We’re deep into autumn here in Tokyo, which means it’s the ideal season for shabu shabu — Japanese-style do-it-yourself hotpot. One might think that there isn’t much variation to something as simple and straightforward as boiled meat and vegetables, but I recently learned that there are indeed some regional differences in shabu shabu.
Sushi and wasabi. Miso soup and seaweed. Beer and edamame. You probably think these things are paired together just because they taste good. But RocketNews24 has an interesting new piece on the health benefits behind them.
So next time you have a beer at a Japanese bar, you might want to pop an extra edamame or twenty to absorb all that alcohol.
Not too long ago, my friend BT (who introduced me to Ichiran Ramen) told me that I should try a ramen joint called Yamaguchi (やまぐち) near Waseda University, on the western side of the city. He said that it had been touted by a respected Japanese ramen expert as having “the ultimate chicken ramen,” and obviously I was intrigued. So a couple of days ago, I went down there with several friends to check it out. And wow, did my taste buds have a great day!
One of the autumnal foods that I’ve been enjoying the last few weeks in Japan is persimmon. Although they grow in the United States, persimmons are not what I would call a widely popular fruit with American consumers. I’ve only had them a couple times back in America, and in both instances they were mushy and overripe. Needless to say, I didn’t like them.
My experience with persimmons in Japan, specifically with the tomato-shaped Fuyu variety, are another story. They are simply wonderful, assuming you eat them when they are ripe (otherwise, they are bitter and rock hard). The flesh is firm and crisp, with a great honey-like taste. No wonder the scientific name for persimmons, Diospyros, is ancient Greek for “fruit of the Gods.” And I’ve seen them grow in many backyards in suburban and rural Japan.
When looking for a ripe persimmon, choose one with smooth and transparent skin, and a good overall orange color. You can also let it ripen on a counter or in a paper bag until it reaches a bright coloring. When it ready, cut the persimmon like you would a tomato, slicing off the top where the leaves are. I prefer to eat persimmons with the skin on, but you can peel them as well.
It’s a reminder that great, seasonal food in Japan doesn’t always require going to an eatery or a lot of time spent in the kitchen. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of going down to the local grocery store and picking up a simple persimmon.
A couple of days ago, I went to the local Ippudo for the first time in months and discovered that they are offering a “Miso Akamaru” ramen as their autumn special. So obviously, I had to give it a try.
One of the first things that stand out about the special ramen is the soup — unlike the usual white tonkotsu (pork bone) stock, this version is a brownish combination of miso and tonkotsu that was very delicious. It also includes seasoned ground pork and fresh cabbage topped with a red spicy sauce, to go along with two pieces of roast pork and black garlic oil.
Furthermore, Ippudo uses a thicker, softer, and curlier egg noodle than the white, thin and straight kind that normally goes into their and other Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen. I liked how well the thicker ramen noodle soaked up the soup. However, when you ask for kaedama (extra noodles), they give you the normal thin noodle with pad of butter on top. A little odd, but I still enjoyed trying both kinds with the soup (the thicker ones go better, though)
Ippudo is only offering the seasonal special until November 30. So if you’re in Japan and want to check it out, you better move quickly.
By the way, if you happen to be interested in tsukemen (dipping noodles) and are unsure about how to eat it, Ippudo has posted an easy illustrated guide.
I don’t know what convenience stores are like in other countries, but a 7-11 in the United States is a wasteland for food compared to their Japanese counterparts — hot dogs and hamburgers that taste boring and stale, Big Gulps, and the usual junk food. I know there have been some efforts to improve the offerings, but Americans are still being shortchanged on this front.
On the other hand, a 7-11 in Japan (or any of its myriad local competitors such as Lawson’s and Family Mart) is a surprisingly good place to grab not just a quick and affordable meal, but a relatively enjoyable one as well. It’s not gourmet cuisine, but you’ll have a far better time eating the vast assortment of bento boxes, ready made noodles, rice bowls, salads, sandwiches, and (my personal favorite) onigiri rice balls than you will their mystery meat counterparts in America. Konbinis are also great places to grab delicious breads, like the ubiquitous melonpan, and pastries on the go.
You can debate the merits of each konbini chain. But personally, I believe that the very best konbini here is one that even many Tokyoites have not heard of. It goes by a funny name: Gooz.
This past Sunday, I checked out the Tokyo Food Festival which was held a short walk away from Tokyo Station, in the Maranouchi district. The festival was hosted by Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries to “proclaim the merits of Japanese food,” according to the official English language literature. And what better way to proclaim the glory of your national cuisine than a multi-block street fair with various booths showcasing food products from across Japan, a national contest of local dishes, and sake tasting.
Several years ago during a business trip, I learned about a famous dish associated with the city of Sendai — beef tongue, or as the Japanese call it gyutan. A Japanese colleague enthusiastically told my office all about it, knowing how exotic and strange it sounded to Americans. I don’t know what my other colleagues thought, but I was looking forward to checking it out.