By Aaron Nir, UVa alum
When I departed UVA in 1985 for my third year abroad in Tokyo, my concept of Japanese food was rather limited. Sure there was sushi (although the worldwide boom had not happened yet) and chicken teriyaki – but I had no clue that I was about to undertake a culinary journey that would challenge and change my taste buds forever. Allow me to explain…
In my early days in Japan when I was studying abroad at ICU (International Christian U.) in Tokyo, I was on a tight student budget. My new buddy, Tony Ombo from Ghana, had been at ICU for 3 years, and he was happy to show me the ropes not only around the university but in Tokyo proper too. Tokyo in 1985 was a rocking place with a booming economy and an incredible array of department stores, shopping areas, food markets, and endless rows upon rows of restaurants. It was a foodie Wonderland— a veritable paradise for the palate. I was intent on taking my bite out of it.
Tony mentioned that they literally gave away food at the food halls in Tokyo department stores and that we should go and check it out. He didn't have to twist my arm. Shishoku, a long standing Japanese practice which means “to sample (free) food” was a revelation and, I learned, an art form. We would take the express train after class to bustling Shinjuku and go to Odakyu Department Store – kind of a big fancy Macy’s with every imaginable brand available at exorbitant prices – take an escalator down one flight to level B1; eat.
Imagine a sea of exquisitely prepared food on platters being served from an endless number of counters where hawkers were selling their wares. “Try these dumplings!” one would shout and the crowd would shuffle in that direction; “eat these rice balls!” another would sing out and off we went. In the span of about a half hour, you could try an incredible variety of food including sushi, grilled meats and fishes, stews, all sorts of vegetables, salads, noodles, soups, desserts, rice crackers of every ilk, French baked goods, delectable desserts, and even candy. With a full belly, we would decide what our favorites were and go back and buy a few things just to level the playing field. The crowds were huge and hungry.
When I moved to Nagoya (3rd largest Japanese city, where they make Toyotas) after graduation from UVa, I was introduced to the local cuisine of that city. Their thing is noodles and chicken. The noodle dish is called Kishimen – they are long handmade fettuccine type noodles that are rolled fresh in front of you, quickly boiled, and then dropped into aromatic fish broth and topped with shaved bonito flakes – beyond yum! The Kishimen are slightly “al dente” and blend deliciously with the amber colored homemade broth. Nagoya “Cochin” chicken is Nagoya’s homegrown “jidori” free range chicken.
The best way to eat Cochin? If you guessed raw, you are right! You see, the chicken is so fresh and so carefully monitored and prepared, that you have nothing to worry about when eating it raw. I ate the white meat as sashimi, dipped in soy sauce with a touch of wasabi. The taste was, well, very fresh and unusual – not something you would likely eat every day. I can’t say this was my favorite dish in Japan, but it gave me an early appreciation of how adventurous, if not daring , diners in Japan can be. I thought eating raw chicken was kind of wild – was I in for a surprise!
For the uninitiated, ikizukuri will come as a bit of a shock. I was introduced to this cuisine upon numerous visits to the lovely city of Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu. I love Kyushu. The people are super warm and friendly, the weather is much better than most of Japan, there are great onsens (hot springs), and, most importantly, THE FOOD. Fukuoka is famous for yatai – open air street stalls selling an incredible variety of food. In Japan, when you think of yatai, you usually think of ramen noodles. Ramen yatai are all over Japan. But in Fukuoka, not only do they have dozens of ramen yatai, yakitori (BBQ chicken skewers), and oden (hodge-podge stew), they have French haute cuisine yatai, and American burger yatai, and Korean BBQ yatai and even dessert only yatai. These stalls stay open early into the morning serving mostly office workers in the evening and then both customers and employees of bars and nightclubs all over Fukuoka as the night rolls into the morning.
But I digress. What I really want to discuss is ikizukuri which literally means “prepared live”. Yes that's right, the Japanese love their seafood – and I am sure you will agree that if you are going to eat seafood, you want it to be fresh. Well, there is nothing more fresh than something that is still alive when you put it into your mouth. Note to the squeamish – stop reading now. On several occasions, I had the distinct pleasure to be wined and dined by a terrific local businessman named Okazaki-san. Okazaki-san loved only one thing more that fishing – eating fresh fish. He chose well by living in Fukuoka because the seafood is sublime and considered to be among the best in Japan – and that is really saying something. Fukuoka faces the Sea of Japan and all that it has to offer. Okazaki-san was not one to economize on dinner out. He used to take us to the finest seafood restaurants and order giant squid, shrimp, and red snapper – all prepared a la ikizukuri. The giant squid is a large fellow – about 12-16 inches long from head to tail. He would come out on a beautiful platter decorated with flowers. The guest of honor would be sliced into squid rings with his head still intact. The reason we knew he was still alive is because squid have unusually large eyes and the eyes would move, looking at us around the table. It looked as though the creature was making eye contact with each of us while we ate him. I for one found this incredibly creepy and, umm, hard to swallow. This was only eclipsed by the red snapper who would come out on a gorgeous platter, its meat carved into extravagant rose shaped sashimi and its head and body intact – eyes open, tail wagging, you eating. Yes, this was about as fresh as you could get without swimming in the ocean with your mouth open hoping to catch something swimming along.
Next time, Italian food Japanese style, the amazing izakaya, gurguru sushi, and eating at a ryokan (Japanese inn) and more….until then, ITADAKIMASU!