To experience Japanese food is to experience Japan. Zip around the island, get to know its flavors, and listen to the stories of your tongue. The new pleasing texture of glazed eel and the delicate packaging of a bento box are experiences to savor. The seemingly structured and protected ways of the Japanese are spun around and displayed enthusiastically from food trucks, BBQ huts, metro restaurants and from behind glass windows with a view. Take it all in. One bite at a time.
I didn’t know I loved eel until I went to Japan. Kabayaki is a specific preparation method for eel where the fish is split down the back (or belly), gutted and boned, butterflied, cut into square fillets, skewered, dipped in a sweet soy sauce-base sauce before being broiled on a grill. It’s that authentic charcoaled flavor you’re looking for.
My first visit to Tokyo involved a lot of wandering around food markets trying to decipher one thing from another, outrageously priced things from good deals, men’s toilets from women’s. The eel pictured above is the result of a failed attempt at finding a quick, cheap snack. As I perused what I thought was a run down clustering of shanty food huts I found one of the oldest eel stands in town! Buckled up to the 10 seater wrap around bar I saw one local man hand an obscene wad of cash to the owner/chef/eel man. Shocked, I look around the pop-up restaurant to find accolades, press reviews and metals strewn about the tattered walls. Well, it turned out to be the best and most expensive dining experience in Japan.
Takoyaki are just what they look like. Little balls of glazed over wonder. Don’t let the little octopus leg inside scare you away. The only thing you should be cautioned about is the molten lava filling that will ooze out should you tear into it like a beast (my preferred method of consumption). These takoyaki are from a food court in Kyoto that was open late night. He was serving these things up like candy accompanied by a little toothpick used for poking and dangling.
Japan’s bento box is America’s snack pack. The tradition can be traced back to the 12th century when cooked and dried rice was developed. You can find prepared bento boxes at grocery stores, train stations, sporting events and even from people selling them on the street. The bento box pictured immediately above was from a woman on the street in Hiroshima. She prepares quality bento boxes on the weekdays and has a steady following of business people who come to find her in the same place every weekday.
To compare the Japanese Okonomiyaki to a pancake is a bit unfair. Their only true similarity starts and ends at a flour based dough. Where the pancake goes sweet, okonomiyaki goes savory. Shredded cabbage, flour and eggs make the doughy outside and the middle is “what you want” or “okonomi”. Leftover meat and vegetables are tucked in the middle along with a fried egg added somewhere. Top it off with Japanese mayonnaise (yes, it’s a specific type) and seaweed flakes and you’ve got yourself one deliciously sloppy snack.
Eating sushi in Japan is a process. One to be taken slowly and with great attention to detail. Our local friends took us out to sushi in district of Tokyo called Shinjuku. We let them lead the way and ate things in the order and pace set by them. First wrong move is to dip your piece of sushi rice side down. You must dip fish side down, and only slightly. Don’t be loading your soy sauce down with wasabi and don’t drench anything in anything. Flavors are already balanced, simple as they may seem. Some rolls look back at you. Like the one pictured above.
Eating hot pot is an experience unto itself. There’s a pot. The pot is hot. You put stuff into the hot pot and see what happens. I’ve lost a fish ball or two while dinning on Chinese style hot pot which involves a lot more ins and outs of screwed food than the Japanese style allows. The particular version above was made in a tiny apartment in Tokyo by my friend Yuko. Japanese hot pot is called Nabemono and includes a fun little twist at the end, if you’re still hungry. Which you should be, because we’re eating slow and thoughtfully, remember? When the broth is low after a round or three have passed, add ramen noodles to the remaining broth and let cook. Spek. Tak. Cue. Lure.
What at first looks like butter soaking in chicken broth, layered with mop strings, turns out to be oden. You may be catching on that a lot of Japanese food involves putting stuff into a pot of steaming broth. You’re correct, but don’t assume they taste the same. Oden varies from region to region and household to household. This oden was prepared by my 80 year old couchsurfing host in Tokyo. We gathered around his tiny table in his little high rise apartment that he lived in alone and talked about his life. What a meal. Even the mop string part.
If I were allowed to claim a Japanese comfort food, katsu curry is what I would claim. My friend Rachel is half Japanese and would often invite me to family gatherings. Her grandma makes a version of katsu curry that is now known the world over (okay, my little world over) as Rachel’s Grandma’s Chicken. Curry is a relatively new addition to the Japanese cuisine brought by the British during the Meiji era (1868–1912) when India was under its control. I ordered this katsu curry in Fukuoka from a self-service machine.
Don’t eat the display food. As painstakingly real as they make it look, it’s still plastic. But do trust it for an accurate representation of what you’ll get. It’s not just for confused tourists who don’t know the difference between ご飯 and 海苔 locals use the plastic menu guide too.
You can die from eating fugu, or as the Japanese call it, river pig. This beast of a fish is a notorious bad boy steadily killing up to 6 people a year. The liver is the most poisonous part and naturally the most desirable. I passed on the fugu.
And last, but certainly not least, ramen. The most important and perfect Japanese dish. Ramen is served a billion ways under the sun and soothes a cold day like none other. My favorite style is pork belly and boiled egg. A bit off topic … but if you’re in Berlin, you MUST TRY Cocolo Ramen.