I couldn’t possibly visit Japan and not write about it’s amazing cuisine. So much more than sushi and teriyaki, Japanese food has so many styles and flavours that it was impossible to try everything I wanted to in only ten days. Here’s a round up of what I did try, what surprised me and what I just loved about eating out in Japan!
I love sushi, it’s one of my favourite cuisines in the world. What I loved in Japan was just how fresh the fish was everywhere I went. From the sashmi at this small Izakaya (which cost about $3) to 5 star sushi at the Ritz-Carlton in Kyoto. My favourite experience was at this little sushi place in Kyoto. I popped in for Sunday lunch and was seated at the counter in front of chef. Even though he spoke no English, in true Japanese style he guided me through the menu and how to eat each individual piece with patience and a smile.
And yes, that bowl of pink in the top left hand corner is the brightest and freshest tuna I’ve ever tasted.
Tofu is something that I like, but it’s not a staple in my diet, rather I’ll eat it if there’s nothing else that inspires me on a menu. There’s of course an exception to every rule, and I certainly found that in Kyoto. Here the art of making tofu is an ancient tradition that has been perfected into a sublime experience. Over 10 courses, I tried the humble beancurd in all it’s glory. From melt in the mouth silken tofu layered tofu that had been treated almost like pastry before being steamed as a dumpling. Each course was a surprise. My favourite had to be the tofu gratin (the last picture), it would feel at home in a table in France as it did in this humble restaurant.
Kaiseki is a traditional degustation that includes different methods of cooking traditionally raw, simmered, grilled, fried and steamed. I was fortunate enough to have a vegetarian Kaiseki at the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto, while decadent the simple flavours were the highlight of the meal. The meal began with crudites of vegetables service with miso paste and potherb mustard. Yes raw vegetables really can taste that good.
Other courses included a clear soup with the water shield, which has the most interesting texture. It’s like a twig like green has been covered in a fine layer of fluid (like a water shield) that just pop’s in your mouth. Next was a tofu with soy skin, followed by grilled vegetables, where the produce was left to shine with such grace. Tempura of lotus root, pumpkin and mushroom and followed by steamed rice, miso and pickled vegetables and plums. The entire meal left me feeling satisfied without being uncomfortable. It was Japanese elegance at it’s best.
A regular feature on the Izakaya (small bars) menu was Yakitori. This is meat grilled over a flame, in most cases it’s cooked right in front of you. My experience with Yakitori was limited to chicken as I don’t eat red meat or pork, and I’m not a fan of offal. This really limited my experience of the cuisine, particularly as everyone else in the bars seemed to be enjoying every part of the animal they could from stomachs to intestines. What I did taste was great, clean flavours cooked over an open flame, what could be better.
Noodles, Noodles, Noodles
No trip to Japan is complete without slurping on some noodles. Each one is created with love in their own special way, from ramen (below) to light udon noodles.
Ramen is a lunchtime staple, with noodles served in a liquidy bowl of goodness. Traditionally served with pork, finding a vegetarian version of Ramen was challenging, but I managed to get a soupy bowl of spiced silken tofu ramen to warm me from the inside out.
However my favourite Japanese noodles are of the Soba variety. Served cold with nothing more than a bowl of soy sauce, wasabi, some grated radish and finely sliced spring onions. Place all ingredients in a bowl and mix, then gently pick the noodles up with your chopsticks and slurp. Fresh, easy and delicious!
Department Store Dining
I’m almost horrified at myself for putting department stores in a list of gourmet experiences, but in Japan it would be remiss me of not to include them. Almost any food imaginable can be found in the basement of a large department store in Japan, from French macarons to American burgers to smoked eel. But it isn’t just quantity, the quality of food there is also great. You can pick up a quick salad for lunch or take home a three course meal. A word of warning though, it’s easy to get lost for an hour or three down there.
I like ice cream as much as the next person, but was a little apprehensive about trying soya ice-cream. I’m not sure why now, it had such a rich texture and a delicious nutty flavour. I tried the red bean soya ice-cream which added a hint of sweetness. My only regret is that I didn’t try anymore from the huge range.
My last night in Japan, we wondered into a tiny local restaurant and sat down a the counter. By this stage, we’d worked out that sitting in front of the kitchen meant we could point at things to get our order requests in. After having some soulful miso and pickled vegetables, the chef held up a fillet of cod and nodded. I watched him put it in the grill and expected just a simple grilled piece of fish. What I got was the most superlative taste sensation. The cod had been soaked in miso and was tender, just melting in the mouth like sugar.