Category Archives: Japanese food

The lightest meal ever

Esaki delivered a meal after which I felt like I could go for an intense workout if I wanted. And not because I was feeling guilty about all the calories I just consumed, but because the meal was so light, my body could handle a workout immediately after a multi-course meal.

Whenever I’ve had multi-course French meals, I feel like the chef is slowly bending me into submission with fat, salt and yummy meats. This meal was a study in the opposite direction — how to coax the most amount of flavor out of the ingredients while minimally touching them and keeping the whole thing light. Even though the preparations look simple, it takes true skill to accomplish this feat.

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The menu for the day, next to a single flower that decorated the dining room. We had a private dining space, and the staff kept on slightly opening the door to monitor our progress. It was kind of funny how they tried to be inconspicuous.

IMG_0071First dish: Sauteed asparagus, wilted greens, sazae (a kind of sea snail) in abalone-liver sauce. I’m normally wary of the bitter taste of shellfish liver, but the sauce was balanced by sesame and tasted more savory than bitter.

IMG_0074Sashimi course: Catch of the day (a kind of sea bass). The truly innovative part of this dish was the assortment of string vegetables on the side. Usually sashimi is served with daikon radish cut into thin strips, but Esaki updated that with cucumbers, myoga (a flower that tastes like a red onion) and daikon. It gave the dish an extra punch that was most welcome. As with most of the meal, I became more interested in the vegetables rather than the meats.

IMG_0081Soup: This might be one of the most intriguing soups I’ve ever had. The waitress explained to us that it’s a concentrated version of Ayu (a freshwater fish eaten during summer) where the whole fish goes into the mix. Guts, flesh, head bones and all. This gets triturated into a creamy soup that tasted like concentrated fish. It was borderline salty, but delivered various notes of fish along the way (first salty, then bitter from the guts and finally a touch of sweet). The garnish were fried ayu scales in sesame oil with parsley puree.

IMG_0084Main dish: Steamed sea bass with seasonal vegetables in a fresh green sauce. Again, the fish was well cooked but forgettable for me. What was really interesting were the slow-roasted carrots, the melt-in-your-mouth roasted radishes and crunchy snap peas.

IMG_0085Traditional Japanese meals end with rice and miso soup. The rice was cooked in dashi, and the miso soup was the chef’s own blend of various miso pastes, which tasted borderline salty but quite delicious. 

IMG_0089The dessert was a bit unusual, and more like a “fusion” dish. The outside was a just-baked custard, with a center of sweetened red bean paste. When the dish arrived, I thought that the three lonely pine nuts on top looked out of place, but they totally made the dish, integrating the rest of the ingredients.

IMG_0090Tea service: This was my least favorite part of the meal. Esaki has their own blend of herbal tea, for which they dry and reconstitute 10 plus plants. It includes myoga (red-onion like flower), burdock root, shiso and many other things. It tasted like licorice to me, and not too good (but probably good for your body).

Esaki
3-39-9 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo.
03-3408-5056
http://www.aoyamaesaki.net/

Tuna cravings

“Sushi, fuck yeah” — the ubiquity of sushi hits me in the face as I listen to the theme song of the parody movie “Team America.” The plot goes like this: America has run out of ideas to win the war on terror, and they are in desperate need for help. They enlist the best actor they can find in Hollywood, and tell him to infiltrate terrorist cells by way of his acting skills. The theme song — America, fuck yeah — is a long list of all the Middle East will experience once it is dominated by America. High notes include are “liberty, fuck yeah,” “porn, fuck yeah,” and “Wal-Mart, fuck yeah.” Interestingly enough, only two foods are mentioned: one is mayonnaise, and the other is sushi.

Fifty years ago it would have been unthinkable to think of sushi as a cultural export of the United States to the Middle East. Sushi was the food of the enemy. Japan’s image in the United States after WWII was that of a people who were crazy about their emperor, and were also crazy enough to fly a kamikaze mission or commit harakiri.

