Japanese Hotel Breakfasts

Many of my American (and even Japanese) friends don’t care for Japanese breakfasts. They somehow can’t fathom the thought of having fish for breakfast. That’s too bad, because we at Savory Japan think that Japanese breakfasts are one of the joys of life.

While many dutiful cooks prepare Japanese breakfasts at home, few have the time — or skill — to prepare the lavish versions featured at fine hotels and ryokan (traditional Japanese inns).

So if you’re given the choice of a Japanese or Western breakfast for the same price (or included at ryokan), go the Japanese route! You’ll not be disappointed, and it’s worth taking a detour from your usual routine.

For example, we’re currently staying at the Park Hyatt Shinjuku, and while they make some of the best bread and bakery products in the city, their Japanese breakfast is amazing.

The meal comes on a round lacquer tray with a two-tier bento box and a myriad of plates and bowls. While the usual suspects — grilled fish, miso soup, rice and pickles — are all there, stand-outs include the dashimaki (egg omelete) which is made richer with cream cheese, and covered in a delectable dashi-rich sauce that is filled with green nori.

Also included is yudofu — usually a dish served for lunch or dinner. We had the Japanese breakfast on multiple days, and the tofu and several other dishes were thoughtfully changed for us. On day two, the upper tier of the box held a stellar ohitashi of kiku (chrysanthemum petals), myoga (ginger bud) and maitake (dancing) mushrooms.

If this sounds like an awful lot of food to eat at breakfast, it is. For people used to fruit and yogurt in the morning, it can take some getting used to. But it’s a great way to start a day of walking around the city. You’ll also be able to sample some unique seasonal pickles and umeboshi (each hotel has their own specialty).

Finally, the price is right too. The Park Hyatt breakfast is 3,800 yen, which is the norm at deluxe hotels. A similar-sized meal at lunch might be 5,000 yen, and dinner, 10,000 yen. Even if you’re not staying at a luxury hotel (as we often don’t) it’s worth it to go for their breakfast.

Savory Japan in Tokyo

We’ve been in Tokyo now for a few days, for this, our first visit since the triple tragedy of 3/11. The country faces some major challenges after that devastating event, and while the earthquake’s aftershocks have subsided, the financial aftershocks are still rippling through the economy. Setsuden (energy conservation) is officially over, but the bright lights of Shinjuku and Gion aren’t at their pre-3/11 glory, and we’ve arrived to find that some of  city’s small and unique niche galleries, shops and restaurants have closed. The financial strain caused by the public’s pulling back from spending proved to be just too much. And foreign tourists are much less prevalent than normal, during this — the start of one of Japan’s peak travel seasons. The typhoons are over, and the weather is perfect, with highs in the 70’s and cool, humidity-free nights.

The high value of the yen might also be keeping the foreign tourists away, but the economic slump has spurred a price war for Tokyo’s low-end dining. Bargains are many, and the city’s commuter restaurants have been competing with each other, slashing their prices to levels unseen since perhaps the 80s. It’s easy to find lunch sets in the 800 yen range, as well as 1,000 yen all-you-can-eat buffets (called”viking” here).

At the high end, it’s easy to make reservations at the city’s top restaurants — even on the same day — for weekday dining. Many of the 2011 Tokyo, Kamakura and Yokohama Michelin Guide’s restaurants are small, with only 6-12 seats. And yet, we were able to get into every one we called. Apparently, while things have improved as time has passed, the old days of lines around the corner are gone, at least for the time being.

Are the high-end restaurants slashing their prices? Not from what we can see, and you wouldn’t expect it, as the quality of the ingredients, high rents and labor-intensive preparation can’t bear it. Besides, it just isn’t in keeping with the spirit of excellence. And we, as diners, are glad. Just yesterday, we had perhaps the single most succulent piece of sushi we’ve ever tasted at Sushi Kanesaka, and it wasn’t the rarity of the fish — saba (mackeral) — but the chef’s skill that made it transcendent: the neta (sushi topping) melted in our mouths. It was so good that we considered ordering another, but as there was more sushi coming (sets of 10 and 15 pieces) we didn’t dare. But of course, right after we finished our lunch we longed to go back.

It’s good to be back in Japan.

