#25 Tempura

Perhaps I could have set higher expectations for my year abroad than to eat a bowl of battered-fried vegetables but, as a woman, I am genetically predisposed to being attracted to anything laden with fat and/or sugar, so I happily added tempura to the list of conquests.

I’m the kind of person would basically eat her own foot if it was covered in batter anyway, so I knew all along that tempura couldn’t possibly fail me.

I was not disappointed. In ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ style I ate them in restaurants, karaoke joints, izakayas, in Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Shikoku, in tiny dishes, from large platters, piled on top of a steaming bowl of udon, with sushi… almost anywhere I could order them, I did.

Real Japanese Tempura (yes, with capital letters) is crispy, light and so subtly delicious that my mouth is watering right now thinking about the taste of dipping it whilst still warm into a dish of tentsuyu (tempura sauce), tilting my head back and dropping the entire thing into my mouth like those claw machines at fairgrounds. It’s an art that any true British person has mastered by the age of seven from practising since birth, The Art of Dipping the Rich Tea Biscuit – how to perfectly time the immersion so that you could pop the morsel in your mouth dripping with liquid on the outside and yet still remain crispy on the inside.

Good tempura batter tastes like buttery air and the vegetables still maintain their fresh sweet taste even after frying (deceitfully disguising the calories hidden inside).

Like the ‘scrambled egg test’ that a lot of trainee chefs have to pass in order to prove that they can cook well, (the premise is that if they can’t cook even a simple dish properly, then they have no hope), it’s hard to find Real Japanese Tempura anywhere else other than in the kitchen of a skilled chef. I remember once my host mother tried to make it but there wasn’t enough air in the batter so it was more like a piece of chopped vegetable was trapped inside dough mixture (which I had no problem with eating anyway), rather than wrapped in a delicate cocoon of translucent batter.

Speaking of transluscency, I can tell from my almost sexual way of describing Real Japanese Tempura that I enjoyed it a bit too much. Now I have become one of those people who have been to Nirvana and has come back to never be able to face a cod and chips again without comparing it to tempura and thinking, “Ew, this tastes like my foot in batter”.

#29 Udon

Yamakake Udon

If there’s one place that’s renowned around Japan for udon noodles, it’s Shikoku – home of Sanuki udon. Named after the a city in Kagawa prefecture (one of the four that make up Shikoku – lit. meaning ‘four countries’) it is famous for it’s pleasurable chewy texture and thick but almost earthy flavour.

Generally, udon is made from wheat-flour, which is made into a dough, rolled out and sliced into thin long pieces. It can then be served hot or cold, depending on the season. In the winter, it is popularly served in a dashi-based broth, with various winter vegetables and/or meat. Other ways of serving it hot include with a generous helping of curry (pictured below), or tempura, eggs and tofu. In the summer, it can be eaten dipped in a chilled dashi-shoyu mixture, served with light, fresh ingredients such as green onion, daikon (radish) or nori (seaweed).

Curry Udon

Sanuki is a regional variety found in Shikoku, where it is said to be the first area to adopt udon when a monk brought it from China centuries ago. These days, it can be found with many different kinds of toppings and sauces, with a few regions producing their own udon of varying thickness, length and texture.

Udon is cheap and delicious, and stands proudly next to ramen as Japan’s answer to good fast food. It’s versatility is exactly what makes it interesting – if you ever live in Japan for a while you begin to grow fond of your own variety (in my case Kitsune udon of the Kansai area) and it’s exactly one of those things that make travelling a great experience since you don’t know what kind of delights to expect wherever you walk into an udon restaurant.

#6 Green Tea

In ancient times, the water in Japan (and China) was too dirty to drink straight from the sources, so they were usually boiled before consumption. People then got the idea to flavor the water with various kinds of leaves and even flowers, fruits and bark which also enhanced the nutritional value of the water. Thus, a strong tea culture formed over hundreds of years and is still going strong today.

Even in ‘modern’ cities, tea is ubiquitous. Traditional food has also developed alongside tea (or sake) which means that in most Japanese restaurants you’ll almost certainly automatically be served some form of green tea instead of a glass of water like we have in the west.

‘Green Tea’ is an umbrella word that covers almost any tea that is well, green. But there are so many types of green tea – both Japanese and Chinese.

However, although you can find almost any tea any where in Japan, there is only one that is quintessentially Japanese – matcha. Famously used in the Japanese tea ceremony, it is considered one of the highest grades of tea one can drink.

