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.