Japan’s Visionary And Versatile Food

 

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Bento boxes at train stations for long journeys

Pictures: Diane de Beer and Kanae Omote

On two recent trips to Japan, the first a holiday, followed by work, DIANE DE BEER experienced the visionary and versatile food of Japan and hopes any South Africans visiting during the 2019 Rugby World this month, next year’s Olympics or simply holiday, will be intrigued and inspired:

When the Japanese take you out to lunch, it is stepping up your cuisine kudos and when it’s dinner, it moves up yet another notch.

A furniture representative from the Philippines, Nicolaas de Lange from Designs Ligna who was visiting on a training exercise to acquire furniture from Asahikawa’s Conde House, questioned the uniqueness of Japanese craftmanship in comparison with the rest of the world and determined that it was their search for perfection that was so impressive. “They don’t do anything without reason, a sense of purpose,” he said.

In his latest gardening series on Japan, garden guru Monty Don has similar sentiments: “The Japanese have a unique culture. I’m struck by how deliberate everything is. Nothing is done by accident and everything has relevant points that you have to know about to fully appreciate. The meticulous attention to detail is as evident in their gardens as their sushi.”

“True,” said Japanese-born South African television presenter and entrepreneur Lalla Hirayama, when talking about food. “Nothing is done without purpose,” she explains as she points to the finely shredded daikon served with the sashimi. “It works against any bacteria that might be present in raw fish.”

That of course is also true in the presentation often linked to colour and precision. Everything is delicate and detailed never detracting from the textures or the flavours. Visually the presentation is as detailed as the preparation.

And like with so many Asian cuisines, the diversity is extraordinary. Whether you are going for everyday meals or something smarter, the approach is similar.

On my most recent press trip to explore Hokkaido, three meals specifically impressed and were very different to what we had enjoyed and savoured while on an earlier holiday.

The first two were restaurants in Asahikawa. Tenkin was our lunch option and the meal was dominated by raw fish and a hotpot with a steaming broth and rice on the side. Shabu-shabu (as hotpot dining is known) is a traditional Japanese way of eating and most often they have thin slices of raw beef which is dipped in a sesame-paste or soy-sauce with citrus. Tenkin’s hotpot however is uni-shabu, which is the more unique sea urchin shabu which is rare and thus more expensive.

We were also told, once we were finished with the raw fish, dipping it into the hotpot, we should take the leftover rice and add it to the broth. This was apparently a specialty of the restaurant. It’s comfort food deluxe because it tastes like the best chowder ever. With Japanese rice always of such superb quality, one could just wallow in the deliciousness when combined with the sea-urchin broth.

But so was the rest of the meal. Because the sashimi was simply dipped – once, twice and a third time – to give it a hot edge and because of the freshness and quality, it was melt-in-the-mouth.

Thu dinner
A fine dining extravaganza

The dinner at Koizushi’s was described as a traditional tasting menu. Some dishes, it was explained, were western in style, to make it easier for guests but naturally, it was the Japanese cuisine that we all found most intriguing.

The appetizer included a cigar kelp roll, a pretty yet peculiar persimmon and butter square and some edible salted sea cabbage; followed by a crab and tofu combo; sashimi comprising the best sweet shrimp, salmon, scallop and tuna; tasty grilled red rockfish; roast duck with orange sauce which I suspect is what they thought would please the visitors, but beautifully prepared; tempura (shrimp, Japonica and shishito green pepper) which is in a different class with the batter light as air; soba (buckwheat) noodles with  herring; and finally sushi with medium fatty tuna, yellowtail and salmon roe.

Japanese food at this level is incredible because of the freshness and quality of the fish and the overall superiority of the produce. Hokkaido produces much of its own food, market themselves as a food island and it shows. The meal was overwhelming in quantity and quality and a fabulous treat.

Seafood delicious
Seafood delicious

The following day we were off on another food adventure in the coastal town Otaru at the Canal Restaurant. They view this as quite a Western-type meal and when a group of Japanese girlfriends go out for a celebratory meal, they will often pick one of these companionable BBQ restaurants.

