Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Japan / Street Food

One of the joys of traveling in Asia is the myriad of barely identifiable street foods. Asians eat 11 times a day, I swear. You almost never see someone walking down the street without something to nibble on.  As long as you're adventurous and have some cash handy, you can get anything from deep fried fish cakes to green tea ice cream cones. While in Tokyo, we mostly ate at normal sit-down restaurants. I had a bit of an agenda to hit certain places, which didn't leave much room for street food grazing.  Kyoto was a different story though. Since we had no preordained plans on where to eat, the street was our oyster, so to say. We also did a wonderful food & sake tasting tour with JD Kai in the Fushimi neighborhood.  We got to try all kinds of things and talk with the owners of each little shop or stand.  If you ever find yourself in Kyoto I would highly recommend Jason's tour - I think it was the best money we spent in Japan. 

Kyoto is also home to a huge covered market. It basically runs 5 to 6 city blocks and has every type of crazy Japanese specialty you can imagine. The above boiled mini octopuses being one of the crazier items.  

These are basically a little snack on a stick. The octopus is boiled and marinated in a soy based sauce to give it that red color. Then they make a little slit in the head and stuff it with a hard boiled quail egg.  Seriously.  You are not likely to see these at Reading Terminal any time soon. I can happily report that it was delicious. The octopus wasn't chewy at all (probably because it was so small) and the quail egg was a surprising little morsel of umami goodness. I'd go back for a few more of these. 

One of the few street eats we got in Tokyo - a deep fried curry croquette-type thing in the Asakusa neighborhood. The line was pretty long, which is always a good sign, and they are served hot out of the oil. You're lucky to not incinerate your taste buds with the first bite. It was crunchy and tasty though. Perfect snack after visiting the temple there. 

Do you like green tea? Would you prefer it in cube form? Can't pass up the chance to try Jello green tea cubes dusted in powdered green tea. Right? 

I can't say that I loved the texture. And the green tea powder on the outside sucks up any and all moisture in your mouth. It's king of like eating a tablespoon of cocoa powder. Better have a drink handy. They do pack a nice little buzz of caffeine though. 

Okonomiyaki is served all over Japan.  The wikipedia entry describes it as a Japanese savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients. The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning "what you like" or "what you want", and yaki meaning "grilled" or "cooked". Apparently the recipe & ingredients can change dramatically depending on what part of the country you are in. 

We found a little shop at the end of our lane in Kyoto that looked to be doing a brisk okonomiyaki business and the kitchen/grill was right out on the street. It also had all kinds of weird tchotchke things on the walls, a mildly disturbing female mannequin seated at each table, wildly inappropriate painted wood plates hanging at eye level, and a menu printed with the one and only item they serve. We had to try this place. 

The resulting okonomiyaki was actually pretty good. Although I think Josh and I liked it more than the ladies. It's basically a big eggy pancake with all kinds of stuff thrown in the middle, a hearty douse of soy sauce and some nori shreds on top. Not bad for $6. 

A nightime view of a Kyoto street above. Every paper lantern is a sign for a different restaurant or bar. We spent a lot of time on this street.

The very first stop on our food tour after meeting our guide was a little shop run by a mother and son team making fried fish cakes with various fillings.  They start off with a fish "paste" made from ground cod and then a little rice flour is added as a binder.  They add in ginger, mushrooms, shrimp and/or other things and give it a quick fry.  

It was really fun watching them work and getting to chat with them (translated through our guide). They take such pride in their product. Only fresh oil is used to do the frying. They make their batch for the day, and when they run out they close up shop. We tried one of each variety - mushroom was the best. 

The fish paste thing gives you a moment for pause, and I have to admit it's a bit of an odd consistency.  But once it's fried up it's pretty tasty (like most fried things). People eat these things all over the place. You can even get them at 7-11 (which by the way are everywhere in Japan). The one above was from a different vender in Kyoto and served on a stick (pair of chopsticks) - note the shrimp tail sticking out the top.  Yum! 

