Pancakes: Japanese Style

Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka, JapanPretty much every country has their version of a pancake (everybody loves pancakes).  Japan’s is called okonomiyaki — a savoury pancake that’s filled with various meats and veggies.  It’s an Osaka specialty, so yeah, obviously I had to try it while I was here.

And I clearly picked the right place to do it; I’ve had okonomiyaki a few times, and I’ve always liked it, though it’s never particularly stood out.  The one they served at Okonomiyaki Chitose definitely stood out.

Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka, Japan

They have a few different versions on the menu.  I went with the one that’s filled with shrimp, squid, pork belly, and noodles.

The chef cooks it on a griddle right in front of you, and just watching it get made is  entertaining on its own.

It starts with a mixture of the veggies and the batter.  He also cooks the seafood on the griddle off to the side.

Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka, Japan

Then he adds the cooked seafood to the pancake, followed by the noodles, and finally the pork (which is still raw at this point).

He adds more batter to each pancake…

Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka, Japan

…then deftly flips them over.

Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka, Japan

Finally, he slathers on some mayo, adds a couple of other sauces, some seasoning, and it’s ready to eat.

Okonomiyaki Chitose in Osaka, Japan

It was incredibly delicious.  The texture was perfect — previous okonomiyakis that I’ve tried have been a little bit doughy, but this featured an amazing balance of crispy exterior, fluffy interior, and chewy noodles, not to mention the perfectly cooked seafood.  The combo of the creamy mayonnaise and the slightly sweet, slightly tangy sauces compliments it perfectly.  It was ridiculous how much better it was than any okonomiyaki I’ve had before.

Pretty Good (but not great) Sushi

Endo Sushi in Osaka, JapanConsidering that sushi might be Japan’s most ubiquitous food export, it’s one of those things that you pretty much have to try at least once while you’re here.

And of course, ideally you’d go to a high-end place like Jiro to taste the best of the best — the type of experience you’d never be able to have back home.  Sadly, dropping several hundred dollars on one meal just isn’t in the budget, as much as I’d like it to be.

Endo Sushi in Osaka, Japan

There are, however, a bunch of sushi joints in Osaka that are both well-regarded and not absurdly expensive, including the one I just went to, Endo Sushi.  They have a pretty good deal where you get five pieces of sushi for about 13 bucks Canadian — not cheap, certainly, but not unreasonable either.

Sadly, the sushi was quite tasty, but not much more than that — definitely not the mind-blowing sushi experience you might hope for in Japan (I suspect I might have to spring for a Jiro type of place if that’s the goal).

Endo Sushi in Osaka, Japan

There were a few things that I really liked, however.  Each plate had a piece of sushi with otoro tuna, and man, that stuff was good.  Otoro comes from the belly of the fish, and thanks to how fatty it is, it pretty much just melts in your mouth.  It’s like tuna butter.

Endo Sushi in Osaka, Japan

The other highlight was, surprisingly enough, the egg nigiri.  I’ve never quite understood the appeal of this particular type of sushi — the ones I’ve had back home were always slightly rubbery and overcooked.  This one, on the other hand, was almost creamy — it was perfect and eggy, and eating it was a definite eureka moment.  Oh, that’s what that’s supposed to taste like.  Good to know.

Endo Sushi in Osaka, Japan

Otherwise it was fine, but not much better than the best sushi I’ve had back home.  Most disappointingly, the seasoning was off.  Better sushi like this shouldn’t require the usual soy sauce/wasabi combo — it should have already been seasoned by the chef.  But some of the pieces were pretty bland, and others had wasabi applied so prodigiously they were like a roundhouse kick to my nasal passages.

Amazing Octopus Balls in the Nishiki Market

Nishiki Market in Kyoto, JapanIf heaven exists, it probably looks something like the Nishiki Market in Kyoto: a seemingly endless street market filled with one vendor after another serving up delicious-looking food.

Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Japan

If it’s food-related, you’ll probably find it here.  Aside from all of the enticing prepared food, there’s a smorgasbord of various meats, seafood, fruits, and vegetables  — it’s a one-stop shop for all things food.

Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Japan

I came here without anything in mind, basically just looking for whatever stall looked the busiest.  And there was no contest: this bustling takoyaki stand was clearly where it was at.

Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Japan

For the uninitiated, takoyaki is basically a ball of dough with a piece of octopus in the middle, typically served as street food.  They had a few different varieties, including one with cheese, which I had no idea was even a thing.  Obviously that’s what I got.

Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Japan

I like takoyaki, though it’s never really been my favourite.  Most of the ones I’ve tried have been one-note doughy, with a rubbery piece of octopus inside.

Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Japan

The ones here, on the other hand, were delightfully crispy on the outside, creamy and a little bit gooey on the inside from the cheese, and contained a surprisingly tender piece of octopus.  The sweet sauce on top does a great job of balancing out the savouriness of the balls.

Takoyaki is an Osaka specialty, so I’ll obviously be getting them again when I go there, but they’re going to have a very, very hard time living up to this.  Takoyaki perfection.

Improbably Delicious Eel in Tokyo

Hashimoto in Tokyo, JapanAnother day, another Michelin-starred meal in Japan. This one wasn’t quite as cheap as Nakajima, but it’s hard to care when the food is this good. This was straight-up one of the best things I’ve ever eaten.

Hashimoto in Tokyo, Japan

The restaurant is called Hashimoto, and they specialize in unagi — glazed eel cooked over coals. The place was a bit expensive, so I went with the small size, which I bitterly regretted as soon as I took my first bite and realized how insanely delicious it was.

Hashimoto in Tokyo, Japan

The eel was an absolute revelation. Who even knew eel could taste like this?? It was unctuously tender, with a hauntingly subtle sweetness from the slightly caramelized glaze.

The coal adds an absolutely perfect amount of smokiness; it’s always there, but it never overwhelms. Perfection.

The interplay between the smokiness, the sweetness, and the melt-in-your-mouth tender eel was magical.

The rice and the sauce was quite delicious as well, but holy crap, that eel. Holy crap.

Checking out the Tsukiji Market (Sort of)

Around the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, JapanRemember when I mentioned how the Jagalchi Market is the biggest fish market in South Korea?  Well, the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo is the biggest fish market in the world.

I visited on a Saturday, and the area around the market was absolutely packed.  Like, so packed you could barely move, packed.

Around the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, Japan


Around the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, Japan

I quickly came across a sushi joint with a line that was noticeably longer than any of the other restaurants in the area, so I did what I always do when I see a line for food: I got in it.  Hard.

Around the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, Japan

After about 40 minutes I was sitting at the bar; I ordered the fish rice bowl, which contained a veritable cornucopia of raw fish goodness, including shrimp, tuna, squid, fish roe, and a whole bunch of stuff that was a mystery to me.  A delicious, delicious mystery.  It was all on top of some nicely seasoned rice.  It was fantastic.

Around the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, Japan

Next, I  explored the vendors on the outer market, who sell packaged seafood to the public.

Around the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, Japan

It was interesting, but the real show is in the inner market, which is the heart of the operation where all the wholesaling takes place.

And…  it was all packed up for the day.

Around the Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, Japan

I wasted so much time wandering around the outer market and lining up for sashimi that I completely missed out on the inner market, i.e. the main reason people come here.  Whoops.

I might have to go back at some point before I leave Tokyo.

A Michelin-Starred Meal for Less than Ten Bucks

Nakajima in Tokyo, JapanThere’s a restaurant in Tokyo called Nakajima — it’s in the bottom floor of a very nondescript building (if you were just walking by, you wouldn’t even know it’s a restaurant).

Nakajima in Tokyo, Japan

And yet it has one Michelin star, and draws some pretty serious crowds thanks to its delightfully cheap sardine-based lunch special.  I showed up at around 11:40, which is just ten minutes after they opened, and there was already a line out the door.  It took about half an hour to get in.

Nakajima in Tokyo, Japan

They have a few things on the menu — all sardine-related, including fried sardines, baked sardines, and some kind of eggy dish involving sardines.  My tongue was still pretty badly burned from the ramen the night before, so I went with the sardine sashimi.

Nakajima in Tokyo, Japan

It’s not the most photogenic dish I’ve ever had, but it was great.  It was about as far from the oily, fishy little guys that you get from the can as you can possibly get.  The flavour was surprisingly clean, without even a hint of a fishy funk, and with a nice toastiness from the sesame seeds that are mixed in.  A little bit of grated ginger on the side gives it a kick.

The best part?  It only cost 800 yen, or just over nine bucks Canadian, which is a ridiculous deal for food of this calibre.

