Wednesday, March 25, 2009

What I Loved in Japan

Our very first meal in Japan was something familiar, unhealthy and definitely available in HK. No, it wasn't McDonald's (thank goodness). We ate at Tonkatsu Wako, a very affordable restaurant serving all manner of deep-fried pork cutlet, with some chicken cutlets and oysters thrown in for good measure. The rice and miso soup with tiny, fingernail-sized clams are refillable, and so is the shredded cabbage that the Japanese drizzle yuzu dressing on. In HK Tonkichi at the World Trade Center is a family favorite, they deep-fry well and properly (in other words, all crunch and no grease), little boy loves the sesame seeds you pound in a special ridged pestle, and they have 2 tangy salad dressings to choose from. Wako was definitely nowhere close to Tonkichi. While the servings were huge, each bite left a slightly oily aftertaste. Since we were exhausted and famished it didn't matter, especially since the yellow mustard sauce (Japanese horseradish) and the tonkatsu sauce (a fruity concoction the Japanese use like catsup) were there to save the day.

Funny enough, the next day for lunch we had deep-fried and unhealthy all over again. I had wanted to try a kushiya place when I first visited Japan a few years back but wasn't able to. So Sis-in-law (SIL) and her gang brought us to one. In this eat-all-you-can palace of battered and breaded goodness you get 2 hours to snatch whatever you want from the display. I can recall: eggplant, okra, peppers, lotus root, asparagus, pumpkin, onions, potatoes, pork, beef cubes, chicken thigh, chicken breast, chicken liver, chicken gizzard, mochi, shrimp, scallop, salmon cubes, rice with dried scallops, plain rice, udon which you cook and garnish yourself, curry sauce, miso soup, various salads, an array of sweets, sauces galore and a drinks bar. The bite-sized vegetables, meat and seafood were on thin bamboo skewers (just one on each skewer). On the table were shallow bowls filled with a viscous white batter and breadcrumbs. At the center of the table was a built-in fryer filled to the brim with hot oil. Around the fryer you could place your cooked food to drain. I ate 3 bowls of udon, countless shrimp, gizzard, scallop and pumpkin and was so full afterwards I found it hard to get up! Little boy enjoyed cooking for himself. I found myself craving for the potato salad tossed in a curious creamy fish roe sauce that SIL says is popular in Japan and is used for pasta as well. Guess how much our kushiya feast cost? A little above P600 per person, or HKD 100. What a bargain!

One day in Ginza we decided to eat at this place offering rice bowls. I wasn't interested in meat and ordered the soup instead and here's what I got:

a heavy serving bowl set atop blue flames

which was filled with a very spicy and garlicky soup, thick chewy noodles, some slivers of pork, mushrooms aplenty and sliced eggplant. It tasted a bit too Chinese for me, and normally I love Chinese, but I wanted something lighter.

my brother-in-law and boss were raving about Japanese ramen and the volcano eggs that come with it. volcano eggs are boiled eggs whose centers are slightly cooked, chewy, silky and creamy at the same time. I am happy enough with Sapporo in IFC, with their very refreshing miso broth, but being in Japan I had to try an authentic ramen place.

I got the specialty, topped with seaweed and sliced pork so tender and savory it reminded me of my mom's Fookien-style "humba". Hubby got the eggs since he's the egg lover in the family. They had gyozas too, but the gyozas I bought form the basement food store of Mitsukoshi in Ginza were so delicious everything I had afterward paled in comparison.

One can't go to Japan and not eat strawberry mochi. I bought this beauty in a specialty shop in Ginza, that chi-chi part of Tokyo and it cost a whopping P135 each. The strawberry inside was huge and very sweet, and the mochi itself sticky and delicious, so I decided to forget the cost and just enjoy my sweet. The mochis in Kyoto were the best I've had though, especially since it was mochi season when I went 2 years ago and there was such an array of fresh ones to choose from it was bedazzling and befuddling at the same time. I never buy the prepackaged ones at the airport. They just don't taste the same.

At Universal studios I spied a long line waiting to buy hotdogs at this cart. Being the sucker for hype that I am (I queued up for a gyoza bun at Disney Sea, which is simply gyoza wrapped in siopao-like buns and wasn't yummy at all), I walked to the cart with aching feet and bought a hotdog that I though would at least have some relish on it, only to find out it was drearily similar to the plain old hotdog sandwich at HK Disneyland. Adding to my dismay was the horror of being served small sachets of catsup and mustard you tear open and drizzle on top. Oh well. You win some, you lose some.

