Food, like many things in Japan was both familiar and unexpected. Brussels has a decent selection of restaurants offering different styles of Japanese cuisine, but eating in the country itself is always going to be a different experience.
Firstly, the bad: I was disappointed by the kaiseki cuisine I tried. Some of it was lovely, but much of it was either so subtle and delicate as to be almost flavourless (or is that just because of my over-stimulated palate having been spoilt by years’ worth of rich French sauces?), or was strangely and unpleasantly gloopy, slimey, twappy or gelatinous. They use way too much tofu, usually in a very soft, semi-liquid form. Textures in food have always been important to me, sometimes just as important as flavours. My wife can’t understand why I can enjoy a particular type of fruit juice, and yet not necessarily want to eat the fruit itself. Yes, it tastes the same, but the “mouth feel” makes it a completely different experience.
Visually, it’s all exquisite stuff, and I’ll happily browse through pictures of it in my book, but it was very rare that I put any of it in my mouth and went “Mmmmm!”
By the way, in our ryokan in Hakone I almost turned vegetarian one night. As we sat down to eat, a small gas stove was placed in front of us, ready to be lit to cook one of the starters. Nothing unusual there. In the pot on top of the burner was what looked a little like an oyster in its shell, but probably wasn’t. Maybe something in the sea cucumber family? Anyway, what disturbed me wasn’t the fact that I couldn’t identify it, but that it was moving. Gently pulsating, occasionally lurching in one direction or another. Then the waitress came and lit the gas. As it started to bubble around the edges its movements became more frenzied, and this oleaginous blob started to try to squirm and shiver its’ way out of the pot. All that was missing was a pair of doe eyes looking pleadingly at me and a small voice squeaking “Help meeeee!”. Raw, I wouldn’t have eaten this thing. Boiled alive in front of me, I couldn’t even bring myself to look in its direction. I needed a few moments before I could bring myself to eat anything at all that night. Normally I’m fairly adventurous and not too squeamish when it comes to food, and I’m more than happy to eat many things raw. I do, however, insist that my food be dead before it’s placed in front of me.
Secondly, I’m sorry, but I can’t get my head around Japanese desserts and sweets. Personally, I expect my sweets to be, you know, sweet. Rice cakes and red bean paste and purple potatoes (see below) may have many admirable culinary qualities, but when it comes to dessert I want sugar, cream, chocolate and fruit, please. Is that narrow-minded and culturally blinkered of me? Sorry.
Thirdly, and still on the topic of irrational prejudices and preferences, I have a problem with breakfast. At any other time of the day I’m willing to try anything, no matter how outlandish, but breakfast is different. First thing in the morning is a special, delicate moment, and I want to eat something comforting and familiar. The rice and smoked fish (and sometimes pickles and eggs) and green tea the Japanese often eat in the morning are lovely and tasty, but I need some sugar and caffeine to start my day. This is why, to my shame and embarassment, many mornings were spent grabbing a quick cappuccino and croissant in the nearest western-style café (usually a Starbucks). There often comes a moment during a foreign holiday when I give in and say “Give me something western to eat!”. It usually comes towards the end: for example in India during the final few days in Delhi, after two weeks’ worth of delicious, mostly vegetarian home cooking, we caved in and visited the local McDonald’s for a “Maharajah Mac”.
Green tea? Something of an acquired taste (in the sense that I did acquire a taste for it, eventually). Very bitter. The “sweets” on the plate next to it are stamped with the image of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, in whose grounds we stopped for this little light refreshment.
Coffee-in-a-can, from one of Japan’s ubiquitous vending machines. Tastes every bit as good as you’d expect vending machine coffee-in-a-can to taste.
Fake plastic food, as diplayed outside most restaurants. Incredibly detailed, realistic, and apparently very expensive to buy. Sometimes more appetising than the actual food served inside.
I find the name “One Cup” on a can of saké unbearably sad.
Now for the good: the fish (both sashimi and cooked dishes) was every bit as fresh, flavoursome and melt-in-the-mouth as expected. The tempura was as deliciously light and crispy as any batter I’ve ever tasted.
Okonomiyaki. This was one of my most pleasant discoveries in Japan. It’ll never win any awards for sophistication or presentation, but my goodness it’s yummy. Our hosts in Tokyo made it for us at home one night, and as they sprinkled bonito flakes on top of the freshly cooked pancake they waved and danced in the rising heat (the dried fish flakes, not our hosts). Generally the home cooked, unpretentious, or “street food” dishes were the ones I enjoyed the most.
So, a mixed bag, but plenty of deliciousness, and the beer wasn’t too bad either.