Category Archives: Food

Spring in the time of Covid (Part 3)

It got hotter and hotter, sunnier and sunnier. And then, randomly, there was a day of hailstones. Some thunder and lightening. A week of thick grey cloud. It started to feel as though the weather was as confused as the nation. Lockdown continued interminably… but with some relaxations, allowing friends living close enough to meet in the park. We even managed a couple of picnics. Amazing how such simple pleasures could feel so exciting; illicit, even, and to be treasured, never again taken for granted.

But whilst things started to turn a corner on Covid, a much more insidious and enduring pandemic raised its head. The season ended with a series of marches and protests under the banner of Black Lives Matter, following the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. 2020 certainly won’t be forgotten easily. Whether it turns out to be a pivotal year for equality and sets the world on a brighter, fairer path, only time will tell. But we can hope, and listen, and learn, and be hungry for change.

Just as we can hope and agitate for positive outcomes across a range of other topics following this period of enforced reflection: whether that be on environmental matters, world politics, or our own working practices and life priorities. Good things need to emerge from the ashes.

But back to prosaic matters. We’re now able to drive – or Paul is (the DVLA is likely to object if I try!) – so can finally get beyond Brixton’s borders. Roll on summer…

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Black Lives Matter Plaza (Credit: Washington Post)

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Spring in the time of Covid (Part 2)

And so the weeks and months rolled on… Happily, April and May brought lots of sunny days. And Paul and I got very competitive with our ‘Lockdown Food League’, so very many nice meals were consumed. We got a delivery of wine; I finally learned how to keep a sourdough starter alive (and produced several pleasingly well-risen loaves); my running times improved; the nation carried on clapping weekly for NHS staff and key workers; and stunning flowers bloomed everywhere.

Less positively, the £30 yoga mat has only had two outings in 10 weeks. But you can only have so many lockdown projects at once, right?!

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Basque Country Part 2: Bilbao

The last couple of days of our honeymoon were spent in Bilbao. Hotel Tayko overlooks the river and is in a brilliant location on the edge of Casco Vieja (the old town). Complementary macaroons and an upgrade to a bigger room with bath (heaven!) made it all the more special. I could get used to this!

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After availing ourselves of the treats and lounging decadently in our soft robes, we made our way to Catedral de Santiago, a glorious mix of Gothic Revival and renaissance architecture. We then had a quick dash around the local delis (buying too much ham and txakoli); and took in the handsome art-nouveau facade of Concordia station, before strolling along the Ria del Nervión to the Guggenheim for our evening meal at Nerua.

This was our biggest splurge of the holiday. Currently listed No.32 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the stark white modernist room belies the friendliness of the staff (we discovered our particular chef for the night used to work at Hackney Picturehouse: small world!) and the playful inventiveness of the cooking. I’m going to try to avoid talking about food too much this time, though. I’ll just say it was delicious. 🙂

Nine courses later, we retraced our steps along the river, passing under Louise Bourgeois’ gigantic Maman (genuinely a bit scary in the dark) and the handsomely-illuminated Zubizuri bridge, before stopping for a nightcap in a full-to-bursting craft beer bar near the hotel

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The next day, after tortilla at Café Iruña (a bit of an institution, filled with Moorish tiles and waiters who think they’re in 1920s Paris), we were back at the Guggenheim. This time, to actually look around the gallery. Since opening in 1997, the instantly-recognisable titanium edifice has been a catalyst for significant regeneration across the whole city. Tourist numbers have risen as Bilbao’s seedier and historically more industrial areas have been given a facelift, in the wake of its opening. 

Frank Gehry’s creation didn’t disappoint. As the sun danced off its gleaming surfaces, we first took in the exterior sculptures and installations: Jeff Koons’ colourful 12 metre tall Puppy and his controversial Tulips; Fujiko Nakaya’s mist; and Anish Kapoor’s Tall Tree and the Eye. All brilliant. Worth lingering over, exploring in different light and from different angles. Inside, it’s a slightly different story. I felt it was the architecture that continued to amaze, more than the exhibits. Although, I loved Richard Serra’s giant rusty Matter of Time sculpture.

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If you buy the Artean Pass, you’ll save money on a dual visit to nearby Museo de Bellas Artes. Like many, it seems, I favour the latter’s permanent collections over the Guggenheim’s. An eclectic mix of pieces from the likes of Gauguin, El Greco, Francis Bacon, and Basque artists Eduardo Chillida and Ignacio Zuloaga. My favourite was Juan Muñoz’s Hanging Figures (pictured below). To mark its 110th anniversary, the gallery is currently presenting an exhibition called ABC: The alphabet of the Bilbao Museum, which is wonderful – rather than ordering works chronologically or through schools of art, they are grouped into themes under each letter of the alphabet (D = Desire, for example; W = War). Loved it!

