Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Too Pretty to Eat?

The cherry blossoms are just coming into bloom, and the whole country is again in thrall to all things delicate and fleeting. And pink. Like sweets! Today, let's celebrate with old school wagashi. Or should I say ancient school? They go way back--fire, weaving, pottery, dessert. This is a culture with priorities I can respect.
The flower, made by hand from white beans, showed up at a stand in my supermarket. The cherry blossom flavor is so light, and the texture is like a delicate version of marron glace. The little turtle is plain bean, but with a sweet, dark, azuki bean center. Okay, he's not really a sakura item, but check him out with his bad little turtle self! My mother would sometimes come home from work with wagashi sweets like this, little sculptures of rabbits or flowers that she would wrap up in tissues and artfully folded envelopes. I used to hold one in my hand and marvel at it, not wanting to ruin it. Really, my inner conflict lasted two, sometimes three minutes. They were otherworldly--soft, sweet, and utterly pure. Looking back, I am most impressed that Mom made it home on the train without the little rabbit devolving into a primordial lump in her purse. Forget Sally Field's Lifetime movies--that is a mother's love.
Mochi on a stick! A classic in perfect colors for hanami (blossom viewing) and Girl's Day.
Smooth white and red bean in little cake-like dumplings. The little blossom pressed on top is a bit salty and perfumey--I know that sounds like coming home from a night out clubbing, but it's not. I promise.

A birthday shout-out to Ultra-Aimee, by the way! She visited Tokyo during the cherry blossom season and went on what I can only call a mochi bender. Way to turn those wheat allergy lemons into rice dumpling lemonade! You know, in the fat-free-obsessed 90's, you could eat all this stuff without guilt, but this recent wave of carbo-panic has added a dimension of naughtiness that I for one am really enjoying.

Both of these are filled with a smooth, red bean paste. The cherry leaf is preserved with salt, and it has a bit of a tang, as well as that fresh-cut-flower-stem fragrance. I know, I know. The salt sounds wrong. But you love a sea salt caramel, right? Once you get over the fear of weird, it is absolutely the taste of spring.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Toy Lunch Trucks

Some people cliff dive, others ice climb.  I used to do my thrill seeking at iffy eateries, like taco trucks and street fairs, both of which often feature food safety violations and nearby pit bulls.  What can I say--it made me feel alive.  The Professor banned me from high risk eating a few years ago when I was pregnant with Son of Z, but sometimes I still get the jones.  Luckily, there is a little tailgate party of trucks that gather over at the Yurakucho International Forum in Tokyo, just across from the enormous Bic Camera electronics store.  On a weekday, working stiffs can grab a fast, cheap, tasty, and shockingly hygienic lunch in the open air.

Balsamic glazed pork, basil chicken, beef stewed in red wine.  All out of this mini VW bus that's a little bit Beach Boys and a little bit Grateful Dead.

Omelets topped with stews and cream sauces--vive la lunch truck!

Jungle Foods has curries and a paint job that is taking me back to the Village in the 80's.

Check out the pop-up top on the falafel truck. Bill O'Reilly almost ruined falafel for me with his ethnically and anatomically confused dirty talk, but he didn't. I won't let him.

Little tumeric-yellow curry-mobile. Happiness on tiny wheels.

Buta-don (ribbons of seasoned pork over rice) with myriad toppings: green onions, kimchee, egg yolk, etc. Somehow buying it out of the back of a truck feels criminal, like you're buying counterfeit handbags or untaxed cigarettes.

Asia Lunch offers the same thrill, but with Southeast Asian curries and fried noodles. Spicy, y'all.

In the end, I went with this one--there was a roasty-herby-goodness aroma, and I followed it.
Barbecued chicken with tomato sauce over rice, mixed vegetables, and potato egg salad.  Hey, white asparagus in there! And yes, that is a paper container and little wooden spoon.  My inner Grandma is telling me to put the spoon in my purse and take it home.

It was downright wholesome in a provincial French way.  And the chicken tastes like chicken.  The chicken in Japan, to say nothing of the deep orange yolks and thick whites of the eggs, tastes more like the chicken I remember as a kid.  I can only attribute this to the fact that in relation to meat, if not  anime and manga, Japan is not as obsessed with giant breasts.  The hormones and assorted craziness that go into US chickens to make them look so buxom and taste like drywall just isn't the thing here, and you can taste the difference.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Shonoya: Ramen for Control Freaks

At Shonoya, you are master of your own bowl. Choose how hard or soft you like your noodles, how much oil you want in your broth. The usual toppings are there, as well as a counter full of condimentia: pureed garlic, ginger, chili paste, chili oil, sesame seeds in a grinder, and white pepper. The broth, which is strong enough to stand up to all the add-ins, is a soy sauce base with dried Bonita that gives it a rich, smoky flavor.

Ramen at lunch is tricky. Sure, everybody's doing it, but how productive are they when they get back to work after a big, hearty bowl? The construction workers presumably have noise, chemical fumes, and high scaffolding to wake them up. But what about the rest of us with non-hazardous jobs? I used to know a guy who perfected a method of sleeping in a bathroom stall at work that involved propping a spare roll of toilet paper up on the dispenser and leaning forward to use it as a pillow. He was not zooming up the corporate ladder.

Rather than resort to such methods, I have finally perfected my midday order: the chibi, or mini bowl, with extra spinach, ginger, a slice of roasted pork, and a seasoned boiled egg with a creamy, salty, jewel-like yolk. All the goodies, but half the noodles (chewy, wavy, substantial) and soup so that when I return to the office I won't just put my head down on the desk and sleep like a happy child.
Shonoya Ramen
2-7-30 Minamiazabu, Minato, Tokyo Prefecture 106-0047, Japan, tel:+81 3-5439-5277

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

No Mercy in this Dojo: A Manifesto

Back in New York, I sometimes went with my mom to little basement Japanese restaurants in Midtown. In these fluorescent-lit dives with cheap linoleum floors and the specials written on taped up strips of paper, homesick Japanese transplants ordered the the kind of everyday comfort foods we always cooked for ourselves when we lived together. There were miso pork chops, crinkly-skinned grilled fish, and plates of curry rice with potato croquettes. It was marvelous. So why were we all underground like some super villain's henchmen on dinner break?

You could blame it on the internment camps and the destruction of Japan towns, the yuppification of sushi or the hippification of tofu. You could blame it on the awkward dubbing on Iron Chef. But somewhere along the way, we got the idea that Japanese food was either an austere and slightly intimidating art to be mastered like a dead language, or a Styrofoam teriyaki bowl at the mall. Restaurants, at least in America, didn't offer much in between. Even talking about Japanese food can be a little uptight and esoteric. Who hasn't suffered through a meal with some aficionado scolding people on how they pick up their sushi? It's like those bad karate guys who picked on Ralph Macchio and messed up Mr. Miyagi's plants. In either of the first two Karate Kid movies. They both involve garden destruction.

If we understand food as the embodiment of a culture, then why would we accept the premise that the people who came up with Mothra and her miniature twin interpreters in matching pillbox hats and minis don't know from fun? Japanese food, like Japanese people, has a variety and a vitality that is seriously underrepresented outside of Japan. In this blog, I will share the things I am eating in here in Tokyo and on the road, high and low and in between, because so much of it is so very good. And yes, Mothra was female. She had a larvae, remember?