Tokyo is the largest city in the world, and it is often overwhelming to think about everything you can …Rating:
Tokyo is the largest city in the world, and it is often overwhelming to think about everything you can experience in terms of cuisine in a place that big. There is something new and extremely delicious to try every single time you are hungry. This makes Tokyo one of the best places in the world to eat, particularly for a chef. On top of that, the cuisine is super healthy, locally and seasonally sourced, and perfectly balanced for vitamins, digestion, and overall well being. It is considered the healthiest cuisine in the world, even next to the Mediterranean. Then you add a special gem, Kyoto…the only way to describe my food experience as a chef between these two cities? I will come back for more for the rest of my life. Each city has it’s own unique food customs, as I discovered in Kyoto, so it is an endless journey for many years to come.
In saying this, it is almost impossible to even begin to taste everything in Tokyo and Kyoto. It is a never ending stream of some of the best food I have ever had the pleasure to taste. My recent “short” experience in both cities are mentioned here, highly recommended, and not to be missed.
Hokkaido Tokachi Shintokucho
This restaurant is actually a chain of restaurants, in which they specialise in different areas all over Japan in each branch. Because the quality of the food in Japan is so high, chain restaurants are not a bad thing. This particular one specialises in the cuisine of the mountains, located on its own island in the north of Japan. It is an area famous for it’s skiing and excellent powder snow. It is also one of the only places in Japan that makes cheese. All of the food comes direct from the local farmers in that area. It is well known for its sweet bright yellow corn, which I tasted and indeed was extremely delicious. Corn in Japan? Yes. The chicken is also a speciality from this region, it is organic, free range and fed in a certain way to make it so tasty. It comes in a variety of ways here, but the deep fried super crunchy and spicy batter one was beautiful, reminding me very much of the Korean method popular in NYC. I discovered an awesome sauce served here with the chicken which is a blend of yuzu and wasabi- beautiful for any fish or poultry. Baby Roasted scallops were sweet and tasted as if they were cooked in sea water. Giant fresh squid, lightly cooked in seconds and cut into small rings and left whole, were meltingly soft and sublimely delicate. The octopus salad was particularly toothsome, with crunchy grilled tentacles and a beautiful japanese dressing of yuzu and miso.
Tsukiji Market is the largest fish market in the world. It is absolutely a must see when in Tokyo, and home to some of the best freshest sushi venues possibly in the world. I know these are sweeping grandiose statements- but they are true. During my visit around New Year, the market was packed with special crab claws and rows and rows of uni (sea urchin), octopus, tuna, and all kinds of specialty fish that normally is kept for grand occasions.
It was absolutely heaving with people getting ready for their New Years feast, the crowd so thick you were stopped from moving. It is certainly the coolest thing to do in Tokyo, and the knife shops are mind blowing.
There is also quite a variety of fruits and vegetables of the season, impressively all perfect looking as the Japanese tend to have a knack for. The fresh wasabi was beyond exciting. I bought a huge root and carried it with me in my suitcase the whole trip, to travel thousands of miles back to my fridge in London.
You can always find the good tiny sushi spots just by sniffing out a long que. If the Japanese like something, they all seem to flock there and line up. We found a six seat counter-only place with some of the best uni (sea urchin) and ikura (salmon roe) I have honestly ever tasted. They had about four things on the menu, scribbled hastily on a chalkboard, obviously changing daily as to what came in from the fisherman.
The vibrant scene of small fishmongers, vegetable and fish stands, and Japanese knife shops everywhere is some sort of visual and culinary heaven.
I have always found Korean food in Japan to be really excellent, because Korean food is very simple with very few ingredients, which require excellent produce. Usually this rare produce is hard to find fresh in the west. But Japan obviously has both. It is a similar thing as eating Italian in Italy, or Italian in the Midlands. Linamha is a chic but authentic restaurant that offers neat Japanese style ban chan (small Korean tapas that is obligatory in every good Korean restaurant) and an incredible selection of pancakes. The ban chan had lovely baby fried and spiced squid, kimchi of many varieties of course, a pickled seaweed/bean dish that was pretty spectacular, as far a seaweed/bean dish can be. I really liked how they took the typical Korean food and laced it with Japanese precision and elegance. The seafood pancake was soft, gooey, and simply umami heaven. It was very similar to the Japanese “Okonomiyaki” pancakes. This pancake kind of took the words out of my mouth. The spicy chili fermented bean paste it was served with was reordered a dozen times, addictive and explosive.
