Kaiseki Cuisine on a Miserable Night

IMG_2623

The rain hammered down and smudged the neon which fizzed from 20-foot boards on the buildings either side of the road. Black-suited salarymen scurried along with their umbrellas tilted like lances. Girls clattered down the pavement in inappropriate heels. Eerie green lights emerged from the gloom as taxis shushed down the street, contemptuously splashing the people who had chosen to walk.

My 7-11 umbrella had collapsed on one side and I needed to get out of the rain. I ducked through the door of the first restaurant I came to, which happened to be a kaiseki place. It could just as easily have been McDonalds.

IMG_2624

Kaiseki cuisine, at a glance, is the Japanese equivalent of a dégustation at a Western fine-dining restaurant: a set menu of small dishes to showcase the skill of the chef. But it is deeper than that. There is a philosophy underlying it, a spiritual dimension, more layers of symbolism than a gaijan* like me could hope to understand.

At its heart is the idea of creating a meal the customer can enjoy with all five senses. The emphasis is on balance: of tastes, of textures, of colours, of techniques. Uncooked dishes are juxtaposed with cooked; grilled with boiled, fried with steamed. The presentation is artful, yet simple, with none of the smears, foams, emulsions and jellies which are the stock-in-trade of Michelin-starred chefs in the West.

IMG_2626

My appetiser – more appetising than it might sound – was thinly sliced pickled sea cucumber, served in a scallop-shaped dish lined with a pair of shisho leaves. A lot of thought goes into the choice of tableware.

The main courses, then, began with sashimi: the simplest of dishes but arranged with understated perfection, three pink slices of tuna, a small square of brilliant white flounder, a silvery tranche of horse mackerel overlain with a jumbo shrimp, peeled but with the head and tail left on, all glistening under the lights and garnished with a small mound of wasabi and the green leaf and yellow flower of Kerria Japonica, mimicking the design of the plate.

IMG_2627

A sequence of cooked dishes followed that – the ying to the yang of the raw fish – in the established order: boiled, then grilled, then fried.

First, jumbo shrimp and white fish fillet gently braised with tofu, spinach, aubergine and enoki mushrooms and kept warm at the table on a fondue burner which looked like an artwork in itself.

IMG_2628

Then a section of pike with the skin nicely crisped on the grill, served on a pine leaf carefully aligned with the pattern on the plate.

After that, a tempura of courgette, squash, okra and another of the jumbo shrimp for which Kanazawa is famous – Kaiseki chefs obsess about using local, seasonal produce. A vibrant plate contrasted with the neutral colour of the tempura.

IMG_2629

Snow crab claws came with a fat slice of steamed courgette in a kidney-shaped bowl with a smaller round bowl of vinegar-based dressing.

Then there was a bamboo box with green tea soba noodles, coiled as neatly as the ropes on the royal yacht. (I messed up the presentation before I snapped the picture below.)

IMG_2630

Finally, then, to round out the meal, there was a light dessert of two strawberries with a dipping sauce.

It all seemed to work much better than tasting menus ever do at home. There, either each plate is gone in two mouthfuls, just as your palate has registered the flavour combination, or dinner becomes an endurance test after the third course and, at the end of it all, you struggle home feeling as if you might explode. Here, it all seemed to be weighted just right. I neither felt cheated nor stuffed.

IMG_2631

What is more, by the time I had finished and paid, it had stopped raining and I could abandon my crippled umbrella and walk back to the hotel without getting wet.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Literally “outside person” – someone who isn’t Japanese

Eating at Yatai in Fukuoka

DSC_0146

There are few sights in Fukuoka, although there is a handful of heritage buildings, a pleasant park and the remains of a castle, as well as the endless scope for immature sniggering at a name which begins with ‘fuck you’. But there are well over a hundred yatai.

At nightfall, outside the big stores on the main shopping streets, vendors drag trailers up onto the pavement and convert them, Transformer-style, into pop-up restaurants. Yatai, they call them.

DSC_0157

From the outside, they look like workmen’s huts, or makeshift shelters for the homeless, with walls and a roof made of rough wooden sheets and opaque plastic windows. Some are open at one side, some have a curtain made of fabric or plastic, while a few have a proper door.

It is hard not to feel as if you are intruding when you push the curtain aside and take your place at one of the half dozen or so stools round the counter. You will almost certainly be the only foreigner. The other customers will probably be suited salarymen stopping off after work for a snack and a few glasses of shōchū. The chef is unlikely to speak any English; if you are lucky, there might be some English on the menu, and if very lucky it might make sense. A lot of the time, though, you are reliant on pointing, miming, taking pot luck or asking for something which you know they will have.

DSC_0155

There is more or less bound to be ramen, and Fukuoka has its own take on this iconic dish. The thick, unctuous broth is made with pork bones and caramelised onion and ginger, and cooked at a boil instead of a simmer, and served with thin noodles, red ginger, green onions and little puddles of black garlic oil. There will be yakitori, meatballs, gyoza dumplings and mentaiko, another speciality of the city: spiced and lightly-seared cod roe.

The first time I ate at a yatai, I sat with a group of salarymen, ties askew and several shōchūs into a bibulous evening, and one of them spoke excellent English – he modestly denied it – and guided me through the Japanese-only menu with suggestions on what to order. The next time, though, I was on my own but for a hit-and-miss app which could sometimes decipher Japanese script and, if it could not, just made something up. I hoped that the “fishermen with morning mist” was good and went well with the “toolshed drunk in water”. The weave of my t-shirt meant “eight,” the app told me in passing.

