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?”)

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Imitation Crab

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I am not a violent person but sometimes, I wish we could actually fist fight foods because I have major beef with the grossness that is imitation crab. Pun not intended.

Imitation crab in Japan is semi edible.

The imitation crab in the States are these tasteless, rubbery, hideous things, usually stuffed into grocery store California Rolls. I firmly believe the sole purpose of its existence is to trick unsuspecting people into buying nasty pre-made ‘sushi’. I’m telling you, don’t let the bright red and glowing white cylinders distract you from seeing what these things hibernating in deli cases really are: browning slivers of old avocado wrapped in cold, dry rice with the cheap, sorry excuses for crab. Or should I say krab.

These things – stay far away ↓

Sidenote: if you insist on eating supermarket sushi, look for the California Rolls where the crab is at least shredded like this – the mayo mixed in with the crab makes the dried out rolls tastier. I promise.

I am not the only one who has issues with imitation crab. Aside from the top search, according to Google auto-complete, where people are asking why imitation crab isn’t gluten-free (which is an odd thing to wonder in the first place. Does gluten-free food taste so bad, imitation crab actually tastes… good?), the people have spoken. Two out of the top five results are asking why imitation crab meat is so bad, why it even exists in the first place and apparently they even glow in the dark (!!!!!)

Take a look↓

I’M RIGHT THERE WITH YOU PEOPLE ASKING THOSE QUESTIONS. I don’t know why they exist either.

The Wikipedia for this abomination states:

 

Alaska pollock (Theragra chalcogramma) from the North Pacific is commonly the main ingredient, often mixed with fillers such as wheat, and egg white (albumen)[1] or other binding ingredient, such as the enzyme transglutaminase.[3] Crab flavoring is added (either artificial or crab-derived), and a layer of red food coloring is applied to the outside.

…wait a sec. Imitation crab is not even crab! It’s pulverized pollack (white fish), mixed with ingredients like wheat, egg white and some scientific thing I can’t even pronounce. The stuff that makes up imitation crab, aren’t even from the ocean! Inappropriate ingredients aside, for imitation crab to be named ‘imitation crab’ in the first place is simply wrong. Why anyone would even think to consume ‘food’ labeled as a fake is beyond me!

I read the many reasons and theories behind why this bootleg seafood has a place in the store’s frozen section. Some people say it’s for kosher crab. Others say it’s to cut restaurant costs and someone even thinks it’s to preserve the ocean. But listen. Imitation crab is 1. not crab 2. disgusting and 3. glows in the dark. Things humans put in our mouths and consume should not glow in the dark.

I’m really tempted to start a petition for people to stop eating these putrid things. Only we, the people, can diminish demand. Without demand, production is unnecessary, and without a need, it will forcefully extinct these turd logs.

Ugh. I feel sick to my stomach.

Bonito. Or katsuo, as we call it in Japanese

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Seared bonito dish – katsuo no tataki. The Japanese carpaccio.

Bonito or katsuo as we call it in Japan is a fish that makes a frequent appearance in Japanese cuisine. Most of the times, we are unaware of its presence, as it is most commonly used as katsuobushi. Katsuobushi is where the katsuo is dried, fermented, smoked then shaved into whisps. The katsuo shavings are then used as toppings for foods such as okonomiyaki and also a core ingredient in dashi (what is dashi?) Katsuo is also served during meals, most commonly seared, sliced, seasoned like a carpaccio. We call that dish katsuo no tataki.

Katsuo is in season in Japan two times a year.

Katsuo just like maguro tuna, needs to constantly keep swimming in order to survive. March – May is when the younger katsuo swim upstream from Kyushu towards Hokkaido and August – September is when the katsuo swim back down to lay eggs.

Upstream katsuo hatsu katuso is leaner and best served seared katsuo no tataki. Downstream katsuo modori katsuo is fattier and the meat has more depth, since they gained muscle swimming up north and are also feeding on plankton and other aquatics from the mineral rich northern Hokkaido sea. The katsuo served in August and September, are best served as sashimi. Katsuo is also an extremely finicky fish and one can tell right away if it is not fresh by the smell and color.

