Eating Through Japan - One meal at a Time

No! Sushi isn’t the only thing to eat in Japan.

Shirin Mehrotra

“You’ll get only sushi in Japan and it’s really bad."
“How can you eat raw fish?”
“Ohhh! You are going to eat so much sushi!” 

These were just some of the few tips and questions directed at me when I planned my Japan trip a few years ago. This is also the generic understanding of Japanese food in India, not surprising since our first introduction to the cuisine has been through the ‘sushi section’ of a five-star buffet or an ‘all you can eat’ package at restaurants. My first experience of eating Japanese food was at a tiny restaurant called Aoi (now shuttered) in Bandra. It was the second restaurant (Kofuku was the first stand-alone restaurant to open in the suburbs) in Mumbai that made Japanese food accessible and affordable. Both the restaurants made us familiar with katsu curry, donburi, okonomiyaki and ramen.

At different stages of my life literature helped me learn more about Japan’s food; Haruki Murakami’s abstract world introduced me to udon and grilled eel; from Hiromi Kawakami’s A Strange Weather in Tokyo I learnt about the Izakayas (informal gastro-pubs known for inexpensive food and cheap tipple) and the tapas style small plates served there. However, a larger world of Japanese cuisine opened up when I read Rice, Noodle, Fish by Matt Goulding—an extensively researched book on Japan’s food culture. Goulding wrote about the yakitori hub of Tokyo, street food of Osaka, hundreds of ramen shops in Fukuoka and the different cooking styles of Kyoto. It was probably this research that sushi ended up forming a very small part of my meals there.

On my very first evening in Tokyo, I landed at a small Izakaya on the Golden Gai Street famous for its tiny drinking joints. There, sitting in the midst of salary men and college kids, I had the first and one of the most satisfying meals of my trip—stir fried mushrooms flavoured with a dash of soy sauce, yakisoba (stir fried noodles with pork), and grilled prawns. Next couple of days were spent eating wasabi octopus, pork katsu with sticky rice, grilled octopus, agedashi tofu (soft tofu coated with potato starch and deep-fried), ramen, bento boxes available at train stations and of course…sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market.


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Go Vegetarian

While my meals consisted of non-vegetarian food, it’s not extremely difficult to find vegetarian food either. Salonee Sanghvi, an equity analyst from Mumbai, who travelled to Japan in 2017 says, “I had heard that it was hard to find vegetarian food in Japan especially since they use a lot of bonito flakes (flakes made with dried bonito fish) even in vegetarian dishes. Luckily I found enough options and with the help of Google translate ensured it was actually vegetarian. I ate a lot of ramen and okonomiyaki, which is a type of savoury Japanese pancake. We didn’t get too much sushi, I guess because vegetarian sushi is largely a Californian concept.” The popularity of vegan food also helped her find restaurants that served only vegetarian or vegan food. “Also, Buddhist temples serve only veg food so Kyoto has a lot of veg options,” she adds.

Kyoto is famous for its three distinct cuisines: Kaiseki ryōri which is a simple meal served at the tea ceremonies. Here the focus is on few ingredients but multiple courses involve different styles of cooking. Obanzai ryōri, which is home style cooking, and Shojin ryōri, a traditional vegetarian cuisine of the Buddhist monks. Shojin means pursuing a state of mind free of worldly thoughts and attachment and Shojin ryōri is an essential part of the practice. The monks believe that in order to achieve enlightenment it’s important to abstain from meat, fish, insects or any kind of strong flavours. There is use of dairy products and eggs, but rare since these two were scarce in the ancient times.

Shojin ryōri is based on harmony and the meals reflect a balance of nutrition and colours. The idea of ‘nothing should go to waste’ is also incorporated in the cooking, which means every part of an ingredient is used. There’s no use of onion and garlic in the cooking and the broths are made using dried mushrooms and seaweed instead of fish. At a restaurant in Arashiyama, a district on the western suburbs of Kyoto where hand-pulled rickshaws and temples still paint the Meiji period charm, I went in to taste the Buddhist meal. Typical ingredients of a Shojin ryōri include tofu and abura-age (fried soybean curd). Goma-dofu (sesame tofu), koya-dofu (dried tofu), yuba (soy milk film), fu (wheat gluten), konnyaku (rum root cakes) and natto (fermented soy beans) along with various kinds of seaweed. The meal is cooked with seasonal vegetables. Some of the common Shojin ryōri dishes are—vegetable tempura, kenchin soup (miso based soup with vegetables and tofu), tofu prepared with sesame seeds and wasabi, and pickled vegetables.


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Wondrous Discoveries

My introduction to Obanzai style of cooking happened at a local’s home in Kyoto, an experience I booked through Traveling Spoon. We drove through the Kamigamo River to reach our host Keiko Morita’s house in Koyama Kamigamo, on the outskirts of Kyoto. In her humble and minimal kitchen Keiko taught me how to make a perfect tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette). It was magical to see how just a few ingredients—satou (sugar), shi (salt), su (vinegar), seuyu (soy sauce), so (miso)—can turn the dish around. Our lunch included onigiri (rice balls), tamagoyaki, pickled ginger, misoshiru (miso and mushroom soup), shitake tsukune (shitake stuffed with minced chicken and pan-fried), nikujaga (a stew made with beef, potato and carrots).

Kyoto’s Nishiki Market, also referred to as Kyoto’s kitchen, is a wonderland for adventurous eaters. Spread over five blocks the market street has over hundred shops selling variety of seafood—you can try grilled eel, sashimi, octopus stuffed with quail eggs, Japanese pickles, dry fish, spice mixes, sweets and so much more.

Each time my meal got a little overwhelming, I’d head to the bakery nearby to grab a few croissants or take a bus to the popular gyoza joint, Shijo Kawaramachi, for some familiar comfort. The food in Japan was never disappointing, constantly surprising and definitely way beyond the raw fish and sushi that we’re familiar with. 


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