Monday, June 24, 2013

Memorable Tokyo meal #2

Actually, this meal wasn't in Tokyo. One day of our Tokyo trip was spent in Iwate prefecture, visiting one of the Yakult factories, several hundred kilometres north of Tokyo. On the bullet train this takes just a couple of hours through the countryside.

Before the factory visit we were taken to the Chuson-ji temple in Hiraizumi. It's a famous Buddhist temple in very lovely grounds, and it attracts lots of tourists thanks to the 12th-century 'golden hall' - a mausoleum containing the remains of ancient leaders. I'd love to say I had a very lovely spiritual experience here, but unfortunately it was such a busy, touristy place, and we were herded around from place to place so quickly that it felt a little bit blank.

Lunch, on the other hand, was a definite bright spot in the proceedings. In touristy places around the world, finding good food is definitely a hit and miss affair, with more frequent misses. But in Japan good food is everywhere from train stations to fine hotels (it reminds me of Italy in that respect, where we ate splendidly one day at a truck stop on the motorway). So it should not have been surprising that even an organised group lunch in a touristy restaurant with gift shop attached would be delicious.

This meal was presented bento-style, all at once. As usual I felt a sort of food ADD... not knowing where to start or look first. So much demanded my attention. Here's the meal.

Clockwise from the left we have:
Salted fish with pickles (it was an oily fish, perhaps mackerel?)
Some yummy little tofu puffs with green beans
Sashimi salmon, shiso leaf and daikon
Cold noodles in broth
steamed rice

Also off to the right was a steaming little hotpot with a flame underneath it. In this pot was an assortment of vegetables and mushrooms in a flavoursome broth, and some wide sheets of what looked and tasted like rice noodle.

Everything was very simple but beautifully done.

Doesn't this all just look delicious? I got back on the bus happy.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

This week's eating highlights

A bit of eating out this week! Clockwise from top left:

Caramelised tomato with 12 flavours a la Alain Passard with basil sorbet (Bracu)

Scampi tortellini with courgette, basil, broccoli and pistachio (Bracu)

Spiced roasted monkfish, roast veges with sesame oil & pomegranate molasses (home)

Annie's birthday cupcake made by cousin Kathy

Vanilla panna cotta with wine poached pears (Mikano)

Salad of pickled vegetables with macadamia cheese (Bracu)

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Gorgeous Japanese packaging

I love how food is packaged in Japan. I had to buy this, even though I wasn't 100% sure what was inside. It is a package of sweet somethings I bought at the Chūson-ji temple in Iwate.

I took this to our family dinner the other night, where we opened it after dinner.

Inside was a bamboo canister, filled with individually wrapped sweets.

Which turned out to be some rather lovely green tea-flavoured sweets filled with sweet bean paste. Cute and yummy.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Memorable Tokyo meal #1

Up five floors in a tiny elevator (as all elevators in Tokyo seem to be) is Umenohana, a restaurant which, I am told, specialises in bean curd. As with so many of the meals I eat in Tokyo, much of the detail of what we eat is a mystery to me. Language is a barrier I've never felt so acutely.

In a beautiful, traditional space with tatami mats, gardens and water features, we sit at a table with large square metal boxes set into the table over heating elements. Inside is bean curd with a pink-tinged skin on top, which slowly cooks during the early courses of our meal. The skin is actually the point of this dish, I find out later. It's also the speciality of the house. It is known as Yuba. But first we are treated to course after course of delicious morsels. Unlike how I feel when faced with a degustation at home, I'm not daunted by a multi-course meal in Japan, because I know that every course will be tiny and delicate, and I won't feel stuffed and uncomfortably full at the end of it. 

We start with asparagus and soft tofu, this being the start of summer and everything seasonal being celebrated. It comes with some cold simmered greens topped with bonito shavings. 

Then some superbly fresh Kingfish sashimi, served on shiso leaf. This punchy Japanese herb is sometimes called Japanese mint, but its flavour is more citrusy and bitter to me. It will be finding a home in my garden very soon. 

Next is what turns out to be one of the favourite things I eat during the whole trip. A delicate custard, made with egg and dashi - the broth which underpins almost everything in Japanese cooking. It's delicately flavoured with yuzu, a type of citrus, and nestled within like buried treasure is a prawn and a piece of shitake mushroom. the picture does nothing to express how subtle and special this dish is. 

A favourite with my table-mates is next. A tofu shumai-style dumpling, packed with delicate prawn flavour. 

Then there's Yuba - that tofu skin - fried and served in a light broth. 

I confess I don't remember what's inside these little morsels. I'm quite taken with the presentation, though. Do you think someone in the kitchen is having a laugh? 

Next is more Yuba, served from the canister that's been steaming away on our table all this time. Our server scoops the tofu into our bowls of dashi broth. It's delicately flavoured and silky textured. I like it a lot. 

The next dish is cristened 'paddle pops' by my dining companions. They are Aussies, so this is to be expected. :) It's actually savoury; described to me as 'wheat gluten'. It is glutinous, and topped with a sweet miso paste. Again it's very textural. I find it delicious. 

