Monday, September 7, 2009

But then again, maybe it is about the food.

So after spending all day in a cafe yesterday, as you can imagine I'd worked up quite an appetite. And it being a hot day in late summer, I decided to take advantage of one of the best summer dishes in Japan before the change of seasons sweeps it off the menus.

I am of course talking about cold noodles (reimen 冷麺) a dish that actually takes two forms in Japan, the predominant one deriving from Chinese cuisine while the other comes from Korea. Up till yesterday I'd only ever had the Chinese kind, but a stroke of good fortune introduced me to the spicier Korean variety.

You see, back in June, when I went to Busan, Korea to visit friends and go on a four day binge of spicy food, I found some in-flight literature that included an explanation of how Korea and Japan both have a summer tradition of chowing down on chilled noodles. What caught my eye and kept me from throwing this pamphlet away, however, was a photo of a spicy cold noodle dish with a slice of watermelon on top. Underneath the photo, a description gave the name of a restaurant near Sakuranomiya station in Osaka.

Now this combination may be off-putting to some, but I absolutely love watermelon, and I love spicy food arguably even more. More importantly, I've long ago discarded simplistic notions about the walls dividing tastes that seem contrary to each other at first glance. Spicy and sweet. Sweet and sour. Spicy and stinky.

So to me this suddenly inspired idea of mixing watermelon and red pepper seemed like divine revelation. I kept the pamphlet and promised myself to check out the restaurant as soon as I got back to Osaka.

I then proceeded to forget all about it, until I came across the pamphlet the other day, prompting yesterday's visit to Genpukan.

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Nakano-cho 5-9-24
Dojima-ku, Osaka City
Phone: 06-6925-1136

Exterior view

As the website will show you, Genpukan is actually a Korean barbecue restaurant, with grills at each table and all manner of parts and pieces of beef available. But reimen is a standard offering at barbecue restaurants both in Japan and Korea, and the owner won't be upset if that's all you order.

Watermelon noodles

Reimen is made from long, thin translucent noodles typically made from kudzu or buckwheat. The noodles are cooked in hot water then chilled in ice water and served with a chilled fish broth. Genpukan's reimen have the signature slice of watermelon on top, and plenty of red chili paste mixed into the noodles by hand, but it also has kimchi made from thinly sliced cucumber and Chinese cabbage.

Sauteed beef hidden inside

I was also pleasantly surprised to find tender morsels of sauteed beef hidden in between the noodles and the kimchi. The combination of flavors was simply wonderful. And this may gross out some of you but I saved the watermelon for last, dipping it in the remaining spicy broth and finishing it off with relish!

It's not all about the food

Contrary to what you may assume from its title, this blog isn't just about food. I have been known for go for minutes, sometimes even hours, without eating anything-- yes, it's true!

The most common explanation for when I'm not eating something is that I'm drinking something instead. That was my excuse yesterday afternoon, anyway.

The brew

I spent most of the afternoon in one of my favorite parts of Osaka, a little nook of pre-war town houses in Karahori and Nakazaki-cho that escaped the incendiary bombing of WW2. Just minutes from the skyscrapers of Umeda, and yet a hundred years apart in atmosphere, this neighborhood preserves the look of Japan before all the economic development, boom and bust craziness.

Many of the houses have since been converted into shops, galleries, restaurants and cafes, and several nearby art and design universities give a touch of youthful vibrancy to the neighborhood where original residents still hobble down to corner grocery shops and cats doze idly in the streets.

Disgruntled cat outside

The area has several nice cafes but none more worth the visit than Utena Coffee and Tea House.

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Utena Coffee and Tea House
Nakazaki-nishi 1-8-23
Kita-ku, Osaka City
Phone: 06-6372-1612

The store front

With a sign so small and unimposing, you'd never know Utena was a public establishment at all, but for when the sliding doors are half-opened to let in the sun and the hidden recesses come to light.

Inside the cafe is simply gorgeous. A bookcase to the right of the entrance catches light from the pane glass window to illuminate faded paper Showa-era publications as old as the building itself.

