Friday, April 01, 2011

Kon'nichiwa Asuka II Part Sixteen - Oishi! (The Food Blog)

At the moment the Asuka II is pushing the water back at over eighteen knots as we take almost five hundred passengers home to Yokohama. As for me, I’ve just come back to my cabin after finishing a couple of cappuccinos and a mediocre book up in the Vista Lounge, and along the way two of my coworkers asked me if I’d been to the mess yet. Funny they should ask, because, while I hadn’t, I was about to sit down and write a little about all the food I’ve had in Japan.

It’s actually something I had no preconceived notion of before my arrival, since in my limited scope of the world’s different cultures, I figured Japanese food was either sushi, or the stuff I’d had from Chinese places. Hey, I never claimed to know then… but I have fairly strong handle on it now. Let’s start with what many associate with Japan… sushi:

So, first off, sushi in Japan is really Sashimi, which is just raw sliced fish. The picture above was taken in Asuka’s alternative dining restaurant, which specializes in… what else… raw fish. You’ll notice there are only a few rolls on the plate, which do not contain anything but rice and tuna, with no American style fillers like imitation crab, avocado, or cucumber. Then there’s everything else… raw tuna and other fish lying on rice, some squid, egg (remember? The Japanese love eggs), caviar, shrimp… and the gray piece on the right? teriyaki style cooked fish (which was awesome).

Let’s take another look at a plate of raw fish, this time served to a group of us eating out:

That’s a lot of fish! Aside from the absence of things that have the word “roll” as the suffix, the notable thing here is that the wasabi is generally added to the fish before it is served (the yellow dollops are ginger), at least in the nicer places. I find this preferable, since I tend to accidentally overdo it with the green stuff, dilating my sinuses wide enough to pass a thirty dollar watermelon.

Yeah, a thirty damn dollar watermelon. While this is the only photographic evidence I have, they really do cost around 2,000 to 2,500 yen (and since the yen is 78 to a dollar right now, that works out to thirty bucks… yikes). Oh, and the watermelon is probably about half the size of the ones we buy at the store for a dollar… that’s just cruel. But let’s get back to the fish, shall we?

Yes, the Japanese like their fish cooked as well. These small guys are actually bar snacks (these were prepared fresh for us in a bar in Ofunato), and can be found almost anywhere. Here on Asuka II, we get ‘em mixed with the peanuts:

These are much smaller, and crispier. The mix also includes little puffed rice balls that taste like… what else? Fish.

Oh, and just as I was about to post this blog, I eat this:

What is that, you ask? It’s a big fish’s big damn eye socket… and I am pretty sure that’s its EYE sitting there too… the video of me eating this isn’t that eventful, but from what I gathered, you eat the meat around the socket, which wasn’t that bad, and not the eye itself… or at least they weren’t challenging me to do so. Wanna see what the unfortunate fish looks like?

And I thought a whole pig with an apple in its mouth was strange… this one wins by a mile.

But, some of you may recall that while sampling seaweed in Canada, I thought it tasted fishy, to which the Canadian asshole replied, “actually, the seaweed tastes oceany.” Well, maybe he’s right. So if that’s the case, then the Japanese like the taste of the ocean, and of course the ocean has just as much seaweed as it does fish.

Here is a packet of seaweed, most typically eaten with soups. It’s nothing more than what you get wrapped around your rice and avocado in the states, although this time it’s dried. This stuff is as cheap as crackers too, as a big damn jar containing at least a hundred of these packets is about 500 yen.

Before we depart from the subject of raw fish, let’s touch on a typical Japanese sushi joint:

Here you’re looking at the aftermath of a lunch for two. In the background you’ll see a couple of conveyor belts, which in this case circle the prep area in the center of the restaurant. The top line contains the food, and the bottom has fresh cups for hot tea and water. While you sit at your booth, or at the bar, raw fish passes by you at a leisurely pace. It’s basically a take all you want, and eat all you take experience. Also, hanging around the restaurant are signs that show the different colored plates and how much each is worth. So, the green plates may only be 280 yen, but may not have anything better than some rice and egg...

or… corn… while the more expensive red plates have the salmon, tuna, or more elaborate creations. When you’re done, you get the waitress’ attention (se ma say), and she’ll tally up the damage. Oh, and speaking of corn…

During the winter, the vending machines in Japan dispense both cold and hot beverages. First of all, why we don’t have this convenience in America, I have no clue; the same machine manages to spit out both hot and cold cans. But take a look at the selection here, from left to right: Suntory Boss coffee, Boss Black coffee, Boss Coffee with milk, hot chocolate… and… what the hell… corn? Yeah, corn soup. So I tried it, and it’s a hot can of corn soup, with actual corn floating inside… and it was pretty good. Still, notice our friend Suntory doesn’t put his pipe smoking face on a can of corn, no damn way. Anyone who knows Suntory knows he is a kick ass, take no prisoner, bad mo-fo boss of them all since 1992 who doesn’t have the damn time for sissy drinks with corn. Come at him holding a can of soup will only get you bitched slapped by a set of hairy knuckles full of Boss Black… no shit.

Still, it’s not just raw fish and drinkable corn around here, no sir… remember yaki niku?

This was my birthday meal, and since I am in Japan, yaki niku is the only way to go. Typically you’d be cooking up your thinly sliced cow in a sunken, gas fired grill in the center of your table, but since I was sat at a window front table in a seventh story yaki niku joint, they instead brought a bucket of coals and set it under a silent but powerful vent-a-hood. In case you’ve forgotten, this method of cooking meat was brought to Japan from (South?) Korea, and the meat is typically marinated and well marbled. Most of the stuff is meant to be cooked, including cow tongue (which is awesome), but some of the other stuff, like liver or raw meat with egg, is meant to be consumed raw…

Oh yeah… now that’s actually Kobe beef (and Kobe egg, I imagine). It’s covered in some kind of sauce, maybe teriyaki, which is mostly a mix of soy sauce, sake, sugar. And, although you’d never guess, raw meat and egg is cho oishi!

