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Exploring Tokyo and Japanese food

Back in Japan after eight years, I am surprised to see the streets of Tokyo bursting with cherry blossoms. Vir Sanghvi shares interesting facts about Japanese cuisine and more...

india Updated: Apr 10, 2010 18:36 IST
Vir Sanghvi

TokyoDay one

When Narita Airport was first opened, local farmers protested because they said the airport had been built on their land. Passengers complained that it was too far from Tokyo. No worries, said the Japanese government. The farmers would calm down and soon, as Tokyo expanded, Narita would not seem so far.

Arriving in Tokyo, I am reminded of those controversies. The government was right about the farmers. They may well have cooled down. But what nobody told us then was that it was the passengers who would get agitated. The queue at Immigration is so long that the minimum waiting time is 30 minutes. Then, passengers queue up again to submit customs forms and be interrogated by customs inspectors – no green channels here – before being allowed out of the customs area.

The arrivals hall is too small and it is impossible for passengers to move their trolleys around without banging into women and children. Contrary to what was said then, Narita is still a long way off from Tokyo. If you take a cab, it costs over US $200 (just under Rs 10,000 or so) so most passengers wait for coaches that take them to various parts of Tokyo. As these coach departures are staggered, you can hang around at the airport for a very long time (I waited 40 minutes after I had bought my coach ticket) till you find a coach that is going your way.

My coach takes an hour and a half to get to the Imperial Hotel, a wonderful, grand old hotel that used to be the place to stay in Tokyo before the Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Mandarin Oriental etc. opened their outposts in the city. My room is small (all the older Tokyo hotels have tiny rooms; it is the newer properties that provide large deluxe rooms) but well-appointed and service at the hotel is excellent.

For dinner I take a cab to the spanking new Mandarin Oriental. The hotel is modern and impressively designed. It has three Michelin-starred restaurants (Tokyo has more Michelin stars than London and Paris, put together!) and I am eating at Sense (one star), a Cantonese restaurant run by a celebrity Japanese chef. The idea of a Chinese kitchen run by a Japanese may strike one as odd but in Tokyo they reckon that it is a combination that works. The Japanese obsession with clean, distinct flavours clarifies some of the complexity in Chinese food.

It is a fact of life that whenever a chef does his own Chinese menu for you anywhere in the Far East, certain ingredients must make an appearance: abalone, shark’s fins, turtles, lobsters, crabs and – if the chef likes fusion – some kind of foie gras. Fortunately there is no foie gras on the menu tonight because I really cannot face another plate of foie gras with red bean paste or dark soya sauce again. But yes, all the other ingredients duly appear.

I start with cold, marinated abalone which is nice enough if you like abalone. Then there is an extremely fresh crab, wok-fried with ginger and leek. The wok-frying is Cantonese but the clean flavours seem almost Japanese. Next up is a “double boiled healthy soup” which combines both shark fin and turtle. It is better than most other double-boiled soups I have tried.

The real surprises come in the second half of the meal once we have got the luxury ingredients out of the way. There is a simple dish of sautéed grouper, scallop and prawn which accurately conveys the flavours of the fish. There is a Cantonese fried chicken with garlic which reminds me of the version that chef Leong does at Bombay’s San Qi. And finally there is a fried rice with minced Wagyu beef for a nice Chinese-Japanese fusion. It is a terrific meal, recognisably Chinese but somehow different, with flavours that are sharp and distinct.

Day two
I am in Japan at the invitation of Ajinomoto, manufacturers of the eponymous flavouring and one of Japan’s largest companies. In an effort to remove many of the misconceptions that surround Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), the chemical name for Ajinomoto, the company has invited a small delegation from India. There are chefs, recipe writers, nutritionists and two journalists. All of us will learn about the virtues of MSG when we visit the Ajinomoto plant tomorrow. But because today is a holiday in Japan, we are taken to see the sights.

We start with the Imperial Palace (near the Imperial Hotel, as you might expect) or rather, the grounds of the Palace as the Emperor is clearly not expecting us. It is cold and windy in Tokyo but the gardens are pretty. We should have come a week later, the guide tells us because then we would have been in time for the sakura.

If you don’t know Japan or the Japanese then you may find it difficult to understand the national obsession with the sakura. It is the flower of the cherry blossom tree which blooms once a year, usually in early April. The flowers last for around two weeks but because a cherry blossom in full bloom is a thing of beauty, the whole country goes crazy.