Some beautiful local produce in the covered market. Those are purple yams in the top left, persimmons, chestnuts and shishito peppers, going clockwise. The Japanese are surprisingly big on chestnuts - they are everywhere. The smell of them roasting reminds you of walking the streets of Manhatten in the winter. 

A super adorable husband and wife team making some treats for us. On the right, she's frying up these little pancake things called imagawayaki with either custard or sweet red bean paste as a filling. It's quite an art getting the batter cooked to the right temperature, adding the filling, then doing the flip to seal it. She's been at this a while.  On the left, he's making tokoyaki - little batter balls with bits of octopus, green onion and ginger. These are even smaller and tougher to flip without making a mess. This guy had skills. 

The red bean paste filling in the imagawayaki was my favorite. The outside is absolutely perfect GBD (golden brown & delicious) with just a bit of crunch around the nearly molten filling inside. Best to let these cool a bit before biting in.

The tokoyaki finished product - you have to eat it with a toothpick or else you're going to be very messy and have some funky smelling fingers. We actually ended up having these a couple other times while in Japan. Great little snacks while roaming the streets.   

One thing that the Japanese definitely love is vending machines. There is one on every corner and you can get just about anything - water, soda, coffee, milk, iPods, ramen, underwear, you name it. Found this shot of Tommy Lee Jones looking uber-excited about his Premium Boss Coffee, a product of the ubiquitous Suntory company. Total Lost in Translation moment.  Life imitating art. Love it. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Japan / Tsukiji Fish Market

A trip to the Tsukiji  fish Market is on every list of top sights in Tokyo.  This place is the real thing, not remotely dumbed down, little trucks and carts whizzing everywhere, fisherman shouting and bartering, complete with several hundred pound tunas, live eels squiggling in vats of salt water, and every color and shape of seafood you can imagine.  The market is divided into two parts - the inner market for wholesalers, where store owners and chefs come to shop and haggle; and the outer market, lined with little stalls and restaurants where normal people come to buy their fish for the day and fisherman get their breakfast after an early morning on the water.

Approaching from the outside, it just looks like  a bustling warehouse . Step inside though and you are in the midst of the world's largest fish and seafood market. Walking through the endless aisles of the inner market, it's hard to believe there is anything left in the ocean after the catch. There is every species and size of shellfish, mollusk, octopus, squid, fish and caviar here. Things that are instantly recognizable and others that you never knew existed.

The building feels ancient, like a relic from the past that resists all notions of modernization. You are constantly dodging carts and forklifts, shimmying down tiny aisles, stepping over puddles and trying not to get in the way. It is frenetic and exciting. A symphony of moving parts, sights, sounds and action.

Every stall specializes in one thing or the other. Great uni over here, the best crabs over there, gorgeous roe around the corner.  Tokyo Chefs have their favorite spots, but as a tourist it's fun just to walk the aisles and take it all in.  Like most of Tokyo, it is an assault on the senses. The action starts early, around 5am for the famous tuna auction with brokers bidding top dollar for the good stuff.  The inner market starts breaking down around 10am, with the outer market following suit a few hours later.

Bicycles are common here, and a reasonably easy way to get around the market if you know where you are going. Large tour groups are banned from the market, so you never get that feeling of following the tourist hoards to the guidebook highlights. Small, private groups are allowed though, which is what we did. This was our only organized tour in Tokyo and it was the perfect place for it. Having a guide let us know what we were looking at, she found us a great sushi spot for lunch, and helped navigate the labyrinth that is the Tsukiji  fish Market.

Some beautiful roe on display.  The market in it's current form has been there since 1935. They are building a shiny new building, scheduled to be opened next year, that will move the inner market and it's tuna auctions a few miles away. The outer market will remain where it is. This is somewhat controversial and kind of a bummer to the foodie tourists coming to see this place in action.

Seafood in every color, shape and size.

Mmmm...dungeness crab, dusted in panko breading.

Sashimi grade tuna, ready for sale, and snacks.

Some pretty sea snails.

No idea what kind of fish these are, but they look like they would make great darts. 

