Japan 3 – Food – 12/2014

June 28, 2015

Food is such an important part of traveling to new countries. While we do most of our own cooking in our self-contained camper, we never miss the opportunity to try the local specialties. Wandering through the market place in Kyoto, without a translator standing next to us, the question was, “What is it?” While there were a few things we could recognize, there were many others that looked more like bait to me. Shrimp and baby octopus were easy to identify. Fresh crab was a popular item but at prices like 25,000 Yen, ($202.00), or even 42,000 Yen ($339.00), apiece or per kilo, we settled for a little take-out sushi.

Food Japan 004Normal vegetables were plentiful, but they took on a different appearance when prepared Japanese style. Spices are a very interesting part of Japanese cooking and there were plenty to choose from. We were particularly intrigued with Sansho Japanese Peppers, actually seedpods of the Japanese prickly ash (Zanthoxylum piperitum). They have a sharp, citrusy taste, with an electrifying tingling numbness that can linger for more than ten minutes. Related to Szechuan peppercorns, but far stronger, they bring a sensation that is something like a mild electrical current. Sanshos appear to act on several different kinds of nerve endings at once, inducing a sensitivity to touch and cold in nerves that are ordinarily nonsensitive, causing a kind of general neurological confusion in your mouth. Yes, you can taste a few in the market.

Safe to say, if it swims in the ocean it’s edible, and sometimes pricy. The record for a bluefin tuna was $1.8 million. Yeah, $1,800,000.00 US dollars! The best slices of fatty bluefin – called “o-toro” can sell for 2,000 Yen ($17.00) per piece at upmarket Tokyo sushi bars. The fish’s tender pink and red meat is prized for sushi. With a single mouthful-sized piece of sashimi weighing around 1 oz, the record-breaking tuna is worth around $219.00 per bite. Japanese eat 80 per cent of the bluefin tuna caught worldwide.

Food Japan 042To wash it all down, there is always tea or sake. Tea is served with most meals and we found some interesting varieties in the market. We visited the Historic Gekkeikan Sake Okura Museum for an educational tour showing how this traditional wine was distilled.

Japan’s tradition of sake making began more than 2,000 years ago shortly after rice cultivation was introduced from China. Though the first few centuries yielded a beverage quite unlike that of today, years of experience perfected brewing techniques and increased sake’s overall appeal and popularity. The Gekkeikan sake brewery was founded in 1637 in the town of Fushimi, a location well known for its high quality of water.

If you want to take an experimental viewpoint, sometimes what makes a food fall into the “gourmet” class, is that you don’t know how it was made or what’s in it. When all else fails, there is always a hot dog on a stick and a cold beer. See how many of the photos here you can identify.

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