I don’t think that I ever truly appreciated food tourism for most of my life. Of course I like to eat locally, to try new foods, to sample the regional cuisine, but I’ve never made it a goal. It was always more of a side quest, a “since I’m here anyway, I might as well”. I thought I was doing quite well given the (not inaccurate) stereotype about American (and British) tourists who like to go to exotic places and then eat familiar foods. I thought my willingness to try was good enough. What did I know?
I have noticed since living in Korea that there is a strong feeling bordering on obsession with the famous foods of any given tourist destination. Not only outside of Korea, but regionally within the country as well. If you go to a certain place, it was taken as given that you MUST get some of the locally famous food. To do otherwise was simply unthinkable.
As my friend and I sat waiting for our food, I shared this observation with her and she made a politely stiffled “wtf whypipo” sound and tried not to look completely aghast. Her family is from Mexico (yes, she’s American) and she explained to me that as a Latina, for her and her family (and her culture as far as she is aware) it’s always about the food. I have to admit, I did feel a little abashed, but I have no reason to cling to my old ideas. I usually enjoy the hell out of eating locally, so why NOT make it part of my to-do list rather than merely adjacent to it?
Our first famous food sight was Yamachan, a chicken joint that is usually so popular that wait times can be over an hour. Yamachan is famous for chicken wings. Initially, I was very skeptical since I get plenty of chicken in Korea, but when we arrived we were sufficiently early as to be able to get a table. We had to take the smoking section, but it was still clear air when we were seated.
Smoking sections? Yeah, Japan has relegated smoking to a few small designated areas. You can’t just smoke anywhere, even outdoors. There are designated smoking spots with ashtrays. Some are open air, while others are actually a glass booth to protect passersby from the second hand fumes. Since people can’t just step onto the sidewalk for a smoke, restaurants have smoking sections. These are also cordoned off with floor to ceiling walls and sometimes even a double door airlock system to keep the smell from entering the non-smoking section.
Back to the chicken wings. Nagoya is famous for tebasaki, a crispy fried pepper spiced chicken wing. There’s no batter, so the wings are just fried nice and crispy on the outside, but moist on the inside. They are coated with a lightly spicy salt and pepper flavor that was zingy and enjoyable. Plus, each order comes with instructions on how to eat the wings Nagoya style (and get all the meat off in one swipe!). I found later that a lot of people consider these wings to be “quite spicy” so Korean cuisine might have impacted my spice meter, as I only found it pleasantly zingy.
Conveyor Belt Sushi
As we finished our plate of wings, the restaurant was filling up and the smoke was getting thicker so it was time to move on. After the tebasaki appetizer, our main course was to be conveyor belt sushi.
We arrived at Sushiro, the famous 100yen restaurant, only to discover that going to a popular restaurant on a Saturday night that is also a holiday means a long wait. Quelle suprise! The good news was that we’d already had some chicken wings, and it was our first time to catch up since parting ways in February, so the waiting area was just a place to sit down and chat by then.
This was a true dollar menu style conveyor belt place. Any dish that came by on a plain yellow plate was up for grabs and only 100 yen. If you wanted something specific, you could use the little computer at each table to place an order. I got some of my favorites (unagi, fatty tuna, salmon roe and more) and proceeded to stuff my face with sushi. It’s amazing to me that even though Korea and Japan are separated by only a narrow strip of ocean and both are heavy seafood consumers, the difference in ingredients and flavors is mind-blowing. Even in Japanese sushi restaurants in Korea, I have trouble finding things like tuna and eel. Salmon roe? Forget about it. I was in sushi heaven until I thought my tummy would explode and then the waitress came by to calculate our bill. She did this by measuring our stack of plates! They don’t even have to count, since each plate is the same height, they just hold up a special ruler and then type up the bill.
Two of us stuffing ourselves was still less than 12$. Japan doesn’t have to be expensive.