Next is a course I'm a bit mystifed by. It looks for all the world like macaroni cheese. I suspect it is bean curd in another form, topped with cheese and grilled....

We finish with a light tofu ice cream. Desserts in general seem to be very small and are often simply fruit, which I love. 

I don't particularly love the Japanese wine (who knew?) On the menu there's a choice of "red' or 'white' when it comes to wine, which should have been a clue. It's a lesson that it's best to stick to traditional Japanese beverages like beer, sake and shochu. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Tokyo eating: first impressions

I've been home for a week, but I'm still going to sleep and dreaming of Japan.

I knew it would be a delicious place, and I was not disappointed. My first glimpse of Japan is of the growing of food. Rice paddies, gleaming like silvery tiles below our plane as we come in to land at Narita in the early morning. Once actually in the city, it's clear to see Japanese people are as obsessed with food as anyone in Italy or France. Japanese TV, although I can't understand any of it, appears to be comprised mainly of variety shows in which food is discussed, cooked and/or eaten, interspersed with ads for food. Out on the streets, it feels like every few metres there's another restaurant or food outlet.

I'm here on a media study tour courtesy of Yakult, the probiotic company based in Japan. In between fascinating lectures, research institute and factory visits, as I'd hoped, we do some very interesting eating.

My first meal in Japan is humble. It's in a small restaurant at the top of a department store in Ginza. It's described as a 'glamorous meal set' on the English language menu. It includes Katsu-style chicken filled with spinach and cheese (like Japanese chicken Kiev!) and pork cooked the same way but stuffed with pickled plum. It is served with a range of accompaniments including pickled veges, toasted sesame seeds and two types of BBQ style sauces, one sweet, one hot. It's lovely to look at; satisfying to eat but not quite what I had in mind when I picture Japanese food. It's my first lesson that this cusine is far more complex, varied and intriguing than I had realised.

After lunch I wander the food halls below - two floors filled with the most astonishing array of colourful and beautifully presented food. I have been writing about food for 15 years, and it is not often that I don't recognise most of the food around me. It's an extraordinary and quite frustrating experience - although also quite exciting - to be walking around looking at incredible food, 90% of which I can't identify! It is inspiring to think of all those undiscovered foods, so many dishes yet untasted! I resolve to try and find some help. I need a food interpreter.

As I wander I sample some bits and pieces handed to me from smiling staff handing out tasters. Chilled green tea noodles with broth; creamy bean curd; salted fish. I watch beautifully dressed and groomed Japanese ladies very carefully and deliberately choosing the ingredients for their dinners. It's not just here that there are great raw ingredients. In the small supermarket near the hotel, you can buy sashimi-quality tuna, purple octopus tentacles, an array of bright pickled vegetables and all sorts of gorgeous and exotic mushrooms.

Our first dinner in Tokyo is in a traditional Japanese restaurant a few floors up in a Ginza back street. It's a succession of courses (known as kaiseki style - the equivalent of a Western degustation).

We start with potato salad and asparagus custard, and finish with a fine creme brûlée. Highlights of the seven or so courses in between include prawns, brought first to the table live and wriggling in small jars. While we watch them watching us, we're asked to decide how we would like them cooked. Disconcerting for some in our group, but for me it just shows how fresh the food is!

We also eat crumbed squewers of vegetables and fish, served with a tiny bite-sized crab, to be eaten whole in one mouthful.

For years I never really got what the big deal was a about wagyu. Now I know. We eat it grilled medium rare, and it is creamy and bursting with meaty flavour. I want to eat a lot more than the few slivers on the plate.

I quickly learn that much of Japanese food is equally about texture as flavour. There are almost always crunchy elements to a meal: pickled or raw vegetables or crunchy crumbs. Sometimes the textures are challenging. One of the very few things in a week of eating that I'm not able to finish is a small bowl of seaweed with what I can only describe as a snot-like texture, topped with a similarly glutinous mound of crab-flavoured mousse. But more often these contrasting textures are fascinating and delicious.

Shabushabu another evening, is interactive food in a big way. A large pan of hot water is brought to the table and kept simmering via an element built into the table, along with platters of vegetables, mushrooms, tofu and meatballs. There's also a larger plate of paper-thin pork slices, which look like prosciutto. Everything is dunked in the water until cooked through - often only a few seconds - then eaten in a bowl of broth in front of each diner. Once the pork and veges are all gone, boxes of soba noodles are brought out to cook in the water, now flavoured deliciously from the pork. It's fun, fresh, healthy and surprisingly filling.

A surprise of eating in Japanese restaurants - for dinner at least - is that rice is served at end of the meal, usually after almost everything else has been eaten, rather than as an acompaniment. It's a way of celebrating the flavour and texture of the rice itself, which is a keystone of Japanese cooking. It tends to be served unadorned and unflavoured. Diners are free to add pickles or seaweed or sesame seeds if they want to.

My head is buzzing.

More on Tokyo to come!