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Our final day was spent exploring the seven original 14th century streets (Las Sietre Calles) of Casco Viejo, as well as Ribera food market, the riverside, San Anton Eliza church, and the “hip and artsy” Las Cortes quarter (see some examples of the area’s amazing street art in my last photo blog).

When our legs started aching and our tummies rumbled, we stopped in Plaza Nueva for a pintxos lunch, sampling bites from Casa Victor Montes, Culmen, and – our favourite – Gure Toki. I think I mentioned in my San Sebastián blog, the best dishes are often the ones you order from the menu rather than take from the counter top (although those are usually delicious too). You can also order media raciones (half-portions) or full plates. But doing so fills you up quickly, so we tended to stick to tapa-sized bites. Having said that, my favourite dish that lunchtime was the half-portion of rare chuleton steak we shared. My mouth is watering at the memory. Dammit, I said I wasn’t going to bang on about food again. Sorry!

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Basque Country Part 1: Donostia

I have newly acquired a husband. And to celebrate we took ourselves off to San Sebastián and Bilbao, in northern Spain. It was a break centred first-and-foremost on good food. So I make no apologies for the grotesquely smug photos to follow.

The city is famous for its pintxos bars: small tapas usually skewered to bread (the word deriving from the verb ‘to pierce’). On two of our three nights there, we ambled happily from bar to bar, slugging back txakoli (the local wine) and ordering a gout-inducing number of dishes.

Highlights included the grilled octopus with paprika-aioli at Atari; the risotto con queso Idiazabal (cheesy-rice to you and me) from Borda Berri; the beef rib “brownie” at A Fuego Negro; and the divine dipped ice-creams from Loco Polo.

Our favourite bar, however, was La Cuchara de San Telmo. Would really recommend heading there for a long lunch and pretty much working through the entire menu. We didn’t quite do that, but left feeling stuffed and happy after demolishing the black pudding, razor clams, piquillo peppers, seared tuna, and kokotxa (hake throats, a regional delicacy). The bar is small and friendly, and only a stone’s throw from the very pretty Basílica de Santa María del Coro. Having washed the food down with a couple of large carafes of wine, it proved difficult to move.

An afternoon climb up Monte Urgull was almost a necessity. Working off the calories, we plodded up to Sagrado Corazón (the “Sacred Heart”) statue to take in the stunning views over Bahía de la Concha and Isla de Santa Clara.

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During our time in the city, we also visited Buen Pastor Cathedral, wandered the cobblestoned old town (Alde Zaharra), lazed on the beach, drank local craft beer, strolled the bank of the Urumea river, and caught the sunset at Bahía de Ondarreta.

Donostia is small, though. You really don’t need more than a couple of days there. So on our third day, after a fantastic breakfast of perfectly-squidgy tortilla and rich, fatty jamón ibérico at Azkena (within La Bretxa market), we caught a bus to Hondarribia. A tiny coastal town in Guipuzcoa province on the French border, with a pleasant beach and medieval old town. We walked the fortified wall, sat in squares surrounded by colourful Basque houses, tried (but failed) to get into the baroque church, and had a refreshing (if slightly chilly) swim in the sea.

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And – of course – indulged in a multi-course lunch at Gran Sol. It’s worth a visit to this award-winning tapas bar on Calle San Pedro. Try the squid ink and chicken broth, ham croquetas and txerribeltz (pork and beets)…or pretty much anything else on the menu! It’s probably some of the prettiest food you’ll ever eat.  

Here’s some final photos of the newlyweds enjoying the view from their hotel room (free upgrade: winner!).

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I haven’t even mentioned breakfast churros (a must!), or our special honeymoon “treat” meal at Restaurante Kokotxa. Oh wait, there – I just did.

Next time, Part 2: Bilbao.

 

The Crescent City (Part 2)

If you’re reading this before Part 1, you have to ask yourself ‘Why?’. The title should really provide the clue. Come on, people. Anyhow, where was I? Ah yes, the posh bit….