Amid the many things that I found to try while in Nagoya is the “morning service”. Many of the cafes around town have begun to offer a light breakfast (egg and toast or ogura toast) for free (“service” in Japanese) with any order of coffee. Sunday morning my friend and I headed over to Komeda Coffee. This cute little coffee shop is a chain restaurant famous for it’s special morning service of thick, fluffy, buttery toast and red bean paste, also known locally as “ogura toast”. While lots of places in east Asia love sweet red bean paste in pastry (I eat it in Korea all the time), Nagoya got famous for ogura toast by adding… wait for it… margarine! The sweet thick red bean spread with creamy salty margarine creates a unique Nagoya flavor that should definitely be on your “to eat” list. Plus, their coffee is pretty good.
In the spirit of being on vacation, and fondly remembering my childhood year in Japan I ordered a “cream coffee”, the picture of which looked like iced coffee with a generous twist of whipped cream on top. Vacation calories don’t count right? When I received my mega sized coffee drink, it turned out not to be whipped cream, but ice cream! Smooth, rich, vanilla soft serve floating on a small iceberg inside the cup. I am especially fond of red bean and cream, so I dolloped some ice cream on my toast for extra decadence. So good. And all for less than a Starbucks’s latte!
I went back to Komeda every morning of my holiday because it was a) close to my friend’s house and the subway, b) very reasonably priced breakfast, and c) SO DELICIOUS! Free WiFi and friendly, patient staff helped a lot, too.
The evening highlight of Sunday was a visit to one of Nagoya’s most famous restaurants, Atsuta Horaiken, to enjoy this local specialty. I know eel isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve been in love with Japanese grilled eel since the first time I tried it. It’s flaky, smokey, sweet and savory. It’s everything a grilled fish should be plus some undefinable extra flavor that comes from the eel and it’s special sauce. Unagi sauce is actually sold in stores because it’s such a unique blend. I bought some once to make eel at home and had so much leftover sauce I started eating it with eggs, which turns out to also be good. Anyway, when I found out that one of my favorite Japanese foods was ALSO one of the most famous local dishes of Nagoya, I immediately put it on my to do list.
Bear in mind that Japan was just finishing a holiday weekend on Sunday, so for many folks it was the last fling before going back to work on Monday. To make matters worse, this famous and delicious restaurant doesn’t take reservations on holidays or weekends, it’s first come first serve. We tried to make a reservation for one of the weekdays I was in town, but they were booked solid. Instead we planned to head over about 30 minutes before opening and get a good place in line. When we showed up, the restaurant had workers stationed all the way down to the elevator to show visitors where to go, and very polite hostesses were arranging guests on a looooooong line of chairs in the open space in front of the restaurant.
We were only about 20 people down the line and were honestly quite excited about it, since we were originally prepared to wait an hour or more for a table. Even better, the restaurant started seating people well before the posted opening hours. I’m not sure if it was because of the holiday or because it was the last weekend this particular location would be open before prolonged remodeling. Whatever the reason, we found ourselves playing musical chairs for a remarkably short time. I love the fact that the restaurant had seating in the waiting area. While I think pagers might have been a better way of alerting guests that a table was ready, it was a little exciting to be in line and to shuffle seats every time someone ahead of us went inside.
They also brought us an English language menu while we were waiting so that we could peruse the options, and the hostess did her best to make recommendations and give explanations in English for us as well. I really appreciate this because although my Japanese isn’t half bad, I am terrible at the super polite version of Japanese. Especially fancy shops and restaurants will often use a version of Japanese that is so formal I can’t understand it anymore, and then I just end up feeling embarrassed.
Hitsumabushi is NOT cheap. A single order is almost 40$. Both of us wanted to have some, but we were also eyeing an appetizer on the menu that was tamago (egg) with eel filling. In the end we decided to order the 1 ½ size hitsumabushi and one of the egg eel omelettes to share. The omelette arrived first and was quite delicious. The egg was light and fluffy and the eel inside was rich and savory. I think if it had been my dinner choice I would have been a little sad, but it was a perfect appetizer experience.
Finally, the star of the show arrived. Hitsumabushi is served in a huge wooden bowl with a tray full of fixings. We were issued careful instructions on the proper way to eat this delightful dish. On the surface, it looks like unagi-don, a bowl of rice with eel on top. However, the Nagoya style eel is thinner sliced and has a crispier exterior than regular unagi. Also, it’s not drenched in eel sauce.
We ate according to the instructions, spooning ¼ of the large bowl’s contents into our smaller personal bowls and eating it plain at first. I was impressed straight away.
Even in normal restaurants, eel is one of the more expensive dishes. I tend to avoid buying it here in Korea because it’s often not prepared well. Nonetheless, it is one of my all time favorite Japanese foods. The “plain” hitsumabushi still had plenty of flavor. Of course the smokey, fishy unique flavor of the eel itself, but also a lighter version of the sauce it’s cooked with, as well as the vinegar in the rice. It had so much of what I look for in a good meal, I instantly knew the price was well worth it.
The second ¼ of the dish is meant to be served with the dry fixings provided in the little side box. In our case, we were given small slices of spring onions, thinly shredded nori (seaweed), and what very well may have been fresh wasabi. Most wasabi in the world is fake, sadly, it’s just green horseradish. Now, I love horseradish too, so that doesn’t usually bother me. I’ve learned a little about fresh wasabi from watching cooking shows and documentaries, but I’ve never had any. When I looked at this wasabi, I noticed the texture was very different from what I’m used to. Instead of a smooth paste, it had little shredded bits of plant matter.
Real wasabi is a root that is grated to get wasabi paste. I thought that the texture could be an indication of fresh grated wasabi. I tasted it on it’s own as well before adding it to my bowl and found that it was lighter, fresher and less “bitey” than what I’m used to in wasabi paste. It didn’t even try to get up my nose. Again, it lines up with everything I’ve read about the flavor of real/fresh wasabi. Excited by this prospect, I added some of each ingredient to my bowl and lightly mixed them together.
Whatever I thought of the wonderful flavor and texture qualities of the first unaltered bowl were blown straight out of my mind. Everything wonderful about the plain hitsumabushi was suddenly illuminated by fireworks-like bursts of green umami jumping out of the simple yet high quality spices I had added in round two. Sometimes, I go too long between truly spectacular life changing meals. I lose sight of the artistic heights of food that were so poetically expressed by a cartoon rat. Worse, I may even come to look at food as a burden, simply fuel for my body with no other reward, if I am kept in sub-par food land for too long. But then a restaurant like this comes up and gives my taste receptors and limbic system something to scream about and I remember what is possible. This isn’t just food tourism, it’s heaven in a bowl.
Round 3 we were instructed to replicate round 2 and then add broth. I don’t really know how to describe the flavor of the broth. It was also a little smoky, a little umami. I suspected there were some dried shitake involved in the flavor as well as some konbu dashi. It was nice, but for my taste it didn’t really add to the flavors the way that the spices alone had. Additionally, it drastically changed the texture of the dish, turning crispy eel and rice into a wetter soup. It was still delicious, and I’m glad that I was able to try all the different styles of eating hitsumabushi, but I was grateful for that final ¼ serving where we were instructed to return to whichever of the first three we had liked best and do it again!
By the time we finished, I was on an insane food flavor high and I thought my stomach might explode. If this experience sounds like something you want to try, don’t worry, although the Sakae location is closing, there are other branches of Atsuta Horaiken around Nagoya you can visit.
What flavor is that?
Our last stop before going back to the apartment was a kind of bargain grocery store. Advantage of shopping with someone who lives there is that they’ve found and vetted all the cheap places before you got there. My friend was actually just stopping in for some toilet paper, but I decided to wander the candy section to see if I could find some unique chocolates to bring back to friends in Korea. This is more challenging than it sounds since most Japanese brands of candy are sold here in regular shops. What I found was a wall of every flavor of kit-kat imaginable.
I don’t even really like KitKat as a candy bar. It’s always tasted a little like sweet cardboard to me. But the Japanese are obsessed with it. I love finding new flavors of standard “American” candy in other countries. I found the all-caramel milky way in Saudi, I found an infinity of Dove flavors in China, I found the hazelnut Snickers here in Korea (omg like nutella and snickers had a baby, whaaaat?), but Japan has outdone everyone on variations of KitKat.
I have seen several in the past, most notably green tea, and white chocolate raspberry. This wall… had…. everything…. I took photos only of the most bizarre flavors, but there were local apple flavors, Hokkaido creme flavors, 2-3 different versions of redbean including regular and ogura toast at least, but the winners of the unique flavor awards go to: sweet potato, rum raisin, sake (yes the rice wine), and (drumroll please)…. Wasabi.
