Sunday, July 21, 2013

A rampage of richness

After spending four nightmarish, tastebudless days sulkily eating onigiri and noodle soup like a zombie, actively cajoling my jaws into reluctant movement, my tastebuds finally exploded back onto the scene.

Strangely, enough, it was a carrot that did it.  A carrot, it should be said, that was surrounded by much flashier things: shoyu snails, fried chicken, shrimp tempura, battered pumpkin, that weird fish cake that's surrounded by a soaking wet edible sponge.

I'd never tasted a carrotier carrot.  I could taste the dirt that carrot was grown in, the vinegar it'd been lightly pickled in.  I could even taste its relatives.  Shades of parsnip, snippets of sweet potato.

Can you spot the magical carrot?  It's behind the okra and next to the pink fish cakes!
When my taste returned, I went on a raging bender of rich, fatty food.  I'd been eating to survive, but hadn't been able to force it enough to really subsist on what I was sulkily inhaling.  Now my body wanted to recharge, and I wanted oil, grease, fat, butter, and sugar.  I wanted every cut of meat I could name and some I couldn't.  I wanted to live on bar food.

I sat down at a yakitori bar and munched my way through reddish, charred, tender chicken livers and folded, sharp-edged, fatty chitterlings dipped in light soy sauce.  The tongue, deep burgundy slabs, I slathered in Chinese mustard so spicy I got a head rush every time I took a bite.  Green pepper and lotus root kushikatsu, ordered to erase my memory of the night kushikatsu was wasted on me, came out crisp and split cleanly and hotly at the faintest tooth touch, searing the roof of my mouth.  I didn't care.  I wanted every sensation it had to offer.

Then, the next day, there was yakisoba, a heaping plate of noodles fried with slices of pork, cabbage, ginger, and the omnipresent sauce that goes on everything 'yaki' around here: takoyaki, okonomiyaki, anything that could be called teppanyaki, and this, the yakisoba.  I tore through it like a madwoman, leaving Eugene with none of my leftovers, a first on this trip.

And the same night, as if those oiled- and sauced-up pork slices weren't enough, we stopped in at a ramen joint that advertised shortribs in their ramen: these ribs were better even than their 3 foot high backlit representation on the restaurant's outside wall.  Their texture was exactly like the best kind of toro, or a pat of mostly-cooled butter from the refrigerator.  I would poke a rib on my way to twirling some noodles and my chopstick would just fall through it as though it were made of clouds.  The broth was broth concentrate: more stew than broth.  I was positive they'd made a mistake and forgot to add water, but I didn't mind.  I was drowning in fat and loving it.

This was the first time I really felt like I was doing Osaka like it was meant to be done, living up to that famous term 'kuidaore'.  Eating until I dropped.  Flitting from restaurant to restaurant like a hummingbird to hibiscus.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The soba before the storm

About four days ago, I lost my sense of taste completely.*

I was in a kushikatsu bar in Osaka.  I had just ordered a bunch of skewers: lotus root, tuna cheek, eggplant, quail egg.  We'd made it through Shinsekai unmolested, found a bustling place without a ridiculous line, been irasshaimase-ed enthusiastically, and provided with a rough English menu.  I was virtually wriggling with excitement as I watched the cook casually flip my food in the big fryer with a few long metal chopsticks.

 When it got to my mouth, it tasted like fried paper.

All of it.

Hot, oily, crispy fried paper.  Even when I added a coating of shichimi togarashi (Japanese seven-spice) that normally would have turned me red and set me a-coughing.  Still hot, oily, crispy, now slightly gritty fried paper.

I tried some accompanying cabbage: wet paper.  Drank water: cold, icy paper.  With mounting desperation and dread, I unwrapped a red bean mochi ball I'd gotten earlier that day and shoved it in my mouth: lumpy, gummy paper.

Then I went home and cried.

I can say no more on this topic without becoming so despondent that I cease writing this entry.

But the day before all of that, there was this one bowl of hot soba.

When we asked the man who ran our Nara guesthouse for noodle recommendation, he prefaced his recommendations by saying he was from the 'udon prefecture' of Kagawa.  The way he said this was matter-of-fact.  It wasn't uppity or snobby.  He didn't say it like I would have if someone asked me, a native Chicagoan, for hot dog recommendations in Los Angeles: with a toss off the head, a flip of the hand, and utter derision for Los Angeles' inferior attempts at meat in intestine casing.