Fifty years ago it would have also been unthinkable to predict how our appetite for tuna would change. Tuna was considered, both in Japan and the United States, cat food. Fishermen thought of it as a nuisance and would often throw it back into the sea if they caught one by accident. All of this has changed. Nowadays tuna populations are severely overfished, and thousands of people make a living supplying fresh, sashimi-grade tuna to restaurants across the world (not to mention the canning business).

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Until I came to Japan, I had never seen a whole tuna. My closest contact had been a respectable hunk of meat at a sushi restaurant in Vancouver, or the countless cans I’ve bought over the years, but neither of them begins to reveal what a tuna looks like. It wasn’t until I found myself at 6 am at Tokyo’s Tsukiji market that I first saw fisherman slice the tunas with meter-long knives or with a precision chainsaw. It wasn’t until I was walking in the old district of Asakusa during a festival and found a store that bought a whole tuna and was selling every bit of it, that I came to realize the sheer magnitude of the fish.

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I don’t think of tunas as fish anymore; I think it’s better to think of them as ocean buffalos…wild, indomitable, and massive! And our hunger for them continues to increase.

Unfortunately for tunas, they are caught in a legal limbo of our making. For most of humanity, the oceans have been regulated by the concept of mare liberum. This means that the ocean, and its resources, belong to nobody. However, the moment one of us catches something, it becomes our private property. Of course this is a recipe for ecological disaster because we all know that if we don’t catch something now, somebody else will, and there might be nothing left later.

Over time there have been numerous attempts to reign in our appetite for the oceans, but one of the most important piece of legislation was the introduction of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) in the 1970s. This law gives countries the rights to regulate fishing for 200 miles outside their coast. Even though EEZs cover only 35 percent of the oceans, most seafood lives close to the coast, and 90 percent of all marine resources came to be controlled by governments.

And here comes the catch — there’s a few migratory species that do not respect our imaginary boundaries for the oceans, and, surprise surprise, they tend to be the species that are quite threatened. Tunas, whales and turtles, for example, make a mockery of our system and move freely from one EEZ to the next, and also swim in areas where no state has control over the waters. Regulating the catch for these animals is a logistical nightmare, and there are plenty of opportunities for unscrupulous fishers to catch more than they should.

As I posed for a picture by the tuna’s head, 90 percent of my thoughts were images of sashimi and succulent toro. But a small part of me feels guilty about fueling an industry that so far shows no intention of slowing down their tuna catches.

I’m waiting for the industry to start certifying a sustainable catch so I can freely enjoy my sashimi. Other parts of the seafood industry have already started regulating themselves and bringing external agencies to make sure that they are being responsible (the main initiative is the Marine Stewardship Council, which is a colaboration that started with the WWF and Unilever), I have nothing against eating tuna; in fact, I’ll be the first to pick up my chopsticks, but it would be nice to see an effort to manage the catch before we get to the point of the whaling industry.

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Best of Tokyo

The website where I work–a Tokyo word-of-mouth review site–is up and running. It’s still a beta version, and some features like forums are not available yet, but, with what it’s available, there’s more than enough to guide people around Tokyo. They are having an introductory campaign and you can win an iPod touch or a Nintendo DS. The url is www.sunnypages.jp

As for me, I visited more than 80-90 restaurants in the process. Here’s my own premature list of the best of Tokyo. It’s by no means exhaustive, but here are my recommendations:

Best Italian: Trattoria Pinosalice

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This Italian eatery in Shibuya set the tone for all my other Italian meals. The food was unpretentious, yet so tasty it was unbelievable. I still dream about the bruschetta and the creme brulee. They get extra points for letting you try the wines before buying them by the glass.

Runner Up: Belvedere

Best date restaurant:Belvedere

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Belvedere sits on a 42nd floor and has four tables for two that overlook straight out the window. I can’t imagine a better date spot than this. The food is superb, there’s plenty of good wine in the cellar and the view is awsome.

