Last night, we celebrated a family birthday at a wonderful little tiny Japanese restaurant in Paris called Kiku (56 rue Richet in the 9th – FANTASTIC PLACE). During the dinner, my tablemate and I started chatting about travel and food and I started going on about what I liked about food in Japan but in other places as well. She was fascinated and said I ought to write about it. So, I thought it was a great idea. I’ll start with Japan, work my way around Asia and back to America and Europe. Sound good to you?
I have been to Tokyo probably 5 or 6 times. I think it is a fantastic place. For me, being there is like being on Mars. I mean that there are almost no common references. OK, so the buildings are made of concrete and steel and the streets are paved, but beyond that, everything is so different, so…Japanese. Folks automatically associate sushi with the Japanese which is fair except that it is definitely not what they eat on a daily basis. A typical lunch in Tokyo is tonkatsu (ton = pork, katsu = cutlet – so it is a deep fried boneless pork chop) with some cabbage and dried oignons and miso soup. Or a soup using one of the three primary noodles: Udon which are kind of square, thick, and chewy, soba which are round and darker and thinner than udon, or ramen which you all know from your starving student days I imagine. The soups normally have the same broth – typically fish-based with varying veggies in them. Very, very yummy – and cheap too.
Speaking of cheap, the Japanese McDonald’s would probably be Beef Bowl which is a chain of fastfoot noodle soup restaurants known for their orange sign and their general ubiquitousness in Tokyo and Japan in general. The food is pretty greasy and pretty much GM-to-the-max. They nearly went bankrupt some years ago, but they are such a cultural symbol in Japan that there seems to have been a popular rising of support for this cardiologist’s dream chain and they survived. And in true Japanese entreprenurial spirit – they even expanded…to Los Angeles among other places. Crazy, right? Only in Japan I suppose. But then, if McD’s was ever threatened with going out of business, I’ll bet there would be riots in the US…
One thing I love about traveling around in Japan is that, for the most part, they eat the same parts of animals as we do. They don’t eat strange animals or parts of the animals that we in the west (and particularly of anglo-saxon origin) consider, well, gross. All that means that I can walk around a Japanese city, Kamakura for example, walk into any random Japanese restaurant at lunchtime (alone because I had already visited the awesome Daibutsu Buddha there based on the original 33m one in Nara) and just point at anything on the menu (no English ANYWHERE) and be confident that it would be yummy (turned out to be an udon soup actually). I would NEVER do that in China or Korea for example.
So, on to the feature meal of this post. My personal favorite (well, there is also Japanese-Korean Barbecue, Sushi/Sashimi, and many others) is shabu shabu. For those that don’t know shabu shabu but know French cuisine, it is very similar to a bouillabaisse. I imagine that the origins must also be the same. Basically poor folks on the seaside would make some delicious broth and take whatever you could catch that day and throw in in there to cook. Bouillabaisse is served with the fish and other seafood cooked in the broth. For shabu shabu, they serve the broth and you cook the fish or meat yourself with the aid of chopsticks and a skimmer (to remove excess fat and other nasty shit that floats atop the broth). Despite their modest origins, both bouillabaisse here in France and shabu shabu in Japan can be prohibitively expensive. I have only had it on business dinners atop Tokyo hotels in Shinjuku. But I can assure you that it is my #1 favorite Japanese meal.