Thursday, October 23, 2014

Itty Bitty Fishies

I remember hanging out in Bilbao's San Francisco neighborhood. This was long before the Guggenheim Museum was even an idea. There was a place not too far from the Rio Nervion where I used to get angulas. A funky little place. Acrid air filled the streets, wafting up from the river. It was a favorite place to sit down with a txikito of ardo beltza and a piece of toast laden with angulas - warm baby eels - their little bodies a-tangle, their eyes looking every which way. Those were the days. When even the most run down and dangerous area of town had little culinary oases where one could relax and enjoy what are now the province of rich gourmands who take a special pleasure in devouring all things endangered and unsustainable.

I don't eat angulas now. I don't even eat grown up eels. Not because I don't like them. I do. But eating does involve some moral choices. It's not all about having that final taste. Being the last person to remember. I'm reminded of the old man at the end of Redmond O'Hanlon's Into the Heart of Borneo. The one who tells Redmond that yes, he had seen Borneo Rhinoceroses. In fact he had killed a few. Will I be like that old man in a few years, telling some young guy that yes, I had eaten angulas? In fact there were a hundred or so on that piece of toast.

Now they make fake ones. They're called gulas. They're made of surimi, with little spines and eyes painted on them with squid ink. Rumor has it that low-paid Mexican workers paint them. They taste like you'd expect. And the eyes aren't really all that realistic.

Which brings me to shirasu - the whitebait of Japan. Baby anchovies or sardines. They're ubiquitous in Japanese cuisine. A classic is oroshi - grated daikon topped with dried shirashu. You eat it with a dollop of soy sauce and well... it's food. There's a bit of protein in those vaguely crunchy fish things. They're right up there with gulas!

But then there are the fresh ones - nama shirasu (生しらす). Not too far from Tokyo is the Shonan Coast. It borders Sagami Bay. This is a great breeding and fishing ground for anchovies - and thus, shirasu. Most of them are quickly blanched in salt water, dried and shipped throughout Japan to add a dull bit of briny fishiness to dull foods. However the closer you get to the source, the closer you get to the fresh stuff. Which is where it's at.

A favorite place for the Ajimi team to gorge on nama shirasu is a little fish shack near the tiny fishing port of Kotsudo, just over the hill east of Kamakura. It's called Yuuki Shokudo. They serve up the little critters in huge mounds. Doused with a little shoyu and a sprinkle of green onions, they stare you down, daring you to eat them. And eat them you will. And you will love them.

Just recently the Ajimi team found themselves exploring Noge-cho, a neighborhood of Yokohama. It's a wonderful warren of streets filled with old fashioned izakayas, yakitori joints, informal western-style restaurants, sakanayas, jazz clubs, sunakus and so much more. It borders the Ōoka River (or the Ōokagawa - 大岡川). River air drifts lazily through the streets. We stopped in at a nicely appointed washoku restaurant where we came across nama shirasu on the daily menu. Whenever the Ajimi team comes across nama shirasu, we've got to order it. Or at least one of the members has to. And a lovely little bowl arrived, little eyes staring. A taste of sweetness and brine. For a moment, it took me back a bit to the old days in Bilbao. Yes, I remember shirasu. In fact, I ate a lot of them once.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

You want to go WHERE?

Occasionally in our hunt for early 20th-century kimono and haori -- meisen in particular -- we come across something so unusual that we can't pass it up.  On our most recent flea market visit, we found a child's kimono that offers a fractured lesson in world geography.  It was probably cut down from a larger garment and the fabric feels like wool muslin.  What's interesting about it, however, are the names printed on it.  Have you been to any of these places? Doitu?  How about Perurin?  The first is "Doitsu," or Germany in Japanese, made incomprehensible by the Nihon-shiki method of transliteration which renders the "tsu" sound as "tu" --- and "shi" as "si" --- in romanized letters, to the confusion of generations of foreigners trying to find their way around Japan.  It took us a while to realize that "Perurin" must be Berlin.  "Yashinton" was easier to figure out, coming as it did right after "Amerika."  "Furansu" is France of course, with its capital "Pari" and secondary city of "Rion."

This kimono is in the spirit of other Taisho/early Showa textiles which celebrated Japan's rapid modernization and internationalization. They often featured images of streamlined automobiles, airplanes, trains and other modern contraptions that were flooding into the country.  The inclusion of the names of foreign capitals -- even if written in a way that would leave their own residents scratching their heads -- probably bestowed upon the original wearer a cosmopolitan panache.  And left the child who inherited the kimono unable to find any western capital on a map.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

How Do You Like Your Lungs?

When you put the words lungs and smoke together, an image comes to mind. Probably not of the culinary kind. However, the Ajimi team was out one October night in Shimbashi, one of Tokyo's best stops for the odd, the old-fashioned, the delightful and the sometimes terrifying when it comes to dining. Shimbashi still has a little, or maybe a lot, of the kind of shitamachi dining pleasures that are falling more and more to the wrecking ball and the misplaced desires of the government and developers to make Tokyo a more modern and generic city.

We stumbled onto Tamaya (玉や), a corner restaurant tucked into a warren of alleys just across the plaza on the west side of Shimbashi station. Yakiton is the place's speciality - and they yaki up a mess of pork parts, in addition to things like a soulful and simple tofu suji nikomi - a big block of tofu in a broth, lightly thickened with bits of gelatinous beef tendon - and a wonderfully crisp tempura that encased squeaky hunks of erengi mushrooms.

We were just about to leave when we noticed a big yellow sign. On it was written the word fuwakun (ふわくん). At 480 yen, whatever it was, it was cheap. The word fukuwan does not refer to a familiar way to address someone who blindly follows others (付和). Nor is it about someone over 40 (不惑). Nope, it's a friendly way to describe smoked lung. That's the lung of a pig, smoked and cut into bite-sized pieces for your gustatory pleasure. Of course, we had to stick around and order some up and a couple of rounds of Hoppy to either compliment or cover up the taste of this porcine pulmonary delicacy.

Now lung does show up in Filipino and Southeast Asian cuisine. It's also one of the things you stuff into your basic haggis. Lungs are banned in the USA - as food that is. They really don't show up that much in Japan, so we were looking forward to something rare indeed.

It looked great - a sort of brickish corned-beef color with little white bronchioles. Tastewise, not all it was set up to be. The smoke, undetectable. The texture, a little better than cardboard. The bronchioles a little gristle-like. The taste, give me a haggis any day. At least the Scots like to use a little spice. The Hoppy though, was great. Next time, we'll stick to more familiar organ meats.  We'll pass on the pig lungs.

As we left, we did notice a piggy plush toy hanging from a ventilation grille in the ceiling. Is this how they smoke 'em?

Shimbashi 4-18-7
Minato-ku, Tokyo


Friday, October 10, 2014

Flea Market Pharmaceuticals

Japanese pharmacy boxes or kusuribako (薬箱)are a frequent find at flea markets.  However, they are usually empty when we come across them.  I've been looking for boxes for storing thread and other sewing notions, something with more character and kinder to the environment than the typical plastic thread organizer.  This box with its cool tiger and eagle motif caught my eye.

And it came with a bonus supply of medicaments that could come in handy in an emergency.

I don't think you need to be able to read Japanese to figure out what this one is for.

Ahhhh...that feels good!

This is apparently good for exorcising demons.

And this will alleviate pain almost anywhere in the body.

But it could cause you to expire.