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. 

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