Tuesday, October 12, 2010

News Friends, Old Friends and Good Times

In Japan, food has brought me many friends. In particular my association with Iron Chef Sakai Hiroyuki's restaurant, La Rochelle has put me together with great people. (This is a good time to remind you that there is a link to La Rochelle Restaurant on my author page at my publisher's website, www.pensmithbooks.com.)

First the staff of the restaurant, they have become not only good friends but great helpers in arranging my situation in Japan and keeping me entertained. These good people have also introduced me to their friends and families and so I've made new friends through the restaurant.

In particular this trip I met a young professional couple one night at a special dinner at La Rochelle. We exchanged emails and have now gotten together twice for meals in other restaurants. Both times to experience different types of Japanese cuisine; once for Chankonabe and then yesterday for Tempura (Tenpura in Japan).

The tempura excursion was a result of seeing a restaurant review for a famous tempura chef, Saotome Tetsuya, in the Japanese times the other day. As I mentioned in previous posts one of the nice things about being in Tokyo is reading the JT Online and if I see something interesting I can follow up on immediately. The restaurant looked interesting so I emailed the link to my new friends. (Link info available on my author page at www.pensmithbooks.com.) They were interested in checking it out and it turns out the restaurant is close to where they live.

They told me which train station the restaurant, Mikawa Zezankyo Tenpura, was closest to and then were kind enough to make a reservation. If you read the article you will discover that there are actually three locations for the Mikawa restaurants. I thought we were going to the original restaurant but I was mistaken. My friends had told me the station nearest to the one at which they made a reservation but I wasn't quick enough to figuring that out so I got to take two extra taxi rides.

I found a taxi immediately outside of the station and gave the driver the address to the (wrong) restaurant. I had written it down and handed it to the driver (a good thing to do in Tokyo). Addresses in Tokyo are very complicated and not similar at all to addresses in North America. The taxi driver had to pull over to the side and key the address into his GPS to figure out where we were going. He got to within a block of the place but couldn't find it, even with a GPS map showing the building on his screen. That's how difficult it is to find a place in Tokyo.

On the paper with the restaurant's address I had also written the phone number (another good thing to do in Tokyo) so the cab driver called the restaurant and told them where we were and someone from the restaurant came and found us. Once again, the people in Japan are willing to do a little extra to help out a foreigner.

When I entered the restaurant there were no other customers. I told them I was to meet two other people and that we had a reservation. They realized that I had the wrong restaurant and called the correct one confirm. They were right and the young lady who came and found me in the cab took me back out to the street and found me another cab. Before we left she gave the driver detailed directions and I arrived at the correct restaurant only fifteen minutes late.

The restaurant was tiny and elegant and my friends were dressed in Kimono which made the experience all the more elegant and authentic. My friend's love of their country's culture is quite evident. They have worn Kimono on each occasion that we have met. I don't know how many Kimono the average Japanese lady owns but my friend told me she owned fifteen. This day she wore one in the colors of fall and it was very beautiful. The night we went for Chankonabe together my girlfriend was extremely impressed by the Kimono and our friends told us about the difficult process of dressing in the garments.

They are involved in other Japanese cultural pursuits but more on that later.

The food was a truly great food experience. I have had tempura before but I don't eat it that often while in Japan. After this experience I will be increasing the frequency.

To begin with the chef, who cooked standing in front of us the whole time, served two amazingly tender and flavorful shrimp in the most delicate tempura batter I've ever had. The shrimp were followed by small fish that we dipped into little piles of sea salt for the first bite then into tempura sauce with ground diakon radish for the second. The fish was tender as well with a mild fish flavor that was brought out nicely by the salt.

I wasn't certain how to eat each course so I watched the young lady of the couple I was with and how she ate the food. By dipping in salt and tasting then dipping in the sauce and ground radish you can check the flavor changes of the same ingredient. After this small fish my new favorite fried item was served, the heads of the shrimp. I've had them before but in Mikawa they are perfection. Crunchy and light in the same light tempura batter but then the stuff inside the head (brains etc.) fill your mouth with intense shrimp flavor and you realize what shrimp really taste like, delicious.

I asked my friend if he cooks the shrimp heads when he cooks at home and he said mochiron (of course). He deep fries them or grills them, so I asked how I would do it on my barbeque grill at home and I now have a new shrimp dish to try when I get back.

Next came a fried young ginger plant bud. It is layered like an onion and has a stronger flavor than most Japanese vegetables but was more of an onion flavor than a ginger flavor. I have seen them in the grocery stores and tonight when I make my stir-fry in the apartment I will add a young ginger plant bud to the mix.

After the bud came a bowl of soup with a gentle shrimp broth and a ground shrimp ball. The ball was tender and supplied a reminder of the great shrimp flavor of the head. Then slices of battered ika (squid) were placed in front of us. Squid is one of my favorite seafood ingredients. Sometimes it can be a little chewy but if the chef knows how to cook it, it's the best thing to be plucked from below the waves. This chef knew what he was doing and has been doing so for many years. Dipped into the sea salt and eaten in just that simple manner is the best way to eat fresh squid. The meat wasn't overly thick but was still rare in the middle. It gave mild resistance to the teeth but can only be described as beyond tender. True squid flavor complemented by salt from the sea it came from made for a squid taste that was pure, simple and one you wanted more of.

