Reporting

When I was about 15 years old, I wanted to become a journalist. Since I liked writing and listened to music virtually all day, I thought music journalist would be a good match for me. Obviously my life didn’t quite turn out that way, but still, about 25 years later, I had my first journalistic adventure today.

Sponsored by Kyotogram (thank you!) I went to the Kyo-ryori exhibition that is held today and tomorrow at the Miyako Messe. The theme is Kyoto cooking, that is: kaiseki: expensive dishes with nothing but the best and freshest ingredients, styled to absolute perfection. It is the haute cuisine of Japan, and prices for dinner start at 15.000 YEN for the cheapest meals, drinks not included.

Since it is December, many exhibits were centered around O-sechi ryori, the meals you eat on the three holidays of New Year’s. Kaiseki already means exquisite styling of the food, but in O-sechi, the bar is yet raised a bit higher. The main ingredient of both kaiseki and O-sechi is fish and seafood of all kinds, and I think I saw only a single dish with meat.

Besides the food exhibits, there were sellers of food related items like expensive ceramics, kitchen utensils, etc. as well as tea, sake, and beer. There was also a place where you could take part in a (simplified) tea ceremony and a food court where you could order some lunch, standard Japanese fare though. There was also extra entertainment: The portioning of a whole tunafish (I came to late for this one to get decent pictures, but I had seen it once before), an extremely interesting demonstration of the ritual cutting of fish without touching it (something religious I guess, I’ll have to look it up), and a maiko dance performance (can’t go without that in Kyoto).

I did not have time yet to sift through all the pictures I took, but here are two of the most striking ones: a seafood rooster for New Year since next year is the year of the Rooster, and below: a fugu phoenix… Mind you: this is not plastic, this is real fish! How can anybody eat this!

A rooster made of seafood. A phoenix made of fugu sashimi.

The Chocolate

One of the things I still find slightly frustrating in Japan is that they do not share my idea of “sweets”. Whenever I think of “sweets” or “dessert”, it involves chocolate. Or at least ice cream. I guess this is part of my Austrian heritage? Admittedly, it is not nice to eat chocolate in summer when it is so hot that it melts halfway between your fingers and your mouth. But still…

1 bar of Meiji The ChocolateSo, imagine my delight when I found Meiji’s new brand The Chocolate. It is their first bean-to-bar chocolate as far as I know, and it comes in four different varieties, depending on the amount of cocoa. “Velvet Milk” with 49% cocoa is the one I like best. It indeed tastes very smooth and velvety although it is still darker than what I usually prefer. The price is a bit of an obstacle, with 220 YEN for 50 g more than two times as expensive as the red Meiji Hi Milk I usually have. But then again, a girl’s to indulge herself every now and then, no?

Sugar

Most people who get to know me find out pretty quickly that I am very fond of sweets. (And many people who don’t know me deduce that from my weight…) And I find it an extremely nice move when people give me sweets as presents, first because I like to try out new ones, and second because they won’t clutter up my home (for long).

sugar lumps with sugar flowes on topToday I received this little gift from one of my English students. These are nothing but normal lumps of sugar, with a little handmade sugar flower on top. All the flowers are different, and the really cute thing about them is that when you put them into your tea, the sugar cube dissolves more quickly than the flower, which will then rise to the surface and swim on the tea for a while. It almost gives the impression of a lonely lotus on a lake…

I have seen this type of food art before but only as something to be done for tea ceremonies. In general, the Japanese are quite obsessed with food and will often go through great lengths to prepare it; sometimes so much so that you’d really rather not eat the final result. This must be the reason why so many Japanese first take a snapshot of their food before delving into it.

Ichigo Daifuku

I love sweets. However, my idea of sweets is synonymous with “chocolate”, and this is not optimal in Japan, especially in summer when it melts faster than you can eat it. And traditional Japanese sweets and desserts are… well, let’s say many of them are an acquired taste. Somewhere on a level with licorice…

But there is one type of Japanese sweets I absolutely love: Ichigo Daifuku. It’s nothing but a soft mochi rice cake filled with very smooth and heavily sugared anko red bean paste. This mochi is then cut open, and a fresh strawberry is put on top. This is one in all its finger food glory:ichigo daifukuEven though I don’t like anko at all, there is something about those ichigo daifuku that makes them incredibly delicious; the taste of the mochi, the strawberry, and the anko blends together perfectly – probably because of all the sugar. They are often sold at matsuri food stalls during spring when the strawberries are in season. If you come across them anywhere – do give them a try!

