Categories
Food

Help, I don’t like Japanese food

If you’re not into Japanese food, you may have a problem while you’re there. Watching videos about Japan, I’ve seen and heard comments from travellers who didn’t really like any Japanese food, didn’t know what to order while they were there and would end up eating at McDonalds. McDonalds! I think that’s a shame. There is so much variation in Japanese cuisine. Something for everyone, you would think.

Japanese food variety

When imagining Japanese food, the average Westerner probably thinks of sushi, maybe sashimi. Maybe miso-soup. The staff restaurant of my very Dutch employer has been serving “miso-soup” recently. It doesn’t even begin to approach the real thing, but still. You are probably familiar with ramen, these days. More and more ramen shops are opening all over Europe. But maybe your knowledge of Japanese food ends there.

Japanese cuisine is quite varied, and with some exceptions, not particularly spicy. The flavours may be different from what you are used to, but they’re often subtle and not particularly dominating. Even Chinese restaurants in Japan seem to favour mild flavours compared to what I am used to in my country, The Netherlands. The spicing appears to have been adjusted to suit the mild palates of the Japanese.

The Dutch are potato eaters. You won’t find that tuber in Japan much. Even if you think the potato belongs with a certain dish, steak for example, you’ll find that it is served with rice in Japan. If you are dying for some potatoes, your best bet is to go to one of the better hamburger joints like Shake Shack, they serve pretty good fries with their hamburgers.

Sometimes, Japanese cuisine uses ingredients you wouldn’t put in your mouth, coming from a Western culture. Raw egg, for example, scares a lot of people. In the picture below you’ll see a Japanese breakfast option, tamago kake gohan. The idea is to mix the raw egg with your- lukewarm – rice. The result is a rather mild kind of savoury porridge that you then add flavour to using soy soy or other sauces and spices.

Japanese food Tamago kake gohan. Rice and raw egg.
Japanese food Tamago kake gohan. Rice and raw egg.

A bun full of noodles

I think that even difficult eaters can find something to their liking in Japan. A schnitzel (Tonkatsu) of fried chicken (Karaage), most non-vegetarians should be ok with that, right? And the Japanese version of spaghetti (Naporitan) shouldn’t be too much of a problem: pasta with tomato ketchup, onion, bell peppers, sausage and bacon. Sounds like the child menu, or what? I should thin most people will have eaten chicken satay. Japanese Yakitori isn’t that different. It doesn’t come with peanut sauce and you can choose from the various parts of the chicken. Avoid the scary bits, pick chicken thigh (‘momo’) and you’re good to go.

Another easy to digest meal for Westerners is Gyudon, a bowl of rice with beef, simmered in soy sauce. Or Yakisoba, the Japanese version of fried noodles or bami goreng. In Japanese convenience stores (konbini) you’ll often find Yakisoba Pan, buns filled with noodles. Looks weird, but very easy to eat.

Japanese food - Yakisoba pan - a bun filled with noodles
Japanese food – Yakisoba pan – a bun filled with noodles

Be prepared

If you are preparing for your trip to Japan and you want to know more about what you can eat over there, Dutch readers should take a look at the foodwiki on Thuisbezorgd.nl. You can learn a lot from their Japanese Japanese pages. Read their foodwiki page abour Yakisoba. Or their article about Gyoza, a tasty snack that doesn’t look out of place among Dutch bitterballen or vlammetjes.

English readers should check out Nami-san’s Just One Cookbook for simple recipes, or read up on Japanese food and drink on Japan-guide.com

Don’t worry about ordering in Japanese restaurants. Even if the staff does not speak English, they often have English menus. Or they’ll have picture menus that make it easy to choose what to order.

And now for the top 3 Japanese dishes you are better off not ordering.

  1. Natto
  2. Natto
  3. Natto

If you have any questions about Japanese food, don’t hesitate to ask. And which Japanese dishes do you like or dislike?

Categories
Culture Food

The best ramen in Japan

Since my last trip, the “best ramen in Japan” is the Mukashi bowl at Kurume Taiho. Near the Tenjin station in Fukuoka, I ate the most impressive bowl of soup in my life.

I can’t say I am an connaisseur, not yet. But I really like ramen. It took a while. I’m not that keen on soup, so the first few times I went to Japan, I didn’t even try. What could be so special about a bowl of soup, I thought. That changed when I landed in ramen restaurant in Kyoto by accident. We were tired and hungry and we couldn’t find anything else, or couldn’t make up our minds. I don’t think Kyoto is known for its ramen, but that first experience with a bowl of ‘chasumen’ (with extra slices of pork) was good enough to convert me. Unfortunately the meal didn’t sit well with my travel buddy, unused to eating pork. But it was instant addiction for me. What a heart warming meal that was.

Tonkotsu ramen

My favourite type of ramen is tonkotsu shio. Not shoyu, not miso, just shio. The taste of salt. Preferably with a broth so thick it’s almost liquid pork. Pork is my favourite type of meat anyway. I wrote about tonkatsu, the Japanese schnitzel here before. Contrary to Japanese custom, I am totally willing to leave part of the noodles and just feast on the broth. Japanese people do it the other way around. They’ll leave part of the broth because the fatty, salty soup isn’t that healthy for you. But I just can’t leave it like that.

Through watching a video by vloggers Simon and Martina, I learnt that tonkotsu ramen is originally from the town of Kurume. ( I choose to believe their story, I didn’t verify it.) They filmed their experience at Kurume Ramen Seiyokeno. Kurume is close to Fukuoka, down in the West of Japan. I’ve been to Fukuoka twice, but didn’t have time to go down to Kurume. But I found out there are branches of Kurume based shops in Fukuoka itself. That’s how I ended up at Kurume Taiho, near Tenjin station (Google Maps), and that’s where I ate what I consider to be MY “Best Ramen in Japan”.

Taiho Ramen Tenjin-Imaizumi Shop
Taiho Ramen Tenjin-Imaizumi Shop

Funky soup

My Best Ramen in JapanTM  is an “acquired taste”. Not everybody is going to appreciate it. Kurume Taiho ramen isn’t just a pretty fatty bowl of food, it also happens to be a rather funky soup. I’m sure that’s partly because of their use of literally all the parts of the pig, nose to tail. But later in the day I noticed that drops of the soup that had fallen on my jacket smelled of rotten fish.

Rotten fish

That rotten fish smell was very familiar to me as a Dutch/Indonesian. Maybe you know it too, the “terasi”, fermented shrimp paste, that’s used in very small quantities in Indonesian cuisine. I suspect Kurume Taiho to be using something similar in their ‘tare’. Tare is the seasoning that determines the flavour of the ramen: salty, sweet, sour, spicy and/or umami. The tare can contain anything apart from shoyu or miso. Mirin, dashi, vinegar, sake, garlic, etc. And at Taiho, it’s pretty strongly flavoured. So strong, that maybe it’s a good idea NOT to smell your soup before you eat it.

Rinds in the ramen

Less scary than fermented fish for the average tourist and probably easier to recognise, are the yummy bits of pork rind that Taiho puts in their bowls of Mukashi ramen. I hadn’t seen that before. In the picture below you can see the rinds floating on the right hand side. You also see the menma (fermented bamboo shoots). Some nori, spring onions and a soft boiled egg to top it off.

Tonkotsu ramen at Taiho Ramen Tenjin-Imaizumi Shop
Tonkotsu ramen with pork rind. Taiho Ramen Tenjin-Imaizumi Shop

So now I have a problem. I want to go back to Fukuoka. For the soup. And it’s going to happen: in April 2018 I will travel via South-Korea’s Busan to Fukuoka by ferry. A pit stop at Taiho’s is on the itinerary.

This is the Kurume Taiho website. If you’re not planning to go to Fukuoka, I was at a place in Osaka that was very good: Zundouya near Shinsaibashi. Less ‘funky’, but very tasty. Zundouya has shops all over Japan. I like it more than the better known Ichiran and Ippudo.

Ramen in the Netherlands

These are my top 3 favourite ramen shops in Amsterdam:

  1. Ramen-ya, Oudezijds Voorburgwal, Amsterdam
  2. Fou fow, Elandsgracht en Van Woustraat, Amsterdam
  3. Tokyo Ramen Takeichi, Vijzelstraat en Amstelveenseweg, Amsterdam

What is your favourite ramen?

Not into ramen? Do you like Tonkatsu?

Categories
Activities Destinations Food Video

Catch your own squid at the market in Hakodate

At the morning market in Hakodate (函館朝市, Hakodate asaichi), Hokkaido you can catch your own squid, have it cleaned and turned into sashimi for your breakfast. In the video above you’ll see how that works.

Hakodate is the third largest city in Hokkaido, the most northern prefecture of Japan. It lies at the foot of Mount Hakodata from where you have a wonderful view of the city and its surroundings. You can drive your car all the way to the top, or take a cable car.

Western influences

Architecture in Hakodata sometimes seems very Western, it reminds you of Greenwich in Engeland. Or Philadelphia. You’ll notice it in the Motomachi area and in the harbour. You’ll see a lot of red brick, which you won’t see in the rest of the country. Cruise ships doc at Hakodate daily. The many tourists who spend a day on shore go to the Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse, to shop for all kinds of souvenirs. But what Hakodate is really known for is its market and its fish: tuna, squid, salmon roe, sea urchin and – often gigantic – crab.

Hakodate morning market

At a one minute walk from the station of Hakodate (JR Hakodate, not the bigger Shinkansen station at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto!) you’ll find the morning market which is open from 5am until 2pm. There are some 300 stands with food and a lot of fresh fish in particular. Look for the stand where you can fish for your own breakfast, you can’t miss the large acquarium full of squid.

Catch your own squid

Buy a ticket and you are given a rod and then you can do your thing. Some catch one within seconds, but if you are unlucky, it can take a while. Once you catch your squid, staff will offer a bucket to drop your squid in. She will take it to the table where a professional is filleting your catch. It’s a fascinating and somewhat gruesome process because the squid keeps moving even though its head has been chopped off. The tentacles may wander off by themselves. Within a minute your squid is handed back to you on a plate as slippery, rubbery sashimi. You can sit down at one of the tables to eat it. There are chopsticks, soy sauce and ginger on the tables. Even on your plate, parts of the dead animal keep moving, the  soy sauce triggers convulsions. These are automatic reactions to the salt in the sauce. The cells in the muscles that react to electric impulses are still working despite being disconnected from the brain. It’s a little creepy. What does the super fresh raw squid taste like? Primarily like the sea.

Donburi

Eating a plate of shivering limbs is nice, but the real party starts with the bowls of donburi that you can order from the many restaurants at Donburi Yokocho Ichiba, the food hall part of the market. Donburi is warm rice topped with another ingredient. Can be anyhing. Chicken or beef, tempura, and so on. But this is Hakodate and we’re at the fish market, so we’re talking kaisendon here. Kaisondon is rice with sea food: gorgeous salmon roe, creamy uni (the stuff that comes from sea urchins), plump sweet shrimp and crab meat, rounded off with s shiso leaf and a squeeze of wasabi. Yum.

Donburi - rijst met zeevruchten in Hakodate

Uni is an acquired taste. It can be bitter if its kept too long. No such thing in Hakodate. Straight from the sea in my bowl, it tasted salty, briny and a little sweet.

Lucky Pierrot

So you don’t like fish? Try Lucky Pierrot (ラッキーピエロ), Hakodate’s over the top answer to McDonalds. Their hamburgers are tasty and the restaurants have their own peculiar look.

Categories
Activities Food

Tasting sake in the sake and rice museum in Niigata

Tasting sake in the sake and rice museum inside the Echigo-Yuzawa station in Niigata prefecture is a fun thing to do if you are passing through.

This isn’t a tea ceremony type of thing, but self-service: there are more than 100 sake machines available for you to operate by yourself. For 500 yen you can buy 5 coins and the loan of a sake cup. There are 117 different kinds of sake to taste, 95 of which from Niigata itself. This and the funny way its presented, makes a visit to this sake- and rice museum (which is really just a way to pull in customers to the liquor store…) worth while. Kanpai!

Bathing in sake

I first heard of this sake attraction via Only in Japan, a YouTube channel. Niigata prefecture is known for its sake. The tasting storeroom is part of the station’s Ponshukan, a souvenir shop, restaurant, sake- and rice museum and onsen in one. Onsen? Yes, drinking sake isn’t enough for you, you can bathe in it for an extra 800 yen. The sake is added to natural onsen water (41 degrees Celcius) for you to simmer in.

I’m not that keen on onsen, but I like to have drink. Niigata wasn’t really on my route, but because you can go to Niigata in just over 3 hours, I made a day trip out of it from Tokyo in 2016. Ticked another Shinkansen line off the list: the Jōetsu Shinkansen.

Take note: the sake and rice museum is NOT in Niigata and not even in a suburb of it. Echigo-Yuzawa is 140 kilometers away from Niigata and thus closer to Tokyo.

You can skip Niigata itself, unless you are on your way to Sado Island. I thought I’d take a look at the Sea of Japan (next stop Vladivostok), but after walking from the station for an hour it turned out to be less exciting than I thought. There was no beach, just a sad parking lot full of cars with their engines running and their drivers taking a nap. Back on a bus and train, I headed back to Tokyo with a quick stop in Echigo-Yuzawa, just for the sake tasting.

Ski-resort and souvenir shopping

Ponshukan sake proeven Niigata instructies

Echigo-Yuzawa is dead in Summer, but very busy in Winter when its a popular place to ski, with no less than 20 resorts. That’s why the station has an extraordinarily large souvenir shop. The omiyage (souvenirs) consists of regional food, knives, rice and, of course, sake.

You’ll recognise the sake and rice museum, where by the way you can also taste different types of salt if you’re so inclined, by the large sign that explains what you’re supposed to do. If not, you’ll stumble over the life size plastic drunken salary men posed in front of the museum entrance. The sign says: “I drank too much yesterday so now I have hangover. Please take it easy.”

Tasting sake

Inside the museum you are immediately confronted with the sake machines. Take it easy? But there is so much choice! What to do?

Sake automaten, Ponshukan, Niigata

Thankfully the museum – which isn’t really a museum – has a list of the most popular sake. The local Echigo sake is the most popular. Would you believe it? Anyway. I’m not a sake connaisseur and the five cups I tasted all tasted great. I did notice they all had different flavours.

Sake- en rijstmuseum, Niigata

The route

If you want to have a go at this sake tasting, it takes 90 minutes to get to Echigo-Yuzawa from Tokyo. Take the Joetsu Shinkansen in the direction of Niigata. Your JR Pass is valid on this route. A single journey will cost about 6500 yen.

Website

Categories
Food

Tonkatsu, the Japanese schnitzel

There she goes. Off to the other side of the world. Where you can sample a 1001 exotic dishes. And what turns out to be her favourite? A schnitzel. Because that’s what it is, tonkatsu (ton: “pork”, katsu: “cutlet”). A piece of pork, dipped in a lightly beaten egg, covered with bread crumbs, deep fried.

The dish falls under “yoshuku”, Japanese interpretations of Western cuisine. In this case, the copy can be better than the original.

What makes tonkatsu better than schnitzel

  1. The meat is tastier 
    Good tonkatsu-restaurants give you a choice of various types of meat. For example, there’s “rosu” and “hire”. Hire is lean. I prefer rosu, which is fattier. Fat means more flavour. Other people, particularly Northern Europeans, may prefer hire. Sometimes you’ll get an option of various pig breeds. Like Iberico (originally Spanish), Shimofuri or Kurobuta. That last one comes from cute little Berkshire pigs from Kagoshima.
  2. Japanese breadcrumbs
    Japanese “panko” breadcrumbs are bigger, flake-like more than crumbs. It makes the crust around the meat particularly crunchy. Panko absorbs less of the frying oil, which helps as well.
  3. The presentation
    The meat is often served on a little metal rack for the excess oil and to prevent the meat from getting soggy in its own steam. This way your tonkotsu stays crunchy.

How do you want it?

Tonkatsu is served in various ways. With egg, on top of a bowl of rice, for example. That’s called katsu-don. There’s katsu karee (with curry sauce) and katsu ramen which has the meat on top of a bowl of noodle soup. I prefer my tonkatsu the way it is presented on the picture above, taken at Wako in Shibuya’s Mark City mall. It’s a ‘set mea’, including shredded cabbage and sesame dressing, the unavoidable miso soup, a bowl of rice and some tsukemono (Japanese pickled vegetables). It’s served with special sauce: a rather sweet sauce made from apple, tomato, carrot, onion, vinager and spices. It’s quite tasty, but the meat is often delicious enough all by itself and doesn’t need the sauce.

There even are tonkatsu sandwiches  (“katsu sando”) which you can buy in convenience stores and supermarkets. They look like this.

KatsuSando6515

Mmmm. With a touch of mustard.

Do it yourself? You can. Just follow the tonkatsu recipe at justonecookbook.com. But buy your meat from a good butcher and don’t let them remove the rind. And don’t flatten the meat, that would really make it an ordinary schnitzel!

You can make the sauce with ketchup, soy sauce, garlic, etc. But it’s easier to buy a bottle of Bull-Dog at your local Asian supermarket.

Other people like tonkatsu too:

Itadakimasu!

PS. Even tastier than tonkatsu is Hakata ramen (see my article about the best ramen in Japan).