How We Ate In Japan

Thanks to my amazing wife’s vote of confidence, this will be the first guest entry ever published on Travelenabler and I am very humbled to get the opportunity to let you into my world of travel. Will my perspective be any different? Get comfy – it’s a long one.

Everytime me and my wife travel we tend to discuss a magnitude of subjects, but only few would ever make me as exited to write about as this one: food while travelling. In general and very specific. Street snacks, fancy meals, grocery store scavange hunts and so on. I will do my best to give you a glimpse into what made us very happy on our trip to Japan and let me tell you the happiness brought by food on this trip is at new heights.

As my wife mentioned before, when travelling with our almost 4 year old, we simply have a few tricks that make things easier. Kalina is somewhat of a picky eater, not sure if all kids that age are. A lot of our meals in Japan are tailored mostly for parents and every now and then we are able to find a common ground. Let’s start from the less comfotable spot…

Sushi

One of the most spectacular sights in Tokyo that is somewhat challenging for let’s call us ”comfort seeking visitors” is Tsukiji Fish Market. Not just any market, the biggest fish market in the world. You probably have eaten a few delicacies flown from Tokyo at some point in your life. The market is known to have a ring of excellent sushi restaurants surrounding it, serving the freshest catch. Start with locating where your favorite restaurant is, then stand in the line and wait. It’s 11am, but sushi and sashimi late breakfast of the highest caliber is worth the wait. You get in, only counter seats, no frills. If the kid doesn’t eat – the kid doesn’t get to have a seat. That’s ok, if there’s anything I mastered by now is how to have a great meal eating with one hand and joggling a toddler on my lap. Both sushi and sashimi were out of this world. You don’t sit around though, there is a line of people behind you. Just “pop’em in” and pay.

Tempura

When you travel as often as we try to, you get into routines. We just assume some things. I for once assumed my kid would go nuts for tempura. Perfectly crispy fried fish is all she wants all the time. And then my jaw dropped when she refused to eat it. That was in a great historical restaurant “Daikokuya”, specilizing in tempura preparation located in the heart of old Asakusa. You know when a cuisine is so complicated that the restaurants generally serve only one type of dish, that  it’s going to be great. It was great. Served with a steaming bowl of miso (BTW what is wrong with American miso? This just tastes so much different here. Maybe we need to throw a few tiny clams in the broth to give it the right zing…), rice cooked to a perfection and Japanese pickles it was a meal to remeber. A variation on the subject that Melissa ordered for herself was tendon, also very tasty, also rejected.

Kid Friendly Fare

Here’s where we did nail it – tonkatsu, which is the japanese version of home cooked Polish meal on Sunday afternoon. The kid had no chance rejecting this one… Tonkatsu is a beautiful piece of aged pork, breaded and fried to a crisp. Juicy on the inside, crunchy on the outside, you dip it in tonkatsu sauce and realize that breaded pork is the common ground. Common ground not only between kids and parents, but cultures all around the world (with few exceptions obviously). It would be unfair not to mention an element of the dish we were not excited about when we saw it arriving at the table, which blew our minds the moment we picked it up with our chopsticks. Heaping pile of shredded cabbage, such a throw away vegetable in US, was perfectly crunchy, drizzled with some sort of vinegar, that I know I’ll spend months looking for back at home.

Have you ever heard of “Piss Alley”? Sounds appetizing, right? It is actually one of the best places for a great casual meal in Tokyo. It’s also great for a munchkin, who is known to be the biggest carnivore in the family. The alley or actually two alleys are located in Shinjuku area and are filled with little yakitori stalls. Yakitori uses simple grilling techinique and delivers perfectly flavorful chunks of meats, vegetables, seafood and unknown. Oh, how I love the unknown. It’s everywhere in Japan: in the grocery stores, on a stick, pretending to look like chocolate, hiding inside the bread…

