Sunday, June 22, 2008

Food in Japan

Eating fubu (blowfish) in Osaka.

While having an Omakase dinner in Osaka with my friend Mutsumi, I gave across this wonderfully grilled fish that is both delicate and intensly flavorful. I was told it was fubu. You know, the fish we hear about in the west that can kill you. I made Mustumi take a picture of me since it might be my last moment on earth. She laughed, as did the chef and waitress. What's so funny, I asked? ''We eat fubu all the time, what's the big deal'' said Mustumi. Oh well, yet another myth broken.

The other Osaka delicacy is Tako. Little grilled octopus balls with various sauces & mayo on top. I used to eat it all the time while living in the East Village, but nothing compared to the real deal. The little Octo balls melted in your mouth in a jumbo of flavors and bits of shellfish. Incredible.

While taking the train from Tokyo I happened to be reading a chapter about Kyoto cuisine in the book ''The Man Who Ate Everything''. The author talks about the cult of ''clear soup'' with a basis of ''dashi'' as the litmus test for the skills of a Japanese chef. Dashi is simply a broth made from kombu (giant seawood off the Hokkaido island) and bonito (dried, shaved bonito fish flakes). If done right the result is an aromatic broth that yields layers & layers of flavor. I immediately made Mustumi take me to a food store so I can buy bags of giant seawood leaves and dried fish shavings and I've been making it ever since.

In the Japanese cooking show Iron Chef they use to talk about the rigors of apprenticeship in Japanese cooking, how a young cook will spend the first 2 years of his working life just learning how to make rice, and how a tempura cook may spend up to 30 years perfecting that singular craft. I think I met one of those guy. While having a fabulous lunch with a client at an opulent hotel near the imperial gardens in Tokyo, I encountered the best tempura of my life. Fluffy yet meaty, light yet full of flavor. These tempura made the soggy stuff you get in the States taste like stale corndog. You don't even get t dip them in the ''tempura sauce'', instead you get a little plate of salt. Because the sauce makes the batter ''soggy'' (a-ha!) while the salt intensifies the sweetness of the shrimp meat. Knowing from experience that clean oil produces the best fried halibut, I asked how often do they change the oil. Every 15 minutes. Gulp. In the States it would be lucky if a restaurant changed their frying oil once a week. 15 minutes. That pretty much sums up Japanese cooking and their devotion to perfection.

Shift scenes to an Izakaya bar in Shibuya and we're dining with the affable head of Japanese Tower Records, a man with the improbable name of Ima-T. We seat in in the basement and work on the menu on an electronic touch-screen on the table, moments later waitress brings down the morsel along with Kirin beer in ''frosted'' mugs. I can get used to this.

Back to Kyoto. There is an entire street devoted to home-made sweets, usually rice cakes with black sesame fillings. I buy 6 boxes. There are also pickle shops that lure you in with the promise of free tea and a store that makes tofu skin (that's right, tofu ''skin'') by hand.

I can go on but I'm getting hungry, gotta go.


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