TEMPLE STREET FOOD
Touring the various temples is an obvious thing to do whilst visiting Japan, but the food stalls surrounding the the outside are an experience in of itself. They have amazing street food delicacies that can only be found outside these temples. My sister and I spent just as much time in the temple as we did ogling all the crazy delicacies in the stalls. One of my absolute favourites is the takoyaki, or octopus balls, served with teriyaki sauce and bonito flakes. They are cooked in these uber cool giant muffin pans with little ball shapes instead of cylinders. There is baby roasted octopus and giant sea whelks on sticks, grilled over hot coals, and served with a sweet sticky soy sauce – a food fantasy of sorts. Whole tiny sardine like fish, covered in salt, and served on sticks. Again, roasted over hot coals, and is particularly delicious and cat like; one eats the the whole entire thing, meaning bones, head, and tail. There is also mochi everywhere, in various flavours and served barbecued, hot, and sticky. Mochi is a ground baked rice dish, and generally sweet. It is a Japanese delicacy, and has a gooey sticky texture. Also another highlight is the traditional winter drink, called Amazake, and is a sort of Japanese version of mulled wine. It is slightly sweet and made from a tiny bit of sake (but not always) and within it, tiny bits of rice. Warm and comforting as you hike around the temples chewing on mochi.
A live temple “money” cat guarding the entrance…I am pretty sure he loves his seafood. I would have the same smug expression if I lived in one of these temples and ate takoyaki every day. I waited for his wave, but didn’t happen.
Traditional Asakusa Cuisine
Every city or village of Japan has its own version of this dish, traditionally called Okonomiyaki. It is similar to perhaps a frittata or Korean seafood pancake and is savoury, with a variety of stuffings. They are traditionally made on huge open space flat grills, and come in a square shape made from a square metal mold, or perfectly shaped small circles. They come in a variety of flavours, and are intensely moorish and satisfying. There is a special version that comes from Asakusa, a temple village in Tokyo, called Modanyaki, and it is a kind of Okonomiyaki, but topped with fried noodles and grilled lard from black pork. We also sampled these incredible traditional Kyoto salads. One was made from a variety of sweet onions from a Japanese island called Awajima, and another salad with crispy tiny fried fish, and “Yuba”, which is the skin of gently boiled soy milk. Then they topped it with generous shavings from a huge cured chunk of tuna (fresh bonito). I know I keep saying how delicious everything is, but oh my God…I looked around to buy that cured tuna thing for days. Sadly I never found it, but I won’t ever forget it.
CHEF NOGIRI MASAHIKO
My local super cool DJ friend, Tommy Wada, famous for his deep house at an impressive Tokyo club called Womb, happened to be quite a foodie, and I had the pleasure of being introduced to several of his favourite haunts. Tommy had a childhood friend whom he met as a teenager in NYC, where both were budding DJs. Nogiri ended up working part time as a sushi chef in New York, fell in love with it, and went back to Tokyo to properly train. Now, 30 years later, He is quite an impressive and well known sushi chef in Tokyo. Each year, Nogiri does a pop up at his friend’s restaurant for a few days around the New Year. Normally you can find him working at a private members club in Tokyo….we did an impressive tasting of sashimi and sushi at his pop up. After mentioning I loved Uni, he served me a delicious bowl of beautiful tuna, chives, and yuzu to mix with a side of uni and salmon roe. Then more uni to follow. I liked Nogiri.
There was also a divine mackerel dish that was like a large roll wrapped in nori but entirely made from the mackerel (no rice) and with accents of yuzu, wasabi, cucumber, and soy. There was beautifully cut baby soft squid that literally took my breath away…At the end he led us outside for the evening and graciously gifted me with a beautiful framed blue paper of a carved fish, made from his sushi knife. The man is quite an artist, focusing his talent into the divine art of sushi, carving and slicing some incredible mouthfuls. The sushi of dreams.