Fresh octopus tentacles, ready for a sashimi plate. 

I've never even seen shrimp this color.  An electric orange with blue roe.  Gorgeous.

Bet you can't guess what these are. They waste nothing here. 

The aftermath.  Looks more like a horror movie than a market.

Fresh urchins.  Danger, sharp objects. 

And their beautiful uni.  Better than any foie gras you'll ever have.

Ever seen wasabi in it's non-grated version? These are the little plant stems, recently harvested. It grows along stream beds in Japan and purportedly has anti-microbial properties, which is part of the reason it's served alongside raw fish. They sell this all over the market, along with the wasabi graters.  You won't see this at SuperFresh.

Another specialty of the fish market, and Japan in general, is the venerated steel used for knives. There are a few shops in the outer market where you can pick up a hand forged, authentic hocho.  These are high carbon steel, feel amazing in your hand, and are insanely sharp. Once you pick out your horse, they'll sharpen it up and even engrave your initials for you.

Finally, lunch time! Our guide found us a great sushi counter down some alley of the outer market which we never would have found on our own. All of the fish was on display in table top cases and we got a front row seat to watch the chef's in action.

Watching sushi and sashimi being prepared by a trained chef is mesmerizing. With a deft hand, they know just how to slice that piece of fish to get the optimal color, texture and most importantly flavor.

Some beautiful uni & roe rolls were little treasures of umami. We sampled a selection of tuna, yellowtail, hamachi, mackerel, shrimp, and salmon.  The fish literally melts in your mouth in a lusciously piquant, eye-popping burst of flavor. Having the chance to consume said sushi just yards from the world's largest fish market is an unparalleled experience. One of my favorites experiences in Japan. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Japan / Izakaya & Yakitori

The Japanese don't think about restaurants the way we do. In America, you can walk into any Tchotchkes or Flingers and order anything from grilled salmon to fish tacos, chicken pot pie to chicken parm.  Pretty much any type of cuisine can be had, and it will all taste vaguely familiar.  Closer to home, in Philly, if you go to your neighborhood sushi spot, you're likely to see miso soup, gyoza, yakitori and  ramen on the menu, right next to the maki rolls and sashimi.

That's not exactly how it works in Japan. Following the creed of dedication to one's craft, the restaurants there tend to focus on one particular thing, and do that thing really well. If it's a sushi place, that's usually all you'll see on the menu, and it will be exquisite. If you want yakitori, you go to the grill guy down the block. And that yakitori will be equally wonderful. The one quasi-exception to this rule would be your friendly local izakaya. 

Izakaya literally means "stay and drink".  They evolved from sake shops that would allow customers to hang out and drink a while before getting on the train back to the suburbs.  They're extremely popular and very fun. An izakaya generally has a range of dishes on offer - sashimi, grilled meats, tempura, etc., along with daily specials and lots of booze. The Japanese like to drink, and drink heavily. If you've got a little something in your stomach, you're less likely to fall off your barstool after that last shot of shochu. 

Most izakaya's are small, with between 10-30 seats. Seating can be at traditional low tables on tatami mats (shoes off, please), high-tops, or at the bar. These places are filled with co-workers kicking back after a long day at the office, so there is generally a lot smoking, drinking and shit talking. 

It's customary at an izakaya to serve a little snack - a tsukidashi - that can range from a piece of tofu with scallions & fish roe to a small salad. There is usually a nominal charge on the bill for the tsukidashi, but this is seen as part of the cover charge. So don't be surprised when you see a ¥300 charge on your tab when you just came in for beers and thought you were getting free snacks. Roll with it.

We stumbled onto this great izakaya called Asasyoku off a side street in Rappongi, just a couple blocks from our hotel. Even if I gave you the address, you'd never find it on a map. Fun fact about Japanese addresses, they are kind of useless. Most side streets don't have names. Each section of the city is subdivided into areas called Machis and then into neighborhoods called Chomes.  Since there are no street names to go by, they include the block number in the address, which you just kind of have to know.  The blocks are not necessarily in any particular order. 