DSC_0143

The yatai stay open into the early hours but I dare say they are much like a British kebab shop later on when people tumble out of bars and decide they have to eat. They are packed up, then, and magicked away in that brief hiatus between the latest drinkers shuffling off home and the earliest commuters marching in to work.

Once the sun comes up, there is no sign that the yatai had ever been there.

© Richard Senior 2015

Tsukiji: An Improbable Tourist Attraction

DSC_0412

Big sheds, grim concrete, rusting steel, walkways painted in industrial blue. Bustling vendors in oilskins and wellington boots; porters scudding around on motorised carts. Polystyrene confetti, puddles of melted ice. Stacked crates. Reefer trucks. Everything, in short, you would expect of a municipal fish market, right down to the smell.

But it is not just any municipal fish market: it is Tsukiji Fish Market, by common consent one of Tokyo’s Must See sights. The guidebooks explain, as if with a trumpet fanfare, that it is the World’s Largest Wholesale Fish Market. What next, you might wonder: Asia’s Deepest Sewage Tunnel?  Japan’s Oldest Scrapyard?

DSC_0440

The Lonely Planet Fundamentalists are there at five in the morning, half an hour before the trains start to run, clutching guidebooks flagged up with Post-it notes as they queue in the hope of joining one of the two groups of sixty let in to watch the tuna auction.

The frozen fish are laid out on pallets. Sceptical restaurateurs peer at the eyes, lift the gills, shine their torches into cavities. The auctioneers jump up on boxes, ring handbells, doff their caps and shout and bounce excitedly, like contestants in some incomprehensible game show.  Bidders raise hands casually as if acknowledging a friend, and porters hook the sold tuna and drag them away, then return for the pallets, and hose down the floor as another auction starts across the room.

DSC_0436

After nine, when the market is quieter, tourists are allowed into the wholesale areas and march fully armed with SLR’s and telephoto lenses across the flooded cobbles, down the aisles between the stalls barricaded with teeming fish tanks and Styrofoam boxes, and stop to watch the fishmongers butchering tuna on trestle tables with knives like swords, and fire off a few shots of chopping boards dripping with blood and hoses left running and boxes stuffed with silvery bass and orangey snapper and brilliant white squid and octopus tentacles as thick as your arm and coiled eels in buckets of water. The stallholders struggle past them and ignore the staccato clicking of camera shutters and the tourists kneeling to get selfies with severed tuna heads. Mercifully there is no room for star jumps.

It is an improbable tourist attraction, but compelling.

DSC_0430

By eleven, the vendors start to pack up and close their stalls and the tourists put their cameras away and join the queues outside the sushi restaurants, where they stand for an hour or two or three and some get bored and peel off to browse the stalls selling knives and pans and bags of dried fish, and the door occasionally slides open and the tourists look briefly hopeful until it slides shut again. There is room inside, at a squeeze, for around a dozen at the bar and tables. The sushi chefs work centre stage, slicing, moulding, plating up; another, stage right, stirs a vat of rice with a paddle.

How fresh is the fish?” someone behind me in the queue asked a regular. “Well, it was swimming an hour ago,” came the reply.

© Richard Senior 2015  

Eating Sushi in London and Kanazawa

image1 (4)

I was part way through a run of long nights at the office. It was hours since the pinstriped crowd had made its way to the Tube, with its furled umbrellas and gym kits and Little Brown Bags. The City was silent then, without the murmur of innumerable phone conversations and the clatter of brogues and stilettos.  The pub on the corner had filled up with after-work drinkers, who got louder with every beer, then thinned out as they drifted off home. It was closed by the time I got out. Lights had been left on for show in the Gherkin; the Lloyd’s Building was uplit in blue. But the streets of the Square Mile were deserted then. Even the cleaners had been and gone. A gust of wind blew grit in my eye, and sent a dropped newspaper scuttling down the street.

It would have been too late for dinner by the time I got home, so I stopped at the sushi bar a little before it closed. The staff were cleaning up and winding down. Only a few plates were left on the conveyor. I watched them do their rounds, and daydreamed about sushi in Japan.

Three years on and I had given up being a lawyer and I was in Kanazawa in a sushi restaurant a few steps from the Omicho market, which bustles each morning with seafood vendors whose stalls are crowded with rows of spider crabs, piles of scallops, and ruby-fleshed tuna, silvery mackerel and bloated puffer fish. Some of the things on the menu were familiar enough. The sushi bar I used to call in after work had prawn nigiri and salmon roe norimaki. But not flounder fin, gizzard shad or horse mackerel; nor salted plum with cucumber makizushi.

The chef reached in the cabinet for a slab of tuna and sliced off a strip with an easy flick of the wrist. He wet his hand under the tap and, in the same movement, reached behind him into a barrel of rice and scooped up a handful which he had moulded into shape by the time he had brought it up to his board. He dipped his finger into a pot of wasabi and smeared it over the rice then glued on the strip of tuna, plated up and handed it over the counter to the customer. Then he was onto the next order, rolling raw sea urchin and vinegared rice into a square of seaweed; then lightly searing a flounder fin with a woof of flame from a blowtorch. He worked at speed but never noticeably hurried; his movements were fluid, almost balletic, each seemingly casual cut precise.

The sushi there was as different from the sushi I had eaten at home as freshly-made pesto is different from the stuff in jars. I ordered three pieces, then another three, and another three after that.

It seemed a lifetime ago that I was eating sushi because I would be home too late to make dinner.

© Richard Senior 2015