One sunny morning saw us catching the Rampart-St.Claude Street Car to the Warehouse District, where we stopped for a pleasant lunch at Maypop (apparently the crispy fried bourbon oysters were the highlight – I wouldn’t know, since they’ve decided they disagree with me. And I used to think we got along so well!). Switching to the St. Charles Street Car, we continued into the Garden District. This is where you’ll find the homes of the rich and famous (alive and dead): Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Michel Musson (uncle of Degas), Archie Manning (former Saints quarterback*), Nicholas Cage, Jefferson Davis (first and only President of the short-lived Confederate States of America) and Beyonce & Jay-Z all live/have lived in the area. You can also find the home where Anne Rice wrote Interview with a Vampire, as well as various historic buildings such as the Women’s Opera Guild. The architecture is a mixture of Gothic Revival, Italianate and Creole, with a few Reconstruction-era and Swiss Germanic properties (Bullock’s) thrown in. As well as ogling intricate wrought iron fences, doric columns and the like, you can also browse the pretty independent shops along Magazine street.

And you can find some amazing restaurants in the Garden District. If you’re looking for down-and-dirty, then the alligator hotdogs and chilli fries at Dat Dog are pretty special, whilst the best gumbo and blue crab beignets can be had at La Petite Grocery. On a previous visit, we also dined at Shaya, a fantastic modern Israeli place. Both of the latter two have won coveted James Beard awards in recent years.

I seem to have omitted The French Quarter so far. The buzzing heart of the city, Vieux Carre is a story of two halves: part elegant townhouses, leafy squares, antique shops and art galleries; part mad, boozy, vulgar nights out on Bourbon Street (the clean-up operation each morning is pretty epic). We happily avoided the latter side, choosing instead to frequent bars in calmer parts of the city. I spent many a happy morning stroll around the Quarter though, taking the short walk from our homestay to Jackson Square, meandering between Decatur, Royal, Chartres and Dauphine Streets, admiring the handsome buildings, gawping at St. Louis Cathedral, and smiling at institutions like Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo and Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop (one of the oldest surviving structures in New Orleans). We also had a successful shopping trip in the Quarter on our final day, stuffing our suitcases full of purchases.

The culinary highlight of the holiday was, unexpectedly, in the Quarter. Longway Tavern is a brilliant bar and restaurant on Toulouse Street, with a captivating open-air courtyard and some of the best cocktails around. I’d recommend their shrimp toast and the pork chop, if they’re still on the menu. And you MUST try a muffuletta for lunch from Central Grocery. The king of sandwiches!

Finally, it’s worth getting out of the city (if you can tear yourself away) to head into the Louisiana wetlands. We had a fantastic morning kayaking in Shell Bank Bayou in Manchec Swamp. My photos from that excursion can be found here.

And I haven’t even talked about the main reason we were in the city: the 50th Anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. I won’t wax lyrical, but suffice to say we had an amazing three days. As well as catching a range of lesser-known bluegrass, jazz, soul, gospel and funk acts on the various stages, following Mardi Gras Indian tribes as they paraded the grounds, and eating my body weight in food (soft-shell crab po’boy; crawfish monica; red beans & rice; beignets piled high with icing sugar; and redfish baquet…to name just a few), we joined the hoards for Kamasi Washington, Chris Stapleton, Tank & the Bangas, John Cleary, Buddy Guy and Diana Ross (the latter surprisingly good, choosing a crowd-pleasing set covering all of her hits and managing at least five costume changes in 90 minutes). For me, the highlight was Trombone Shorty’s festival-closing set, featuring the Neville Brothers. Nothing better than jumping around to ‘Hurricane Season’ as the sun sets.

*Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?

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29 Seasons of Tofu

At some point this millennia, I plan to finish editing my photos and tell you all about the amazing sights and experiences of my recent trip to Japan… But in the meantime, I thought I’d start with a culinary tour of Honshu.

Food, for me, is such an important part of any holiday. Some might argue the most important part. My waistline would certainly argue as much. Give me good food, nice weather, and decent company (Paul will do) and I’m a happy bunny. So take me to Japan, and I’m ecstatic. I don’t think you’re likely to go anywhere else in the world and find such a wonderful variety of high-quality fare. From street food to haute cuisine, the country delivers memorable taste sensations every meal.

So here’s my run-down of must-try food styles and dishes in the Land of the Rising Sun.

1. Ramen

I’ll begin with ramen, one of my absolute favourite dishes. Every region in Japan has its own version of ramen, and frankly I don’t think you can go wrong – whether you’re eating in a tiny six-seat counter bar under a railway arch or paying 4,000JPY atop a skyscraper. In fact, I’d argue the former will be better. Thick meaty broth, noodles, soy, nori (dried seaweed), seasoned egg and spring onions. Simple and heavenly.

Two particularly notable versions from our trip to mention: one in Tokyo and the other Kyoto.

