Food in Japan: look, eat, learn

The chefs are era cut ups at the Tsukiji Sushisay.

The chefs are real cut ups at the Tsukiji Sushisay.

By Jean and Peter Richards

We ate well in Japan; sometimes we did not know what we were having.

In our half century searching for good things to eat across the globe, never have we seen so many ingredients we couldn’t identify, been in so many restaurants unprepared for foreigners or considered so many menus where we did not have a clue.

Two weeks were hardly enough to do more than scratch the surface but more than enough to make us eager for more.

Tempura was always a treat — fresh and light.

Tempura was always a treat — fresh and light.

Very little of what we had had elsewhere came close to authentic in Japan. Tempura was lighter. Miso had more depth. Noodles were better. Pickles were amazing. Sukiyaki was a completely different experience.

We had no idea where to begin with shabu shabu, how to cook gluten or in what order and with what sauce to eat the foods arrayed in the Tankatsu style restaurant. Chopsticks, however, were never a problem even when wresting the perfectly grilled breakfast scallop out of its shell to fortify ourselves for Tsukiji’s cavernous fish market.

Nothing shabby about these shabu shabu ingredients.

Nothing shabby about these shabu shabu ingredients.

Markets are our museums of daily life. Within them we glimpse the colors, traditions, economic conditions and values of a culture. In Japan that means the emphasis is on quality, freshness, presentation, seasonality and service. It means an abundance of beautiful vegetables: perfect fruits presented in be-ribboned cellophane bags, lively fish, freshly roasted spices, rice seasonings and sushi counters with very long queues. Service comes with a smile and often a bow.

Prize melons were $37 apiece.

Prize melons: $37 apiece.

If one could judge a country by its food, Japan would be colorful, creative, clean, efficient, patient, not wasteful and still largely tradition-bound. Young cooks are making reputations with international gastronomes by being inventive, but in Japan they seem to respect tradition more than their colleagues abroad greedy for wider acclaim.

We can’t imagine not eating native when we travel. We had some things we liked less than others, but we never had anything that was not well prepared, well presented or well priced in its range.

Typical plastic dos[;lay shown g selection on offer.

Typical plastic display shown g selection on offer.

Ordering was difficult unless there were menus with pictures, or we could point to what others were eating and indicate a preference that way. Very occasionally we were handed an attempted English translation; it usually was difficult to fathom and involved a limited set menu. We seldom saw a Westerner in any restaurant and rarely heard anything other than Japanese.

Potato salad at Wabiya Zanmai,

Potato salad at Wabiya Zanmai,

After a week of reasonably successful experimentation in Tokyo, we fell upon Wabiya Zanmai, a pleasant place on the ground floor of Kyoto Station across from the New Miyako Hotel in Kyoto where we could sit at the comfortable counter and order from the pictures with curious captions on the menu or by pointing at what was coming off the grill. The first meal was so good we kept going back. By the third visit we had decided to work our way through the menu pictures convinced that we had found a convenient, convivial place which seemed authentic and was popular with locals. It was, we decided, a place we could be confident of eating well while learning about the Tepanyaki style.

One night’s grilled organ meats and Yakisoba noodles with flickering flakes of shaved and dried bonito led to another of selected pickles, skewers of shrimp, scallop, chicken liver, octopus, and garlicky chicken gizzards.

Wabiay Zanmai  stood tall for us.

Wabiya Zanmai stood tall for us.

We loved sitting at the counter and watching the cooks pour the thin egg mixture which they chased into the folds of the very popular Japanese omelet as the aromas of oden, a winter soup speciality on a steam table, wafted our way.

Who knew that a cloudy soup loosely transliterated as “Toro Mettari” would pair so well with a superb potato salad and small beef intestine or that a raw egg could enhance beef grilled on a hot plate?

By the fourth visit, staff was beginning to nod in a vague welcoming way and occasionally smile. Diners chattered about our presence, our orders and our quizzical natures. When we ordered the seasonal vegetables with sauce, diners across the way signalled thumbs up. The artfully arranged bowl with a chunk of cabbage, daikon and squash came with a white plastic pouch decorated with red and black characters containing the intense and delicious mystery miso in which the vegetables were to be dipped.

Nishiki  Market in Kyoto was a highlight of our visit.

Nishiki Market in Kyoto was a highlight of our visit.

