Overview of Japan posts:
Japan 1: Welcome to Tokyo! (and a killer okonomiyaki)
Japan 2: Yokohama and Omuraisu
Japan 3: What Makes Japan One Of A Kind
Japan 4: Special Japanese Neighborhoods + Those Famous Food Floors
Japan 5: A Gourmet Japanese Lunch + Roppongi Hills
Japan 6: Kyoto (1st installment, 2nd installment)
Japan 7: Disneyland and DisneySea
Japan 8: Japan 8: Tsukiji Fish Market & Tsukiji neighborhood
Sukiyaki is my favorite way to eat in a social setting. Unlike fondue where everyone’s bread pieces fall into the pot thereby instigating a frenzied “hunt and search” for the errant piece, sukiyaki is definitely a more convivial, pleasurable way of eating. Most sukiyakis that are served in Manila are alarmingly sweet ”“ sugar is best reserved for dessert after all ”“ so I make my own sukiyaki at home where I can temper the sweetness to my and my eating companions’ likings.
Sukiyaki is part of the family of hotpot cuisine, known in Japan as nabemono. A weighty, metal pot with a wide lip is suspended over a hearth, the pan is oiled, aromatics sautéed, meat and vegetables added, and then a flavorful broth is poured in. The mixture bubbles merrily as everyone at the table loosens up and tries their hand at cooking, some aggressive and confident, others careful and tentative. I’ve found that even those who profess an aversion to cooking enjoy themselves at this tableside activity.
In Kyoto, we revel in a Kobe beef sukiyaki. The restaurant itself isn’t a fancy place but it’s renowned for its this dish and the quality of the beef they serve, which is even better than the shabu-shabu we had in Tokyo.
that nugget of fat in the center is what’s used to grease the sukiyaki pot, an announcement of the deliciousness about to come
To prepare the sukiyaki, a large hunk of Kobe beef fat is smeared onto the hot pot. It gives a satisfying sizzle and then slowly melts its glorious essence onto the pots’ surface. I sigh loudly. I’m in total Kobe beef bliss. Strips of the beef are then laid on the pot for a brief cook before being served to each one of us. A pot of broth is then poured into the pot, the liquid drowning out the crackling of the beef fat, and then a heady aroma of beef, mirin, sake, and dashi fills the air. When the liquid has reached a simmer, the vegetables are added one by one. The waitress, having started the cooking for us, leaves to let us finish the cooking by ourselves; for what’s a nabemono without the joy of “audience participation”?
I can say with absolute certainty that this Kobe beef sukiyaki is the best meal I have in Japan. Almost a month later, it still haunts me: the taste of the beef, the sweet saltiness (umami!) of the broth, the slipperiness of the tofu and glass noodles, and most of all, the remaining soup that’s left behind once everything has been cooked; it’s become a broth that’s as rewarding as it is restorative, the last gratifying sips to be enjoyed with abandon, eyes shut tight to enjoy this moment undisturbed and to make it last as long as I possibly can.
Two days in Kyoto puts us on a impossibly short timetable to cram in everything we want to do and see. With my Bin and Boo in tow, our little trio storms Teramachi and Shin-kyogoku covered shopping arcades. We wander for several hours taking in slices of Japanese culture. Here, a few of my favorite scenes:
It’s in Kyoto where my Bin finds the one Japanese food he’s been longing for: tako-yaki (octopus balls; ”˜tako’ is Japanese for octopus.) In Manila, these are known as samurai balls and in my opinion, it’s Kozui who makes the best ones.
Tako-yaki are golf ball-like discs made from flour, diced octopus, shredded cabbage, and whatever else the cook deems worthy. Grilled in front of the customer in spherical hollowed-out molds that remind me of poffertjes , those small Dutch pancakes, these babies are cheap, filling, and some of the best balls I’ve ever put in my mouth. (Gosh, that sentence doesn’t read right.)
