After settling back into the groove of American life and having time to reflect I can undoubtedly say that my time in Japan was the most unique and memorable part of my round the world journey. I can still remember individual spoonfuls of shio ramen broth, the miso and sake braised mackerel on Tanegashima island or the way that expertly sliced aji dissolved in my mouth during one of the finest dining experiences of my life in Tokyo.
As I mentioned in my previous entry, the pursuit of perfection makes for incredible cuisine. Their pride and dedication to excelling in their field is and should be an inspiration for both chefs and avid home cooks (such as myself). Don't ever let yourself settle for good. Always continue to improve and build upon what you know. All the great chefs of the world are constantly thinking how to make their food BETTER. It's a constant, tiring and endless process- but the results speak for themselves. Of the 33 countries I've had the pleasure to visit- Japan takes top honors in care put into the craft. This isn't to say everything I ate was great- but it was never due to lack of effort. The gastronomic culture of Japan will resonate with me as I continue to develop my cooking skills.
Here are a handful of dishes that represent all that is satisfying about eating in the country of Japan.
I had landed the previous night so this was my first solo meal in Japan. A common breakfast in Tokyo for business types are 'standing soba noodles'- little shops specializing in slippery buckwheat strands swimming in a soy-seasoned dashi broth. Quick, cheap, warming and wholesome.
It was a frigid February morning so I was grateful the shop was only 200 meters or so from Abram's apartment. I stepped inside the shop and was immediately greeted by the soba chef and an older lady washing bowls and utensils. Knowing absolutely zero Japanese I gave the lady that curious yet helpless look and she scooted over to assist me with that intimidating big button machine. 'Tempura Soba' I announced.
I inserted a bill and she clicked the appropriate button for me.
As with Ramen shops I handed the ticket to the chef.
I stood there in silence surrounded by salary men slurping their soba. As I watched the chef deftly boil soba noodles, fry vegetable tempura and crack raw eggs into steaming broth I knew this was exactly where I wanted to be. Yeah, I'm gonna like it here.
Kyushu is famous for it's Kurobuta pig. Damn I love pork. Clearly it would be of the utmost importance to eat all things porcine in this southern province. One of those being Tonkatsu- a simple panko-crusted fried pork cutlet served with shredded cabbage. On this instance I was actually looking for a hotel for the evening when I randomly eyed this restaurant. It looked inviting from the outside and the interior was even cozier. The menu wasn't going to do me any good so I ordered some 'tonkatsu' and prayed to the gods I don't believe in. 10 minutes later arrived this gorgeous set equipped with all the Japanese fixins- white rice, miso soup, shaved cabbage, grated daikon in soy and a runny egg. The pork was crisp, seasoned well, and incredibly juicy- with a rich, clean flavor unlike that of American swine. The crunchy cabbage cuts the richness of the tonkatsu- and you get unlimited refills of this shaved green brassica. For free. The rice and miso soup were flawless. Naturally.
'I've got a shop you're gonna love.' Abram tells me one morning. 'They do tempura. Only tempura.'
We hop aboard a couple subways and make the 45 minute journey across the city, arriving at our destination after a few lefts and rights through some smaller side streets. Though my stomach was empty, my mind was full of visions of crispy-fried delights. The inside of the restaurant was mostly taken up by a large U-shaped bar surrounding an elderly couple and what I can only assume was their son. The husband was frying tempura in a hot-tub sized wok while the wife was busy pouring bowls of miso soup and scraping portions of rice out of the bamboo steamer. For 650 Yen you get a decent portion of mixed seafood and vegetable tempura, miso soup and rice. An excellent value. The tempura was light, with a crunchy coating that wasn't too think. Some of the best I've had. Interestingly enough it was the rice from the meal that is still etched in my memory. For the casual observer it looks like a bowl of white rice- similar to the millions (billions) of bowls taken in every day around the world. Japanese rice is mostly short-grain, meaning it's 'stickier' than Indian Basmati or Thai Jasmine long-grain varietals. Not mushy, sticky. This makes it a pleasure to eat with your chopsticks, as you can easily grab yourself a chunk even if your stick game is less than satisfactory.
In Vietnam rice was always around. You might be able to skip out on rice for a meal or two but there was no avoiding this grain. The steamed rice served at street side lunch stalls was fine- but by no means memorable. The savory coconut juice braised pork belly and crispy fried mackerel were what brought your back. In Japan it's different. Rice is a meal.
This rice at this tempura shop was unreal. It was toothsome. It had chew. There was fragrance. Each individual grain was its own, yet they hugged and clung to each other like eskimos huddling together for warm in the arctic.
This rice is incredible!
I know, right? It's Japan.
Rice, please accept my sincere apologies. I never knew your potential. Now that I do I'll never take you for granted. Respect the grain.