Runner up: L’Amitie

Best Cafe: Chatei Hatou

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Chatei Hatou seems to be suspended in time. This cafe could have existed in the 1920s, the 60s or now and nothing would have changed. Getting coffee in 70-year-old porcelain cups is already enough of an experience, but the care with which they brew their coffee sets them apart from most other coffeeshops.

Runner Ups: Kasoyo and Zoka

Best beers (and other alcoholic drinks): Cafe Hoegarden

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Cafe Hoegarden blew me away with their selection of beers from around the world and good food to match. The location is a bit out of the way, but it’s well worth the walk.

Runner Up: New York Bar

Best Izakaya: Uogashi Fukuchan

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Uogashi serves portions fit to satisfy a hungry team of basketball players after practice. The menu has no prices, and the portions change in size depending on how many people are in the group. Yet, it’s still affordable and the portions are just massive. Come here to drown in seafood (there’s only seafood).

Runner Up: Shinobu Tei

Best Okonomiyaki: Kiji

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Be prepared to wait in line for approx. 1 hour to get inside this small Okonomiyaki restaurant close to Tokyo station. The waiting time though is definitely worth it to try some of the best okonomiyaki in Japan. I lived in Osaka for a year, and this beats every okonomiyaki I had over there.

Runner up: Yukari

Best Organic: Le garcon de la vigne

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The owner of this tiny French restaurant is a Japanese sommelier who used to work at an organic winery in France. Upon returning to Japan, he set up this place to showcase organic wines together with some excellent French food. They have a working relationship with a few local farms, and the menu changes according to what is on season. Make reservations as the space is quite small.

Runner Up: J’s Kitchen

Best Sushi: Tsukiji Tamasushi

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Admittedly some of the sushi were not the best I have had. But, the ones that were awesome were off the hook. I may have had the best tuna ever at this place, together with the most tender piece of unagi ever.

Runner Up: Tsukiji Honten

Best Yakiniku: Jojoen

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Other than serving some top-notch meat, Jojoen invested in the best grilling equipment I’ve ever seen. These grills are set at the exact temperature to caramelize the meat, but not burn it.

Best Soup: Ginza Fukusuke

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The crab-miso broth will blow you away. The sushi is not bad, but come for the soup.

Runner Up: Tinun

Best cakes: Aigre Douce

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These cakes pack multiple flavours, and are off this planet. The shop is cute, and the only thing lacking is more tables. Definitely try the Cassoulet, which is one of the best cakes on offer (It’s like a creme brulee with bananas and a puff pastry casing).

Runner up: Pierre Herme

Avoid these places: Sol Amigo

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This might be the worst Mexican food I’ve ever had. The place is tacky, the food is bad, and I can only advise you not to come here.

Runner up: Homeworks (the most over-rated burger in Tokyo)

One of my favourite Tokyo spots

I’m a bit obsessive about hitting a new restaurant every time I eat out. If I like it, I’ll often visit a second or third time with friends, but there are few places that I keep going back to after this cycle (coffeeshops are a massive exception!).

There are several alleys in Tokyo, however, with a particular kind of bar/restaurant that I’ve become very fond of–nomiya. They are very small restaurants that can fit somewhere between 6-8 customers at the counter and that’s it (and it feels cramped).

Juan Pablo first introduced me to these bars when he took me to a place called nonbeiyokocho in Shibuya. It’s a small street with about 30 of these bars side by side. The more traditional ones offer a mix of karaoke, yakitori and oden, and they co-exist with a few hipper ones that do French cooking and create sophisticated cocktails.

There’s a similar place in Shinjuku called the Yakitori road where, unsurprisingly, almost all of the restaurants specialize in protein on a stick. Compared to shibuya, the shinjuku alley feels a bit dirtier but is just as much fun. I’ve been back several times already to the same shop we first found with Paul, and never cease to be amazed. One of the great things about these places is the sense of conviviality– everyone is cramped so tightly together that conversations start seamlessly plus the drinking helps liven things up.

