Sunday, January 27, 2008

Japan 2007 & Germany 2008: Chicken Rice in a Packet

Glico Brand Chicken Rice flavour sachet. ¥100, Daiso 100 Yen shop, Harajuku, Tokyo.

The coolest shop in the world is, without a doubt, the Daiso 100 Yen Shop. Daniel, my brother and fellow Japan-o-phile, you can keep your Bathing Apes, your Evisu Jeans and your Shibuya 109s, the Daiso 100 Yen Shop is the place for me. There are big ones in Nara, Harajuku, Ueno, the Rox building in Asakusa, and pretty much all over Japan. You can buy everything there, for a mere 100 yen! Especially exciting are the range of household and cooking products - flavour sachets, soft drinks, cake boxes, muffin papers, foil trays, tempura drainers, tongs, measuring cups, green plastic grass-shaped liners for your bentohs and more! You can imagine how much I love this store, and the ridiculous amounts I purchased over 3 weeks in Japan. (The cost of shipping everything home far outweighed the cost of the items themselves, but now is not the time to worry about that).

Now, the chicken rice. I didn't send that home, but instead brought it to Germany with me. Despite the name, it doesn't have any discernible 'chicken' in it, just chicken flavour. It's good. The first time we had Japanese chicken rice was at Cafe Do Pearl, a tiny little cafe in Ise. Ise is a small, quiet town, home to Japan's most sacred Shinto site and architectural wonder - the Ise-jingu. It houses the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, and is rebuilt from scratch every 20 years, don't you know.

Cafe Do Pearl's Chicken Rice. We were surprised by the lack of chicken pieces, but impressed with the taste.

Cafe do Pearl's interior. It seems to be a one-woman show, and I assume that the proprietress lives upstairs.

Meanwhile, back at das ranch, we made up that Glico Chicken Rice for dinner last night, having had some leftover cooked rice.

You start by frying an egg in some butter or oil, then stirring in the cooked rice. Once the rice and egg are mixed together, you throw in the powder sachet, and stir some more.
Next is the sauce sachet.

Then stir until all is thoroughly mixed and heated through. It wasn't quite as moist or intensely flavoured as the one at Cafe do Pearl, but still good. It was very quick, and comforting without being stodgy or artery-clogging.

Why isn't packet food in Australia this good?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Japan 2007: The Daimaru Food Hall, Kyoto

Yeast-based Eiffel Tower, Paul Bocuse Bakery, Daimaru Food Hall, Kyoto.

Walking into Daimaru in Kyoto, I was completely unprepared for how freakin' awesome the food hall would be. I miss having Daimaru in Melbourne. When I was a kid, my family would go there every few weekends, walk around the stores, and end up at the cheap Japanese restaurant downstairs, eating super rich okonomiyaki, chicken teriyaki, noodles, and strange Japanese soft drinks. When I was 18, the whole thing closed down and I became deeply cynical. I have spent a considerable amount of time in Melbourne Central after Daimaru closed, but it was never the same. So, when we came across Daimaru in a swanky part of Kyoto, I just had to have a look see.

Follow the arrow down to the food hall. The Daimaru Gochiparakan is a feasting paradise. For those of you who remember Daimaru Melbourne's food floor, it's a bit like that. But at least 5 times bigger. And, let's face it, a zillion times better. Read on.

First, the bakery. Having been separated from proper bread for a couple of weeks at this stage, I was overjoyed to stumble across the Paul Bocuse bakery. (A short while after this, I ate at the Paul Bocuse Brasserie Le Musée in Tokyo. Fabulous!) I'm also a big fan of Brioche bakery, on Commercial Road in Prahran, and knowing that baker Phillip Chiang trained at Paul Bocuse in Japan only added to my sense of anticipation.

