A culinary tour of Tokyo’s food scene | ET REALITY


It’s Monday afternoon at the Tsukiji branch of the Tokyo Sushi Academy and we are about to be tested. Or I am anyway. Most of the other students enrolled in the intensive Japanese cooking course are professionals. They are local or from abroad and are simply brushing up on their skills or expanding their repertoire. My bench mate works on charter yachts out of Australia. Our sensei, Chef Hiro Tsumoto noticed a tattoo on his forearm with Japanese characters and shouted, “Hey, that’s my aunt’s name!”

I am among the civilians whom the academy also welcomes to the course. I’m here for the challenge, certainly. But right now, I feel clearly lost.

Mr. Hiro, who is also one of the founders of the academy, has explained to us the basics of kaiseki, a word used both for traditional Japanese multi-course food and the skills and techniques needed to prepare it.. This involves talking about a bewildering variety of things, including knife cuts to make notches in the top of a shiitake mushroom, how to knot a sprig of mitsuba herb for garnish, as well as the precise temperature to best extract flavor from dashi broth. made with kombu. seaweed and katsuobushi, or dried bonito shavings. On the topic of kaiseki, Mr. Hiro briefly waxes philosophical, noting that it is a lifelong practice and thus approaching the ineffable.

“Like the kappa. What is it really? is The kappa? she says, by way of explanation with a wink. “Okay, let’s cook!”

Only later would I learn that the kappa is a mythical reptilian creature that likes cucumbers and sumo. Right now, I have to dive into the fray of all these professionals grabbing pots and grills and gathering ingredients for the fish stew we’re making.

My first order has arrived at the imaginary step: an individual kaiseki serving of clear fish soup, osumashi, for one. My heart races. My hands are shaking. This has to be the most pressure I have ever experienced on what is supposed to be a holiday. But I love it.

There are more obvious ways to explore Tokyo’s food scene. Following Michelin stars makes some sense given that the Michelin Guide lists 198 restaurants with 261 stars in total this year, more than any other city in the world. But you can also get here without any meal plan.

Tokyo may seem chaotic to visitors at first, but discovery and luck are key parts of the city’s charm. If you find yourself trying to find a quiet corner, as you probably will at times, you may come across a gem. For example, when heading away from the crowds at Tsukiji Outdoor Market, you may stumble upon some worn linoleum stairs at Namiyoke-dori and find yourself in the Toto Grill. It’s a restaurant. No Michelin star at the moment or probably. But here there are truckers who eat plates of fried horse mackerel and stewed beef tendon. There’s a jukebox and a cigarette machine and the breakfast of tuna sashimi with pickled cabbage and whitebait is perfect and unpretentious.

I found that cooking school adds a layer to the explorations. And you don’t need a week at Tokyo Sushi Academy either. I have done a three hour soba intensive with tokyo chef and a one-hour fruit cutting lesson at Takano Fruit Parlor.

In the most obvious case, the things you have taken for granted will inspire new respect in you. Or at least, if you’re me, you’ll reconsider your former indifference to tempura. It’s too hard to do it to be indifferent. Before cooking school, I had never thought about the perfect temperature difference between the battered item and the oil it is cooked in, which is 295 degrees.

I also hadn’t considered that if you were skilled enough you could cook tempura to a great extent. by ear. In Kondo Tempura, where the two Michelin stars induce a reverential silence among diners (good for listening), you can watch it all unfold as a spectacle for connoisseurs. Tempura masters are busier than sushi chefs, Hiro said, and they never talk to customers. Because? Well, because they are standing over the oil with their ears raised to listen to the “pulse” of sound, which rises and recedes as the bubbles get smaller and the dish nears completion.

And that was just the beginning of the drama. Without breaking a sweat for a couple of hours during my preparation at the academy, would I have noticed the knife cuts unfolding on my miniature eggplant, or how the paper was folded kimono style on my plate, or that the ginger daikon garnish was cut into a bowl to look like a bozu The temple master’s bald head?

You’ll find this same technical fixation behind most Japanese culinary preparations. You may hear the word datsusara when talking to food people here. I heard it first from the ramen expert. Brian MacDuckstonwho I ate with Yakitori Yamamoto near Mitaka station. The word datsusara captures the idea of ​​escaping the rat race and is associated with chefs who come from the corporate world and instead dedicate their fastidious devotion to food. But more broadly, it speaks to a detail-oriented drive toward food perfection.

Yakitori restaurants are fascinating places to observe the phenomenon. The chef is often right in front of you, leaning over the clay grill filled with binchotan charcoal, carefully inspecting the skewers, pinching them to check for doneness, and dipping them in tare sauce precisely at the 80 percent mark. After trying this, you’ll also know that when the grill guy knocks over one of those skewers, it was because the grill guy didn’t balance it properly to keep it from rolling in place.

“That’s why you have to prepare skewers for three years before touching the grill,” Hiro said.

