item had a number of overly-sweetened savoury items, in too otherwise too small quantities, including a “biifu sttekku” – a mini beef cutlet, crumbed and deep fried, with teriyaki sauce.

I made up for the lack of proper bulk here with onigiri…

Sweetness

The last point I’ve noticed about Japanese cuisine is that if it isn’t something like ramen or fish, most Japanese dishes tend to be sweet. Excessively sweet.

As I said in the intro, this is before I had read up on the fundamental duality of the nature of Japanese cuisine, washoku and yóshoku.

I had a bit of a bad day mentally in Yokohama, feeling the awkwardness of being a foreigner in Japan, and decided to try to eat a safe option. This led me to a pasta restaurant, with a ticket machine in lieu of ordering – I chose this because of the fact is was the only place where the menu was also in English. I ordered what I hoped would be a familiar dish, spaghetti with meat sauce. Hah! It tasted like they had added a full tablespoon of sugar to it.

Same thing with the fried skewers, which often come dressed in a teriyaki-like sauce, which is mirin, soy and sugar. Very sweet. The one time I had yakisoba in Edinburgh, it too was noticeably sweet. I haven’t had the heart to try any yakisoba here. I’m pretty sure I know what’ll happen.

I made the mistake once of ordering omurice having in a split-moment forgotten that it is comprised of one of my most detested ingredients – an abundance of ketchup, that sickly sweet condiment so many people seem to enjoy in vast quantities. Perhaps it is this quality that underlies the reason many people rant and rave about Japanese cooking and I do not: I hate that sickly sweetness. So, well, I find I have to give up on a lot of Japanese fare. If sticking to sushi and ramen (and oden perhaps?) is what I am confiend to, so be it…

I also made a point on my last day in Osaka to locate an eatry serving oknomiyaki, the “Japanese pancake” filled with savoury fare. Mine was a negitama, or green onions with egg yolk topping. Of course, it came lathered with teriyaki and Japanese mayonnaise, and whilst I was able to mostly finish it and have no regrets, I will certainly not be ordering that again! That’s just me though – the vast majority of people who try it find it superb, and I can most certainly understand the appeal. Just, not me.

Steeeaaak

Thankfully I have had two reprieves from the culinary onslaughts.

The first was a Latin American-themed steak restaurant which did exactly what it needed to, without messing around with the dish. Just a plain, juicy, rare steak.

The second was a wagyu beef restaurant which again did exactly what it needed to: steak pieces brought raw, which I was left to cook to my liking. And that stuff is so tender it nearly melts in the mouth. Hardly any chewing needed.

Wagyu costs a pretty penny though, and whilst I’m glad I had the experience, I think of the two styles of cooking… I still prefer a thick cut of a lesser grade steak expertly grilled over a wagyu slender slice.

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