sábado, 26 de noviembre de 2016

Japanese food is not just sushi

I feel fortunate that I grew up in Mexico in the 1990's when anime was running on primetime public tv and it was actually worthwhile to get up on a Saturday at 7 am to record Revolutionary Girl Utena on my vhs player on Unicable before the show got cancelled before showing the final 7 episodes (I guess someone never told them Utena isn't a kid's show). And just like every weaboo I had dreams of going to Tokyo and visit Akihabara because every anime fan has to visit the mecca of anime at least once during their lifetime. However to be honest I had never eaten Japanese food as a teenager. Dragon Ball Z, Ranma 1/2, Sailor Moon and Caballeros del Zodiaco were always primetime draws but Mexico didn't offer anything else about the country.

And then I turned 18.

I decided on my 18th birthday that I wanted to eat sushi for the first time. Cold raw fish lumped into balls of rice? Really? My parents were not too ecstatic with my paltry decision but we went to a reputable restaurant that still stands today called Mr. Sushi in the Zona Azul and the quality of the food albeit not 100% authentic easily overcame any previous misconceptions.

Sushi is now easily available in any major mexican city and every time I visit Playa del Carmen on a Tuesday or a Thursday I always try to visit the Sushitlán joints (there are two of them at walking distance from eachother downtown) and order the mango roll or the strawberry roll taking advantage of the 2x1 discount. I wonder what do Japanese tourists think of that.

Sushitlán's locally famous Strawberry rolls

Quite arguably my favorite chum from this joint, the Sushitlán special roll

However once you actually visit Japan, you soon realize you won't find sushi nearly anywhere. Visit the ubiquitous Family Marts and the 7-Elevens and you will find dozens of brands of sugar free green tea, bizarre alfalfa water without a tint of sugar (tastes really good once you get used to it), Kitkats and Onigiri Balls.

If you grew up watching Sailor Moon you would have seen Serena Tsukino eating those things all of the time. Basically they sell these lumps of steamed rice around a random filling and cover the side with a huge slice of seaweed. On my first day in Tokyo to eat something quickly while the sunlight was still in the sky I opted to buy one of these things and they taste okay. Nothing spectacular, just a rice ball with canned tuna in the middle, but it was cheap, like 15 MXN at the time. Try to find something that cheap in NYC.

You never know what to expect with food in Japan. Most of what they eat is steamed and pickled vegetables. One of the rules of wisdom when traveling abroad is to enter the restaurants where a lot of locals frequent. Japan is definitely no different and there are some killer restaurants down in Shibuya that have the most addictively good pickled cucumbers I have ever eaten.

Good Lord those pickled seed sprouts tasted so good.

If you are ever in Japan you might be lucky and visit a restaurant that serves Hoppy. And no, it's isn't beer. Quite frankly I have no idea what in the hell it is but trust me, it doesn't even remotely taste like beer and despite appearances it contains no alcohol. In my opinion the drink tasted awful, like some sort of dirty plant root with mineral water but after WWII ended the Japanese civilians had few other cheap food options and they survived on Hoppy among other things.

Visiting bakeries in Japan is also a mind-blowing experience. I seldom eat bread, or tortillas.. no wonder I'm so scrawny. However be kind, save for Pastelerías Maqui I don't know a lot of good bakeries in Mexico. Mexicans just don't know what they are missing and while some of the bread they sell in japanese bakeries are bizarre they taste really, really good.

Yes, that is a piece of bread with the shape of a pumpkin. And the roasted pumpkin filling was... well if you are ever near Asakusa Shrine in the back avenue on the opposite side of the nearest subway station there is a really, really good bakery. It's just a street or two away from a Fugu joint on a corner. If you are there try out the crystallized soybean pastries, I wished they could sell this stuff in Mexico.

What about American food?

Oh yes, the infamous I'm tired of eating all of this insanely healthy stuff that lacks sugary fattening goodness and I want a taste of home. Luckily at least the big cities have McDonalds type joints everywhere. I almost never, ever eat at McDonalds because the food tastes like plastic but they really up their game in Japan. Insanely expensive yes, but their morning mcMuffins are cooked right on the spot, no defrosted processed crap at all and they taste spectacular. I was in Tokyo in 2014 before Halloween and Burger King launched a thematic black bread mini whopper. Bizarre to say the least but the meat was nothing to write home about. More of a curiosity than anything else.

I love coffee, I probably drink too much of it according to everyone I know. I've even ended up hospitalized in the observation rooms of my job at least once from acid reflux from it. And unfortunately if there is one thing stopping me from moving to Japan it's the coffee. I feel for them because it tastes awful. Not even Starbucks saves itself from this curse. The Starbucks in Shibuya doesn't even remotely taste like the stuff you can buy in Mexico. Overpriced, watered down and bland. The worst of the worst I've tried so far goes to Bose coffee.