Kamazi in Ginza offers a delicious tonkotsu (pork bone broth) as well as its signature sake kasu noko soba, a rich slightly sour-tasting broth made with sake lees. I heaped extra chāshū (sliced pork) onto my order, not realising it already came with plenty. This is a perpetual problem in Japan – most menus are not translated or, where they are, only partially so. A kind customer had to help explain the vending machine to us, from which you place your order, and in our confusion we inevitably over-ordered. A tip: most times ramen dishes come with all the trimmings, so only order extra if you’re super hungry. It’s a filling meal. Anyway, I would definitely recommend seeking this place out. It’s not easy to find – hidden away down a side alley – but luckily Paul had had the foresight to order us portable wi-fi from the airport. An absolute godsend, given Japan doesn’t seem to ‘do’ road signs.

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Whilst Kamazi was a traditional counter style restaurant, Muraji in Kyoto was a very different experience. Situated on the upper floor of a traditional machiya (old wooden town house) in the Gion district, guests sit at large round communal tables. The furniture is elegant, there are beautiful vases and mid-century lamp shades, and – given the price of food is no more than in the casual joints – it feels excellent value for money. The restaurant specialises in chicken paitan (white soup) broth. It is unctuous, punchy and truly delicious. I would have gone back there every night…but Kyoto has so many other enticing places to try, so one trip had to suffice. It was here though that I learned the term omotenashi, Japenese for “hospitality”. It’s a philosophy that the country embraces and you very quickly come to appreciate. You’ll queue for 30-60 minutes to get a seat, depending on what time you arrive, but trust me: it’s worth the wait.

2. Takoyaki

My new fast-food nibble of choice! Takoyaki (octopus balls) are surprisingly light for a battered snack, yet so moreish and tasty that you find yourself wanting to order them all the time…even when you’ve just had a swanky eight-course meal (not that I, erm, would do something like that).

Made in special iron moulds, the octopus is paired with pickled ginger, onion, and batter scraps, then topped with takoyaki sauce (a bit like Worcestershire sauce) and mayonnaise, and sprinkled with dried bonito flakes and aonori (green seaweed laver). My mouth is watering just thinking about them.

You can buy takoyaki everywhere in Japan. We had some very nice ones from a street stall near Inari station in Kyoto; cheap and sloppy ones in Shibuya; and really fantastic ones in Dōtonbori in Osaka. The Osakan ones – named tako-sen – took the concept to the next level by squishing the battered balls between two large shrimp senbei (crackers). Delicious!

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3. Sushi

I’m using ‘sushi’ as an umbrella term here for all manner of raw fish dishes. We didn’t end up going to a proper sushi restaurant as such – a combination of time (there are simply too many things to try in Japan!) and funds (they can be eye-wateringly expensive, and we already had a few ‘treats’ pre-booked – see below). However, that’s not to say we didn’t have good sushi whilst we were there – that would be ridiculous! You can’t go to Japan without frequenting one of the kaiten sushi chains (conveyor belt sushi). Nor should you miss purchasing sushi bento boxes for long journeys on the bullet train, grabbing fresh fish from a market, or buying snacks from Japan’s excellent convenience stores. We did all these things.

Our kaiten experience was at Sushiro, a popular chain with families. So popular, in fact, that we ended up queuing for around 75 minutes. One of those situations where you feel like “I’ve waited this long, so might as well carry on”. You take a ticket from the machine (again, we needed help from friendly patrons) and then wait nervously, hoping you can figure out when they’re calling your number. This particular branch was close to our ryokan in the Shimogyō-ku area of Kyoto. It’s incredibly reasonably priced – most small dishes costing 100-200JPY (around £0.60-1.30) – and as such you can try a wide variety of interesting things. I won’t list all of our many, many plates, but some highlights included: kelp nigiri; sardine and pumpkin tempura; and black mirugai clam. All washed down with shochu cooler (a spirit distilled from wheat or potatoes and mixed with, I assume, lemonade: my drink of choice of the holiday). Would also recommend repeat orders of the eggplant wasabi – yum! There were lowlights too: the herring roe was crystalline and very odd, and I had no idea what the strange and bitter ume hijikilnari was (still don’t – if anyone can enlighten me, please do).

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The best nigiri and sashimi we had by far, however, was in Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. Sashimi, as you’ll know, is simply very fresh sliced raw fish (often served with shredded daikon radish) – unlike sushi, which is wrapped in vinegar-ed rice. Nigiri is raw fish lain over, rather than contained within, pressed rice. We sampled the best tuna sashimi and salmon nigiri I’ve ever eaten in the outer market (I’m afraid I don’t know the name of the particular stall: there are hundreds of them!). The owners delicately and expertly prepare the fish right in front of you; the large tuna carcasses testament to the popularity of the place.