Appearances

Check this out: Do you know what that is? a bowl of stone chocolate

No, I am not trying to bring nature into my apartment by covering its beautiful tatami with stones. And I’m not into stone appreciation either…

This is in fact stone chocolate from a nearby shop. I found its appearance so interesting that I just had to try it… The mouth feel is somewhat rough indeed, but once you get through the sugar coating on the outside, the chocolate is rather nice. The stones taste like m&m’s, but they are a bit harder to bite, probably because of the irregular shape. I’ll see if that store has this type of chocolate more often, I think it makes an interesting gift…

Tunafish

In general, I don’t like going out in the weekends, even though here in Japan most shops, museums, and cafes are open. There are simply too many people around for my taste, and even those places that seem totally off the beaten tracks and are quiet during the week are crowded. Well, if you have ever been to an average Japanese home, you can imagine why people are fleeing them…

Anyway, I ran out of food on Sunday and decided to go shopping to the nearby supermarket. I happened to pass by the fish counter, and there was a tunafish on display, a whole Bluefin Tuna from an aquaculture, about 1 m long and weighing some 50 kg. And when I was told that they would start cutting it up and selling it in just a few minutes, I knew I had to stay and watch this.

At 11 am sharp the whole thing started; the fish was brought back behind the counter, and a young girl who seemed to weigh not much more than the fish started carving it up, under the noisy encouragements of her colleagues. First the head was removed, and then two relatively thin slices right behind the head were cut off the fish. A friend of mine called these parts kama, kind of the shoulders of the fish, and she said that these were the best parts of the animal, even though there is not much meat to them. It seemed to me that those three parts were sold whole and on the spot, but I am not sure.

Afterwards, a deep cut was made along the spine of the fish, and the skin was removed from the back in large stripes. The belly was removed next. It yields the fatty parts of chutoro and otoro, the latter being the most oily part of the fish from right under the skin and light pink in appearance. The last part to be cut from the fish was its back, called akami, there the meat is dark red and relatively dry; it is usually sold as maguro.

a pack of otoro tunafishBoth back and belly were further cut down by an assistant and then those pieces were packaged and offered to the onlookers. I bought a small piece of very expensive otoro. This little piece of 77 grams cost me almost 1000 YEN. I ate it as sashimi and yes, it was absolutely worth it!

It surprised me how much time it took to cut up the whole fish – about 45 minutes in total. The girl obviously did not do this the first time, and the knives were obviously big and sharp – and still you could see how hard she was working throughout. Every time she had finished cutting off one piece, she held it over her head like a trophy and thus presented it to the audience, and we were all clapping and cheering, which I found funny somehow. Altogether this was an interesting experience, and I wonder how this would be in the large fish market in Tokyo, at 4 am in the morning…

Nabe

On Christmas Day, which I spent in Nagoya, my friend’s mother prepared nabe, a typical Japanese winter dish. It is a hot pot, where you start out with water and kelp or maybe a thin soup, boil it on the table and add various other ingredients. Similar to cheese fondue, the finished meal is eaten directly from the pot.

Obviously, there are many different types of nabe, but I have chosen a fish-vegetable nabe that I prepared with another friend a while ago for you to try out. You can find it on top of the “washoku” page. Enjoy!

Kagami Biraki

Japanese kagamimochiAs promised a week ago, I actually did eat the kagami mochi yesterday, on the day of kagami biraki, the breaking of the mirror. When I opened the package, the mochi appeared clean with a shiny surface and a consistency a bit like that of a wax candle. It also had a similar taste, so that did not bode well for my cooking experiment.

Friends suggested that I cut off the hard outer shell of the mochi, but since I had left it in the package, it was clean and comparatively soft, so I did not do this. I did cut the two layers apart though, although I have read somewhere that cutting the mochi at all should be avoided for some reasons clouded in superstition. As I have a gas range, I could at least cook the mochi the recommended way – by simply frying it over open fire. In the beginning it was too hard to put a chopstick through, so I just stuck it onto a knife and held it over the flames.

