Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘food and drink’ Category

Blinded by the Night opens in a bar* in Roppongi. This scene was inspired by a now defunct bar which was, in its day, one of the best and most popular bars in Roppongi. Practically every night was party night. Most of the male clientele were Westerners while the females were predominantly Japanese with a preference for western men.
Bar in Roppongi

Most people probably think that the scene that greeted Toyoda as he entered the bar from the street—a bare backside—is something inverted by the author. In fact it is the kind of thing that frequently happened, especially on Fridays. A group of brokers gathered there every Friday to let off steam and one of them invariably dropped his pants every week.

That the bar no longer exists is indeed regrettable, but while it was in business it was definitely a fun place to drink in. It had a great staff, friendly and very efficient, and they kept the drinks flowing as long as people were still standing and able to enjoy the party spirit.

The only negative aspect about the bar was the fact that there was only one toilet — problematic with the amount of liquid consumed on the premises — which often called for creative solutions to the call of nature. It was not unknown for some of the clientele, usually foreign men, to relieve themselves over the balcony at the back of the bar. This occasionally caused offense to some of the more vociferous denizens of Roppongi, especially when they were the recipients of an unwelcome shower.

* The name of the bar has been changed in accordance with wishes of the original owner of the bar.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Visitors to Japan have an enormous variety of foods to choose from.  Sushi, sukiyaki and tempura are familiar Japanese dishes to anyone with even a modicum of gastronomical inquisitiveness. But there are some less well known Japanese dishes that can, quite literally, take your breath away.

Imagine sitting down to a meal and suddenly realizing that you have brought something unpleasant into the restaurant on the soles of your shoes. What do you do? Rush outside and try to scrape the offensive waste off? Not if you are in Japan, you don’t. First of all, quickly and furtively cast you olfactory organ over the dish in front of you; if the smell seems to be emanating from your plate, remain seated. It could be that you have been served the traditional Japanese delicacy of kusaya, which means ‘stinking fish.’

Kusaya is without doubt one of the contenders for the ‘most difficult to acquire a taste for’ award, if there were such an award, that is. But in some parts of Japan, it is considered a delicacy and eaten with gusto.

Kusaya is often made from mackerel, and the process takes months. First of all, the fish are soaked in a kusaya gravy that consists of a brine solution that is used over and over again. Some of this gravy is over 100 years old. When the kusaya gravy is not being used to process mackerel, a fish fillet is added to it to maintain the microflora that boosts the distinctive pungent aroma. When the fish are removed from the kusaya gravy, they are are dried in the sun.

Kusaya are usually grilled, and this is when the uninitiated start checking their shoes and looking around at other patrons. The stench is overpowering, but aficionados of the dish consider this a small price to pay for the taste, which is not as bad as the smell. But there again, it couldn’t possibly be.

On a positive note, there is no record of anyone dying after eating a kusaya, and anyone who actually eats one will have something to talk about when they return to their home country.

Some visitors, however, might not be lucky enough to live through their adventures with Japanese food. Those who want try their luck with fugu, one of the world’s most deadly dishes, should make sure that they eat it only in a special restaurant with a fully-licensed chef. Failure to do this involves the risk of dying a horrible death.Recently, two men from Shikoku foolishly prepared their own dinner of fugu—and they died a few hours later.

Read Full Post »

The Japanese snack known as tsukudani get its name from Tsukudajima, an island in Tokyo Bay that was the center of the fishing industry during the Edo period (1603-1867). Made from fish, shellfish, seaweed such as kombu and wakame, vegetables or meat cooked in soy sauce, sweet rice wine and sugar, tsukudani are the perfect accompaniment to a glass of wine or, preferably, a glass of sake. As they are quite salty, tsukudani are often used as a topping on hot steamed rice.

Read Full Post »

A small restaurant in the station complex at Shinkoiwa in north-east Tokyo has stopped serving a unique delicacy—noodles and rice dishes based on mouse curry. The tachigui restaurant (literally means “standing eating,” and is a small restaurant with a counter at which you stand and eat) served thirteen meals featuring this original dish before it discovered the mouse in the pot.

Apparently, on 13 March from 6.15 AM to about 8.30 AM the restaurant sold four bowls of curried soba or udon (different kinds of noodles), seven bowls of curried rice, and two curry set meals using the curry sauce in which an 8-centimeter-long mouse had been slowly simmering. The curry was made with meat, vegetables and a 3-kilo roux pack in a large pot before the restaurant opened, and had been selling well. As the cook added more roux to the pot and started stirring it, he noticed something that looked like a ball. When he removed it from the pot he discovered that it was a mouse.