KYOTO FOOD MARKET NISHIKI
The food market in Kyoto is quite a contrast to the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. This market specialises mostly in vegetables, and pickled and fermented ones at that. There is a vast amount of prepared vegetarian Japanese specialties, with samplings offered at each stall. The colors are intoxicating. I want to paint them. What India has in spices, the Japanese have in fermented vegetables. Also around were loads of beautiful squares of various types of mochi, the semi sweet ground and baked rice treat. We tried a matcha one, which was as green as it was delicious. There is something quite sensual about the mushy gooey chewy little square, so odd in texture and so soft and gentle in its flavour. The Japanese really understand texture and have a passion for the complex diversity that it has to offer within food.
We found an amazing vegetarian buffet spot, which is charged by the hour. Yes. You eat as much as you can in one hour and then you have to go. Not unlike big middle American breakfast buffets in cheesy hotels across the country. But so much better.
One is given a rectangular tray with about nine small square cut out shapes in which you fill up with a variety of differently prepared vegetable dishes. It is an amazing way to taste bits and pieces of what is offered downstairs at the market. It is called Nishiki Obanzai Buffet, located about halfway down the long bustling market.
One michelin Kyoto “Keiseki” Cuisine
This was the high end choice of our trip, as I really wanted to try a Keiseki, which is a traditional Japanese way of serving a variety of dishes in small portions over various courses. They are seasonal and very simple, exhibiting the natural flavours of the meat and vegetables, with what is only the best and purest form of enhancing. Sakamoto is located in the Gion district, which has been famous for it’s Geishas for hundreds of years, and of whom still exist today. Gion is a very special little area by the river, untouched by time, with two or three story traditional wooden houses and alleys lit up by small Japanese lanterns. As we were here during New Year’s, we had a tasting of all the specialty New Year dishes from Kyoto. Sakamoto is a second generation chef, following in the footsteps of his father.
The dishes here were extremely elegant and sparse. Also because of the time of year I was there, the dishes had a lot of cultural value. The dinner was over maybe ten courses, so I will highlight some of the unforgettable. There was a white miso dish, special from Kyoto, that was very sweet and harmonious, served in a large house-like box that came with two blue bowls and felt very ceremonial. Also worth mentioning was a very interesting fishcake, which is traditional for the New Year, but this was steamed and grilled and tasted like tofu with extreme umami, with a meltingly sensual texture. A wakame roll, used in place of nori, was carved and pickled, wrapped around a mackerel. It was served with a mochi that was dyed with turmeric to color it gold, the color everyone eats on New Year. The courses were very quick, as the portions were very sparse, but it took almost five minutes to savour each bite as they were so interesting and subtle. There was a small course of oysters from mid west Japan, which were large and almost fatty, and served with a dashi soy oyster juice sauce, with a tiny splash of yuzu. Teeny specs of scallion and saltwater made this dish something from the gods. I was so impressed with the delicate notes of so many fragrant and harmonious elements. There was one meat course, a sliced rare duck, with mushrooms, dehydrated shitake, and mustard. A hard interesting finish, like a drum beat, to start ending the meal. To finish, the desserts were clean and naturally sugar free- simply some locally grown kiwis with balsamic, and some sort of Japanese yam that was baked, grilled, and torched like creme brulee (an excellent idea). We felt like Gieshas.
This was probably my favourite food experience in all of my Japanese trip, and I am won over by the Izakaya way of eating. It is basically small dishes to eat whilst sipping beer or sake. But I must mention, these small tapas are very delicate and special, with often many fried and salty foods to go with the alcohol. This Izakaya was very local and casual and hidden, yet almost like some sort of Japanese diner. It was entirely counter space with an open kitchen. The loud clatter and clinking of pots and pans and screaming chefs made it a lively and entertaining experience, on top of the excellent food.
We had an octopus tempura, which is pretty much up there with finding the love of your life. Then I ordered just a bowl of uni. Partly because I could, which I can’t do really anywhere else in the world, and partly because I knew it would be awesome, and it was. Honestly, after all the dishes so far on this journey- I would be very happy with these two things. Like every day. Well, and a large cup of saki to wash it down with of course.
