Archive for February, 2009

Fast food

Most North Americans seem to perceive Japanese food as much healthier than that of other nationalities. Which is true, I think. The variety of food eaten and standard small portion size is probably also a factor to the overall healthiness of Japanese people. But there are many, many traditional or otherwise common dishes that are not so wholesome. Fast food is a prominent part of Japanese culture, with convenience stores, vending machines, and fast food restaurants (noodle shops, fried food stands, McDonalds et al) in abundance everywhere. I’m not particularly partial to fried and oily food myself, but here are a few fast food highlights from our trip. Poor Yusuke got so hungry looking at the pictures again while I was writing this…

Takoyaki

Takoyaki


Takoyaki, a famous festival food, is octopus pieces rolled in batter (with ginger, green onions, and spices) and deep fried. It’s typically served with okonomi sauce, bonito flakes, and mayonnaise. I had fun watching the takoyaki being made, with the batter poured into tins with round molds to shape them, turned at lightening speed by the chefs. The batter was thick without being too greasy and the tako (octopus) was very tender, but unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it fully: the takoyaki was so fresh and literally piping hot that I burned my mouth. Ouch!

Crepes

Crepes


The picture above shows a crêpe-style dish being made. It’s similar to the Korean-style crêpe that Yusuke made, which in turn is similar to okonomyaki. Again, the idea is to combine a variety of veggies in a batter and grill or fry it. Also in the picture is a package of maki (sushi rolls) that are a familiar sight all over the world these days. But these are fresh, authentic, and better!

Ramen

Ramen


Ramen is among Japan’s more prominent culinary exports, but the stuff served in Japanese ramen restaurants in Japan is a far cry from the 10 cent instant noodles in the grocery store. Ramen shops are everywhere, offering a range of all different qualities, price ranges, and types, and each region has its own particular specialties. Yusuke’s bowl pictured above had noodles, tonkotsu (“pork bone”) broth, pork, a boiled egg, spicy, chili flakes, green onions, and nori, eaten during a little pilgrimage to one of his favourite ramen joints of yore. According to Yusuke, the creation of a ramen soup base is quite an art. A unique selection of meat, vegetables, and seasonings are simmered for days to create the stock before it’s served with the ramen noodles. On our next trip, we’ll have to visit the ramen museum in Yokohama.

Onigiri making

Onigiri making

Ah, onigiri, such a wonderful invention. Onigiri, or rice balls, are a staple of Japanese life. They can take many forms and flavours, but the most typical is the triangle shape wrapped with nori (seaweed). In the centre is a dollop-sized amount of a traditional filling like umeboshi (pickled plum), tarako (fish roe), okaka (bonito flakes with a drip of soy sauce), or shiozake (salted salmon). Just Bento has two fabulous onigiri pages: FAQs and Onigiri on Parade. I’ve never made Yusuke the adorable smiley face ones, though…

The picture above shows “gourmet” onigiri being made in the food section of the Sogo department store.

We had lots of homemade onigiri from Yusuke’s mom, and we also frequently make them at home in Montreal. But I was enamoured with the packaged onigiri available in supermarkets, convenience stores, and vending machines. They cost about a dollar (well, a US dollar) and are a wonderfully filling lunch or snack. The have an ingenious packaging mechanism that keeps the nori separate from the rice, since the rice would make the seaweed mushy. When you upwrap it, the nori folds perfectly around the rice. So cool. Although I must admit, it took me a few tries to get the right technique.

Since I didn’t take any good onigiri pictures during our trip, I borrowed this one from Wikimedia Commons (Thanks to typester from Kamakura, Kanagawa. The original image is here). It shows an overwhelming display of onigiri in a typical corner store.

Onigiri

Onigiri

If you’d like to see this wonderful technology in action, here are some amusing onigiri-opening videos here (only 28 seconds) and here (with goofy explanations).