Nobody knows how the mouse ended up in the pot but there are three theories: it was in the roux, it was in with the meat and vegetables, or it fell in while tasting the brew.

The restaurant stopped serving meals as soon as the mouse was discovered, and has apologized for any anxiety it may have caused. It has also offered to refund anyone who may have eaten any of the curry dishes. So far no one has complained about their meal.

© Charles R. Pringle 2007

All rights reserved

Read Full Post »

Some years ago, there was a yatai (food stall) behind Yotsuya station. It was run by a real eccentric character who ruled his mise (translated as ‘shop’) with an iron fist.  

The yatai seated about twenty people, ten around the stall with the others sitting on two benches either side of a table, which consisted of a board perched on top of some empty crates. It served only oden (a hotpot), sake and shochu (distilled liquor). The oden was excellent, and itself a reason for stopping by. But the main reason for a visit to this particular yatai was the atmosphere. Every patron was considered an equal and expected to participate in the conversation and the banter on completely equal footing. 

There was one rule, and the master (Japanese equivalent of ‘proprietor’) enforced it with the ruthlessness of a medieval despot: No talking about or indicating rank or status! This effectively meant that talking about one’s job, company or educational background was prohibited because they were clear indicators of status, and so was exchanging or even showing a meishi (business card).  

The rule, which was not written down or displayed anywhere, was explained to newcomers before they even ordered anything. Naturally, some people took offense and left immediately, but most people accepted and even appreciated it.  

Any infringement of this rule would lead to instant eviction from the yatai. Once the master made a decision to evict someone that decision was final. No amount of apologizing or appealing would reverse the decision. But eviction did not mean a permanent ban. People evicted were always welcome to return, provided they obeyed the rule—and many people did return.  

There were, of course, some people who either never learned, or perhaps enjoyed the procedure and attention of being thrown out. These serial offenders were sometimes given a temporary suspension of one or two weeks, after which they would be welcomed back as if nothing had ever happened—until the next time they were evicted.  

The topics of conversation varied with the season and with what was happening in the world. Baseball and sumo were popular topics, as were culture, politics and society. Discussions were often heated—fueled by the hot sake and sochu—with everyone around the stall, or even those sitting at the table, getting involved. Everybody had an opinion, and every opinion was respected, even if not agreed with.  

The master’s favorite topic was sex, of which he had an encyclopedic knowledge. Every single night the conversation turned to the subject, and it was discussed enthusiastically by all present—including the females, of which there were many regulars. In fact, the banter between the master and the female regulars—ladies ranging from early twenties to late fifties—was one of the special features of the yatai. Some of the ladies, no matter how reserved or modest they affected to be at work, could surprise or shock newcomers with the ease at which they handled the sexual innuendos being thrown back and forward.  

The yatai, unfortunately no longer exists. A few years ago the master retired and thus one of the few true bastions of equality in Tokyo vanished. That it no longer exists, however, does not mean that it will be forgotten. I, like many other patrons, will always remember it. How could we ever forget a character like the master, a man who welcomed everyone on the same terms irrespective of rank, status or gender? How could we ever forget his ‘shop,’ a place that served excellent oden, reasonable but not the best liquor, and a fantastic evening of conversation and entertainment (at least one person was evicted every night and the scene was always highly amusing)?

© Charles R. Pringle 2007

All rights reserved

Read Full Post »

Visitors to Japan have an enormous variety of foods to choose from. Sushi, sukiyaki and tempura are familiar Japanese dishes to anyone with even a modicum of gastronomical inquisitiveness. But those who come to Japan can sometimes experience a few culinary surprises.

Imagine sitting down to a meal and suddenly thinking that you have brought something unpleasant into the restaurant on the soles of your shoes. What do you do? Rush outside and try to scrape the offensive waste off? Not if you are in Japan, you don’t. First of all, quickly and furtively cast you olfactory organ over the dish in front of you. If the smell seems to be emanating from your plate, remain seated. It could be that you have been served the traditional Japanese delicacy of kusaya, which means ‘stinking fish.’

If there were an award for the food that was ‘most difficult to acquire a taste for,’ Kusaya would, without doubt, be one of the contenders for it. But in some parts of Japan, it is considered a delicacy and eaten with gusto.