 

Robata: Art + Food in Tokyo

We’re in Tokyo, but today we’re featuring a restaurant from our last trip. Why? Well, it took me this long to muster up the courage to ask our friends if I could write about the secret place they take their special guests. It’s such a unique restaurant that to use that word hardly describes it. As soon as you walk into Robata, located in central Tokyo in the shadow of one if its’ most famous hotels, you enter another dimension.

For instance, take a look at the setting here, at the strangely beautiful painting of the maneki neko (becoming cat) behind the irori hearth. I would flip over this if I were to find it at a gallery or antique shop, and yet, I’ve never seen anything like it. And this little corner represents only 1/100th of the collection in this remarkable place.

Every single inch of Robata is filled with something unusual, beautiful and fascinating. It’s too much to take in at one time, and the feeling is just overwhelming. It’s almost better understood in photographs.

And the food, you ask? Oh, I almost forgot this is a blog about food. Honestly speaking, the food takes a back seat to the setting, but it’s home-style, eclectic and full of flavor. The tableware too, is bold and impressive.

While we love Tadao Andoh and Japanese classic and modern minimalist design just as much as anyone, we can appreciate how special Robata is, especially for Tokyo residents who want to escape its hard edges for even a brief while.

 

Japanese Recipes for Fall

It’s finally autumn, my favorite season. I love the cool, crisp days and the sweet, melancholic feeling of gradually slipping sunlight. It’s also a wonderful season — one of the best, in fact — for food. Featured this month on Savory Japan is a menu of favorite fall recipes, including braised eryngii (black trumpet) mushrooms. What is great about these giant mushrooms is not the flavor, but the texture. If you’ve never tried them, you’re in for a treat.

Luckily, eryngii mushrooms are widely available in the West, which unfortunately can’t be said for our favorite; matsutake mushrooms.

However, we’re in luck this year because we’re heading for Japan tomorrow to eat as much (or more likely, more than) we can afford of this delectable treat. Follow us here or join us on Facebook for updates, not just about matsutake mushrooms, but restaurants, ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and more.

 

Tarako (salted cod roe) onigiri recipe

Here’s another classic onigiri recipe: Tarako onigiri. Tarako (cod roe) is sold raw in Japanese markets, usually in packages of several small caviar sacs. (When I was a child, I always thought they looked like tongues!)

The bright red color is beautiful, and you can choose from regular or spicy. For onigiri, regular tarako is used more often.

While raw tarako is delicious over hot rice (no need to add any flavoring, as it’s already very salty), for onigiri, I prefer it cooked. You can do this by placing a few sacs under the broiler or on a stovetop grill until the red color turns pink.

 

 

Making Takaro Onigiri, step-by-step

1. Cut the cooked tarako into 1/3" slices (reserving one slice per onigiri) and break the rest of the caviar up with your fingers. You'll have to remove the outer film, which can be a little tedious. For the best results, try to break it up as finely as possible.
2. Mix the tarako into hot rice, incorporating it evenly, until it turns a nice shade of pale pink. As with the takano recipe, you can mix only a portion of rice in a large bowl - as shown here - or use separate bowls. I usually make a variety of onigiri, so I don't make more than a few of each kind.
3. Scoop a handful of rice into the palm of your hand (after wetting but not salting them. In this case the tarako is very salty, so you don't want to add extra salt)
4. Make an indentation into the rice and fill it with a piece of tarako.
5. Press - firmly but not too hard - turning and pressing the onigiri in your hands until it forms a triangle. You might want to use plastic wrap to keep your hands clean for this one, because the tarako does tend to get messy.

If you’ve never tried tarako before, I wish I could describe the experience to you. It’s not only the rich, somewhat smoky and intense caviar flavor, but the dry mouth-feel of the tarako that is so nice. Tarako is delicious when tossed with spaghetti and flavored with dashi — the umami effect is a little like Parmesan cheese.

Takana (Japanese mustard green) onigiri recipe

Takana (Japanese mustard green) is wonderfully bitter and slightly spicy; a perfect leafy vegetable for making tsukemono (pickles). You might be able to find takana tsukemono at your local Japanese market, and if you’re lucky, it will come whole, in huge leaves that can be cut down to bite-sized pieces for tucking into the corner of a bento, or to wrap around onigiri, which we’ll do here.

