Archive for December, 2012

Whenever I travel back to my home city Tokyo, there are few eateries I must go back to. Many of them are in the area called Shitamachi. The term shitamachi was originally used in Edo period (17th to 19th century) to describe urban areas that lay in lowland, closer to the river and sea, or outside of the central district of Shogun’s rule. But today it generally stands for a more humble part of Tokyo that still keeps the old world charm.

What makes shitamachi special is the people who live there. They are often blunt, in a hurry, and easily agitated, but also warm and have big hearts. At least that’s how they are characterized in many tales of shitamachi.

Masaru is an eatery that serves only one main dish, Tendon. Tendon simply put is a Tempura served over a large bowl of rice with some sweet and savory sauce. This typical shitamachi dish may sound simple but what goes in to making perfect tendon is nothing simple.

First the rice has to be of high quality, carefully washed and perfectly cooked. The ingredients for the tempura have to be of the top quality. Chef Takasaki goes to Tsukiji market every morning to pick the prawns he serves that day. He only uses domestic Kuruma-ebi, and if he does not find prawns to his liking, he will not open his restaurant that day.

Then comes the frying technique. Tempura for tendon is made differently to normal tempura. Because tempura has to be dipped in the sauce before being laid on the bed of rice, it needs to be a bit crispier as not to get soggy, but never too crunchy. Making crispy tempura without overcooking the ingredients is not an easy thing to do. Precise temperature of oil, the right timing, and the right type of oil is required on top of the chef’s skills to understand and adjust the cooking to each ingredient’s condition and character. In short, there is never a precise recipe one can follow. Of course there are general guidelines but micro adjustments must be made all the time. All simple prepared food such as sushi, sashimi or tempura show the flaw (or inability to truly understand the ingredients) of the maker, but at the same time, if a master made it, the same dish can be heavenly.

Chef Takasaki is a master of tendon. He is also quite a character. At his shop, which seats about 8 at the table and 5 at the counter, he seems very quiet. Through a small gap between the counter and the kitchen, one can catch a glimpse of him just doing his thing. No one really talks loud, they just wait for the tendon to arrive mostly in silence. Perhaps its because they waited in line for over 40 minutes, or perhaps the smell of tempura in the store made them very hungry.  Normally the chef does not speak either, but once you get him to talk, he won’t stop! Of course, me being an insensitive Japanese fellow, and a greedy eater, I always talk to cooks who make amazing food.

The only thing about Masaru is it is very difficult to find,  off of one of the most crowded streets of Asakusa, it’s as if the owner deliberately hid the restaurant from the public. But if you are in Asakusa, and want to try the best tendon, and don’t mind the wait, do try it once.

Another one of my “can’t miss when I’m back in Tokyo” is an eel specialty restaurant called Irokawa. I’ve had better eel elsewhere in Japan but I’ve never met a character such as the owner of this eel joint anywhere in the world.

Irokawa opened its doors in 1861 (When Abe Lincoln was the president of USA) and the current chef is the 6th generation owner chef of Irokawa. He is a pure old school edokko, a stereotypical character of shitamachi. He talks like one and acts like one. Rough but has a heart of gold. The restaurant has two 4 tops and 6 seats at the counter. Behind the counter stands the chef (often with cigarettes hanging from his lips) tending to his compact charcoal grill. He also goes to the Tsukiji market (on his bicycle) to pick his eel. His tare (sauce for eel) has been the same batch for over 40 years, accumulating the eel flavor every time the grilled eels are dipped before serving. They just keep adding the new sauce to the old one, never a new batch.

But the real reason I go to this place is to see the chef and to talk to him.

A typical conversation one might have with him would go something like this:

Customer upon sitting down: I’d like a beer please.

Chef: Asahi Dry.

Customer: Only Asahi Dry?

Chef: Yah, don’t like it? Don’t get it.

Customer: Oh sure, I’d love some please, and a skewer of kimoyaki and while I wait for a friend.

Chef: Just one skewer? Get two, I don’t like to do things over again, your friend would order one anyway.

Customer: Urr, ok then two please and maybe some shirayaki.

Chef: Got it, and you’re gonna have unadon for main.

Customer: Urrr I haven’t decided on the main…

Chef: That’s why I’m telling you. You’re gonna have unadon!

Customer: Ye, yes please.

After finishing the meal

Customer: Thank you, that was really good.

Chef: Of course it was good; do you think I serve bad food? If you are around this area come show your face again!

A first time customer will be shocked but once you become a regular, he is really fun to talk to. Besides, no one speaks the old Tokyo dialect anymore. The man should be a living treasure.