Something’s Fishy

Jagalchi Market in Busan, South KoreaYou know as soon as you climb up the stairs of the subway station that you’re in the right place — the smell of seafood is everywhere around Jagalchi Market, South Korea’s largest seafood market.

Jagalchi Market in Busan, South Korea

And the inside is an impressive sight, featuring row after row of vendors selling every type of edible aquatic creature that you can imagine.

Jagalchi Market in Busan, South Korea

And then you walk out of the building on the other side, and you see where all that food comes from.

Jagalchi Market in Busan, South Korea

And in case you haven’t had enough seafood yet, there’s a road next to the market that’s crammed with more vendors — it must go on for almost a kilometre.  It’s kind of a crazy amount of seafood.

Jagalchi Market in Busan, South Korea

Pie and Mash and Eels

Goddards in London, EnglandThere are a lot of traditional British foods that you can very easily find back home — meat pies?  All over the place.  Fish and chips?  Yep, they’re everywhere.  But the type of eels that they serve in really traditional pie shops in London?  I don’t think I’ve ever seen those back home.

There are actually a couple of distinctive things about the pie shops here: the aforementioned eels, obviously, but also the greenish sauce that you can see here:

Pie and mash and eels at Goddards in London, England

It’s called liquor sauce, and it’s traditionally made with the same liquid they use to cook the eels, along with a generous amount of parsley.

It looks kind of like gravy, but tastes nothing like it — it has a bright, herby flavour that compliments the meaty pie really well.

As for the eels, they were ultra-soft — almost gelatinous — with a funky, fishy flavour.  I liked them, but I can definitely see why they’ve mostly fallen out of favour over the years.  They’re a little bit intense.

Eating Fish and Chips in London (because of course)

Poppies Fish and Chips in London, EnglandI’ve had some pretty great fish and chips back home.  Plus, it’s a pretty simple dish, so how much better could it be over here?

It turns out: substantially better.

Fish and chips from Poppies in London, England

I went to a fairly well-regarded place called Poppies, and had what is almost certainly the best fish and chips of my life.  The fish itself was tender, flaky, and perfectly cooked, but what really stood out was the crispy batter.

Most fish and chips joints back home feature an overly-thick crunchy shell that steals the spotlight from what should be the main attraction: the fish.  It’s basically fried batter that happens to have some fish inside of it.

Fish and chips from Poppies in London, England

Here, on the other hand, the batter is crispy enough to provide a nice contrast to the soft fish, but thin and delicate enough that it absolutely never steals the show.

The chunky fries (sorry, chips) were perfect too: crisp exterior, creamy interior.  Good times.

Something’s Fishy about this Sandwich

Fischbrötchen in Hamburg, GermanyI mentioned, in my last post, that they’re pretty seafood crazy here in Hamburg.  Specifically, they seem to really love fish sandwiches, because pretty much everywhere you go near the water, there are about a million different vendors serving them up.

The most famous sandwiches are the Bismark, which consists of pickled herring and onion, and Matjes, which consists of a different type of pickled herring, also served with onion.

I should probably note that the last time I had pickled herring, I hated it.  I also really don’t like raw onion.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Michael, if you don’t like pickled herring, and you don’t like raw onion, why would you eat a sandwich that consists entirely of pickled herring and raw onion?

That’s an excellent question.

I mean, other than the fact that I’m clearly insane?  I just felt obligated.  These sandwiches are such a big deal here that I needed to know what all the fuss was about, even if I was pretty confident I wasn’t going to enjoy it.  I was hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

Fish sandwiches from Fischbrötchen in Hamburg, Germany

I was not pleasantly surprised.

The pickled herring was as I remembered it — fishy, vinegary, mushy, and in your face. It’s an acquired taste if there ever was one, and it’s a taste that I have very decidedly not acquired.  Though I typically don’t like raw onion, it was actually kind of welcome here, if only because it was the only thing to cut the pungent intensity of the herring.

Of the two sandwiches, I definitely preferred the Matjes — it was, at least, a bit mellower.  It wasn’t quite the unforgiving assault of fishy sourness.  But no, it wasn’t particularly good — just slightly less unpleasant than the other one.

Adding insult to injury?  That fishy, oniony flavour lingered on my palate for the entire day.  It  was the worst.