(Get 'em while their hot, they're lovely!)
It is up for the Kate Whiteman award for work concerning food and travel, against The Hungry Cyclist by Tom Kevill Davies, which I haven't read but will do so immediately, and, oddly, an episode of BBC Radio 4's Food Programme about Iceland produced by my friend Dan Saladino.
The gentlemanly thing would be to say something like, 'It's enough just to be nominated, may the best man win, I'm just looking forward to a nice evening.'
So let's pretend that's what I said.
Frabjus day! Hurrah! Meh! Two of these reactions are permitted to the news that the paperback of Sushi and Beyond is on its way to all good bookshops.
Hello to anyone dropping in by way of the second piece on my and my family's recent Indian odyssey in the travel section of the Sunday Times.
Thought I'd use this opportunity to shamelessly plug my forthcoming appearance at the Asia House Literary Festival next month.
Fresh from my even more forthcoming trip to Tokyo (next week - woo-hoo!) I’m going to be divulging some of the great secrets of Japanese cuisine, talking about the current trends there, and looking at the weird and wonderful techniques and ingredients.
Here’s the blurb:
Michael Booth - Sushi & Beyond
What the Japanese Know About Cooking
with Erica Wagner of The Times
Tuesday 18 May, 2010 6:45 PM - 7:45 PM
Location: Asia House, 63 New Cavendish St, London W1G 7LP,
Asia House Festival of Asian Literature
The Japanese go to surprising lengths and expense to eat the finest, most delectable, and downright freakiest food imaginable. Their creativity and ingenuity, not to mention courage in the face of dishes such as cod sperm, whale penis and octopus ice cream, is only now beginning to be fully appreciated in the sushi-saturated West. In Sushi & Beyond, travel and food writer Michael Booth takes a fascinating and funny journey through this extraordinary, food obsessed country.
Tickets £10, Concessions £6
Asia House Friends £5
For booking please call 020 7307 5454
Online booking closes 24hrs before all events.
Bookings are neither refundable nor transferable.
There was a great response to my blog post at the Guardian yesterday, still continuing today. The comments seemed to be divided between people who know Osaka and were really glad to have their thoughts confirmed, and those who were really keen to know more and wanted to go. And, of course, the odd nutjob with time on their hands and a gnawing sense of worthlessness, who are always good for a laugh (and, again, were ably dealt with by the grown up visitors to the site).
Posted at 12:59 PM in Japanese Food: Kyoto, Osaka, Sapporo, Okinawa, etc, Michelin restaurants | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)
If you ask me what was the most pleasant surprise about Japan - apart from how cheap it was when we were there (thanks to a fortuitous exchange rate, long since gone) - the answer would be Fukuoka.
Way off the tourist route on the end of the Shinkansen line, I think it is Japan’s fourth or fifth largest city (population 1.3m). Actually, it’s two cities - Fukuoka is conjoined with Hakata - and has just about everything you could want from a place to live: the space of Sapporo, the climate of Osaka, the amazing infrastructure and cleanliness of every Japanese city and, above all, the friendly vibe of, well, I’ve never really encountered such a contented-feeling city. And Sinatra played his last ever concert in the Fukuoka Dome - the man had taste. If I were to live in a city other than Tokyo, it would be here - not least because you are just a few hours by ferry from Taiwan and, beyond that, China.
One major contributing factor to Fukuoka’s great vibe is its street food, which centres on the mobile outdoor stalls called yatai. You find these ramshackle joints all around the city centre. Some of them reminded me of the camps we used to build as kids out in the woods, but some - like the ones by the river - were a little more permanent and substantial.
The food range from oden - a long simmering hot pot, not too great to look at but packed with flavour and things like tofu and radish - to ramen to yakitori and grilled fish. When they saw we had two young children in tow, a couple of yatai cooks actually turned us away. It was the only time we experienced that kind of prejudice during our whole time in Japan but, funnily enough, didn’t change the way we felt about Fukuoka. I like to think they weren’t being racist and put it down to the fact that they thought our kids wouldn’t like their food, which is fair enough.
(Catch your own eels! What more can you ask of a city's nightlife?)
The yatai were one thing. The ramen at the famous ramen restaurant Ichiran was something else altogether.
Food Ponce Alert!
Most people in the UK will probably only be familiar with ramen thanks to Wagamama restaurants. I can remember being bowled over by Wagamama the first time I ate there over a decade ago at their first restaurant close to the British Museum in London - having queued for about an hour - and, if you have never been to Japan (sorry, I do realise this is unforgivably smug), you would probably think their ramen was pretty good. But the Japanese are totally obsessed by ramen these days, far more so than they are with sushi or possibly any other dish. There is a ramen boom on right now, with millions of restaurants, magazines dedicated to it, celebrity ramen chefs, a billion blogs, full time connoisseurs and the fabulous ramen museum in Yokohama.
