Food, glorious food

My brother-in-law, who is a seasoned traveller, claimed that when he visited Japan he lost weight, the food is so healthy.

He’s a vegetarian. I think the reason he lost weight is that he didn’t actually eat. Because, I swear, when we return from this country I will be two stone heavier. The stodge! The delightful food! We are eating constantly: salty snacks, sticky sweets, noodles and rice galore. And noodles and rice do not a weight-loss diet make. The variety of food here has been quite a surprise. Obviously we’ve been shovelling in the regulation ramen, and son is a big fan of raw fish, so much sushi has also been consumed, including chunks of octopus tentacle, whose suckers removed themselves inside his mouth. Have to tip my cap to the boy, who remained unfazed, though he had to chew the thing for 20 minutes before he could swallow it.

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Raw fish, and lots of it please.

One reason brother-in-law may have eaten less is because Japan is not all that hot on vegetarian cuisine. Plenty of fish dishes. Very few that are totally free of meat. And it doesn’t help that we don’t understand what the menus say, and even if we did the menus are not always fully comprehensive or honest about what is in each dish… The long and the short of it is, though son and I had been strictly pescetarian for six months, we have fallen, regularly and without guilt, at many meaty hurdles here in Japan. You can’t avoid pork, and you can’t avoid chicken. You certainly can’t avoid prawns. They practically follow you down the street, begging to be eaten.

But, and I don’t know why this would surprise me, unless I really am the narrow-minded, patronising ignoramus I feared, Japan is not only au fait with global cuisine but also pretty damn good at cooking it. So – do I admit this? – we’ve frequently been able to supplement Japan’s national cuisine with pizza, pasta, ham sandwiches…

This is a blessing in the case of daughter who, unlike her adventurous brother, is a somewhat fussy eater. Ramen she can handle. Egg fried rice, no problemo. Raw fish? Pickled vegetables? Umm, no. She’ll try tempura and declare her love for it but then refuse it on second offering. So the ready availability of pizza means one battle we don’t have to face.

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Fancy a packet of crisps and… dried fish?

Eating out makes life easier, which we have been mostly doing, thanks to a combination of laziness and busyness. Shopping at the local grocery store introduced some fairly fascinating, totally unidentifiable vegetables I wouldn’t feel confident knowing how to cook. Also whole fish I’m not sure I could chop up while they were looking at me. On the other hand, the grocery shops also provide a variety of readymade meals in plastic pots which can be eaten on the run. Lol – I say readymade. We’re not talking boxed, factory-produced cottage pie type efforts. These are delicious noodle and veg, dumpling or onigiri concoctions, apparently put together in a kitchen in the store itself. They are a miracle. Especially because eating out is cripplingly expensive – a simple pizza and pasta meal for three in a Formica table establishment costs about 50 quid.

Oh, but I will happily pay 50 quid for the puddings, which are the best in the world. Fact. Gigantic sundaes of whipped cream, cold custard, caramel sauce and cornflakes; a rendition of tiramisu that would make the Italians faint; chocolate cake that redefines, belittles, undermines and obliterates all previous understanding of chocolate… Then there are the properly Japanese confectionery delicacies: rice cake stuffed with bean paste; hakuto jelly; deep fried dough balls… I said I’d come back two stone heavier. Make that three.

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Just one wafer thin crepe.

The question is, why do the Japanese not have an obesity problem? Can’t answer that, I’m afraid. If I could I’d sell the secret to America and make millions. But one thing I have noticed is that restaurants don’t bring out everyone’s food at the same time – they bring each plate out when it’s ready. This, possibly, is based on the assumption that food will be shared. Such is the nature of traditional Japanese food, it is made for group participation; but this convention has been shifted to western cuisine, which doesn’t quite work in the same way, if only because of our western attitudes of hogging our own portions.

If we took more of a communal approach to food, maybe we’d all be as svelte as the Japanese. Try sharing daughter’s chocolate cake at your peril, though.

So. Restaurants. One weird thing about many of them is the fact they are planted several floors up in multi-storey buildings you would walk past in the belief they were just offices. But it’s a thing here – shops and restaurants ensconced way above your attention in skyscrapers. I don’t know how they stay solvent without passing trade. They basically have to rely on loyal customers and word-of-mouth recommendations. And the Japanese, who are used to this type of thing. And tourists like us who happen upon them and stop by for dinner. Okay, it’s perfectly understandable they stay solvent.

And as for tea… Don’t get me started on tea.

Too late. I thought that getting a decent cuppa wouldn’t be a problem in a country that specialises in tea bloody ceremonies. But no. You can get green tea aplenty, almost 10 varieties, including matcha, the powdered green tea used in the aforementioned ceremonies, which is high in antioxidants and lurid in colour. But when you want normal tea, you ask for “kocha”, which is black tea leaves such as Darjeeling, and if you do ask for that you have to also ask for milk, which has occasionally arrived as a mug full of it, warm and frothy… You will periodically find “milky tea” on a menu, whitch I will pounce on like an addict and order cups of the stuff. This is often frothed like a cappuccino, which is profoundly peculiar.

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Matcha, the powdered green tea used for tea ceremonies.

And on the trains… God help me, on the trains… The hostess trolley will chunter past, and the beautiful, polite hostess can offer you hot coffee, or (bottled) iced tea, or various fizzy drinks… but no hot tea. No hot, normal, breakfast tea with a splash of milk.

Somebody stop me. Next thing you know I’ll be lamenting the dearth of HP Sauce and Heinz baked beans.

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