And last but not least, here is a gratuitous vending machine snap. These things are every.where. Most impressively, they sell both hot and cold drinks. Often you can even get hot soup, ramen, or oden in a can. Wowie.

Vending machine

Vending machine

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Cabbage and carrots

Cabbage and carrots (oh, and pork)

Cabbage and carrots (oh, and pork)

Yusuke cooked this meal months ago, but I thought it was worth posting, just because I felt like praising cabbage. I never really ate it before living with Yusuke, because my image of the vegetable was always tied to stinky corned-beef and cabbage saturating nursing homes and community centres on Saint Patrick’s Day. But now I’ve learned that cabbage is quite crunchy and sweet in stir fries and soups. It’s also very cheap! Here Yusuke combined it in a stir fry with carrots, bean sprouts, pork, with garlic, ginger, and soy sauce. Our soup was miso with nicely tender eggplants.

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Fish

We ate a lot of fish in Japan. I think we had some with nearly every meal, in fact. I don’t know how Yusuke can cope with that dietary change, since it’s a rare treat for us now. Here follows a few brief descriptions of some fish-related highlights.

Yusuke’s mom frequently baked, broiled, or fried a piece of fish, as seen below, as a part of breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Just add a dash of soy sauce and enjoy. Sashimi was also a normal part of food at home. I also recall having wonderful sashimi, including hamachi, tako (octopus), etc. at a posh restaurant in the Ginza district of Tokyo. No picture was taken, alas.

Random fish example

Random fish example

Yusuke’s dad brought home this wonderful seafood salad a few times. Absolutely beautiful to my eyes (and mouth), but just standard for their family. The white rings are squid, and it also had shrimp, clams, seaweed, etc.

Seafood salad

Seafood salad

We had our first sushi dinner of the trip on Christmas Eve. It was a nice restaurant, but not in any way exotic or out of the ordinary. The nigiri was fabulous. Our plates literally looked like a textbook explanation of sushi. No California, kamikaze, or rainbow rolls here, folks. We had negitoromaki (minced tuna and green onion rolls), salmon, maguro (tuna), ika (squid), ebi (sweet shrimp), hotate (scallop), tamago (egg), ikura (salmon roe), and hamachi (yellowfin tuna). And also anago (eel), which is, obviously, the long piece at the front of the picture. I had it for the first time here, coated with a sweetish barbecue-like sauce. Surprisingly tender and exceedingly delicious.

Sushi

Sushi

Ooh la la

Ooh la la

Yusuke’s aunt and uncle treated us to a wonderful Japanese dinner at restaurant one evening, and several of the dishes included fish. (I’ll write about some of the non-fishy offerings another time.)

Tuna with tororo-imo

Tuna with tororo-imo

This dish above is yamakake, which is the combination of maguro (tuna) and tororo. Tororo is essentially nagaimo or yamaimo which has been ground up. Did you follow that? In other the words, the white stuff is a root vegetable that becomes extremely sticky and, well, slimy, when it’s grated or ground. It might be unappealing to some Westerners because of the stickiness. Here it was mixed with an egg, increasingly the sliminess factor. I liked the combination with the maguro, though it’s wise to keep rice nearby when eating it.

Poor Mr. Fish

Poor Mr. Fish

This poor li’l fella was still twitching on our table. But he sure was tasty. In case you’re wondering, we did not eat the chrysanthemum.

Maguro salad

Maguro salad

This salad had cucumbers, white and green onions, chrysanthemum petals, and maguro with a slightly vinegary dressing. Again, note the deep red colour of the tuna. It’s rare (ha, ha) to see fish of that hue here in North America.