Another small white fish,Kisu, was served then a choice of two vegetables (I took a small eggplant which had a nice smooth texture when cooked and a slice of sweet potato, dry at first but then it drew the moisture out of your mouth and became a sweet easy to eat delight), a tempura anago (sea eel, very tender with a full eel taste the way it should be, no doubt from the sea but not too fishy or salty) and finally a rice course selection. I chose a bowl of rice in the same light shrimp broth as the shrimp ball that had been served earlier. It came with a fritter filled with small scallops that were good and sweet and matched well with the plump slightly shrimp flavored rice.

But wait, there's more. A small bowl containing three large beans was set in front of each of us. They were very large black beans and they had been stewed in a sweet broth for a day or two. There was a dusting of powdered sugar that added to the sweetness that wasn't too sweet but just right for the end of a great meal.

After the meal my friends asked me to return with them to their home where they have set up a tea room to perform the traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony (Chanoyu). It is a very distinctive cultural practice that goes back many years in Japan. There is a famous tea ceremony that was hosted by the Taiko of Japan (Great Leader), Toyotomi Hideyoshi, that lasted for three days in Kyoto and he served over a thousand people. I tried to research exact numbers but couldn't find them. You can find a link to more information regarding the Tea Ceremony on my author page at my publisher's website, www.pensmithbooks.com.

I wasn't unable to join them that afternoon due to another appointment but I look forward to experiencing my first Chanoyu with my new friends.

Later that day I met with my longest term friend in Japan who works at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku, Tokyo. He has recommended that his customers visit a small historic town just west of Tokyo named, Kawagoe, and decided he should go visit it himself so he could provide a personal opinion of the place. He knows I'm interested in this type of historical trekking so we took the train ride out to the Saitama area to walk around the town.

It was a festival atmosphere because of the national holiday so the streets were crowded and all the shops were open with plenty of Japanese O-miyage (souvenirs) available. The town is well known for its preserved old buildings and I was amazed at how many there were. Most of them were huge old warehouses that stored material produced by the farmers in the area. The area is know for having delicious unagi (fresh water eel) and sweet potatoes of the same variety as I had eaten in the Tempura restaurant, the Satsumaimo.

At this point food was not of interest so we walked to all the famous sites in the town and took many pictures. Kawagoe identifies itself strongly with the third Tokugawa Shogun, Iemitsu, who was apparently born and raised in the area. I couldn't find anything to confirm that and no source provided an exact day of birth. Iemitsu is famous for a number of events but the one I remember most is that he hosted the Emperor at Nijo Castle (The Shogun's residence while in Kyoto)for three or four days. It was the first time the Emperor had gone to someone else's castle to be hosted rather than being the host. It was a major statement of power for the third Shogun.

After the event, Iemitsu returned to Edo (modern day Tokyo) and no Shogun returned to Nijo castle for about two hundred and fifty years when the balance of power had shifted and the Emperor summoned the fourteenth Shogun, Iomouchi, to Kyoto. It is also where the fifteenth and last Shogun delivered the document returning power to the Emperor, to one of the Emperor's emissaries, marking the beginning of the Meiji Restoration. Nijo Castle is a popular tourist attraction in Kyoto and certainly worth a trip if you are in Japan.

Back in Kawagoe there is a large parade float dedicated to Iemitsu. It is stored in one of the old warehouses of Kawagoe and every year in October when the town has a Matsuri Festival the float is paraded through the streets.

Along with the older buildings, Kawagoe has about thirteen Buddhist temples and five Shinto shrines. We only went to one temple and it was closing for the day so we didn't see much of it. We walked for about three hours and amazingly I built up another appetite so we went looking for an unagi restaurant that we had seen earlier. The smell of the grilled unagi as we walked by when we first arrived was so tempting we knew that at some point we had to try it.

To find the restaurant we returned to the station and then tried to replicate the path we had taken the first time. We made a wrong turn and walked a good distance in the wrong direction then turned back and got on the right path. It turned out the restaurant was quite a long way away from the train station and we had added some distance and time to our walk. When we arrived at the restaurant, it was closed.

This habit of getting lost on the journey to find food is a bit of a theme with my friend and I but as I mentioned, Kawagoe is famous for eel so there were plenty of other restaurants. We had also walked by a restaurant that indicated it had been serving eel in the same location for over two hundred years so we set out to find it.

It was now dark and there were very few people left walking the streets. As we turned one corner to head toward the old restaurant we smelled eel and decided to have dinner at the source of the wonderful aroma. It turned out to be a restaurant that had opened the day before so we went from wanting to eat at the oldest eel restaurant in town to eating at the newest.

The new restaurant was in an old warehouse (kura) that used to store grain. The grain was sold in heavy loads so running from the back of the restaurant out to the side walk was a small rail track on which they ran carts full of grain to the customers in the street. The area of the restaurant we sat in was an open court yard in the past that had at some point been walled in to make additional indoor space.

The unagi was a tasty treat. My friend is not an unagi lover and I have been with him in unagi restaurants before and he did not order unagi. This night, in this restaurant, in a cloud of savory unagi smells he couldn't resist and he ate and lover the unagi.

There are a couple of pictures from my terrific day of food and friends on the right side of the www.Zonajin.blogspot.com blog page.

It's getting close to dinner time the next day and all I've had to eat is a bowl of cereal, an apple and a banana. For dinner I know I won't have the same quality of delicious food nor will I have the great company that I was able to enjoy yesterday. A big thank you to my friends in Japan.

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