Takana is good for you as well. It has loads of vitamin A and K. I also think that having at least one tsukemono onigiri in a grouping of onigiri provides a nice contrast of color, texture and flavor, especially when eaten with rich, oily fillings like ikura (salmon caviar).

Making takana onigiri, step-by-step

1. Chop up one takana leaf into a fine dice. Mix well with hot rice so that it is evenly incorporated. If you are making a variety of onigiri, you can just mix the takana into part of a bowl of rice -- or if you're more practical -- use separate bowls or save the takana for last
2. Wet and salt hands, and press firmly (but not too hard, remember?), turning and pressing the rice until you form a triangle
3. Stretch a takana leaf out flat and trim away the heavy central stem. You should have a piece large enough to wrap comfortably around the onigiri. And if you're picky (like me) you can orient the veins of the leaf in a pleasant way. You can see what I mean with the last photo.
4. Wrap the takana tightly around the onigiri, one side at a time. It's a little like wrapping a present. The thin -- yet surprisingly strong -- leaf somehow stays in place nicely
5. The finished takana onigiri. Now you can see what I mean about the veins. I don't know if anyone would notice, but I like the way this looks.

OK, as long as we’re talking fussy, take a look at the photo in the Onigiri Basics article and see how you can also arrange a selection of onigiri in a pleasing way, altering colors and flavors. This kind of thing comes natural to many Japanese. It’s part of what I like to call our “power of five” thinking.

Salt-grilled sake (salmon) onigiri recipe

Sake (salmon) is one of THE classic onigiri fillings. To be flavorful enough for a proportionately large amount of rice, it must be liberally salted before grilling or broiling. Here’s a simple recipe for salt-grilled salmon. It should be well-cooked for using in onigiri — not too soft.

Once the salmon is prepared in this way, it stays fresh for a few days and can be kept in the fridge to have on hand for placing in bentos and using for ochazuke (rice with tea) as well as for filling onigiri.

You’ll first need to break the salmon into bite-sized pieces before filling the onigiri. The amount of  salmon pictured here (about 4 oz) can make four or five onigiri. If you haven’t read the previous blog about onigiri basics, which include making rice and getting ready, you might want to do so now.

Making Onigiri, step-by-step

 

 

1. Wet hands with water and coat liberally with salt.
2. Scoop 1/2 cup of rice into the palm of your hand. It will be a little hot at first, so take care!
3. Make an indentation in the middle of the rice.
4. Place a piece of salmon in the indentation. The piece shown here is rather large for onigiri, but I prefer more filling. It's a matter of taste.
5. Press the rice firmly, but not too hard, or the onigiri will become too dense.
6. Keep pressing and turning the rice, shaping it into a triangle. The trick is to work fast so that the rice doesn't start sticking to your hands. If this happens, dip your hands into water again. Alternatively, you can cheat and use plastic wrap. (It's OK, lots of people use plastic wrap!)
7. Wrap a 1" strip of nori (seaweed) around the onigiri. This not only adds flavor, but keeps the diner's hands from getting sticky. Some people prefer to add the nori just before serving so that the nori still retains a crisp texture. Other people like the nori to soften and meld with the rice.
8. The completed onigiri is a beautiful thing, no matter how imperfect the shape. The challenge now is to keep yourself from devouring it at once!

We’ll feature other classic onigiri recipes during September. I also thought it might be fun to gather some unconventional recipes for later in the year. We’d love to hear from you if you have anything to share.

Onigiri Basics

Onigiri, or rice balls, are often described as Japan’s equivalent of the sandwich. Humble, simple and basic to the core, they are made simply from pressing hot rice around some kind of savory filling and forming it into a shape (usually triangular). The name comes from the act of pressing (nigiru means “to press” or “grasp”), and is plural, because they are usually eaten, not one, but two or more at a time. You might recognize the word from nigiri sushi (rice topped with seafood, etc.) as well, since it’s the same action; it’s just that the result is smaller and perhaps more refined.

Onigiri may be humble when compared to sushi, but they are no less loved. We’ve grown up eating onigiri, enjoying them on outings and in school bentos, car trips and the like, for they are the perfect portable food: Filling, simple, convenient and satisfying, meant to be eaten with one’s hands and complete unto itself; no fancy sauces or condiments needed. Additionally, the salt on the outside acts as a preservative, keeping them fresh on a day’s journey (useful in the days before coolers and ice packs).