We also tried some simple but gorgeous brightly hued seaweed greens in a yuzu sesame dressing, a far cry from the neon green MSG stuff of UK sushi chains. Then we ordered some other fried bits of seafood goodness, and obviously copious amounts of delicious saki. My sister and I were giggling and smiling like children. This is what a good Izakaya can do for you.
Yuki is a very special gem, and hard to find, so I am writing the secret address in case you want to try a cool speakeasy Izakaya in Gion, Kyoto- 605-0078 Kyoto Higashiyama-Ku, Kyoto, 128, Tominagacho.
Another Izakaya, but entirely different vibe. It is located in the Shibuya area, in a place called Daikanyama, which is quite chic and trendy. Koku is modern and refreshing, with a fashionable take on traditional Izakaya dishes. The owner, a good friend of my local friend Tommy, was happy to treat us to his incredible knowledge and diverse selection of very rare sakes, which can not be found easily. Do a sake tasting if you go, as it is quite a treat as you taste each of the different dishes. Sake is quite special in that is made in a painstaking mostly handmade process with just rice and water. Therefore, the sake will vary greatly depending on the area of where the water is coming from, and the rice and rice grain which is used. I was blown away on this trip understanding the huge variety of sake, and the calm, gentle, soothing way it makes you feel when it is of high quality. I find it makes you feel more alert and talkative, and pairs so well with food; it is so subtle in flavour and does not contest with delicate things like seafood and seaweed, as western wines often can.
To start we had abalone, a true seafood delicacy, as it is very hard to rip them off the underwater rocks in a usually very rough sea where they flourish. It was the abalone kidney to be precise, and was served with tofu, shrimp, and baby broccoli. Wow.
Then came a series of pickled vegetables; there was a deep fried potato string wrapped pickled daikon served with mayonnaise that was particularly insane. The sashimi was fresh and delicious, consisting of Toro, Red Snapper, Hamachi, and Squid and served in a secret dashi soy sauce, with kombu chili salt for dipping. So simple and so overwhelmingly sublime.
There was a really unique dish to mention here, as it was the first time I came across it. It was a type of Japanese pasta, made from rice flour. The chef delicately cut it into flower shapes. It is traditionally put into the dish to soak up the special dashi of the particular chef, like a noodle. Ours was served with boiled bamboo shoots. Perhaps it sounds too simple, but it truly is the best way to taste the dashi which is so subtle. One needs a vehicle for the dashi to be soaked and concentrated and then letting it melt slowly on your tongue, like a dissolving sponge.
We finished with a hot pot of very special chicken coming from a famous area of Japan for chicken, in Miyazaki, which is in the south. There were meatballs made of chicken breast, ground like dumplings and served with seared skin, shitake, fresh herbs, and cabbage leaves to add in yourself. The broth was spectacular, made from a special dashi mixed in with the fresh chicken broth. To finish, they made a congee which was mixed in with the left over chicken broth from the hotpot. It was spectacular. And I don’t really eat chicken (being American, see, but I think the Miyazaki breeds are tasting pretty safe)…
I must make an honourable mention for my sister’s favourite food shop, the Family Mart. My sister is stationed in the navy in Saseibo and so she is in one of these shops pretty much every day. It is like a Japanese health food version of 7-11. They have good quality sushi, hot or cold coffees and teas in a can, either in heated fridges or cold, prepackaged seaweeds of all varieties, beer, sake, whiskey, and wine, and even tempura and miso soup at the counter. They also stock a variety of panty hose, umbrellas, and socks. My favourite is the ready made matcha tea latte and umembashi plum candy, which is like an American fruit roll up made from Japanese plums. I will miss my daily snack of weird salty MSG-y dried squid jerkey and crunchy wakame crack candy. Someone would make millions if they opened a Family Mart in NYC, with a few tables and chairs in the back. It would be like the new Spotted Pig or Fatty Crab.
(Owl Cafe, Ginza)
Check out Tommy’s music on Mixcloud under Session deep volume 2/ aka SESSION WOMB. Bookmark these legends…
Tokyo to Kyoto ni arigato!