Sushi or not sushi, that is the question…
Ok I’ll quit with the bad jokes now I’ve got your attention.
Warning: This is a post created to make your mouth water. Do not read when hungry.
So you’ve heard the rumours. I can confirm they’re true – Japanese food is the best in the world. That’s a big statement to make, but after visiting Japan last month for the first time, I was left mesmerised by the never-ending episodes of culinary prowess.
So join me on this nostalgic journey as I guide you through some of the best tastes I experienced in Japan…
1) Wagyu Beef
If you love meat, prepare to salivate. Wagyu beef translates as ‘Japanese cattle’ and it’s the beef that originates from the region of Kobe that’s the most sought-after in the world. The exquisite taste of the marbled meaty goodness comes down to the fact that the cows are massaged with Sake and then fed beer (sounds like every man’s dream!)
How should you eat Kobe beef?
The best way to eat Kobe beef is either in the form of a steak, in shabu-shabu form (thinly sliced and quickly boiled) or as part of sukiyaki (thin slices simmered with vegetables in a hot pot).
So how good was it?
To put things into perspective…I tried a Kobe beef steak burger at a Kyoto train station and it was hands down, the best ‘burger’ I’ve had in my life. THAT was at a train station restaurant – imagine going to an award-winning Kobe restaurant? There were only 4 bar stalls at the restaurant and when you place your order (as is the norm in Japan) the chef starts to cook the food in front of you. It was quite the spectacle – he forcefully slapped and turned the meat, adding salt, pepper and spices, both before and after placing it on the grill. I sat in open-mouthed anticipation awaiting a bite of the world’s best beef. After lashings of salad and condiments – my time had come.
When I saw a whole steak placed in the bap, I imagined a battle with the gnashers might commence, so I turned to my friend and said: “doesn’t it need to be sliced?” His reply: “you just wait until you try it…”
So I took a bite. What was it like? Take a second to imagine ice cream falling on to a hot stove. It melted in my mouth and disintegrated before I could even comment on how good it was. I’d never experienced anything quite like it, but my Kobe beef adventures were only just beginning…
While staying at a beautiful Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) in Kyoto called Kyoto Garden Ryokan, I tried sukiyaki beef. One of the hotel owners (a woman who must have been in her late 70s) stood in front of me, turned on a small portable stove and began to cook up a feast. Good job she was there as I wouldn’t have had a clue what to do with all the ingredients. There was a simmering broth of soy sauce, sugar, lard and water, a plate of thinly sliced raw beef, mushrooms, onions, tofu, chrysanthemum greens and shirataki noodles. She carefully began to place the ingredients in the pan and waited for my reaction.
After the beef had cooked, she cracked an egg in the bowl, pointed to the beef and said: “This ok?” I could only assume that Westerners may have previously refused to eat raw egg. Admittedly, I was apprehensive, but after she dipped the beef in the bowl and nudged it towards me, I would have felt rude to say no. Thank goodness I didn’t…
Raw egg + wagyu beef = heavenly. A ridiculous-sounding equation that frankly, I never thought I’d put into words. There’s something about the contrast of the egg with the hot beef dripping with slightly sweet soy broth that satisfies every taste bud. Why had I never tried this before?
Then there was also a platter of delicacies that frankly, looked too beautiful to eat. A tiny bowl of tofu, a small crispy fish with a sweet honey sauce, a chestnut, two savoury cubes to balance the sweetness and a mystery green parcel. I wish I could tell you what was inside but I still don’t know! All you need to know was that it tasted as good as it looks.
You think of Japan – of course you think of sushi. A quick point to the menu and you’ll have the rainbow of the ocean on a platter of ice in front of you. The most popular things to try are nigiri which is a slice of fish over rice (awase-zu) soaked in vinegar, and sashimi; a slice of raw fish without the rice. There are hundreds of different seafood variations such as octopus (tako), eel (unagi/anago), seambream (tai), tuna (ahi), shrimp (ebi), sea urchin (uni), squid (ika), scallop (hotate), mackarel (saba) and many more.
Top tip: order a mixed platter and try as much as you can! I can’t tell you which specimen you’ll like best, but I can tell you to be brave and go beyond your comfort zone. Sea urchin and eel were surprisingly good!
Was it as fresh as everyone imagines?
Yes/Hai! Not just fresh…fresh, lean, moorish…the list of compliments goes on…
How do you find the best sushi restaurant?
The million dollar question. Without doubt, ask someone Japanese. My best experience was a ‘secret place’ on the fourth floor of a building that looked like a block of flats that apparently only locals know about. The chef was 40 years old but looked about 20 (I now know that sushi IS the answer to eternal youth). I tried sushi on several occasions and never had a bad meal.
3) Tempura (and more…)
When I used to think of tempura – I’d imagine a restaurant starter; battered vegetables or prawns, an easy to prepare and tasty snack. Every place has its own version of a deep-fried delight - Italian’s have fritto misto (fried seafood and vegetables), the Scots have fried Mars bars (!)
I went to a Michelin-starred tempura restaurant called Ten-Masa and it was without doubt my favourite meal in Japan.
We sat at the bar and the chef delicately prepared a selection of bitesize morsels (I stopped counting at 14 dishes) from a set menu, each more impressive than the next. From crabmeat in an oyster shell topped with sea urchin, caviar and purple wild flowers, to pork dumplings with strips of squid, red and yellow peppers, seasonal greens and a hearty broth. Every course was not only the perfect balance of flavours and textures – but it was also a masterpiece on the plate, I didn’t know whether to stare at it or eat it!
We had already had 6 dishes when the tempura arrived. The chef fried one piece at a time in fresh sesame oil, before passing it over the counter on to the sheet of paper to blot the excess oil. This wasn’t the unhealthy greasy tempura I’d tried in the past at a British pub – this was a technique that had been mastered. Crispy and light and accompanied by a plate of powdery salt and a soy dipping sauce.
Feast your eyes on some of the best food I’ve ever tried in my life. I’ll let the pictures do the talking…
4) Japanese Noodles
A Japanese staple food – quick and easy to prepare but don’t assume that it fails to tantalise the tastebuds. There are three main types of noodles; ramen, soba, and udon. Here are the differences:
Soba – thin buckwheat noodles, often served cold with a dipping sauce or eaten for breakfast (my least favourite of the noodle trio, personally I found them a bit bland without a broth and I wasn’t a fan of cold noodles, but that’s just me).
Ramen – golden pulled wheat noodles, served in a hot broth; I liked these noodles best with egg, spring onions and tender pork – yum!
Udon – chewy, ultra thick white wheat noodles – the ultimate comfort food. You can get these in a curried broth and believe me, in winter time this was the perfect antidote to the cold weather.
Is it a pizza? Is it a pancake? Is it an omelette? Is it some strange hybrid of all three with mayo on top? Okonomiyaki is a dish that will boggle your mind! It translates as ‘Japanese pancake’ but you won’t be asking for lemon and sugar with this one. The batter is made from flour, egg, potato, onion, cabbage and ginger – then you choose a variety of fillings from cheese, to seafood or bacon. The pancakes are poured onto a hot griddle, shaped into circles then fried and flipped before being covered with a variety of condiments – from bonito fish flakes to mayo, brown sauce and powdered seaweed.
Of course the Japanese food story is never over. There are still so many dishes for you to discover from yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) to kushi-katsu (deep-fried skewers of meat and vegetables) to takoyaki (octopus balls) and for those who are really brave – do you dare to try fugu (deadly pufferfish)?
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