Thursday, February 18, 2010

Japan, Post Four

Japan Aug. 21-22 - More About Food

One of the discoveries I make while traveling is food I've never heard of before--the dishes that don't get exported, that don't show up in ethnic restaurants in the U.S.

One of the Japanese meals I enjoyed most was okonomiyaki, sometimes called Japanese pizza, although it's more like crepes or pancakes that are savory, not sweet. We had Osaka-style okonomiyaki ("yaki" means grilled, by the way), and after we got home I found a recipe here that approaches what we had. If you decide to try making it, be sure to either get some Japanese mayonnaise or make your own with egg and oil in a blender with spices, using mild rice vinegar--the Japanese version is neither sour nor bitter, in fact is almost sweet.

None of us had ever heard of this dish, but we were up for adventure when our guide asked if we would like to try it. We were staying in Kurashiki, which is not a big tourist place but has an area of theaters, arcades, and restaurants, where our guide took us. We went upstairs to a sort of food court where there were half a dozen of what I can only describe as okonomiyaki bars. We sat at stools before a counter that was part of the grill. The cook took our orders and built our stack up back on the common part of the grill while we watched. When it was finished he slid it over to the customer who had ordered it and provided us with little shovel-like utensils to cut and eat it with.

This is one of those dishes that honestly doesn't taste like anything you're familiar with, in spite of having recognizable ingredients. I suppose you either like it or you don't. I liked it.

Then there was the vinegar ice cream. That's right--dessert for one of our meals was a choice between something on my allergy list--I don't remember what--and vinegar ice cream, so despite the gasps of my fellow tourists, I ordered it. Everyone had to taste it, and then be amazed that I ate it. It's certainly not going to be one of my favorite foods, but again it was made with mild rice vinegar, not our harsh American stuff. It's akin to lemonade in its mix of sweet, sour, and cold, and more like sherbet than ice cream. On a hot August day it's refreshing.

The Japanese like ice cream. One place we stopped for a snack was a very elegant ice cream parlor called Dessert Forest.

But most often we got ice cream out of vending machines. There are vending machines everywhere, they all work, and they are all stocked. None of us lost any money in the machines the entire trip. I remember one hot afternoon, when we had been wandering about a beautiful and popular parklike preserved medieval village, we stopped in a rest area lined with vending machines. It was relatively late in the day, yet when I put my coins into a machine I not only got the strawberry ice cream I wanted, but it was still frozen rock hard.

Vending machines also dispense beer, wine, liquor, soft drinks of every brand imaginable, bottled water, candy, cigarettes, trinkets, toiletries, and perfume. No one worries about children getting alcoholic beverages or cigarettes from the machines--families are small, and Japanese children are well supervised throughout the day. Few mothers work, and where they do there are grandparents nearby or even in the home. Families are close, and older people are revered. There are no retirement homes; people are cared for by their children and grandchildren.

The one meal each day that I didn't eat traditional Japanese food was breakfast. Every hotel provided both western and Japanese food at breakfast time--and I noticed that the Japanese were as likely to choose the cereal or bacon and eggs with juice as the non-Japanese tourists were. A few of our group ate the pickles and fermented beans, but watching how few Japanese ate them I got the impression (just my impression, you understand) that the Japanese have adopted western habits for the first meal of the day.

The rest of the day, though, we ate Japanese food and enjoyed it thoroughly, even the bento boxes purchased at rest stops. I should mention those rest stops. On the main highways there were the same kind of large establishments with food courts that you see in the U.S. and Europe. We could get cooked food or prepared bento boxes, plastic boxes of compartments with meat or fish, rice, various vegetables, Japanese pickles (which are sweet and spicy instead of sour), and some kind of cookie or other slightly sweet dessert. There are so many compartments of small servings that if you don't like one or two of them you will still have plenty to eat.

In the rest stops there are also, of course, rest rooms--but I think I will save a discussion of Japanese toilets for next week's blog entry.

How to import a car from Japan. Click here.

Click here for Seven Reasons to Visit India.

This series of posts on my trip to Japan begins here.

The journal of my trip to India and Nepal begins here.

The series of posts on my trip to Italy begins here.

Geezer-Chick's guest blog on York, England is here.

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