This is a super ultra nerdy post about one of the hundreds of fish served in Japanese cuisine but as I was writing the Summer Sashimi post, I found myself going on and on about katsuo and decided katsuo deserved its own post.

The end.

 

Summer Sashimi

In kaiseki, the fourth course is usually a fish. Sometimes a grilled fish – typically ayu – is served but more often times than not, it will be sashimi. Japanese cuisine is seasonal and plating reflects the seasons as well.

via my Insta

From a summer sashimi, a breakdown of the fish and garnishes:

The fish

The fish from left to right: Katsuo bonito, suzuki Japanese sea bass, aji mackerel. 

The garnishes

— The katsuo is resting on a green shiso leaf.
— The net like transparent piece on top of the suzuki is a thinly sliced pretty daikon.
— A piece of carrot and radish are hanging out on top of the aji.
— The white mound is grated shouga ginger. The green mound is grated wasabi.
— The flower in the middle is hana hojiso perilla blossom. Perilla is shiso. Or lovingly nicknamed the cilantro of Japan as it has a distinct fragrance.

How to eat

Continue reading

Tamago Tofu

 

Tamago tofu 卵豆腐 is a small dish that makes appearances in kaiseki Japanese haute cuisine meals. Tamago tofu translates to egg tofu but it isn’t actually tofu – there are no soy beans. It’s dashi and egg, steamed in a square, making it more a unsweetened custard than tofu. The color and consistency resembles tofu, which is where it got its name.

It is said in ancient Japan, poultry and their byproducts (ex: eggs) used for consumption was against Buddhist beliefs and weren’t incorporated into Japanese cooking until 1333. The first recorded recipe of tamago tofu was in a cooking essay published in 1785, thus considered a newer dish.

I guess in a country with recorded history dating back to year 787 (Heian period), 1785 can be perceived as… new 0_0 Sometimes I forget how old Japan is.

Anyway, the other night I had an exquisite dinner at one of my favorite places and tamago tofu was one of our dishes. My dining companion (non-Japanese) asked about the dish and I couldn’t answer all his questions. So of course I asked one of the chefs who overloaded me with information I translated. He was so intrigued by this dish, I thought I’d share here too.

 

(Pardon the messy photo — I forgot to snap a picture until we served ourselves)

The green vegetable that looks like a skinny green bean is junsai. The English translation is Brasenia schreberi or water shield. Google images pulled up photos of flat, round green clusters floating in water reminiscent of lily pads. That caught me a bit off guard since I was expecting a thin pipe like vegetable. Further googling taught me junsai is an aquatic plant commonly found in Hangzhou, China and Japan. This was probably more information than you wanted to know about an obscure green.

The white squares are yamaimo (mountain potato — the yam with the texture of okra) and the tamago tofu was topped with thin coils of crisp cucumber in a dashi broth. Oh and shrimp, of course.

Tamago tofu is served at room temperature, as was this dish. The silky tamago tofu with the vivid and crunchy vegetables and smooth dashi broth was so refreshing. It was like an elegant summer day.

Wish everyone could experience this once in their lives.

 

Ayu

Kanda’s ayu courtesy of here.

Kaiseki is Japanese haute cuisine and with all haute cuisines, there is an order, a pattern if you will, of dishes that are served. First course is zensai, a small bite of seasonal foods, usually vegetable based. Second course is usually a fish, most of the time sashimi of a white fish, followed by a broth or soup of some kind.

In the spring and fall, ayu makes an appearance during the second course. Usually lightly salted and grilled.

The ideal size of an ayu is 6 inches, or 15cm which makes it edible in three bites.