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Korean-style donburi

Korean-style donburi

Korean-style donburi

Donburi is common Japanese dish. With my elegant linguistic skills, I translate it as “stuff on rice.” This dish is not an archetypal Japanese donburi, but some traditional examples are listed on the wikipedia page. Yusuke stir fried bean sprouts, spinach, mushrooms, and carrots in sesame oil and sprinkled them with sesame seeds. Then he neatly arranged them over a bowl of rice and added a fried egg to the centre. The true Korean touch is the red spicy Sriracha sauce. (Okay, okay, that sauce is actually Thai. But the point is that the dish has super-hot sauce mixed with sesamified veggies and rice, ergo, it’s Korean.) After the picture was taken, we just mixed everything together and ate it. A perfect one-bowl comfort food meal.

(To help with my search results: domburi is also transliterated as donburi. Easier: 丼 or どんぶり)

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Japanese pasta: miso edition

Japanese miso pasta

Japanese miso pasta

I’ve written about Yusuke’s Japanese-style pasta before, and it’s an apt example of the flexibility of Japanese cuisine.

The pasta itself is just run-of-the mill spaghetti, boiled in water and olive oil with a little bonito powder (dashi) added. For the toppings, Yusuke sautéed pork and eggplant in a mixture of miso (paste mixed with water), mirin, sake, and sugar. Then he added the pasta to the frying pan with more miso and a splash of soy sauce. He served the pasta with freshly chopped green onions sprinkled on top.

I’m tempted to use a clichéd simile to describe the complementary relationship between miso and eggplant…but to say that they go together like peanut butter and jelly just sounds gross. At any rate, they’re perfect foils for each other. The dish wasn’t salty, but it certainly had a distinctive miso flavour. To balance the rich taste, our soup was simply spinach and mushrooms in water, soy sauce, and dashi.

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Tofu

I now officially designate tofu as my favourite food. “Enjoyed” is a pathetic word to describe my experience of tofu in Japan, but I can’t come up with anything better. Maybe “delighted in”? “Relished”? At any rate, all of the tofu was yummy.

It’s thus very depressing to be in Canada where tofu is scarce. In Montreal, it’s very difficult to find silken tofu; even Halifax had a better selection. We have to make special trips to a particular grocery store to get a decent brand. The Korean stores don’t seem to stock Japanese tofu, and Korean and Chinese tofu is a bit different.

For anyone out there who isn’t a tofu fan…I pity you. But I won’t evangelize; it just leaves more for me.

There are many kinds of tofu, but from what I could elicit from Yusuke, “regular” or “standard” tofu in Japan is 絹漉し豆腐 (kinugoshi tōfu). This is essentially silken tofu, but it’s creamier than what you often get from a package in North America. Pictured below are two kinds of tofu that we bought at the fabulous Sogo department store in Yokohama, a spot that we visited repeatedly in our short time there. One is lightly flavoured with yuzu skin, which is similar to lime. The other is actually edamame tofu, made with, obviously, edamame beans rather than regular soy beans. We ate the latter topped with a tiny bit of salt to magnify the flavour.

Tofu with yuzu

Tofu with yuzu

Tofu with edamame

Tofu with edamame

We also had yudofu several times, which I’ve written about before. It’s boiled tofu, topped, usually, with ginger, bonito flakes, green onions, and soy sauce. Again, the best tofu for yudofu was found at one of the Sogo tofu stands. It was “old fashioned style” (mukashi-nagara no) which has a much richer, deeper taste than we find in the packaged tofu here.

Yudofu

Yudofu

The absolute pinnacle of our tofu-eating experience was realized at a tiny tofu-making shop in Hakone, a mountain resort town. We had heard about the place, so when were there, we had to stop in. We ordered three different kinds, and the tofu-maker was kind enough to put it in bowls for us. We ate it right outside the shop on a bench. The white one without soy sauce is tofu annindōfu (杏仁豆腐), a sweet dessert tofu with a hint of almond. I had this a few other times during our trip, always wonderful, but not as special as in Hakone. We also tried plain and black sesame tofu, eaten with just a tiny bit of soy sauce. If you put too much, you completely miss the flavour. I should also point out the beautiful tray on which the tofu was served: it’s an example of the traditional wood mosaic craft of the Hakone region.

Hakone tofu

Hakone tofu

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