2020 UPDATE: After regular yearly trips to Japan, with my language skills very slowly but gradually improving, meaning a better understanding of this distant country (at least to the level a regular tourist might comprehend!), the below text seems to me very naive, especially concerning the “human” part of my impressions, so if you read it for the first time and if you know Japan or are Japanese, please be indulgent… Nevertheless, I still love certain aspects of the Japanese society and most of all my love for Japanese food hasn’t changed !
Many of you have certainly noticed my passion for the Japanese cuisine and read more than once about my desire to visit Japan. I have been learning Japanese, dreaming of this magic, distant trip… Finally my dream has come true and a couple of weeks ago me and my husband had the chance to taste the marvels of the Japanese cuisine, most of the time guided by my gourmet Tokyo friend (who, like me, loves shochu, shopping and long city walks). As ridiculous as it may seem, I can affirm I fell in love Japan after only one week spent in Tokyo. Apart from the amazing food, I was impressed by the Japanese politeness, the mutual respect, the dynamics, the flawless organisation, the cleanliness, the high standard of services, the feeling of safety at any time of day or night…. How could I not love the country where finally no one makes disgusted faces when I ask for chicken cartilage, where my favourite geso (squid legs) are often on the menu and where I am not the only adult who gets excited at a visit in the Moomin Café (see the photo above)! Paradoxically, my enchantment is the main reason why I have taken very few photos. In fact, I am one of these people who, faced with strong emotions and/or excitement simply forget to take out their camera and immortalise the moment… unless a kind soul reminds them they have such a thing in their bag. I hope you will forgive me the small number of photos and most of all their poor quality.
I thought I should start with you the most extraordinary gourmet moment since my discovery of foie gras. Imagine eating thick, hard snow infused with green matcha tea… This is the only way I could describe the experience I had while tasting shaved matcha ice cream for the first time in my life. The colour was so stunning, it seemed unreal, while the bitterness and grassy aroma of my beloved matcha were perfectly soothing on a humid and hot summer day. The balls you see around the ice were made of rice and were really delightful as well as the light green, “standard” matcha ice-cream portion (although they were largely shadowed by the huge mountain of shaved ice).
We had this matcha dessert in a small and very friendly tea shop in a quiet part of Chuo-ku. As a big matcha fan I couldn’t go away without drinking this gorgeous matcha ice tea. After the sweet dessert this bitter drink was a perfect thirst quencher and a real feast for the eyes. Having such a double matcha treat was an experience I hadn’t even dreamt of.
Talking about cafés and tea rooms, I couldn’t stop myself from showing you this box because it illustrates so well the Japanese ingenuity, practicality and care for the client’s comfort. As you see you can put there your handbag, shopping bags etc. instead of squashing them on your chair or leaving dirty on the floor (although floor in Japan never seems dirty!) and I have seen it in several cafés or tea rooms. Another thing I loved was the plastic film they put on shopping bags during rainy days so that the items you have bought as well as the paper bag stay dry. I have never seen either in any European country. Am I the only one under the charm?
Another marvellous taste experience I wanted to share with you is unaju (a dish of caramelised seasoned eel served on a “bed” of rice). As a child I have always loved eel, but all I had in Swiss restaurants were fishy-smelling, tiny portions of tasteless slabs of a fish vaguely recalling eel. My Japanese friend, who lives in Tokyo and who knew my fondness for eel, took me to an old an old, eel-serving restaurant. I have had there the best eel dish in my whole life (excuse me the unappetising photo). The eel was served in a lacquered box (jubako) with two things I tasted for the first time in my life: black miso soup and small slimey nameko mushrooms. Sprinkled with the Japanese sansho pepper, it was the most exquisite lunch during my whole trip (and also one of the best ones in my life).
