Monday, September 13, 2010

Adventures in food

Our plane, returning from Tokyo, landed on the tarmac yesterday morning around 10:00 am. Since we left on the same date at 4:15pm, and were airborne for several hours, we actually gained time. Kind of. If time on an international flight counts for anything.

I can do a travel blog type post later. The weather was hot. The city was crowded, but clean. And Japanese is completely foreign. But we had a very nice trip.

On Monday, I first visited the woman who invited me, and her Japanese colleague, at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. After a morning of work, they took me to their favorite soba shop near campus. Soba is a kind of noodle. It was served with dipping sauce and a bowl of rice and topping, along with miso soup and various pickled vegetables. On our walk over, I confessed that since arriving Saturday night, I hadn't really eaten any good Japanese food. They told me that for lunch, we would change that.

I never would have known the tiny shop was a restaurant. I think the flag-like banners hanging over the door indicate this fact to those who read the language. The menu was completely in Japanese, which is somewhat unusual -- usually the prices are written in familiar arabic numerals.

My hosts tried to translate the menu for me. They would look at a dish, begin translating, then read a few words back and forth in Japanese together, trying to decide on a word that would help me understand what I might choose to eat. After they had given it their best shot, I told them I would trust their judgment, and have what they were having.

The woman said she would have the dish with... what was that? ... Sardines eggs. Very good. I cringed a bit.

The man said he would have the dish just above it. Some sort of fish and vegetables with rice. That sounded a little more tame for my American pallet. I asked him to please order the same for me.

When the meals came, the woman had her bowl of rice stacked with small pink balls. Sardines eggs.

Mine, identical to my colleague's, consisted of some sort of flaked fish around the sides of the bowl, surrounding a beautifully raw egg. Staring up at me with its giant yellow eyeball.

Um. He didn't mention the raw egg.

My colleague stirred his up into scrambled eggs and fish and rice. I copied. Scrambled like that, stirred into the rice, it wasn't quite as slimy and inedible as a single raw egg eyeball. I was able to eat most of it. And it wasn't bad. And I do like miso soup. Yummy.

Later that afternoon, after a few more hours of hard work, the woman suggested we try a new sweets shop near the train station. That sounded like a nice break, so we followed her there.

This shop was very clearly selling food. Like many Tokyo establishments, they had pictures of their menu items outside the entrance, so one could see what one could purchase before entering.

It was a hot hot day, 35 C and very humid, and so I said I'd like a shaved ice. My colleagues recommended I try the traditional Japanese flavor. Red bean and sticky rice balls. A little more skeptical, but still willing, I ordered the red bean shaved ice. The woman ordered the same thing, only with extra green tea flavoring. The man ordered fruit and ice cream.

When I received my shaved ice, it was a small bowl filled with beans and a sticky rice ball, with plain shaved ice stacked twice its height on top. Plain shaved ice. So a big pile of snow, on top of red beans and sticky rice balls. I wish I had a camera. But I did not. So you will have to imagine.

Imagine me, eating plain snow down the side, scooping a bit of red bean to go with it. And it tasted just like ... red bean. I know the Japanese think red beans are sweet. But to me, they are an ingredient in savory dishes like chili. Or Mexican food. And they are not eaten plain.

The sticky rice balls were made of rice flour, but did not resemble rice. They were very very chewy. I popped one in my mouth and chewed and chewed and chewed. Very slimy. Unsweetened, except for the red bean. And so I chewed and chewed and chewed.

After about four more bites of the red bean and rice balls, I realized I was going to begin gagging if I ate any more, which is not polite to do in front of your wonderful hosts. And so I finished eating all the plain snow off the top of the dessert, and picked at the beans while I could.

"You don't like it?" asked my hosts.

"Oh, it's very good," I said. "It's just very filling."

At which they smiled at each other and said something to each other in Japanese. ("She totally hates it." "Oh well, it was fun to watch her try.")

Dear traveler, watch out for red beans in your sweet food in Japan. It's very disappointing to think you'll be eating chocolate chips, and then biting in....

Aside from the red bean shaved ice, I found the food to be good. I ate sushi, sashimi. Ramen from a ramen shop. Rice bowls and chicken and a very delicious steak one evening. Very delicious. Something that ended up tasting just like beef stew another lunch hour. Tempura -- deep fried fish and eel and vegetables -- with rice. And lots of miso soup. Soup with every meal. Salad and rice for breakfast, along with western choices like yogurt and bread at our hotel. Once a very fishy breakfast fish. Hm.

I was always the last to finish, among my Japanese colleagues. I am not quite as expert with chopsticks as they are. But I survived.

You hear? I survived.

How long do you think it takes for symptoms of salmonella to appear if they are to appear? I'm assuming that after nearly a week, I'm safe.


Soul-Fusion said...

oh, this brings back so many memories of when I went to Tokyo! I had an almost identicle experience with the raw egg but the dish was bibimbop from a Korean restaurant and now bibimbop is one of my favorite things to eat - the egg cooks when you stir it all together.
And I am SO with you on the red bean stuff. I was asked if I wanted ice-cream and was handed a red bean flavored blech. I think it was some sort of ice cream sandwich - looked delicious, tasted like red beans. So wrong. And the hotel breakfast buffet was hilarious - I did the rice and fish thing once and then stuck with the euro continental fare.
On the other hand - best sushi and tempura and noodles of my life. I fell in love with udon and soba noodles when I was there and had the best ramen ever that made me angry all we get here is that hard little package with the sodium packets. Thanks for bringing back the fun memories!

Letterpress said...

Memory-inducing, yes. Agree with you on everything, but I was a chicken on the breakfast stuff and brought my own oatmeal (everyone always had hot water and I ate it without milk). I began to make our lunches a game: here's the sour thing, here's the egg thing, here's the pickled thing. . . and ate sushi for the first time there (good place to dive in).

Loved this post--good for you for going with the flow!