Anyway. When cooked, the tako-yaki is squirted with a “secret” sauce (actually, I think it’s ”˜Bulldog’ sauce), Japanese mayo, and katsuobushi flakes (dried bonito). They’re handed over to us and we promptly scald our tongues on the suckers. So impatient is my Bin to sink his teeth into them that he pokes a hole into each one with his chopsticks, allowing some of the steam to escape. When moderately cool, the tako-yaki fill our mouths with warmth, a soft pudding-like texture punctuated with chewy bites of octopus, a crunch of cabbage, and the saltiness (umami again!) of the katsuobushi. Swoon! And that boat-shaped receptacle is pretty cool too. I’m actually half-tempted to take it home with me if only for the memories.
Teppanyaki (teppan= hotplate) is never cheap, regardless of where you are in the world. In Japan, most of these places are found in pricey hotels, its grills manned by chefs uniformed in starched whites. Their agility and skill with a variety of knives makes one think twice about being in such close proximity with them. Here, the experience is as much for show as it is for a quality meal.
This is the chef’s recommendation dinner course we eat at the Westin hotel on our last night in Kyoto. Costing approximately Â¥16,000 (P8,000) per person, it’s an extravaganza that engages all the senses. The dining room gleams stainless steel and soft light. The chef attending to us never once gets his apron stained; he moves with an assured deftness and rarely does he look flustered even as the customers begin to filter in.
There are ten different kinds of sea salt beside me ”“ five from Japan alone, and the other five “from international,” as the waitress tells me. Though I taste each one separately, I can’t tell them apart for the life of me. And I hardly touch the salt during the meal, preferring instead to let the food speak unaided.
First is a “mountain yam soup,” as it’s described to me. Though I like yams and I like soup, the taste of this chilled liquid seems off on this cool night. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste. Following closely on its heels is a dish of raw tuna, its sides lightly seared and served with ponzu (shoyu-dashi-citrus sauce). Much better.
The chef brings out two ingredients: sea bream, regarded as Japan’s finest fish (there are over 100 varieties in the country), as well as prawns, which are still wriggling in protest when they’re presented at table. “Quick Bin, talk to Boo so that she doesn’t notice,” my sister-in-law Risa, says, hoping to distract the little girl from the lives being snuffed out in front of us. But Boo notices immediately and asks her dad, “Why are the shrimp moving?” Children’s powers of observation are highly underestimated.
The fish are cooked skin side down and when their flesh is opaque, the chef uses a metal spatula to remove the meat, leaving the skin still on the grill. These are later crisped up and served to us. I watch the chef lay the prawns on the grill and hold them in place with the edge of his knife. The prawns wriggle once more in unison, their last heroic act before giving their lives for a worthy culinary cause (our dinner). It should bother me, I think, that I’m witnessing such blatant cruelty to animals, but frankly, the entire teppanyaki experience has me transfixed, like watching Iron Chef in Culinary Stadium. In one swift move, the heads and tails of the prawns are removed and crisped up while the meat is quickly peeled and de-veined before being grilled briefly.
In a teppanyaki, the meat of choice is of course, steak. Tonight we’re being served 100 grams of Japanese premium beef sirloin, of which I ask mine (as always) to be cooked medium-rare. Very different from Kobe beef both in texture and thickness, the sirloin is truly tender, its juices flooding my mouth, making salt ”“ from Japan or anywhere else in the world ”“ immaterial. This is perfection.
The cooking of the fried rice signals the end of the meal, though I often wish that rice could be served with the meat. It’s the Filipino in me. In a flurry of knives and movement, the rice is whipped up and a beaten egg thrown in for color and richness. Having been cooked in the fat of the sirloin, the rice echoes with a beefy essence, its small, sticky grains a magnet for all the other flavors it’s been imbued with. A constantly changing flavor river runs through my now-empty mouth. I feel a bit sad that the meal’s end has come.
The finale to this teppanyaki is a lime sherbet with berries. Its coolness soothes the palate; its citrus flavor is intense.