Oden – wholesome winter food

Oden is a typical winter dish from Japan. It consists of several ingredients like daikon, tofu, konnyaku, eggs, etc., stewed in a light, soy-flavoured broth. One of the many wonderful things about oden is that it is so cheap. Each piece of oden costs between 75 and 100 yen (between 0,5 and 0,7 euro). It is also healthy, delicious, and it really warms you up in winter.

Oden japanese winter food

A display of oden, where you can clearly see the different ingredients. I admit it is not much to look at, but I assure you that it is delicious. At first I was a bit suspicious of oden myself but after I gave it a try, I was hooked! The daikon in the lower left corner is my favourite.

As the cold months set in, you see oden stands pop up in convenience stores all over Japan. When you want to buy some oden, you are supposed to serve yourself: just take a few pieces with the pincers provided by the store and put them in a cup. You may add some broth if you like. Then you tell or show the convenience store cashier what you took.

oden stand in Japanese convenience store

An oden stand in Japanese convenience store. In the background on the right, in the ‘hot snack’ display, you see ‘man‘, which is another kind of delicious Japanese winter food.

I discovered this self-service system only after having asked the poor employee from the convenience store around the corner from our house to serve me some oden on several occasions. Being as polite as any Japanese would be, and possibly also a little frightened of that bossy, tall foreigner, the employee dutifully served me every time. Until I saw someone else serve themselves and I realised how it actually worked. Embarrassing! But things like that are also very much part of life in Japan.

Oden illustrates two things that I love about Japan:

  • It is so easy to get healthy and cheap fast food in Japan.
  • I love how the Japanese celebrate the seasons with seasonal food. Here in Belgium, we can pretty much get any kind of food all year long. But the seasonal food in Japan really gives you something to look forward to. I also seemed to enjoy the food more because it was only available for a limited amount of time.
Advertisements

The sushi train

Ask anyone to name something typical of Japan, and it is highly likely that they will say ‘sushi’. After my return to Belgium, I have often been asked if Japanese people really eat sushi every day. The answer is no! Japanese cuisine is incredibly varied and there is so much more to it than just sushi.

Since I am not a fan of these stereotypical ideas about Japan and did not want to encourage them further, I have put off writing about sushi for more than two years. But despite all my ranting, I cannot deny that sushi is in fact a part of Japanese cuisine. Moreover, it is an extremely delicious part of Japanese cuisine. By the end of my stay in Japan, I could be found in a sushi restaurant on a weekly basis. (*´∀`*)

So it seems that the moment has finally come. It is time for a post about sushi.

In Japan, sushi is often enjoyed at a restaurant, rather than at home. There are many different kinds of sushi restaurants, ranging from extremely high-end places where the chef personally prepares each delicacy in front of you, to the more moderately priced conveyor belt restaurants (kaiten zushi 回転寿司 in Japanese). Even in the conveyor belt category, there are different prices and qualities. Today I will talk to you about the lowest of the lowest: Kappa Zushi. Although this is not a great introduction for a restaurant, I assure you that compared to most European (or at least Belgian) sushi restaurants, the quality is still very good.

kappazushi logo

Kappa Zushi logo

kappa_zushi_mascotte

Interior of a Kappa Zushi restaurant. The mascots of Kappa Zushi are these two green creatures. In Japanese, kappa is a water monster from folk tales. But it can also mean a sushi roll with cucumber in the middle. Hence the choice for kappa as mascots I guess. Despite their best efforts to make these kappa seem cute, they still scare me a little – image from the Kappa Zushi website

kappazushi conveyer belt

Kappa Zushi conveyor belt

tuna sushi on the conveyer belt

Tuna nigiri zushi on the conveyor belt

At conveyor belt restaurants, the kitchen prepares a standard selection of different sushi dishes and places them on the conveyor belt. The sushi passes by all the tables and the customers take off whatever they want to eat. Usually the colour of the plate determines how much the sushi costs but at Kappa Zushi, all the sushi costs 105 yen per plate (about 1 euro at the time we were in Japan). At the end of the meal, the plates are counted to determine the price to be paid.

