“Omakase” is a Japanese phrase that stems from the word “entrust” and means “I am in your hands.” Well, Japan…omakase. I’ve been here for a week and have been in love with the idea of it for many years before that. Now I’m in love with the reality. From my first meal — squid in tomato sauce, with a setto of miso, rice, and pickles — at the Crowne Plaza Narita to my most recent — the freshest sushi I’ve ever had at Sushi Dai at Tsukiji Market — I’ve been in awe of this culinary culture.
Here are some food-related highlights:
Chestnuts at Nikishi Market in Kyoto — fall is chestnut season in Japan.
Great restaurant sign off Pontocho restaurant row in Kyoto.
Wonderful Kyoto tofu hot pot with more tofu in the bento box. The area is known for its tofu, which apparently has a lot to do with the pure local water.
Chinese dumpling stand in Yokohama’s giant Chinatown.
$800 for three mushrooms in a department store in Ginza.
Kitchen at a super secret Ginza restaurant, tucked away near some train tracks. A new friend made the introduction, or I never would have found it. Amazing octopus in squid ink, jellyfish “pasta,” Japanese-style “cioppino” with shrimp and stewed daikon (the red stuff in the big nabe bowl), and a whole fried fish with apples are some of the highlights.
Nagamine in Ginza — hands down the best vegetarian meal I’ve ever eaten. The figs in sesame sauce with goji berry were the highlight of my life. There was also a delicious play on fish roe with some marinated tomato (foreground), wilted greens, tempeh, and an absolutely revelatory kabocha pumpkin soup.
Kappabashi-dori restaurant supply street…
Which gave me these bad boys!
I got up at 3 a.m. to watch the Tsukiji Market tuna auctions. (Nerd detail: I walked from a hotel I rented in Ginza just for this purpose.)
Examining the meat with a flashlight.
Followed by breakfast at the nearby nigiri mecca, Sushi Dai…
Home of the most amazing toro I have ever eaten. There’s not a hint of sinew here, just fatty and luxurious tuna. And the octopus wasn’t too bad, either.
So yeah. Japan has amazing ingredients, prepared simply. I was thinking about this a lot while sitting down at Nagamine, my mouth slack from the wonder of the vegetables in front of me. Sure, to generalize about the Japanese food culture is impossible…there are many different styles and flavors of cooking. But I will say this: in the most classic cuisine, the Japanese philosophy is all about ingredients. And not in the same way that’s become a buzzword in the states.
Japanese “cooking” (I use the asterisks not to belittle the work of Japanese chefs, I use it to emphasize the point I’m about to make) consists of truly letting the ingredient speak for itself. The cooking part simply enhances. When I eat something in Japan, I find myself wondering and thinking about the featured ingredient and any other components, not about the cooking that has created the dish.
In American and European restaurants, I’m often left wondering about the technique and cooking skill behind a dish. Was this poached, braised, or cooked sous vide? Was this sauce mounted au beurre? Was this blanched first and then added to the soup or…?
There are a million different cooking techniques to bring an ingredient front and center. But the more complicated (and often Western) ones let the technique share the stage with the food. In Japan, I’ve noticed that it’s not about how something was cooked, it’s about the essential nature of that something. Nigiri is the quintessential example. You get a piece of fish — perhaps marinated in shoyu or spiked with a little yuzu or Japanese BBQ sauce, maybe with some scallion on top and a dab of wasabi underneath — and rice.
You can taste the fish. You can taste the rice. They are in perfect harmony. That’s it and that’s all. So simple, so perfect. This style of cooking and eating is what I have been savoring the most so far in Japan. Gochisosama deshita!