Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Kyoto - Nishiki Food Market & Kaiseki Dinner

It should surprise no one who knows us that the Nishiki Food Market was one of our first stops in Kyoto. This narrow covered arcade is the number-one source for all kinds of Kyoto treats.

These are basically molded sugar.

A black sesame rice cracker. These things are heavenly.

A kind of sweet brown mochi.

You know, I spent a lot of time there making this face.
 But not everything was quite so appetizing.

Whale tongues in wet clay.

A Polynesian sacrificial altar.

The work of an adolescent dolphin sociopath.
Either an anorexic squid or an eel with hyperthyroidism.
Candied octopus lollipops.
 (Actually, from the top: eggplant in miso; red snapper, dried and fried; ???; ?!?!; candied octopus lollipops.)

Obviously, Nana and I were neither hungry nor adventurous enough to try everything we saw at Nishiki, though a couple days later we did eat some pretty wild and wonderful stuff at a kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) restaurant near our B&B.

Just a few items on the nine-course tasting menu:

  • Smoked oysters in a kind of mustard sauce
  • Crab dumpling soup (basically, they use every part of the crab but the shell)
  • Sashimi (slices of raw fish), including yellowtail, scallops
  • Some smoked mackerel with a touch of mustard (which currently ranks among the most delicious things I've ever eaten in my life)
  • A chunk of chicken liver
  • A hunk of some kind of fish, vaguely mackerel-ish, marinated in that same brown miso paste you saw above
  • Japanese winter stew
  • Rice with poached salmon and ikura (salmon eggs)
It wasn't cheap, but it was definitely worth it. Even better, we were seated at a counter right in front of the chef, who spoke some English and was able to describe a bit of what he was up to. A lesson, a show, and a fine meal, all rolled into one! 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The aesthetics of lunch

Japan is known as a country with a passion for design. If I had more time, I could probably come up with some scholarly explanations of the principles of space and balance, but it's 8:30 and I have ten papers to grade before bed, so you can just imagine something excellent. Go revisit my sushi triumph and experience the majesty all over again.

Or don't. Because the stuff in this post makes my award-winning sushi platter look like just another pile of carbs and Omega 3.

Here is a snack Justin and I got in Kurokawa, a hot springs town. On the left, a bowl of hot frothy green tea (delicious!). On the right, rice cakes and sweet red bean.

The presentation is so balanced and lovely, except for the spoon, which I moved to eat with but then stuck back in the wrong place. Whitey has no style.

And then there's this opus from a local tempura (fried things) place. The theme of the dish (of course fried things have to have a theme; this is Japan!) was "autumn."

Decorative maple and ginkgo leaves. A mushroom with a flower carved in the top. Two edible gingko berries on what we thought were actual stems, but then found out were edible pieces of Japanese buckwheat noodle. And then the pinecone, which was a potato. Hand-carved. We saw him making some for the next day, and they took five to ten minutes each.

Which brings us to today's BBC News magazine special on lunchboxes for Japanese schoolchildren. We noticed products especially for the lunchbox crowd in our local supermarket, such as decorative plastic grass, miniature flowers, and pressed seaweed precut so that when you wrap it around rice it turns into a soccer ball, or Mickey Mouse. My immediate reaction was, "This cannot be about the kids. This has got to be competition with other mothers." And lo and behold, BBC confirms. The mothers in this special take lessons so they can make cartoon character lunchboxes, and the mother who teaches the classes has made everything from a Sony Playstation controller to Indiana Jones. She says her human character bentos (lunchboxes) take two hours. There is a reason Japan has a low rate of mothers in the workplace.

On a totally unrelated note, congratulations to the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, purveyors of odd city tours, on their recent victory in the Japan World Series! We learned about this when we got into the subway, in which all the advertisements had been replaced by Softbank Hawk posters and banners, and then we got stuck in the crowds leaving the victory parade. On the plus side, we taught our landlord the word "ticker-tape."

Hopefully you remember that Softbank is brought to you by the White Family, in which the mother and daughter are Japanese, the father is a dog, the son is a black American guy, and Grandma has gotten remarried to a twenty-something Japanese movie star. We have recently learned that the family has an uncle, and it is Quentin Tarantino.

The same league also brings you a team called the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. They were not in the final and apparently never are, but they are relevant because according to a fan web site, the team has a "fluorescent pink mascot, Fighty, who resembles a fuzzy pterodactyl and rides a bicycle." I think we can all agree that Fighty needs to marry into the White family ASAP.