Wa-hey! I could not believe the amazing selection of baked goods! There were dozens of varieties of breads (from crusty crusty baguette, to soft white Asian-style loaves), biscuits, scones, pastries, danishes, meron-pan, muffins, pizzas, sandwiches, and more. If it contains flour and has spent more than 5 minutes in an oven, it's here. About an hour and $50 later, we dragged ourselves away from the bakery and had a look around the rest of the shops.

I LOVE Japanese-made pâtisserie! Look how perfect the little cakes are! Mont blancs (chestnut puree and cream, in a swirly mountain shape) seem to be very popular in Japan, as do French-style macarons, and madeleines. There were at least 10 different high-end pâtissiers throughout the food hall, each of which provoke a jaw-dropping reaction (and much Homer-style drooling). Mmm... $80 cake...

Below, we have osechi, special celebratory boxes for New Year's Eve. Just as German people take their Christmas very seriously (and let's not forget the Christmas markets), the Japanese make a huge deal of the New Year's holiday. (Click here to see a gorgeous sweets-based osechi from She Who Eats).

These osechi are from famous hotels and restaurants.

Perhaps the best thing we bought at the food hall was this baguette. Wow.

I told you we were craving proper bread, yes? We were going to eat this baguette with dinner (spaghetti carbonara, cooked at the hostel), but we couldn't help ourselves, and devoured the entire thing before the pasta even cooked.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Japan 2007: Kyoto and Nishiki Food Market

Yasaka shrine in Gion, Kyoto.

Kyoto, for us, was not a massively foodie destination. Rather, it is where my inner tourist was happily unleashed, and we spent hours wandering around various temples, palaces and other buildings. You see, culinary and language matters aside, my main reason for visiting Japan was to see some Japanese architecture up close. In my final semester at uni, last year, I took a subject on Japanese Art and Architecture, which I initially chose just so that I could finish off my degree. However, thanks to an amazing lecturer, it became my favourite subject of the whole course, and I ended up planning my holiday around the different architectural sites that I wanted to see.

I have to say a massive thank-you to Sandra for being the best travel partner possible, and for being so patient with me during our travels. I dragged her far away, on pain-in-the-ass train rides, to tiny little towns, only for me to get super-excited when we finally saw the building in question, and exclaim, 'Oh my god, I can't believe it's Katsura/Ise-jingu/Horyuuji! Check out the cantilever bracket sets! The hip-gable roof! The splice joins! The zenshuyo decorative touches! Can you see it? Can you?!...'

Who would have thought I'd be such an intellectual, eh?

In Kyoto, we mainly lived on convenience-store food, bentohs, bakeries, cheap-and-cheerful Chinese restaurants, and one serious kushi-katsu session.

However, we did enjoy a couple of food-related destinations, the main one being the Nishiki Food Market. Famous in Kyoto for selling a plethora of eye-popping local delicacies, it is similar in structure to the Doguya-Suji Arcade, but selling food rather than cookware.

The street.
Seaweed and fish heads!
Fish, fish, fish, fish.

Gazillions of pickled vegetables. They seem to be covered in a sticky, grainy, light brown substance - possibly white miso? - but I never found out.

Teensy weensy fish, including live ones in the polystyrene boxes at the front. Tiny fish like these seem to end up on kaiseki menus, not unlike the one at Nikko.

Inside the market.

More Kyoto to come!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Germany 2008: Wir werden grillen! or 'Let's BBQ'

Wir werden grillen! means: "We will have a BBQ."

Mmm... meat. I was treated to a proper down home barbecue last weekend by my host family here in Germany. And when I say 'proper', I do mean 'proper'. As a proud Australian, I do attend my fair share of barbecues, but these are generally simple affairs, involving a gas BBQ, a few snags and burgers, Wonder White bread and tomato sauce. And beer. Lots of beer. As you can see from the above photo, Friday night's BBQ was an rather different affair.

Some elements were the same though. The women made the salads, and the men did the grilling. (I can't tell if that's sexism, tradition, neither or both!) My host mother made her famous German Potato Salad. I haven't got the exact recipe written down (yet!), but let me tell you, the secret ingredient is bacon fat!

