All in the Family

As anyone who’s worked at a small restaurant can tell you, living in the moment is par for the course. Indeed, it’s often the case that things never quite come together until the last minute. Whether it’s a pre-service dash to the deli to pick up soap or a moment of utter terror in which you realize you’ve forgotten to order extra fish for the Saturday night special, life in a tiny kitchen rarely provides time for introspection. This is simply the nature of the work, which is dependent on one’s ability to completely detach from larger life concerns. Once you’ve been on the other side of the wall (or counter, as the case may be), it can be hard to eat at any restaurant without feeling a profound sense of respect, patience, and appreciation for the unseen effort that goes into every refilled glass of water, gracefully opened bottle of wine, and perfectly executed quenelle of ice cream.

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Miso-Grilled Vegetables (Dengaku)

Readers, I’ve missed you so! Summer has officially passed, and so far all I’ve managed to write about is frozen sweets. Rest assured, my love of vegetables has not waned in the slightest, but I’ve found myself short on time to cook them in new and interesting ways. This recipe, however, is an exception. The inspiration for this dish came by way of a small restaurant in Matsumoto called Dengaku Kiso-ya. Housed in a traditional wooden building just a few paces from the Metoba river, the shop specializes in a simple dish known as dengaku (田楽). At its most basic, dengaku is tōfu or vegetables (usually eggplant) slathered in a sweet miso sauce and broiled until crisp-edged and caramelized.

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Shinshū Soba

By now, those of you who know me well (or who read this blog regularly) probably realize that I have a big crush on soba. While some foreigners who live in Japan become obsessed with ramen, ramen, and yet more ramen, I fell hard for soba. Not just any soba, but Shinshū soba (信州そば), which hails from mountainous Nagano prefecture in central Japan. (“Shinshū” refers to Shinano province, Nagano’s former name.) Why soba? It’s not a crowd pleaser like ramen, curry, or other Japanese favorites, perhaps due to its perception as “health food” in the west. While traditionally prepared soba noodles are indeed very healthy (high in protein and fiber, nearly devoid of animal products, and almost always accompanied by some sort of vegetable), this is not why they appeal to me. Rather, I am drawn to the painstaking process and ritual that surrounds their creation, their minimalist presentation, their hand-hewn texture and earthy flavor, and of course the sheer fun of slurping them up.

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Night Spirits

Ohisashiburi desu ne. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? It feels good to be back, though in some sense I’m not really back but rather away. Pieces of this post were written some time ago, but as usual I let them languish in some dusty corner of my computer for weeks. Then in October I left Japan and embarked on a month-long trip through Germany, Croatia, Slovenia, and now, France. (Next: Iceland.) Rest assured, though: I expect to resume a more normal posting schedule once I return to the States at the end of this month. Until then, here are some snapshots and musings from a very memorable meal.

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Sushi Ten

Picture, for a moment, your favorite neighborhood bar. Not a fancy place, just the kind of establishment you might drop by after work for a beer and a few bites. Now, imagine that it’s run by a tough as nails sushi chef, her semi-professional bowler husband, and their awesome punk rock daughter. It’s an unusual place, especially given that female sushi chefs are a rarity in Japan. But what keeps me coming back is not the novelty but the warmth of the Fujisawa family and their insanely satisfying and comforting food. Moreover, the shop has been around for thirty years, as noted on the noren above (おかげさまで三十数年 – “thank you for thirty years”). They must be doing something right, no?

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Chez Momo

Have you ever gone into a shop or restaurant and thought, “this is the sort of place I would like to own”?  If you’re anything like me, these sorts of entrepreneurial whims probably pop into your head all the time. Indeed, anyone with a favorite neighborhood coffee shop or bakery can probably relate to this statement. However, it’s rare to find a business that truly resonates with one’s own tastes. That’s the great yet tricky thing about small businesses – they’re so intensely personal, so reflective of their individual owner’s like and dislikes that they can sometimes seem like an exclusive club, their audience limited to a few devoted patrons.

Enter Chez Momo, the product of one couple’s devotion to French jams, impeccable coffee, crafts, and an uncompromising eye for detail.

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A Return, and Kusabue Soba

Somehow, nearly a month has come and gone since my last post. I realize I’ve been remiss in regaling you with tales of Japan’s culinary delights, but I hope you understand, given the circumstances. After the earthquake, when thousands were subsisting on instant noodles and rice balls, writing about food seemed inappropriate, even impossible. For a few days, I subsisted on simple meals – simmered chicken and kabocha squash, egg salad on toast, rice with pickles – but even these healthy, comforting dishes were difficult to enjoy. Amid the shock and stress, my appetite and will to cook (much less photograph and write about food) simply disappeared.

Thankfully, over the past several weeks my capacity to enjoy the small pleasures of daily life – a picnic with friends, the first whiff of early spring’s bracing breath, a satin blue sky against tufts of sakura – has returned, albeit in fits and starts. When I returned to Japan almost two weeks ago, I found myself craving one thing: soba, particularly Shinshū soba, a rustic variety from Nagano prefecture. Whenever I’m feeling under the weather, both physically and mentally, nothing revives me more than soba, preferably accompanied by plenty of sprightly scallions and sansai (mountain vegetables). It’s nourishment embodied, as sustaining as chicken noodle soup but, to my peculiarly un-American taste buds, infinitely tastier.

So, after battling jet lag at work for a few days, I hopped on the shinkansen and made my way to Ueda, where I met Steven for lunch at one of his favorite soba shops, Kusabue (草笛).

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Ten in 2010

It’s January 18th, so I really have no excuse for being so behind on my “yearly roundup” posts.  Below, some of my favorite eats from 2010.  These should tide you over until my next post, which is coming shortly. (With a new recipe, too!)

Fried sweet potatoes at a festival in Tokyo

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