Everyone has their favorite, and our memories reflect upon the shape and texture of the onigiri our mothers’ hands created: A symbol of home, of family, and perhaps even what it means to be Japanese.

We’ll cover the basic techniques for making onigiri starting with this, our first in a series of blog posts.

Preparation
Good quality rice is the most important ingredient for onigiri, whether it’s cooked in a rice cooker or on the stovetop. For the best results, use hot, freshly made rice, and use ONLY Japanese rice. Other types will not be sticky enough and will not produce the right results.

Since the beauty of onigiri is having a variety of fillings, it is important to lay out the ingredients on a work surface so that everything is close at hand. This means cooking and seasoning the fillings beforehand. We’ll cover each type in separate recipes to come.

Typical ingredients include — above, from left to right: tarako (salted cod roe); ikura (salmon caviar); sake (salt-grilled salmon) and umeboshi (pickled plum). You’ll also need a bowl of water to keep your hands wet, a dish of salt and some nori (seaweed) cut into strips.

Ready? Let’s start with salt-grilled sake (salmon) onigiri, one of the classics. We’ll post illustrated step-by-step instructions tomorrow.

Tableware, from left to right: tarako in a vintage Bizen clam-shaped bowl; ikura in a small bowl lined with gold leaf; salmon in a vintage ridged plate; umeboshi in an Oribe mukozuke by Tomonori Koyama; nori on a Bizen plate; salt in a 19th century mugiwara lid, used as a dish; water in a red Bizen bowl; rice in an antique Mishima bowl. Select items available on Mizuya.

Linden Gallery/Mizuya show update

We just returned from Door County after a weekend showing of tableware and kimono from Mizuya at the Linden Gallery. We had a very full two days and wish we could have spent more time with gallery owners Brian and Jeanee, as well as their kids, Shane and Bryce. The gallery is located in the small town of Ellison Bay, almost at the tip of Door County, and makes its home in an modern building with a soaring arched ceiling. They told us the building was originally used as a church!

We showed tableware, including ceramics and lacquerware, but also brought along some vintage kimono, juban (kimono undergarments) haori and michiyuki (coats to go over kimono). It was our first foray out of the closet instead of the kitchen — you could say — and it was very successful.

So successful, in fact, that we’ve extended the show through the month of September and have committed to another show next summer. Details will be shared here and on Savory Japan.

Kirk did some beautiful, sparse ikebana in Bizen, Tamba and Shigaraki vases as well. I was surprised by the speed at which he created them, and everyone commented on how they added beauty to the displays.

It was a great chance to show how living with Japanese tableware can bring a measure of calm and beauty to everyday life.

We also presented a talk and demonstration on the releationship between Japanese food and tableware, using just the items from the show.

After a brief introduction on the basic principles of Japanese cuisine, we traveled through the seasons — starting with a spring arrangement of shrimp, takenoko (bamboo shoots) and wakame (seaweed). Next came a summer otsukuri (sashimi arrangement) on a cool-feeling blue & white Imari plate, followed by roasted mushrooms for fall, and a selection of winter appetizers on a Shino platter. The final dish was a  jubako (lacquer box) filled with osechi-ryori (New Year’s cuisine), which elicited a gasp when the lid was lifted. Finally, we shared the food and no one went home hungry.

To see more photos, friend us on Facebook (link to the right).

The Japanese Diet: the secret to staying slim

For the past few weeks, I’ve noticed more and more people at the gym. It’s virtually as crowded as it was in early January! I suppose it’s because summer is just around the corner and everyone wants to look their best. So we at Savory Japan thought it would be good timing to post an article on health, and how switching to an all-Japanese diet can make you slim without suffering from food cravings, because the cuisine is based on fresh, wholesome, (and in most cases) low-calorie ingredients prepared simply.

We also list six low- and no-calorie foods to help you jump-start your diet, including zero calorie konnyaku, served here as sashimi with creamy miso dressing.

We’ve been sampling too much summer party and picnic food lately, and although potato salad and barbecued ribs are fun to eat and taste great, they’re not for every day. (I’ve gained five pounds in just a few weeks!) So we’re going to take our own advice and get back to basics.