This week at the local markets: Depato food sampling in Tokyo

I first visited Japan in the summer of 1995.  In those graduate student days, when you traveled to a faraway place – or at least when we impoverished wannabe academics did – it was not unusual to stay away for three months or so.  Once you had the ticket and, if needed, the visa in hand, time was seemingly endless.  I spent a semester in Moscow with 500 US dollars in hand and a summer in South India with about the same amount of cash thanks to a summer grant.  Japan was a bit more difficult to enjoy on such a budget. I spent the first month in relative luxury, studying traditional Japanese art forms at the Oomoto Foundation outside of Kameoka.  We lived in dormitories, but had wonderful food prepared for the weekday meals and the program was laden with splendid extracurricular tea ceremonies, sushi/pizza parties, and multi-course tofu lunches/zazen meditations at Buddhist monasteries around Kyoto.  I cultivated a once a day craving for the bean paste filled tea ceremony pastries that balance so nicely with thick matcha tea.  But once I set off on my own to explore the country with a rail pass in hand, I had to become creative with the daily gastronomical experiences. In 1995, the yen was strong – I think I was getting about 85 or so to the dollar – about the same exchange rate as right now.

My great discovery was the basement food floor of Japanese depatos.  Each town or city had a fair to opulent selection of department stores.  And fortunately no depato was without a food floor.  Counter upon counter of tea ceremony sweets (okashi), individually packed crackers sweet or salty, picked vegetables (oshinko), salted plums (umeboshi), tofus, seaweeds, fried vegetables, miso-pickled vegetables, cured fish, fresh fish, o-bento boxes, seaweed wrapped onigiri and on and on.  The beauty of this floor is that most of the vendors pass out tiny samples of their offerings.  Japanese customers will rarely take a sample, but as an obvious foreigner, you can get away with ignorant impoliteness and actually accept the tasty offerings.  So if you plot your path through the floor plan correctly, you can start with appetizers, some green tea, maybe a beer, some side dishes, a little tempura, some grilled eel, pickled vegetables, and then finish off with a variety of desserts indigenous and foreign.

Nearly 15 years later, I decided to try the old scam out today, to see if it’s still doable AND enjoyable.  But first, I went to Kappabashi Dori in the old eastern part of Tokyo.  This street is known for its several blocks of kitchen supply stores.  You can find everything for the Japanese kitchen or restaurant.  I bought some bamboo skewer-like picks to use for canapes back in Berlin, and a large ceramic mortar for grinding spices, sesame, and hopefully herbal pestos next summer.  I contemplated buying a small wasabi grater that could also be used for ginger, garlic, and daikon, but I couldn’t quite discern the qualitative difference between a 800 yen grater and a 4000 yen grater – both the same size but one of stainless steel and the other of copper.  I passed rows of tiny almost dollhouse sized frying pans, strainers, and ladles. And dainty baskets for serving tempura, lacquered wooden and plastic trays, and ceramic platters, plates, soup bowls, and tea bowls to please nearly any taste.

And then I went to Mitzukoshi.

The original Mitzukoshi department store is still glamorous, but dated.  But the BF1 level was as lively as ever.  I did not have a good plan of attack, so I started with mochi rolled in ground black sesame seeds, followed by cucumbers pickled in spicy sauce followed by some very garlicky kimchi.  I neutralized the garlic taste with a spoonful of brown rice cooked with adzuki beans and ten grains and then a selection of salted plums – the first too sweet for my taste, the second pleasantly salty sour – perfect with a morning cup of green tea and bowl of rice (An umeboshi a day keeps the doctor away…).  Then I had a perfect chocolate truffle.  Thereafter I paused for a real lunch of unagi – grilled eel on a bed of rice accompanied by very crisp lightly pickled cucumbers, cabbage, and daikon radish and a broth with eel and herbs.  Back out on the floor, I had a chestnut from Chuo, two kinds of pickled daikon, and a very crumbly nut cookie.

Had I planned better, the flavors could have  been enjoyed in a less startling order.  But I was too excited to explore everything at once, and to see the autumn tea sweet offerings which were at this very moment focussed on chestnuts.  The sweets are individual art works, crafted with much love and patience to reflect the flora of the season and sell for several hundred yen and upwards per piece.  But there’s really no reason to buy them if you’re not equipped to prepare a nice bowl of strong and slightly bitter matcha – just enough to drink in two and 1/2 sips – to go with an okashi.

Thankfully you can get a decent unsweetend matcha latte at Koots shops around Tokyo these days.  It’s become my daily vice of the visit.  And thankfully I’m not on the graduate student budget anymore.  There are endless fabulous meals to be savoured in Tokyo’s restaurants with friends.

Some restaurants I’ve enjoyed:

Ume no Hana.  A tofu restaurant that has several outlets in Tokyo.  We went to the one in Aoyama, Minat0-ku.  The restaurant used to be in Bell Commons, but recently shifted to a shopping center across the street.  A multi-course (and 809 calorie!) set of tofu dishes costs 2,600 at lunch.

Takeyabu.  A soba restaurant in Roppongi Hills. A friend has taken me twice to this lovely small soba restaurant.  We started the meal with some very dense fresh tofu served with wasabi and ground sesame.  We also had scallops grilled on a hot stone on the table served with miso.  The soba is cut by hand and cooked al dente and can be either ordered cold or in broth.

Hinone Mizunone. A modern izakaya (charcoal-grilled food) on the 39th floor of Yebisu Garden Place with a spectacular view of Tokyo (get a table by the window).  We had grilled fish, squid, chicken beef, and camembert.  Hey, it’s Tokyo.  We also had some great vegetables and tofu skin.  And a lot of sake.

On the agenda are still ramen, tempura, and sushi.  Recommendations to come.

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