Ingredients in Japan

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.

Sushi Saito

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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.
  • The best fugu restaurant in Tokyo is Ajiman

 …I feel like I’m missing some learings so I’ll add if I remember. 

Such a fulfilling meal both physically and mentally, which makes Sushi Saito one of my favorite places on the Earth.

 

Glorious Gyoza

gyoza
Salt. Fat. Acid.

via my IG

“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.

Mona

Conversations with Gen-san: Oishī

“Maybe the character for oishī (delicious) is beautiful「美しい」 and taste「味」because in the Japanese culture, we express appreciation for food in two parts: we note the presentation when something is first served, the taste, once we consume.” Gen-san and I wondered. “Makes perfect sense as utsukushī「美しい」is used when describing art and aesthetically pleasing things, followed by aji「味」flavors.” We both then nodded in agreement, satisfied by our conclusions of the etymology. Turns out that is not the case but it was surely fun to discuss. Always, always learn something new with each Gen-san visit and the reason his 8 seater bar is my favorite place in Tokyo. 

Bar Gen Yamamoto 

Drop this into Google Maps↓
東京都港区麻布十番1−6−4
アニバーサリービル1F

*reservations are required
office@genyamamoto.jp
 // 03-6434-0652

Oden … and the most fucking amazing guide to Tokyo

Excuse the F-bomb in the headline (I know, so inappropriate but whatever. This is my fucking blog and I can fucking drop fucking F-bombs heeeeeeere… weeeeeeeee) but I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to contribute to a once in a fucking (another F-bomb!) lifetime comprehensive guide to Tokyo that nothing out there even fucking (and another one!) comes close to.

There is so much information about everything one requires when planning a Tokyo trip. Beyond that, though, the writing is high quality and puts my writing to shame. (Note to self: step your game up.)

The guide is here and everyone with even a remote interest in Japan and Tokyo needs to smash the bookmark button a bajillion times over and share with all.

…anddddddd somehow, I snuck in.

Still in disbelief I’m included and in no way am I posting this because I contributed. It’s a beautiful, informative, fascinating look into the complexity of Japan from various viewpoints and an excellent guide. My contributions are: decoding conbini (convenience stores), unraveling Tabelog (the most accurate dining compass of Japan) and share mid-range priced sushi; I eat at spots that aren’t expensive as shit and here’s the proof.

Hope you enjoy!

Bonus: you may or may not know this fact but massive editing takes place (of course). My pieces would be NOTHING without the editors. Seriously, they are all stars. But just for shits and giggles (loving the ability to freely curse, obviously) there are several parts of my conbini piece that were massively edited (and for good reason). I wasn’t attached to a lot of the parts the Eater editors vanquished but I just can’t let the oden part go so I’m side-barring here.

On Eater:

Oden

From September to mid-April, there are often large, heated metal trays or pots near the registers of most conbini. Inside the trays are different ingredients — tofu, daikon radish, boiled eggs, and fish cakes — floating in a hot, fragrant (almost pungent) dashi broth. This is oden, Japan’s winter comfort food. While the absolute best typically comes from chefs who have spent a lifetime perfecting their broth and curating the ingredients to pair with it, the conbini version is fun to try.

Butttttttt lemme tell you how I really feel:

From September to mid-April, there are huge pots with weird shaped ingredients floating in a funky broth near the registers. This is oden and a Japanese comfort food staple, delicious when properly prepared. Conbini oden is more symbolic. When we see oden set-up in conbinis, we immediately think: start of winter and once they are cleared, we know that summer is here. I have never seen anyone actually buy conbini oden but if you happen to be here while it is served, it may be fun to try. Oden is best home cooked or at oden specific restaurants where chefs are usually 70 year old men who have spent their lifetimes perfecting their broths and hunting for foods that pair perfectly with their broths.

Oden properly prepared is like this ↓ and I also wrote about it here

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Secret to Shinkansen (Bullet train) Eats

Shinkansen (bullet trains) in Japan are wonderful and as most visitors already know, it’s all about purchasing a JR Rail Pass for unlimited Shinkansen rides to get about Japan. Japan looks small but is actually pretty big and Shinkansen rides are super pricy. Like really pricy to the point where it’s cheaper to fly from Tokyo to another country. 

Anyway. The point of this post isn’t going on and on about Shinkansen because I know nothing about them except I love them. Ride them. Use them to see Japan. Even if flights are cheaper, I still choose a Shinkansen over an airplane because they are really that great. The point of the post is to rave about Shinkansen eats. One of THE BEST things about Shinkansen is you can eat and booze. In fact, it’s the only thing  people do. There are food carts that roll up and down the aisles with beer and sake and High Balls and Chu-Hi.

As much as I love the carts, I only use them to purchase booze and always, always, hunt around train stations for bentos. My personal favorite and addictions are katsu sandos (deep fried pork cutlet sandwiches). I normally never eat them, only when I ride the train.

And here’s the big, huge secret. Big Shinkansen stations are usually attached to mega department stores. And in the basements of big department stores are rows and rows and rows of tasty to-go food. Read: it’s not your typical, sad, dried out supermarket sushi.

So if you’re ever in Japan, do please find the tastiest Shinkansen eats by ignoring the train station / cart bentos and hunt in the department stores. Hopefully this tip will make your trip better. 

Love, your friendly neighborhood Japanese.

PS: The ‘best’ katsu sando are the pork fillet katsu sandwiches. Just look for the characters: ひれかつ・ヒレかつ・ヒレカツ (or simply point down to the sandwiches and ask: “hire-katsu?”)

Shin Ika #Sushi

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Shin Ika so smooth it looks like a dolphin’s tummy! Shin-ika, like shinko (baby kohada) is a baby squid and are accessible only towards the end of summer. It’s so smooth and sweet and melts in your mouth!! It was so pretty I just had to share.

Of course this is at Takahashi, my favorite sushi restaurant in Tokyo. Takahashi-san is so talented — I only eat his sushi now. I know, I know, I need to get out more. But I can’t help it. I’m now treated as a regular and as a regular’s advantage, I get special dishes like this ↓ (points below)

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I mentioned in passing the other day I loved his aji tsumami (appetizer). It’s aji with the Saito pesto, egg yolk and sesame seeds. It wasn’t included in this menu but he made one just for me!! It was, as always, super delicious and one of my favorites of all time. Love him!!

Also, he served tako (octopus) which I hadn’t had in a while. But the ceramic (kozara) was one I’ve never seen before. Even more amazing is that it’s shaped like the Bat symbol (from Batman!!)

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Highlights:
– steamed awabi, this time with kimo (liver) sauce that was AMAZING
– lightly charred anago with three condiments: wasabi, tōgarashi (red pepper) dipping sauce, salt and his raw shichimi (he shared the recipe with me this time!!!)
– aka mutusu a.k.a. nodo guro a.k.a. sea bream sakamushi (steamed with a sake base) with ponzu and some sort of sea vegetable OMG this was delicious
– tai (snapper) that was kissed with a touch of smoke

…and who am I kidding. Everything was super delicious. Takahashi-san makes me so happy.

By the way it’s almost time for fall foods. I love fall foods in Japan. SOOOOOO pumped!