For a while nothing happened, but then I could hear some crackling sound and the outer shell started to crack and crumble. Small pieces could be torn off and they were nice and crisp – and hot – and the inner part of the mochi was soft and sticky. Soon this part dried out and became crispy as well, so it was a little like eating chips.

While the consistency did improve, the taste did not, unfortunately. I had anticipated this and had prepared a nice salad to go with it, so it was fine. In hindsight, I should have probably put some soy sauce onto the mochi pieces before eating them, but obviously only a real Japanese would think of that. No photo of the finished meal this time, since I was busy frying and eating and I have not yet grown a third arm to hold a camera at the same time. Maybe next time…

Feast Day

Today is a special day in Japan. It is called doyou no ushi no hi, which literally means dog-day of the ox-day, or less literally Midsummer Day of the Ox. The name goes back to old times, when each month in the year was named differently, each day and hour (and even cardinal directions) were named after the Chinese zodiac… Anyway, dog-days is a good description, because this time of the year can be quite unbearable. And indeed, today was probably the hottest day so far in this summer, with 35 degrees, 60% humidity and bright sunshine. Of course, in the normal Japanese summer this is not a particularly special thing, but some reason which I could not find out, today is celebrated.

Today, Japanese people traditionally eat an unagi dish – unagi is the name of the Japanese eel – and it is said that eating unagi today is especially good for your body and increases its stamina and overall health. As unagi is my favourite Japanese food, I would not want to miss this occasion to have some. Unfortunately, there is some sort of disease befalling the Japanese eel, which makes it very expensive these days, and a lot of eel is even imported; however I thought that every now and then I was in for a treat…

one serving of unagi donburiAt first I thought I’d simply get some unagi sushi from the supermarket, but I had to go to town anyway, and I timed it so that I could have lunch in a restaurant selling a number of different unagi dishes, mostly unagi donburi (hot eel on top of a bowl of rice flavoured with soy sauce. The restaurant was busy but not overly crowded, and most people had today’s special, which came in a red square box.

I cannot attest to the health benefit of my lunch – yet – but it was certainly very delicious!

Exhibition

As I had to go to town on Saturday, I took the opportunity to go to an art exhibition at the Takashimaya Department Store.Yes, that’s right: at a department store. Takashimaya is one of the largest chains in Japan with stores in every large city. They are selling upscale goods and all of the international luxury brands, but not everything is prohibitively expensive. They also have a range of Japanese goods like kimono, futons, furniture, and of course, souvenirs. In the basement, there is usually a large food court, where all sorts of prepared foods can be bought, starting from onigiri to tempura, raw and fried fish, Japanese sweets and French style cakes, chocolate… On the top floor are restaurants, they are usually very good, but also rather expensive.

And on that top floor in the Takashimaya in Kyoto was the 44th Japanese Traditional Arts Exhibition. The arts ranged from woodcarving, lacquerware, to glassware and pottery. There were also little sculptures, mainly the little dolls the Japanese love so much. Of course, three walls of the grand hall displayed kimono. Although all the pieces were made in the traditional fashion, they were very modern looking.

Diverse Japanese Traditional Applied ArtsWhen I entered, I was a little shocked at the amount of people. That was because somebody – probably the artist himself – gave a lengthy explanation of one of the exhibits. Once I could pass that bottleneck, the rest of the exhibition was not overly crowded.

At the exit of the grand hall was a little separate room where numerous sake cups were on display. Sake cups are interesting, they come in all sorts of sizes, shapes, and materials. I think that at least some of them were made by the artists exhibiting, and one could even buy them. A staff member came up to me and invited me to a sake tasting. At first I did not want to – it was barely noon – but I then asked whether she could explain a little about the sake and when she said she would try, I bought a ticket after all. It is not easy to find an opportunity to taste different types of sake, and this one was quite amazing.

After I had chosen three of the cups on display, I sat down on a little bar to drink. All three sake offered at the tasting were from Kyoto city itself, from Fushimi, where allegedly Kyoto’s best water can be found. Although the taste of sake is not very strong – remember that rice itself has hardly any taste at all – and I found all three of them very mild and pleasant, there was still a quite distinct difference to them. Although the taste was pretty much the same, one of them felt very heavy on my tongue, another very light – for lack of a better word, forgive me, I am not an expert. Interestingly, both of them had the same alcohol percentage, so that cannot have been the reason. I am glad I took the opportunity to do this, it is always nice to try something new.