Favorite Food Experiences in Japan Part 1; Noodles, Unagi, Tempura and Tonkatsu
The tagline for this site is “Cook. Eat. Travel. Grow.” I’ve been a little remiss in keeping up with the “Travel” part, so I thought it’s time to include some of my favorite food experiences from a trip to Japan over the next few weeks. In October I’m headed back to Rome, Naples and Paestum (the home of buffalo mozzarella!) so I’ll also be writing about all the wonderful Italian food we eat and markets we visit.
Don’t worry, there are plenty of new recipes coming as well.
In April, my husband and I spent eight days in Tokyo and Kyoto about 6 weeks after the devastating tsunami and earthquake of March 11, 2011. We had an amazing time and found the people to be so welcoming.
Oh, and the food! I was thrilled with the incredible diversity of deliciousness there. We hardly had a bad meal and ate something different and new every day we were there.
What is the quintessential food experience in Japan? Some might say sushi, but others would say noodles and I think I’d have to agree. Noodles are comfort food; easy, quick, and cheap, and found just about everywhere. The variety is endless.
One of our favorite noodle experiences was when we set out to find an udon noodle restaurant and instead ended up in one of the most well known ramen chains in Tokyo, Ramen Jiro, though we did not know it at the time.
I had a building address, but it’s notoriously difficult to find specific places in Tokyo even when you do have the address. We found a noodle place which seemed to be the one we were looking for. We stood outside and hesitated for a while, but it was clearly popular (there was a wait for seats) and it smelled incredible, so we ventured in. This is the type of place where one pays and orders from a ticket machine and gives a ticket to the guy behind the counter. Unfortunately, there were no photos on the buttons, only Japanese characters, so we had no idea what to order. After a few minutes, the guy cooking the noodles comes out from the back and pantomimes with a few words in English “noodles/soup”, “noodles (separate from) soup” and “small, medium, large” on the buttons. There were a few other options probably involving the amount of garnish put on top, but we just picked two buttons and ordered.
I get the smallest “noodle/soup” option for 700 yen and David gets the largest for 1100 yen. They ask if we wanted garlic and we say yes. This turns out to be a heaping spoonful of raw (maybe blanched) roughly chopped garlic put on top of the steaming bowl of soup before it is presented.
When our noodles finally arrive, and I remember thinking “hmmm…these don’t really seem like udon.” And as it turns out, they weren’t udon, but instead were a fairly thick ramen. It’s funny how our expectations can be so strong that they can color our actual experience. We just assumed we were in the right place because all the clues matched. At the time, neither one of us said “Hey, wait a minute, this isn’t udon!” We were too busy slurping to give it much thought.
Noodles in the Tsukiji Fish Market:
Noodles in the fish market? Yep! We had sushi too (more on that here). This was actually our second breakfast that morning.
We had struck up a conversation with us with a guy running a stall selling cleaning supplies in the market. He pointed to a tiny restaurant across from him and said, “eat there, where the men in rubber boots eat.” We peeked inside and the smells were amazing and was indeed filled with guys who obviously worked in the market. We took note and set off to see the fish.
The enticing smell from the noodle restaurant called us back and after walking the market we went and got two seats at the counter. The place is no more than 8 feet wide, counter only, stretching from one street to the next. There was absolutely nothing in English (no signs or menus) and no one spoke any either, so this presented a little challenge at first. We looked around at what others were eating and David pointed to what the guy next to us was having, some type dry noodles with pork. Almost everyone else was having a noodle soup with very large clams in it. We used David’s phone with its translation app to ask for “soup with noodles with meat, no clams” for me.
David’s noodles arrived first and they turned out to be cold, with a vinegar type sauce, sliced pork, cucumbers, pickled radish and a dab of yellow mustard on the plate. They were excellent. My soup came out a few minutes later and it was the one with the clams. So much for the translation app. No matter, I enjoyed it even though it was not what I’d originally asked for.
The soup had a pat of butter on top adding a depth and richness to the already incredibly flavorful broth. It was loaded with slivered fresh leeks and springy yellow noodles. Even the clams were wonderful, though how could they not be there in the fish market? Later, the guy who had pointed us in here told us it was called asari ramen. We were given green tea and water. The bill was 1800 yen and shown to us on a calculator.
In addition to the noodles above, I had udon at a place in Kyoto (see below) and on our first night in Tokyo, very late, jet-lagged, and unsure of our hotel’s surroundings, we had ramen in a Denny’s, which was unlike any Denny’s experience in the US (but very tasty nonetheless).
I love grilled eel in sushi restaurants and when I’d read about a place which serves nothing but grilled eel and supposedly some of the best in the country, I knew we had to go there. Hitsumabushi is famous for their special Nagoya-style tamari sauce on unagi (eel) which has been grilled over bincho charcoal.
We were seated inside on the banquette against the back wall of the restaurant’s single small room. The space is quite inviting, there is a large communal table filled with zen flower arrangements in the center.
We ordered a salad with grilled eel on top (top photo in this post) and the mid-range set meal which came with eel in “sweet” sauce, rice, miso soup, pickled vegetables, and some other unidentifiable (to us) edibles. The eel on both dishes was amazing; delicate in both flavor and texture. While I very much enjoyed the salad I would have been happy to have my own set meal so I could have more of the unagi. Lunch for two, including beer was 4800 yen.
Afterward, I stood at the window which looks into the kitchen from the hallway outside, watching the one of the cooks work the charcoal grill. He saw me with my camera and was nice enough to hold up the skewered eel for me after he had dipped it in the giant vat of sauce next to the fire.