Once I brought a very good friend Andy Blue a wine and food writer from LA to Irokawa. Andy was quick to catch on to the vibe of the chef even though he did not speak Japanese. Andy made us laugh by saying “So he is a 6th generation eel chef? I guess when he was young; his father told him -pointing to the tiny grill – “son, one day this will all be yours!” I did not translate this to the chef…..

Masaru

1-32-2 Asakusa Taito-ku Tokyo

Phone +81-3-3841-8356

Irokawa

2-6-11 Kaminarimon Taito-ku Tokyo

Phone +81-3-3844-1187

Advertisements

By Daisuke Utagawa

I am often asked to name my top favorite restaurants/eateries in the world. Or, at least I think about what the top 5 would be time to time. Broken Tooth Shing in Hong Kong has always been my favorite top 5 even though last time I dined there was 2005, and I’ve had plenty of amazing meals elsewhere since then.

Broken Tooth is not a real restaurant, nor is it the real name of the chef. The Chef’s name is Lee Shing, and “broken tooth” is his nickname since he has one of his front teeth broken. It’s not a real restaurant because the establishment is not licensed and is in their small apartment in down town HK. What it is though is an eatery that can take diners through an amazing journey and even back in time –so to speak.

Broken Tooth only takes one group a night. Up to 18 guests. It will cost about $2500 for the 18 people not including the drinks. (Its BYOB) The place is booked months in advance and they wont take any reservations if you were not recommended by someone they trust. The guests sit in Chef Shing’s small living/dining/bedroom of his one room apartment. Not much of décor or comfort; big round foldable table and some milk crates with cushions to sit on. (Although the second time I visited, they had invested in some foldable chairs)

But none of these things matter because of the sublime food he makes and all doubt will be blown away at once when you walk in to the kitchen. The first time I went to the kitchen, I saw this old man crouching on the floor (wooden slats over concrete) cleaning fish. He was Chef Shing. I looked around and noticed that there was not a single gas or electric cooker, instead, there were several coal cookers of various size! I asked about this and the Chef told me that he doesn’t know how to cook with gas and the coal fire gives his food the right heat, and for him, its much easier to control the heat with coal fire. The only difficulty for him is that no one makes the coal range anymore so he has to special order them for his woks of various sizes.

Let me give you some background on Chef Shing. He was 86 years old last time I dined there in 2005. Chef Shing studied under a private chef of a well-known Chinese opera star. This was about 100 Years ago, and back then, all good chefs worked for someone rich and famous privately. This still holds true to some extent in today’s HK, as eating is one of the most important aspects of life in HK and people believe through eating well, one can live longer or even have a great fortune. The teacher of Chef Shing was famous for his skills. For instance he was the chef who invented snake soup with dried citrus skin, now a classic dish. Having such a chef as your own private chef was also a status symbol in those days.

Chef Shing learned all the techniques and secrets from his teacher. He also kept ingredients that is no longer available today such as dried giant grouper skin (I was told this type of fish is not found anymore in the area.) or dried scallops and dried fish maw from the time the sea was not polluted.

If you are lucky enough to get a table at Broken Tooth, they will ask you for your budget and you work out the menu outline with them in advance. Of course you can ask for some surprise dishes, but for me every dish was a surprise even if I thought I knew the dish very well.

My first visit, the meal started with:

A big plate (its all family style here) of something that looked like wokked (Stir Fried if you like) thick cellophane noodles with finely julienned celery. But it turned out these bean sprout sized noodles were actually sharks fin! I’ve never even seen sharks fin that fat!

And it followed with:

A dish of brazed dried abalone and sea cucumber with Shitake. So delicately flavored , the texture and the taste of those chunks of giant abalone as I sink my teeth in to it was something I can still recall today.

And then:

The famous snake soup. Chef Shing’s son who was serving told us that dried citrus skin which flavored the soup was from 30 years ago.

After that it was:

Steamed whole grouper together with some braised fish maw (also very old). The combination of fish maw and the fresh steamed fish was so complementary to each other that one enhanced the flavor of the other.

And still going with:

Turtle stew. A delicate collagen rich dish. Flavored with dried grouper skin.

And of course:

Couple of vegetable dishes, such as braised yellow nappa cabbage with dried scallops, and stir fried fresh greens.

Not to forget:

The most deluxe fried rice with sausages, and various seafood,  dried or otherwise.

And we finished with:

Sweet Red Bean Soup and some exotic fruits.

While I was eating, I had a sense that I was tasting history and a culmination of ages of great Cantonese cooking culture. Perhaps a sense that maybe Chef Shing is the last of the Mohicans so to speak. I’ve asked as delicately as I can if there was anyone who can carry forward his skills. His son said he learned everything from his father. I genuinely hope he did…