Archive for August, 2015

KYOTO: Wondering the streets of Kyoto in the district of Gion, we stumbled upon a waitress/hostess on the street.  She stopped us and asked if we had a reservation for her restaurant – as we were completely lost and having no reservations to eat anywhere else we asked if there was availability for us.  She quickly went inside and found us two seats at the counter.

Let’s be honest, anywhere that gives you the privilege of watching food being prepared, trusts its quality, integrity and high standard.

Tempura Endo Yasaka Gion/Kyoto

I cannot speak highly enough of Tempura Endo Yasaka Kyoto Japan.

Our hostess was charming and funny and saw to our needs perfectly, for example we ordered two beers, in limited English and gesticulating, she explained to us that we were better off ordering one at a time as they were large bottles.

A waiter then came around to take our tempura order – I chose a 15 piece seafood tempura set menu and my fellow diner chose a 10 piece vegetable tempura set menu.  And the show began…

…The two tempura chefs, master and protégée, set to task, organising the different pieces that they would be using to create our tempura.  Individually frying each piece.

From batter to oil to plate to mouth.

Each dish was exquisite – crispy, light tempura; served warm.  The flavours well-balanced and nothing overpowered the rest of the menu.  Actually, the further into the menu we went the bolder the flavours and the richer the pieces.  My tastebuds were tantalised from the initial squid and bream sashimi all the way to the tomato sorbet I had for dessert.  Items such as nori-rolled sea urchin tempura, cod tempura served over a soy and mirin sauce, prawn tempura – even their heads were covered in batter and deep fried!  Yakimono – seasonal fish – like our beachside boquerones but delicate and artistically presented to emulate the fish swimming in the sea and the impressive cod served with bonito shavings.

The most impressive part, other than that everything was delicious, was that the chefs timed our tempura perfectly so that we could eat our meal together.  They timed 10 vegetable pieces to coincide with 15 seafood pieces as well as the other components of the set meals.  As the chef served each piece he would come over and explain, in English, what each piece was and whether it would be best with salt, lemon, wasabi powder or dipped in the dressing.


Clip courtesy of NINJA MONKEY on YOUTUBE.  Remember to SUBSCRIBE!

What an experience.  After my tomato sorbet for dessert I left stuffed but wanting so much more!

This restaurant is truly a 5* gourmet experience and a must for tempura lovers.  Next time you’re in Gion-Kyoto, Japan – dinner has got to be here, it can be expensive at £85 approx pp but it is worth it.  Just make sure to book as there a plenty of other tables, rooms and small group tempura stations inside that must be worth a visit.

Check out the link: http://www.gion-endo.com/english/

Another great dining experience in Gion-Kyoto was at Gion Karyo, a Kaiseki (Japanese cuisine) restaurant.  Kaiseki is Japanese cuisine such as Yakitori, etc but known for its meticulous preparation and beautiful presentation.  It felt like dining at a Michelin starred restaurant without the hefty price tag that can sometimes go with.

Here we enjoyed some amazing dishes, such as: chicken sausages (tsukune) glazed in soy and mirin and dunked in raw egg yolk before serving, duck teriyaki, soy glazed pork; which were absolutely amazing and I would definitely try and recreate at home followed by an amazing homemade dessert – vanilla ice-cream, coated in a sugar glaze and given the crème brûlée treatment.  However the surprise was cutting into the dessert as there was a sugared yolk sitting under the glazed carapace which oozed out of the vanilla ice cream – decadent, luxurious and delicious – OISHI!!!

On another evening we ate at Kyoto’s Train Station.  Yes, the train station.  Kyoto’s train station is a huge experience full of shops, escalators that climb to heaven, sky walks and restaurants and here we tried the delicacy of the region a grilled ox tongue platter and lemon chicken pieces!

The ox tongue was tasty and bold in flavour but very chewy – considering that the ox, continually grazing, must give its tongue a workout would explain why the meat was tough.  The chicken pieces, marinated in lemon juice and then floured and fried – lovely.

We visited Nara for a day and grabbed a quick Japanese curry lunch on the go whilst visiting deer, buddhas and temples.

Then having spent three nights in Kyoto we ventured south to Mount Koya (Koyasan).

MOUNT KOYA (KOYASAN): We checked into our temple lodgings to stay with Monks at Ekoin, Koyasan.  Our hosts explained how the lodgings ran and told us that our meals would be vegan meals due to the monks’ Buddhist beliefs.

That evening, before the night walk in honour of the dead, our room was prepared for dinner by trainee monks and after dinner prepared with our futons whilst we were out.  In the morning whilst we went to morning meditation and the ceremony of fire, our futons were cleared away and were prepared for breakfast.