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Whilst I’m talking about the market, I may as well cover some of the other food we sampled there, since it doesn’t neatly fit into another category. Grilled eel slathered in a sticky soy glaze was particularly good; as was the black pig dumpling and nikuman (pork bun). We also had fresh “sushiegg” omelette, made in traditional tin skillets; scallops in miso; clams in citrus; and dried pond fish (like little white bait). The bustling, colourful, loud, vibrant market is a brilliant place to wander and sample, wander and sample, until you’re full to bursting…and then you can have a matcha or black sesame ice-cream to finish off (I can recommend Tomi Sujahta’s Silk Ice).

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Nishiki market in Kyoto is similarly great for browsing and nibbling. It’s very different to Tsukiji: more deli-style shops, quieter and more refined, but with lots of great places to buy your food-based souvenirs. Its clichéd, but you have to try their famous mini octopus on a stick, head stuffed with a quail’s egg. Crab sticks; fish cakes; grilled tiger prawns; rice balls in syrup; and wasabi senbei all great. The highlight: black sesame cake with a soy bean curd filling – not dissimilar to M&S’s chocolate puddle pudding. The market is close to Gion and the Kamogawa River, and a perfect way to spend a morning, before hitting more shrines and temples in that fantastic city.

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4. Yakiniku

Korean barbeque has become popular in London, so the concept of grilling your own meat at your table is more familiar, and therefore possibly a little less impressive, than it might have been a few years ago. But, even so, the Japanese version can be a lot more down-and-dirty than I’d encountered at home. Smoke filling the room, posters blue-tacked to the walls, waiters haring around with pitchers of beer, grills being cleaned with an unnatural speed between sittings, orders for more intestine being constantly yelled into the air (not that I can speak Japanese, but there was a LOT of intestine arriving at tables!)…

After an early evening spent enjoying really delicious flights of sake at Jam in Gion (the big revelation of the trip, having both previously convinced ourselves we didn’t like the stuff), we walked down the pretty, lantern-flanked Takase canal to Aje Kiyamachi Donguri. Waiting in line for a table (which by now we’d come to accept as standard practice and a sign of good quality food within), we tried to decipher the menu and peer inside to see how the system worked. Basically: order a lot of meat and then attempt not to over- or under-cook it on the dancing flames. When we were seated at a communal bench, it quickly became clear that this simple premise was beyond us. A concerned Japanese couple took pity, and – trying their best not to be condescending – directed us to the correct part of the grill to use for different cuts of beef (tongue, flank, rib) and shared some tetsu-chan (the aforementioned intestine) with Paul. It wasn’t a cheap meal, but a fun experience and one I’d definitely recommend.

Han no Daidokoro Bettei in Tokyo was more akin to the London versions of Asian barbaque I’d tried, but a really excellent example. A big room on the top floor of a non-descript building in bustling Shibuya, you are greeted out of the lift by a bowing maître d’ and shown to an individual table with a sparkling clean gas grill. There we opted for someone else to do the choosing (and some of the grilling) for us, plumping for the speciality Yamagata set meal. Yonezawa beef from Yamagata prefecture in Northern Japan is considered one of the three best areas for beef in Japan, and home to plenty of herds of wagyū cattle. Starting with creamy samgyetang chicken ginseng soup and yukhoe tartare (spicy raw beef), we then eased in with some tongue, before moving on to three varieties of yamagata (shoulder, rib and cap) with water kimchee, and then the pièce de résistance: top wagyū skirt steak, accompanied by chilled noodles and gyeren-jjim (a Korean style steamed egg custard, which was particularly nice). Another good find.

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Before I move on, I want to cheat a bit (again) and mention a final place: Guttsurian, by the port in Hiroshima. Not yakiniku, but rather a seafood barbeque. Paul’s favourite restaurant of the holiday. A complete chance find; Googled in a hurry and quickly booked on our arrival into the city. It’s basically a warehouse shack, where – shoes removed – you sit on sunken benches around a well-stocked bar, served by knowledgeable, hipster waitresses, surrounded by driftwood, shells and fish bone ornamentation. We tucked into yellowtail carpaccio, flounder tempura and tuna sashimi for starters; followed by barbequed (not, thankfully, by us) sea snail, mackerel, whole squid, prawn, and scallops with eringi mushroom; finished with grilled snapper in a butter and herb dressing. Quite possibly the best seafood meal we’ve ever eaten!

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5. Tofu

I’d never considered myself a lover of tofu. To be fair, I’d never really given it a chance. A couple of encounters with overcooked, rubbery versions had given me an unfair impression of the stuff. So when our ryokan hosts recommended Shoraian in Arashiyama, a kind-of suburb or outer-town of Kyoto, we were initially sceptical. However, their enthusiasm was intriguing and the setting sounded magical, so we decided to give it a go.