Bookcase at the entrance

The original wooden framework is preserved, and is matched perfectly by the dark wooden decor of the tables, chairs and counter. The floors are cement worn smooth by a century of foot traffic, and reflect the green of the potted plants growing on the opposite side of the street outside.

Love the decor

Nice ceiling

Interior window

Simple menu

Utena offers a simple menu of coffee, tea, fruit juices and milk, with cheese cake, almond pudding and toast the only food options available. I've tried both the cheese cake and the pudding and found both smooth, rich and delicious. The coffee is ground and brewed a cup at a time in a testament to this country's attention to detail. But of course the real reason you come here isn't so much the menu as the mood.

Particularly in the back of the cafe, where another glass sliding door offers a view of the courtyard and interior garden.

A seat by the window

This is where you want to sit when you come Utena, and be sure to bring a book or a friend for the perfect way to while away an afternoon.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

A taste of things to come

I apologize for the lack of activity on my blog over the last couple weeks, but have no fear dear readers, I am still as excited as ever about gorging myself on food and writing about it afterward. In fact I have several blog entries in the works right now. But some have been postponed temporarily until I can get all the right photos (I can be very picky about that sort of thing), while others are just waiting half-written for the time when I can sit in front of the computer long enough to finish them off.

Which close-up looks tastier, I can't pick

Today's entry is a sneak peek at the culinary dish that will be covering several pages of this blog later this month when I go on a short trip down to Shikoku. I am of course talking about udon (うどん 饂飩), a thick white noodle made of wheat that is all the rage in Japan, but nowhere more so than the rural island of Shikoku. Situated in the inland sea of Japan about 50km west of Osaka, Shikoku is the smallest and least populated of Japan's four main islands. As far as I can tell the place is only famous for two things: 1) a 1,200-1,400km long religious pilgrimage of 88 temples that circle the perimeter of the island, and 2) udon noodles. Both the noodles and the religious pilgrimage have their roots in China, and by some accounts the same monk is responsible for bringing back to Japan knowledge of both the Buddha and the noodle.

I'm really excited to go down to Shikoku in two weeks. Thanks to some online research and the wonderful advice of friends and students, I've already picked out a half-dozen udon restaurants to visit, all of them hidden away in the hills and rice fields of Kagawa prefecture in Shikoku. To warm up for this noodle pilgrimage, last night I went to one of my favorite udon shops in Osaka: Umeda Hagakure.

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Umeda Hagakure
Osaka Eki-mae Building No.3, B2 #20
Kita-ku Umeda 1-1
Osaka City, 530-0001
Phone: 06-6341-1409
大阪市北区梅田1-1 大阪駅前第三ビルB2-20号

Hidden in B2

Hagakure is hidden away deep within the labyrinthine system of tunnels that connect all the major train stations in Umeda (Osaka is so vast it has two downtowns, Umeda to the north and Namba to the south). Finding this restaurant among all the hundreds of other restaurants and shops that fill Umeda underground can be an adventure all on its own, but if you are easily disoriented simply go above ground where the Umeda Station buildings are easier to locate. Hagakure is in the second basement floor of Umeda Eki-mae Building No. 3.

While the underground shops nearer the stations are respectable enough, Hagakure is in the part of the underground that lies roughly halfway between Umeda station and Yodoyabashi station. Here, where the foot traffic is less, the shops become slightly more curious, and significantly more lowbrow. As you wander past the discount ticket shops and smoky cafes, the vinyl record shops and combined anime/porno video shops that still stock pink films in VHS, you get an idea that this place has probably seen better days. Over half the shops in this area seem permanently shuttered.

While the area around Hagakure shows signs of neglect, the restaurant itself still draws a crowd, and evenings and lunch-time visits will invariably require a bit of a wait. Luckily it doesn't take anyone a long time to slurp down a bowl of noodles, so don't let a line outside scare you away.

Udon udon

Udon is usually eaten in soup made of fish broth (dashi だし), soy sauce and sweet rice wine (mirin 味醂), topped with chopped green onions. Sweet fried tofu, seaweed, and shrimp tempura are popular toppings.

In the hot summer months, though, I prefer to eat my udon noodles chilled, with a light broth. It's very satisfying in this form, and allows you to better judge the taste and texture of the noodles themselves. It also happens to be Hagakure's specialty.

