Tag Archives: Okonomiyaki

Kyoto in the Company of Teenagers

Beneath Kiyomizu Temple there is a corridor where only a single speck of light exists. The rest is bathed in utter darkness, as if a thick black curtain has descended and left you blind to the world. To navigate through this impenetrable night one must keep a hand running along a length of rope, beaded with wooden balls, skimming your fingers as you wade through step by step. This is Tenai-meguri and one’s journey into it is figuratively the journey into the womb of Daizuigu Bosatsu, the mother of Buddha who is said to be able to grant wishes. One might imagine such an experience to be vaguely spiritual. The immersion in utter darkness, the total loss of a sense one relies upon so greatly. This might be so. In the darkness I might have found tranquility, an inner peace or perhaps a touch of revelation…

“Aye! Where you gone? Oh you’re behind me… wait so who’s in front of me… what’s that? Wait is that my foot or your foot? … argh a wall!”

A blood curdling scream.

“Are you ok?”

“Yeah… turned out to be the curtain at the exit.”

You see I had foolishly attempted a Zen like experience in the company of ten Yorkshire teenagers.

Perhaps I should explain. A good friend of mine is a Girl Guide Leader back in gloriously green Yorkshire. Which roughly means that she attempts to control a horde of teenage Yorkshire lasses on a weekly basis. How she manages to do this and retain a semblance of sanity I do not know, as teenagers of any ilk, never mind northern lasses, are a hard bunch to look after. If it isn’t self evident, when I say ‘look after’ I actually mean, ‘protect the general public from.’ It was in this role that my friend had brought her young charges to Japan and invited me to catch up with them for a day of sightseeing.

Now despite what the above may say, I don’t want you to think unkindly of this bunch. I was actually thoroughly impressed with their efforts in Japan. Thinking of how I might have reacted to Japanese culture as a teenager brings a wince to my face, in contrast each of these girls threw themselves into the experience with gusto. Noodles were devoured at pace, okonomiyaki as if consumed through a straw (so I was informed) and the bitter, thick tea of a tea ceremony was drunk with a smile and a respect for the effort and tradition involved in its creation. They even managed to ask some very insightful questions about Japanese culture… once they had got over the initial shock of their guide leader running to hug me upon my arrival.

By the end of the afternoon, after a long day spent under the hot summer sun it was however, rather obvious that the poor girls were beginning to wane. I couldn’t blame them, jetlag, culture shock and endless sightseeing are exhausting individually and they had at one point or another in their journey gone through all of them. So, arriving at a food festival on the banks of the river they looked rather less interested than before. I on the other hand had turned into a demented toddler, bouncing and grinning like an idiot at the thought of an endless variety of Japanese food. One variety in particular had been on my mind all day as I was slowly steam cooked in the unabating humidity; kakigori (I admit to being a simple creature). Quickly I found a source for my fix of strawberry flavour and shaved ice. Smiling, with a cup of delicious kakigori in hand I turned to find myself surrounded. Funny how teenagers get a second wind when dessert is available.

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Slurpy Noodles and Hamburger Sushi

Food in Japan is a curious beast. It is at times a gloriously wonderful thing, beautifully, even artfully constructed from an array of ingredients while remaining remarkably simple. At other times it’s a cup noodle. But at least the Japanese have a clear idea of what Japanese cuisine is. From snack to fine dining there runs a thread that identifies the creation as Japanese through and through.

But that’s a lie, if I’m honest.  Generally it is far easier to identify something as being part of Japanese cuisine than to do the same with British food. It’s there in British food, I just think that it has become much more internationalized as immigration and empire has completely altered the make up of British cuisine. Japan, a considerably more homogenous nation than the UK perhaps has a more singular culinary identity, but it is by no means Japanese to the bone.

Japanese cuisine, like every other nation in the world is open to the effects of globalization. Their attempt at an Italian style pizza can be found in every supermarket and many restaurants. In most cases it doesn’t compare to the original, or in my mind the American variant but they love it nonetheless. I used to work in an Italian restaurant, scrubbing baked on lasagna off of pans, pizza dough from plastic trays and dodging flying frying pans flung haphazardly towards the sink with a trajectory that were I not quick on my feet would have taken them straight through the back of my head. Health and safety, which is to say, my health and safety were not always cared for, but one thing they made sure was right was the pizza oven; four hundred degrees plus, the required temperature for a true Italian pizza. Here in Japan, the oven sits at 220 degrees. It’s a somewhat soggier creation.

