Well, my trip to Japan – the one I’ve been dreaming of for years – is over. My body’s back, but my head and certainly a piece of my heart are still on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. It was a deeply inspiring, creatively enriching and endlessly delicious trip. As always, after I come back from such a stimulating trip, writing (and blogging) about it helps me memorize everything that I saw and assimilate all that I learned.
Of course, some of my strongest memories are linked to food. I knew I would love food in Japan, but it turns out that love isn’t strong enough a word; I’d say I fell head over heels for it. Everything we ate over the course of our three-week trip was delicious, from the simplest snack to the most elaborate kaiseki (multi-course) meal. Before setting off on the trip, I had a lot to learn about Japanese cuisine, and I saw my trip as a crash course on the subject; I was convinced I would come back with tons of new recipes I would want to try at home. Let me tell you—I wasn’t disappointed! Here are five of my most surprising (and inspiring) observations on Japanese cuisine.
1. Eating in Japan can be inexpensive.
One thing you constantly hear while planning a trip to Japan is how expensive everything is. In fact, many people will favor other Asian countries over Japan for budgetary reasons. While I can’t assert that it’s a cheap destination, the bill’s certainly not swelling because of the food. In a country that counts as many three-starred restaurants as France does, it’s surprisingly easy to eat well for relatively little.
Ramen soups, hearty and bursting with flavor, represent one of the best deals: a shop that makes superior quality ramen (homemade broth and noodles, local ingredients) sells its soups for ¥950 (about $12) and it’s nearly impossible to get bored with them since they’re made differently throughout the country.
4 different ramen soups, clockwise from left: Okinawa soba on Ishigaki Island; Charshu miso ramen at Santoka, Kyoto; Shio (salt) ramen at Tenkuu, Tokyo; Shōyu (soy sauce) ramen in Kyoto.
Bento boxes are the most satisfying convenience food: they can be bought from almost anywhere (including from little stalls on train platforms), are beautiful and appetizing, are composed of fresh and seasonal ingredients, and are infinitely diverse (you’ll always find one that corresponds exactly with what you feel like eating on any given day). They are also easy to order as a “dummy” is displayed for each bento choice (complete with very realistic fake plastic food), so you can just point at the one you want and smile. Most choices cost between ¥700 and ¥1,200 ($9 to $15).
My very first bento, on the Osaka-Kyoto train, featuring seasonal salmon eggs and chestnuts. Notice the fall-inspired box design as well as the maple leaf-shaped carrot in the top right compartment.
A fall-inspired bento display at the Tokyu Hands department store in Tokyo. All the food in the following picture is made of plastic.
And there were countless other tasty choices. Throughout our trip, we feasted on tempura (always perfectly crunchy and made to order), okonomiyaki (a cross between an omelet and a savory pancake, garnished with pork belly, octopus, shrimp, cabbage and sometimes even cheese), takoyaki (piping hot crisp balls with a gooey octopus center), yakitori (meat skewers), gyoza (dumplings, fried or boiled), soba noodles (most often served cold with a flavorful dipping sauce) and tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets). Most meals cost from ¥800 to ¥2,000 per person ($10-$25, including beverages, excluding alcohol). In the end, we agreed that our whole food budget in Japan was considerably less than what we have spent in most European countries, to eat equally well (if not better) than in Europe.
Boiled and pan-fried gyoza in Tokyo.
Okonomiyaki in Okinawa, served glazed with a special sauce and topped with Japanese mayo and bonito flakes.
A take-out variety of okonomiyaki, at Kyoto’s monthly Tenjin-san market.
A takoyaki stand in Osaka.
What takoyaki looks like, once served. It’s topped with sauce, mayo and bonito flakes.
2. Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables is difficult in Japan.
Because Japan is a mountainous country, it lacks the large fertile plains needed for a diverse agriculture. We ate surprisingly few vegetables (and even fewer fruits), and I noticed that almost all vegetables offered in markets were white or green: a clue to the limited offering. It is possible to buy colorful imported product, such as bell peppers or apples, but they are sold at exorbitant prices, like ¥300 (4$) for one apple or ¥200 ($2.50) for one small red onion. A Korean couple who used to be vegetarians confirmed that they had to start eating meat again when they moved to Tokyo because it got too expensive to keep up with their diet in the Japanese capital.
Precious fruits, sold individually at very high prices.
Shades of white and green in the produce section.
