Japan Part II: The Food
I’m quite sure food is one of the main reasons a lot of people dream about traveling to Japan. Or at least it seems to be one of the main reasons for the people I know. Maybe I just know weird people, who knows. Or maybe I just know very, very smart people, because Japanese food is amazing. Even their unhealthy “junk food” is quite a bit healthier than, say, fries and deep fried sausages and meatballs (I’m looking at you, Belgium).
First the disclaimers:
- This whole post is just about food. Because I like food. I like talking about food. I like writing about food. I like reading about food. Food. Food food food.
- I do not think Japan is an expensive country when it comes to food. Maybe it is just because I’m a Finn living in Belgium, and neither country is exactly known for affordable food, even if both have their own things that you can get for cheap.
- I didn’t eat any sushi. None. Nada. Zilch. I kept wondering about it, but just never really had the chance. I ate out with friends a few nights, and a few nights I was just so dead after all the walking and new things and awesomeness that actually looking for a certain kind of food was a bit too much to ask. So usually I just chose my food with the super interesting “Google, tell me what’s good near here” or “this place I just randomly stumbled on looks good” techniques.
The first day, as earlier discussed, was not exactly the most energetic of days. I picked my lunch place just based on the fact that there was a queue at around noon and the name was a Finnish word. Was rather European fare, and way less photogenic than Japanese stuff. Still okay, but not what I had expected from my food experiences on my long-awaited Japan trip. It already got me slightly worried what the rest of the trip might have in store for me food-wise, really…
So, in the evening I just kept walking around and around in the neighbourhoods around the hotel, undecided on where to go. There numerous options around, but almost none of them had an English menu outside on the street, so I wasn’t sure what they exactly had to offer. Quite a few, though, in the proper Japanese style, had pictures or even those cute plastic versions of their portions on the outside. Makes life quite a bit easier for a tourist like me who can’t even read the menus.
In the end I just took the risk and walked into a place I had walked by twice already. And got the udon soup pictured above. It was creamy, slightly spicy, there was a lot of it, and it was possibly one of the best things I have eaten in several years. So good, in fact, that I went to the same restaurant again on my second to last night. It was the only place I visited twice on my trip, and even though I didn’t even eat half the things on my list of foods I like to try (yes, I actually wrote down a list…), I still don’t regret that choice.
The breakfast included in my hotel room price was in the onigiri place downstairs. So every morning we got to choose two onigiris from a relatively big menu. There was fish, there was veggie options, there was meaty options, even a cheese one, as well as some seasonal specialties. And the portion included also a few slices of pickled daikon (I think), some Japanese omelet (which is almost too sweet for me), two kinds of salad-like-things, and miso soup with different things in it. I loved the tofu in it, even if I’m not usually a big tofu eater. Sadly other days there was just some kind of seaweed instead of the tofu, but I guess variety is nice as well.
I also noticed that two onigiris was too much for me. I am not very good at eating breakfast anyway, and those things were huge. After two mornings of forcing myself to eat them both I realized it might be smart to just order one. Everyone wins: I was not stuffed any longer and the restaurant saved up one onigiri’s worth in profits.
As I mentioned, I went out to eat my friends who live in Japan. First time with just the guy and me it was some proper “fast food” ramen. It was amazing: you put in the money into a vending machine (with pictures and names of the dishes), and then, once you have shoved in enough coins and made your choice, it gives you a tiny ticket that you can then give in at the desk and then just wait. Minimal human interaction, my kind of a thing! And the spicy chicken ramen was nice, too.
Too bad I had eaten those huge breakfast onigiris only some hours before and thus couldn’t finish the whole bowl of ramen. Felt super guilty about it, somehow. I hate wasting food, and doubt the Japanese are very happy about food waste either. But I rather left some of the broth than risked feeling nauseous for a few hours afterwards because I ate too much.
The not-quite-yakiniku place fare: they served mostly fish and shellfish there.