Kusaya is often made from mackerel, and the process takes months. First of all, the fish are soaked in a kusaya gravy that consists of a brine solution that is used over and over again. Some of this gravy is over 100 years old. When the kusaya gravy is not being used to process mackerel, a fish fillet is added to it to maintain the microflora that boosts the distinctive pungent aroma. When the fish are removed from the kusaya gravy, they are are dried in the sun.

Kusaya are usually grilled, and this is when the uninitiated start checking their shoes and looking around at other patrons. The stench is overpowering, but aficionados of the dish consider this a small price to pay for the taste, which is not as bad as the smell. But there again, it couldn’t possibly be.

On a positive note, there is no record of anyone dying after eating a kusaya, and any visitor to Japan who actually eats one will have something to talk about when they return home.

© Charles R. Pringle 2007

All rights reserved

Read Full Post »

 “Not many people actually die eating fugu,” said one of my friends a few months ago, as we dined in a restaurant in Tsukiji, home to Tokyo’s giant fish market. He dipped a raw piece of the deadly fish into the sauce and popped it into his mouth. “The trouble is,” he went on, “that whenever anybody does die, the media jump on it and blow it out of all proportion.”

 

He was right, of course. Not many people do die eating one of the most obscene fishes you could imagine. But there is always the chance that it can happen—and that seems be the attraction.

 

Every year hundreds of thousands of Japanese put their lives on a plate, literally, in a gastronomic form of Russian roulette. They pay a fortune to sit down to a full course fugu meal. Most of them live to talk about the experience the next day, but each year about fifty of them do not. They die still thinking clearly but unable to speak or move and, finally, breathe. Nevertheless, fugu is now more popular than ever, with annual consumption way up to the tens of thousands of tons.

 

But what exactly is fugu? Well, fugu is the general name for the fish of the Tetraondontidae family, which in English are known as blowfish, puffer, globefish or swellfish. Although fugu can be deadly, they have been eaten for hundreds of years in Japan, except for during the feudal period (16031868), when the regime of the Tokugawa shogunate strictly prohibited the consumption of fugu. But as soon as the shogunate was overturned, eating fugu became popular again.

 

What is it that makes fugu so deadly? The simple answer is that the fugu poison, known as tetrodoxin, is so powerful that a mere one or two milligrams is the estimated lethal dose for an adult. It is, in fact, 1250 times deadlier than cyanide. The poison blocks sodium channels in nerve tissues, ultimately paralysing the muscles, leading to respiratory arrest as the cause of death. And there is no proven antidote. About 60% of puffer poisonings prove fatal. The poison is found in the ovaries, intestines and livers, and if even a touch of these internal organs is left in the fish, the diner can die within minutes; so preparation of the fish must be carefully supervised.

 

To ensure safety in the consumption of fugu, government regulations state that fugu must be prepared by a licensed fugu chef who has taken intensive courses, served an extensive apprenticeship and passed written exams. But in Japan it is common to break the rules to cement a personal relationship, and no chef would think twice about bending the rules to please a treasured customer, even if it means risking tragedy.

 

Tragedy struck Mitsugoro Bando VIII, Japan’s leading Kabuki actor, on January 16, 1975 after a meal of fugu in one of the country’s top fugu restaurants. Bando, who had been designated a “living national treasure” by the government, was also a gourmet with a passion for fugu. Dining with three friends who, afraid of being poisoned, declined the livers, Bando rashly ate all four servings of the poison-filled organs, three of which are considered strong enough to kill a man.

 

Before going to bed on the night of his death, Bando told his wife that he was feeling great, as if he were floating on air because he had eaten fugu for dinner. He died of paralysis and convulsions in the middle of the night.

 

It was, and still is, prohibited to serve the fugu liver in restaurants, so the restaurant was suspended for ten days. But Bando’s demise did not stop the customers arriving in droves. If anything, it increased the popularity of the restaurant.

 

Why the Japanese should make a ritual eating deadly poisonous fish is difficult for foreigners to comprehend. For many, the elegant, death-defying event is a status symbol, and some say that consumption of the meat produces a pleasant, warm tingling. Connoisseurs, take the idea a little bit further and try to ingest a little bit of the poison, just enough to cause a warm buzz. And, like Bando, they sometimes overstep the danger mark.

 

 

 

© Charles R. Pringle 2007

All rights reserved

Read Full Post »