Hey, blog people. I’ve been away for a while because my family and I decided to do something unusual this Christmas — we cashed in every accumulated point, mile and hotel certificate to travel around Japan.
I’ve been to Japan several times. In fact, I worked there as an English teacher for about 18 months after graduating from college, so the country and its food have always held a special place in my heart.
Back when I lived in the Kansai region nearly 30 years ago, the food was a real challenge for ex-pats. Not only had few of us sampled raw fish before arriving, but many more were unfamiliar with miso, pickled vegetables or even short-grain rice and soy sauce. I adapted well, but most of my friends had to make not-infrequent McDonald’s runs.
Now it seems the flavors of Japanese food have entered our collective unconscious of yum. A young adult friend of our oldest daughter traveled with us, and after trying her first ever sushi, ramen, shabu shabu (beef hot pot) and katsudon (fried cutlet rice bowl) she exclaimed, “Man, the Japanese have food figured out!” I couldn’t agree more.
The other great change for me was the relative cost of dining out in Japan. Somehow, it has become (you won’t believe me) cheap. Yes. Like $25 for an ample meal in a fun place with multiple beers cheap. Like awesome $8 lunch cheap.
Granted we didn’t go super high-end, but we enjoyed more than a few splurgey multi-course menus that topped out at about $40 a head. Add $10 for a couple of alcoholic drinks and no supplemental tax or tip, and you still get off better than at just about any $15-entree place in Atlanta.
I’ll share a few highlight below, and some more in a future post.
We had our first “Yay! We’ve arrived!” meal at Guilo Guilo Hitoshina, a restaurant that serves a modern, rock-n-roll version of Kyoto’s famous kaiseki cuisine. (The cost was $35 for a meal of 8-10 courses.)
I’m slightly familiar with the format of kaiseki — a kind of formal menu that grew out of the tea ceremony. It comes in a set of prescribed seasonally inspired courses that communicate. For instance, our first substantial course, called the hassun, featured a piece of bream sushi with gelled fish consommé surrounded by all kinds early winter goodies, including a bite of fish hidden inside a citrus-shaped ceramic dish.
But the dish that really got our table talking was this fantastic assemblage of winter foods smoked to order inside a lidded bowl over flame-broiled hoji tea. In addition to snapper, beech mushrooms and winter greens, there was a little coil of shirako, or cod milt, which was in high season. This creamy and mild but delicious substance only comes from the male cod. That wasn’t a lot of fun explaining to my teenage daughters, but they were all game and tried it.
We had one more multi-course meal in Kyoto at Junsei, a famous old tofu restaurant set in a 180-year-old building across the street from Kyoto’s landmark Nanzenji Temple. Service was pretty abysmal (we were the last reservation of the evening at 8 p.m.), and I could have done without some of the pretty but dull dishes they threw at us, one after another. But holy mother of bean cookery, this boiled tofu (yu-dofu) was one of the most exquisitely simple flavors I’ve ever tried. You can taste the clean spring water in the tofu, and the variety of dipping choices (best was ponzu with slivers of Kyoto’s famous green onion) just offset the subtle flavor. Go at lunch and just get yu-dofu if you go to Kyoto. You won’t regret it. Amazing.
Kyoto is the kind of place where you enthuse over gorgeous dishes and subtle tofu, and where your shopping includes visits to the city’s famous pickle and sweet shops.
But after experiencing such refinement it was time for some Japanese soul food, which we found in Hiroshima.
Quick aside for vacation planners: Visiting the Peace Memorial Park and Peace Memorial Museum is an extremely weird thing to do on Christmas morning. But that’s how our trip best worked out.
Afterward that morning of horror, we really needed some serious comfort food, which is Hiroshima’s specialty. Okonomiyaki — a kind of enormous, savory pancake with various meat and seafood versions — becomes everybody’s favorite new food in Japan. In Osaka, where I lived, the local style involves a heavy-duty batter, lots of chopped cabbage that wilts inside the batter and a panoply of toppings.
In Hiroshima, it is a far more complicated creation and a near religion. You will pass hundreds of okonomiyaki vendors in the downtown pedestrian area. But a good place to start is the four-story complex called Okonomimura (”okonomiyaki village”) where dozens of vendors operated side-by-side shops lined with teppan griddles. You have to get one of these wonderful things mice right in front of you.
Vendors prepare a thin crepe on which they layer fried yakisoba noodles, pork belly, any additional ingredients (such as shrimp or oysters), more batter, an egg, scallions and pickled ginger. Sweet and spicy sauces are in bottles on the side, for you to use at will.
We wandered into one manned by sweet ladies who bent over backwards to prepare a special stir fry for my gluten-intolerant daughter. I ate this great oyster version (Hiroshima is famous for its oyster beds), while my wife got an addition of cheese, which created a crisp, brown top surface.
We wanted to hug these ladies after this meal.
I’ll write some about Tokyo later on.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog