Sunday, December 21, 2014

Food Tour: Kyoto, Japan

While in Japan, we purposely did not bother with a guide.  I figured our senses is our best guide.  The absence of someone initiated into Japanese cuisine allowed us to have a puritan experience.  We shaped our own impressions and experiences.  It is a little bit like grappling in the dark, but hey, monumental things come out of the blindest of tastings.  

Food isn't supposed to be a cerebral affair, and Japan brought us back to experiencing food that we do not know.  In Japan, food is visceral and perceptible.  But not incongruous to the Japanese people, its flavors are subtle and genteel,  polite and afraid to offend.  There is a plethora of colors, textures, and tastes beyond sushi and ramen.  In Kyoto, we tasted a lot of gently pickled vegetables, a lot of radishes, and a lot of gently pickled radishes.  Tea is evidently a religion, but so is sake, which, when served on a cold, soggy day, is unbeatable.  Fish is ubiquitous, but quality Japanese beef such as kobe and wagyu are priceless. The minute you pop one in your mouth and it will become obvious why.  And like chocolate is to the Swiss, Japanese sweets have centuries of tradition packed in that little colorful triangle dumpling.

Singapore claims to be the food capital of Asia.  I stand to debate that assertion.  After spending equal amounts of time in both countries, I dare say that Japan gets this one.

Nishiki Food Market
If there is one place to find everything that encapsulates Kyoto cuisine, Nishiki Market is it. Think Crash Course for Authentic Japanese Food.  Here you will find a gastronomical gamut of street food, fresh fish, dried fish, sashimi, seasonal fruits and vegetables, sweets, as well as some dry Japanese goods.  
The market is on five covered blocks which is perfect for days when the rain won't let up.  The place is charged with the electricity only found in places where massive amounts of food is available matched up with an equal massive amount of people in search of them.  In Italy and Paris, markets are also busy, but in Kyoto, vendors would be elated to have you try their food.  
And while you would be lucky to find English translations of hardly anything, you get to try everything out of sheer curiosity without your brain stopping you.  It could be a pile of deep fried octopus brain, and it could actually be a mind blowing sensation, which you wouldn't actually have tried if there was an English sign saying so. Now isn't that a wonderful thing?  
Sashimi (Fresh Raw Fish), Seafood
Enough Said.
At the one end of Nishiki Market, we watched an old, congenial Japanese fella shuck oysters. In his best (attempt at) English, he was making conversation all the while shucking oysters with a big deadly knife.  They have a small dining area and we knew we HAD to eat here.  It was lunch time after all!
We found seats at the cramped bar and it was a ridiculously insane meal with the freshest catch and not much else.  And those oysters!  They were enormous and had a sweet, salty but clean taste.
Kaiseki is an intimate traditional multi-course Japanese dinner showcasing seasonal food deftly prepared by a chef.  We went to Aunbo in the Gion district of Kyoto.  We went in cold, without a reservation and was greeted by the chef himself.  We were directed to enter an open, austere space with tatami floors after we have removed our shoes.  

They sat us at the bar where we sat on the floor facing a beautiful Japanese garden while the chef and a sous chef got busy with preparing our five course dinner.  It was a quiet weeknight when we came and there was no music playing.  The walls were bare.   I realized that this was all orchestrated in such a way that all our attention is focused solely on the carefully selected and prepared food.  Considering that it was a cold evening and we were walking around practically all day, the chef poured us some warm sake to go with our dinner.  

Five courses seem like a lot, but the servings are on the small side.  All courses are artfully prepared and carefully arranged on a plate.  The first course was an array of pickled vegetables and some roe (which was divine).  The second course was fresh fish, sashimi style.  Third course consisted of soup and fourth of steamed rice with little fried fish in it. The finale was tapioca pudding in coconut milk and red beans (which I had two servings of!).  
I'm not understanding yet the rhyme or reason to the order the food was served because it doesn't follow any Western standards.  But it felt good and right.   
 Japanese Beef (i.e. Wagyu, Kobe, etc.)
If you've had Kobe or Wagyu beef in your life, you will agree that the its flavor is one you are not bound to forget.  Japanese beef is topnotch and as such is very expensive.  It is often served in very thin slices, which is all you really need to appreciate its intense beef flavors.  
Full disclosure: We had this wagyu aged beef shabu shabu style in Osaka, not Kyoto.  We ran out of time in Kyoto, but there is a cornucopia of places that serve Japanese beef in Kyoto.  
Japanese beef is found in teppanyaki places where a chef sears the beef right in front of you.  You can also have it shabu shabu style where you cook beef and vegetables yourself in a hotpot.  You can also have it sukiyaki style where you sear the beef in a cast iron grill pan in front of you.  But why not try a steam bun with kobe beef filling?  For a steam bun, it is not cheap as it runs about 3.50 USD a pop.  But if you hate to splurge 50 USD on dinner, this is an easy way to satisfy your curiosity about Japanese beef.  We found these buns at the Nishiki Market and in the streets of Gion.   
Japanese Sweets a.k.a. Nama-yatsuhashi 
These can be found all over Kyoto and if you want to know a dirty little secret, I can't resist the urge to pop in them and have my fill at the free tastings.  Don't judge!
The Japanese are crazy about them, too!  In the Gion district of Kyoto, they serve tea as well so on a cold day like the day we were milling about, it's a madhouse!  My favorite shop is on the main pedestrian artery leading up to the Fushimi Inari.  They've been making these treats for 325 years and boy, have they gotten good at it!  
Ramen, Udon (of course) 
For what would be a trip to Japan without a piping bowl of ramen in thick, oily broth?  I'm a soup fanatic and I have a steadfast belief that sometimes, happiness and comfort can all be found but in a bowl.  This trip though was brief enough for all but two steaming bowls.
Unlike the gourmet status ramen has attained all over the world, in Japan, it is still a simple, humble affair, accessible to everyone.  This neighborhood ramen shop was all we could find open in our quiet neighborhood at Higashiyama in Kyoto at 10:30 PM.  It was a little divey and it looked like a no frills father-and-son operation.  Japanese TV was blaring with some incomprehensible program I can't follow if I tried.  There was a narrow bar fronting the kitchen where there were three enormous cauldrons under a steady fire. 
The Basement of Daimaru Department Store
If, for any reason, you don't make it to Nishiki Market (although that would be a fatal mistake), there's always the basement of Daimaru. Daimaru is a Japanese department store that is worth a visit if only for some duty-free shopping, particularly for Japanese brand cosmetics (think Shiseido and Shu Uemura).  Head down to the basement to witness food stalls serving bento boxes, tempura of all kinds, sweets, Japanese style deli, dried seafood, and all else unique and local.  The Japanese has also an indiscreet obsession with things French so it won't be uncommon to see French patisseries with long queues.  

Japanese cuisine is intriguing.  Contrary to Western interpretation of Japanese food, it is delicate and subtle.  I think what makes Japanese cuisine stand out is its honesty and integrity.  They are masters in making a dish outstanding without a slew of ingredients, spices and accoutrement that only successfully mask what is already, on its own, excellent.  Making seasonal ingredients and fresh fish taste exactly how it tastes naturally is art in its own right and that's why I have come to respect Japanese food.  In many ways, food purveyors are still artisans operating on a small scale offering on a plate all the years of homogeneous (for the most part) culture and tradition that no other country in Asia could match.      

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