Thanks again to my generous and slightly insane ramen blogger friends, goramen.com, rameniac.com, and ramenate.com for some great times in the researching of my piece which appeared in the Independent yesterday, along with the usual high quality photos by Jeremy Sutton Hibbert.
Not a day (hour?) goes by that I don't think of those mighty fine ramen bowls we enjoyed together.
Having teased you with mention of it a while back, here, finally, are some really bad photos of my not-that-bad meal at Ryugin in the back streets of Roppongi, Tokyo.
But first, on the controversial subject of photographing your dinner: it's really naff, annoying for other diners (I didn't use a flash, but, still, no one wants to see photographic hardware while they are eating), and, well, common. But, as with talking on my phone while driving and being bitchy about people behind their backs, some rules are just for other people. Besides, as the appalling quality of my photos attests, I take them in an unseemly hurry before getting down to the important business shovelling food down my cake hole.
RyuGin has just been voted the 48th best restaurant in the world, one of only two Japanese restaurants actually in Japan to feature in the much discussed list published by Restaurant magazine and overseen by Observer restaurant critic and super-suave man about town, Jay Rayner.
I've had my tuppence ha'penny about the list already and when Jay kindly showed up to my Asia House Festival of Literature thing to promote my book a while back, he gamely defended it, pointing out that it was just a list and not to be taken so seriously. He added that, for a restaurant to be included, several of the judges have to have visited it that year, which is difficult for a far-off destination like Tokyo (though does present another obvious question: how do so many of the judges manages to get to eat at El Bulli? If they have any tricks to getting a reservation, I'd love to know).
Anyhoo, back to the number 48 on the list, which also has two Michelin stars. I knew vaguely what to expect having seen the chef, Seiji Yamamoto, give a demo at Tokyo Taste in 2009 - it was going to be rooted in classical kaiseki, but with contemporary twists. And so it was.
What I didn't expect was for it to be such a hit and miss affair. There were astonishing highs - monk fish liver, and the sashimi for instance, and some surprising lows: over-cooked fish; a dashi which for my uneducated gaijin palate was borderline bland; over-sugary desserts. The room was also a little disappointing. Small, dark and, though decorated with what were probably heinously expensive antique Chinese porcelain dragon plates ('ryu' means 'dragon'), just a bit dowdy I'm afraid.
(The monkfish liver is on the right, poached (or marinated raw?), and with exactly the colour and texture of foie gras. Staggering. I'm going to be hoovering the monkfish liver up at my fishmongers from now on.)
More happily, the service was impeccable without being over formal. They knew when to be chatty, and when to let me eat, which is just what you are looking for when you dine alone.
At the end of the meal, Yamamoto-san graciously came out to say hi and, in the Japanese tradition, he and the maitre'd stood outside on the pavement to see me off, which was lovely of them and makes me feel a little guilty for dissing them so.
If you are in Tokyo, I promise you won't be disappointed overall by a meal at Ryugin, but I wouldn't say it was the best restaurant in Tokyo, and probably not the 48th best in the world.
Ooh, this online restaurant criticism is tough, isn't it? I feel really, really bad now. They were so nice to me, and everything. Oh well.
Starts with a bowl of noodles and aubergine tempura in a local soba shop for breakfast.
How have I coped without my own squid-flattener all these years?
Ice cream tempura: solid gold genius.
I think it's rather late to be worrying about putting them in a water tank now:
Safe to say, it was a heavyweight, but all for less than six pounds.
Although, no matter how large the noodle bowl, there's always space for a piece or five of mochi ice cream. Perhaps my favourite food stuff in all the world.
What? You think seventy three pounds is too much for a melon? Is your mother not worth it, or what? And don't forget, you get flowers too.
One thing is certain, she would not approve of this boy's t-shirt. You'll have to take my word for it - and he can't have been older than 6 - it reads 'Los Angeles Mother Fucker'. Stay classy, Tokyo.
And now I am off for dinner at the newest entry on the San Pellegrino and Restaurant magazine's top 50 restaurants in the world list: Ryugin. Fascinating to see whether it deserves it 48th ranking, or might it actually be worth 47th? Whatever, I am sure the judges have all eaten there and at the other 49 places listed. This year.
Well, the volcanic ash finally mysteriously parted to allow my plane to escape to Tokyo, and I am as delighted and mildly bewildered as ever to be here.
When I am not gazing dreamily at cherry blossom...
Or gazing dreamily at Japanese sweets in the department store food halls...
...I spend my time frowning in confusion trying to decipher the thinking behind corporate communication.
For example: for which demographic would this woman's endorsement be considered a deal-maker, I wonder?
"Hey, guys! Put your pens down, I've finally got the perfect name for our new sake outlet!'