Unfortunately I have no photos to prove it but the izakaya you see above serves the best skewers in the world (at least among the several izakayas I have tested during my trip) and is the first place where I had a dinner in Tokyo. This is also the place where I have had a most unusual experience with rare chicken breasts. I still remember how surprised I was when I first read at Shizuoka Gourmet’s blog about rare chicken breasts served in good Japanese restaurants. Robert-Gilles (the blog’s author) also posted a fascinating article about the way certain chickens are bred in special hygienic conditions in order to be served half raw in total safety. Since then I promised myself I would taste rare chicken breasts during my first visit to Japan and I did. Slightly grilled, rare chicken breast smothered with freshly grated wasabi made me feel in heaven… It was so extraordinary I ordered them five times! (I knew I would never be able to taste them outside of Japan if it’s a good explanation of my gluttony). Thank you so much, Robert-Gilles! Without your enthusiasm and knowledgeable posts I would never know such a miracle existed. Apart from the sensational rare sasami (chicken breast), the above izakaya serves succulent, state-of-the art tsukune (ground chicken skewers) and other delicacies I could have every single day for the rest of my life… I found the address of this and other great Tokyo izakayas in Izakaya: the Japanese Pub Cookbook by Mark Robinson, the book I have already mentioned (I have prepared several successful recipes from it, such as Ume Shiso Chicken Skewers or Chicken and Leek Skewers (Negima 葱鮪)) and strongly advise to all the Japanese cuisine fans.
Another experience I will never forget is the Japanese beef. I often mentioned that I am not a beef fan. When I say “meat” I think “chicken” or “pork” and apart from well made steak tartare I go crazy for, I never take beef in restaurants. After reading and hearing lots of enthusiastic stories, I started however to dream of tasting the famous wagyu. Our Japanese friend took as to an exquisite yakiniku (Korean-style grill) dinner. The restaurant, owned by a butcher guaranteed the highest quality and freshness of the meat and also offered a huge array of cuts. You will understand why I say I love Japan if I confess that during this evening, for the first time in my life, I preferred beef to pork!
Unfortunately the grilled beef disappeared too quickly and the above raw meat photo and the one I took outside are the only ones I have taken.
Oh, and this magnificent picture with beef cuts comes from the restaurant too! All I need to do is learn them by heart before my next trip to Japan and I will be ready to order in any yakiniku place 😉
Takoyaki, the simple, unfussy dish par excellence, were also an obligatory item to taste. Takoyaki are fried balls, similar to doughnuts and filled with octopus. They are served in casual cheap shops and are as good as an octopus fan can imagine. The ones we had in a takoyaki-dedicated chain restaurant were simply perfect and I still regret that the takoyaki pan was too heavy to transport to Europe because I would love to experiment with this cute snack.
I could go on forever with the desriptions of other gourmet moments I had such as korokke (breaded pork) hamburger (my favourite hamburger in the world!), mentaiko onigiri (rice balls with spicy fish roe) or monjayaki (a close cousin of my beloved okonomiyaki), Japanese potato salad, stir-fried burdock, tiny fish (shirasu) I had every day for breakfast, fantastic sushi or different kinds of my beloved shochu “rokku” I drank every night… The thing I have absolutely fallen in love with is myoga (see the Wikipedia link here), an aromatic flower bud from the ginger family which at first made me think of the European shallot, but which has an unequaled, complex flavour and which I am desperate to cultivate on my balcony if I ever find bulbs. The funniest thing is that I haven’t tasted even a tiny part of what I wished to, so there is plenty food to explore during my future trips to Japan.
Apart from the clothes and beauty products which probably do not interest the majority of my dear readers, I have brought home some cooking gadgets, such as a fish scaler:
or the tiniest mandolin I have ever seen:
or the tiniest, cutest ginger grater in the world:
Several bags of konnyaku jellies (my favourite grape flavour) were heavy and made me abandon many other planned buys, but I don’t regret at all. They are one of the most addictive sweet treats I have ever tasted and are now impossible to get in Switzerland. I don’t regret the excess luggage we had to pay!
Last but not least, I have also brought a wasabi root!
I you have any ideas how I could wisely use this extraordinary vegetable as well as the two yuzu fruits I have also brought, I would be extremely grateful. I already plan yuzu shochu cocktails for next weekend drinks and chicken skewers (of course well cooked!) seasoned with freshly grated wasabi.
To sum up, one week was not enough even for one city! I came back with a huge motivation to learn Japanese more intensely then ever and to go back to this amazing country as soon as possible. For me Japan is definitely not a country one visits only once (or even twice). Even though I plan to visit other regions (Shizuoka is on the top of my list and I regret not having been able to see it this time), as a big city fan, I find Tokyo highly addictive. I am already hungry for next trips and not only in the culinary sense of the word.
Hereby, I would like to thank my dear friend Nami from Just One Cookbook for her precious and kind advice concerning this last-minute trip.