It is usually found in powder form, and you can buy it at any supermarket or combini. It’s a little pricey, but it can be used for more than just making tea. Matcha is used to flavour many foodstuffs, including ice-cream, jelly and chocolate. One of my favourites is matcha latte, which tastes delicious and warms you up on a cold day. During the summer, you can also get matcha ice tea or you can buy various matcha flavored things from vending machines.

Matcha tends to be a little bit like Marmite – you either love it or hate it… but in my experience most people at least don’t mind it. I’ve noticed however, that matcha is much more available in more touristy areas, which could be an indication that it sells well to foreigners who want to try it, and isn’t consumed as much by the Japanese people themselves (in my host family, for example, we don’t have matcha).

As a person halfway between a foreigner and a Japanese person, I can attest that I still love it and would choose matcha over chocolate ice cream any day.

#17 Sake

Sake (along with tea) is the at the centre of traditional Japanese drinks. Simply explained, it is made from rice into a clear liquid. But the simplicity ends there as there can be more taste variations and types for sake than red wine.

Sake (pronounced ‘sah-kay’) can be found in different viscosities – from water-like to syrup-like, filtered different numbers of times, made from different proportions to water and from different fermentation times and processes. Furthermore, you can buy sake either cool, room temperature or hot.

Usually I prefer to order sake warmed which makes it much easier to drink than when it is cold in my opinion. The aroma is stronger, but my friend showed me a technique in which you breathe in before sipping, then breath out after swallowing. That way you don’t get what I like to call ‘the strong alcohol shivers’.

My guess is that the sake from the ‘all-you-can-drink’ places isn’t the best in the world. You can buy some very fine sake from small alcohol shops dotted all over Japan. There are also sake exhibitions held every year in which sake makers show off their very best efforts. Even though I’m probably an alcoholic in denial, I don’t think I’ll have the capacity to sip sake for long enough to be able to still be standing after such an event. You’re really supposed to spit it out when you’re just tasting, but we all know nobody does that 😉

At many Shinto Shrines you can see stacks of beautifully decorated sake barrels on display. Although at first thought it may seem like the monks are not being discreet enough about how much they love sake, the display is actually a part of a ceremony they perform whilst offering sake to the gods.

Recently, I’ve also fallen in love with umeshu which is another Japanese alcoholic drink that is a little weaker percentage-wise, but is much sweeter in taste. In any case, both are such essential parts of Japanese cuisine (many dishes are designed to be accompanied by sake) that they’re definitely a ‘must-try’ on anybody’s to-do list.

#23 Sushi

Ask any non-Japanese person what the first thing that comes into their head is when they think of Japanese food and they’ll probably say….”Oh, it must be kaiseki – the epitiome of Japanese cuisine that encompasses the Japanese sensitivity to the seasons!“.

Either that, or they’ll probably say “er…sushi?“.

Sushi comes in hundreds of different kinds, but essentially it refers to the vingared rice that sushi is based on. Contrarary to popular belief, it doesn’t mean ‘raw fish’ (which is called sashimi) as sushi can be served with many other non-fishy toppings too, such as egg, cucumber and avocado (the latter being a Western invention, is actually quite rare in Japan).

The rice is the Japanese sticky kind that holds well together, but a lot of the time it is wrapped inside nori which is made of green seaweed dried and pressed into thin flat pieces, like paper.

Sushi is usually eaten dipped in soy sauce, sometimes with a tiny bit of wasabi mixed into it. Wasabi is a hot paste made from horseradish and is instantly recognisable for it’s bright green color (don’t get it mixed up with matcha!)

Another thing a lot of foreigners don’t know is that it’s perfectly acceptable to eat sushi with your hands – it’s not seen as a bad thing at all. What is bad is a gaijin stubbornly fiddling around with chopsticks thinking it’s the ‘culturally correct’ thing to do and have the sushi rice break apart and splash soy sauce everywhere. (Yes, this has happened).

The quality of sushi can vary greatly, from the finest restaurant kind to the ready-made convenience store kind. Somewhere in between that is also the famous kaiten-zushi – otherwise known as conveyor belt sushi. But generally, if you’re not a sushi connoisseur, they mostly taste very similar, regardless of price.

Sushi is cheap, fast, low in fat and delicious – a combo you rarely see in any kind of food. There’s a reason why it has become one of the most popular foods in the West, but nowhere else in the world is it as authentically scrumptious as it is in Japan.

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