I’ve always dreamt of coming to Japan in April and going to Kyoto to see the sakuras blooming but each year, I never quite make it. This year too, I am too early for the sakura season even though my trip is restricted to Tokyo. No matter. We then go off to the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo but while our guide tells us about the history, three of us (myself, the chef Sanjeev Kapoor and food writer Antoine Lewis) get sidetracked into examining the street food stalls on the temple grounds.

We are all reasonably familiar with some kinds of Japanese food – sushi, sashimi, yakitori etc. But the street food is entirely unfamiliar. At one stall, a man makes a dish which is a cross between a muffin and a dumpling with bits of octopus. At another, cabbage, eggs and bacon are shaped on a griddle to resemble a large pancake. At a third stall, they make candied bananas. At a fourth, they make Japan’s answer to Kentucky Fried Chicken (Korage).

Several things strike me about the stalls. One: there is no rice visible anywhere. We think of the Japanese as rice eaters but clearly, this does not extend to their street food. Two: the claim that the Japanese are not keen on dairy fat needs to be re-examined. Several stalls sell broken, baked potatoes with industrial quantities of butter. And three: what I find especially fascinating is how all of the ingredients at the stalls are commercially produced. Each sauce comes out of a supermarket bottle. Nearly all of the fruit pulp (used in pancakes) is prepackaged. And so on. This is not street food in the Indian sense where a chaatwallah makes his own ingredients. This is just another way of putting together industrially produced ingredients. Lunch is at a private dining room above a busy (and expensive) tempura restaurant in the upmarket Ginza area. We start with assorted Japanese hors d’oeuvres, move on to sashimi and then it is time for the main course.

A chef lights a fire under a large dekchi filled with hot oil (the sort of thing we use to make pakoras). He produces a large plate filled with sliced vegetables and pieces of fish as well as whole prawns. Next, he places a bowl of batter over an ice-tray so that the batter remains ice-cold (it has just come out of the fridge).

When the oil is hot, he takes a piece of vegetable, dips it in the batter and then pops it into the wok. Within seconds he has crisp tempura. I ask Sanjeev Kapoor why it is important to keep the batter ice-cold. Sanjeev says that this is because the low temperature does something to the gluten in the wheat and ensures that the tempura are crisp when fried. Then, as if he has read my mind, he explains “we can’t do this in India when we make pakoras because besan has no gluten.”

After a visit to a food exhibition we end up that night at an Izakaya in the Roppongi district. My sense of Izakaya is that they are Japanese pubs with small eats. But this is a full-fledged restaurant with many private rooms, a full menu, photos of George W Bush (the then Prime Minister once brought him here for dinner when he was on a state visit to Japan) and a crowd that is sixty to seventy per cent white. Everyone is too polite to say ‘tourist trap’ but Sanjeev Kapoor frames it more delicately when he calls the restaurant “the Trishna of Tokyo.” The food ranges from mediocre to rubbish and service is boisterous but haphazard. Obviously our hosts thought that a tourist-friendly restaurant would be a nice way to ease us into Japan.

There is only one compensation. As we are leaving the restaurant, I notice a tree in the garden. The Japanese note it too. It is clearly a cherry blossom tree. And it is in bloom. But surely the Sakura season is a week away? We are mystified.

Day three

Our day of Ajinomoto education. I’ll spare you all the details and give you the short version. Kikunae Ikeda was a Japanese scientist who lived for some years in Germany. When he returned to Japan, he posited that certain foods commonly used in Western cooking (tomato, cheese, asparagus etc.) shared a taste element with certain Japanese foods (shitake mushroom, seaweed etc.) This taste could not be explained by the four basic tastes – sweet, salty, sour and bitter – recognised by Western scientists. There was, instead, a fifth basic taste called umami.

In 1908, he extracted a substance called glutamic acid from Japanese seaweed and said that this represented the essence of umami flavour. Ikeda gave his research to an iodine manufacturer called Saburosuke who began commercial production of glutamate under the trade name of Ajinomoto. The product was a success not just in Japan but also in neighbouring China and later in Thailand, Taiwan etc., where chefs started routinely adding Ajinomoto to anything they cooked. Eventually, all Chinese, Thai and Japanese restaurants everywhere in the world began using Ajinomoto.

All went well till the 1970s when American doctors identified something they called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. They claimed that Ajinomoto (or MSG to use its chemical acronym) caused headaches and numbness. Soon, Americans began regarding MSG as unsafe and Chinese restaurants began to assert that they had stopped using MSG.