No, he just mentioned it, letting his credentials hang in the air, then moved on.  Looking carefully at our map, he pulled out a pen and started circling corners, appending them with his shaky English handwriting.

We went to the rough location of his first recommendation, but couldn't be sure whether we'd found it, since all signage was in Japanese.  We stood outside the door and did that thing we've learned to do: Eugene haltingly sounds out the hiragana, and if it's a food word, I'll recognize it.

"Za-ru-so-ba," Eugene said, and I nodded.  "Yeah, yeah, zaru soba, OK..."

"Sa-n-u-ki-u-don," he continued, and I nodded more vigorously.  "I think we found..."


"All right!"

We entered.

A ponytailed man with a completely open kitchen greeted us warmly and gestured for us to sit at the bar.  From where we were seated, we could see his whole setup.

I ordered kakiage soba; Eugene ordered tanuki soba.  I thought I was so smart because I knew kaki meant 'oyster' and age meant 'tofu' so I figured I was probably going to end up with some crazy oyster-tofu concoction.

No.  That's not how Japanese works.  Kakiage turned out to actually be a big hockey puck full of tempura-ed vegetables and shrimp.

Made of, and surrounded by, amazingness.

The udon-making man was not content to simply let his (beautiful, savory, steaming hot) bowls speak for themselves.  He radiated food-enthusiasm.  His total lack of English and our near-total lack of Japanese did not stop him.

He pointed to Eugene's tanuki udon and started talking.  As he talked, he made his fingers into rings and covered his eyes.  Then he made frantic digging motions with his hands.  "Tanuki," he said, staring intently into each of our faces in turn.  "OK?"

We nodded.

Then, he pointed his finger vaguely in the air, and, chatting, he put his palms behind his ears and turned them this way and that.  "Kitsune," he said, catching our eyes.

"Tanuki soba.  Kitsune udon."

I am so glad that I knew what those two words meant (raccoon, fox), and what they signified (the same style of soup for soba and udon, respectively) before this tirade, or likelihood is I'd have gone away thinking I'd been drinking woodland creature broth.

(Not that this would have stopped me.)

His soup came out too hot even to slurp, the noodles glistening like grass snakes.  My tempura cake floated like a buoy on the broth, shining with oil and nearly audibly crackling, straight from the fryer.  It tasted like both the ocean and a good solid greasy spoon breakfast.  The shells on the shrimp got stuck in my teeth; I rinsed them out with swigs of strong roasted rice tea.

The whole time we were eating, the man talked.  He disappeared into a little closet and came out with his hands full of tomatoes.  For the first time, he spoke English.  "I am farmer," he proclaimed.

Then he ran the tomatoes under cold water and placed them onto two side dish-sized plates, handing them over the bar.  "Please," he said.

Shit, I thought.

See, I hate tomatoes.

People always ask me, before trips, what I will do if some foreign host offers me something really gross: a sheep's head, snake blood, fermented mare's milk, etc.

And I ask them, " is this a problem?  I'd eat it!"

But I never considered that somebody might offer me a tomato.

There are three things I strongly dislike eating.

And raw tomatoes.

But here the tomatoes were, dribbling water from the faucet, fresh from the farmer's hands, fresh from the farmer's farm.  He was smiling at me expectantly.

What could I do?  I took a bite.

It was the first tomato I've ever wanted to finish.

It had none of the sponge-soaked-in-stale-water texture I've come to expect from tomato slices; none of the skin-pulling-creepily-away-from-the-flesh, zombie-like outside.  Its seeds didn't hover in a solution of slime.  It didn't taste like fertilizer and poison.

In short, it transcended tomato-hood.


I'd like to tell you where you can find this charming noodle shop, magically learn to like fruit you've previously hated, and be regaled with woodland creature tales of your own, but I honestly cannot remember its name.  Instead, have a pin-festooned Google Map.  That's better than an address in Japan anyway.