A traditional flattened cabbage pancake called Okonomiyaki fell flat with us at another visit, but a chicken curry, Indian in influence only, was a pleasant surprise as was the young waitress who on the last evening spoke English well enough to ask where we were from, if we cooked and when we were leaving. That night we had a wonderful meal of garlic rice, deep-fried chicken thighs with citrusy ponzu sauce, daikon, bacon and mushroom salad, oden with enoki mushrooms and yuzu citrus pepper.

The chef sent over some pickle and when we were leaving he, the barman and the waitress presented us with a pouch of their special sauce as a gift. Then they bowed and saw us off, waving until we disappeared out of sight. It was a very touching finale to a very interesting week.

Grilling scallops at the Tsiki Market/

Grilling scallops at the Tsikiji Market.

Places to Eat:

Tokyo recommendations:

Matsuya Ginza, Mitsukoshi, Isetan and Takashimaya Department store food halls and restaurant floors. Restaurants are generally small, have limited seating and fill up early. Each store has a place where takeaway purchased in the food hall can be consumed and some have very good sushi and other food bars in the halls.

Tsukiji Sushisay (since 1889)4-13-5 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku outside the Tsukiji Market where by chance Peter had what he said was the best sushi he ever had – 10 pieces plus miso soup and tea for less than $18.

Asakusa Imahan Restaurant, Nishi Asakusa (since 1895), recommended by Yukari Sakamoto for shabu shabu and sukiyaki. They were excellent. Since both are cooked by the diner, good instructions were provided in English. Lunch for two with tea was about $78.

Shoshoan, 2-10-1810 Ginza, Chuo, across the street from the front entrance of the Hotel Mercure Ginza. Convenient, quiet and comfortable, with good, simple food. Soba noodles are a specialty. Dinner with noodles, tempura and drinks under $40. The desk at the Mercure has a menu translated into English which is helpful.

Occasionally we found that restaurants offered house made ginger ale as a drink. It was a revelation when available.

Kyoto recommendations:

Wabiya Zanmai, Kyoto Station:

Most main dishes were in the $7 to $9 range; starters at $2 and more-than-sufficient evening meals and drinks seldom went over $40 for two. The restaurant, which also had traditional Japanese table seating in one area tended to fill up by 6:30. Twice we waited until 7:30 p.m. to have places at the counter. We would have reserved if we had known how to.

Ryoan-ji Temple Tea House

A charming traditional tea house where everything appears to be prepared to order. Best tempura of the trip — squash, pepper, mushroom and two prawn, pickle and rice with seasoning sprinkled on it for $7.20 and a curry udon for $8.30.

Kyo Yasai Kanematsu at Nishiki Market specializes in heirloom vegetables and has the Yaoya no Nikai restaurant upstairs accessed by stair at the back of the shop. We removed our shoes, climbed the wooden staircase and were ushered through the paper door into a small room with two tables for four and two for two spaciously set before low slung chairs. Yukari Sakamoto described it well in her guide, Food, Sake,Tokyo, which has suggestions for Kyoto as well.

“Each day the restaurant offers a set menu that may include tempura, vegetables dressed with sesame dressing, pickles, yuzu infused rice, and miso soup.” Reservations were advised, but there was plenty of room at 12:30 on a wintry day. We had rice infused with tiny bits of lemon peel and cabbage, potato tempura with a broccoli floret and a bit of green pepper and  vegetables we couldn’t identify. It was well prepared, pretty and interesting and we managed to be able to rise up from the low-to-floor chairs with some grace after it. Lunch was ¥4400 or about $36. We continued down the market stopping at the gluten sweet stall for a lollipop with red ginger which we did not like. Students swarmed the stand for such treats.

Yoshinoya is a fast food chain famous for its cheap and nourishing gyudon, a dish of sautéed beef and onions served over rice. A small bowl can be a big meal. On December 17, 2014, the chain raised the price for the first time in 24 years. Our bowl cost ¥300 on 9 December and went up to ¥380 a few days later rising from $2.54 to $3.22. The yen averaged 118 to $1.00 during our stay.

Nishiki Market

Daimaru Department Store restaurants on the eighth floor and basement food hall.

© 2015 by Jean & Peter Richards

Nishiki Market: pickled vegetables.

Nishiki Market: pickled vegetables.

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About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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