Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Nihon Ryori (日本料理)

So far, we have found a reasonable balance between comfort food and culinary adventure.

In the past two weeks, we have eaten at three Japanese places in our neighborhood. At each place, I had to put aside my peculiar food neuroses (like convincing myself that a supposedly vegetarian menu item has a distinctly umami taste, it must have been cooked in fish broth!!). All three were quite good and one has been sworn into our permanent rotation.


The first place was a small yakitori (a term which formally means skewered chicken but also is used to refer to skewered food generally). We ordered several items, each was quite small but before the first one showed up, we were presented with a dish of tofu cubes topped with tuna and shrimp (more on this in the "final note" to this blog entry). I tried with the tofu with the tuna (!!) on top but passed on the shrimp. Honestly, the tofu was less appetizing than the tuna and that is not an endorsement of tuna. The tofu was in large cubes that were totally unseasoned and uncooked. Not yummy. But then, in the next round, the yakitori fare improved dramatically. We received a cucumber and peanut salad with a light peanut sauce. It was unbelievably simple and still quite delicious. Those appetizers were followed up with a series of vegetable skewers and chicken, which varied in memorability. 

Perhaps the most interesting component of the meal was the shochu (), a traditional Japanese distilled beverage. Shochu is commonly made from distilled from barley, buckwheat, rice, or yams. We tried the yam shochu.

Courtesy of chopsticksny.com

I wish I could say it had "earthy undertones" or something else sophisticated, but it just tasted like vodka. I think Vince was turned off for good, but I plan on doing more shochu exploration over the next few months.

Did I mention this place had no seats? Weird. Between that, the average-at-best skewers, and the otooshi (see the end of this post), I don't think we will be going back.


Over the weekend we ate at Sarashina Horri, a soba restaurant. We were seated at a communal table and next to us were two Buddhist priests (a father and son pair out to celebrate the father's 84th birthday). The pair kindly struck up conversation with us halfway through the meal, and I suspect that this was partly for the purpose of giving me a basic lesson on how to eat my soba appropriately. Soba is a buckwheat noodle, most common in the northern parts of Japan. Soba noodles can be served cold (zaru-soba) with a dipping sauce or hot in a broth soup. I ordered them cold, in which style they are served on a lattice of bamboo with a square wooden frame, essentially a square plate. 

I ordered onijiru-soba, cold soba noodles and Japanese hot radish soup with soy sauce as a dipping sauce. While cold noodles are going to take some getting used to generally, they were perfectly setoff by the dipping sauce, which slowly set fire to my lips as I did my best to noisily slurp my noodles down (following the specific instructions of the priests). Oh, my soba also came with bonito (fish flakes), otherwise known as katsuobushi (かつおぶし) Despite the initial and insistent instruction (read: mandate) of the middle-aged Japanese waitress to integrate the bowl of bonito flakes into my meal, I surreptitiously passed them over to Vince after I put on my best "confused gaijin" act and she gave up on trying to lead me across the bridge over the cultural divide. 

For the curious, the proper way to eat cold soba with dipping sauce is to lift a bundle of noodles off the bamboo lattice with your chopsticks, which you are holding in your more dexterous hand. There seemed to be little concern for how high much of your noodle bundle is hanging freely from your chopsticks or how far it hangs - I saw Japanese women raising their chopsticks fully above their head to shake the hanging noodles loose from their bamboo bead. Once extricated, you lower your noodles, dangling end first, all the way down into the dipping sauce. You then lift the noodles that properly sit between your chopsticks to your mouth and loudly slurp the foot, or feet!, of hanging noodles directly out of the dipping sauce to your mouth.

And that's not all. After all the noodles are gone, you will notice that at some point during the meal a large teapot looking ceramic piece has appeared on your table (I simply can't slurp and multi-task yet). You pour the hot liquid into your dipping bowl, lift the bowl with both hands and drink the remaining, now diluted, dipping sauce. That was also delicious and my "don't ask, don't tell" eating policy was in full-force. Was it fish broth??!! ~Put fear aside, bottom's up!~

Fodor's travel guide, which I happened upon in the public library this morning, described the Japanese tradition of eating noodles as a total abandonment of all pillars of western eating etiquette that have been ingrained since childhood. That's a pretty accurate statement. Fodor's also says that you can pick up on many Japanese cultural norms by mindful observation. I'm hoping that is also an accurate statement.

I left wondering if this place was considered the best soba in Japan, so I did some unscientific polling of the voices in the internet and read up on the history of the place. My conclusion was that it was an oft-repeated claim. At the very least the place has history. According to the restaurant's website, Sarashina Horii has been around since 1789, when a feudal lord advised a textile merchant with a knack for making soba to officially change his profession to soba maker. I guess that is a suggestion you didn't refuse in that day and age.


Then, two nights ago, we had our third adventure in 日本料理 (Japanese food) when we stopped at a nearby ramen place. It was Sunday night and our neighborhood was getting quiet with this restaurant as the lone exception. It was packed.

After stumbling through the standard blunders associated with eating anywhere you don't speak the language, we ordered. I got a hot ramen soup with soy sauce topped with leeks and corn. Vince got fried rice with grilled pork. We both got beers and we both left so happy, each beyond satisfied with our filing (and affordable!) meals. Vince already has his next order ready, having seen the dish that the guy next to us ordered.  We also spotted two must try appetizers - BBQ tofu cubes and, for Vince, beef wraps. We will be back there and hope that we might take some of you there too if you come and visit!

Welcome to our permanent rotation, Manriki-Ya!

As a side note, ramen is not actually native to Japan. It is traditionally a Chinese-style wheat noodle that has been long-embraced in Japan to the point where the Japanese have put their own thumbprint on the dish. Ah! I just started researching more about ramen and it is destroying my don't ask, don't tell gastronomic policy! This portion of the blog must now come to an end. Sincerely, the world's worst vegetarian.

A FINAL NOTE (for this blog entry) ON DINING OUT

Otooshi (お通し) -- A custom? A rip-off? A taste of what's to come? 

At Japanese bars, as soon as you get your first drink you are presented with a small dish that you didn't order. At the yakitori above, this was the tofu, tuna and shrimp dish. This dish, called otooshi, is a tradition in this type of establishments. However, a visitor will be surprised to learn at the end of the meal that otooshi isn't free. We were certainly surprised. How can this be? Well, from everything I have read, it's a tradition with its backers and its critics. It would be indefensible in the US and probably many other places, and perhaps because of this, the term is commonly translated on the world wide webs and by Japanese wait staff as a table charge. It averages 500 yen (5 USD) per person. Japanese never refuse it and attempting to refuse it may be impossible with the language barrier and will certainly stand out. 

So.... Surprise! Uncooked tofu cubes for everyone, $5 a piece. This compounds the negative leaning of my already-mixed review of the food at the yakitori. If you're going to charge me for something I didn't order and want to see me again, it better be good!

This leads to my phrase of the week "Saabisu desu!" (pronounced sah-bee-soo des), which means "on the house!" ;)


  1. Loving every minute of this blog!! Please do me a favor and learn how to say " bad Otooshi equals bad tip" ha ha

  2. Thanks, Jen! Sometimes I wonder if it is being read, so it's good to hear I/we have at least one follower! Let's Skype soon. We move into the permanent apartment this weekend, so maybe the weekend following once we are settled.

    1. Sounds good!! Good luck with the move! Friday and Saturday Marsha and Nunzi will be here if you wanna talk then or we can talk Sunday .... Just let us know what works for you guys! ... Oh and I'm sure you have more followers I know Joey keeps up with your blog! Love you guys!!