In Yakitori Yoneda, just south of Nishi-Ogikubo Station, I noticed how the tsukune, or chicken dumplings, arrive perfectly charred, just a little bit sweet, with a perfect spring to the bite thanks to the potato starch added to the mix the night before. prior to grilling. I go under the red awning, protected from the rain, with a skewer of half-cooked chicken livers and another of crispy chicken skin. The tsukune here is plump, about the size of a small zucchini. And when it arrives with its chopped onion and soft, confit fried egg, I enjoy it even more for recognizing the perfect execution. It remains one of the best dishes I have had in Tokyo over many visits.

Yoneda also illustrates another point: You don’t have to spend a ton of money to have these “best bite” moments. A good, inexpensive yakitori in Tokyo will cost you around 400 yen, or about $2.65, for a couple of skewers. I think cooking classes actually lower the price of pleasure by allowing you to see how excellent the technique can be in many everyday restaurants in Tokyo.

The Michelin star Kondo The restaurant has brilliant tempura, no doubt. But it also does Ginza Hageten, just down the road and at a fraction of the price. Here, the lunch crowd flows, jazz bubbles in the background, and the vegetable tempura, rice, and noodle dish come together.

I had the same experience exploring tonkatsu, that ubiquitous panko-fried pork tenderloin that often comes with a pile of shredded cabbage. It’s ethereally good at Butagumi, where, amidst woody elegance, you can choose from dozens of varieties of pork and where no one in the dining room is allowed to wear perfume. But it’s also pretty good at Danki Tonkatsu, just around the corner from Demboin Shrine in Asakusa. When I ate there with Yukari Sakamotoauthor of the “Food Sake Tokyo” guide, we sat shoulder to shoulder with anyone else who passed by who was hungry.

In it tokyo chef kitchen in Sougo In Roppongi, I spent an afternoon learning soba from chef Shinichi Yoshida, an elegant gentleman who wears a shirt and tie under his apron. Mr. Yoshida explained to me the history of buckwheat in Japan. He explained dashi down to the glutamine content of various types of kombu seaweed, a key ingredient. He shaved katsuobushi for dashi from his own block of bonito, dry-aged for five years, its cut surface darkly translucent like a black gemstone. We made the noodles by hand, rolling out the complicated low-gluten dough with a long dowel and then cutting it into 1/16-inch ribbons with a huge menkiri. knife, the handle wrapped in sharkskin.

I only ate a couple of noodle dishes in Tokyo that came close to the brilliant dish Mr. Yoshida showed me that day, with its perfectly balanced sauce of five parts dashi to one part kaeshi, a combination of soy and sugar cooked by slow fire. and dark mirin. The first of them was in Teuchi Soba Fujiya in Shinjuku, recommended by Mr. Hiro of Tokyo Sushi Academy, where a line of people forms 30 minutes before opening and your meal comes with a small jug of soba cooking liquid to drink after the meal to help digestion.

I found the second perfect bowl at a chain called Tokyo Abura Soba with 60 Japanese locations, where you order from a vending machine and get your bowl of chashu pork noodles in about three minutes. Abura soba is not really soba at all. It is a brothless dish of ramen noodles bathed in a sauce made with soy, broth powder, sugar, vinegar, and white miso or Chinese doubanjiang. It’s stupidly delicious. It’s also addictive. But I wouldn’t have known what set of rules there were to break on the way to this heavenly sipping bowl if Mr. Yoshida hadn’t shown me the annoying perfection of “proper” soba in the first place.

my osumashi The clear fish soup at the end is not bad. My salmon slices are a little uneven. And my mitsuba lining is tied with a granny knot instead of a reef knot. Still, after the adrenaline and frantic placing of each ingredient in exactly the right place in the bowl, I get the dish in time.

Mr. Hiro nods, amused by my efforts. And back on my bench, I look at my yacht cook colleague, who greets me with a gesture of restrained approval. “You’re fast,” he allows.

Then I head to Nakajima for kaiseki to see how real professionals do it. Eleven shiny plates. Or maybe 12. I lost count. I linger longer on one plate than the others, the dashi so clear in the black lacquered wooden owan bowl that I can barely see it. But I can smell the kombu, the katsuobushi. I can see the fish and vegetables, all perfectly placed. And when I take a bite of the delicate fish and a sip of that smoky broth, I can glimpse the years it must have taken to become so good at something so simple and so difficult at the same time.

The soup is more than delicious. I drain the bowl.

In Toto Grillsimple meals cost between 950 and 1,500 yen, or between $6.50 and $10.

Lunch in Kondo Tempura ranges between 8,800 and 12,100 yen. Dinner ranges from 14,300 yen to 23,100 yen.

In Yakitori Yamamoto, plates cost between 210 and 980 yen. In Yakitori YonedaThey range between 185 and 320 yen.

In Butagumipork loin and chop steak cost between 2,000 and 4,200 yen.

In Danki Tonkotsua meal costs around 2,100 yen.

Lunch in Teuchi Soba Fujiya It ranges between 1,200 and 2,000 yen.

Noodle bowls start at 880 yen at Tokyo Abura Soba.

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