Hitsumabushi Nagoya Bincho 5159-0231 Ginza /2-2-14, Marronnier Gate 12F. Open 11am-3, 5-10pm daily. http://www.hitsumabushi.co.jp/menu_eng.html Located on the 12thfloor of the Ginza branch of Tokyu Hands department store.
What’s not to love about battered and fried food? Perfectly executed tempura is how it should be; light and greaseless is the goal and Tsunahachi is the place.
Tsunahachi in Tokyo
Upon entering the main branch of Tsunahachi in Shinjuku, you are greeted politely and asked if you want to sit in the smoking or non-smoking section. The restaurant has two floors, both with an identical layout of long counter, regular tables and a tatami mat room with low tables. The non-smoking section is upstairs and we were led to two seats at the counter, right next to the tatami mat room and where we could watch the two men behind the counter cook. The waitresses place a linen napkin over your coat on the back of your chair to keep the smell of the fryer off it which was a nice touch.
The menu is extensive and after spending an hour lost trying to find the place, we took the easy way out and each got a “set” which included large shrimp, squid, small shrimp, various vegetables and miso soup.
Watching the cooks was a fascinating lesson in economy of motion; they are clearly professionals. The tempura was light and greaseless; absolutely sublime. The vegetables were perfectly cooked. The shrimp were so fresh they were still moving when they were cut and prepped for the batter. Our bowl of miso soup include thumbnail sized clams in the bottom. Dinner for two, including beer was 5290 yen.
http://www.tunahachi.co.jp/en/index.html (note that is the correct spelling of the web site, even though the name of the restaurant has an “s” in it.)
They have 6 branches in Tokyo and the one we went to was the original. 3-31-8 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku.
Asuka in Kyoto
After a long day of walking around, for dinner we opt to keep it close to the hotel. Down the road from the Westin Kyoto is a small family run udon noodle and tempura house called Asuka. Inside, there is a counter and 4 tables all on raised platforms with mats to sit on. If you go, please remove your shoes as is the norm here (unfortunately, some Italian tourists sitting next to us did not get the memo on this and were oblivious to the custom).
I order the udon with shrimp tempura and David gets a set menu with tempura, miso soup, rice and pickles. The udon soup is flavorful with perfectly cooked noodles, but next time I will opt to keep the tempura on the side as the tempura coating gets too soft, too fast, for my taste when it’s put directly in the soup.
Asuka, near the corner of Sanjo and Jungumichi Streets, Open 11am-11pm, closed Mondays. Our dinner for two, including a small sake, was 2400 yen.
Also in Kyoto, we had a lovely meal which included tempura at its center at a small back-alley, family run place. You can read about that here.
Tonkatsu is a breaded, deep fried pork cutlet, sliced into bite sized pieces. Fried. Pork. How could we not eat this?
Our opportunity to try it came about spending about 3 hours walking around the small city of Nara, checking out the ancient temples and sacred deer who are allowed to roam free all over town. On the way back to the train, we stopped at the bus station across the street from the train station. Down a dark hallway on the outside of the station we found a teeny-tiny family run place with just two tables and a counter. We sat at a table and enjoyed an inexpensive meal of tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet) and beer. While the crinkle fries were cold and scary, the pork was juicy and perfectly cooked and the meal was very affordable at 650 yen.
Out of these four dishes, what’s your favorite?
Coming soon, more on the food of Japan, covering Yakatori; Izakaya, Sushi and Okonomiyaki (part 2) and Markets and Food Halls (part 3).
The experiences here are just the highlights. If you want to see more of our trip, including more photos and details of the food and markets, check out the Japan page on my travel blog. There, besides more food, you’ll find Harajuku girls and Rockabilly boys, a wedding ceremony at Tokyo’s Meiji shrine, castles in Kyoto, a temple with a thousand red gates, sacred deer and much more.
For more on food and travel, check out Wanderfood Wednesdays.
My husband, who is 3rd gen Japanese American, grew up eating very simple Japanese food cooked by his mom and grandma. So he has some favorites, like udon and unagi and mochi. I confess that I’m totally about the ramen, as is our son.
Suzanne- I confess I did not know that much about Japanese food before our visit. Now I am a convert!
This is a great occasion to rent Tampopo, if you haven’t already. Here’s the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LURg2doYGjo ~Brian
Brian- It’s been many years since I’ve seen Tampopo. I might just have to rent it again!
Ohhh! I love all of this! Tonkatsu is one of the first things I learned to cook just after I first got married 🙂 I am so glad you got to experience Japan this way.
The pictures are such good quality. I am extremely jealous of the fact you went to Japan. Your culinary travels are an inspiration!
the food dude
Pretty hard to choose a favorite here, I just like all of then, the tempura, tonkatsu, the eel and the noodles, that’s an awesome feast! And yes, “eat where the men in rubber boots eat” is an excellent tip, go where the locals eat. Nothing better than learning a country’s culture than by eating its different cuisines. Great story!
Those tempura vegetables and fried pork both sound so amazing! I really don’t like seafood so a lot of the other things did not sound very enticing, but I definitely love me some perfect, lightly fried vegetables. I had no idea it was so hard to navigate in Japan; sounds like a headache waiting to happen! But I’m glad to know that basically any noodle dish is going to be delicious.
It’s definitely a tough choice, but my favorite is the Nagoya-style unagi! I lived in Nagoya for 8 months and Tokyo for 4 months and even though Tokyo has a ton of restaurants, the majority of the best meals I had in Japan were in Nagoya and were Nagoya style cuisine. Misokatsu is another fabulous Nagoya dish, it’s the tonkatsu fried pork cutlet covered in red miso and it is amazing! I highly recommend it.