*It was last in a long line of indignities committed against me by my body, which, suddenly noting that it hadn't really been sick in a good three or four years, decided to get ALL the illnesses, ALL at once.  First it hit me with a sore throat, the kind that feels like knives when you're swallowing something offensive, like warm broth.  Then, it gave me a raging fever, caused me to pass out a couple times, stuffed up only one side of my face, and ended with the kind of hacking cough that goes on forever but doesn't do any good.  Finally, it took my taste.  (And my sense of smell.  I stuck my nose right in a vat of Tiger Balm to check: nothing.)

Monday, July 15, 2013

The mysteries of octopus brains

A skewered baby octopus from a street stall - whole, soy-browned, and roasted just past tenderness - presented me with a few questions I'd never contemplated asking, let alone having answered:

1. Do cooked octopus brains taste, feel, and look exactly like hardboiled quail egg yolk?

I used to eat baby octopus salad all the time as a kid; my mom would bring a small container of it home from the seafood market as a special treat for me to eat for lunch.  But I never noticed that its brains tasted like egg yolk, so:

2. Alternatively, is it possible to somehow replace the brains of a seemingly intact baby octopus with the hardboiled yolk of a quail egg, fashioning the yolk as the brains and the white as the skull casing?  And if this is possible, would the Japanese actually do such a thing?

I think we can all agree that the answer to part 2 of question 2 is 'yes', but the practicalities involved in part 1 boggle the mind and would involve magical syringes at the very least.

But people build collapsible models of ships they slide into bottles and proceed to maneuver their sails up with string, so I'll accept the magical syringes.

Regardless, while trying to find my foodie footing in a country seemingly starved of street food (at least compared with its neighbors) it was refreshing to be able to exchange a skewer of something for a few coins and go along my merry market-wandering way with something mysterious in my mouth.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A tale of two tsukemen

As a noodle newbie, I am unclear why the noodles and the broth in tsukemen are served separately, but that doesn't stop me from loving the dish and its neat presentation, so reminiscent of little kids who don't like their meat touching their veggies or their veggies touching their bread.

Why don't the noodles arrive in the broth, as they do in normal ramen?  Is it for fear of their becoming soggy or absorbing too much liquid?  Is the broth too strong, salty, or spicy to marinate the noodles in for more than a few seconds? Is it a visual thing, proving that the noodles are clean and the broth is stuffed full of goodies?

I've noticed that the Japanese like to see what exactly is going into their stomachs before it goes there.  When our waiter was preparing okonimiyaki, for instance, we were presented a neatly arranged bowl of shrimp, squid, pork, and beef, spread in a perfect fan around its bed of cabbage, an egg freshly cracked on top, before it was briskly mixed up into a featureless mash and poured onto the grill.

Maybe one is meant to see the components of the noodle bowl - a deconstructed noodle bowl far before molecular cuisine came to co-opt that term.

No matter.  Tsukemen needs no justification.

In Tokyo, we had it using ramen noodles; in Osaka, using soba.

In Tokyo, we custom-ordered using a machine.

Buttons for big and small bowls, buttons for spicy broth, buttons for pork belly.  Buttons for sides.  A ticket emerged, and we handed it to our bandanna-ed chef, who had been next to us the whole time, trying to be helpful with limited English.  "Pork-u." (stabbing finger).  "No pork-u." (stabbing other finger).  "Big spicy." (gesturing widely).  "Now you."

In Osaka, I sat down alone at a bar full of cheery izakaya-goers, said tentatively: "Soba... tsukemen?" and after listening to, and understanding none of, a stream of confirmatory responses by the waitress, I was off.

In Tokyo, the portion size was massive.  Even the small was virtually unfinishable.  The aggressively fishy, aggressively salty broth spilled over with piles of green onions, the sides of the bowl petaled with pork belly slices which melted in my mouth like good toro.  The most surprising part of the meal, though, was the boiled egg: somewhere in between hard- and soft-boiled, its yolk bright orange and creamy and its white like jello, this was by far the best boiled egg I've had anywhere.  Santouka's rubbery soy-egg will do no longer.

