Adam is this guy who sat next to me at work. He was born in England, but of Polish descent. One time we were having a casual chat about our favourite cuisine in the world and I told him one of my many favourites is Japanese. He laughed and gave me one of those very annoyingly quizzical look. “The Japanese don’t know how to cook. They need to know such thing called ‘fire’. Everything is raw in that country!”
Trust me, if I could feed him the keyboard raw I would.
I am not a Japanese. Had never been to Japan. But strangely, this statement sent me into a very defensive mood.
I tried to think of a clever rebuttal and of course, all I could said was “You don’t know anything about Japan! You are Polish!”
Now I am the delirious, racist Malaysian girl who can’t hold a civilised conversation and has raw fish fetishes.
Heaven forbid, I had never even been to Japan.
Later, what he said stuck in my mind. He had a point. For a nation who places great importance on rice and seafood – one is boiled, another mostly served uncooked – I guess if I had a rice cooker and some fresh fish from the market, I could whip out a wonderful bowl of sashimi donburi just like that?
* * *
It is now two days until I depart from London to Japan. I have collected my £200 seven-day JR Pass from JTB office in Hammersmith.
This trip will be good, it better be.
I am so excited I have written down all the food I’ve been wanting to try. We are going to have so much fun bouncing from plates to plates before washing everything down with flasks and flasks of cold sake.
And the most important thing – I will finally find out whether the Japanese can really cook.
* * *
First Day in Tokyo : Shinjuku
Our first stop was Shinjuku, which has a whopper of railway station that seems to have sprawled out of control in the south-west of central Tokyo. Over 30 platforms and more than 200 exits? Put this anywhere else in the world and it would be an expensive ticket-only Underground Museum. Hashtag, OnlyinJapan
It was 33 degree Celsius that day. It was a hot mess of umbrella-gripping crowd, hysterical sun and big droplets of sweat.
Whatever happened to the Japanese school of calm and Zen.
We found ourselves picking a random exit from the Shinjuku Station, then followed a throng of people to an area across the road. An area seething with noodle shops, sushi bars and curry houses.
It was lunch hour.
Udon was first on the list and so we settled for a shop packed with uniformed students and young professionals. Mostly alone, they sat side by side, swiping the screens of their phones after every spoonful of the oversized noodles.
Oh no, mouthful, I mean every mouthful of noodles.
There was no one spoon in sight at these udon shops in Japan. The Japanese hold the slippery noodles with chopsticks #likeapro and slurp them straight from the bowl. The better the noodles, the louder the slurps.
History had it that Japan kept the chopsticks but abandoned the use of spoon to distinguish themselves from Chinese culture. I say they definitely earned themselves some big points on noodle-slurping skills.
For those who didn’t know, Udon is this thick Japanese buckwheat noodle, usually served cold in the summer (in a bowl of ice) and hot in the winter (in boiling soup). You can have it with any toppings of your choice – pork, beef, seaweed or tempura.
I love the tempuras. They are basically fritters that come with light dipping sauce. I took the one with prawn, and then the one with asparagus, and then the one with sweet potato. They were very addictive and there was no reason to stop.
They all tasted so fresh despite the thin, airy, crispy coat of batter. In fact, the frying only made things better.
We stood in queue with a huge metal tray, ready to place our order with the Japanese chef who only understood “Thank you” in English. But it didn’t matter. There were pictures on the wall with each bowl of udon marked with numbers. He probably knew these number better than the age of his wife and children.
After paying for the noodles, we took the iced water from a corner then moved accordingly to the condiments counter. We sprinkled some scallion and added a pinch of grated daikon into our bowls – every move was a result of mimicking the people before us.
Can’t say it wasn’t an effective application of “When in Rome”.
Q had his udon with clear soup and a deep fried tofu pocket, while I went for curry. I was told that curry is different in Japan, so I had to try. And the verdict? It was slightly sweeter and tasted more like a stew rather than curry.
Q’s on the other hand was delicious. The soup looked almost as clear as water but tasted so wonderfully… umami.
The fifth basic type of taste after Sweet, Savoury, Bitter and Sour. So I discovered.
Thus far, there was no precise description for this category of taste. And what I learnt was that it rounds up the overall flavour of a dish, thereby making a bowl of clear water soup taste like heaven. It’s too complicated to explain, but rest assured it’s unbelievably yummy.
As you can tell, my journey to explore the phenomenal “Taste of Japan” had officially begun.
With love x
Sorry I have been MIA for a while. In the last two weeks, I have changed job, moved home and recovered from stress-induced chocolate-bingeing trauma. But all’s good now and here’s the first of my many articles about the Land of the Rising Sun – starting with a (ramen long) introductory post about “Taste of Japan”! I will try to catch up in the next couple of days. Till then, please control your tempura and be patient with me.
Thank you so mochi!