Sunday, June 24, 2012

Tokyo food: a quartet of dishes

On this trip to Tokyo, I took my older son along and took a few days off to poke around the city with a focus on the food. 

Daiwa Sushi, Tsukiji Fish Market
The first morning we took a cab at 4:30 in the morning to the Tsukiji fish market and had a breakfast of sushi at Daiwa Sushi, a bit of a tourist trap.  It is a tiny place, with a bar that holds about 8 people.  Serviced by two hawkish chefs who nevertheless smile a lot, they pounce upon you and deploy to your plate a piece of sushi at the rate of roughly a piece every minute.  Once it is all over, which is about 15 minutes, they stand in silence  in polite, but expectant anticipation of your departure.  Customers are lined up outside and your residence time is supposed to be short.  Everything here is sized like the ramshackle shacks that you see in India, except that the insides are anything but ramshackle.  Knowing little about sushi beyond consuming it at New York restaurants run mostly by Chinese proprietors, we found the fish delicious.  The chefs were no doubt expert—there is a legend that the best sushi chefs are able to swoop up a ball of rice with exactly the same number of grains every single time.  It was all good.  Was it worth $45 for about 15 minutes?  I don’t know.  There is something disingenuous about paying so much money for food, as M says.
Sushi at Daiwa

Ramen Museum at Shin-Yokohama
I never go to Japan without hitting up a few Ramen restaurants and this time was no different.  The first was the Mecca of Ramen—the Ramen Museum in Yokohama (, not exactly Tokyo, but close enough). There are 10 little Ramen shops here specializing in regional varieties and run by some of the most famous Ramen shops in Japan.  We stopped at one stall for Shio Ramen.  A tiny, tiny place where you share a table with strangers, and a small kitchen steaming with the vapors boiling off of thick cauldrons.  This was the best Ramen that both my son and I have ever had.  A delicately complex broth with a parallelism of tastes, mellow as a refined piano, and a viscocity that is neither watery nor lumpy.  Ramen houses zealously guard the recipes for their broth and there is as much mystique here as the number of ingredients in them.
Shio Ramen at the Ramen Museum
Shio Ramen near Ryogoku Station

Monja in Asakusa, and Chanko Nabe, the Sumo wrestler’s hotpot
Based upon a colleague’s recommendation, we visited a small place specializing in Monja, in a little alleyway near the Asakusa train station that an old man walked us to out of the kindness in his heart.   Monja is a traditional Japanese vegetable and batter based pancake.   You sear the mix on a hot surface on the table till it gets a thin crusty burnt surface, then scrape it up with a spatula to eat.  This meal was okay, but did not make me a Monja fan.
Monja in Asakusa

The last of this quartet, Yoshiba restaurant in Ryogoku,  (—was a place near the Sumo Stadium known for Chanko Nabe—a nourishing hotpot loaded with mushrooms, vegetables and seafood that Sumo wrestlers consume after the morning’s practice.  This is a big thermal mass of a broth that simmers slowly on your table, and the more you allow it to simmer, the more the flavors diffuse into the watery broth.  Sumo is the central theme of this restaurant. Diners sit around a central area set up as a Sumo ring.  A stand up comedian with three sidekicks, one an ex-wrestler, cracked jokes in Japanese—he was, I was led to understand, quite good.  A drunk businessman in a suit and an Australian associate sat cross legged on mats at a table with two ladies.  The drunk would have moments of clarity during which he would scoop up mouthfuls of noodles and then, without notice, lapse into a near unconscious state . As his head bowed and his torso slipped balance,  his companion would gently revive him by rubbing a wet towel on his bald head.  Five minutes later the man would snap back, and with googly eyes, go back to slurping his noodles.  This pendellosung continued undamped through the evening and I marveled at the elasticity of the man’s liver.  The Australian chatted with the two women. We gently kept at the Chanko Nabe, while watching this miscellany unfold.  All in all, a unique way to end a couple of day’s trip to Tokyo.
Chanko Naben at Yoshiba

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