So an address of 3 Chome-9-8 Roppongi, Tokyo would be in the city of Tokyo, the Rappongi Machi, Chome 3, Block 9, Building 8.  To confuse matters, the house numbers don't go in sequential order. They can, and often are, based on when that house or building constructed in relation to the others on the block.  So, if you're house was the 5th one built, you'd be #5. Your next door neighbor could be # 37.  Right…….

Anyway, back to the izakaya - we got seats at the bar and got to watch the show as the two chefs/servers prepared dishes. Between the four of us, I think we ordered half the menu. 

Surprisingly enough, I think this salad was one of the few green things we had (not counting the wasabi & seaweed) during our eight days in Japan. I don't know how they stay in such good shape. 

Raw octopus, with scallions and wasabi. Super tender and tasting like it was caught that morning, which it probably was. 

Some sushi grade salmon, just barely seared. This literally melted in your mouth. No chewing necessary. Amazing.

A gorgeous piece of mackerel that was seared with a blowtorch tableside - note the scorch marks on the banana leaf - and a hefty swipe of wasabi mustard that would clear any head cold. I was surprised to see how much mackerel was on menus here. It was just as common as tuna or salmon in sushi.  This was probably one of the best pieces I've ever eaten. 

Not being able to read Japanese, we had no idea what the specials were. Luckily someone a few seats down the bar had ordered what looked to be a huge hotpot. After some pointing and grunting, we managed to order one for ourselves. So resourceful.

You get your own little gas hot plate at the counter, filled a mile high veggies and what looked to be a miso based broth below. I'm not 100% sure on everything in there, but I can report back that it was tasty. Plus you get to cook it yourself, which is always fun.

You also get to have your wife serve you, even more fun. 

Another highlight - tiny, grilled, enoki mushrooms topped with bonito flakes and a dash of soy sauce.  The Japanese put bonito flakes on pretty much everything.

In case you're wondering, bonito is a type of fish that they basically smoke and salt until it's petrified.  Then it's shaved down on an upside down block plane and the results are pinkish translucent flakes of fish that is delightfully salty and bursting with umami. At this point it's called katsuobushi in Japanese.  Katsuobushi is a staple of cooking here and is one of the main two elements (the other being dried kelp/seaweed) of dashi - the broth that all Japanese soups are based on. Every Japanese mother knows how to make dashi from scratch. You can buy an instant version, but this would be considered sacrosanct and you'd probably be deported for suggesting it.   Heathen. 

Tempura is another specialty of this country. The batter should be light and airy - thanks to either club soda or beer in the batter.  That batter should be made to order and not sitting around, the effervescence still bubbly and alive.  The one pictured above we got from a specialty shop in Asakusa called Daikokuya. They actually have two locations around the corner from each other, and an adorable little Japanese lady walked us over to the one with seats available.  Huge prawns, battered and deep fried over a simple bowl of rice. The menu was fairly limited, as was the case at most specialty shops.

The last thing I want to speak to here is the simple elegance of yakitori. It literally means "grilled chicken," but basically means anything grilled up on a skewer.  It looks like a mini kabob, but it is so much more than that. A proper yakitori joint does not mess with sauces and marinades, per se. They focus on ingredients and method. Nothing but the best cuts of beef & chicken, perfect mushrooms, fresh scallions. The charcoal used is very specific - binchotan - which burns hot and clean. The skewers themselves are flat, so the meat doesn't spin around while grilling. The grill is purpose built, sized appropriately to the little skewers. You sit around the big hibachi and watch the show. The chef sprinkling each skewer with just the right amount of salt, a spray of sake, and a perhaps a brushing of tare. 

It looks deceptively easy. But you've never tasted anything quite so satisfying in your life, especially washed down with a cold Asahi beer. Everything is cooked perfectly, a nice char on the outside, just a little rare on the inside. The piquancy of the savory skewers with the bite and sweetness of charred scallions or onions. It is heaven on a stick. One more reason that I love it here.