This did incalculable damage to Ajinomoto’s reputation and to this day, the company has failed to make much headway in the US market. Ironically scientists now accept that glutamate is safe with the following provisos. One, it must not be taken in huge quantities. And two, large amounts of MSG may cause certain symptoms (pins and needles etc.) in people with an intolerance to MSG. (In no case, however, can MSG do any serious harm.)

Unfortunately for Ajinomoto, the scientific clean chit has not removed the stigma. For instance, the company gets very angry when Indian manufacturers of packaged foods write things like ‘Contains No MSG’ on their packets – especially as most of these manufacturers buy huge quantities of MSG from Ajinomoto for use in other products. “Why act as though MSG is bad for one product when you are quite happy putting it in another product?” ask Ajinomoto executives.

So how does Ajinomoto actually work? We know that it adds an umami flavour to food. Does that mean it is like salt (which adds a salty flavour) or sugar (which adds a sweet flavour) which contribute the basic tastes to our food? Well, yes and no. First of all, the taste of umami is difficult to put into words. For the layman, the taste of tomatoes and Japanese seaweed do not have a lot in common yet both are full of umami flavour. As the American chef Thomas Keller says, “trying to describe umami is almost impossible. We just have to accept it.”

Besides, it is not clear how such dishes as sambar and biryani taste better with the addition of ajinomoto (which they do; in blind tastings people usually prefer the versions seasoned with ajinomoto). No Indian believes the sambar needs an umami heft.

My theory is that one of the things that umami flavours do is coat your tongue so that you taste everything slightly differently. (Try chewing on a tomato for a while – or on a hunk of Parmesan – and then try eating something else.) Ajinomoto makes us taste our familiar flavours in slightly different ways. Once the scientific lectures are over and after we have been woken up with strong cups of coffee, we head for Nihonbashi, a central Tokyo area where Kimio Nonaga (winner of Iron Chef Japan 2002!) is waiting for us at the Yukari restaurant. Nonaga-San has prepared a large and interesting meal for us but the highlight is a demonstration of how to make dashi, the broth that is the basis of most Japanese cooking.

First, he soaks kombu (dried Japanese seaweed) in cold water for 20 minutes. Then he heats the water to about 95 °C (just before boiling point). Next, he turns off the heat and adds dried bonito flakes (the bonito is a fish not unlike the tuna). When the flakes sink to the bottom, he strains the broth (i.e. removing the bonito) and ends up with dashi. This broth will now become the base of many dishes.

The point of this exercise is to show us how basic umami flavours are to Japanese food – both the kombu and the dried bonito are rich in umami. After a Japanese tea ceremony, which is elegant and mannered and yet, I always feel, a little over-rated, we go back to the Imperial to recover. Dinner that night is at Turandot, a restaurant where the chef is Yuji Wakiya, a Japanese, even though the food is Chinese.

Wakiya found a measure of fame in America when he opened an eponymous restaurant in Ian Schrager’s trendy Gramercy Park Hotel in New York after Schrager’s original choice, Alan Yau of London’s Hakkasan, dropped out (no visas for his chefs). The restaurant was full of New York’s beautiful people and was very expensive but the critics never loved it and it closed down last year.

In Japan Wakiya continues to be a huge star (obviously Japanese chefs cooking Chinese food is a big deal here) and today he appears at our table to wish us well and to offer to cook any off-menu items we may desire. Obviously our Ajinomoto hosts are well-connected (or else, he uses a lot of MSG in his kitchen!).

Yes, the meal includes shark’s fin and lobster (it is either that or crab) but fortunately there is a no abalone. We start with a delicious Chinese ham soup, move on to exquisitely presented tiny Chinese appetizers (the Japanese touch – I have never seen this kind of presentation in a Chinese restaurant). Then comes the ubiquitous Shark’s Fin Soup followed by ‘Lobster In Chili Sauce, Szechwan Style’ which tastes to me a lot like lobster in the sauce they use for chili crab in Singapore. Then, there is some tender Japanese beef (not very Chinese but very nice) and a dish described on our menus as ‘Spicy Soup Noodles with Seasonal Vegetables’ which seems to me to be a variation on that old Sichuan street food standby Dan-Dan (or Tan-Tan) Noodles.

