Archive for June, 2016

It ain’t all raw fish, you know

June 20, 2016

We live on a planet whose billions of inhabitants are obsessed by food in one way or another and it is striking how especially keen on the subject the Japanese are. Evening TV shows are dominated by grub. If TV celebs are not cooking it or hearing about foreign versions of it, they are eating it and reacting with such amazement it’s as if they had never actually met food before.

Japan offers the curious epicure real diversity. The first thing to understand, before we even start talking about raw fish, is that like the US but unlike, say, the UK, eating out is much more of a thing, and especially casual dining. This creates a very happening food culture and streets that are packed with eateries trying to outdo each other in creativity, tastiness, and diversity. This culture also creates diversity in price: you can fill up for under a 1,000 yen at lunchtime, not a lot more in the evening and you can find places on the whole spectrum right up to and including restaurants where the prices are as eye-watering as the dishes are mouth-watering.

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Oysters in garlic and basil

As a rule of thumb, don’t go into a restaurant that doesn’t show its prices in the window unless you are happy to give you credit card a very thorough workout.

When we think of Japanese food we think right away of the famous raw fish, the sushi and sashimi, and participants in Dragonfly’s Japan tours will often have the chance to eat the freshest, right-off-the-boat fish at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji market.

The prospect of raw fish (and, say, raw horse, whale, beef, chicken or egg that you might meet at other places) is anathema to many western visitors. Is it even safe? Well, yes, it is. It does a restaurant no good at all to poison its patrons, and food safety and preparation standards are very high and rigorously enforced. If you are unconvinced by this uncooked aspect of Japanese cuisine, it is very easy to avoid and there is no way you will go hungry looking for alternatives.

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Sashimi

The second image you may have of Japanese dining is the spreads of delicate vegetable and fish dishes served in sensitive lacquer bowls and trays. This kind of meal probably represents the spiritual heart of Japanese cooking: food that is simply prepared with a minimum of seasoning so that the natural flavours speak for themselves, all fresh, and, above all, expressive of the season and the locale. This is cooking in step with the seasons and the environment. It is, however, not necessarily everyday fare, nor is it the cheapest. This kind of spread is more usually encountered on special occasions, or at the best inns.

A more accessible version of this traditional meal is the washoku style, usually four dishes centred around a bowl of rice and a bowl of miso soup, accompanied by grilled fish and a dish of vegetables. Cheap, nourishing and real home cooking.

Japan as a culture is famous for taking ideas from abroad and making them its own and so it is with the food culture. Side by side with the homespun Japanese cuisine is the Chinese: ubiquitous and as thoroughly assimilated as Indian food is in the UK’s culinary landscape.

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Ramen – yum!

Some Chinese dishes have been so completely appropriated that we no longer think of them as Chinese: enter ramen noodles, which from humble beginnings has acquired a near-mythic status.

In the years immediately following the second world war, rice was in short supply as was meat or other proteins. However, so the story goes, there was plenty of flour shipped in by the US occupiers. Similarly, animal bones and offal boiled for broth was an efficient way of extracting the last protein (and flavour) from butchered carcasses. Mix a bit of miso or soy sauce into the broth, and from necessity you had the birth of the ramen culture. Each region of the country now has its own variations on this dish, from Hokkaido’s butter and milk infused specialities to Osaka’s deeply umami miso-based creations to Kyushu’s lighter specialities, and where you can order the noodles rare, medium or well-done — a choice that throws you the first time you are offered it.

Ramen culture even has its own movie, the hugely funny-but-reverential Tampopo by Itami Juzo. Last year, a tiny ramen restaurant in Tokyo scored its first Michelin star for the noodle. Meanwhile, the noodle has slipped these shores and is apparently colonising the world.

We haven’t even begun to describe the soul food dishes like okonimyaki and Japanese curry, or the fantastic robatayaki and yakitori grills, the pub-like izakaya, or the deeply comforting nabe hotpots, or the vast array of imported foreign foods, both Asian and western. To go into those foods in detail would have us here in front of this screen for a very long time and take away from valuable eating time.

We’ll explore more of Japan’s food culture either on a Dragonfly tour or in this space.

Meanwhile, let’s briefly reflect that Tokyo has more Michelin stars than any other city in the world — and then tuck in the napkin and chow down.

The Takayama Tour

 

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Kushi-katsu

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The Takayama Reverse Festival Small Group Tour in Gion

June 7, 2016

Our Takayama Reverse Small Group Tour of Japan at the Miyako Odori event at Gion Corner in April –  great group, lots of fun!

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The Takayama Festival Tour in Gion, Kyoto