Still, not everything around here gets the thumb’s up. One day I had come back from a jog in a port that didn’t have much to offer. Jogging onto the pier, I stopped at some tents the locals had set up to entice the pax to take a piece of their city home in some edible or drinkable fashion. One of the girls approached me, giggling (which, I must say, never gets old), and hands me a green candy sized wrapper. Now, a couple of days previous the giggling girl handed me a hot cup of miso soup, which after an hour’s jog goes down just as smooth and easy as an angry porcupine, so I was happy to have some sweet candy instead. So, I opened the sucker and popped it in. After a moment, I turned my back on the cute Japanese girl and gagged the candy out into my hand. Lesson learned: Look at the stuff you’re putting in your mouth.

Here’s the candy. What’s that writing say, you ask? “WASABI SEAWEED.” Son of a bitch… no offense, Japan, but that’s some foul candy. Still, don’t take my word for it.

The face says it all, no? But, that’s not the only strange candy I’ve seen around here…

Yeah, cheese Kit Kat, and yeah, it’s a chocolate Kit Kat with a cheese/chocolate coating. Funny idea, but it doesn’t taste bad at all. Supposedly there are lots of other interesting Kit Kat flavors out there, although I’ve only seen this, green tea, and Coke & Lemonade flavors.

Now, to be fair, the Japanese don’t walk around chewin’ little chaw pouches of seaweed or cheese and chocolate. When it comes to sweets, they love beans.

Sweet beans, or “atsuki,” to be exact. Normally, you’d see them like this, tucked inside a ball of flour and/or rice. I want to say that for me these are something of an acquired taste. I mean, sweet beans, no matter how sweet, are still beans. Every now and then I’ll take a bite of one, and sometimes I won’t be able to eat bites two and three. I guess for us “gaijin” it may never seem like a nice thing to eat after a full meal, but the Japanese would beg to differ. While I didn’t have my camera handy at the time, one night in the ship’s dining room I literally had a plate of beans for dessert. Up until then, I had never had them simply by themselves. And you know what? THEY TASTED LIKE BEANS!!! And not even as sweet as baked beans, which I’ll admit I never really liked.

Finally, on the subject of beans:

I saw this display in front of a random restaurant, and at first I thought, “Now that looks good… pancakes with blueberries and ice cream!” Then I got closer… nope… them is beans… huh.

Oh, and Japan loves its food displays…

Many, if not most, of the restaurants around here have a display window showing you exactly what you can get inside. All the food is fake, and actually very believable… even the soups. Oh, the soup…

If you were to ask me what’s the one thing I’d eat every day for a week in Japan, it would not be yaki niku. Nope, it’d be udon noodles. Doughy and thick, udon noodles are typically served in a hot soup in which you can add thinly sliced pork or an egg (of course!). Also, when you go to an udon joint, you also get to choose from a variety of tempura items. Tempura is basically Japanese fried food, and it tends to be lighter, less crispy, and less greasy than what you’d find in The States. You can get fried tangled balls of onions, squid, egg (of course!), or, my favorite… pumpkin.

No, really! Pumpkin! Slice it up and fry it… you’ll wonder why we only use it in pies. It is really, really good! Of course, ramen noodles are also very popular out here, but for my yen, I’ll take Udon any day. Now, since I am not a fan of sweet beans, what do I like to have for dessert?

Monaca! I’ve mentioned this one before, too, but it needs repeating. It’s nothing more than soft serve ice cream totally incased in the stuff they make the cone from. You can get it plain, or with chocolate or jelly (shown here), among others. WHY IS THIS NOT IN AMERICA? This is the only drip proof ice cream I have ever experienced, and I’ve eaten it even in the middle of winter.

Oh, and then there’s this:

What can I say? It’s a hot dog bun full of spaghetti, with a small helping of corn. I think that pretty much sums that up… moving on…

In Japan, you’ll see a few American establishments pretty much everywhere, such as McDonalds, Starbucks, and KFC. If you’re in a hurry, though, you can head into a 7-11. Just like in America, they have quick snacks and drinks, but what you won’t find is that rotating hot dog machine… and taking the picture above into consideration, you can understand why. I mean, try and keep the spaghetti from getting all tangled as it rotates around the heat lamp. Anyway, what you can grab, if you’re in a hurry, is the following:

Maybe I’ll stick with the spaghetti hotdog…

But now it’s time for the Main Event! One thing the Japanese really, really, really love is SQUID! “Ika” can be found anywhere, and in many different forms. Words and pictures simply cannot encapsulate just how large of a squid selection the Japanese have, and since many of you may never get to experience the vast array of tasty squid for yourself, I’ve made an interactive video for you to enjoy. So, without further ado, it’s time to play IS IT SQUID???

That’s a lot of squid, friends…

And that’ll just about do it. Sure, I am leaving out a ton of stuff, but it’s just too hard to follow something like that…

Keep on Livin’ The Dream,

Michael Lamendola

(making a chopstick pyramid after some spicy Korean food… and yeah, getting two chopsticks to lean on each other like that is hard.)


For those of you that missed it, I ate a little something called "live squid,” or “katsu ika” in Hakodate last year. The process of catching and eating your squid is certainly unique, and if you haven’t seen the video, it’s right here waiting for you…