kappa zushi stack of plates

Our stack of plates at the end of the meal

In case you don’t find what you are looking for on the conveyor belt, you can also order  directly from the kitchen (for the full Kappa Zushi menu, click here –  click on each category to see more sushi). Kappa Zushi has a computerized system for those orders. You operate it with a touch screen above your table. Not an easy thing to do if you can’t read kanji. There is one button that summons a waitress. I am afraid we accidentally summoned the poor lady twice before we figured it out. But if you press enough buttons, you will eventually end up in the orders menu.

kappa zushi touch screen

Kappa Zushi orders menu. You might notice some unusual sushi like tonkatsu sushi (fried pork cutlet) and beef sushi. You will definitely not find any meat sushi in a high-end sushi restaurant.

hamburger sushi

Another special sushi: hamburger sushi. I guess you can pretty much slap anything onto a piece of rice and call it sushi.

Now comes the best part: the orders are delivered on a special sushi train! It is shaped like a shinkansen and swishes over to your table in no time. You take off the plates and the train goes back to the kitchen. Never mind sushi quality, that train in itself is a reason to visit Kappa Zushi!

Something else that I love about Japanese conveyor belt sushi restaurants, apart from all the sushi, is the table side tap of hot water. You get a cup, a tin of green tea powder (different from matcha) and you serve yourself from the tap at your table. All you can drink green tea and an endless stream of sushi passing by under your very nose… pure bliss!

kappa zushi tea

Tea can in the bottom left, cup in the middle, and the tap is below the conveyor belt, next to the red box with pickled ginger. The black box holds the chopsticks. Each table also has their own supply of soy sauce and wasabi.

If this post has made you hungry, or you want to see the sushi train for yourself, you can find your nearest Kappa Zushi restaurant on this map (Japanese only). This is the Kappa Zushi in Toyota City:

KappaZushi_ToyotaCity

Kappa Zushi in Toyota City – image from Google Maps Streetview

My first bowl of matcha green tea

After having lived in Japan for over a year, a bowl of matcha green tea seems like the most normal thing in the world to me. But I can still vividly remember the first time I came into contact with this magical substance.

Matcha tea is produced by drying and grinding green tea leaves into a powder. This powder is then placed into a bowl, hot water is added and the tea is whisked to a uniform consistency with a bamboo whisk. The end result is a bowl of bright green, foamy tea with a soft, slightly bitter, slightly sweet taste. Matcha is most famous for its use in the Japanese Tea Ceremony, but in Japan it is also enjoyed on more informal occasions like a touristic temple visit or as an afternoon treat.

making matcha

Making matcha: the tea powder has been scooped into the bowl. Hot water is ready to be added. Then the tea is whisked. You can see the bamboo whisk in the bottom right.

Of course I didn’t know all of this when I first arrived in Japan. I had never even heard of matcha. My first introduction to matcha was at a small lunch restaurant (Mamean 豆庵 in Toyota City), popular with elderly Japanese ladies. I noticed all the ladies were consuming some bright green beverage after lunch, which fascinated me tremendously. In my beginner’s Japanese, I tried to ask one of the waiters about it. In reply to my halting “are wa nan desu ka” (lit. “what is that over there?”), the waiter provided me with a very elaborate explanation, of which I of course understood absolutely nothing. I just practiced my smile and nod technique, which is my go-to solution for such situations, and was rewarded with a steaming bowl of matcha tea.

my first matcha

This is the result, my first bowl of matcha tea

I think ‘interesting’ would be the best way to describe my first taste of matcha. It is somewhat of an acquired taste. Some foreigners just plainly dislike it, but I have grown very fond of the taste. In Japan you will encounter it frequently, since it is also used as an additive for sweets, cakes and ice cream. Starbucks Japan even serves matcha flavoured latte and frappuccino.

Starbucks Japan matcha

Azuki Matcha Latte at a Starbucks in Japan… while one could argue about the taste, it is certainly very Japanese.

matcha ice cream

My first taste of matcha ice cream (the green scoop on the top) wasn’t really a big hit. I later discovered that the taste can differ greatly from place to place and occasionally it can be very good. Therefore my advice is: avoid the Baskin and Robbins matcha ice cream, try it somewhere where it is homemade.