So simple, so delicious

Called Nama-jyouyu (生じょうゆ), Hagakure's signature udon dish consists of noodles in a bowl covered with shredded daikon radish, chopped green onions, lime juice, and a refreshingly light citrus-based soy sauce.

The man in charge

The owner of the restaurant is quite a character and still makes the noodles himself each day, pressing the dough in an ancient machine right inside the tight confines of the kitchen, behind the counter where the single row of seats allow about twelve customers access at a time. The owner comes over to individually instruct new customers on the proper technique for eating the Nama-jyouyu udon. There's only one right way to eat his udon, he insists, and it requires selecting two noodles at a time, and only two noodles at a time, from the very center of the pile. The noodles are laid out so that you can slurp them up in this fashion without ruining the appearance of the pile of noodles, insuring that each pair will come with its fair share of sauce, shredded radish, and green onion.

Tempura is sinful

There's another dish at Hagakure that I can't forget to mention: and that's the mini plate of Tempura. It comes with a half-boiled egg, pressed-fish stick (chikuwa ちくわ)and a thin slice of pumpkin, all coated in a very light batter and briefly deep-fried. Half-boiled eggs are an acquired taste to those like myself who grew up hating their eggs sunny side up, but once you get the hang of them they can be rather addicting.

Sometimes love comes in a bowl

Look for more udon reviews after my trip to Shikoku later this month. Anyone have any last minute recommendations for Kagawa noodle shops I should add to my list? Let me know!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Best damn takoyaki in Osaka.

I know it's pretty bold of me to be saying I know the best place to eat takoyaki in the city that invented the dish, but I'm confident enough in my opinion that I'm willing to make such a claim. But wait a second-- some of you people who live outside Japan may not be up to speed on what exactly takoyaki is.

Well, please allow me to explain.

slingin takoyaki

Takoyaki is made of a wheat flour mixture roughly analogous to pancake batter that is grilled in a special takoyaki cast-iron pan lined with half-spherical molds. Once in the pan, the batter is filled with chunks of octopus and turned as they cook using long sticks to form balls about 3-5cm in diameter. It's typically eaten as a snack, either using chopsticks or toothpicks to fork the balls into one's mouth. It is usually ordered by the half-dozen, and averages about $3-5 for that quantity.

Ready to eat

Takoyaki has been famous in Osaka and the surrounding Kansai area since the early 1930's. It took a couple years for them to settle on what exactly to put inside the gooey dough, with false starts using beef and egg before they eventually hit upon the idea of octopus.

Since then it has spread in popularity outside the Kansai region and can now also be found all over Japan. Varieties can even be found in neighboring Asian countries such as South Korea, China, and Taiwan. However the best takoyaki is still without a doubt found in the city of Osaka itself, with the best damn takoyaki in Osaka to be found in a little shop in Juso that I'm about to introduce to you.

Being the birthplace of takoyaki, Osaka has a takoyaki shop on almost every street corner, all of them meeting fierce competition from their neighboring rivals. And when festivals bring larger crowds of people into town, plenty more vendors spring forth to meet the additional demand with portable takoyaki grills fitted to the back of small covered trucks or inside mobile stalls.

There's a saying that every family in Osaka also owns its own personal electric takoyaki grill, and since you can pick one up in most department stores for a little more than $10 I wouldn't be surprised if this were the truth.

The popularity of takoyaki in Osaka and the sheer volume in which it is consumed in the city and the surrounding region has led this part of Japan to be far and away the world' s largest consumer of octopus.

The goodness

These days there are many additional little secrets added to the wheat flour mix to improve the tastiness and consistency of the takoyaki, from various spices to baking powder, pickled ginger (benishouga 紅生姜), tempura scraps (tenkasu 天かす), and so on.

