Posts Tagged ‘japan’

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…..


1-32-2 Asakusa Taito-ku Tokyo

Phone +81-3-3841-8356


2-6-11 Kaminarimon Taito-ku Tokyo

Phone +81-3-3844-1187


Some fish, even if they are to be served raw like for Sushi or Sashimi, can benefit from aging. “What, aging fish?!” That’s what I thought when I first started as an apprentice sushi cook. Like everyone, I thought all the fish are best eaten right out of the water, fresher it is, the tastier. Turns out that is not true…

Madai for instance, is best around the third day from the catch. A large Tuna (we are talking about 200lb and bigger) is most delicious after about a week or 10 days from the catch. I am not suggesting leaving the fish laying about for days after the catch, and of course one must properly treat the fish right out of the water in order to age them.

Lets take Hirame for example, one of the lightest and most delicate tasting fish. A typical routine for chefs in Japan is to go to the fish market every morning and choose the fish according to the quality and price. The fish at the market are all caught the night before, and have been killed swiftly and bled properly on the boat right after the catch. One can easily tell that by the clearness of the eyes, stiffness of the fish and the condition of its skin. Once the Hirame is brought back to the kitchen, they are cleaned before aging. The degree of cleaning depends on the chefs’ preference. Some only clean the gut and de-scale them. Some will de-bone. Once cleaned, they are normally kept in fridge for 3 days before showing up in the Terashi (Sushi display case) for customers. In three days Hirame will be much “sweeter” and have more umami. Most respected sushi restaurants will not even serve Hirame caught the same day even if they run out of the aged ones.

With tuna, the aging process takes even longer. When tuna is well aged, the meat becomes very tender and fragile, this is the reason many chefs use Takohiki, a special thin blade knife to cut aged tuna for sushi or sashimi. A dab of fresh wasabi on the aged tuna with a bit of Shoyu (soy sauce) on the corner and you have a most satisfying complex savory fish swimming in a flower garden (fresh wasabi that is) in your palate.

The proprietor of one of my favorite fish restaurant Le Tiboulen de Maire in Marseille France goes even further. He instructs the fishermen where to fish –as he knows the local water very well- and even how to catch the fish. All his fish are line caught, no nets. He says when fish are caught by net, there are other fish in the net and some fish eat one another resulting in fish with full stomachs. He prefers his fish to have empty stomachs because when he ages his fish, he leaves the fish intact without even cleaning the inside. He tells me that he will not even let the fish touch fresh water or ice. Just right out of sea water, properly killed and bled, and kept in the fridge for 2 to 3 days before grilling. The result is amazingly flavorful grilled St. Pierre, and one can even eat the grilled liver after 3 days! That liver of Grilled St. Pierre alone is worth the trip to France.

On the other hand, not all fish should be aged. Generally speaking, shellfish and small sized high oil content fish such as Iwashi and Aji are best when it’s super fresh. A squid is actually clear as a crystal right out of the sea. Transparent squid like that are so sweet and crunchy as sashimi, but within 20 minutes the flesh will become milky in color and start loosing its flavor and texture. Uni right out of its shell is much sweeter and delicate then the ones we normally see in the boxes. Fresh Aji Tataki with ginger and green onion is to die for. And some Japanese fishermen will de-bone fresh caught sardines by hand, chop them up and mix them with miso, ginger, and green onions, then place the mix over hot steamed rice and make Iwashi Tataki Donburi!!! I’ve had the same dish, but on land, and it was by far the best sardine dish I’ve had in my life. I can only imagine how it will taste on the fishing boat…

Daisuke Utagawa

Madai = Red Seabream

Hirame = Large-tooth flounder or Left eyed fluke.

St Pierre = John Dory

Iwashi = Sardine

Iwashi Tataki = roughly de-boned and chopped Sardine tossed with fresh graded ginger and chopped green onion.

Aji = Horse Mackerel

Uni = Sea Urchin


Le Tiboulen de Maire

Chemin des Goudes – 13008 Marseille

Phone +33 4 91 25 26 30