Not everything fits neatly into a separate culinary pigeonhole, so this post is about all those delicious meals that defy categorisation.
The above photo shows our lunch at a very stylish café in Omori, a little medieval village at the edge of the Iwami Ginzan silver mine. There were only two meal options and I chose this one: a hearty miso soup full of vegetable tempura and different kinds of beans; 3 different onigiri which had to be eaten with the little bit of salted fish you see on the left and crispy sheets of nori seaweed (which are hiding behind the soup); and a bowl of lightly pickled crispy vegetables. I loved the attention to detail and presentation at this restaurant: the little porcelain chopstick rest doubles up as a tiny flower vase!
Pim chose the other option, which was Japanese curry (yes there is such a thing). The sauce was meaty and had just the right amount of spice.
In Osaka (Japan’s food capital), we didn’t only eat takoyaki and melonpan, but also one of this city’s other famous specialities: okonomiyaki. Best described as a thick pancake filled with cabbage, these okonomiyaki are served at your own personal hotplate and slathered in Japanese barbecue sauce before being topped off with mayonnaise and heaps of dried bonito flakes. Mine had melted cheese inside (I know, weird, it didn’t really taste like anything but it had the consistency of cheese which is always nice), while Pim chose one with thin slices of pork.
The sun-filled table above shows my lunch at the Arashiyama riverside close to Kyoto. I chose a set meal with lots of different dishes. In the top left-hand corner is a bowl of wild edible plants (the salty, crunchy ones I described in the previous post), next to it is a bowl with a piece of konjacu (a very gelatinous vegetable), deep fried soy-bean curd (very spongy tofu) and steamed fish-cake in a subtle sweet and salty sauce. In the middle is a piece of fried herring marinated in sweet soy sauce and topped with spring onions. There is miso soup, steamed rice and citrusy pickled vegetables and in the top right-hand corner some form of pickled bamboo. Hiding behind the miso soup was one piece of sakura mochi: a delicious desert of sticky rice flour filled with sweet red bean paste and wrapped in a salted cherry leaf. This sounds like an unusual combination, but it is probably one of the most delicate and interesting desserts I have ever eaten.
In Nima, we stayed at a temple where the priest’s wife – locally known as the temple mamma – made us (and two other guests) this large bowl of sukiyaki: a kind of Japanese fondue. Vegetables, tofu and thin slices of beef are simmered in water which has been flavoured with sugar and soy sauce and when you take something out of the broth, you dip it in raw egg before putting it in your mouth. The slightly slimey consistency of the raw egg works surprisingly well in this dish.
The photo is a bit blurry, but this was the best gyoza we had in Japan. We ate these in Tokyo in a special gyoza restaurant. We had three different kinds: traditional gyoza (which had to be dipped in miso sauce), Thai-style gyoza with fresh coriander (to be dipped in sea salt) and gyoza with shiso leaf (to be dipped in lemon juice). As a side we also had some cold silken tofu dressed with sesame-chilli sauce and spring onions. Yum!
In Chinatown, Yokohama we ate these amazing soup dumplings. The bottom is crispy while the top is soft and each dumpling is filled with meat and soup! I don’t know how they do it, but magic has to be involved somewhere in the process. These puppies are quite hard to eat, because you risk squirting hot soup in your eye if you’re not careful. The trick is to make a tiny hole on top and drink all the soup out of it before eating the rest.