It was not my most elegant moment. I was standing in a driveway, my rucksack sprawled on the tarmac before me, plastic wrapping strewn on top of it. And I was cramming a convenience store salmon onigiri into my face as if my life depended on it.
I was in Shizuoka Prefecture and, earlier, we had taken a taxi ride to Obuchi Sasaba, an area popular with photographers who want to capture Mt Fuji and tea fields all in one go. Our elderly driver – realizing we had definitely NOT got our logistics nailed down – kindly agreed to wait for us for 20 minutes free of charge. He clearly loved his job and he clearly loved his taxi as evinced by the pristine, blindingly white covers that enveloped every seat.
One seat cover was now chocolate-smeared with an impressively long skid mark. I was now certain there was a corresponding pattern on my rear-end.
I wish I were making this up but sometimes life just scripts itself.
While convenience stores are much touted as one of the best things about Japan, my level of food obsession is such that I feel intense disappointment when I know I could be having a better meal. As such, resorting to a convenience store lunch always makes a small part of my soul go and sulk in a corner. There is also a persistent feeling of guilt from not having eaten something healthy and freshly prepared.
This incident, however, was just one of many misadventures through poor nutrition over the past month. I have just moved from my home of six and a half years for my new job. My hours have been so intense that I’ve barely had time to leave my new apartment, let alone time to contemplate cooking anything complicated. Yet in between the stress, deadlines and embarrassing lack of furniture, I have started to rebuild my home, as well as find it in unexpected places. Even while traveling and filming deep in the Japanese countryside.
The secrets of wasabi
I was deep in the center of the Izu Peninsula wandering through the poetically named Wasabi Fields of Ikadaba, half expecting the Japanese equivalent of a Hobbit to invite me back to the Shire. It was pouring rain, I was traipsing through gushing water in wellington boots and somehow – being British – I felt right at home.
My guide for the day was the charismatic Takamura-san, an eight-generation wasabi farmer. He was sharing all of the wasabi secrets. Wasabi is a fussy, demanding plant. It needs to grow in fresh, clear, running water, the temperature must be controlled by nets that provide shade, and each plant takes 18 months to grow. This is why real wasabi is very expensive. Sadly, the green stuff that comes in so-called wasabi paste tubes is largely horseradish with a bit of creative coloring.
What’s more, the spiciness of wasabi is ephemeral: grating the wasabi rhizome breaks down the plant’s cells, releasing an enzyme that gives it that sharp and fresh spicy kick, but this dissipates after contact with air. As a result, you should only grate a little at a time.
Back at Takamura’s house, his wife brought us out a beautiful spread of dishes: there was roast beef topped with wasabi, kamaboko fish cakes stuffed with wasabi stems pickled in sake lees, maki rolls and inarizushi with wasabi stem rice, fresh tofu topped with wasabi, and bamboo shoot tempura. Wasabi enhanced each dish, making each mouthful a flavourful adventure, and also highlighting its diversity as an ingredient.
This is only simple home cooking, I was told. And I was delighted. The door to the world of wasabi had been opened wide.
God Save the Queen [of the Sausage Rolls]
It’s been over a year since I last went back home to the UK. My homesick foodie brain noticed that places serving British cuisine in Tokyo have been on the increase so over the past month I permitted my stomach some patriotism and went on a mission.
Mash Bros in Okubo serve puff pastry pies along with – you guessed it – mashed potato. This is mashed potato you need to try, possibly with the garlic butter topping or even the homemade parsley sauce. Co-owner Saad Dossary is a self-confessed otaku and he applies this mindset to cooking. Listening to him talk about his cooking is fascinating and he whips up some incredible specials from time to time.
Then there’s The Hole in the Wall in Nishiogikubo, which is a near-perfect replica of a gastropub you’d find in the UK. No puff pastry here, I was assured. All pies are shortcrust. I got a beef and Guinness rendition, which came with a side salad so good it deserves its own review. I also tried delicious cauliflower, broccoli and potato soup with blue cheese, served with Irish soda bread.
But both these places are secret sausage roll stars. Mash Bros’ version is infused with a tad of fennel – just enough to enhance the flavor – and topped with black sesame. For Hole in the Wall, I was transported back to my childhood – it tasted just like one straight from a good quality delicatessen.
It was the storefront that caught my eye: black with a large central door, a canopy over white old-fashioned lettering. This could be London, I thought, as I eyed Deeney’s, which advertised itself as a sandwich shop.
Oh, but it was from London. And its story is wild. Japanese couple Yoko and Kitz fell in love with Deeney’s – then a street food truck in Broadway Market – and appealed to Scottish owner Carol. This is how Tokyo came to have haggis toasties, gloriously buttery toast, oozing with cheese. But my heart belongs to Robert the Bruce, the toastie stuffed with mozzarella, tomato chutney, rocket greens and whisky-mustard mayonnaise (I hereby appeal for a much wider use of whisky-mustard mayonnaise in this world.
On the rare occasions that I had the opportunity to venture out, I also found myself demanding meat and Freeman Shokudo filled that void. I’ve never spent much time in the US but it reminds me of the trendy BBQ places that have sprung up across London over the past decade. Freeman’s pastrami sandwich has already developed a near-cult following, but on this day we opted to share the smoked chicken sandwich, the pulled pork sandwich, the ribs, and a side of homemade chili, with a side of green salad, potato salad and soup.
What you should know: the soup is the best-kept secret. The soup I sampled was broccoli and asparagus – it was light with exquisitely balanced flavors. Who knew I’d be raving about veggie soup at a BBQ joint?
Cooking up a home
Last month I came across a charming Japanese food magazine that well reflected the times we’re living in. The front cover advertised recipes for the home izakaya with some English script proudly proclaiming “Drinking alone at home,” and most likely proudly unaware of the potentially tragic implications.
Yet, as someone who basically lived in izakaya and sake bars before the pandemic, I have found myself missing that style of eating: small dishes to be sampled and shared, to accompany a drink. I’ve not cooked anything sophisticated but I’ve been making a few simple stir-fried dishes, salad, and rice topped with some gourmet spicy miso (a happy fridge discovery) and I have enjoyed these with a glass of sake. In particular, I have been working my way through an excellent selection of sake from Izumibashi Brewery in Kanagawa.
As I write this, I am reflecting on last night’s dinner – melt-in-the-mouth marbled Hida beef paired with some wasabi I had pulled from the ground of Izu Peninsula myself. I might still be surrounded by cardboard boxes, lacking a dining table and sitting cross-legged on the floor, but each mouthful made me feel more at home as I built new memories in my new space.
Home is truly where the stomach is.
All photos by author, unless indicated otherwise
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