There's also a special takoyaki sauce (initial research indicates possible ingredients include okonomiyaki sauce, chicken broth, tomato puree, mango puree, soy sauce and tobasco sauce, but don't quote me on any of that!) for pouring over top, and there are a few other more conventional sauces that are also usually offered, such as soy sauce and citrus-flavored Ponzu sauce. You are also given your choice of an array of toppings, from sliced green onion, and dried shredded seaweed (aonori 青のり), to mayonnaise, and dried bonito shavings (katsuobushi 鰹節)

The menu

True-blue Osaka takoyaki has a very special mixture of textures, crispy on the outside from the grill, yet still soft and moist and not-fully-cooked on the inside. This consistency keeps its temperature for quite some time, perfect for those getting it to go and wanting the takoyaki still warm by the time they get home. Unfortunately this piping-hot temperature has also been the source of many a scalded tongue and roof-of-mouth for those too impatient to wait. Joe's word of advice: while your takoyaki cools walk over to the nearest convenience store and pick up a can of beer to enjoy with your snack. You'll thank me for it, as the combination is flawless.

Up close and personal

Ok, now you should all have a better idea what I'm talking about, so let's get back to what I was saying.

The best damn takoyaki in Osaka can be found in Juso, one of the oldest entertainment and red light districts in the two thousand year old city I call home. There are classier places for night life in the city (and dirtier), but something about Juso's raw life, energy, and, I'll admit it, sleaziness, appeals to me as, dare I say it, an honest expression of natural human vice. Here is a typical scene in the red light district of Sakaemachi in Juso, a street lined with strip shows, massage parlors, girls' bars (bars waitressed and tended by scantily-clad girls), and "free information" booths beckoning Japanese businessmen to learn where the naughtier places are tactfully hidden in the surrounding alleyways:

Juso before it gets naughty

This is actually pretty quiet for Juso, since I got there around 8pm, before the place really gets rocking.

A block away from this scene, in the opposite direction of the gaudy castle spires and neon lights of the love hotels, hidden in a side-street that connects the bad part of Juso to a more respectable albeit decaying shopping arcade, is the takoyaki stand in question. The stand sits laid-back and unassuming, nestled between a fortune teller's storefront plastered with photos of the psychic smiling with B-list celebrities on one end and a silent dry cleaning shop on the other. The steel shutters of the dry cleaner clatter shut long before the rest of Juso wakes up for a night of sin.

The store

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Karitoro Takoyaki
Juso Honmachi 1 Chome 20-20
Yodogawa-ku, Osaka City
Phone: 06-6885-8898
カリトロ 十三本町本店

The name of the shop describes the unique taste sensation that defines well-made takoyaki, karitto meaning crisp and crunchy, and torori meaning soft and sticky.

To achieve extra crispiness on the outside Karitoro Takoyaki adds lots of extra tempura scraps. To make it extra creamy and soft on the inside, they add their own secret broth mixed with milk to the batter. They also have an ingredient true to the original takoyaki recipe but not often included in the modern variant: Konjac gelatin (konnyaku こんにゃく). There's not much taste added by the Konjac, but the texture serves as a nice complement to the rest of the takoyaki.

The more I write about Japanese cuisine the more you will see how important texture (shokkan 食感) is to food here. So important that it has its own word, while the English translation has to share its meaning with things you touch with your fingers.

I'll leave you with one last photo of Karitori's takoyaki in its anatomical view:

Inside heaven

Truth be told takoyaki isn't for everyone, but if you ever visit Osaka you'd be a fool not to at least give it a try. Especially at the best damn place in town.

Osaka readers, think you know somewhere better? Leave me a message with the name and address of the takoyaki shop, and I promise I'll give it a try! And hey, if I like the place a lot, I'll be sure to include it in this blog.^^

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Nepali vs. Indian

Just so you know, I'm not writing a long blog entry today. I went to one of the high school baseball national championship games this afternoon so I'm actually pretty tuckered out.

However, I made a stop in Hotarugaike, Toyonaka for some Nepali food after the game, and I thought I would share a couple of pictures from the meal.

First, the restaurant:

Nepalese restaurant in Toyonaka

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Kathmandu Nepali Kitchen
Hotarugaike Higashimachi 2 Chome 4-8-103
Toyonaka City, Osaka
Phone: 06-6841-3121‎

I don't know if it's just my personal experience, but it seems like Nepali restaurants are far more predominant in Japan than Indian restaurants, although the food served at the two are for the most part similar, focusing on curries, naan and tandoori chicken. A quick glance at the menu revealed that this restaurant also had larger hot pot meals for couples and groups, but my friend and I weren't hungry enough to consider one of those.

