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.  

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Japan / Ramen

Let me start this off by saying that Japan is the coolest. And I don't just mean that in a superlative, gratuitous kind of way.  Of all the places I've been in this world (4 continents, almost 2 dozen countries and counting), the Land of the Rising Sun is the most unique, most fascinating, most inspiring place I've traveled. It is mystical and mysterious. Complex and confusing. Prodigious and polite. Overpowering and serene. It is a tranquil Shinto shrine just steps from a seven story club/bar/restaurant, flashing lights and neon everywhere. It is Harajuku girls strutting like peacocks next to ladies in kimonos on their way to a tea ceremony. Japan is all these things and it is like no place else.

For me, it starts and ends with the distinctly Japanese cultural phenomenon that is dedication to one's task.  Whatever your chosen (or appointed) lot in life is, you do it with utmost care, passion, and craftsmanship.  It's a concept that's been much written about, but hard to truly grasp until you visit.  If you've ever read Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you know that life, and what you do with it, is all about Quality. The Japanese understand this concept to the core of their being. Hell, they created this concept.

For example - if you are sushi chef, you make the best sushi possible. You focus all of your intention and skill into mastering this craft. The best fish, the perfect rice, the optimal bite. But the guy grilling simple skewers of yakitori flies the same  banner. The best cuts of beef, the ripest mushrooms, the correct number of salt crystals on each piece. The bartender crafting your drink understands this too. He lovingly hand carves each piece of ice. He picks out only the most tender herbs and measures each ingredient to the drop. This is how you achieve perfection. This is how you repeat that perfection. This is how you have some of the best cuisine in the world.

Not to say that it's all about the food - but let's be honest, that's what I was here for. The old ladies cleaning the subway escalators take such pride in their work - you've never seen a cleaner handrail.  The cab drivers wear white gloves and line the seats with lace. Whatever your job is, you spend your life trying to perfect it. The dedication to one's task is so deeply ingrained in the culture here, they don't understand any other way. It is so different from the Western perspective and so utterly captivating. Let this concept marinate a bit, and serve as an amouche bouche to the rest of your meal. Although I know it's not possible to do it justice, in the paragraphs below I hope to somehow convey the incredible gastronomy that makes up Japan.  Instead of doing reviews of particular restaurants that you'll likely never even find with a map, I'm going to speak to the general food scene and particular dishes that left profound impressions on me.


After your 12 hour flight on the double-decker A380 into Tokyo, you are going to arrive slack-jawed, disoriented, disheveled & hungry. First thing you need to know about Japan is that cash is king. Amazingly enough in this technological marvel of a country, credit cards are not widely accepted. Get (a lot of) cash out at the airport, get a Suica card for the metro, and get on the next train into the city center. The ride is going to take about an hour - Narita airport is really far out. If you show up like us at 11:00pm on a Friday you'll get to see the scores of primly dressed office workers boarding trains home to the suburbs as you makes the stops into downtown Tokyo. Some of them have had a few beers after work, but a lot of them are just coming from the office - working long hours is a way of life here and putting in a 14 hour day is not uncommon.

After checking into your hotel, you are going to need food - pronto. Your bodies internal clock is all kinds of jacked up. You've just eaten several meals of airplane food that left you feeling less than satisfied.  Ramen should be first on your list. And I'm not talking about the $0.75 Cup-A-Noodles stuff.  I'm talking about the real deal. A bowl of steamy broth, noodles, roasted pork and egg should right the ship. I did a bit of research before we left and found Ippudo just across the street from our hotel, tucked down an alley. Now, given that I've just flown halfway around the world and probably look like a recovering meth addict, my senses are either numbed or on overdrive - hard to tell at this stage. What I can say is that this bowl of ramen instantly made that 12 hour flight worth it. It was the single greatest bowl of soup I'd ever had. Broth that was complex and so rich it was almost like a thin gravy, noodles cooked to perfect texture and made for slurping. Huge slices of slowly roasted pork, fresh scallions and a soft-boiled egg. Heaven.


A lighter version (still with the soft boiled egg), but whole sheets of nori as garnish. So pretty.  It's important to note here that ramen is close to a way of life here. It's almost a religion. Think Bar-B-Q in Texas. It's like that. People will line up and wait an hour for their favorite place. Each ramen joint has their own unique take, the recipes closely guarded secrets.  The broth can vary from pork, to miso based, to shrimp, to chicken. The noodles are prepared with utmost reverence and served at just the right doneness, so as to finished cooking in your bowl. You slurp with your head nearly in that bowl, trying to avoid slinging molten broth all over yourself and your neighbors.

Don't pass over the gyoza. These little dumplings are steamed and pan crisped to perfection. Ippudo is actually a small chain of Ramen restaurants with locations around Tokyo and southeast Asia, as well as New York. Guess I know where I'll be going on our next trip to the big apple. 

If you happen to find yourself in the Tokyo Station subway concourse and need a fix of noodles, head on over to Ramen Street. This is really a thing. They took 8 of the best ramen shops from around Tokyo and opened outlets in a section of the subway. I feel like I need to point out that the subway concourse in Tokyo is nothing like Septa or Patco. In fact it's pretty much the opposite. Bright, clean and safe, with no strange smells of urine wafting through the air, you'd be happy to spend an hour or two down here shopping, eating or waiting for the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. Which is pretty much what we did.

Once you've chosen your preferred ramen shop from the formidable list of establishments, you queue up and make your selections from the vending machine, obviously. You can even pay with your metro pass - what a country! Luckily they have pictures of all the menu items for those of us that cannot read Japanese. So you pick your items - some ramen & gyoza, please - tap your Suica card to pay and collect your little tickets. You hand these off to the server/hostess, take your seat and a few minutes later your food is delivered to your table. I love this place. So much.