After sharing my nine-year love affair with Lao food musings, let me now turn to Tokyo’s delightful, tasty tidbits. Despite visiting mainly for work-related matters, the trip didn’t stop me from donning on my foodie hat. Once a foodie, always a foodie, or so they say.
My first meal upon arrival in Tokyo? Ironically, it was sushi bought from — don’t laugh now — good ol’ Family Mart! At 11:30 p.m., hungry and tired from the five-hour or so trip, all the food from this convenience store tasted great! I was looking for uni (sea urchin) but that was just wishful thinking. Uni, at its freshest, is sweet and creamy, and is a melt-in-your-mouth experience with steamed rice. But back to convenience store reality, the sushi was quite good and calmed down my grumbling tummy.
The next few days, fortunately, would be filled with quite pleasant discoveries that I would never soon forget. So without further ado, here are some of my favorite treats from that trip.
I’ve tried different kinds of ramen from previous visits to Japan but I don’t think I’ve tried a really good tsukemen (ramen noodles that you dip in a separate bowl of thick soup) until I stepped foot at Fu-Unji in Shibuya. It’s a very small ramen joint with only about 12 seats so we had to wait for about 45 minutes before we could get a space. For 1,000 yen, you either get a small, medium or large serving of ramen with a huge bowl of thick broth with a generous serving of bonito powder, egg, bamboo shoots and pork slices. The owner (he is a celebrity apparently) was flipping noodle baskets here and there with a flair perhaps to entertain waiting clients.
Don’t let the simplicity of the meal fool you. The whole dish is layered with complex tastes and is packed with so much flavor that will leave you wanting to order more noodles (silky and with the right kind of chewiness) just to be able to finish the whole bowl. Being the chili addict that I am, I had to add some chili powder to give it more oomph. It’s really difficult to describe the taste of the broth because there were so many things going on in that bowl flavor-wise. I thought I tasted chicken and pork. The bonito flavors were quite strong; I loved it. If you can’t get enough of the broth, there are jugs of hot water on the table, which you pour on the bowl to dilute the soup a bit, and sip it with gusto. On the way out, you’d see a shelf filled with ‘Best Ramen’ trophies — testaments to Fu-unji’s famous ramen meals. Now I’m regretting not asking for the large plate of ramen… maybe next time.
Walking around Shinjuku on a rainy evening can make you hungry. The best thing to do really is go to the nearest restaurant serving feel-good udon noodles. I didn’t really find out the name of the place; all I remember was it was walking distance from KFC (oh, well…).
I will just let the photo below speak for itself. With a huge battered eggplant on the side and unlimited soup that you can get from a soup dispenser at the counter, I was one happy diner. The meal was hearty and filling — perfect for a rainy evening.
Make way, the natto nut is here! The first time I tried natto was way back in early 2000s on my first trip to Japan. It was not memorable because we were rushing to leave the hotel and I didn’t really get to enjoy the Japanese breakfast in front of me. Not this time around. I made sure I thoroughly savor my natto for breakfast. It was love at second bite! An acquired taste, not a lot of people would love natto. Made from fermented soy beans that you mix thoroughly with soy sauce and horseradish until you get that slimy consistency (in all its gooey goodness!), after which you pour on top of a bowl of rice, natto has received some bad rap from those who didn’t like it that much. But natto has Vitamin K2 (helps reduce bone loss), Vitamin PQQ (good for the skin) and is said to be beneficial for the heart too (the physical, not the emotional kind, that is), among other benefits. Because I loved natto so much, I now have a stock in my refrigerator, no kidding! By the way, try eating a Japanese traditional breakfast of onsen eggs (or even raw egg for that matter) mixed with rice and natto — it’s fantastic! Again, it’s an acquired taste but I have some weird and wild tastes in food so no problem here. And then you wash it all down with green tea — pure bliss!
4. GREEN TEA
I’ve always been a tea drinker and naturally I will gravitate towards green tea when in Japan. While checking out the observatory at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, I happened to pass by a trade fair exhibit where they were selling green tea! The ladies at the counter were generous enough to have me sample a few types and all were good really! At first they thought I won’t be able to take the bitterness and offered me some sort of sugar candy to help the bitter ‘pill’ go down but I said it was quite fine. The best ones had a subtle sweetness to it and was very smooth, almost velvety, on the palate. Perfect on a foggy, rainy afternoon!
5. BENTO BOXES
Like the vegetarian thali dishes in India, I also adore bento boxes! During this trip, I had a chance to eat a simple bento lunch under the trees! Our boss even quipped, “We’re like salary men!” Just imagine: an overcast day, wind slightly picking up as it hinted of rain, sitting on a bench under a shady tree. It was a pleasant, almost-picnic like mood!
For the more expensive bento boxes, however, trust the Japanese to present them in a very colorful, oh-so zen way. The one we had during a meeting consisted of 12 tiny boxes that looked so dainty and pretty to eat. It was mainly vegetarian except for some chicken and fish morsels. I don’t know what it is about Japanese food but I am at a loss for words when it came to describing the taste, so I will just let you have a look:
And here are other bento boxes we tried on separate occasions (these two adapted to ‘foreign’ taste as this was served during an international congress):
POSTSCRIPT: As some Thai colleagues wanted to try other cuisines while in Tokyo, we went in search of Indian food, found Gandhi restaurant in Shinjuku, and we weren’t disappointed. The portions were huge and we were happy, especially when we learned that we could have different degrees of spiciness added to the dish. Here’s the vegetarian set I ordered:
In all, that was one very pleasant excursion to Japanese cuisine. In between the busy schedule and the impromptu food trips, I had time to visit parks and my go-to Meiji Shrine each time I visit Tokyo. The supermarkets and food shops are a delight as a wide variety of sashimi, sushi, onigiri and what-have-you are available. I was so tempted to buy fresh vine red and yellow tomatoes to take home but I controlled myself. Next time… and next time, I will really treat myself to a picnic in the park.