Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Food Overcomes Fear

Nameless Joint
Tokyo, Japan

3 out of 5 grains of Rice

I admit it. I am afraid of walking into a restaurant in a foreign country when I don’t know the language. I’ve been to over 25 countries in my life, including 2/3rds of the axis of evil, and walking into a little mom and pop in Japan makes me stutter like a geeky pre-pubescent teen the week before junior prom. But my hunger was really fierce having just gotten off a 13-hour flight from the states and I could not face a non-descript meal in the hotel given the fact I only have two free meals during my three-day visit to Tokyo. So I trekked out of the hotel feeling a little time-disoriented and went looking for any busy street. I found myself within ten-minute walk from the hotel in front of some mom and pop store front (shoji screens and some writing that could have said sushi, or old show leather for all I know) and check it out. There were people (Japanese salary men all in dark suits and white shirts) inside and a few plates of plastic food in the window that suggested soba noodles and tempura. Having walked past twice, stared in, looked at the plastic food out front (which I was so hungry I could have consumed) and finally took the plunge.

Now I know my fears are irrational. In Japan, you are all but sure to be welcomed with a traditional Japanese greeting (irasshaimase) and a smile. And this time was no exception. I guess I am still traumatized from my first ever trip to Japan when I was mistaken for a US military guy on the ginza ten years ago and asked not to come into three bars in a row on my first ever trip to Tokyo.

So in I went and was of course, irasshaimase rang out and a got a nice smile from the middle aged woman tending the tables. It was a two-person operation with the wife out front serving tables and the husband in back cooking food. There were maybe fifteen tables in the place, ate about 1/3 were filled so I found an empty one and smiled at the woman who stood between me and the cure for my hunger. I looked at the tables of the other guests and saw enough to start – most had edemame and beer on the tables, and a few had big soup bowls. Unfortunately, I could not see what was inside, so I had no idea if it was Ramen or Udon or what so I tried to go simple and broke out my restaurant Japanese –

Edemame (boiled and salted soy beans in the pods), I asked. The woman kind of chucked, because they are offered as included starter plates (about 10 pods). Hai! Biru (beer)? Hai. Menu? She smiled and went looking for a menu with photos on it. She came right back and brought over a Xerox sheet with three black and white photos of what could have been fried squid or fried chicken chunks, or something intestinal, for all I knew. But then I saw the photos on the wall of the specials as was in business. The first one I saw was a split plate – one half filled with soba (buckwheat) noodles and the other half with tempura (lightly fried goodies). When she came back, I asked for Soba and tempura, moving my hands as if from one side or a plate to the other. She asked me something in Japanese (which I prayed was not – “covered with something really smelly” and I sad yes and smiled and off she went.

The beer arrived and things were looking up. A few minutes later, all my fears melted away – out came a divided lacquer plate. On one side were some off white and slightly chilled soba noodles and on the other half was bowl with some perfectly fried tempura. The noodles came with a dipping cup filled with a soy/mirin mixture at room temperature and with a lid that was filled with graded daichon radish, wasabe and chopped green onions.

In went half of the garnish and I looked around. I saw the other diners with soba pulling some with their chopped sticks and plopping them into the sauce. They then slurped then down. Seemed to work for them and away I went.

The noodles were delicious. There were very al dente, with a mild wheaty/earthy taste. The salty/sweet sauce quickly coated the slightly starchy noodles and the noodles were both light and filling at the same time. Really nice.

The tempura bowl was even better. One large prawn and a small Japanese eggplant sliced three times half way through (to ensure quick cooking) and a thin slice of pumpkin. The batter was very crunchy, but light (adding soda water to the rice flour is the key, I think) and not greasy at all. I could have eater three plates of the stuff. I lightly dipped a few pieces in the tipping sauce for the noodles, which added a nice salty feature to the tempura, but caused it to lose its crunch.

Cost – 1,350 yen – about 14 bucks. Not too shabby.

By the time the food was gone, the beer was too and my jet lag was catching up fast. I thought about stopping next door where I had seen a plastic food dish of what appeared to be tonkatsu (deep friend pork cutlet). But I was too tired, even if my fears of wandering into strange eateries in Japan was now gone. OK, maybe not entirely gone, but enough done for one night to prove that it’s worth taking the plunge.

Now to start planning for my Thursday night meal – hoping to find a good Izakaya (beer joint with food) to report on. Stay tuned.