Friday, March 1, 2013

T-30 days: The Countdown Begins

It is now officially 30 days until my departure from Japan and to be honest, I'm excited as hell. For the most part, my time here has been awesome. But after 2 years, I've started to miss a lot of things most Americans take for granted. Great food is one of them. Although Japan has its share of imported food markets and a decent culinary scene outside of Japanese food, this country is ranked as one of the most expensive in the world, making good quality foreign food a luxury item. I actually live 25 minutes outside of Tokyo, which is said to be this year's most expensive city in the world. Check out this survey if you're interested in reading more about how Tokyo stacks up against other cities:

Upon arriving here, paying student debt, traveling and partying were my top financial priorities. Actually, traveling and partying were the only two on the list that I accomplished during my first year here. I've just now started to put a dent in my student loans... I guess there's always time for that. Anyway, because my funds were allocated towards cultural experiences and debauchery,  I found myself left with very little money for anything else. This helped me to become acquainted with several Japanese foods that are both popular amongst budget conscious Japanese people and relatively unknown to those who haven't spent much time in Japan.

Bite 7: In celebration of my upcoming departure, here is a list of some of my favorites.

1) Natto

Natto is basically fermented soy beans mixed with soy sauce and a Japanese mustard called karashi. Although many foreigners won't eat it because of its potent odor, it is quite popular amongst the Japanese. This dish is commonly served with breakfast and is usually eaten over rice. I prefer to eat it on its own.

2) Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki literally translates to "cooked whatever you like." It is basically an omelette consisting of eggs, batter, cabbage and dashi. An addition to those four main ingredients, green onion, pork belly, squid and octopus are all things you're likely to find in any variation of the dish. More often than not, okonomiyaki is coated with a thick worcestershire-like sauce, topped with bonito flakes and drizzled with mayonnaise. The picture above was taken in Hiroshima, where they add Chinese-style noodles to the bottom of the dish.

3) Miso ramen

Ramen are Chinese style noodles that can be served in a variety of broths. My favorite is miso ramen, which is said to have originated in Hokkaido. Hokkaido is the most northern island of Japan and has a very harsh winter climate. If you keep that in mind while eating miso ramen, you can see why many people enjoy this rich and hearty dish. Also, chili paste is often seen at tables in noodle shops where this item is sold. Adding some of that to your ramen will definitely make you take off that extra layer you're wearing.

4) Sakura mochi

Sakura mochi consists of Japanese sticky rice infused with cherry blossoms, anko (sweet azuki bean paste) and a cherry blossom leaf. The sticky rice is first infused with the flavor and color from the cherry blossom, giving it a beautiful pink color. Azuki bean paste is then added to the rice and formed into a ball, which is then placed on top of a sakura leaf. This treat can be purchased year-round, but is most delicious during the spring, when cherry blossoms begin to bloom.

5) Kuromame spread

I love this stuff. It's the Japanese equivalent of peanut butter in my mind. Kuromame is the Japanese name for black soybean. A somewhat grainy (but delicious) spread is made from the beans and then lightly sweetened. This spread works well with nearly anything. I've actually gone through entire containers with nothing but a butter knife and my fingers!

6) Japanese curry

Japanese curry resembles a very dark, warm diarrhea. I'm sorry to be so vulgar, but if you can't see the resemblance, you must be blind. Having eaten this dish with other foreigners here in Japan, I feel obligated to tell you that the curry here has a joke of a reputation. The Brits here are especially fond of mocking it and then bragging about the abundance of delicious Indian curry available in their home country. In comparison, it may be true that Japanese curry lacks some of the bold flavors that curries from other countries have, but this hearty dish definitely hits the spot after a night full of beer. Since most Japanese people tend to have a proclivity towards very neutral tastes, their curry is usually quite mild. This gives the dishes earthy flavors an opportunity to shine and for the person eating the dish to not wake up with both a hangover and diarrhea resembling the curry they ate last night. An endless, brown cycle.

7) Takoyaki

I call'em octopus balls in English! These balls are made of a wheat flour-based batter containing octopus, pickled ginger and green onions. The mixture is then cooked on a special griddle with spherical compartments and topped with condiments similar to those found on Okonomiyaki. Takoyaki is most commonly sold as a street food in Japan and is very popular in Osaka.


Kaitenzushi or conveyor belt sushi is exactly what you would think it is. Grab a seat at the counter, wait to see what you like, grab it & eat it. Each dish is given a colored label, signifying price and can range anywhere from about $1.10 to $6.

9) Gyudon

This is fast food at its best. gyudon literally translates to "beef bowl." Japan has a gyudon chain called "Suki-ya." There are over a thousand of them in this small country and I can see why. It's hard to beat decent meat, served on decent rice, in under a minute, for under $4. I usually go for the cheese gyudon if I have a beer or two in me.

10) Matcha

Although matcha is really a drink, it is used as a flavoring quite often in Japan. Hello, my name is Bob and I'm a matcha-holic. For those who think matcha is the same as green tea, it's not. When making green tea, one simply steeps the tea leaves in hot water. Matcha is made by taking high quality green tea leaves, grinding them into a fine powder and then adding hot water. The end result being a darker, richer and much more nutritious drink. I love drinking matcha and occasionally eating some of the unhealthy treats flavored with this awesome green powder.

There you have it. My list of cheap treats here in Japan. I hope this is enough to hold you over for a bit. I'll probably be a bit busy tying up some ends here over the next few weeks, but I'll definitely post again before I leave to China. いただきます!

Next time on Ten Thousand Bites: More about the 100+ food challenge I'll undertake while in China and Thailand!

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