I recently discovered from an article by Paul Greenburg, that even tuna of all things is not in the least bit traditional fare in Japan. The fat tooth required to crave and devour such a fatty, muscular variety of fish flesh was acquired with the introduction of beef into the Japanese diet only some fifty or so years ago. So quickly have they cultivated this taste that the Bluefin Tuna is all but buggered, avoiding extinction wise. As such, even something as Japanese as sushi and sashimi is not spared from the whim and caprice of the global market place. Topping that rectangle of rice with a wedge of tuna flesh simply wouldn’t have occurred to the Japanese a hundred years ago, it would have been too heavy a dish. Now in Kappa Sushi they put a hamburger on top along with a healthy dollop of mayonnaise.

Then there is ramen. The slurpy noodle.  An incredibly popular dish in Japan that finds its origins in China. Ramen joints are a late night thing for me. Steaming bowls of noodles, meat, a few bits of veg and half an egg floating in a brothy mix while delicious at the right time (approximately just under one too many beers into a night out) hold slightly less appeal to me come the sober light of day. Though I’ll admit that this is in part a weather thing. In the stifling humidity of the Japanese summer a heavy dish like ramen doesn’t appeal all that much. But come winter, being huddled over the bowl will take on a whole new dimension of culinary pleasure. There is an additional benefit to this too. While at times I feel self conscious in Japan eating something as delicate as sushi while simultaneously trying to shove it in my mouth in one mouthful as the Japanese do, slurping noodles, face barely above the bowl while sat at a counter is about as relaxed and informal as Japan gets. It’s a welcome break.

I’ve had some weird and wonderful eating experiences in Japan. I’ve eaten intestines hot off the electrical griddle at a house warming party in Shizuoka city, Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki (see Hiroshima post for description of the wonderful dish) off of the teppan in a restaurant that was little more than an old ladies living room  and shabu shabu (cooking thinly sliced meat and vegetable in a boiling pan of water then dipping them in sauce) at a friend’s dining room table while sipping sake with her father.

One event that tends to come to mind though is the time I ate dinner at a small izakaya (bar/restaurant) in Shibuya, Tokyo. Having already eaten my friend and I tried to turn down the chef’s initial effort but to no avail. It was delicious, it was beautiful and beyond it being green and containing some tuna I couldn’t tell you what it was. I tried to tell the man I was full when the second dish arrived. I’m glad he didn’t believe me because it was tataki, slightly seared slices of tuna, and it is incredible. My mouth waters at the very thought of it. Finally he asked me whether I like tako (octopus). I nodded. This was a mistake. He reached into a blue plastic bag behind the counter and proceeded to pull out a live baby octopus that immediately wrapped its tentacles around his arm. Frantically I told him not to start cutting and blow torching the poor thing up in front of me. Not that I have a problem with eating meat in any way, I just don’t see why an animal should die when someone isn’t going to eat it. Fortunately, the chef put the poor little blighter back in his blue bag and bucket, slowly pulling the little suckers from his arm.

I had a slice of him later. Not bad. A little chewy if you must know.

Ka-Pu Ka-Pu Ka-Pu Hiroshima!

The locals only want to know one thing when you’re a gaijin (foreigner/outsider) in Hiroshima. They ask the question, lean in a little too closely with a look of deep intrigue on their faces, waiting to nod along with a positive answer. Waiting to affirm, that indeed this lonely gaijin knows the truth of this fair city. So I tell them my answer, and it’s the only one they want to hear, ‘The okonomiyaki is delicious’.

Perhaps you were expecting a different question? One a little more awkward shall we say than, ‘What do you think of okonomiyaki?’ Ok, well, let me explain the joys of this local delight first and I’ll get back to that elephant in the room.

Okonomyaki is a kind of Japanese pancake, which in Hiroshima takes on Jenga like proportions. First the batter is poured onto a hot teppan (an iron plate), then topped with four times as much cabbage as the recipe usually suggests, it’s the Hiroshima way. After this, scallops, pork and any other meat they feel like is flung in and topped with noodles, egg and okonomiyaki sauce. When the cook is happy with their towering creation the whole thing is flipped and squashed flat. Leaving you to eat a densely packed, yet immensely tasty bit of grub straight off the teppan.