According to Chef Kanda of Nihonryori Kanda, the proper way to eat ayu is:
First bite = from the head to right above the stomach
*sip beer*
Second bite = the stomach
*sip beer*
Third bite = the crispy tail
*sip beer and feel sad the ayu is gone*

Ayu is a very particular fish.

Its characteristics are a sweet fish with a bit of bitterness in its fins and head. When eaten with beer, it draws out the sweetness and balances the bitter.

Ayu also needs to be cooked while still alive. Otherwise, the muscles tighten and the meat wraps around the bone. When that happens, it is likely the bones prick the customer’s mouths so it’s best prepared while alive. Another reason it needs to be cooked while living is the meat flattens and it doesn’t end up deliciously plump on the plate. When grilled fresh, ayu’s fins firm to allow the fish to stand on its own fins.

I’m not really a stickler on etiquette but because I learned such incredible facts on ayu, I thought I would share.

Most of this knowledge I obtained from Chef Kanda.
Kanda-san’s Kanda has been awarded three Michelin stars for seven consecutive years (in case your food barometer is solely based on ratings).

I wouldn’t recommend Kanda to first time kaiseki eaters. His food is subtle and unless one really knows Japanese food, it might be challenging to appreciate — some may even feel ripped off. For what it’s worth though, Kanda is easily in my top ten meals of all time.

Nihonryori no Kanda
http://nihonryori-kanda.com/english/information/
*bookings should be made at least three months in advance

PS: The above photo is not mine. I do not take photos at Kanda, as Kanda-san is extremely particular with his food and has a deep thought process that surrounds all aspects of the foods he serves. Kanda, is built around optimal servings of ingredients ex: he only seats 16-18 people a day because that is the best portion of meats and fish, for example. His kitchen is tiny on purpose, because Japanese food is extremely reliant on timing, even adding a bit of soy sauce a millisecond too early or too late can throw the entire dish off. Knowing what I know about his ethos, I do not want to disrespect his food and the experience fiddling with my phone taking photos.

Deciphering Sushi Garnish

 

This is aji from the Mie prefecture, over akazu rice. Aka is red. Zu su or osu is vinegar. Akazu is used in Edomae Edo is what Tokyo was called sushi, the traditional Tokyo sushi. Red vinegar sleeps for three years before it can be used for consumption.

Akazu vinegar sushi basically ruined me from enjoying sushi made with clear vinegar. The acids are toned down and akazu draws out the flavors of the fish. It can only be used in the freshest fish and the results are absolutely magical.

Aji, is a hikari mono shiny fish because the fish are really shiny. In Japanese, hikari mono indicates a more prominent sea taste vs subtle ocean like with shiro mi zakana white fish like trouts and snappers (hirame, tai, hamachi, etc.)

Now the toppings seem complex but really not. It complements the fish and rice instead of taking over the flavors. This one piece of nigiri was a stand-out.

1. daikon oroshi grated daikon
Daikon is a Japanese radish and is in season during the winter. It’s used in grated form added to many foods in Japanese cuisine. It’s topped on grilled or raw fish, added to udon, rice bowls, grilled vegetables like eggplant. In solid form, daikon is added to a lot of our winter dishes like oden, nabe hot pot. Daikon and daikon oroshi is a must in any Japanese kitchen.

This piece of nigiri had a teensy dollop of daikon oroshi.

2. Kujyo negi
Negi is Japanese green onions or scallions. Kujyo negi is just a variation of Japanese green onion. The root portion is a bit thicker and seen in hot pots or sukiyaki whole.

3. Myoga
Myoga is a type of ginger and they are so delicious.

They come in two forms: stick or bulb:

They are commonly used as a garnish for grilled foods – generally fish. Both the stick and bulb can also be pickled to eat with rice. Yum.

For the sushi, the itamae-san sushi chef cut them in ultra thin strips and added the teensy bulb shape on the aji. The nigiri was then spritzed with kabosu (a citrus that is used when yuzu is out of season).

And there you have it – sushi garnish 101.
You’re welcome.