The Culinary Wonders of Japan

The Japanese love Octopus

The Japanese love Octopus

A friend of mine recently gifted me Anthony Bourdain’s well-known book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. I am thoroughly enjoying this behind-the-scenes look into the world of the kitchen, for a myriad of reasons. First, I spent the last four years as a bartender. I am familiar with the tug-of-war between front of the house and back of the house: the customer who wants the filet frites well done on a ceasar salad with dressing on the side, no cheese and can you use butter lettuce instead of romaine? It’s hard to say no to your regular customers, especially when you’re the face of a four-star restaurant, but you’ve got it coming when you send an order like this to the kitchen on a busy Saturday night. I can relate to the book because servers and bartenders have their own secret world, complete with crazy characters (I once had a customer lick my hand), server lingo (I’m in the weeds!), long hours and sometimes rockstar-like habits (working in a restaurant is like being in a band–lots of sex, drugs and heavy drinking).

Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential

Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential

And I can relate to the book because I love, love love food. I love the smell of food. I love the taste of food. I love to eat it and cook it and read about it. Anthony Bourdain shares this love, even if, as he points out, food can be dangerous: he spends an entire chapter sharing secrets like why you should never order fish on Mondays (it’s old by then!), less than ideal refrigeration practices, re-used butter and bread, frozen portion-controlled “convenience food,” the list goes on. But then he explains the draw of a true foodie. It’s a long excerpt, but so poignant for me and the inspiration for today’s special blog.

Do all of these horrifying assertions frighten you? Should you stop eating out? Wipe yourself down with antiseptic towelettes every time you pass a restaurant? No way. Like I said before, your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride. Sure, it’s a “play you pay” sort of an adventure, but you knew that already, every time you ever ordered a taco or a dirty-water hot dog. If you’re willing to risk some slight lower gastrointestinal distress for one of those Italian sweet sausages at the street fair, or for a slice of pizza you just know has been sitting on the board for an hour or two, why not take a chance on the good stuff? All the great developments of classical cuisine, the first guys to eat sweetbreads, to try unpasteurized Stilton, to discover that snails actually taste good with enough garlic and butter, these were daredevils, innovators and desperados. I don’t know who figured out that if you crammed rich food into a goose long enough for its liver to balloon up to more than its normal body weight you’d get something as good as foie gras–I believe it was those kooky Romans–but I’m very grateful for their efforts. Popping raw fish into your face, especially in prerefrigeration days, might have seemed like sheer madness to some, but it turned out to be a pretty good idea. They say that Rasputin used to eat a little arsenic with breakfast every day, building up resistance for the day that an enemy might poison him, and that sounds like good sense to me. Judging from accounts of his death, the Mad Monk wasn’t fazed at all by the stuff; it took repeated beatings, a couple of bullets and a long fall off a bridge into a frozen river to finish the job. Perhaps we, as serious diners, should emulate his example. We are, after all, citizens of the world–a world filled with bacteria, some friendly, some not so friendly. Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed pope-mobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafés and McDonald’s? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, Señor Tamale Stand Owner, Sushi-chef-san, Monsieur Bucket-head. What’s that feathered game bird hanging on the porch, getting riper by the day, the body nearly ready to drop off? I want some.

I have no wish to die, nor do I have some unhealthy fondness for dysentery. If I know you’re storing your squid at room temperature next to a cat box, I’ll get my squid down the street, thank you very much. I will continue to do my seafood eating on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, because I know better, because I can wait. But if I have one chance at a full-blown dinner of blowfish gizzard–even if I have not been properly introduced to the chef–and I’m in a strange, Far Eastern city and my plane leaves tomorrow? I’m going for it. You only go around once.

He may still be a bit more adventuresome than me, but in this couple of pages, I believe I’ve found a kindred spirit. As a young person, I was never concerned with the exotic when it came to food, although I did always feel there was a distinct connection between food, emotion and especially memory–to this day, cooking my grandmother’s pot roast or my mom’s cornbread really takes me back, the smell of the food pure nostalgia. Today as I write, my mother sends me a text message with a picture of a french fry cutter. “It’s the French fry cutter my mother used when I was a little girl. We used to use it to cut and dice potatoes and carrots for veggie soup. Guess it’s older than me.” Food bridges generations.

My grandmother's French fry cutter

My grandmother’s French fry cutter

But when I traveled to Japan a few years ago, I decided I would eat whatever was put before me, and my culinary world was pulled apart at the ribs. The first thing I put into my mouth upon arriving in Tokyo was Basashi–raw horse meat. The small triangle of meat was served with another small triangle of fat from under the mane of the animal, and it certainly was an experience. No matter how long I chewed, nothing seemed to happen save that the meat changed shape in my mouth!

Basashi

Basashi

My boyfriend, Kabby, and I spent a month with our Japanese friend Sada, traveling from Tokyo (where he needed to renew his American visa) to Fukuoka, where his mother lives, and further south to Kyushu. We rode the Shinkansen bullet train; walked the streets of Kyoto at night, past ancient temples in the moonlight; were buried up to our heads on a beach under sand warmed by a nearby active volcano; visited the Hiroshima peace museum and felt ashamed to be American; sat on tatami mats in great old temples during Buddhist services, listening to the solemn sound of mallets against the sides of bronze gongs. And along the way, we ate. We ate raw everything: raw beef, eggs, chicken, squid and more types of fish than I can remember. We ate fresh ocean sea snails out of their opalescent shells. We feasted on the internal organs of a sea cucumber, cow intestines, fried octopus. We ate whole shrimp complete with the legs, head and exoskeleton and whole broiled koi fish off the bone, staring into their eyes while we devoured the skin and meat, and fed the heads to other koi fish waiting, ready, in a nearby pond.