In Osaka, the noodles came piled and tangled in a wooden basket.  They were flecked with purple yam pieces and textured slightly tacky. They held their cool temperature even when dipped in the hot, deep-red, heavily-chilied oily broth that came with them, so slurping them after dipping felt like a Scandinavian sauna/snow cycle on my lips.  The big hunk of cooked tuna floating in the broth provided me with something to gnaw on as my lips tingled, a feeling not terribly unlike the initial numbing of Sichuan peppers.

In Tokyo, I quenched my salt-soaked mouth with cold water, despite the rain outside; in Osaka, they provided scalding tea as another adventure for my lips, despite the near-100 degree outdoor temperatures.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Culinary decision paralysis and convenience store food

When I arrive in a new country, I always experience complete culinary decision paralysis for at least a few days.  Especially countries where there's no Yelp, or script that I can read, or clear menu prices, or anything else that would allow me to just make a restaurant choice at home, and then go out and singlemindedly seek it.

I'm not a good on-the-spot decision maker when faced with an overabundance of choice.  (Neither are most people, but I find I'm worse than most.)

Unfortunately, Korea and Japan are both shining examples of an overabundance of choice.  Restaurants are stacked five high, covered in undecipherable characters, but adorned with either laminated, multi-page, illustrated menus, or with cabinets of sculpted clay or plastic food models.

It's not that I don't know what the places serve.  It's that I'm suddenly faced with 500 different dishes and forced to stop and spend minutes rolling the prospect of each one around in my mouth.

And this leads to me choosing... nothing.

I get so hungry after hours of this that I have to buy something quick to sate my hunger until a decision can be made - and this, unexpectedly, is where Japan excels.

You can eat like a king at a 7-11: their shelves of onigiri, stuffed with salmon roe, or salmon, or green onions, or cod roe, or pickled plums, are all impeccably formed and cost under $1.50.  As my bus from Tokyo to Osaka made rest stops at the Japanese equivalent of Kum-n-Go's, I triumphantly sat back down in my seat with handfuls of them, ready to unwrap as we wound through misty mountains.

You can stop by the shabbiest-looking kaitenzushi place in the most abandoned-looking alley, where the chefs' irasshaimase's sound muted and the fish looks like it's been traveling around on its conveyor belt for hours, and it'll still beat out most American restaurants' sushi.  So, by the way, will supermarket sushi, its ridiculously low price tag ($4 for 8 pieces of hamachi, for example) belying how absolutely fresh it is.

The chain Choco-Cro, a kind of Panera bread-like nothing of a place with pastries limply lined up in front of the coffee counter, has excellent, flaky croissants topped with perfectly boiled potatoes, crispy bacon, and mild cheese that taste like they just emerged from the oven and wouldn't be out of place at a high-end French bakery.

Even drink vending machines, so omnipresent in Tokyo that we joked about the furthest distance from any point in the city to a drink machine being best measured in inches, have a dazzling array of legitimately delicious and intriguing drinks.  One, purportedly containing catnip, passionflower leaf, blueberry leaf, lemon verbena, and lemongrass, had such a relaxing effect that I nearly fell asleep in the Shinjuku Gyoen Gardens and was feasted on by mosquitoes who wanted a taste as well.

The 'kult' is part of the yogurt company "Yakult" - it's not referring to a beverage cult.
I feel fortunate every time I luck into one of these meals after freezing up at crucial moments, but also guilty, like I shouldn't keep being rewarded for my indecision.  But Japan seems to place a high value on food quality regardless of the prestige of the food involved, and treats it all with equal care.  While Japanese food has never quite synced up with my tastebuds the way, for example, southeast Asian flavors do, I respect the hell out of this attitude, and will feel extra sad to see boiled "hot dogs" rotating plastically on "spits" in the American 7-11's, and mere Cokes and Sprites in American vending machines, when I return.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Eating a statue's food

Item #1 on our Tokyo itinerary was a neighborhood, Sugamo, known to the locals as 'grandmother's Harajuku" (obasan no Harajuku) for its preponderance of old ladies and shops catering to old ladies.

It took us a little while, but eventually we got swept up in a tide of canes and walkers and found ourselves on a long, flat, bustling street adorned with tissue paper flags, shops selling lucky red granny panties and the latest in old lady fashion.  There were also tons of pastry bars.

