*Side note: I rarely go to Kyoto anymore and when I do, I go with those who know the ins-and-outs. People who have been traveling there for centuries and have family relationships with businesses and restaurants. As warm and hospitable as Kyoto may seem on the surface, Kyoto people are known to be cold and unwelcoming.
I rarely eat Chinese food by choice. Dim sum bores me (to me, it feels like an endless on parade of tiny baskets with fish or pungent meats and chives wrapped in dough), black bean sauce is way too potent and I can’t taste the ingredients. XLB are my favorite but there’s only so many soup dumplings one could eat. A lot of the fish has this slimy texture reminiscent to cheap catfish and a lot of the dishes — irregardless of style of Chinese cuisine — tastes like the pan (or wok?)
The other night I had Szechuan food for the first time in I can’t even recall how long ago and it was so delicious and flavorful. The dishes look extremely spicy because of the red peppers but the heat was subdued. There was one stewed chicken dish that literally blew my mind. I could taste every layer of the ingredients unfolding on my tongue — anise, sansho, soy, and I learned Szechuan peppers have this unmatched brightness, a subtle acid, that brings the dishes to a new level.
The chicken, fish, shrimp, beef, sansho peppers and all the greens are so optimal in Japan that it’s almost unfair. I swear, a cooked box of rocks in Japan would taste good.
Now I am keen on learning more about Chinese cuisines — especially Szechuan. Ahhhh the learning process here is never, ever, ending.
The other day I was just given an address for the spot we were going to for dinner. Looked up directions and got the most unhelpful navigation ever. “Unnamed roads” both on phone and computer in Tokyo (somewhere around Ginza/Akasaka-ish). The directions read like I’m in some farmland deep in the countryside!
“Turn left, cross the road, cross the road, cross the road.”
I meannnnnnnn seriously?! JAPAN, YOU ARE RIDICULOUS!
In 2009, when Michelin decided to uncover Japan’s culinary scene by including us in their guide, two things happened. One: the world got a glimpse of our extraordinary cuisine. Two: it caused absolute chaos to the reservation situation in Tokyo.
Frankly, it’s now shit.
There is way more demand than supply since most spots seat only 8-10 people and for those who aren’t Japanese or speak the language, they are SOL (shit outta luck). Sadly a lot of crappy tourists bail last minute or worse, don’t show up or even call (seriously, who does that?) and have ruined it for others to score bookings. Nowadays, a majority of the higher end and exclusive places are invite only for quality control. This isn’t because Japanese people don’t like foreigners. It’s because when a place is so small they only serve 20 or so seatings a night, it hurts the business a lot when people don’t show up; especially since ingredients are purchased daily.
But as frustrating as the booking situation is, one of the best parts about dining in Japan is the intimate experience. A lot of high-end sushi and kappo (cuisine with heavy kaiseki influence – thoughtful presentation, high quality, hyper seasonal ingredients, open kitchen, usually counter seating where diners get to watch/interact with the chef and his apprentices) spots, the taisho (chef) is extremely generous with his knowledge and every time I dine, I always learn something new.
This visit to Sushi Saito, here’s what I learned:
Male shishamo tastes better than female shishamo. Shishamo is smelt and kokusan shishamo is Japanese smelt. For about 15 or so years now, Russian or Mongolian smelt are served instead of Japanese smelt since there is a shortage and kokusan shishamo is now hard to obtain. Female smelts are widely served carrying eggs (komochi shishamo) but I barely see male shishamo. I’m not sure if I’ve even had it before. Saito-san also shared that male shishamo is served raw (sashimi) and slightly seared in the spring. Amazing.
Kimo is fish liver and the most commonly served fish liver is ankimo (monkfish liver). Fugu (blowfish) kimo is also served — I had no idea. Saito-san told us his first fugu kimo was in a region far up north (I forgot where). When we asked him if it was good, he said: “It’s delicious but I can’t say for certain if it was tasty because it’s so rare or because it is truly tasty. Would I risk my life to eat it again? Probably not.” while laughing. And then he went on to say: “Nothing beats Kawahagi kimo. Ankimo has a kuse.”Kuse, means a distinctness — scent, texture, flavor, what have you — like blue cheese. People either love it or hate it. I kind of think he didn’t really like fugu kimo haha
Saito-san trained at Kanesaka and directly under Kanesaka-san. (Kanesaka is now legendary and has two restaurants in Tokyo, several abroad. I’ve only been to Kanesaka once and didn’t really like it but that’s a story for another day.) Saito-san calls Kanesaka-san, Kanesaka jiisan (Jiisan is old man but for Saito-san to fondly address him by that nickname is a huge sign of respect and signifies their closeness) and told us how Kanesaka-san taught him how to crab and fish. Saito-san also mentioned how they used to go together all the time. So cute ❤︎
Saito-san can tell the difference between a male and female fish; he said he has to feel them though. That’s pretty mental.
“Salt. Fat. Acid. Gyoza is my favorite flavor profile and probably the reason I eat shameful amounts A whooooole mess of latergrams of all the glorious gyoza in my Camera Roll. Some may or may not be taken at inappropriate hours 餃子どんだけ好きやねん。この半年食べた量と種類、、、かなりヤバイw”
I really do eat too much gyoza. So much, I wrote 1,600ish words on gyoza in Tokyo. Do read if you’re interested. The piece is on Eater here.