Tokyo moves to its own rhythm, with the modern and the old juxtaposed side by side. Travelling by train from Tokyo to anywhere within Japan is efficient and quick, even door-to-door deliveries take no more than a day. Three and a half million people pass through the Shinjuku train station every day, yet there is always a sense of calm and order. From the top of futuristic buildings designed by architects revered in Japan such as Kenzo and Kurokawa, one can gaze out to Shinto shrines, women in kimonos and old-fashioned houses made of wood, paper and tile. Tokyo is beguiling because it is so uniquely Japanese.
- Asparagus yakitori
- Assorted sushi
- Broiled dish, yakimono
- Chicken & egg with rice, oyako donburi
- Chicken skin, heart or gizzard yakitori
- Chilled dish
- Deep fried shrimp and vegetables, tempura
- Eel and rice, unagi donburi
- Fried pork cutlet and rice, tonkatsu donburi
- Fried rice
- Grilled cod fish
- Grilled whole mackerel
- Hot pot dish
- Miso noodle soup, miso ramen
- Mushroom yakitori
- Offal steam boat, motsunabe
- One-pot soup dish, yosenabe
- Pan-fried batter cake, okonomiyaki
- Raw fatty fish – salmon
- Raw fatty fish – toro (fatty tuna)
- Raw white fish – sea bream
- Raw white fish – snapper
- Rolled sushi, norimaki
- Seasonal soup
- Silky textured seafood – raw shrimps
- Silky textured seafood – sea urchin
- Simmered chicken
- Simmered dish
- Simmered fish
- Simmered mixed vegetables
- Simmered tofu with vegetables
- Sliced beef and rice, gyuniku donburi
- Soup and rice
- Spring onion yakitori
- Stir-fried noodles, yakisoba
- Tempura donburi
- Thin beef with vegetable steam boat with raw egg dip, sukiyaki
- Thinly sliced beef with sour ponzu dip, shabu shabu
FOOD AND DINING CULTURE
Nearly everyone in Asia who is passionate about food goes through a love affair with Japanese cuisine. The first impression is one of amazement at the artistry and refinement in every bowl, every dish, and in every tiny morsel. The incredible attention to detail from the choice of ingredients, to their preparation and final presentation seems like a mini ceremony to the food gods. The second impression is one of deep respect. After delving more into such details as the art of cutting fish, preparing tofu, understanding the sequence of a kaiseki meal, there is much respect for those who make the effort and devote their lives to perfecting a small aspect of Japanese cuisine. The third impression is no longer an impression but an understanding that Japan’s food culture is a microcosm of all things Japanese: deference to nature and natural flavours, patience and hard work to master a skill, adherence to customs, respect for talented masters, emphasis on balance and an eye for harmony and visual appeal.
The very best Japanese chefs are obsessed, not with adding or altering flavour, but with taking away distracting flavours to best express the purity and essence of a dish or ingredient.
Asian gourmands have long paid homage to Tokyo. As the most advanced and wealthiest Asian country to emerge after the war, its dining scene soon grew in tandem with its economy. Restaurants proliferated and successful eating establishments survived only by finding their specialised niche.
For Tokyoites, sushi may be a home-grown favourite, but other dishes such as soba, ramen and yakitori have all been perfected in the city. As Japan’s capital since 1868, Tokyo has embraced Kyoto’s refined delicate cuisine brought over by the imperial family.
While it has many unique features, several stand out as being closely associated with Japanese food – appreciation for texture, the role of umami and the attention to eating sequence and visual appeal. For lovers of bold flavours, Japanese food may appear bland. A dish can be so intricate and subtle that enjoyment comes from balance, delicacy and texture. A slice of tuna sashimi may seem simple, but the variations are nearly infinite depending on the tuna source, its freshness, size, age, exact cut, the skill with which it was cut, the serving temperature and the quality of soy sauce and wasabi served along with it. Even different cuts from the same fish can have different names – lean tuna is called maguro and the fatty part of the tuna belly is called toro.
Eating sequence has long been a feature in Chinese banquet cuisine, however, the Japanese have elevated it to an art. An elaborate multi-course kaiseki meal in a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn) is a poetic experience. The courses follow a ritualistic precision from the sakizuki (amuse bouche) to the sashimi course, the simmered dish, the grilled dish, to the beautifully lidded bowl filled with seasonal ingredients. Just as important are the setting and the serving ware – kaiseki cuisine is often served in private rooms with a view of a tranquil scene such as a garden or a sculpted tree. Each bowl, plate or lacquer ware that is presented has been carefully chosen to complement the dish. The chef has considered the season and the weather and tried to ensure that there is harmony and refinement in the combination of flavours presented in a dish. For visual harmony, the five major food colours will have been considered – yellow, black, white, green and red.
BEVERAGE AND WINE CULTURE
Japan enjoys a rich beverage culture that is both tea and rice wine-based. It is no wonder that given the sophistication of its traditional drinks, imported alcoholic beverages like wine are facing a glass ceiling.
The Japanese have been making alcoholic beverages from grains for more than 1,500 years. Sake brewing dates back to the 12th century and the establishment of districts famed for the local drink is at least 500 years old. It plays an important role in formal ceremonies and consumed in nearly every major rite of passage such as births, deaths and marriages.
Japan’s wine market is fairly sophisticated and wine education continues to grow. The country has over 13,000 sommeliers. The rise of wine in pop culture, namely in popular mangas (comic books) such as the Le Goutte de Dieu (The Drops of God), has encouraged a new generation of wine consumers. Wine dovetails nicely into Japan’s drinking culture.
WINE AND JAPANESE FOOD
In many ways, pairing wine with Japanese food is the easiest among all the Asian cuisines. A key characteristic of Japanese cuisine is the highly specialised nature of the types of food –sushi, soba, ramen, yakitori, kaiseki. This means that pairing wine is often limited to a more manageable range of flavours. In addition, the seasonings and tastes are rarely aggressive or powerful, allowing plenty of room for wine to express itself.
With simple, everyday food, several cultural challenges arise – a typical Japanese table has little space to place wine and its accoutrements. Sushi and ramen counters have little room for wine glasses and the tall glass stems are easily knocked down. Crowded izakayas (pub-restaurants), yakitori and tempura outlets similarly have little room for placing wine bottles, glasses and ice buckets.
This cultural challenge, which is present to some degree in nearly every Asian city, is one of the reasons that wine enjoyment and drinking are often separate affairs from eating a meal. There are numerous wine bars throughout Tokyo specifically for this purpose, where wine is consumed with snacks after a meal. Most drinking venues from karaoke bars to beer gardens now offer wine. In this context, wine is often enjoyed with small snacks such as peanuts, fruit, cheese, dried salted fish and other local snack fare. Many of the snack foods in Tokyo are similar to those available in Korea.
RECOMMENDED WINES FOR JAPANESE CUISINE:
Grand Cru Burgundy Red
Grand Cru Burgundy White
New World White