Of course there is another question in Hiroshima that is far more difficult to answer. I knew it was coming. I could feel sweat forming on the back of my neck, hairs standing on end and a nervous flutter in my stomach where previously the delights of okonomiyaki had lain undisturbed.  The question was coming. I could feel it and I’d have to give a diplomatic answer. It’s really a very sensitive topic you know. So with what knowledge I had garnered in the course of the evening I did my best to answer.  I took a deep breath and said, ‘The Hiroshima Carp were alright, but the atmosphere was great.’ They sighed at the sad truth and nodded in agreement. They know their baseball team sucks.

Ok, maybe you were expecting something more taboo, perhaps on nuclear weapons? The thing is these really were the questions I was asked first and most frequently. Obviously Hiroshima is always going to be associated with that tragic day in history. However, to focus on that moment alone, which countless historians and witness testimonies have articulated far better than I ever could, would do a great disservice to what the people of Hiroshima have achieved since that fateful day.

The city is a vibrant, welcoming place and like any place with such a harrowing history it is more interested in displaying its achievements than rehashing wounds with anyone of a foreign persuasion who happens to walk by. They live contrapuntally with the scar, they know it’s there and do not seem to see much need in reminding themselves of it beyond the already incredible efforts they have made in constructing a moving and eloquently realised museum and peace park that balances the difficult task of conveying the breadth of the tragedy without editing an uncomfortable history for all nations involved. The facts are presented, the written, pictorial, audio and video testimonies line every inch and the physical traces remain. No one who visits this place could be left in any doubt about what occurred. But if you wish to visit, please do not let the sad history of Hiroshima overshadow the present and future achievements of its people and friends.

And those people are wonderful, if just a touch mad.

On my second night in Hiroshima I found myself just a little cold and sitting in the one year old Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium, the home of the Hiroshima Carp. Their name ought to have told me what to expect really. The Yomiuri Giants, The Chunichi Dragons, The Hanshin Tigers, The Hiroshima… I’m sorry, did you say Carp? Actually, not quite. Thanks to the joys of the Japanese writing system, with loan words being written in katakana the actual word is carpu. Which when sung en masse by the crowd is pretty fantastic. Have a listen, minus (unfortunately) the gloriously mad crowd.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7B1gqR3AKKo&feature=related

I love the chorus and yes… I did sing along.

That, for those of you had a listen is the Hiroshima Fight song from the Seventh Inning. Just before this song the fans all start preparing for the grand finale. Strangely I didn’t notice this build up until it reached the, ‘what the f…’ stage. I had already spotted the opposing team’s, the Hanshin Tigers, fans blowing up some long yellow balloons and thought nothing of it. At least until I suddenly realized I was surrounded by very pink, very long, somewhat phallic pink balloons.  Which were released at the climax of the song. Make of that what you will.

I’ve no idea why I think this, but in my mind there’s something a little defeatist about having a Carp as a mascot. Almost as bad as having a cuddly Terrier as your mascot I soon discovered. Sat in a bar after the game, I was asked if I watched the Premier League. Revealing that there is more than one level of football in England, and that my team, Huddersfield Town, currently reside in the third tier of it seemed to be a large enough surprise in and of itself. Explaining that in addition to this, that our fearsome mascot is a waddling ball of fluff known as Terry the Terrier elicited more than a little giggling and a substantial cry of, ‘Kawaii des ne!/It’s cute isn’t it!!’

Evidently I’m in no position to mock a Carpu.

It’s hard not to feel a connection with this city. It has a bustling and friendly nightlife. Trams that rattle up and down its roads. Tiny okonomiyaki restaurants run by old women, seemingly just to cook for friends and have the occasional natter with the odd gaijin. A devoted yet mildly deluded set of baseball fans (I can certainly relate to fans like that) and complete strangers willing to pull up a stool and chat about the subjects you least expect; Iron Maiden and fine bourbons one evening. You start to feel more welcome than in the big crush of Tokyo, or the beautiful yet tourist centric Kyoto. That is at least until you look up from that first sip of beer at the baseball and think, hold on, that lone white guy sat by himself, with glasses and a beer on the big screen looks awfully familiar…