Pieces of speck rendering in a pan.

With potatoes, onions and other seasonings. It was so damn good. It was like, the flavour of Smith's Cheese and Onion chips (but not artificial at all, obviously), combined with the contrast of softly bland potato against crispy, salty speck. Mmm'hmm. The leftovers were delicious, eaten ravenously by me the next day, straight out of their tupperware from the fridge.

Ok, let me draw your attention away from the wunderbar kartoffelsalat for a moment, and show you the fire! Wood fired barbecues are quite a bit trickier than gas ones, but they do give your meat a fantastic smoky flavour. My host father always uses the trunk of a grapevine, as he says it's the best for barbecuing. I'm not sure if that's readily available in Australia, but I suppose it's worth a go! You have to get the wood alight a fair while before you want to cook, so that it has time to turn from 'logs of wood being licked by flames', into glowing embers. Basically, once the fire looks like the depths of hell, you're right to start.

Here is the meat again! The extended family came round, thus requiring 2 separate barbecues, operating side by side: one for our family, one for Uncle Wilhelm's. My host father's BBQ had spare ribs, bratwurst, chicken wings, cheese sausages and pork steaks. All the non-sausage items had different marinades on them. I was in carnivore's paradise.

This here is Uncle Wilhelm's BBQ. It had pretty much the same things, with slightly different marinades.
Too cold to eat outside, we retreated to the warmth of the partyraum and chowed down.

In addition to the meat on the tray, we have a whole Türkische Brot, briefly grilled on the barbecue after most of the meat was done. Condiments include tomato sauce, mayonnaise, white cabbage salad, steak sauce and mustard.

On this plate we have (clockwise from top left), a tomato mozzarella salad, the kartoffelsalat, an "Australian Noodle Salad", some pork steak and some spare ribs. The recipe for the Australian salad, I was interested to learn, was picked up by a family friend whilst on holiday in Australia. It contained pasta, capsicums, cucumbers, gherkins and dressing.

When I eat barbecue, I can never decide if I prefer the salads or the meats, which inevitably leads me to eating way too much. My favourites were the potato salad, the cheese sausages (happily available in Australia!) and the chicken wings (happily available everywhere!)

As I previously mentioned, I haven't done a proper fire barbecue before, and I am keen to give it a go once I get home; anyone (especially Aussies!) got any tips or pointers?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Japan 2007: Because sometimes, you just really feel like Western food...

Spaghetti Napolitana. Lavazza Cafe, Omote-sando in Tokyo. ¥930 inc. coffee.

Funny how it happened. I spent weeks, if not months, looking forward to my Japan trip - imagining all the wonderful Japanese delicacies I would savour, all the new tastes I'd try, how much better sushi would taste on its home turf! But once I got to Japan, every few days, I'd find myself craving Western food. Pasta, bread, steak, potatoes, whatever. Bad. I suppose the grass is always greener on the other side. I guess I should have ignored those cravings, and kept on shovelling in the wafu ryori... I mean, Western food in Japan is more expensive than Japanese food, and it seems illogical to pay premium prices for food that you could get easily (and cheaply) at home.

At the same time, however, it would be even more illogical to eat something you don't really feel like. And it's important to indulge every now and then.

Here are some highlights of the western foods we ate whilst in Japan. Click on the slideshow to get it started.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Japan 2007: General Osaka-ness

Osakans, (yup Lisa, that's the right word), love their food. And so do I! Here are a few photos and tidbits from Osaka that didn't fit into the other posts. Please to enjoy!

TAKOYAKI! An Osakan meibutsu (speciality) - grilled doughy balls filled with octopus and topped with mayo, takoyaki sauce and bonito fish flakes. Taste better than they sound! Takoyaki and other Osaksan meibutsu can be found easily in the dazzling and trendy Dotombori region, where there are lots of stalls, shops, bars, lights, people...

Giant mechanical crab!

Funky Osaka stall selling takoyaki in coke cups.