3. Japanese chefs are obsessed with seasonality.
While seasonality has recently become a hot topic on this side of the ocean, it seems like it’s in the Japanese DNA to cook that way. Just as they celebrate the beauty of what each season has to offer (such as sakura flowers in the spring and colorful foliage in the fall), they favor seasonal choices in the kitchen. A few examples:
- When we visited, in October, it was chestnut season and dozens of different products featuring the nut were offered in markets and it was heavily featured in restaurants and bento boxes.
- When we visited a sushi restaurant with a Japanese foodie friend, he told the chef to serve us what was on season. Yes, I learned then and there that even fish is seasonal. It was the best sushi I’ve ever had – and probably the best I’ll ever have until I go back to Japan.
- When we chatted with a chef about yuzu, the widely popular Japanese citrus, he told us that they use it from the green, unripe and tart stage in the spring through to the yellow, ripe and sweeter stage in the fall. After that, he told us, if you want yuzu, you have to buy it imported from Fiji – and we could see from the look on his face that he wouldn’t be caught dead using Fiji yuzu.
I admire the fact that this focus on seasonality, which may have been forced on Japan at a time when importing food wasn’t an option, hasn’t been tamed by convenience over the years. While I have long thought that eating seasonally in a Northern country is mission impossible, my trip to Japan has finally made me realize that such limitations can be inspiring. I’m coming back with the resolution to pay closer attention to the origins of what I buy throughout the year and to push myself to make more with what’s in season.
Best. Sushi. Ever. In Ginza, Tokyo.
The sushi chef, working his magic. Watching him work so quickly and precisely was more entertaining than watching a movie.
Fresh chestnuts, sold with their spikey husks on.
A chestnut vendor at Nishiki Market, Kyoto.
4. The Japanese know how to be creative with rice.
Rice isn’t always eaten white in Japan – far from it. We delightfully discovered the joys of Japanese fried rice (which can include pork, tofu, eggs, seaweed, green onions, etc.) and marveled at how many different rice toppings are sold to enliven an ordinary bowl of rice. From dried fish and seafood to pickles to spice mixes, it’s easy to change things up by sprinkling a little bit of this or that over perfectly steamed sticky rice.
We also discovered donburi (literally “bowl”), which is a rice bowl dish consisting of fish (raw or cooked), meat, vegetables or other ingredients served over rice. In many cases, the protein is simmered in a dashi (broth) seasoned with soy sauce and mirin. When served, the rice absorbs the rich broth or sauce and becomes an integral part of the dish. This diversity shows that rice in Japan isn’t just another carb, but rather a chameleon component that can highlight beautiful flavors.
Japanese fried rice.
Katsudon: deep-fried pork cutlet topped with a raw egg, on rice.
5. In Japan, tofu is far from boring.
Tofu hasn’t ever had a particularly stellar reputation in Western countries, and, considering the important role it plays in Asian diets, I always suspected that we didn’t get the good stuff over here. Boy, was I right! The tofu I’ve had at home may very well come from a whole other planet, compared with the versatile ingredient we feasted on in Japan. From silky to firm, turned into anything and everything from warm savory custards to luscious dairy-free “ice cream”, served from breakfast to dinner, it’s indeed hard to imagine the Japanese diet without this essential protein.
The best display of tofu versatility we witnessed was in Arashiyama, a Western Kyoto suburb, at a restaurant that made their own, on site. We enjoyed a tasting menu of tofu-based dishes and the diversity in tastes and textures was simply mind-boggling. My favorite discovery was yuba, or tofu skin, which is made “in an open shallow pan, thus producing a film or skin composed primarily of a soy protein-lipid complex on the liquid surface.” (source: Wikipedia) Yuba is protein-rich and it has a soft yet somewhat rubbery texture that is very enjoyable, especially served in a milky savory broth as it was in our tasting menu.
Tofu is one of those “perfect foods” that anyone would benefit from: low in calorie count, high in protein and with very little fat, it’s a versatile and all-around healthy ingredient. While most of the delicacies we enjoyed in Japan will be impossible to find at home, I’m determined to include more tofu in our diet. I’ve already found a better-quality silky variety at a local natural foods store, so I can’t wait to experiment!
Tofu-themed tasting menu, in Arashiyama, Kyoto.
Yodofu, tofu served in hot water, is very soft and silky. It’s also served as part of the traditional Japanese breakfast.
Yuba (tofu skin).
So much culinary inspiration in so little time: it’s not surprising that I’m having a tough time coming down from my Japanese cloud. Since we came back, I’ve already tried my hand at a few dishes inspired by what we tasted in Japan. I foresee that our diet will remain forever changed by this trip, and I look forward to all the great meals to come.