Fish so fresh it’s nearly breathing, endless bowls of noodles in bone broth, topped with spring onions and bamboo shoots; raw mackerel blowtorched at our table to a delicious crisp; grapefruits heavy with heady scent; sweet and thick plum wine and crystal-clear sake served in tiny cups. Salty barbequed chicken skin; pink fish eggs that burst into the tongue; light green tea served cold to ease the humidity; thin strips of bright white daikon; soft green avocadoes; little pearls of white rice waiting patiently for accompanying array of sauces, pickles and dressings.
This has been my world for the last fortnight as I have greedily chomped and slurped my way through every Japanese foodstuff I could get my hands on whilst whirling my way around the sites and sounds of Tokyo on a visit to a wonderful foodie friend. Together, in between shrine-hopping and exploring we guzzled on all the delicacies on offer. We tried every taster in every Food Hall, sneakily slipped green tea ice creams and rice snacks into our mouths at any possible moment, whilst I stared, open-mouthed, at the beautiful presentation of intensely fresh salads, brightly-coloured fruits and crispy, salty fried fish and meat.
The quality of Japanese food hugely impressed me; each Fuji apple crispy and sweet, each cabbage robust, round and strong, each cut of meat bright and fat. This quality is, unsurprisingly, reflected in the prices. Sushi is at least as expensive as it is on this side of the world, despite the world’s largest fish market being located in the middle of the city.
However, although said apple sets you back more than a euro, this actually brings me some sense of relief. Food is good and is charged appropriately, unlike the endless scrabble for cheap or discounted food that colours so many food habits in at least England, America and Spain.
Out of all the numerous bites, slurps, gulps and chews of Tokyoite food, I ate not one bad meal, not even one mediocre meal. Each feeding time was a true feast for my taste buds. A refreshing ramen on a hot day, topped with soft chicken and yuzu, a tart citrus fruit I’d never tasted before. Ice cream flavours are not sickly sweet, but gentle and fragrant; black sesame, green tea, cherry blossom, almond. Crispy gyoza dumplings or fried prawn cakes are each accompanied by their own delicious dipping sauce, alternately deep and salty-sweet, or vinegary and fresh.
This high quality and freshness of raw ingredients means that Japanese cuisine excels at simplicity; raw tuna on a bed of shredded daikon; various cuts of meat grilled over a dry barbeque and salted; buckwheat noodles slurped a
fter a quick dip in soy sauce, served with the liquid the noodles were cooked in. This perfection of the basics also allows for wonderful forays into more elaborate fare; sweet cloudlike rice
dumplings, sushi, and complicated bento boxes are a case in point.
One aspect of Japanese cuisine that really appeals to me is the respect for tradition that still runs through much of their cooking. A ramen, that deeply soothing bowl of salty broth and noodles, topped by veg and meat or seafood, is often still based on a hearty stock made by simmering bones for hours in advance. Centuries-old partnerships between foodstuffs are respected.
Wasabi and pickled ginger, with their respective a
nti-bacterial and anti-parasitic properties, are eaten alongside raw fish. Umeboshi, pickled plums, are eaten alongside heavy meals to promote digestion.
Regionality means that the butter and dairy produce of the northern island is much pricier elsewhere, whilst the fruits of the tropical southern island climes rarely make it into Tokyo other than to select specialist food shops. Fooding in Japan appears to me anything but a homogeneous experience, with seasonal variations causing almost cult-like subservience to certain foodstuffs during their moment. Bizarrely, this trend even trickles down to confectionary with chocolate bars and sweets adapted to and only available during specific seasons.
It seems to be that underlying the Japanese relationship to eating is a real respect for the food itself; it is often sourced locally, in season, and
consumed whilst beautifully fresh. This means that eating healthily in Japan is a real possibility, even if by eating lots of convenience foods; brightly coloured raw fish, fermented pickled, or delicious bone broths.
The downside of the decent and much-appreciated convenience food, however, is the production of an awful lot of waste. Sushi boxes, or lightly tempura-battered vegetables, will be wrapped several times over, then to be emptied and discarded within minutes. Over-enthusiastic packaging is the norm; tiny purchases are beautifully enveloped in layers of wrapping; supermarket products are individually covered in clingfilm and bags; plastic-filled vending machines line every street.
But, on balance, entering and exploring Japanese food culture has been a feast for my senses. Beautifully balanced tastes are accompanied by a dainty aesthetic. Bento boxes are filled with a spectrum of colours, drinks are poured into diminutive glasses, pickled ginger and soy sauce come housed in ornate pots. This is a food culture that calls for attention to what is being eaten, asking for elegance, patience and beauty and finding it in enchanting presentation and uniformly high-quality food.