Monday, June 2, 2014

Eating our way thru Japan - A perspective by the Queen of Kutch

This post has been written by HRH the Queen of Kutch.

Why do people travel and what are the memories people bring back from a holiday? There is so much you can learn about a person when you hear about their travels. While for some people it’s all about the joy of meeting new people, for others it’s about the sights and attractions. Some travel to find themselves and others to escape the grind of daily life. While some travel to challenge themselves, for others it’s all about the spirit of discovery and the joy of new experiences. Unfortunately, today, there is also a growing tribe of people who travel to tick-off destinations in the trendy list. Often of course, it’s a combination of these reasons, but for me, it has always been about the chance to experience new and different food and flavours. My strongest memory of any travel will always be of a great meal or a new flavour or a new ingredient. Yes, I see the sights and yes I walk the streets and yes I do all the touristy stuff, but many years later, when I think of a place, my strongest memory will be about the food.

Our 10 day holiday in Japan held many mysteries and delights for me. A very unique culture, completely alien language, no familiarity with the people, the thrill of travelling on the much touted Shinkansen and of course, an entirely new world of food.

What really was my level of familiarity with Japanese food? Yes, of course, I had eaten Sushi on many occasions and my new favourite lunch when in London is a bowl of Ramen. I know of Tempura, Shabu-Shabu, Sukiyaki and Yakitori, but don’t believe I have ever really made a meal of any of them. I also know all about the great Wagyu, but again, have never had the privilege to taste it.

So unlike most other cuisines, this was really going to be a new world of food for me. Chinese (from all the regions of China), Thai, Italian, French, Malay, Sri Lankan, German, Spanish, Greek...I think all these cuisines are more familiar to me than Japanese.

We landed in Tokyo late in the afternoon and after a fairly efficient Narita Express ride into the city we checked into the superb Hotel Peninsula and headed off to the concierge. On learning we had just checked in and that this was our first ever trip to Japan, the concierge suggested we go to an Izakaya. She suggested Gonpachi which has achieved some level of touristy fame because a scene from the movie Kill Bill was shot there and the concierge sweetly insisted it was a ‘funny’ restaurant/

An Izakaya is basically a drinking establishment which also serves food. They are casual places mostly for after-work drinking. Think of a traditional English pub where you go for a beer and grab some pub grub! Thinking about it now, this was a gentle way to introduce us to Japanese food. Izakayas have bits and bobs of all kinds of food. You can get some Sushi, maybe a Soba noodle, a few sticks of Yakitori and a sampling of Tempura. If you have just one night in Japan and want to sample Japanese cuisine, an Izakaya is definitely the place to be. And, unlike most other specialty restaurants in Japan, the prices at an Izakaya are relatively low. Nice enough to kick start our Japanese food adventure but not the sort of food memories are made off.

The next day at lunchtime we stumbled upon a little Ramen shop. This first bowl of Miso Ramen I ate at this unknown little shop has come to represent the taste of Japan for me. Rich, salty, meaty, intensely umami and completely delicious. Comfort food to beat most other comfort foods.

We soon realised that unlike the Izakayas, all other food in Japan is served in specialty restaurants. A Soba restaurant served just Soba, a Shabu-Shabu restaurant did just that and so on. 10 days in Japan and so many different dishes to try. In Tokyo, after the first two Izakayas, we ate our dinners at a Tempura restaurant, a Shabu-Shabu restaurant and at a specialty Soba noodles restaurant. Lunch was mostly different types of Ramen and occasionally Sushi, the exceptional one being at Sushizanmai at the Tsukiji market.

Of the dinners, the absolute stand out for me was Shabusen, the Shabu-Shabu restaurant in the Ginza Core Building. You could get either the beef or the pork set. We ordered one pork set and one wagyu set. The Wagyu set came with thinly sliced beef and assorted vegetables for the base. Each table had their own hot copper pot of boiling water and you could add in the ingredients as you go. While waiting for the water to boil, you were invited to make your own Shabu dip, which consisted of sesame based sauce, some chilli oil, mashed garlic and coarsely chopped scallions.

When the water starts to boil, you add in the vegetables, mushrooms and tofu to make the soup base. The meat is sliced so thinly, it cooks in a flash. Just a swish in the boiling liquid was all it required. The Wagyu was a revelation. Melt in the mouth tender and full of flavour. A meal to remember.

Next stop, Kyoto. If I shut my eyes, Kyoto for me is the Golden Pagoda and the taste and smell of Yakitori. The wonderful, smokey barbeque smell and the skewers upon skewers of deliciously moist and tender chicken meatballs, chicken skin, chicken liver, chicken wings, sausage and green peppers all washed down with copious quantities of beer. This meal stands out for the bonhomie and laughter and also the generosity and kindness of the chef and his wife at the small and lovely Yakitori Torikaku.

Kyoto was also my first Tonkatsu or breaded pork cutlet at Katsakura. Perfectly nice, but not a memory that will linger.

The Japan food trail ended on a high in Osaka. 

First we had an Okonomiyaki for lunch. An Okonomiyaki is a savoury pancake indigenous to Osaka. The word is a combination of okonomi which means ‘what you like’ and yaki which means grilled (as in Yakitori). With a base of plain flour, yam flour, baking soda, Dashi and egg, an Okonomiyaki is a mix between an Indian 'Chilla' and a frittata. The Osaka version necessarily includes cabbage. Besides that you are invited to add shrimp, potato, bacon, noodles and pretty much anything you can dream of. Once you place your order, the mixture is cooked to order on a huge griddle right in front of you. From there it is transferred to a hot plate in front of you and you are given a small sharp spatula to cut pieces and serve yourself, while the rest of the pancake stays warm. This is eaten with lashings of HP sauce and Japanese mayonnaise. Not the stuff dreams are made of, but interesting enough for me to try and cook it soon after we got back home.

Osaka gave us another Shabu Shabu dinner at Shabutei (probably better than Shabusen in Tokyo), with a far cosier atmosphere and great service. The Wagyu here was absolutely exceptional and the sesame sauce was freshly made on the premises.

At the famous Shimsaibashi we enjoyed a weird and entertaining Kushikatsu lunch at Kushikastsu Daruma. This was in all honesty more fun than it was tasty. Katsukashi is basically Japanese deep fried kebabs made of chicken, pork, seafood, and seasonal vegetables. These are skewered on bamboo kushi; dipped in egg, flour, and panko; and deep-fried in vegetable oil. The meal itself was fine but not inspiring. Who doesn’t like a well cooked pakora, but it is a little much to make a meal of pakoras! The fun part was a little train that brought the food to your table complete with a chugging sound and whistle.

If Mac Donalds can have a mascot so can Kushikatsu Daruma

The menu

Instructions on how to eat

Every table had a screen on which you could directly punch in your order

The Train on which your food arrived

The Kushikatsu

Our last meal in Japan was at what is perhaps more a Korean than Japanese grill place, called Wagyutei, which specialises in Matsusaka beef. Matsusaka beef is black-haired Wagyū (Japanese beef) also known as Kuroge Washu or "Japanese Black", the cattle come from the Matsusaka region of Mie, Japan. It is one of the most famous beef types within Japan and is known internationally for its high fat-to-meat ratio. The beef is absolutely first rate and ranges from rib-eye, fillet and chuck to tongue and gibblets. A few seconds on the grill and the meat is ready to eat. If you like beef, Wagyutei is beef heaven. 

No comments:

Post a Comment