Today, we get to what may be the most important part of any foreign trip: the food. A friend once asked why, when I talked about my travels, I always talked about the food. “Why do I care what you ate?” Well, that friend was clearly not a “foodie”.
And, of course, the food in Japan is mostly very different to what we generally get here, so it’s particularly worth making one of these pages less empty for.
Where to start? Well, perhaps with the local dishes. Hiroshima is known for an item called okonomiyaki, お好み焼き. Actually, okonomiyaki is served throughout southwestern Honshu, as well as in the rest of Japan, but Hiroshima lays claim to being the place that does it right. So we had to try it for lunch one day, much as one has to get a cheesesteak when one visits Philadelphia. Okonomiyaki (see the photo to the right; click to enlarge) starts with a thin pancake formed on a grill. When the pancake is turned, it’s piled up with stuff — here, cabbage, noodles, bean sprouts, and whatever meats and seafood you’ve ordered. The whole stack is then finished with a lightly beaten egg and turned over again, with a weight put on it to really get it cooking (that’s where you see it in the photo). To serve it, the guy turns it over again, plates it, and lays on some sweet/salty sauce. It was very tasty, and very filling.
For another local specialty, we go to Itsukushima (Miyajima), where they make little filled cakes called Momiji manju. Manju, 饅頭, are made throughout Japan, in various shapes and forms; the Momiji manju are specifically in the shape of maple leaves (Momiji, 紅葉), and they come with all kinds of fillings. The red bean paste filling in the photo to the left is the most common. Other fillings include custard, cheese custard, green tea, chocolate, and various fruit jams. When I first saw them, I expected them to be hard cookies. They not; they’re soft cakes, with a generous filling. You can buy them individually wrapped for less than a dollar apiece, and they’re very good!
Also on Itsukushima were a number of shops selling grilled fish-cake snacks on skewers (photo to the right; I don’t know the Japanese name for them). The wide variety was quite intriguing, and it’s too bad we’d just eaten lunch before we saw the snacks, or we would surely have tried some of them. Octopus and spring onion; cuttlefish foot; asparagus and bacon; burdock... they sounded very interesting! I’ll certainly try some if/when I’m there again.
Eel is very popular in Japan, and I’ve had it here in the U.S. in Japanese restaurants. There are two varieties: anago, 穴子, saltwater eel, and unagi, うなぎ, freshwater eel. It’s served as pieces of sushi, layered over rice in a bowl as a donburi dish, and, as seen to the left, wrapped with rice in nice little packages as onigiri, 御握り (these are made with unagi, which are grilled with a light spreading of barbecue sauce). Think of onigiri as a Japanese hamburger. (And in Tokyo, I had an unagi pizza.)
And while we’re on donburi, 丼ぶり, we should talk about katsudon, カツ丼, breaded pork cutlet served with onions and egg over rice. In Japan, the egg is left a little runny, and serves as a sauce for the dish. Katsudon is another very earthy, filling dish, a good stick-to-your-ribs lunch on a chilly day.
The Japanese do like eggs, and seem to serve them as part of many meals. I’ve already talked about the okonomiyaki and the katsudon, which both have egg in them. Perhaps you’re familiar with tamago, the tightly rolled omelet often served as part of a sushi meal. Breakfast omelets are different, done more like French omelets and very much in the French baveuse style, still runny in the middle. One popular egg concoction, omuraisu, オムライス, is widely served — it’s an omelet filled with fried rice (and the word is an example of adapting western words (“omelet” and “rice”, here), which I’ll talk more about when I talk about the language). The original omuraisu (right, a plastic model from a shop window) involves fried rice with chicken and ketchup, but there are many other variations, and I saw restaurants that specialize in them. I plan to devise my own favourite variation to make at home.
The most “different” meal I had was when a few of us went to a Japanese buffet restaurant. Except for the rice, noodles, and vegetable tempura (which was served at room temperature), we didn’t know what anything was — all the labels were in Japanese, and most things didn’t look familiar. We tried most of what was there, and were delighted with the surprises, even if each of us liked some things more than others. The tastes and the textures were sometimes unexpected. The only problem is that we still don’t know what we ate, so we couldn’t ask for it elsewhere.
Of course, tea, 茶, is ubiquitous. We were usually offered the choice of black tea or “Japanese tea” (green tea). Sometimes there were more choices, of specific varieties. Alexey and I went into a cafe in Himeji and had some tea flowers, those bundles of tea leaves that blossom in the hot water. And that seems a good photo to leave you with, there to the left.
It was a good food trip.