It was indeed a lovely location…albeit one that was a little tricky to find. After a full day’s sightseeing, and a quick refresh back at the homestay, we caught a train over and then looked puzzled at our map. Half an hour later, having navigated the bamboo grove, gone up-and-over the public park, and then cut down through the ‘monkey forest’ (disappointingly, no monkeys were spotted), we arrived at the small restaurant beside the river, a little breathless and concerned we might cause offence for having arrived two minutes late. Punctuality is highly valued in Japan. Luckily, we were met with smiles and, having removed our shoes, led into our own private dining room. To Paul’s relief, chairs were provided – unlike in the room next door, where the Japanese guests were seated on the floor.

The restaurant only offers set menus. Our ryokan hosts had chosen for us and we were happy to let them take the lead. And so, a succession of dishes began appearing: 29 Seasons of Tofu, or so Paul nicknamed the menu. In actuality, I think we had around six courses, each prepared in a different style: creamed, gratinated, chilled, steamed, grilled, and boiled. Each dish was beautifully presented, on an array of different crockery, and each with a different accompaniment – a cold seafood salad in one case; goji berries in another; etcetera. I was a convert: tofu, it turns out, is delightful.

The only respite from the seemingly endless stream of soy curd was a stunning wagyū course, marbled with fat and truly melt-in-your-mouth awesome. Amusingly, when we told the waitress how much we’d enjoyed the beef, she could only wax lyrical about the side of charred spring onion. Go figure. Our only two slight gripes: the pacing of courses often felt hurried – an observation not unique to this restaurant (we learned that the flow of a meal can be quite regimented in Japan) – and the dessert was sub-par (again, not unusual – whilst sweets are treated with a reverence normally reserved for jewellery, desserts – even in the swankiest of places – are often only a simple sorbet).

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I must also mention our Shuboku (temple lodging) meal in Koyasan. Spending a night in Eko-in, one of 117 temples atop Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture, was a fantastic experience. The centre of Esoteric Shingon Buddhism, the mountain complex is a peaceful haven and a welcome retreat from bustling city life. Having completed our afternoon meditation, and kneeling on tatami mats in our room, a young Buddhist monk brought in the dinner tray, laden with all sorts of vegetarian delights. As in Shoraian, a bowl of tofu – still steaming over an open bunsen flame – formed part of the fare. Much simpler, admittedly, than our earlier offerings, but taken as a whole – with the accompanying pickles, rice, watermelon, seaweed soup, noodles, and blossom syrup – it was a unique and tasty meal. At Eko-in they specialise in goma-dofu (sesame tofu) and kouya-dofu (dried tofu). This is shōjin ryōri, traditional temple food, rooted in Buddhist mental training and with a complete focus on conveying a sense of the seasons using the five different methods, tastes and colours of cookery. If you’re debating whether to include a trip to Mount Koya in your itinerary, I would insist you hesitate no longer!

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6. Okonomiyaki

I’d been looking forward to trying okonomiyaki – a type of Japanese savoury pancake – but we waited until we reached Osaka, knowing the Kansai region is particularly famous for it. Having met up with Masa (an old university friend now living just outside of the city) and being reminded – quickly – that he’s a living embodiment of the ‘kuidaore’ philosophy (roughly translated as “eat until you drop”), we set out to find the best pancake we could. Kuidaore is particularly associated with Dōtonbori street food culture, and we were happy to have him as our guide around the mad, neon district.

The area is lined with restaurants and street stalls, each boasting giant plaster cast advertisements – crabs, blowfish, scary-looking sushi masters, dragons, cows: you name it. As well as educating us regarding what to buy in Lawson’s (one of the country’s main chain of convenience stores) – try the surume (dried, shredded squid), pickles, any of the many otsumani (snacks like crackers and dried fish to be consumed whilst drinking alcohol) and the best value sake – he also took us to four(!) food joints and a rooftop bar. I’ve already mentioned the tako-sen stall; and the others are touched on below. But we’re focusing here on pancakes.

