Friday, December 2, 2011

Food Sake Tokyo

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Little kid and drying fish in Ameyoko

As soon as I got my ticket to Japan, grand ideas started forming in my head. I’d learn some rudimentary Japanese. I’d memorize words for menu items. I’d read guidebooks and plan itineraries so as not to miss anything. I’d read novels that took place in Ancient Japan and modern-day Tokyo, to steep myself in the culture.

Japan to October 16 2011 806

Warning: these mushrooms are plastic. That makes them poisonous.

But, as it always does, time slipped away. Suddenly it was just a few days before my departure and the Berlitz Japanese book hadn’t been cracked. The only things I could say in Japanese were arigato, konnichiwa, ichi, ni, and sayonara. As far as food words went, miso, tofu, ramen, soba, and udon  were the extent of my skills.

I also had no itinerary planned, and the pile of Japanese novels on the bedside table did little more than threaten to topple over my dusty water glass.

The one smart thing I did, though really it was pure dumb luck, was to buy this book:

Food Sake Tokyo, by Yukari Sakamoto, is one of the Terroir Guidebooks. Incidentally, she also writes a Food Sake Tokyo Blog, which I wish I'd found sooner. The series so far includes books on Italy, Rome, Budapest, France, and Burgundy. To show you how unprepared I was for my trip, everytime I looked at my book I kept thinking the second word rhymed with bake. It made sense to me—‘Oh, for food’s sake!’

But the European guides are called Food Wine, not Food Sake. I finally figured out the second word referred to the rice-based alcoholic beverage. As any halfway intelligent person would have realized instantly. What can I say. For the first third of my life I thought there was a saying that went ‘that’s mighty wide of you’. 

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A shrine next to fish market in Ameyoko

Anyway.  Food Sake Tokyo turned out to be a great companion throughout Japan. On the one hand, it’s a guidebook to restaurants, ramen joints, pastry shops, tea shops, and candy stores.

ningyo yaki 1
Ningyo-naki stall in Asakusa

It also lists food-centric tourist itineraries, some of which I followed into market stalls under train tracks, through chopstick stores, and around markets and shrines.

ningyo yaki 2

These are the ningyo-yaki sold by the Asakusa Shrine. The little cakes are made in stalls, some with extremely mechanized machinery, others by hand in old griddles.

The finished products look like this:

ningyo yaki 3

You know what they say. A bird in the hand…

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The cakes come with different fillings, but we only tasted the chestnut.

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I also visited the stores that sell the amazingly realistic plastic reproductions of restaurant items.

plastic food 3
This food is plastic. Do not eat.

But Food Sake Tokyo is more than a tourist guidebook.  Chapter two, ‘Food’, takes up nearly a third of the book.  All those Japanese words I meant to learn—and some that I never imagined—are listed here. The seafood section lists 41 seafood preparation terms, and the names for 144 different types of seafood.

drying fish

The sections on produce, noodles, sweets, and meats are similarly thick. What a treat to be able to find out the English words for foods I might come across.  Not that it always helped. Knowing Fuki was a ‘giant butterbur’ and seri  is ‘water dropwort’ wasn’t that helpful to me. Some translations were unnecessary, or even meaningless.  Who knew mizuna is ‘potherb mustard’? I’ve only seen it called mizuna. 

Finally, there were times I really wouldn’t have wanted to know the translation.  Komekami and nodomoto come immediately to mind: temples and throat. Offal has never been my favorite, which I know is a shortcoming. Pavel did me a favor and saved his visit to the innards restaurant for his next trip.

Best of all, though, Food Sake Tokyo explained the tricky Tokyo address system for me. Other guidebooks do this as well. But here the maps also showed the block numbers—without those, I would have been lost. Ok, full disclosure. Even with them I was often lost. But that never mattered. I was happy just wandering.

Yukari Sakamoto's blogs:

Food Sake Tokyo Introduces readers to Tokyo food shops, a travel guide for curious eaters.

Japanese Cuisine-Cooking Japanese Food at Home Recipes for foods she eats at home and resources for Japanese food.


Unknown said...

Giovanna - thanks for your kind words about my book. Do let me know next time you come to Tokyo - maybe we can meet. FYI, I write about updates and changes to the book on my blog:

Hope our paths cross someday.


Charles Shere said...

Those ningyo-yaki — are they anything like poffertjes?

Giovanna said...

The ningyo-yaki were more like little sponge cakes than poffertjes.

Yukari, thanks for checking in...and for reminding me that I meant to link to your blog. Somehow I didn't find the blog until after my return to the U.S. I'll remember it for the next trip!ox

gluten free said...

For me it is very interesting! You made my day. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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