Japan Eats: Part 1

Finally, a post dedicated just to food! Since I have been able to consume many different dishes here in Japan, this (and following) food posts will talk about some of the best restaurants I have eaten at, the most beautiful presentations I have seen, and the interesting experiences I have had regarding food.

This post is themed: Cooking at the Table! I absolutely love how much Japanese food is cooked at the table, in hot pots and on hot plates (I already know my future home will have these appliances). Not only do I love putting my cooking skills to the test for each of these meals, cooking at the table with family and friends makes the dining experience so much more interactive, exciting, and communal. Itadakimasu! (the phrase Japanese people use before beginning each meal).

Handmade Gyoza

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Uncooked beauties

I have always had a soft spot for  gyoza (potsticker) dumplings; often getting strong cravings for their juicy crispness at least once a month, or more frequently during late college evenings. I relied on Ling Ling Potstickers for the entirety of the first 20 years of my life, and had never ventured into making dumplings myself. Ling Ling potstickers are so delicious, there was hardly a need.

But then the time finally came last year where I got to make these dumplings by hand with my friends. Those who were more knowledged in the making of the dumplings bought and mixed all the ingredients, then the rest of us got to work learning how to fill and fold each one. We ended up making hundreds of potstickers, so many, we couldn’t eat them all ourselves. Fast forward to the present- and I had another exciting opportunity to partake in the making of many dumplings.

My host mom began the process by making the gyoza filling- a mixture of pork, cabbage, ginger, soy sauce, garlic, and love (other ingredients that I forget what they were). Once the filling bowl was full, it was now time to begin the repetitive process of dalloping a scoop of filling onto a circular dumpling skin, dipping a finger into a bowl of water to wet half of the skin, then creating a scalloped edge through a careful fold/pull/press technique. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

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A dallop of filling
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Creating the scalloped edge

After all of the dumplings were ready, it was time to get cooking.  We heated up the hotplate, squeezed a healthy amount of oil on the bottom, and placed all the dumplings in. They all fit in perfectly. The lid went on and soon our gyoza was sizzling and popping. When the bottom was golden brown, it was time to flip them over with a flat turner. Sizzle. It was at this point that you hoped all of your scalloped folds were done correctly- otherwise the innards of the dumpling would fall out during the flipping process and you would become disappointed at the loss.

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In no time our gyoza was crisp all around and piping hot inside. We gathered around the dinner table with our bowls of rice, salad, and dipping sauces. It was time to taste our handiwork.

Sitting and sizzling

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Crispy on the outside, hot in the middle

Shabu shabu

Shabu shabu is one of Japan’s many hot pot dishes. It is one of my favorites because it allows each person to customize their own meal with the meat, veggies, sauces, and starch they chose. When I eat shabu shabu, I like to do what is called tabehoudai– all you can eat (AYCE) since you can get the most bang for your buck if you fast beforehand. (All you can eat + all you can drink establishments are very popular and common in Japan, but are less common and way more expensive in the states.)

For the shabu places I have been to, the meal usually looks like this: There is a large pot in the center of the table or shared between two people. You can opt for a split bowl that allows for two types of broth or just stick with one. Going with two always seems like the better option to me since it allows for a change of flavor at any time during the meal. For broths you can chose between a simple seaweed broth, heavier pork based broths, miso flavors, sweet soy sauces, and more.

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The split pot allows for two broths

Once the soup begins to cook at the table, it is time to head to the veggie station to load up on an assortment of fresh greens, mushrooms, tofu, and sprouts. Additionally, there are udon noodles, ramen noodles, and rice for your choosing. Lastly, is the sauce station, where you can dish out an assortment of dipping flavors. With all of these goods, it is time to head back to the table to begin the cooking festivities.

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Loading up on the veggies
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Getting saucy at the sauce bar

The soup is boiling and in go the veggies and noodles. These give the broth more flavor, and are nice to eat throughout the meal.  Paper thin strips of different types of raw meat are brought out. With a pair of chopsticks you can pick up the meat and swirl it in the boiling broth. (The swirling supposedly makes the noise “shabu shabu”, the name origin of this dish.) Within seconds the meat is cooked, and ready to be dipped in the different sauces, or even into a raw egg. The meal continues in an edible orchestra of dipping, slurping, cooking, and calling the waiter for more meat. When no more savory foods can be consumed, it is time to throw in the towel and call it quits.

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Making the shabu shabu noise by swirling slices of meat in hot broth

But wait! At most AYCE restaurants, there is also an endless supply of small desserts, shaved ice, and drinks to wash everything down. 100% of the shabu shabu meals I have had, I have walked away with the happiest of food babies.

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Mochi balls on top of shaved ice with a sweetened condensed milk drizzle

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki (japanese savory pancake) is a dish that can vary widely in its ingredients, cooking methods, and style depending on where in the country you order it. A friend and I tested out a top rated okonomiyaki restaurant in Asakusa called Sometaro. The reviews and descriptions online noted that there would be no air conditioning inside, but also raved about the deliciousness of the food. When my friend and I arrived at the door, we were once again reminded of the lack of AC via a sign on the door. We agreed that it seemed worth it and headed inside.

It was HOT. There were over 20 tables stationed on the ground that were each inlaied with hot grills. With no AC and just a few rotating fans around the establishment, it was no wonder why the place was as toasty as it was. The heat aside, we were seated on tatami mats and chose two different types of okonomiyaki.  Soon two bowls were brought to our table filled with the pancake ingredients. Using the spoon, we combined it all together to create a thick mixture of meat, egg, cabbage, mayo?, and other veggies.

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The bowl of ingredients, ready to be mixed

The next step was to oil up the hot plate, then spoon the mixture on top. As our pancake cooked, I had to constantly fan my face with the provided fans. 5 minutes later, it was time to flip. More fanning of the face. 5 minutes later and we flipped again. After this last flip, it was time to dress the okonomiyaki with sauce, mayo, and green flakes for garnish. We cut the pancakes into slices and excitedly ate them hot off the grill.

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The pancake hits the grill
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5 minutes, flip. 5 minutes, flip.
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Finalizing the flavor with sauce, mayo, and flakes

Though the pancake looked small, the combination of veggies and meat made it quite a filling dish. I loved how the food stayed hot on the cooking stove and became even crispier with time. While I enjoyed the meal and the way we got to cook the pancakes ourselves, the hotness of the restaurant was at times pretty uncomfortable. For anyone who happens to be in Asakusa, I recommend the place as a good cook-it-yourself meal, but only if you are dressed cooly and are game for using a fan all throughout dinner.

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