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Mizuno is one of the most popular okonomiyaki restaurants in the city, meaning – yep, you guessed it – another long queue. Luckily it died down quickly, but the wait did give me opportunity to have a mooch around the area, taking photos. The restaurant is small, casual and bustling. Like most of the places we went to, ninety-odd per cent of customers were Japanese; a sign that always gave me comfort. Kansai pancake batter is made from flour, dashi (an umami cooking stock), eggs and shredded cabbage, to which other fillings are added. The pancakes are then topped with dried bonito, aonori, mayo, and seven-spice (an accompaniment I sought out at Lawson’s later, to bring home with us). We chose to share three pancakes: one with yams and pork loin; one with scallop, shrimp and squid; and one fairly plain but heaped with spring onion. As they were cooked on the hot plate at our table, I wondered how on earth we would manage to eat them all (let alone go on to other places afterwards), but okonomiyaki is actually very light and not filling at all. What it is though is absolutely scrumptious!

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One of the many, many reasons that I’m incredibly lucky to be with Paul, is that he likes experimenting in the kitchen, and he’s already taught himself to make a pretty spot-on version of Kansai okonomiyaki since our return. [Insert love heart emoji].

We also tried Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki at Kishibe on Miyajima Island – read above and insert fried soba noodles. A little one-woman operation, the tiny cafe isn’t much to look at, but provided a perfect pre-sunset snack.

7. Yakitori

We’ve already established that the Japanese like their grilled red meat. They’re also rather partial to a chicken skewer. Despite our best efforts, however, I don’t think we sampled especially good yakitori on our trip…but it was still fun trying.

Omoide-Yokocho in Shinjuku, Tokyo, is well-known for its skewers. So much so, that when we rocked up at 8pm on a standard Wednesday evening, most of the tiny bars on the ramshackle street were already sold out of chicken (people eat earlier in Japan and the alley attracts a big post-work crowd). After sating our hunger with some asparagus and enokitake mushroom skewers at a crammed bar, we finally managed to find somewhere selling butterflied chicken wing skewers and crunchy chicken skin, with edamame and green chilli peppers. As I say, nothing to write home about, but the trip to the alley was fun. IF, that is, you have the patience to deal with Shinjuku station. The station is the world’s busiest transport hub (check the Gusiness Book of Records, if you don’t believe me), with 36 platforms serving over 3.5million people a day and over 200 (yes, 200!!) exits. Important to keep your cool. We may have got a tiny bit tetchy with one another that night.

We also tried chicken liver yakitori at Torikizoku on Kiyamachi-Dori in Kyoto, a casual joint where we also ordered spicy cod innards, and pickled cucumber, washed down with some rather strong shochu high-balls.

But probably the best we tried, unsurprisingly, were from a street vendor in Dōtonbori. Tender morsels slathered in plenty of spicy salt: yum.

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8. Gyoza

I’m not going to pretend the gyoza we had in Japan were mind-blowing either. Maybe it’s because I had too high expectations; maybe it’s because there’s simply not a way to make gyoza extraordinary. Don’t get me wrong: they were good. Just don’t expect anything all that different to your standard Wagamama fare. Still, they had to be ticked-off during the visit.

My recommendation would be Harajuku Gyouzarou, located on a side street off the plush Omotesando in Tokyo. Worth going there just for their crunchy, punchy miso cucumber..and their grilled vegetable gyoza are tasty too. But the place felt, unusually for the trip, like it was mostly full of tourists rather than locals.

Chao Chao Kawaramachi in Kyoto is similarly recommended in practically every guidebook you’ll read. It may be because it was late (they almost didn’t let us in, as they were shutting up) and we were tired after a full-on day of sightseeing. It may be because the Japanese youths on the next table were quite obviously and unsubtly taking the piss out of the white folk. But, again, the dumplings – steamed and grilled varieties – were nice without being special.

9. Kaiseki-ryōri

I will, however, unashamedly rave – and shout from the rooftops – about the traditional multi-course, seasonal Japanese kaiseki dinner we had on the trip.

Paul and I joined six other guests at petite Jiki Miyaki for the epic feast, positioning ourselves on our allocated counter stools right in front of the head chef, Takatomo Izumi. We’d been told to expect a potentially cool welcome, with many kaiseki restaurants actively discouraging tourist trade. It was true that booking (any) restaurants had proved somewhat tricky – mainly due to the language barrier – but we’d again enlisted the help of our ryokan hosts, so had got in without a problem. And Izumi was anything but cold: he was friendly and informative, explaining each dish in both Japanese, for our six companions, and English for us. When we asked for clarifications, he was more than happy to try to assist, even whipping out his iPad at one point to show us the process of vacuum-extracting nerves from tuna.

