Traveling is a way to see how the world really is. How people live, a snapshot of their realities and lived experience. Food is always a great way to experience the culture of the country. In Tokyo, I decided to do a food tour to learn more about Japanese culture.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I’m a very picky eater and often play it safe, even when I go out to eat. So, the food tour was a challenge as I had to get out of my food comfort zone.
Japanese food is so much more than sushi and actually one of the world’s most diverse; with fresh vegetables, all sorts of meats and seafood, both raw, cooked and grilled – clean eating meets culinary artistry. Japan is one of those places where you can eat blow-fish sashimi, octopus balls, and cow rectum one evening, then follow it all up the next day with a 15-course meal. The culinary experience is not only about the actual food consumed, but also the presentation, the design, the sheer beauty of what you’re eating. Just like its people, Japanese food is sophisticated. There’s logic, there’s a purpose in every facet of the dining experience, in each item in the meal. By design for design. Contrast this with other East Asian cuisines where large pots are shared from the middle of the table.
Lessons Learned on my Japanese food tasting journey
Looks can be deceiving: A Japanese Savory Pancake
The saying not everything is always as it seems has never been truer than when I tried Japan’s savory pancake, okonomiyaki. My mother always says, ‘expectation reduces joy’ and oh how my joy was reduced when I expected this mouthwatering looking pancake to be as great as it looked. Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake stuffed with sliced vegetables, seafood, and other bits, usually cooked on a big griddle or at your table in a cook-your-own style (all the ingredients are blended into the batter so that it is all cooked together, almost like a pancake-omelet). To my disappointment the okonomiyaki didn’t live up to the hype, as I found it bland; only managing to taste the cabbage and wasabi. However, in its defense, I’m used to lots of spice and flavor but Japanese food is subtle (it’s not a burst of flavor) and often takes time for the flavors to come together. The one I tasted was topped with hanakatsuo (dried, and outrageously thin bacon looking smoked bonito skip-jack tuna) flakes that curl like mad when you place them atop hot food. Anyway, lesson learned, expect nothing when it comes to trying new food.
My mother’s words ‘expectation reduces joy’ were not so true in this case of the perfectly marbled beef, Kobe beef. It was the most tender and perfectly cooked pieces of beef I have ever had in my life, no exaggeration. I expected the meat to be chewy because it has to be cooked medium rare but no, the exact opposite, and mind you I like my meat well-done. There almost wasn’t enough of it, as it seemed to disappear in my mouth after a few chews. A must have and try.
A calculated risk bringing a sweet reward: Different Japanese ice-cream flavors
The Japanese seem as obsessed with ice-cream as I am. I was in icy heaven. They have some of the finest, richest and most delicate ice-cream, often with green tea flavor option. When it comes to choosing ice-cream I tend to play it safe with chocolate or plain old trusty vanilla. So, on my first day of arriving in Tokyo, I challenged myself and tried a rose flavored ice-cream. I didn’t wasn’t to go too crazy but I was still skeptical it was going to taste like watery strawberry but I was wrong. It was so beautifully light but rich at the same time and tasted like creamy rose water. I was surprisingly pleased. It is a must try to have one of the interesting flavors and try their roll ice-cream. Trust me, you will thank me.
Taking an occasional ride on the “wild” side: Enjoying Firefly squid & Eel
Of course, we all know these dishes, but there is such a wide variety. In Japan, sushi chefs are regarded as artists and most of them have to practice as apprentices for years (and at times decades) before they too can be called sushi and sashimi masters.
On my food tour, I was lucky enough to try Kousai (Hotaru Ika – firefly squid sushi) as it’s seasonal; in spring, these tiny squids are shipped from Toyama Bay in Japan around the country as a seasonal delicacy (which is in season until May). You’d expect it to be chewy but no, it’s delicately squishy and tender. One tiny squid makes for one bite. You have everything in one go, including the legs and everything.
Another surprise was the fresh-water eel temaki, a novel type of sushi with a shape resembling that of an ice cream cone, with a variety of other fillings.
P.S. You can catch my reactions to trying both dishes on my Instagram Japan Highlights
Savoring every moment: A kaiseki dinner
Life is meant to be enjoyed. Sometimes you have to pause, be in the moment and indulge at the moment, and that is exactly what I did on my last evening in Tokyo before heading to Kyoto. A new friend took me to a traditional kaiseki meal in Nagoya at a ryokan. If you plan to splurge somewhere in Japan, consider doing it for this. The kaiseki meal was one of the most memorable and unique meal experiences you may ever have. The presentation and service was an unforgettable experience, sheer joy.
Kaiseki is a multi-course (6-15 courses) traditional dinner, served in the manner of samurai (I’m not joking). But it is more than just a meal, it’s an entire cultural experience. Each course was tiny, but delicately prepared and served in bowls or dishes that well-suited to the food. No two dishes were the same.
The courses of a kaiseki meal will change based on the seasons and what is fresh, but often represent all the different styles of cooking – raw, boiled, grilled, and steamed. There’s a pace that ensures that the meal moves along, and as a slow eater I enjoyed that it was slow enough for me to fully appreciate all the various dishes, flavors, presentation, and design.
Japan really surprised me with its cuisine, after getting over my initial apprehension and critique, I actually found it to be quite tasty, with a great variety. The Japanese really put their pride in their food and presentation, and it is all very clean and hygienic as the country. You can find food at different price ranges, although the food is on average more expensive than other Asian countries. Japan has food for everybody, whether you like seafood, raw food, strange meat, vegan, vegetables, noodles or just plain picky….they have it all! Japanese food is definitely the best to eat in Japan. So, eating should be a big part of your Japanese adventure.