I was lucky enough to have a tour of the ‘museum’, which is more a collection of ramen shops, with the Ramen World Champion, Mr Kobayashi. It turned out Kobayashi san hadn’t earned his title by making ramen, or in an eating competition (which used to be really popular in Japan) but by his knowledge. He spent his life travelling the length of Japan eating nothing but ramen and knew intimate details of every city’s best ramen shops. He gave me a fascinating crash course in ramenology, and totally converted me to the cause.
(Doesn't that just look so good?)
It was he who recommended that I try the Hakata ramen at Ichiran in Fukuoka. And he was right. It elevated this amazing meal in a bowl to another level altogether.
This was bespoke ramen - literally. You eat in individual, curtained off booths, as if at a peep show. The booths run both sides of a small serving corridor behind which staff scurry around accommodating diners’ needs. And even without a four and seven year old to test their patience, these are clearly a demanding clientele. Each diner gets a small questionnaire-type form to fill in, on which they can specify virtually every aspect of their bowl of noodle soup - the firmness of the noodles (extra firm, firm, medium, tender, extra tender), the strength of the onion, the fattiness of the broth, and so on. The ‘no mobile phone’ and, next to it, the even more strict a ‘no talking to your neighbour’ sign, served notice that this was a place for the serious ramen aficionado.
And, oh my god, it tasted good. A little spicy, deeply meaty, masses of umami, rich and satisfying, with lovely chewy noodles. Lord knows how they get a broth that tastes that good - I know they use pork bones and fat, but some also add chicken stock.
(Note the straight noodles. What do you mean it looks just like the one above? Hey, these things matter to the Ramen King!)
If anyone knows of a truly great ramen place in London, I’d love to hear about it. There are a few on Rue St Anne in Paris, and an okonomiyaki place too incidentally, but It’d be good to have an address in London.
There was one dish I missed out of my favourite ten Japanese recipes in the Times this week (actually there were loads - what am I thinking of?), largely because - and this is one of my great bugbears about recipes - the actual instructions for making it would have been deemed far too long, involved and complicated.
That's a shame because I reckon this could be the next global fast food trend. It certainly deserves to be, and if anyone wants to put some money up and my name above the door, I'm all for rolling out a nationwide chain of restaurants by Christmas.
Looks horrendous, doesn't it? Like some kind of alien, after Sigourney Weaver has had her way with it. It is Okonomiyaki, variously described as Japanese pizza, omelette or pancake. Actually, it is a kind of omelette-pancake hybrid, invented in Osaka, in which various ingredients - typically cabbage, seafood, pork and kimchi - are added to a flour and yam batter before being cooked on a hot plate. In some restaurants diners cook them themselves on a hot plate built into the table, but in others chefs cook them on giant hot plates and then send them out. It translates, literally, as 'whatever you like.' It's a major date food in Japan, apparently.
Of equal importance in the okonomiverse is the amazing, rich, dark, tangy-meaty-sweet sauce with which they slather the okonomiyaki, before adding a drizzle of Japanese mayonnaise, aonori and some katsuobushi flakes. It is an astonishingly addictive combination. If you visit the seedier parts of downtown Osaka and venture into the underpasses and alleyways you will find poor, lost souls actually injecting this sauce into their veins ('Twice as sweet as sugar, twice as bitter as salt. And if you get hooked, baby, it's nobody else's fault, so don't do it!').
Here’s how you make one:
Ingredients in a bowl: squid, egg, cabbage, kimchi and, somewhere in there, fresh ground yam (yamaimo), salt, flour, dashi and mirin. The secret ingredient is the yam, which keeps the batter moist and springy. It's best to grind it fresh (though apparently it can cause skin irritations - the trick is to soak it in vinegar first), but you can use yam flour. In truth, most Japanese would use a packet mix to make okonomiyaki at home.
Mix it all well, but don't beat all the air out of it you want to keep it light and fluffy, and pour out onto a hot plate. Cook for a few minutes, then flip and cook for a few more minutes.
This being a Japanese dish, there are countless regional variations. Hiroshima okonomiyaki has the ingredients layered with the batter instead of mixed together (that's a Hiroshima version at the top of the post). In Tokyo they have monjayaki, which is a much sloppier, more liquid batter and, frankly, is really annoying and a bit of a mess. In Osaka - indisputably the iconic okonomiyaki, it is all cooked together into a thick, sumptuous, gut-busting disc.