Modern kaiseki draws on a number of traditional Japanese haute cuisines, most commonly: imperial court cuisine (yūsoku ryōri), from the 9th century Heian period; Buddhist temple cuisine (shōjin ryōri, which I’ve discussed above), from the 12th century Kamakura period; samurai cuisine of warrior households (honzen ryōri), from the 14th century Muromachi period; and tea ceremony cuisine (cha kaiseki), from the 15th century Higashiyama period. I can’t pretend to know whether or how what we ate that night fit into those traditions, but the meal certainly felt like it paid homage to orthodox styles and etiquette. From the way each course was elegantly prepared and presented on a different, specially chosen, earthenware plate or cut-glass bowl; to the way we were asked on arrival to choose our own sake cup from a presentational box.

I’m going to be lazy and simply list the 12 courses, to give you an idea of what you can expect:

  • aged squid;
  • seaweed soup with sea bream;
  • grunt sashimi (a type of ray-finned fish) with sea urchin, Japanese ginger, soy and wasabi;
  • aged tuna sashimi with fresh seaweed;
  • sesame tofu;
  • congee eel nigiri style over sticky rice with jellied Japanese peppercorns;
  • Spanish mackerel from Beijing with potato sauce and dried onion;
  • crab two ways with an egg sauce and yuba (bean curd skin);
  • white asparagus in rice cracker batter with grated fish roe;
  • prawn in a shrimp reduction with a radish pudding;
  • ‘taste of seasons’ rice three ways with miso soup, pickles, Japanese baby sardines, and tea; and
  • mango with wine jelly

After the final course, Izumi conducted a mini matcha tea ceremony, presenting the frothy green drink with a sweet bean macaroon. It was fascinating to watch. But as much as I’d hoped to get accustomed to tea on the trip – mainly so I could justify buying a nice teapot and other paraphernalia – my taste buds remain resolutely opposed to the stuff. It in no way diminished the overall experience though: the meal was absolutely superb.

It felt rude to take photos during the experience, so I have instead posted a shot of us with Izumi.

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I also want to give a special shout-out to the cocktail bar, L’Esca Moteur, which we were lucky enough to stumble into after the meal. We’ve since learned that the owner – Christophe Rossi – has won various mixology awards and his speakeasy-style bar is considered one of the coolest in Japan. And he seems to have managed to pull together the nicest team of bar staff you could hope for. The place is amazing – tiny, dark and covered in artfully-placed bric-a-brac, with the entrance to the toilet disguised as a bookshelf: very Alice in Wonderland. I had a Shiso Sour (Kinobi gin, Shiso liquer, lemon and egg white) and a Twisted Pepper (gin, lychee liquer, sansho pepper, yuzu bitter and lime); Paul a Remedy No.86 (whisky, maraschino liquer, blood orange, campari, vanilla syrup, lavender bitter, and absinthe rince) and a Smoky Old Fashioned (see photo below). All four cocktails were superlative. Seek it out! I promise you’ll thank me.

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10. Katsu curry

No trip to Japan would be complete without a katsu curry. Be under no illusion, though, this is the least ‘Japanese’ of all Japanese dishes. In his bid to modernise the country and lead the way in terms of development, Emperor Meiji (1867-1912) encouraged Western influence, and the nation transformed during this period from an isolationist feudal state to a capitalist world power. And at the same time adopted the bread-crumbed escalope.

There are two main types of katsu: tonkatsu (pork) and torikatsu (chicken). Both are deep fried in panko breadcrumbs, served with a sweet curry sauce and accompanied – usually – by shredded cabbage, tsukemono (pickled vegetables) and rice. We shared the dish at Yuryo in Hakone (alongside some cold soba dipping noodles). It was perfectly pleasant, without being special. But there’s something about katsu that lingers in the memory…and, I have to admit, it was one of the first dishes we chose to recreate back in England. There’s a reason it’s so popular on both sides of the world.

Other notable mentions

It didn’t make it onto my ‘Top 10’ list, but a honourable mention must go to the traditional Japanese breakfast, the best version of which I sampled in our ryokan in Hakone. I’ve got to admit, we tended to crave a western breakfast most days (your ubiquitous Starbucks croissant or the like), but I’m glad we also tried the alternative. The Hakone spread consisted of: omeboshi (pickled plum – supposedly one a day will keep you healthy, according to the Japanese); tori soboro (minced chicken); onsen tamasgo (runny, only-just-cooked egg boiled in natural spring water with a vinaigrette served over rice – really nice!); kuki wakame seaweed; sakura (cherry blossom) pickles with soy; grilled mackerel; and miso soup. Pretty darn good.

I have to also mention the truly fabulous croquant chou (crispy cream puffs made fresh as you wait and injected with creamy custard, topped with almonds) at ZakuZaku on Takeshita Dōri, Tokyo. Divine! Right, that’s it. I could go on, but most of you probably stopped reading after ramen. And I need to go learn how to cook okonomiyaki. 🙂

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