Instead, we had Nepali style vegetable curry and Indian style seafood curry. (The Indian one is in the back.)

The curry

We also ordered butter naan and cheese naan to scoop it up with, and look at the size of the butter naan they brought us!

Giant nan!

It's hard to get a sense of proportion from this photo, but I'm telling you the thing was huge!

The meal was great, with the exception of the cheese naan (not pictured here), which for some inexplicable reason was very sweet, thus rendering it useless as a complement to the curry.

For the rest of you living in Japan, have you noticed the Nepali restaurant trend too, or is it just me?

Anyway, that's all today. Happy eating everyone.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Serious Ramen!

For many Americans accustomed to packages of instant ramen being sold at a dollar a dozen, it's hard to see the dish as anything more than a college student staple. And before I came to Japan I felt pretty much the same way, wondering how Japanese people could be so willing to fork over the usual $6-10 sticker price for a bowl of noodles.

Mind you that was before I came to Japan.


Now that I've had the real thing, ramen has actually grown on me to such an extent that I've probably eaten more of those curly yellow noodles than any other dish available in this country.

Relatively cheap, incredibly tasty and filling, but far from healthy, ramen is to Japan what hamburgers are to the US. Ramen shops are ubiquitous not just near train stations but everywhere, both in the city and out in the boonies. Ramen shops line the intersections by the dozen at highway exits and rest stops. Babies are weaned onto the noodles. University cafeterias would face sit-ins should ramen fail to appear on the menu. And drunken businessmen, swaying, zigzagging arms-over-shoulders down the sidewalk in twos and fours, are driven by forces beyond their control towards steaming bowls of ramen before catching that last train home.

What I love the most about ramen is how it varies by region. Different areas have their own unique mixture of toppings and soup flavors, and every shop that makes its own noodles will have a unique taste, appearance and texture to its noodles. Expect many posts on ramen in this blog, as I hope to show you some of my favorite places for each variety.

For today, I just wanted to make the point that ramen can and should be taken seriously.

It can even be taken too seriously, as evidenced by the first ramen restaurant to grace this blog: Ichiran.

Ichiran is a chain from Fukuoka, the biggest city on the island of Kyushu that's about 500km south-west from where I live. I mentioned earlier about ramen having many different flavors. Well, one of them is tonkotsu, which has a thick broth made by boiling pork bones for hours. Fukuoka is the capital of tonkotsu ramen in Japan, and all of the best tonkotsu ramen restaurants either started there or can only be found there. Ichiran is one of these.

There's only one Ichiran in Osaka, along the Dotombori River near Shinsaibashi station:

Ichiran ramen

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Ichiran Ramen, Dotombori
Inakasoba Building
Souemoncho 7-18, Chuo-ku
Phone: 06-6212-1805
一蘭 道頓堀店
大阪府大阪市中央区宗右衛門町7−18 田舎そばビル

Now, why is Ichiran too serious, you ask?

It begins unostentatiously enough, with this simple machine to buy tickets for the ramen and whatever extra toppings/side dishes you might want (this type of system is common in Japan, not just at ramen restaurants):

The happiness machine

So far, so good. Just put in your 1000 yen note, push on this button, and you're ready to roll.

This is the button you want

But wait a second.

Step closer inside and you'll find not a open space full of tables where groups of friends, families and couples enjoy their noodles together. Oh no siree.

Instead, you find yourself in a narrow, dimly-lit hallway, with a solitary row of silent figures stooped over bowls of noodles, grim as professors, deciphering ancient texts by candle-light in a medieval library.

Serious ramen

This unique eating style actually isn't by choice. It's part of the rules. As stated on the restaurant's English-version website, the "Taste Counter," complete with a bamboo curtain between you and the kitchen and a dividing board between you and the next customer, allows you to "focus on the flavors of your ramen without having to worry about anything that's happening around you." Talking is strongly discouraged.

