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.

View Larger Map

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.

View Larger Map

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.

View Larger Map

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!