Yumm! I ate all my koi fish, now to throw the bones in for the other fish

Yum! I ate all my koi fish, now to throw the bones in for the other fish

Paired with the koi fish? Noodles from a bowl of cold water spinning in the center of our table.

Cold water noodles

Cold water noodles spinning round and round

One of the most delicious things I remember eating was a broiled fish on a stick–a Japanese fish stick!–which I discovered was filled with eggs when I took my first bite.

After biting into this little fish, I discovered it was filled with caviar--I chowed on a pregnant fishy

After biting into this little fish, I discovered it was filled with caviar

One of my favorite meals in Japan was ramen, which is sort of like fast food for the Japanese. My favorite ramen bar was in Tokyo. After walking down a flight of steps, we inserted coins into a machine, which printed a ticket. Inside the restaurant, the kitchen faces a counter which is divided into narrow one-person seats, most of them filled with Japanese business men in suits. You sit at the counter, slide your ticket under the curtain to the kitchen, and they give you a piece of paper in return on which you specify how you would like your ramen prepared: would you like extra noodles? Should your broth be more or less rich? Onions? Pork? A few minutes after returning your order, two hands appear from the kitchen, cupping a steaming bowl of ramen, just the way you like it.

My favorite quickie Tokyo meal--hot, rich, salty pork ramen

My favorite quickie Tokyo meal–hot, rich, salty pork ramen

We also had meals at home. One night, Sada’s family prepared us a fantastic meal of sauteed vegetables with barely-cooked, paper-thin slices of beef, which you dip into a bowl of raw egg and pair with shiny silver fish.

Sada's mom cracks the eggs

Sada’s mom cracks the eggs

Well done beef? What's that?

Well done beef? What’s that?

One of the most shocking things about the food in Japan was the price of fruit–we paid about $15 (1,500 yen at the time) for a small bunch of grapes. But let me tell you–I have never, ever tasted fruit like this! The fruit in Japan was super-concentrated and rich in flavor. These grapes tasted like candy! Like fake grapes! The melon was so melon-y and soft that I died and went to melon heaven right there. Not even in L.A., where the sun shines all the time and we eat tangerines and oranges straight off the tree, have I tasted fruit this amazing.

The most amazing grapes I've ever eaten

The most amazing grapes I’ve ever eaten

That's right, 4,800 yen ($48.00) for two small melons!

That’s right, 4,800 yen ($48.00) for two small melons!

Anthony Bourdain wasn’t kidding about eating a meal of blowfish on your last night in a Far East country: the situation he describes is exactly what happened for us in Japan. On our last night, we visited a tiny, hole in the wall restaurant where Sada and his mother knew the chef. Kabby and I had begged for sushi during our month visit, but they said, Wait until the end, we will take you to see a chef we’ve known for 14 years, he’s the best in Fukuoka. That night, we had 17 courses , including some of the most coveted foods of Japan (blowfish, shark’s fin and caviar). We drank nihonshu (sake), sochu (a spirit distilled from rice or sweet potatoes), Kirins and Sapporos.

Don't forget to pour for the chef--in Japan, you always pour for others and never for yourself

Don’t forget to pour for the chef–in Japan, you always pour for others and they pour for you

The meal was so special and the food so spectacular, I wrote down the menu in the small journal I carry everywhere I go:

  1. Hotaru (firefly) squid with vinegar miso
  2. Karasumi (mullet roe dried by sunlight)
  3. Sliced blow fish
  4. Oyster with cheese

    Oyster with cheese and crab--the crab you eat as you see it on the plate

    Oyster with cheese and crab–the crab you eat as you see it on the plate

  5. Tempura of albino blow fish
  6. Fresh abalone

    Abalone cooked live over an open flame. You eat it before it stops moving.

    Abalone cooked live over an open flame. You eat it immediately after it stops squirming in its shell.

  7. Cake of lotus with shark’s fin
  8. Sea urchin and internal organ of a sea cucumber
  9. Dobin mushin, a soup of seafood broth and seaweed with bonito fish
  10. Chawanmushi “tea cup steam” (egg custard with dashi, shrimp and bream)
  11. Conger eel (the chef commented, This is my pride)

    The chef shows us his wares

    The chef shows us his wares

  12. Hamo sushi with hand-pressed rice and salt
  13. Crab sushi
  14. Raw prawn sushi. This was one of the highlights of dinner. The chef went over to a fish tank, pulled out the prawn with his hand, snapped its head off and pressed a ball of rice to the underbelly, handing it to us and saying, Eat it quickly, before it loses its freshness! The prawn was still moving as we popped it into our mouths. The exoskeleton and legs are full of calcium, for a happy mind, the Japanese say.
  15. Squid with intestine of sea urchin
  16. Hirome, a special part of the flatfish.
  17. Toro, the belly of the tuna fish.
    Sushi Chef Masumi Yamaguchi slices the toro

    Sushi Chef Masumi Yamaguchi slices the toro

    Sushi Chef Masumi Yamaguchi prepares toro

    Next he will lightly fire the toro with a blowtorch

    Food is special, not just because it has endless flavors, textures, colors and heavenly aromas. Food brings people together, is a catalyst for the creation of memories and the bridging of cultures. I’ll never forget our trip to Japan or all the amazing culinary delights along the way.

    My new friend, the sushi chef

    My new friend, chef Yamaguchi

    And not to forget Anthony Bourdain and his fabulous book and wonderful outlook on food. I think he would appreciate one thing I learned about food while in Japan: convenience food sucks, no matter where you are!

    Convenience store food...eeeew!

    Japanese convenience store food…eeeew!

     

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