We also went all together to a place that was sort of like a yakiniku place except with fish. “Niku” means meat, so it was not really a yakiniku place. as it only served seafood. The naming seems somehow complicated to me, and I’m not sure what this fish yaki place was actually called. I didn’t have to know, as I was just following the locals around, what luxury!
All I know for sure is that the small appetizer fish cakes and little whole fish were good, the sashimi was good, the kimchi was good, the clams were good, and even the slightly scary looking (and sounding) crab brain were good. Funnily enough, I feel like the crab brain (which are most likely not actual brains but some other grey goop from the crab with some spices and served in the crab’s shell) were actually the best part of the whole thing, and the ebi or the shrimp was something that disappointed me the most. The shrimp were fresh instead of the cooked ones we usually get on sushi here in Europe, and for some reason I prefer the taste and texture of that cooked stuff over the raw ones. Not sure if the texture put me off or if the taste was just so different, but I realized I might not be able to appreciate the fresh ebi the way I should. And that crab brain is better than it sounds.
Mori Art Museum had a Moomin-themed exhibition. I didn’t go see the actual exhibition (as it would have doubled the price of the ticket), but I did stop at the café that had a Moomin-themed menu because of the exhibition. I needed a little pick-me-up at that point anyway, so I ordered the biggest dessert set on the whole darn menu. The cup of tea it came with was minuscule and sort of sad, really, but everything else was good. There was some cake, some choc croissants, some sort of green tea pudding and fresh berries. A lot of variety.
I was almost giggling madly half the time I was there, and for completely different reasons than all the Moomin-crazy Japanese people there. I was giggling at how excited everyone was to be there, the country is so Moomin-crazy it is simply adorable. And they were just giggling at their Moomin-themed portions and taking pictures of everything. A bit like, uhh, me…
The only Japanese food I have actually cooked quite often at home and yet have never had the chance to try even in a Japanese restaurant in Europe was okonomiyaki. So one evening I just decided that I will check where there might be a relatively good okonomiyaki place near to me.
And then got my friend as my company and general guide, as he knew how everything works. He went for a basic okonomiyaki without anything much extra, whereas I couldn’t resist the temptation of trying out the slightly weird sounding cheese and pork okonomiyaki. It was good. Of course it was good. Why wouldn’t it have been good. Except that it might have been bad for my body, but it was so good for my soul!
The best part, however, was the realization that the version I have made several times at home might not actually be all too far off from the real deal, even if my version is based on a vegetarian cookbook recipe. No bonito flakes (or pork and cheese), but otherwise relatively close to the version I ate, I think. Hooray!
After I had been taught by my expert friend how to use the hot plate, I dared to venture to a hot plate place on my own for very late lunch the next day. But as I had just eaten okonomiyaki, I wanted to try something else. So I tried yakisoba. With kimchi. Kimchi, of course, is Korean, but I love the stuff, so I usually seized my chance to have some.
And the yakisoba of this place was very good and very fatty and kept me going until surprisingly late in the evening, even if the portion wasn’t as huge as some other portions I had in Japan. And the personnel of the restaurant seemed to actually have fun at work, too, which was something I didn’t see that much in Japan. They mostly didn’t look miserable, either, but having too much fun at work might possibly be frowned upon, I think.
I had browsed through so many lists of “how to eat cheap in Japan” that I couldn’t avoid seeing a mention of Yoshinoya, and there was one about two blocks from the hotel. So I figured I’ll give it a go. Went in very late in the evening, no one else was there, ordered a beef and onion bowl with extra (raw) egg, sat down, poured myself a glass of water… and already got my portion of food. It was definitely the fastest food I ate on the whole trip. And also the worst.
Yoshinoya is a big fast food chain, and it shows. Everything is very efficient, but also very bland. I wouldn’t say the food was bad, as it beats most fast food chains in Europe easily when it comes to price and portion size, but it was still very much a disappointment. Sure, it was cheap, it was filling, and there was a lot of it. But that’s not all that I want from my food. But if that’s enough for you, I recommend testing Yoshinoya out. They seem to be almost everywhere.
