When I read articles about Japanese food, it greatly irritates me that Western writers seem to insist that Japanese food is fresh, healthy and nutritious. Bollocks! To state the obvious: it's more than raw fish and rice, you know.
Everyday Japanese food is packed with salt, preservatives, and that fabulous additive, aji-no-moto. (Literal translation: the origin of taste; actual translation: MSG). Dashi-broth, the backbone of Japanese cuisine, is full of all 3 of these things, unless made fresh from fish bones and seaweed. (It rarely is). Now, I'm hardly saying that this is a bad thing; I absolutely love Japanese cuisine, and being Asian myself, you know I've got no problem with MSG. No, the only problem I have is with the view that all Japanese food is intrinsically healthy and nutritious, which ignores a great deal of the Japanese food spectrum.
I recall reading in a recent Delicious magazine, to illustrate this idea, Bill Granger writing that Japan is the only place in the world where he could eat out for a week and still lose weight! And whilst I admit I may have lost a kilo or 2 while in Japan this trip, I suspect this has more to do with the incredible number of stairs in the Tokyo metro than with the nature of the food itself.
Which brings me to the point. Bill Granger, and other writers of his ilk, have obviously never tried that great Japanese tradition, kushi-katsu.
Kushi-katsu translates to 'deep-fried food on sticks', or as I like to translate it, 'heaven'! Usually, you sit down at the bar, order whatever you want from the menus on the wall, and watch them fry your dinner. Of course, you can order more sticks and more drinks as the night wears on, depending on your appetite and your ability to ignore your arteries. It seems to be a Kansai speciality, although I'm pretty sure it's available in most Japanese cities. It is a Japanese salaryman tradition to stop off at a kushi-katsu place after work, knock back a few nama-biiru (cold beers) and enjoy the deep-fried goodness. This does mean that kushi-katsu places tend to be full of men, and thus, a bit intimidating for females (especially foreigners) to enter. We usually chose places that had female waitstaff, or a few female customers in and amongst all the beer, suits and smoke.
The characters for kushi-katsu are in the photo below, on the large flag, and on the front lantern. Don't say I don't look after you.
This is the outside of Kushiyasu, a delicious little bar in Kyoto. We were recommended this place by the fabulously friendly receptionist at our great hostel, and we certainly weren't disappointed. The only problem was that I didn't get any photos, apart from a couple of blurry ones furtively snapped from my mobile phone. The place was just felt too hardcore for me to whip the old digicam out. You know, smoke, taciturn owner, all-Japanese clientele, increasingly rowdy salarymen and all that, and I just didn't want to draw extra attention to myself. Having said that, the owner turned out to be quite friendly. He spoke English, and gave us free ice-cream. They have an English menu too, so don't be intimidated. Just walk right in and plonk yourself at the bar.
Of course, I'm not going to leave y'all hanging - I did get some good kushi-katsu photos! The ones below are from a place in Osaka's Shin-sekai. I don't have the address for this one, but I don't quite see the point in giving one - there are dozens of kushi-katsu restaurants throughout downtown Osaka, especially in Shin-sekai and Dotombori, none especially better or worse than the others. Just look for those kushi-katsu characters.
Whilst this place wasn't quite as atmospheric as the grungier, salaryman-filled kushi-katsu bars, it had the advantages of being large and welcoming. They had okonomiyaki, noodles, rice dishes and more. But we came for the kushi-katsu.
Different sauces and condiments...
No bar in this one, just tables. They had traditional low tables at the back, with tatami mats as well. Can you see a small metal container at the front of the photo? This was filled with kushi-katsu dipping sauce. Don't double dip!!! If you want more sauce, then use the spoon or cabbage leaves provided to transfer it hygienically to your plate.
We should have ordered more! Mushroom, eggplant, chicken, beef, cheese, onion...
The sticks usually range in price from ¥100 to ¥350, depending on what you order. Including drinks, an average meal will cost around ¥2,000 per person.
Some french fries to increase the deep-fried quota, and some edamame to balance it all out.
Check out the tomato sauce in a foil mini muffin tin!
Deep fried cheese...
Rice and pickled ginger. Rice, beer, and deep fried food is a winning combination.