Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Best Indian Food In Japan, Dogs and Inokashira Park

The first day I was here in Mitaka my friend from La Rochelle restaurant introduced me to his friend who owns an Indian food restaurant just down the street from my apartment. Since then I have eaten at his place four times and his food is some of the best Indian food I've ever eaten. If you aren't a big fan of Indian food you are missing out on one of the most diversified cuisines in the world. It's not all that yellow curry that you see all over the USA. Go into an Indian restaurant and ask them to introduce you to some of the best foods of India and you'll be in for a treat.

One thing my new friend makes that is the best I've ever eaten, is Nan, the bread that is stuck on the inside of a tandoor oven to cook.

A tandoor oven is a clay oven with charcoal burning in the bottom. The restaurant starts the charcoal early in the morning so that it heats up the entire clay surface for cooking. The most famous dish made in a tandoor is tandoori chicken and it is the dish I use to judge an Indian restaurant's cooking skills.

I had some from my new friend's restaurant one night when I went to the Mitaka Matsuri festival. His wife had a grill and was re-warming tandoori chicken and selling it on the street. It had been cooked inside and he has a nice spice blend that he applies to the chicken although he told me on a later visit that he doesn't put too much heat in his curries because the Japanese palate doesn't tolerate too much hot spice.

The first night I ate inside his restaurant I ordered chicken biryani and nan. He looked at me and said, "You want nan with the biryani?" I said, yes and asked if that was alright and he said, "Sure."

I sat watching the kitchen and then I noticed he was flipping the nan dough back and forth in his hands, elongating it to the traditional triangular shape. Then I noticed the tandoor sitting in the corner so I got up and went to watch through the window. He pulled the lid off the tandoor placing it to the side then took a small towel that he rolled into a, 8 inch ball. He placed the nan over the towels then reached into the tandoor and stuck the nan dough to the clay side of the over. He patted it a number of times to make sure the whole back surface of the nan was stuck.

A few minutes later he reached in with a metal hook and snatched the nan off the clay wall. It was puffed up and nicely toasted. He brought me the biryani and the nan and I realized why you may not want nan with biryani. There's no sauce to dip the nan into since biryani is essentially fried rice.

We talked about the preparation of nan for a few minutes and he showed me all of the burn marks on his forearms from placing the nan in the oven. The opening of the oven is a metal ring and over time a chef is bound to touch it. His other chef in the kitchen has a matching set of burn marks.

The nan was delicious on its own and I did manage to get some flavor from the biryani to go with it. I stacked some rice on the nan then ate it. It was kind of like having a rice sandwich. When it first arrived it was extremely hot. I could barely touch it to tear it apart and when I did make a tear the steam that came from inside was dangerous.

When I order, the owner had asked me how spicy I wanted my curry and I told him I liked it higher than medium but added that I didn't want it English hot.

I explained to him that once when I went out to lunch with an Indian IT consultant in Atlanta to an Indian restaurant, I told him I like hot spicy food and he asked me, "Indian hot or English hot?" The consultant then told me that when the English had colonized Indian and discovered a liking for Indian food they seemed to like it best when it was extremely spicy. Indian people like it spicy but apparently not as spicy as the English.

My new friend, the owner of the restaurant who is actually from Nepal, was happy to be able to add some heat to his sauces and he got it just right for me.

I went back another night when my girlfriend was visiting and this time we ordered some chicken vindaloo and some curried begin (eggplant). The owner invited my girlefriend into the kitchen to watch his chef prepare and place the nan in the tandoor.

When the dishes arrived they had ample sauce and the large nan did its job and made sure that there was no sauce left when we were done. The sauce was so good there was no chance we wouldn't eat it all.

I've been back one more time since then with my friend from La Rochelle and that time we went for lunch. That day I had the lunch portion (the nan was still full size) of curried butter chicken, which he had told me was the favorite curry dish of Japanese people, and curried mutton. Once again, the sauce was fantastic and I ate the whole nan making sure no sauce was left on the plate.

This restaurant also confirmed that the best thing to drink with curry is beer.

The owner told me one night, that he was working late every night in Kabukicho which is in Shinjuku. It turns out at the time he was preparing to open a new restaurant though not an Indian restaurant, it's Okinawan. The building he is going into has a floor that is like a food court only there isn't a center court. All the restaurants are Asian and there was already an Indian restaurant on the floor so he had to come up with an Asian theme that wasn't already represented. He chose Okinawan.

I asked if he knew how to cook Okinawan food and he said he was learning. He said if he put one or two Okinawan dishes on the menu and then added some other Chinese dishes he'd be alright. He opened the other night so we're going to go to Kabukicho one night soon to check it out.