I wasn't too happy about the hotdog but wolfed it down anyway, the took a leisurely stroll around a New York neighborhood and spotted this photo op just beyond an alley.

At Minami Osawa (a sprawlng complex of outlet shops which makes one think they're in the States) I found a French pastry shop selling tarts and puddings. I got myself a wedge of this berry-topped pudding. It was spongy and eggy, and like most Japanese sweets, not heavy on the sugar at all. I liked it but found the wedge too big for one person to consume.

Also at Minami Osawa we ate at this place called a sakura suisan (an izakaya of sorts where workers take a cheap but filling meal similar to what they would eat at home). I had the sukiyaki and although my picture looks very bad, the dish itself was very good. The broth was sweetish without being overwhelming, the slivers of beef quite tender and the vegetables and noodles just the perfect quantity. They serve most of their noodle soups with rice in Japan, similar to what Pinoys call pancit ulam (noodles as viand), so you can imagine how very full I felt. SIL ordered some deep-fried oysters for us to try and it was golden brown and crunchy and full of briny fresh oyster goodness inside. The oysters were oozing their juice, the flesh pillow-soft.

At another sakura suisan where we had dinner one night I got to try this grilled saba fillet along with the ubiquitous Japanese-style garlicky fried chicken that's heavenly with a squeeze of lemon juice, some fried chicken tendons served with purplish salt, cubes of tuna grilled and served on a hot plate looking like beef salpicao, tofu hotpot, and a Japanese-style papaitan. It's great eating out with a Japanese because otherwise you can't eat at a home-style sakura suisan. There are no pictures, and everything is in Japanese.

I am a fan of strawberries and bought a pack at a grocery near our hotel. Look at how fake they look with the dewy, bright red skin...

... hiding such sweet, sweet flesh. Mmmmmmmm

Froyos are all the rage nowadays and though I haven't tried any in Manila, here in HK Ive tried 3 places and they all taste average to me. In Osaka SIL and I tried a place called the Golden Spoon. I had my usual strawberry froyo, she ordered the chocolate because the Reese flavor wasn't available (oh sadness!). Each was served with a golden plastic spoon (SIL and I had an a-ha! moment when we spied the spoons). Were they good? Were they? Let's just say if I could have some right now, I would have 3 cups.

If you are a takoyaki fan, like me, you would have jumped with joy at seeing this sign. I couldn't jump, being 5 months heavy with my 2nd child, so I grinned a silly grin for several minutes instead.

Inside the "museum" are 4 takoyaki vendors selling differing styles of these famous octopus balls. We tried the smallish ones pictured here, served without any sauce or garnish, and I was disappointed. SIL says the large ones at Ueno and Asakusa in Tokyo topped with mayo, okonomiyaki sauce with paper thin katsuoboshi (dried bonito flakes) are heaps better and I have to agree. Maybe somewhere else in Osaka there is a takoyaki for gourmands. It is where the dish originated from, after all. Good thing my dinner saved the day! I ate by my lonesome at an udon place where you pick up a a tray, choose a broth, get some fried stuff as topping and slurp away!

Our last meal before flying out was at this dark basement izakaya with no English on the menu. Salmon strips and dried fish stared balefully as we walked past the grill. My tummy was rumbling and my senses were on full alert. Instinctively I knew we were to have good meal ahead of us.

Our orders grilling...

I had the chicken teriyaki bento with extra orders of grilled chicken wings, chicken gizzard and liver on the side. Ahh, the smoky scent, the crisp burnt bits, the splash of lemon. Yum.

We also tried different kinds of saba fillet, some were salty like our own native "daing", some were bland but with an interesting sauce brushed on. All in all, a genuinely Japanese meal. Burp!

You might be wondering why we never had sushi or sashimi. Hubby's very thoughtful family decided to just eat all cooked food while we were there. Being preggy and a raw fish lover they knew I would just get frustrated and envious. Little boy had salmon sahimi several times though. It's his absolute favorite!

I have to mention, before I end this entry which is making me hungrier by the minute, that I had a superb bento lunch in Osaka composed of a light and refreshing udon soup with grilled eel, a multitude of pickles, and steamed brown rice with vegetables. I think I love udon much much more than ramen or any other Japanese dish except sashimi. Which sorta explains the number of pounds I gained on the trip. :)