This is a portfolio-sized coupon for this place. The Oregon students met up here with the program directors for a Friday night dinner(?) That was what was funny: this place is a dessert buffet. They had three rotating pastas on the menu, along with a clear mushroom broth and a rice and shrimp dish. The rest was dessert. To tell the truth it was a little strange. This restaurant was set in the back of a department store in Shibuya, but this is a chain in Tokyo. The program directors paid for the buffet, which was very nice of them to do, but I left dinner with a sugar high rather than the sense of being full. Since all of the students are required to take Japanese language classes, we all have roughly the same test schedules. The next morning was our first language test, so everyone was tired and probably a little preoccupied with the upcoming test. Or, at least a few of us were. So, the dinner was just a quick get-together to eat as much pasta and dessert as we could and to sit there and try to be social.
That was the strange. On the contrary, almost everything else I’ve had to eat here has been great. My host mother loves to cook, and so far dinner has never been the same since I started living with them. Breakfast, too, is a frequently rotating menu. It helps that I will try just about anything; it’s even better that I like so many different foods, so I don’t have some weird long laundry list of can’t-eats. Breakfast and dinner is provided by my host family, and lunch is on my own.
Typically, lunch is ramen. There are so many Ramen shops here it’s hard to keep track. In general, there are so many small, hole-in-the-wall restaurants here in Tokyo: every block has them. Every block. I’ve so far not seen a city block that doesn’t have a couple of restaurants of some sort on it. There’s a chain Ramen shop I go to that’s nearby the campus; I think it’s called Hidakaya. However, they are all over the place in Tokyo, and even though it’s a chain and it’s cheap,…it’s still really fucking good. For roughly five dollars you can get a large bowl of Ramen with roasted pork, hard-boiled egg, nori, and a really rich, pork-based broth — that might have milk in it,…I’m not quite sure. Add a couple dollars and you can get an order of pork gyoza. The nice thing is that you don’t have to spend time thinking about the tip since it’s basically computed into the price. You pay for what you order.
Sometimes, lunch is tonkatsu or some sort of katsu: basically, meat that is breaded in panko and fried. The panko crumbs give it a sensation of being lighter, probably because it’s crispier than other kinds of fried foods. Sometimes, you get a small mortar and pestle to grind toasted sesame seeds before you add your tonkatsu sauce. Usually, this comes with a cabbage salad, miso soup, and a bowl of rice, and maybe some pickled vegetables.
There are cheap tempura shops and curry restaurants around the campus area, as well. It could be that I haven’t had the best of the best to be able to have a standard to judge by, but most of the food I’ve gotten at these cheap restaurants has been pretty good. Hell, the onigiri (triangles of rice with things like smoked fish, or umeboshi plum, or salmon roe in the middle, wrapped in crispy nori paper) from the 7-11 is good. It’s about a buck fifty.
Sashimi is always expensive, but as I mentioned in an earlier post it is always fresh. It’s not thawed, so it doesn’t have that grainy-texture that you get from eating, say, frozen maguro tuna. It’s buttery, and it’s best when it’s served at room temp rather than really cold. I haven’t eaten as much sashimi since I’ve been here, but that’s okay because it makes eating it a special occasion. It’d be a shame to be burned out on sashimi. The main difference you notice is the variety: there’s only so many kinds of sashimi you get in, say, a typical American sushi restaurant. Here, I can find something new all the time. I’m not gonna make this sound appetizing, but I’ve had crab brains, different kinds of mackerel, dozens of different kinds of fish eggs, cod, raw fish liver (maybe cod? I want to try monkfish liver: “foie gras of the sea.”),…and on and on. It may sound gross, but that may also be an idea of fish as naturally smelly, or the equivalent of “gamey.” But when you have sashimi (or even any of the organs, for that matter) from something so fresh that it smells almost sweet, then that’s another thing. If your sashimi tastes and smells like sea water, then it’s a good thing. It makes a huge difference.
Most who know me know that I have a sweet tooth. Fortunately, Japan has that covered. There’s really more options for desserts than anywhere I’ve ever seen. There’s both traditional and more modern styles. I have had some of the traditional sweets, but not an incredible amount. Most traditioal Japanese sweets feature red adzuki beans in some form. A common dessert that you can get right off of a griddle is called Taiyaki. It’s basically waffle dough baked into a fish-shaped griddle, with sweet adzuki beans in the center. However, there’s different types of adzuki beans: some are more like smooth pastes, others are more chunky, like chunky peanut butter, where you get a bit of the toothy textures since it hasn’t been rendered completely into a paste. Initially, I was wondering why adzuki beans were so prevalent in Japanese desserts. So many desserts feature them, in some form: in cakes, in ice cream, in popsicles. It’s almost like jam. But then I realized that I don’t question western-style desserts when it comes to cream-based fillings and toppings in french or American or German desserts. Cream-based desserts, or cream toppings, are pretty much the norm for European style desserts. It’s roughly the same with adzuki. So yeah, Taiyaki is really good. A hot, sweet, crusty waffle with Japanese-style jam — that’s a good way to think of it.
Another dessert that is really popular in Japan (though I’m told is not actually Japanese, but Chinese) is a pudding called Annin-Dofu. It’s basically the softest tofu possible and it’s sweetened and has taste similar to rose-water, but faint. Here’s a pic:
Well, a pic of the package, I guess. How about the center:
Okay, these are terrible pictures, I’ll admit. Unfortunately, I haven’t remembered to take photos of my food once I’ve sat down to a meal. I don’t really know how to transfer pictures from a cell phone, so I use an actual digital camera. Maybe it’s because it’s a bit clunky to whip out. It also has a pretty bright flash which could be distracting for others around me who are trying to just eat their food.
What else…I’ve had some interesting cheesecakes. Green tea cheesecake, edamame cheesecake, and umeboshi cheesecake, all of which were fucking good. Chesnuts are in season right now in Japan and so they are showing up in many different desserts. Sometimes, you can find vendors on the street with fresh roasted chesnuts. I’ve had chesnut yogurt, and some sort of meringue cake that had smooth chesnut cream on top. I’ve also had a dessert that was just pure roasted chesnut passed through a sieve and mixed with sugar, formed into balls, then the outside lightly bruleed.
The list really can go on forever. There’s always something new to try. So far, I haven’t found the really weird vending machine foods, but I hear they exist. I watched a documentary that showed some of the things you could get: hot french fries in a can, a hot pancake drink, curry soup. I have seen the vending machines that sell hot Ramen.
There’s a great food culture here in Japan, so that works well for me.
Anyhow, I will have time this week to write a bit more since there are three holidays in a row. I can’t remember what the holidays are; maybe Mothers who are proud of their sons celebration day, or Watch people do sports out on the street celebration day, or Banging on large drums celebration day. There are a lot of holiday day-offs in Japan I’m noticing, one of which I really think is about watching the sporting events taking place around the city. There was a sports day celebration not too long ago that was basically all about runners.