Interesting thing about this food floor, each restaurant has its own space with tables etc. but you are allowed to bring food in from the other restaurants on the floor. The customers are required to but their drinks in the restaurant they eat in but, if you wanted Okinawan food and one of your friends wanted Indian and another wanted Thai food, you could all have your food in the same place. You just go and order the food at the other place, telling them you are eating in the Okinawan restaurant and they deliver the food to you.

Now a word about Kabukicho; as I said, it is in Shinjuku, just east of the station. One night my son and I were out walking in the area with the intent of trying different foods in a number of different restaurants. We didn't actually know that we were in Kabukicho until it got dark and we were constantly harassed by men on the street trying to get us to go to their strip club. Then we noticed a number of nude posters on the walls of buildings and erotic names for some of the clubs we were walking near.

As strangers who didn't know the area we weren't too keen on discovering it without the assistance of a local so we got out of there pretty quick. I will be going back to visit my friend's Okinawan restaurant but I will be going with my friend from La Rochelle who had wanted to take me to some Izakayas in the area anyway. With him as a guide I won't be overly concerned; in fact I'm looking forward to it and I stated to my friend that there were to be no girly shows, just food.

I found another grocery store close to the train station today. It's bigger than the others I mentioned in an earlier post and had a great selection of sauces. I picked up some miso (fermented soya bean paste), a few vegetables, some scallops and another type of clam that I will be cooking up as a one pot dish and finishing by adding fresh udon noodles. I'm getting hungry thinking about it.

Another topic that has become more prevalent these days is dogs. Here in Japan and on the home front. I mentioned in a previous post that we are getting two dogs sometime in the next two weeks. I'm looking forward to having dogs again. They tie you down a little when it comes to traveling but the benefit of having them outweighs that little problem.

In Japan it now seems there are plenty of dogs. Due to the hot weather in Japan for the first six weeks I was here I didn't see too many dogs. I remembered seeing a lot of small dogs during previous trips and now that they are back outdoors here it is very noticeable that there are mostly small dogs in Japan. A lot of Dachshunds, Chihuahuas, Pomeranians and small Poodles.

They do not bark at strangers and seem well adjusted to being among lots of people. The other thing I noticed is that a lot of them are dressed up. Japanese people like to put cloths on their little dogs and not just little jackets or warmers, they have full outfits. The other day I saw a small terrier wearing a pair of overhauls with back legs, a shirt underneath with sleeves and a little red hanky poking out of the back pocket.

Quite often I see women riding their bikes and they have a small dog in their basket. Most times the dog is a dachshund. I don't know if they have to ride more often because of their short legs or because there are so many of them that you're bound to see them in the basket more than other breeds.

I've attached a couple of pictures of two dachshunds I met the other day. You can see them on the right side of the blog page. The puppy in the basket had a really soft whine and wanted attention. When I petted it, it gently grabbed my fingers with its needle sharp puppy teeth. I had difficulty getting a well focused picture because the little mutt was so squirmy. The other one is two years old and I think it is the puppy's mother.

The place where I see the dogs the most is Inokashira park. It is a huge and very natural park that does not have the usual elegant landscaping that you see in most Japanese parks. I believe I've mentioned this in previous posts.

I went to walk in the park last Sunday. I've been to the park a number of times but let me tell you it is quite different on a Sunday. It was wall to wall people (and dogs) everywhere and I walked further into the park than I have in the past. The park is known to be a 'date' park so there were a large number of young couples walking about or sitting on the benches by the pond. At the far end near some open fields there were a number of large family gatherings with picnics set out and lots of kids playing in the small stream or kicking around a soccer ball.

As I walked back and around the pond I heard a number of boat collisions. The pond has boat rentals available and in Japan it seems people like to ride in paddle boats that look like large swans. They have at least a hundred of them at this park and all of them were being used. Add in the regular paddle boats and the row boats and there was the potential for nautical gridlock. I heard the boom of wooden and fiberglass hulls coming together and then the Japanese words of apology, "Sumimasen" and "Gomen Nasai", many times.

On the far side of the pond near the exits to go to Kichijoji station a small crafts fair had been set up. People had various items for sale and when I got into the middle of the fair I was able to solve a mystery. I'd seen a number of small dogs, Boston Terriers, Beagles and Shibas wearing little hats and a number of them were Halloween witch hats. There, in the middle of the craft fair, was a lady selling dog hats and based on what I'd seen and how many people were at her stand I'd say she did alright that day; especially when the Japanese people like to dress up their dogs as much as they do.

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