(That's a monjayaki - told you it wasn't pretty).
As I said, the sauce is also very important, as it is in the case of those two other great Osakan fast foods, tako yaki (octopus doughnuts - don't knock 'em until you've tried them) and kushikatsu (deep fried, breaded yakitori). And I'll be returning to the dark arts of Japanese sauce making soon.
Meanwhile, God bless the Internet: there are countless sites dedicated to the worship of okonomiyaki - here's a good one with recipes.
And here is the ultra refined, poshed-up restaurant President Chibo version:
Posted at 04:51 PM in Japanese Food: Kyoto, Osaka, Sapporo, Okinawa, etc | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
I’ve always been fascinated by wasabi which, up until I started travelling to Japan, meant the sweet, fiery green paste served in a pea-sized blob with sushi.
(Or, less conventionally, with ice cream and melon, but I'll come to that)
What on earth was it? Where did it come from? Why did it make my nose burn like Vicks Vaporub?
I’d heard all sorts of explanations, ranging from that it was a kind of horseradish, to that it was made from mustard powder or, as I tried to convince my children, from Kermit’s dandruff, but it wasn’t until I visited Japan for the first time about ten years ago that I had the earth shattering experience of trying real, fresh wasabi.
Warning! Food ponce alert! (As if everything else on this blog hasn’t been enough of a warning). I realise how precious this sounds, but having now tried real wasabi a few times, I realise how rubbish the stuff we get in the West is. It is like comparing fake aerosol snow with the real stuff.
The stuff we get in the West, in sushi restaurants and in tubes/powdered form in the supermarkets is usually made from coloured mustard powder and perhaps some dried horseradish.
The real stuff comes from one of these: it’s the root of the wasabi japonica plant, a rhizome in the family with horseradish. It doesn’t burn your sinuses and tastes mild, sweet and beautifully fragrant.
Sorry, that's not a real one. This is:
While researching ‘Sushi and Beyond’ I was lucky enough to travel to Ugashima, a forested peninsula south of Mount Fuji, where the very best wasabi is grown. I visited Yoshio Ando, an award winning wasabi farmer and, with a little gentle pleading, he agreed to take me high up into the hills to see where it was grown.
There, as we looked out over what looked like a rice paddy valley filled with rhubarb, Yoshio explained that wasabi is one of the most temperamental crops in the world to grow, requiring strict temperature limits (never colder than ten degrees, never warmer than 16) and constant, fresh, clean, cold flowing water. They have apparently been cultivating it in Japan since 1744, when they discovered its antibacterial properties (which is how it came to associated with raw fish).
They have also managed to cultivate it in California and China, he explained, but only using lots of chemicals and without the flowing water.
Later that day I enjoyed an entire wasabi themed meal at Shirakabeso, the White Wall Inn, an amazing spa nearby. Ten or so courses, all including wasabi, might sound rather overwhelming, but fresh wasabi is not nearly as fiery as artificial wasabi, and worked really well as an accompaniment to everything from wild boar, to live abalone, to ice cream and pickled rhododendron leaves.
The owner, Ikuko Uda, is a world expert on wasabi, having spent years studying the plant at Shikawa University, and she explained its anti-carcinogenic properties, how to grate it in a circular motion on a sharkskin grater, and lots of other fascinating wasabi facts.
As well as various minerals and vitamins, wasabi contains around twenty different types of isothiocynates (a compound it shares with mustard and broccoli) which have anti-inflammatory properties. This makes wasabi a useful treatment for allergies and eczema. It’s anti-microbial qualities also mean it works against tooth decay and apparently it can even calm diarrhoea. Most interesting of all, the isothiocynates are thought to stop the spread of cancers at the metastasis stage. Wasabi is, then, a bona fide superfood - you can even eat the leaves. They taste a little like very peppery rocket. The Japanese also pickle the stems in sake lees, the left overs from making sake. Very good they were too.
(That's wasabi bread!)
So, I can’t urge you enough to try and get hold of some real wasabi by any means you can.
THE CAMPAIGN FOR REAL WASABI STARTS HERE!
(Incidentally, proper sushi chefs get very annoyed if you ask for extra sushi and mix it in with your dipping sauce/soy. They very carefully add a blob to their nigiri or maki and, rightly, believe that too much numbs the palate. Doesn’t stop me, though, I have to admit.)
In my new book (what? You haven't ordered a copy yet? Have you been away? Has someone locked you the basement?), I briefly mention a remarkable 150 year old food producer I visited in Kyoto during our stay there.
Posted at 11:20 AM in Japanese Food: Kyoto, Osaka, Sapporo, Okinawa, etc | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)