Traditional Japanese breakfast

If you ever spend the night in a Japanese hotel or traditional ryokan, it is highly likely that you will be confronted with what I like to call ‘the Japanese breakfast experience’. While most Westerners will already consider a bowl of cereal a heartening breakfast, the Japanese are a bit more thorough when it comes to eating breakfast.

The simple version will usually include a bowl of miso soup, rice or rice porridge (called okayu), a piece of cooked fish and some pickled vegetables. Additionally bread, eggs, vegetables, natto or meat may also be included. And of course a cup of green tea.

japanese breakfast

Traditional Japanese breakfast from a breakfast buffet at a youth hostel. From left to right: bowl of miso soup, cup for green tea, glass of water, plate with fried egg, baked fish, various vegetables and salad, pickled vegetables and squid salad, bowl of rice, container with natto

japanese breakfast

Japanese breakfast in a hotel. From left to right: pickled vegetables, cup of tea, daikon and tofu boiled in broth (oden), bowl with various vegetables, bowl of rice porridge (okayu) with a pickled plum (umeboshi) on top, fried eggs, glass of water, miso soup.

modern japanese breakfast

Due to Western influences, bread and meat may also appear in a modern Japanese breakfast. From left to right: cup of green tea, delicious home-made bread, miso soup, yoghurt with raisins, a plate with vegetables, bacon and fried egg.

The Japanese breakfast experience can be quite a hurdle for Westerners. We are not used to eating fish, rice or soup for breakfast. Most of those items are considered dinner foods in Western cultures. While some gaijin seem to have trouble suppressing their gag reflex while just looking at a Japanese breakfast, personally I am a big fan. The hearty Japanese breakfast provides energy all through morning, without getting the 10 a.m. faintness I usually experience after a Western breakfast. And I love the taste of the salty rice porridge.

But even a fan like me has her limits. I had a bit of trouble downing this breakfast provided to me in a traditional ryokan:

japanese breakfast ryokan

Elaborate Japanese breakfast at a ryokan

grilled fish for breakfast

I had some trouble with the fish especially

The fact that the breakfast was served at 7 a.m. didn’t help. I was even more surprised that the gentleman at the table next to us felt the need to combine this healthy, early morning breakfast with a large beer.

beer for breakfast

A Japanese man enjoying a beer for breakfast. Notice the 1 liter (!) bottle on his table.

In fact, it seems quite normal to have alcohol at breakfast in Japanese hotels. Look at this menu we found on our breakfast table at a hotel in Nagano:

beer for breakfast in Japan

A menu advertising beer or sparkling wine for breakfast. Don’t even get me started on the Engrish, that’s for another blog post.

Hot ‘n tasty man

One of the things that surprised me while living in Japan, was the fact that there are so many seasonal foods in Japan. Coming from a country where it is considered completely normal to eat tomatoes all through winter and where young people think pineapple is a local produce (it’s not!), I was charmed by the way Japanese people look forward to their seasonal foods.

As a first world nation, the Japanese are of course perfectly capable of importing anything they might want at any time of the year. My personal interpretation is that they deliberately choose not to. I had the impression that people relish the anticipation associated with seasonal treats, and that the food is enjoyed all the more intensely because it is only available for a limited amount of time.

A good example of such a seasonal food is the wintery snack called ‘man’ (まん). Starting november, convenience stores all over Japan put heated display cases on the counter, displaying an assortment of stuffed buns (could this post get any more suggestive? I swear I’m not even trying).

Display cases with hot snacks in the convenience store

Display cases with hot snacks in the convenience store

There are different kinds according to the stuffing, like for example meat man (nikuman 肉まん), cheese curry man (chiizukareman チーズカレーまん) and my favourite, pizza man (pizaman ピザまん), which is filled with tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese. The ‘man’ is wrapped in a paper wrapper, much like a hamburger, and is of course meant to be eaten within minutes after purchasing it. Perfect for a quick snack on the go!

display with hot stuffed buns in japan

Different kinds of ‘man’ on display

pizzaman

Pizza man. Yummy!