Once you're assigned to your own "taste counter," you find yourself in a small cubicle looking something like this:

Taste counter

What's that piece of paper and pen for, you ask. Well, you didn't think serious ramen came in one-size-fits-all did you? Using the order sheet, you can choose the strength of the flavor, the thickness of the broth, how much garlic is added, the type of green onion, whether you want Chashu pork or not, how much of the "secret" spicy red sauce you want added on top, and how soft/hard you want the noodles to be.

Order form

As you can see I tend to go all out with mine, making it as thick, spicy, and garlicky as possible. Now you know my secret to staying healthy. And single.

Once the ordering process is done, you need only wait a couple of minutes before a piping hot bowl like this is politely offered via the bamboo screen, which is closed again once you accept the bowl.

The main event

Now it's time to get serious and dig into this bowl of noodles!

The first bite

Well, what do you think? Do I look like I have the appropriate level of solemnity for the occasion?

Trying to eat them seriously

Ichiran noodles are great and the experience of eating "serious ramen" should not to be missed. However, there are plenty of better noodle shops out there, so I hope you're looking forward to seeing more of them in upcoming posts!

Sushi just like back home!

I know, I know, now that I'm living in Japan you all assume I go to sushi restaurants with the same regularity that Americans go to hamburger joints, but while sushi is almost universally loved in Japan, it remains somewhat of a luxury meal reserved for special occasions.

There are certainly cheaper options. All-you-can-eat sushi bars and inexpensive conveyor-belt sushi chains (kaitenzushi 回転寿司) dot the urban landscape, and there is evidence on the internet of my own past experience with these types of proletarian sushi:

34 plates!

Still, the quality of these places leaves much to be desired and anymore I find myself avoiding them.

In fact, these days I actually prefer to bypass the middleman altogether and order the raw sliced fish by itself sans rice. It's called sashimi (刺身)and once you begin to appreciate the flavors and textures of the different kinds of fish the sweet-vinegary sushi rice becomes less and less important and more and more of an obtrusion between you and the flesh.

Even though I order sashimi more now, I do still love sushi (Actually, all good sushi restaurants serve both, and they are often ordered together during the same meal). So when I was invited to sushi dinner the other night with a friend from my Portland days and her parents, I agreed without hesitation.

The sushi restaurant is called Ichiraku Zushi (一楽寿司)and is located near Kourien Station on the Keihan line, in Neyagawa City, halfway between Osaka and Kyoto:

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Ichiraku Zushi
Kourishinmachi 3-8
Neyagawa City, Osaka
Phone: 072-832-0233

Learning I liked sashimi, the parents started the meal with this awesome plate:

Ichiraku sashimi

In attendance were shrimp, squid, salmon roe, tuna, yellowtail, red snapper, scallops, and sea urchin. Can you tell which is which? Click on the photo for the answers.

It was all excellent, and came accompanied by this bowl of red miso and clam soup, and a cold glass of beer:

Red miso with clams

What I was really surprised to see, though, was the incredible size of the sushi that followed.

Massive sushi!

A sense of proportion

I mean, this sushi was huge! You just don't see sushi this size in Japan! The only place I've ever seen sushi with slices of fish this thick before was when I went to Saburo's in Portland, Oregon.

I enjoyed all of it, but to be perfectly honest I prefer not to have fish this thick. A central component to most Japanese cuisine is the delicacy of taste, subtle balances between flavors, expert presentation, texture, etc., etc., and all of this goes out of whack once you start messing with the proportions.

Anyway, enough preaching. Let's get to the evening's highlight: the grilled sea eel (anago 穴子). I usually prefer the river eel (unagi うなぎ)variety because it's grilled in a sweet sauce that overpowers any fishy taste from the eel, while the sea eel is grilled in salt, leaving your taste buds at the mercy of the fishmonger. I've had some off-putting eel in the past, but not so this time. Ichiraku's eel was grilled to perfection, and had a nice smoky taste, crispy on the outside and still tender within. Here's an incriminating photo of yours truly enjoying the aforementioned eel. Maybe enjoying it a little too much, actually!

Joe vs. eel

Well that's it for sushi this time around. I actually bought a pocket sushi dictionary at a bookstore the other day in preparation for a more thorough review of the subject, but that will have to wait until my next visit to a sushi bar!