We had okonomiyaki for dinner in there. What a job for the lady outside! She had to call out 'welcome! Please come in and eat! It's delicious! Fried Noodles! Cabbage pancakes!' and more. At the top of her voice. All night long...

Travellers to Japan, prepare for the constant cries of 'Irasshaimase' (Welcome!) It never stops.

Okonomiyaki - egg and cabbage pancake, topped with bonito flakes

Dessert at a little cafe near Ebisu bashi. Fruit Anmitsu with red bean paste and green tea syrup. Yummmmy!
Mmm... plastic food to whet the appetite.

Next up, we have the Doguya-suji arcade. This place was, rather embarrassingly, the number one on my 'to-do' list in Osaka. It is a massive arcade, FILLED with cookware stores. Oh! My! God! Think of the cookware section of a large Asian supermarket... times a thousand!!!
Those shops sold everything a Japanese restaurant owner could need or want, and more! Takoyaki fryers, noren curtains for your door, red lanterns with 'fried noodles' printed on the side, knives, utensils, bowls and much, much more. Fantastic! However, I managed to limit myself to about ¥1,000, on a pretty little black jug with serving bowls. (Already shipped home. It will be a few months before they appear on this blog). A few weeks after this, I ended up spending quite a bit more at Kappabashi Kitchen Town in Tokyo, but that will have to wait for another post.

And finally, a couple of photos of the lovely city itself.

Famous view of Ebisubashi. In and around Ebisubashi are some fantastic shopping arcades, chock-a-block full of fab shops. I found that browsing around the shops was a great way to work up an appetite between meals and snacks.

More lights near Ebibsubashi.

I love the Glico brand Running Victory Man! His motto is: 'Oishisa to kenkou!' Deliciousness and health!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Japan 2007: Kushi Katsu

Check that out... that's a piece of beef, deep fried, kushi-katsu style. YUM!

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.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Japan 2007: Eat Ramen, Save Money

Let me tell you something: despite my preconceptions, Japan was not an expensive place to travel. Sure, Japan is famous for extortionate taxi rides, luxurious hotels, and designer stores, but these are not your only options! Train rides are comparable to other big cities, good hostels are popping up all the time, (far cleaner than their European counterparts, believe you me), and the good people of Uniqlo will solve all your basic quality clothing needs. With the favourable exchange rate, I found Japan to be a surprisingly affordable place to travel. Even better, food is cheap cheap cheap. You could easily limit yourself to ¥2,000 a day on food if you're careful (although admittedly, this could spiral upwards if you're not), and almost all those favourites we Australians think of as traditional Japanese fare are cheap, everyday street food. Funnily enough, McDonalds and KFC are more expensive than rice or noodles. No excuses!

Now, do you see the sign in the photo at the top of this post? With the funky green dragon? This is the sign for kinryu ramen (gold dragon noodles), one of the funkiest eating places in funky Dotombori, downtown Osaka. The bottom 4 characters on that sign spell ramen, that Japanese favourite, the ubiquitous Chinese-style noodles which are available everywhere. Ramen are also cheap, at about ¥600 a pop. Those of you travelling to Japan (who don't read Japanese) would do well to try and remember those characters!

Kinryu ramen looked so cool that we couldn't go past it. In the midst of the crazy lights, shops, stalls and restaurants of the Dotombori region (photos to come!) sat this small, dragon-topped noodle bar, with tatami seats and orange laminex tables. And the aroma was pretty amazing. This place is one of those ticket-machine restaurants, where you make your choice and pay at a ticket machine before handing the ticket to a staff member and waiting for a seat.

2 choices: Regular ramen, or chaashuu ramen (ramen with extra roast pork).
Sides of kimchi, garlic and pickles are free and self service.
Tatami seats! Either sit side-saddle or take off your shoes to put your feet up. Shoes and tatami = a big faux pas!
Mmm... noodles. Slurping is expected, so go nuts.

Getting every last drop of glorious, MSG-filled broth...