Beef

Sometimes we eat on the street and sometimes we go all out. It’s not often, but after 3 skipped dinners (jetlegged and exhausted we fell asleep before 6pm) we decided it’s time for a serious lunch instead of dinner. After years of being fed American  beef and listening about how superior Japanese meat is, the time has come. We decided to go with a guide book suggestion (We’ve done this a bunch of times on this trip and have never been dissapointed. For the record I don’t think it’s necessary, since we have not been dissapointed with any meals on our trip. Is it that the quality of Japanese restaurant food is out of this world? The answer is YES!) and eat in over 100 years old restaurant Imahan in Asakusa. They’re known for shabu-shabu and sukiyaki, which I hear from my wife was popular in the 80s in US. Here it’s a fancy meal. It ain’t cheap, but it’s fun with capital F. Kalina liked tatami seats. I felt like I needed a chair after 10 minutes. The process of cooking heavily marbled beef slices, fresh vegetables and glass noodle in a hot pot in the middle of the table and finally dipping them in couple of sauce options is simply delightful. I wish it lasted longer. I wish I could eat more. And I wish I was a bit more streched.

Somewhere between the worlds of tonkatsu and sukiyaki lives a Kyoto’s twist on Wagyu beef. A dish we had a pleasure of trying on Pontocho, a charming alley where geisha’s reside and fancy eateries in general refuse to serve kids. We still pushed through. In most restaurants serving beef in Japan you’re allowed to choose your price point based on the quality of meat. Sure, we’d like Kobe everything (tried it on the stick and it was lovely), but sometimes you have to settle for Wagyu. Oy, poor us… It arrived at the table – breaded, rare, surrounded by bowls of little goodness. You start by dipping pieces in shoyu, than salt and pepper, Worstershire, Japanese curry and finally very runny barely poached egg. What? Yes you dip the beef in many bowls to achieve this amazing sauce blanket for already what’s a lovely piece of meat. Let’s bring it to US my wife says! Guess what, it came with the shredded cabbage on the side too.

Noodles

One thing we were sure of and didn’t misjudge were ramen, udon and soba as our daughter’s last picks. She doesn’t even look at it as food. We do, though everytime we try a bowl, we know we will never taste the same slurpy noodle again. There is a good Czech saying “To se ne vrati”, which loosely translates to “It will never come back”. The taste each time is so different. The ingredients almost all unknown (YES!). As if the cook has his own secret recipe that he does not share with the world. Funny how that happens anywhere. Anyway, traditional ramen miso flavored was my favorite, but that can change the very next time I try ramen again.

Cheap Eats

I think it’s time to throw a wrench into this love letter to Japanese cuisine and open the scary vault of grocery/conveniant store nonsense. Can you imagine if you had to eat at 7/11 everyday? That would be gross, right? If not even unhealthy and let’s be honest – so passe. Well, we did. Eveyday. Not kidding. 7/11 in Japan is an institution. Let’s start with ready made bento boxes, fresh sushi, sashimi, then we have grilled skewers, steam buns, fantastic snacks, beverages, desserts and dairy products and to top it all off the only ATM that takes American debit cards. 7/11 rocks! Yes, I wrote it.

I personally like my food as I call it “clean”. I like to know what the flavors of the ingredients in the dish are if they stand on their own. If there is no need to hide some less than excellent flavor than why bother. There is a lot of that understanding here. The elements of the dish speak for themselves quite often and it’s a beautiful voice. Sometimes it’s the opposite though. They are dishes on the cheaper side of spectrum (you know the midnigt munchies kind of joyful plates) that are just so complicated and free flowing that there is no point looking for the ingredients. Okonomiyaki, which is my personal favorite is one of them. It’s a pancake that quite often consists of batter mixed with cabbage and (what I will call for the purposes of this analysis) stuff. Stuff could be anything that sounds good as a part of savory dish. Guess what?The patty is covered with stuff too. This time around something different and flaky/sprinkly and very tangy. Oh, let’s not forget that Okoonomiyaki is drizzled with … You guessed it more stuff, called okonomiyaki sauce. Bottom line delicious. Kid did not like it even a bit. You win some, you lose some.