It’s a very good meal. But Sense was even better – and more original, certainly. As we leave, I see it again. Outside the restaurant is a large cherry blossom tree. It is clearly in full bloom and the white flowers glow in the night air. But we are only in March and the season does not begin for another ten days. What is going on?

Day four
Of the world’s fish markets, none has the glamour quotient of Tokyo’s Tsukiji. Once you have got around the vexing problem of how to pronounce its name (“Skeejee”), it is the sort of market that foodies brag about visiting. No matter where in the world you go, a fancy Japanese restaurant will always boast that its fish are “flown in from Tsukiji”.

The highlight of the day at Tsukiji is the tuna auction. The Japanese love tuna. So, each morning the fishmongers (and wholesalers) arrive at the market and compete at auctions for the biggest and the best whole tuna.

The auctions begin early in the morning but I get there at 5am when only a few auctions are remaining. Worse still, Tsukiji has now become a tourist attraction so I have to jostle for space with hundreds of American tourists, their cameras whirring soundlessly. Even so, the auctions are worth seeing. Large, cold rooms are used. Scores of large, frozen, dead tuna lie on the floor. Fish merchants wander around checking each fish till it is time for the auction to start.

When the auction does begin, it is like a piece of theatre in a language you cannot understand. The auctioneer stands on a box and starts shouting, bellowing his words at record speed. As the bidding gets more frenzied, he starts jumping up and down on his box. He dances a little on-the-spot jig. He throws his arms around. He begins to sweat (despite the cold) from the exertion.

I watch fascinated. This tradition has gone on for decades, centuries even, unaffected by new bidding technologies. The fish merchants understand the body language of the auctioneers and the little dances the auctioneers do up on their stools obviously have an effect on the bidding that we outsiders do not immediately recognise.

The market itself is unusual for three reasons: the vast variety of the sea-food on display, some of it still alive; the fact that it does not stink of fish; and the provenance of the fish. Much is made of the fact that you get the best fresh tuna in Japan. Actually nearly all of the tuna I saw being auctioned came from our own waters (the Maldives, Sri Lanka, the Indian Ocean etc.) and it was all frozen.

After a market visit it is traditional to go to one of the many restaurants on the edge of Tsukiji for sushi and beer. But I am too much of a Gujarati to eat raw fish at six in the morning. I go back to the Imperial and sleep till it is time for the next appointment.

We are off to meet the President of Ajinomoto. He turns out to be a friendly and ebullient man who speaks perfect English and asks us to sample a powder he has brought with him. It tastes of tomatoes and something familiar that I cannot immediately place. The President is delighted. It is MSG he says but it is extracted from tomatoes. Next he produces another powder. By now, I am wise to the game. What kind of MSG is this? It is MSG extracted from kelp, the sort of MSG that was first produced in 1908.

The powders throw this whole business of natural and synthetic into relief. The original MSG came from kelp. These days, the company uses microbes to ferment a carbohydrate (say, tapioca) till it can extract the MSG content. So what is natural MSG and what is synthetic? If you eat a tomato, you do not even comment on the MSG it contains. Should you react differently if the MSG is extracted from the tomato and given to you separately? Ajinomoto says all its MSG is extracted from natural sources. So what is synthetic about its product?

We spend the rest of the day wandering around Tokyo till we assemble again for dinner at Happo-En, a large house with a beautiful Japanese garden, a restaurant and many private rooms. This is our farewell dinner so the food is vaguely fusion influenced. The appetizer is a broccoli mousse with a crab salad. Then comes an upmarket wonton soup (“Soup with Shrimp Meat Dumplings, Shimeji Mushroom and Tiny Melon”). Then there is sashimi (tuna, bream, amberjack and shrimp) which is distinguished by the plate on which it is served – it is made entirely of ice.

The standout dish consists of Wagyu beef cooked according to the style of the Hiba district: it is grilled through a magnolia leaf and served with a delicious spicy miso. Then there’s a miso soup, followed by nigiri sushi and, in case you are still hungry, a very nice crème brulee.

I ask our hosts about the sakura flowers I have been seeing. They are Japanese so they get immensely excited. Yes! The sakura season has come ten days early! Sakura trees are blooming all over Tokyo! Isn’t it wonderful! As if to prove the point, the sakura trees in the garden of our restaurant are blooming proudly and we pose for a final group photo in front of one. The next morning as I take the coach to Narita on my way back, I look out of my window. The streets are full of cherry blossoms.