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On both occasions, meals consisted of miso soup, salad, pickled vegetables, boiled rice, tofu and seasonal fruit arranged in bowls.  The food here was sufficient for our needs and well balanced.  If however, you needed a larger portion or meat, there were plenty of places to have bought extra food in the village-town of Koyasan.

“Sumimasen, kore wa American dog?” was the chant my travelling companion heralded as he saw cooked meat products at a butchers shop!

Onto Hiroshima and Miyajima Island next…

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Having a long journey ahead of us we picked up something to eat at the train station and arrived in Matsumoto ready to wonder around and find Matsumoto Castle sitting atop a reflective lake.

Matsumoto Castle

Before we knew it, evening had turned to dusk and dusk to twighlight and then darkness.  We quickly looked around for a place for dinner and ended up asking a couple for directions.  We showed them a photo of the entrance to the restaurant we wanted to go to; they discussed between themselves where they thought it was, and walked us to the restaurant!

We chose a local, family-run restaurant where we ordered horsemeat sashimi – which I have to say was absolutely delicious, if we hadn’t known that it was horsemeat we would have been none the wiser, we probably we have enjoyed it as beef carpaccio!  This was followed by a pork cutlet served over rice with once again the ubiquitous miso soup.  The cutlet was juicy and tender and coated in an omelette loaded with spring onions – very tasty.

Hida Beef was on the menu in Takayama.  The first of my two Hida beef experiences was as a Hida beef sizzler.  Beef served in strips on a scorching hot sizzler, the waiter instructing us to turn the slices over until we were happy with how they were cooked.  This restaurant had a diner kind of feel, with pictures of food and their prices on the walls and blueish fluorescent lighting, however, the beef was delicious.  The second experience was more innovative.  We walked to Trip Advisor’s #1 Restaurant in Takayama – if you’re not careful, you miss it!  A shop-front full of chintzy relics from the past in total disarray greets you, however walk through the shop, pushing an old gate open at the back of the shop, to find – Center4Hamburgers; also covered in chintzy relics from the past.  Fully booked for lunchtime we booked a table for that evening.

And yes, I thought to myself, I should be eating sushi and sashimi NOT hamburgers in Japan.

But Hida beef being a delicacy of the region and trying to experience different foods we had previously agreed to try and give everything a go.  The burgers were amazing, the Hida beef cooked pink with a savoury seasoning coating the crispy, sweet meat and covered in melted cheese; served with spicy mayo on crisp lettuce in a toasted sesame bun.  Each bite a feast for the mouth.

At the traditional Japanese Ryokan that we were staying at I opted to have a Japanese breakfast.  We had booked our breakfast for a specific time and made our way to the dining room.  Set before us as we walked up to the table were all the constituents of the meal:

Miso soup, cooked salmon, coddled egg, pickles, dumplings in syrup, yoghurt and seasonal fruits, all arranged in little bowls.  On either side of the tray stood a burner with, spicy tofu soup on the left burner and slices of Hida beef with miso paste on the right for me to cook to my liking.  Served with as much rice as I wanted; all to be washed down with jasmine tea.

For those that ordered a Western Style breakfast there was a burner on the go ready for diners to fry their eggs or to make an omelette, a salad, yoghurt and seasonal fruits.

I thoroughly enjoyed this experience – dressed in my Yukata, sat cross legged at the table, sampling all the delicious components that made my extremely, healthy and well-balanced breakfast.  A great way to start another hectic day of sight seeing and travelling.  My only advice if having a Japanese breakfast is that you cannot be in a rush.  There are so many parts of the breakfast to get through you need time to enjoy them all!

After Takayama it was onto Kyoto…

We arrived in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, Japan around 7:30am.  Jet-lagged, disorientated and in desperate need of coffee, we waltzed into the nearest STARBUCKS from our Hotel.  Immediately, I thought, I can’t believe I’ve come all the way to Japan for a STARBUCKS!  But that wasn’t necessarily the way the rest of the trip was going to (Ja)pan out!

Once we got our bearings around the area we decided to head into air conditioned paradise (any shopping mall; be it over or under ground) just to get out of the scorching heat and stumbled upon a lunchtime spot that seemed to be ending its lunch service but were quite happy to take us in.

Ramen, spicy chicken and misoWith my limited Japanese and pointing at pictures in a menu, I ordered a set meal with a bowl of ramen – a Japanese noodle soup dish which was flavoured with ox tongue – and spicy chicken pieces served over rice and the ubiquitous miso soup.

All dishes are accompanied by miso soup – a traditional Japanese clear broth made of stock called “dashi” into which softened miso paste (fermented soya bean paste) is mixed, tofu is often present in white blocks floating in the soup.   Miso soup is quite savoury, so I can only imagine it being fundamental in helping people replenish fluids and salts lost through sweat!

