Saturday, May 27, 2006

HFF On The Road: Kyoto, Nara, Tokyo, and Osaka

Okay, so this wasn't a culinary vacation in the way that my whirlwind LA trip was. My brother's studying in Kyoto so I took opportunity of a break in school and work to spend 10 days in Japan. While I was there I benefited from the cuisine of perhaps the most culinarily-minded country in the world.

I'll be unable to offer many specific recommendations on any restaurants since, for the most part, I had no idea what any of the restaurants' names were. The food was however consistently delicious and freshly prepared whether at ramen shops, curry stands, street corner snack vendors, to-go containers at train stations, or sit-down service restaurants. Dishes were universally cooked to perfection with a willingness to combine disparate flavors and textures in remarkably complementary ways.

Some highlights:

Okonomiyaki: A Kansai-region specialty (the area around Osaka and Kyoto), it is a batter of flour, egg, and vegetables (usually mung bean sprouts, cabbage, and scallions) mixed with additional selections of meat and vegetables. Okonomiyaki houses feature hot griddles at each table--in some cases you mix and cook your own okonomiyaki in pancake form on the griddle, in most cases a server comes and prepares the pancake for you--in others still the pancake is cooked in the kitchen and finished off/kept warm at your table griddle. A range of condiments are provided--usually sweet and spicy sauces, mayonnaise, nori, and bonito. Warm, flavorful, and filling. My personal highlight was the "mini pirate okonomiyaki" that I had in Nara which featured squid, shrimp, octopus, and clam in the batter.

Takoyaki: Another Kansai specialty that can be found throughout Japan--these are balls of dough made from flour, ginger, tenkasu, konnyaku, and studded with pieces of octopus and then cooked in hemispherical moulds. They end up looking like deep-fried octopus croquettes, but they're essentially round skillet breads. Sold in restaurants and on street corners, takoyaki's usually come in orders of 3, 6, or 8 and are garnished in a variety of traditional ways--soy sauce and ginger or ponzu and scallions being the most common--or in neo-Western ways with Caesar dressing or melted cheese.

Yakitori: Usually limited to grilled skewered chicken in America, yakitori restaurants in Japan cook just about anything you want on skewers--though chicken was the predominant meat used. Highlights included smokey shishito peppers, quail eggs--grilled plain or grilled with a sweet barbecue sauce, and leeks native to the Kansai region. Soft chicken gizzard was good, hard chicken gizzard was just too damn hard.

Iron-pot rice: Forget the Japanese name for this. Rice is cooked and then finished in a scaldingly hot iron pot, where a tiny bit of moisture is added and fish and veggies thrown on top. The ingredients steam again with the rice, cooking nicely while allowing the flavors to permeate the rice throughout--including the nicely browned rice on the edges. Abalone cooked this way was fantastic.

Red bean paste: Whether in dumplings, mochi filling, or with agar, fresh fruit, soynuts, and honey in a classic dessert, sweetened red bean paste is great, tempering its substantial sweetness with just a hint of the earthy savoury.

Mochi: In particular, a Kyoto specialty that consists of squares of mochi folded over a mound of flavored red bean paste into little triangles. Ubiquitous in the old capital, some specialists offer dozens of flavors--find some of the makers around Kiyomizu-dera where they offer samples and try some of the most strangely wonderful dessert flavors you'll ever encounter.

Betayaki: A carb-tastic fast food consisting of a thin flour crepe topped with noodles, which is then topped with bean sprouts, and then topped with an omelette. And then topped with okonomiyaki sauce. Savory and satisfying.

Ramen: Not the cup o'soup variety. A big bowl of broth (usually white miso or a clear pork broth) loaded with noodles and vegetables and whatever fish or meat you want (as long as it's either shrimp or pork). Often served with a hard-boiled chicken or duck egg.

Curry: A brown curry commonly made (in Tokyo anyway) with potatoes, carrots, cabbage, and pork to a moderate degree of spiciness. Served on a plate with pickles and white rice and usually a choice of tonkatsu, tempura shrimp, or Japanese-style hamburger patty (usually beef, but often pork or a pork-beef mix).

Baked goods: Japan may have the best pastries--they definitely have the best donuts (try the Mister Donut chain). Get a pon de ring--it's made with a bit of glutinous rice flour so it has a springy, chewy texture. Also, hit up whatever corner bakery that you encounter for a great cheap breakfast or lunch--even our trip to the international Vie de France chain still featured great artful sweet or savory buns, sandwiches, and pastries.

We never ate anywhere particularly fancy--even our one real sit-down dinner in Tokyo was at a fairly casual dining establishment, but the food was just very very good everywhere. There seemed to be a focus on providing warm, satisfying food that filled you up without leaving you stuffed. Perfect food for the miles and miles of walking that we undertook. The only miscue was at a "hip" place that we hit up in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo that seemed to emulate a trendy SF or LA small-plates restaurant. Still this place was pretty good, even if all of our dishes were served cold, but it just wasn't satisfying.

On the docket for future trips to Japan will be kaiseki--the traditional multi-course prix fixe of Kyoto--and a serious sushi restaurant.

But for the love of god, go to Japan. You can fly from SFO for cheap if you look carefully and honestly we rarely paid more than about $10 for a meal (sometimes as little as $5).

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