We stopped at the busiest pastry bar, right on the corner across from a temple.  Having spent lots of time both at Good Mong Kok Bakery in San Francisco and at what is supposed to be the most popular egg custard spot in Beijing, I feel quite at ease in a crowd of old ladies speaking a different language, throwing elbows and jostling at counters.  This particular jostling crowd, though, turned out to be a very polite Japanese jostling crowd; I sidled in, dukes up, ready to fight, and the crowd just sort of organically melted away.  My turn came before I'd even checked out the goods!

Eugene eyed a skewer of 4 glutinous-looking balls covered in viscous-looking brown liquid, and as he did so, a lady behind the counter, through gestures, asked what seemed to be akin to 'What are you going to do with this?  Are you going to eat it?'

A strange implication, but one that didn't deter him.  He bought the skewer.  I bought an egg sesame bun.

We stepped back from the counter to try them out.  His skewer oozed mystery syrup onto the napkin it sat on and from there onto the pavement below, rolling and undulating at a glacial speed.

It looked incredibly unappetizing, and his face after he tried it confirmed this - but I still wanted a ball for the sake of holding to my eating-everything-itude.

He held the still-oozing napkin up to my mouth as I gingerly lifted the skewer and turned my head sideways to try and bite off a piece without smearing myself in goo.

It tasted like a lukewarm rice ball covered in a cross between maple syrup and teriyaki sauce.

My lips sticking confusedly to my tongue and teeth, I raised my eyes from the skewer and saw that there were two old ladies standing next to me and peering into my face.  They looked delighted - and very amused.  "Oiishi desu ka?!" they chirped, grinning widely at each other and at me.

I smiled back at them even though syrup was probably dripping grotesquely from my face.

We continued along our way to a statue with a roped queue leading to it: it was surrounded by older people, who were dipping saucers in a bubbling faucet at its feet, wetting one of a stack of washcloths that sat at the faucet's base, and vigorously and thoroughly scrubbing the statue clean before making quick bows and departing.

There were other statues around.

They had offerings at their feet.

Guess what their offering boxes were full of?

We accidentally ate statue food.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Japan Airlines sets the bar high

I'm squished into the butt-end of a 777, three seats from the far back lavatory.  In a bid for self-preservation, my feet are stretched out into the aisle.  An attendant approaches and I flinch, expecting a reprimand and a canned speech about keeping the aisles clear.  Instead, she presents me with a laminated sheet of paper.  On it are two pictures of airplane dinners.  I point at the Japanese-style picture and she nods.  "Thank you very much," she says.

This is perhaps the seventeenth time I have been thanked profusely: for having a boarding pass, for entering the plane, for entering the economy class cabin, for having my tray table up, for taking a customs form, for handing her back a used hot towel.

When she thanks me for taking the dinner platter she hands over a few minutes later, though, I want to jump up and out-thank her, bow deeper, turn the tables.

Because it's actually edible.  I'm on an 11 hour trip and for once I'll be able to eat something I'm fed.

Five bowls adorn the tray: a fruit cup, a Caesar salad, unagi (eel) slices over rice adorned with peas, a tangle of noodles tossed with egg, ginger, and clear sauce, and a pillowy fold of smoked salmon atop a bed of marinated beans and onions.

My uneasiness at eating close-to-raw fish on an airplane evaporates when I taste the lox.  With my eyes closed, my ears plugged, my sense of touch dulled, and my inner ear masked, I could easily be sitting in a frou-frou Scandinavian breakfast cafe.  The bean salad it sits on has a light vinaigrette; subtle, but not exactly mild.  The grapefruit in the fruit bowl bursts with juice.

As I start eating the the unagi bowl (sweet, but fresh, and better than half the donburi places in the states), my seatmate leans over to me.  "If there's one dish you have to try in Tokyo, it's this," he says.  "I know this sounds crazy, but you have to buy the eel rice bento at the bullet train station on your way to Osaka.  It's not just good for train food.  It's actually good.  You pull a lever and the food heats up like it's been freshly cooked - it's amazing."

"You're laughing now," he continues, noting my face, "but you're going to buy it and think, 'that random Asian kid on the plane was right!'"

Little does he know, I'm too cheap to take the bullet train.  We'll be taking the cut-rate highway bus.  But for now, the airplane eel more than gets the job done.