In the evening, we walked around the area of Ikebukuro and were somewhat intimidated by going into small, local establishments with only 5 seats available at a counter, full of locals and or people leaving work, as we almost couldn’t communicate with the proprietor without picture menus!  However, using Trip Advisor, we eventually found a conveyor belt sushi place that came very highly recommended.  The chefs and head chef in the centre of the track creating the sashimi/sushi, often to order, treated every dish as if it were the best dish they would be creating that evening.  Precision and skill evident in every piece.  The fish was delectable and easily washed down with green tea, poured directly at every seated station.  Great fun – delicious food; Oishi!

The following morning we headed to an area of Tokyo called Roppongi and once again dived into the nearest STARBUCKS for a dark chocolate-mocha frap which is the only way to battle the morning heat!  And after much tall building climbing, temple hunting and shrine locating we had worked up a bit of an appetite.  This time we settled for steamed dumplings, gyoza, and spring rolls (vegetable and prawn).

That evening we took a trip to Ginza – the 5th Avenue of Tokyo – and in a local basement bar sampled Yakitori.  Japanese IMG_1546chicken pinchitos! Yaki – grilled; tori – bird in the context of food, therefore, put it together = Yakitori is technically grilled chicken skewers but in Japan it’s not just thigh meat that gets a turn on the bbq.  Chicken liver, heart, gizzards and chicken skin are also given the bamboo stick skewer treatment.

So we ordered some fried calamari which were succulent and delicious and a plate of these varied 5 ‘meat’ yakitori.  I quite like offal depending on the way the product is cooked – the yakitori were  bold and gutsy in flavour; salty with a charcoal edge – very tasty, however, I couldn’t bring myself to eat the chicken skin which was pallid and uncooked!

Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo is the world’s largest fish market and is a prime tourist sight – especially for jet-lagged tourists.  It opens at 5am but if you want to be allowed into the world renowned Tuna Auction you have to get there at 4am to try and get a place.  Being there early does not guarantee you a visitor’s pass!  But wondering around the market at 9am when the stall owners are beginning to clear up is worth a viewing.  The various fish, molluscs and crustaceans that are caught and sold wholesale are an impressive sight.

After this and a river cruise to Asakusa for more temple spotting in the heat, we stopped for a very necessary cup of shaved ice.  Imagine slush puppies that hold their shape as a mountain of ice flakes and squirted with whatever flavour syrup you want: from fruit flavours to matcha green tea flavour.  I enjoyed my watermelon flavour as a reminder of summer back home.

However, on the return to the hotel and needing a pick-me-up we stopped at cafe Italian Tomato, for an iced coffee and a huge slice of lemon meringue pie!  Buzzing with sugar and caffeine we were ready for the evening in Harajuku.

Warning:  the Japanese slurp their food as a way to create ‘umami’ the 5th flavour (sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami) plus slurping cools the noodles down.  So if eating a bowl of ramen, slurping away to your heart’s content, your shirt will exhibit the effects!  As happened that evening over dinner!

We left Tokyo the following morning and headed to Matsumoto via Nagano; home of the Soba Noodle.

Not only did we get to try amazing cold soba noodles with tsuyu (a dipping sauce made with dashi, sweet soy and mirin) but we were fortunate enough to see a Soba Master rolling buckwheat dough out to make these thin soba noodles.  In summer, soba noodles are usually served cold on a bamboo tray called a zaru with seasonal toppings – we ate ours with vegetable tempura.  I particularly liked this meal; the noodles were light and did not sit heavily on the stomach as pasta can sometimes.  The tempura, crispy and incredibly light.

With full bellies we packed our bags and headed to the station for the next stage in our journey.  Join me.

Japan 2015

Posted: August 9, 2015 in Uncategorized

As many of you know from following my regular posts on facebook, I have been holidaying away for three weeks in Japan.  Culture was at the heart of the trip; with food playing a vital part of my journey; after all, you are going to need to keep your energy up if you intend on getting to see all those monuments, temples and shrines spread throughout the country.

The biggest mindset that you have to break when getting to Japan is that not all Japanese food is Sushi.  So there are actually plenty of options for those who don’t like the idea of raw fish.  Japanese food is seasonal  – there are no long haul imported items that make their way onto your dish.

So how do you write about a country with various food items on such an extensive journey?

I decided rather than write about the different types of Japanese food which, let’s face it, you can find on the internet i.e. Yakatori, Sushi, etc., I wanted to share with you, my food journey through Japan.  So over the next few weeks I shall be writing about the foods I tasted from:

Part 1: Tokyo & Nagano
Part 2: Takayama & Matsumoto
Part 3: Kyoto, Nara & Koya
Part 4: Hiroshima & Miyajima Island
Part 5: Osaka
Part 6: The Return to Tokyo & Matsushima

Itadakimasu!!