The Japanese love fried chicken. Apparently KFC is practically an institution there around the end of the year. My first foray into the fried chicken world, however, was at Kirin City, a sort of pub chain of the big Japanese beer brand. And I was dumb enough to order all three kinds of their fried chicken. One was with yuzu salt, one with their secret recipe, and one with parmesan and black pepper. And then I ate them all. Knowing I had also ordered more food. I am not very smart.
The so-called “main dish” was beef with onions, potatoes, wasabi and some sort of soy dressing. All of which were good, but I was already full after the chicken, so I had to sort of fight myself to be able to finish everything. I have learned the “thou shalt not waste food” mantra way too well, I think.
And this over-ordering of food was something I did so many times during this trip that I started to think I might never learn from my mistakes. Which I sort of confirmed very soon afterwards…
I may have over-estimated my appetite at an izakaya.
So, umm. I went to an izakaya a day or two later. An old-school izakaya, again near the hotel, where the interior was still similar to “the good old days”, the owner was an old man who may have been tasting their sake a bit as well, people were smoking inside, and everyone was drinking more than eating, even though they were also eating quite a lot. I’m not sure I have ever heard Japanese peopel being so loud as they were in there. And I loved it, even if I usually get annoyed with the cacophony of many people talking and tobacco smoke everywhere. Somehow all of it made it seem more like I was suddenly in an izakaya from 50 years ago.
The mistake of this evening, however, was telling the owner “omakase (chef’s choice), 5 from this list”. Said list included, as far as I could tell based on some help from Google Translate, the yakitoris and other smaller izakaya things. Well, as it turns out, his “omakase” included rather big portions. I got some fried cheese, fried tofu, fried little fish, fried potato croquettes, and fish and vegetable tempura. I think two of these would have been enough for one person. And I still ate all 5. And had a beer to wash them down. After that I had to get out because I wasn’t sure if I was going to be sick from over-eating or not… Couldn’t even have any sake, even though I had planned to have some as dessert.
What I learned from this, though: ALWAYS order only one or maybe a few things at a time. Japanese portion sizes are no joke.
A proper yakiniku with meat, some yakitori stuff and more fried chicken.
The last evening we had made proper yakiniku plans with my friends. We ate some beef tongue, which I had never eaten before. Nor any other kind of tongue. So that was an interesting experience for me.
After grilling are first set of meats, we decided to change places as the service in the yakiniku place was atrocious. There was only one person working there as far as I could see, and he seemed to serve everyone but us rather well, so we figured we will go see what else the food court we were in had to offer.
We walked around a bit, getting lost on the way as well (as it was a big and relatively confusing place) before we ended up choosing a chicken place with several yakitori options, some side dishes (such as salads, so exotic!), and, of course, fried chicken.
I enjoyed everything here actually more than in the yakiniku place. Well, all but the chicken knees on a stick. The only actually Japanese person in our entourage was the only one who liked those. Wrong kind of crunchy for us Europeans. But the other parts of the chicken on a stick that I tasted were amazing, as was the umeboshi (or pickled plum) chicken meatball skewer. And the fried chicken, even if by that time I was already bursting from the seams. Even the tomato and avocado salad tasted really good, but that may have had something to do with the fact that it was the only proper salad I ate on the whole trip. I start missing salads and fresh fruit after a week, usually, so no wonder this salad made me so happy.
That being said, even the junk food in Japan is mostly healthier than what I cook or eat at home most of the time. I could really learn a few things from them. Well, actually I could learn a lot of things from the Japanese, but especially incorporating more vegetables (and less cream, cheese and butter) into my diet.
I actually lost weight on this trip, even if I drank a lot of beer and ate a lot of food… but then again, I also walked a lot, and the food was healthier than what I usually eat. So no wonder, really.
And why yes, this post was mostly just an excuse to talk about food and post food pictures. But I did warn you in the beginning, so it is only your own fault if you read through all of this thinking “why am I reading this?”
Next phase is pondering a bit what I’d still want to see and try in Japan, and then I’ll move to new places in my ramblings (such as Rotterdam and Canada).