Thursday, January 6, 2011

Chopstick it over, Tokyo! - These are a few of my favorite meals

This is a guest post by Joel Edinberg, my frequent dining companion/co-conspirator/etc. Just over a year ago, he took a business trip to Japan. He took tons of food photos to make me jealous. He succeeded. This is the last of four posts by Joel about the food he encountered on his trip. You can read the first post here, the second post here, and the third post here.
I was in Tokyo for the weekend, staying in Shinjuku. My colleague had left to go visit family in China, so I had the night to myself. Although sitting around my small hotel room watching Lost in Translation in a language I didn’t understand sounded like a lot of fun, I figured it would be more fun to explore Tokyo. The first thing to do was get some dinner. Tokyo has some similar planning to Montreal, in that there’s a lot of underground passageways and mall type areas. I explored these places until I found a place that looked pretty good. Almost every restaurant in Tokyo has plastic moldings of the type of food they serve or posters showing pictures of the food. I highly recommend just walking around until you find a place that you like. It’s much easier than going for a specific place, and you might even find some really fun things. So, my first stop of the night was a restaurant on the basement floor of some building in Shinjuku. I know you’ll be able to figure out which one it is based off the description. It was also the restaurant with a lot of Japanese people inside. Anyways, they seated me at the bar and gave me an English menu. I started off the night with some fried oysters. These are easy to find at a lot of Japanese places in America, and they are just a great food. But, I decided to eat my food more like tapas, so I ordered some more food. After a beer, I found it much easier to order the crazier items. My favorite item was the sliced raw beef. I figured that in Japan they are probably a lot more careful about their meat quality than in America, based off of absolutely no real knowledge of this sort of thing, so it would be ok to eat this. It was good, though I think it may have given me the hunger.

So, another thing I learned that night was that Japanese people like to drink with Americans… or at least they like to drink with this American. While eating my dinner, a businessman was sitting next to me and wanted to talk with me so he could work on his English. I still haven’t figured out how he determined that I wasn’t a native Japanese speaker, but I went with it. That’s when the sake started pouring. As he was the one buying, he was also the one pouring the drinks. He was a manager at the Hyatt Regency in Tokyo, so I could understand how we would like to improve his English.

That was a great start to the night, but my adventure was not over. The last time I visited Japan, I somehow ended up at this awesome dive bar called Love and Peace in Golden Gai. This is not necessarily the greatest area, but it’s not without its charm. I enjoyed it a lot the last time, so I figured it would be fun to go there again. Now, it’s quite an adventure to get to this area. The easiest way to there is to go through Kabukicho, Shinjuku’s red light disctrict. Yeah, I know what you’re all thinking, but I found it more annoying than anything else. I don’t really like to be bothered by a bunch of creepy looking guys telling me they have a girl who I should meet. I also don’t like syphilis. Oh, and I’m not one to cheat on Rachel. I really just wanted to go to a dive bar and drink with the locals. But, finally, I was able to get out and made it to Golden Gai. This place has history. It’s the old red light district, which is now a series of alleyways that consists of a bunch of dive bars. Love and Peace is a really cool bar, as the owner really likes American music. There are posters of Jimmy Cliff, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, etc. and they’re playing really good music. As a tourist, I had to pay a cover charge to drink at the bar (as they prefer their locals), but they eventually opened up to me. The start of that was with some shochu. Basically, shochu is a Japanese liquor made from grains or potato. It’s a lot like a weaker version of vodka, and I like it mixed half shochu and half water. I haven’t seen it around Boston, but while in Japan, I figured it should drink it as much as possible to make up for that. And, after telling them that it’s hard to find in Boston, they were even nice enough to give me a bottle. Not just any bottle, but this was sweet potato shochu, which is hard to find. It was such a nice gift, and I made sure to buy plenty more while I was there anyways.

I think people really appreciate it when you show an interest in their culture. The bartender was really happy to show me different types of shochu. I also think she enjoyed my conversation with a neighboring patron, Taka. This guy was a computer programmer and was very helpful in teaching me English, with some help from the bartender (whose English was very good). He asked me if I was “otaku,” which he explained, “otaku is strong!” So, I went with it and said, “sure, I’m otaku.” I figure I’m pretty strong and bigger than most people there, so it sounded correct. So, we drank a lot to our new bonding experience. The bartender and her other friend were secretly laughing at this conversation, and it was very hard to get a description of what otaku really meant. It was either a mix of not having fluent English, or just the fact that they enjoyed our bonding over being otaku. But, at around 3am, I figured it was time to head home and get some sleep.

So, the following week, I was back in Isehara and decided to go to a more traditional Japanese restaurant in the area. There is a really nice family-owned place near the hotel that my colleagues had recommended. Though, at this restaurant, no one really speaks any English. There was no English on the menu, and even the prices were written in Japanese.