The picture perhaps tells the story best. When we arrived at the communal-type tables, there were trays packed with fresh fish next to what looked something like a hotplate on which the seafood could be cooked. Plenty of cooked sweet snow crab legs were also invitingly displayed with scissors handy for you to get going immediately.

As if that wasn’t enough, many food stations were included in the large dining space and here you could help yourself to anything from noodles in all shapes and sizes, salad ingredients, vegetables like the moreish edamame beans and meat including lamb which is very popular in a Hokkaido barbeque. It is referred to as Genghis Kahn and as the story goes, it is because of a belief that Mongolian people often eat lamb/mutton.

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A fish, crustacean and meat bonanza Picture: Kanae Omote

How anyone could turn away from the spectacular seafood available and done to order as you are in charge, is a mystery, the rest could simply be ignored. Usually though you will have to choose between either the seafood or the Mongolian BBQ. We had a choice of both.

All these meals mentioned above fall in a price range from R400 to a R1000 and most of these were special menus designed for the group. Setting out on your own cuisine adventure, can be a much cheaper and no less delicious affair as we did on our earlier visit.

We wanted to eat with the Japanese people and that’s not a tough ask because of their many different meal options; from ramen, the popular broth and noodle dish which has many different variations including a rich, burnt version, to okonomiyaki, the savoury pancakes cooked on a flat grill and described as a meal of left-overs as vegetables make up the bulk of the batter. All together it is then cooked to your taste at the table.

Dumplings very similar to what we get here, known as gyoza, are most often filled with ground meat and veg. It is wrapped in a thin dough and ingredients most commonly consist of ground pork, chives, green onion, cabbage, ginger and garlic with soya and sesame oil. But again, there are many different variations as chefs and diners experiment.

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Yakitori, a selection of mini skewers

Feel like some meat? Yakitori is a good choice as these mini skewers which in earlier days would have been made exclusively from chicken, now include pork, beef and fish and then dipped in a teriyaki sauce. It is viewed as fast food and most often served with beer or sake and in a bar-type setup.

Similarly, tempura, something the rest of the world is familiar with, is a fast-fried snack, but in Japan, the batter is something else. The popular ingredients are seafood or vegetables served with soy and ginger sauce.

Yummy!

You can’t visit Japan without eating sushi and sashimi often, as they are the undisputed masters. It’s the quality of the fish, the availability of tuna and yellowtail for example, but also the precision and the presentation of their sushi. All masterfully made by specialists in front of your eyes. Nothing like Japanese theatre!

And if sushi ain’t your thing, try Japan’s most popular snack, onigiri, more familiar to us as rice balls. “Sushi isn’t my favourite, but I can easily live on rice balls,” was a familiar refrain from one of our party.

The perfect Japanese snack, onigiri or rice balls
The perfect Japanese snack, onigiri or rice balls

Sushi aside, the thing with rice balls is that it is cheap, easily available at every convenience store or at every station, and painless to eat. It can be seen as the poor man’s sushi as it uses similar ingredients: the filling is chicken, vegetables, fish or pork, and then wrapped in seaweed with a few other flavours tossed in. It’s easy to get hold of, freshly made each day, and like everything in Japan, the quality is excellent, while you hardly notice the price.

Most of these meals would cost you little more than R100 a shot and the rice ball less than R20 each.

You will always bump into the latest trend when traveling. The first time it was matcha (green tea) and we discovered these in Kit Kats, ice cream, both commercial and artisanal, as well as the best of all, one of those old-fashioned ice lollies.

As all new things in Japan, hotter than hot, were commercial packet chips combined with chocolate and while that might not sound appealing, think of the combo of salted caramel for example. Another sweet deluxe item is mochi, made of a short grain japonica glutinous rice.

With all this cuisine swirling around, we have hardly scratched the surface, and that’s the real adventure.

If you want to do some browsing:

Tenkin: https://www.tenkin.info/

Otaru Canal Restaurant: http://www.comsen.jp/otaru/otaru_menu.html

*Following an earlier holiday in that country last October, Diane de Beer was the guest of  JETRO, (the Japan External Trade Organization, a non-profit parastatal under the Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry of Japan), for a brief spell at the beginning of February to their northernmost main island Hokkaido.

A shorter version of this story was first published in the Sunday Times Lifestyle (food section) on September 15.

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