One of our favorite activities in any trip is trying the local food. And Japan has obviously so much to offer. Beyond the freshest sushi, the yummy tempura, and the sublime box of mochi we brought home, here’s a roundup of our most memorable bites and meals in Tokyo and Kyoto.
10. I didn’t think I would like edamame (soybeans harvested at the peak of ripening), but these boiled (sometimes steamed) pods are soft, a little salty, and a really addictive snack with Japanese beer. Kampai!
9. Lawson’s, Family Mart, 7-Eleven—the kobini or convenience stores in Japan abound and in its racks are the dependable (hey, you never know at what street corner you’re going to get hungry) and surprisingly tasty rice balls. Whenever P and I were in the mood to eat in our room or in the guesthouse, we would buy a stash of konbini goods—the rice balls, rice crackers, sandwiches and all sorts of beverages—and we were happy campers.
8. I first read about them in Kyotofoodie.com, which had me dreaming about them for a couple of months until we made our way to Nishiki Market in Kyoto. These tonyu or soy milk doughnuts (tofu doughnuts at the signboard) are crunchy, chewy, and just with a hint of sweetness. Best eaten when they have just rolled out of the hot oil. I love them to bits. So do a lot of people that there’s often a line to get a bag (starts at ¥250 for 10 pieces).
7. From our first day in Japan, we were pestering our friend C to take us to Yoshinoya, a gyudon-ya chain we were familiar with. He would always shake his head in disapproval. On our third day in Tokyo, right before we headed off to the Anime Fair, he took us to another gyudon (beef bowl) place. “This is better,” he assured us. It turned out to be Matsuya and its beef bowl (referred to as gyumeshi on its menu) was one satisfying meal. The beef and onions had just the right blend of sweet and salty and it was perfect on the bed of fluffy, hot rice. It is served with raw egg, which is typically beaten and mixed with the beef–I passed on that; I was happy putting a generous amount of beni shoga (pickled red ginger) and the red chili mix on my beef bowl.
6. C took us to a number of restaurants he liked around Tokyo. One of which was to Bamboo, a restaurant, within walking distance from the Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills. The sizzling plate of sautéed Eringi mushrooms in butter was the highlight of the dinner. Simple, succulent and rich. I know it doesn’t sound so Japanese, but how can you go wrong with butter?
5. One drunken night, C took us to the ramen-ya near his place that served abura soba or ramen without soup. The noodles are served with char siu, negi onion, fermented bamboo shoots and shredded nori, then mixed with an oil sauce and vinegar. Salty, sour, fatty…it was one great bowl of ramen. To make sure our judgement or taste buds were not impaired at the time, we came back, as sober as a judge, and the verdict was the same. It was still one good abura soba.
4. On a cold Friday night in Ginza, C and his Japanese friend took us and our friends from Manila to Motsu-Denrai, a restaurant specializing in motsunabe. A motsunabe is a hot pot dish made primarily with beef or pork offal. Yes, entrails and other internal organs. I was never a big fan of animal entrails, but I’m always willing to try a new dish–like the raw chicken on our first night. In the hot pot, mounds of tofu, garlic chives, cabbage, noodles, beef intestines (pre-cooked) and soup are boiled together to make a rich, beefy-miso flavorful soup. It was the perfect remedy to the cold evening.
3. Another cold-weather culinary remedy came in a bowl of tonkotsu ramen. Ramen or noodle soup is a very popular dish in Japan and as such there are different types according to its soup base. Tonkotsu ramen has a cloudy pork-based soup so delicious that you know it isn’t really good for you—with the heavenly fatty flavored broth and salty goodness of the roast pork. But hey, you’re on vacation, right?
2. Our first dinner of various yakitori at Shimada Mura in Shinjuku is the second most memorable meal we had. Every stick (except for the hatsu or chicken heart for me) had my taste buds rejoicing and my face doing contortions for sheer amazement that we were in freaking Japan…eating yakitori. Really good yakitori, washed down with really good Japanese beer. (Though I read recently it’s even better with hot sake.) The chicken meat, lent with a hint of smokiness from grilling it over hot charcoals, was juicy, tender and full of flavor.
1. For our last dinner, C and his girlfriend took us to Uokatsu, a restaurant in the Azabu Juban neighborhood. Known for its seafood dishes, its black cod with miso was the most divine dish I had ever tasted during the entire trip. As I wrote in the Yummy magazine August 2010 issue, it was “plump, buttery and sweet, and every bite seemed to melt in my mouth. I was in love. I wanted to savor each silky forkful. Bring it home and spend the rest of my days with it.” Yes, if I could go off into the sunset with this beautiful and most delicious piece of cod, I would. But in a few minutes, it was gone. Until our next trip to Japan, then.