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!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is beautiful and lovely to read. How nice to see Japanese food through your first impressions. Arigato!