The guy manning the Shinjuku joint has been grilling stuff for over eight years, and it shows. His saba (mackarel) is to die for. How he gets it to remain so juicy is beyond me.

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The oden

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Negima (Chicken and spring onion skewers)

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Grilled Sazae (A kind of shellfish)

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Amazing pineapple beer

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The sake menu (no idea when it was last updated)

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The sake comes in generous portions (both the box and the glass come filled to the brim)

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I would give out the addresses, but finding these restaurants is half the fun. If I gave it away, I’d spoil it. All I’ll say is that they are fairly close to the JR Shinjuku and Shibuya station and walking around for a while should reveal them.

I broke the whale taboo

I broke the whale meat taboo. Last week I visited a kaiten-sushi shop and found tucked away in the menu raw whale sushi.

I have to admit that I was a bit nervous when they presented me with the two pieces of raw whale (which probably didn’t add up to more than 0.0001% of the actual thing). Even though I had made a conscious decision a while back to eat whale, if for the pure shock value, my heart still pumped faster and swat beads showed on my forehead as I dug in.

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The evidence–two tiny slivers of whale meat with a mountain of grated ginger on top to mask their smell. The flavour was rather disappointing…didn’t taste like much, and the ginger overpowered the whole thing.

Some academics use the term “charismatic megfauna” to describe how whales and other massive mammals have become emotional catalysts for environmental issues. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is about these creatures that mobilizes such care, but whales, elephants, pandas, polar bears and seals are way better spokeanimals for the environmental movement than tuna, random bugs or moss.

The changes in how we perceive whales is astonishing. Before the 2oth century whales were fair game if you could catch one. They were food in many places, and the US and the UK hunted them massively for their oil rather than food.

During most of the 20th century whales were still considered fair game, and the US even tested their newest bombs on them–something unthinkable nowadays. In Japan whale consumption peaked in the 1960s when whale meat was the biggest source of animal protein in the country’s diet. Older generations still remember how school lunches monotonously featured whale meat.

Whale populations however started to drop due to overfishing and the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was established in 1946 to manage their populations. Along with tuna and other migratory species, whales are a pretty difficult resource to manage. Whereas most fish and shellfish live close to a country’s shore and within their sovereignty, whales move around and make it hard to control their exploitation. The IWC tried unsuccessfully to manage whaling and in a change of tactics imposed a moratorium on all whaling starting in the 1985-86 season. The moratorium is still on.

At around the same time organizations such as Greenpeace started using the images of whales to promote the protection of the oceans. One of they key elements in the changing image of a whale is that we started speaking of their mammalian instincts–they nurture their offspring, sing and are a social bunch. In other words, we anthromorphized them, which means that we endowed them with human qualities, and generally speaking we don’t eat animals that have been anthromorphized (dogs are loyal, dolphins are playful, monkeys look like us, etc.) In contrast, the traditional Japanese view is that they are just big fish.

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The whale I probably ate — a Mink whale. (Image Source: WWF)

Japan gets what I think an unfair amount of attention for their whaling practices. When the moratorium was established, Norway immediately objected and continues to run a commercial whaling operation to this day. Iceland has been in and out of the IWC and recently announced they would resume commercial whaling. Japan is still part of the organization and catches whales as part of a scientific program that requires that the by-product meat is channeled into the market. First Nation groups in the US and Canada are also allowed to whale under a cultural argument.

Now, onto the question for why I decided to eat whale. The way I see it, whales are just another mammal that we can eat. If I’m ok eating a cow, then, by extension, I must be ok eating another mammal. I would never advocate eating endangered species, but some species of whale are rather abundant. The estimates for mink whales run in the millions so a small sustainable operation should be viable. The IWC has become a political charade where countries attack each other on their eating habits. So long as the operation is sustainable, I’m not opposed to eating any kind of animal. Doesn’t mean I will try them all myself, but I do support the right of people to eat their protein of choice.