Bento

Taking a train wherever we are always feels strangely exciting to me. It’s the fact you’re not in charge anymore and depending on the circumstances your comfort level on the move might be as good as “they’re” allowing you to have. You hope for the best. Sit down with your luggage out of sight and enjoy the ride. I must admit I never took a long distance train in US. I took plenty all over the world. In most cases you pack a bag of goods from your grocery store and crunch away. You’d have to get really stuck like on our transmongolian journey (See post here) to encounter a menu. In Japan there is a tiny train menu, but that’s not where the fun is. Still on the platform, right before you start your journey both Tokyo and Kyoto station have convenience stores (or stands) selling bento boxes. And here’s where you can go to town! Beautifully  packaged, wooden or paper boxes with fantastic regional cuisine examples. I chose Nagasaki clams bento box, which was wonderful (4 kinds of clams and sea scallops), we also had sushi cornocopia box, marinated beef one that is so difficult to describe I let the pictures to do the talking. They’re jewel boxes filled to the brim with color and tiny wrappers holding surprises of pickled/gooey/crunchy/fishy variety. This is what $10 can get you on the platform. Not bad, right?

Tofu

This one is for all my vegan and vegetarian friends. You always tell me that tofu is great. I always cringe a little. Where else in the world if not in Kyoto will I try the best tofu (apparently the water here makes it sublime) with the full ritual of cooking it just to make sure I know what the hell am I talking about. The meal (very pricey) consisted of chilled sesame tofu, tofu soup, grilled tofu smeared with green sauce I didn’t retain a name of and boiled tofu that you mix with a local spice and shoyu. The verdict dear friends is… It’s ok. I think as a westerner who hasn’t eaten much of tofu the flavor has been wasted on me. The texture (me and Melissa talk about the texture of food all the time) of most of it was challenging and tofu soup was bluntly slimy. We’re glad we tried it, but dear friends please don’t turn your backs on me, because here it goes: me and tofu are done!

Sweets

For dessert let’s spill some beans. Litterally beans are everywhere. “Gooey” is the texture of every single hand made dessert. They’re not too sweet, absolutely beautiful to look at, but so far from our chocolate palettes that it takes time to get used to it. Daifuku (stuffed glutinous rice cake) would be my favorite, especially the matcha version topped with fresh strawberry sold in Kyoto’s weekend market outside brightly orange Yasaka shrine. In general I am a huge fan of matcha (intense green tea) and that flavor showing up in ice cream and other sweets. Kalina will eat it too, but when she sees good old chocolate swirl, she wants that and only that.

It’s just a bite, a crumb really. There is so much to try and be surprised with. We had two weeks and a kid that preffers her lollipop not to be a candied octopus on a stick. We tried and loved almost everything. I know there is so much more. We simply will have to come back. It’s a different world and approach to food. I appreciated every aspect of it and will bring back the attitude of making the dish look neat and resembling an art piece. Let’s look at our food like Japanese people do. In awe because of it’s beauty and then let’s deliver the burst of flavor in every way possible. I know I will.

3 thoughts on “How We Ate In Japan

  1. Melissa, we have been enjoying your blog so much. What a treat to see different areas of the world. Radek! Awesome job my friend! You write like you talk, which makes for good reading. Wonderful food descriptions and photos! Well done! Perhaps you need a blog as well? Maybe Mr. Travel Ensbler? Haha. Have fun you three!

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  2. What a beautiful expression of food. Thank you for sharing your edible and not-so-edible moments. If you manage to perfect the miso soup, please share the results. Like you, Patrick is no fan of tofu. As you know, I am a huge fan of food and when I travel I seek out dishes to please the taste buds. The pictures compliment the words perfectly. I am glad to not only know Meliisa’s writing but yours as well. I could not get past the phrase “Piss Alley” but you did a great job convincing me to give it a try should my toes touch their soil. As you know, I. along with many others have been dealing with the lingering results of our election and yet I seek out writings to sooth my soul and. Not only did your writing do such, you also soothed my stomach. Thank you.

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  3. Such a different way of treating food, it’s really fascinating. Thanks for writing and sharing, I like hearing your and Mel’s observations, it’s like hanging out or traveling with you two. Three! Miss Little Ziemniak grew up a bit, I wonder what she’s like now, how she adds to your family, I bet she has a strong character! haha. So it makes for a interesting angle, you as parents, as well. I hope we meet in the not too distant future and that until then you’re both, all, as content and relaxed and in *wearing comfortable robes* state as possible! xx

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