Luckily, I had learned how to ask for something grilled – Yaki Mono. The only problem was that after I asked for that, I had to follow it up with something. I remember from eating sushi how to ask for sea bream – Tai, so I went with that. I basically got a whole fish grilled and with just chopsticks.

I learned that eating a whole fish with just chopsticks is actually easier than with a fork and knife because it’s easier to avoid the small bones. It was relatively plain, but the fish was really fresh so it didn’t need much flavor. But, I was still hungry so I asked them what they would recommend. I ended up with rice-balls. This was a ball of rice, wrapped in sea-weed, with a special surprise in the middle with soy sauce for dipping.

Inside the first ball was a bunch of small fish. It was a different taste and texture than I’m used to, but I still enjoyed it. The fish were coiled up inside the ball, so when you opened it, they expanded. It’s sort of like those joke peanut butter cans where the spring pops out. And, the same thing happened when you ate them, which was actually a fun feeling. You can say that it’s disgusting, but Pop-Rocks do the same thing.

But, the next rice ball had me a little weirded out.

I was thinking that this was a fish heart, or a mouse heart, or just something really weird. I figured that it was edible, so I’ll just do it. Sometimes it’s just easier to not know what you’re eating. It was a really sweet and soft object that was really enjoyable to eat, but I was getting really worried until the end of the meal. As I left, they gave me a hard candy that had the same flavor… plum.

After talking with my main contact person in Isehara about this, he decided to go to the restaurant and translate the menu to English for them. This was such a nice thing for him to do, and the restaurant really appreciated it as well. So, two days later I went back to try the more interesting food. They had even reserved a seat for me. I decided to start my meal with some grilled oysters with miso.

Outside of fried oysters, I’ve never really had cooked oysters. These were amazing. The miso and scallions blended really well with the oyster flavor. They were grilled just right so it was still a really juicy oyster. After I finished the oysters, a woman sat down next to me and then explained to me that the restaurant owners has asked her to come there for dinner to keep me company. Not like that, but because she speaks English really well. Her husband came about a half hour later. So, now I had an English menu and a translator. This was just so nice of everyone to make an effort to spend the time with me, so I hope I was interesting enough for them.

They even gave me a Christmas gift, Japanese action figures. I think they are from some TV show. So, realizing that I had a translator, I figured I should ask her what otaku meant. After a giggle, she explained that someone who likes those toys would be otaku. Yeah… I was still confused so I let it pass and ordered some more food. I got a marinated fish, though the translation left out the word “head” in the description.

There was actually a lot of meat there in just the fish head, and it was marinated in some soy-based sauce. Once I got past the fact that it’s a fish head, I dug in and really enjoyed it. And, using chopsticks actually help get meat from some of the smaller areas of the fish head. I accompanied that dish with some sake. This restaurant specialized in sake junmai. This stands for “purely rice” so there are no other grains or anything else in this sake.

Here you can see the co-owner showing me the bottle of sake.
I can say, I definitely prefer sake junmai to other sakes. There’s just a distinct flavor that the junmai has compared to other sakes that I’ve tried. It also had a stronger flavor than other types of sake. I've also found this to be true for other sake junmais that I’ve had since my trip to Japan.

After we finished the sake and the fish, I figured it was time to order my favorite Japanese drink. They were very impressed that I like shochu, so they brought in a good bottle for me. I figured it would be good to order some salted ginkgo nuts with the shochu. Salty nuts with alcohol go well together. The owners were oddly impressed that I would match the two together, and I wasn’t going to tell them that bars in America serve salted nuts all the time for free because it just goes well with booze.

Here's the other owner showing me a fine bottle of shochu.
Ginkgo nuts with a glass of shochu and water
Ginkgo nuts were not what I would expect them to be. They had a shell very similar to pistachios, but inside they were actually chewy, like a grape. They had a mild slightly nutty taste, which really blended well with the subtle taste of the shochu.

After the sake and the shochu, I was finally worry-free enough to order the big dish my colleagues had talked about. They had accidentally ordered this dish two weeks before when they came here, but I figured I should give it a shot. They had raw duck with bitter orange squeezed over it. I guess the Japanese people just don’t like to cook food. This was a special type of duck called “Kamo,” which flies in from Russia and is in season this time of year.

I remember the raw beef being good, but it was nothing like this. Duck has a similar texture to beef, but has a much stronger flavor. This was no exception. This was better than any rare steak I’ve ever had. The hint of orange provided a nice balance to the meaty and fatty flavors of the duck. This was one of my two favorite dishes I ate while in Japan (the other being the grilled oysters).

And so I ended my last supper in Japan. Had a nice stumble back to the hotel and realized that maybe I should look up otaku. Yeah… apparently I’ve been calling myself an anime geek this entire time, not that there’s anything wrong with that.


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