The company that manufactured the rubbish bin in my hotel room had meetings, allocated resources and commissioned a designer in order that this sticker would one day grace their product and clarify forever their 'life-vision'. No, let's not.
"Honey, can you see how much this damn thing costs anywhere?"
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.
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.)
Shimonoseki is Japan’s fugu town. You've probably heard about fugu - it’s the fish that nearly killed Homer Simpson (after his long dark night of the soul, Marge only knew he was alive because his dribble was still warm), famous for a deadly neurotoxin secreted by its liver and various other body parts, and many times more poisonous than cyanide.
Sushi chefs have to have a special license to be able to prepare the fish and have to keep the poisonous bits in a locked box, following some unfortunate incidents a few years back when homeless people rummaged in restaurant bins and discovered what they thought were harmless fresh fish innards.
(Just minding their own business, not poisoning anyone or nothing.)
Even today a dozen or so people die every year in Japan from accidentally, or deliberately, ingesting the nasty bits of this, rather comedic-looking puffer fish (there is a whole school of thought that says fugu toxin is a great natural high, said to make your mouth go numb and, in larger doses, to induce a pleasant kind of coma, so, unbelievably, some nincompoops actually taste it deliberately).
Every year Shimonoseki, at the very western tip of Honshu island (Japan's 'main' island) holds a festival in celebration of this singular fish and I was lucky enough - and it was entirely luck, I had no idea that the one Saturday in October I decided to visit would be that day - to witness this fugu orgy myself.
Shimonseki’s wealth, such as it is (or, rather, isn't) is based almost entirely on the wild and farmed harvest of fugu. They celebrate the fish in much the same way as Memphis celebrates Elvis or Liverpool celebrates that other band, what's their name...?The material that covers the town’s bus seats is printed in a fugu fish pattern; every souvenir shop sells dried fugu fins (traditionally eaten with sake) and cuddly fugus; and, on the day I visited, there was a giant inflatable fugu down by the harbourside fish market, alongside the permanent statue of an inflated fugu.
The festival was held in the fish market itself. There were large tanks of live fugu which children were invited to try and catch. Once hooked, the fugu were whisked away to a back room. I sneakily followed one into the room and there witnessed a fairly gruesome sight: live fugu having their faces hacked off, their skin removed, their poisonous organs scooped out, and their flesh chopped into chunks, while they were still very much alive. Each of these highly skilled fishmongers completed this task in less than half a minute, dumping the iffy bits in a bucket by the side of their table (so much for a locked box).
Witnessing this, a strange compulsion overtook me. Smiling and nodding to the fishmongers, who were indifferent to my presence, I sauntered around their table to where the ‘poison bucket’ lay. Pretending to tie up my shoelaces, I knelt down beside the bucket, gripped by an overwhelming desire just to taste the tiniest bit of fugu toxin, you know, just enough to get my tongue tingling... and... one of the fishmongers, spotting what I was up to, waggled his finger at me.
I made to stand up, but quickly knelt down again and before he could see, touched a bit of the gunk in the bucket and licked my finger.
I stood up quickly. Still nothing. Pah! Poison? What poison? Then, suddenly, the world began to go all swimmy. My mouth went dry - one of the first signs of fugu poisoning. Oh shit, what had I done? What kind of an idiot would intentionally taste fugu guts? This was it. How would I be able to communicate the urgent need to whisk me to a high quality emergency ward in time for a blood transfusion and liver transplant?
Then, almost as quickly, the swimmy sensation subsided. It was probably because I had stood up too quickly.
Undeterred, I went back out into the main hall where the most incredible array of sushi and sashimi was on sale at various stalls. I bought a plate of fugu sashimi, beautifully laid out in a classic petal formation with a dollop of some kind of spicy sauce on the side. Rather disappointingly, it didn’t taste of much, like a bland, rather rubbery tai (bream) sashimi. No wonder they sold it with a spicy sauce. The deep fried fugu fillets were far better. Indeed, following a lifetime's empirical research spent eating battered and fried British fish and chips, I concluded that this is perhaps the ultimate deep frying fish, better than cod, preferable even to turbot.
After that, as the only Westerner in the hall, I felt it rude not to sample as much of the other food on offer and spent a good hour or so tasting my way through the various stalls' wares.
(This is the dried fugu fin stall... mmmm, no?)
(Dried whale meat anyone? No? Please yourselves...).
(Some kind of fancy fugu dumplings).
(A denuded fugu. That'll learn 'em to be so toxic).
(Scallops like you wouldn't believe!)
By the end of it, I actually did have rather uncomfortable stomach pains. My own sheer greed had succeeded where fugu poison had failed.