Eating and drinking my way through Japan
I expected to eat a lot of fish during my 2½-week Japanese vacation. Didn’t happen. Although there were ample opportunities, I ate only a few pieces of sushi: hamachi and unagi. It was very good, and the portions were three times the size of what we typically get in Boston.
What I did eat is a lot of fried food: fried chicken in various forms, fried pork in a multitude of dishes, and a lot of tempura — shrimp, fish, and vegetables fried in a light batter. Rice (not fried) is, of course, a staple, and french fries were everywhere.
My daughter, who has been living in Osaka for six months studying Japanese, is addicted to the ramen, and I can see why. Slurping noodles from a large bowl of salty broth with slices of pork, scallions, a halved hard-boiled egg, nori sheets, and a bunch of other toppings is feel-good, fun, comfort food. The broth is cooked in enormous pots, while the noodles bubble away in another. When everything is steaming, it’s ladled into ceramic bowls for lunch or dinner. There are thousands of ramen places and, my daughter said, knowledge of the better places is furiously guarded by their customers. Although the secret seems to have gotten out: The best places all had long lines at mealtime.
Many of the restaurants we ate at have glossy photos of the dishes, so it’s easy to order by pointing, even if you don’t know what you’re pointing at. In one restaurant, my daughter had no clue what we had ordered, but when it came to the table, it was great.
When in Rome — or, in this case, Osaka — you follow the crowd, which, in this case, meant eating street food. So, we got in line for takoyaki, fried balls of chopped or diced octopus with onions, pickled ginger, and an aioli sauce. They were gelatinous inside a crunchy exterior. I thought they were undercooked. I was politely informed that I was wrong.
Another street snack was crab-on-a-stick. It was squishy, like foam rubber, crabby, but not overly so.
One evening, after a full day of sightseeing, we found ourselves in a huge train station, hungry. People were flocking to a counter to eat platter-sized pancakes. My daughter said it was okonomiyaki, and we had to try it. Sitting at the counter, we watched the chef behind a large griddle, armed with two spatulas, first ladle out a batter to make a large, very thin pancake. After it crisped up a nice golden brown, he added a huge amount of cabbage ribbons, a hefty portion of noodles, a couple of bacon slices, and either chicken, squid, or pork. Then he cracked an egg over the top, added some spices and what looked like rice wine before moving the mountain of food to another portion of the griddle while he cooked up a second pancake. Then he made a big sandwich, slathered on some chuno sauce (similar to a sweet Worcestershire), and cut the two stuffed pancakes into nine sections with the spatulas. It looked like a huge amount of food, yet all three of us were members of the clean plate club. We washed it down with several Sapporo beers.
Speaking of beers, there are three brands that dominate: Sapporo, Kirin, and Asahi. But I liked the whiskey. We found a small whiskey bar (eight seats) in Osaka, and I tried a flight of aged (and now discontinued) whiskeys by Yamazaki. They were delicious.
One night, we taxied to meet one of my wife’s former students for dinner. The menu was all skewered meats: chicken, beef, pork, rabbit, liver, and a couple of items you don’t want to know about. The cook was right there, behind a grill. There were no fancy sauces or marinades, but the meats were succulent and toothsome.
After 16 days and 16 nights of adventurous eating, I realized how food can provide insight into all kinds of societal customs. Next year, I hope to go to Peru and maybe try some grilled guinea pig. Sampling indigenous cuisine is as good a reason to travel as any. When we taste food, we taste history and culture.