Ever heard the rumors that there is a vending machine literally in every corner in Japan? It's rather quite true and a lot of them sells Bose coffee. Heck, I've seen ads in downtown Tokyo of Tommy Lee Jones advertising that stuff (I doubt he has ever tried it). The kindest way to describe the beverage is that it's a fowl tasting motor oil with some chemical that dissolves paint. If that wasn't bad enough, try to realize people in Japan just don't like sugary drinks at all for some reason and they sell a presentation of this nastiness 100% black. I wished someone had been there to take a photo of me when I tasted that stuff without a tint of sugar or cream. I love black coffee but it was so bad the only reason why I drank the entire bottle was because it cost me 15 MXN. Hahahaha, not one of my most memorable memories of Japan.

In  Yudanaka I even found a vending machine that sold a mystery beverage. Silly Japan.

You will even see in Tokyo anime inspired drinks if you are lucky. One of the things that surprised me about Japan is that the Coca-Cola owned vending machines don't sell Coca-Cola, they sell bottled water and sugarless green tea. There you go, the secret to why Japan is free of the obesity epidemic. They never eat deep fried food and drink water. Give me my nobel Medicine prize please.

Now what about gourmet Japanese food is it worth it?

I had a Kaiseki dinner in Yudanaka as part of the hotel hospitality deal they offer to all guests and it's a cool experience. I wouldn't say the food tasted insanely awesome but it sure is flashy. They give you 20 different random bite size meals in little dishes and you sort of clean the table. The small pot was filled to the brim of rice that you self-serve and they give you complimentary water. As a mexican where complimentary water is like some sort of oxymoron it was kind of strange. Quite personally I would have preferred a beer to go with my meals but wearing a yukata with one of those comfy vests on top in a private room was awesome.

Other gourmet options? Kyoto has an overabundance of good ways to part with your money. As a tourist trap (still a very nice city BTW but not my favorite place in Japan) that every year seems to get flooded with increasing amounts of foreign tourists Kyoto is indeed expensive. Go visit the Gion area and while the famous Geisha district seems sort of lifeless with shuttered (and eeerily quiet) restaurants that are too prohitively expensive for a budget tourist like me there are other places in larger avenues that are more affordable.

The rule of thumb is to always follow where the japanese salarymen go to get their grub. The only downside is the huge clouds of cigarette smoke that billows the air but the food will not disappoint you. I went to this place that was packed with locals and the sashimi with edible flower petals was a nice touch. I simply loved the roasted lotus root, you can't find that vegetable in Mexico. I loved it so much I briefly mentioned it in a scene of my 5th book.

Shabu shabu gets mocked in Bill Murray's film "Lost in Translation". Okay so they charge you 30 dollars to cook your own meal, I get it. I went to a place with an all you can eat sort of deal for 3500 yen. The low price was because despite being a buffet they didn't serve you the best Kobe cut but man was it good. Basically they sit you in front of a stove in a booth that boils a pot of water. They then give you a bowl of veggies, cubes of tofu, slices of kobe beef and then three bowls of soy sauce, some kind of tasty peanut cream and I have no idea what was the last thing. You use a pair of tongs to toss everything in the boiling water until it looks sorta cooked, grab long hashi, dump everything in whichever sauce suits your fancy and chomp away. Once you clean the plate the remaining water is poured by the waitress into a bowl and you drink it up. Leaving soup for last seems kind of odd but hey, this is Japan, you go here for the sole purpose of being awed.

I'm poor! What can I eat in Japan that won't break the bank?

That would suck. I mean, you save 900 USD for a plane ticket and endure a grueling 16 hour flight just to eat pocky sticks. You can find cheap hostels and ryokans in Japan even as a solo traveler (the most expensive one night I ever spent in a hotel in Japan was 3000 MXN and it was a special treat in an expensive tourist retreat with few cheap options). I just think if you are going to visit this country once in your lifetime couldn't you forfeit daily starbucks, fancy cellphone gadgets and clubbing for a few months?

However if you insist, there are cheapo places for dinner and the food is quite good. Shinkansen trains serve boxed lunches for 100 MXN that sometimes come with a bizarre thread you pull that magically heats the food instantly (Japan is so awesome).

The food isn't spectacular but it's convenient and always stylish. Japanese have perfected the art of making food desirable to eat. They could make hospital food look like a 5 star Michelin joint. Izakayas are everywhere and while food options are limited they are fast, authentic & cheap. You don't even need to speak an iota of Japanese to go to one. You stand outside and locate the vending machine/menu, stare at the photos of the dishes that look somewhat appetizing, press the button, deposit the yen and a ticket is printed that you present to the cook inside. Within a minute they serve you your dish. You can order beer for extra or drink complimentary water.

Yoshinoyas are everywhere and the grub is really good. It's fast food but don't let the cheapness deter you from visiting one. I wished there was a Yoshinoya in Mexico.

If you are ever in Tokyo you will be committing a major sin if you don't visit the Ramen Museum. Trust me, it isn't expensive and you will be grateful you took the 40 minute train ride to the suburbs to visit it. The slices of bacon are to die for.

Indeed I believe this has been my longest ever post on my blog. I really love Japanese food and think people have wrong ideas about it. Sake is dirt cheap in Japan, just 5 USD a large wine sized bottle. Before I go I wish to show a photo of the most bizarre thing I have ever eaten in Japan while I visited Hakone. To this day I have no idea what in the hell it was.

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