And the parade of my memorable meals in Tokyo continues…
Tokyo, Japan: Part 1
The Japanese are fond of nabemono, one-pot dishes that are cooked at the table. Tonight, in the cold of winter, there’s nothing more warming to the heart and stomach than sharing a meal that we’re cooking all together. We’re preparing sukiyaki, one of the more familiar nabemono meals, and a dish that’s very close to my heart because my mom served this often when I was growing up, it’s one which I now cook as well for my little family of three.
At my sister in law, Yappi’s, apartment, we’re preparing the ingredients that have been bought earlier. A large platter overflows with various greens, chubby slices of carrots and onions, squares of firm tofu, enoki mushrooms, and the piÃ¨ce de résistance, thin slices of beef divine in their intricate marbling. The Japanese begin the cooking of sukiyaki with the beef, its inherent fat coats the cooking vessel and spikes our appetite with its irresistible smell and flavor. In goes the broth heady with mirin, soy sauce, sake, and kelp. Sukiyaki is also traditionally eaten with noodles instead of rice. Here, we use two kinds – udon and shirataki; the latter is transparent and made from konnyaku, a sticky Japanese yam loaded with fiber. It’s similar to the Korean glass noodles used in chapchae.
The best part about sukiyaki I think, is the ease in customizing it. Mitsuko, my Japanese friend who’s joining us tonight, shies away from the meat while I’m the exact opposite. All four of us at the table have a bowl of beaten raw egg that we use as a dipping sauce. The eggs are super fresh and I’m glad to be with people who consider it an integral part of sukiyaki. As the evening wears on, the broth becomes thicker, the ingredients that are immersed in it, tastier. The conviviality among us is palpable, the kind of magic that comes from a shared meal cooked together at table.
I ask Mitsuko what the Japanese say to describe a delicious meal. “Oishii!” She smiles widely. “Or ”˜gochisosama deshita,’” a Japanese phrase expressing appreciation for a fine meal.
Grouchy in Ginza
“If we don’t stop to eat soon, I’m going to eat you alive, Bindoy.Â So help me God, I will!” I can actually feel my lips upturn into a snarl. It’s 5pm and I’m hungry as hell. My Bin and I have been traipsing around Ginza since 11:30 this morning with nary a stop for a bite. I’m monstrous when I’m deprived of my feeding time ”“ a pretty sight it’s definitely not. After some Baltazar-style bickering between us, my Bin hustles me to Curryudon-Senkichi, a famous restaurant that serves nothing but piping hot bowls of curry noodles.
When I say “piping hot”, it’s almost an understatement. Cavernous bowls loaded with udon drowning in a deep yellow broth give off heat that’s almost torrid in its intensity. Tongue burns are common here. Kare-udon is deceivingly simple to make: aromatics such as carrots and onions, dashi stock, soy sauce, mirin, sometimes a splash of sake, and the all-important curry powder (kare) or Japanese curry roux that come in sectioned blocks. The best curry udon is a product of the cook’s patience to allow the broth to simmer slowly in order to yield a soup that practically scintillates with its curry heat, its nose-clearing redolence, and a broth thick enough to wrap itself around the udon but thin enough to be slurped with a spoon.
Curry udon can be topped with anything from raw quail eggs to fried bananas. But we keep it simple tonight in order to satiate not-so-simple hungers. My Bin enjoys the fried pork dumplings that get entangled in his order of udon. The oysters (kaki) that are so abundant now in Japan pop up from deep within the depths of my curry soup, their briny flavor sharp against the dominance of the curry, their texture a match to the chewy firmness of the udon. Each spoonful of soup rakes a searing path through my chest, quick pangs of pleasure-pain that subside soothingly in the stomach.
The monster has been fed.
Washoku En is an impressive izakaya (Japanese bar/restaurant/pub) situated on the 42nd floor of the Shiodome City Center. Located at the far southern end of Ginza, this building is just one of the many structures that make up this massive complex. Because we’re so high up and because the building’s exterior is made of reflective blue-green glass, the view from our perch is killer.
My Bin, Yappi, and I along with Boo sit cross-legged on tatami mats at communal tables. The place, uber-stylish with its textured screens, wood bar, and fashionable clientele contradict my notion of what a pub is. The menu is simple and seasonal, the drinks menu is complex and complete, typical of an izakaya.
We’re not served food until we order drinks. I’m enchanted with the ume shu wine that Yappi orders for me. Made from umeboshi plums with one smack dab in the middle, it’s similar in flavor to a rose zinfandel. I like it so much that I order two. “Careful Lor, it’s subtle but you could get hammered with the stuff,” Yappi chuckles. Our meal consists of small dishes served tapas-style. The servers, sharp in their uniforms and equipped with nifty handhelds to take orders, are brusque but efficient. Dirty plates are cleared and new ones take their place before the next dish arrives.
Witness an izakaya meal unfold:
Shrimp balls with a flour coating so light that only its crunch gives it away are our subtle, satisfying starter.
Quickly following is a bowl of edible art, the medium: assorted sashimi cool to the tongue.
Grilled scallops topped with uni (see cover photo) singed sexily by a flame reveal the moxie of a chef who pushes the boundaries of foods’ succulent softness. I can’t help but groan pleasurably at the combination. Wild.
An imaginative dish that invites contemplation is the deep-fried radish crowned with foie gras. Visually dynamic, its flavor however leaves me undecided. The spongy middle of the radish matches its foie gras mate in texture; however the flavors of both neither point up nor benefit each other. Still, a ravishing combination.
My favorite are these (see above) unprepossessing rolls: sardines enclosed in cheese, the lot of which is then wrapped in yuba (soymilk skin) and nori and then kissed by hot oil. It’s as intricate as it sounds, and its flavor, equally so. There’s not a single ingredient that stands out; instead the sum of the disparate parts contribute a series of sensory experiences: salty, crunchy, sweet, gush… The deliciousness leaves me weak.
Following such a masterful creation, the baked, cheese-topped oysters are almost anti-climactic. But yes, they’re as memorable in flavor as they are in appearance. I sigh and swig down my second glass of ume shu wine. Immediately my head lurches forward. I feel like someone’s slapped the back of my head and for some strange reason, I giggle like a nut. Uh oh. My Bin throws me a questioning look but he’s too preoccupied with the kama meshi crab rice to dwell for too long about my “outburst.”
Dessert doesn’t disappoint. The annindofu almond-flavored jelly quivers, reminiscent of the most delicate of panna cottas. It quivers in the mouth, melting into a creamy pleasure-pool laced with tones of cinnamon.
Meantime, the Gyokuro tea cheesecake transports me to another level. Firm but also surprisingly deliquescent, its stark green tea flavor leaves me cold for just a breath before it weakens into a seductive lushness that’s subtly sweet. This time, my drawn-out sigh of pleasure is audible and both my sister in law and my Bin roll their eyes simultaneously. They keep quiet and leave me to my moment.
Shiodome City Center 42nd Floor, 1-5-2 Shinbashi, Minato-ku