I have no idea what any of them taste like because they were only sold in huge boxes and I could not really justify spending 8-10$ on a giant box of candy just to know what it tasted like. I promise if I ever see them on sale individually packaged, I’ll report back on the flavor.
What I did buy that evening was no less a flavor twist than green tea flavored Khalua liquor. I found a tiny bottle for 6$ and decided that was a very reasonable price to sample this experimental flavor and get an evening cocktail, too! My first time to have green tea and coffee together was a green tea ice cream affogato at the Boseong tea fields last year. Basically green tea ice cream with a shot of espresso poured over it. It was insanely delicious so I had high hopes for the Khalua. We grabbed some milk at the convenience store and settled in to experiment.
The actual liquor is not a color/texture that you really think of for drinking. It’s thick and a mixture of dark green and dark brown… yeah… appetizing. I tasted a little straight for science and it was, unsurprisingly, very sweet and very strong. Once we added ice and milk, the liquid became the appealing green color of a green tea latte and the flavors had more room to play. I think a little vodka would have rounded the whole thing off nicely, as it was still very sweet for my tastes even with the milk, but I liked the play of green tea and coffee together.
One of Nagoya’s other famous foods is kishimen. I had heard there was some near Atsuta Jingu but I didn’t realize that it was inside. Following the signs and my nose I discovered a small kitchen and covered picnic table area where the famous soup could be ordered in several styles.
Side note: It is so important to carry cash in Japan. I don’t even understand how one of the most high tech countries in the world that invented paying for things by tapping your mobile phone on them still has so many places that are cash only, but it does. Temples especially and tourist facilities in general, just about any smaller shop or restaurant (not convenience stores of course, they take cards), and all the machines you use to charge the transit cards also only take cash. It is one of the great mysteries of our age.
I was running low on cash because I’d spend some to make donations earlier in the day, so I was just able to get the basic Miya Kishimen, also the name of the shop, for 650Yen.
Kishimen is similar to udon, but the noodles are wider and flatter than a typical udon noodle. I also found the flavor of the broth to be quite distinct with a very smokey aspect as well as undertones of salty and sour for a very piquant profile. Maybe it was the experience of eating in the picnic pavilion in the middle of the beautiful forest, but I thought the noodles were definitely worth it, far above the average udon eatery. There was a self service tea station with lovely tea, and several signs warning patrons to beware the crows. I assume the greedy little scavengers… I mean clever sacred corvids… will hop over and steal any unattended food. The sign and the crows did little to dispel the vague aura of haunting I was experiencing that day, but I think that just added to the fun.
Dinner Monday night was one more Nagoya specialty, Miso Katsu. Katsu is a panko fried pork cutlet that is pervasive throughout Japan. It is also one of 3 Japanese foods that can reliably found at “Japanese” restaurants in Korea, so while I like it fine, I was not initially excited about going out for katsu. But, all of my local food finds so far had been better than expected so I agreed to give it a whirl. My friend got off work and met me down at one of the famous chains, Yabaton.
Regular katsu is delicious when cooked well. It’s essentially fried pork, so it is hard to go wrong, but the best versions are very tender cuts of meat and crisp flaky fried exteriors. Bad versions are tough and greasy, obviously. What makes Nagoya’s miso katsu so special is that they pour a red miso sauce over the katsu just before you eat it (so as not to make things soggy). Miso is a common ingredient in Japanese cooking, and most foreigners are at least familiar with Miso soup, which is typically made from white miso. White miso is soy beans fermented with mainly rice. The flavor is fairly light and mild. It’s pleasantly tart and goes well with seaweed and green onions. Red miso on the other hand is made of soy beans fermented with barley or other dark grains. The flavor is quite pungent and may be an acquired taste. It’s not like “stinky cheese” pungent or anything, so don’t be scared to try it, but it is a good deal stronger and darker than what you may have experienced in the past with miso soup.
The pork at Yabaton is excellent all by itself. Tender and juicy cuts of pork, fried in fluffy panko breadcrumbs with little to no extra grease. When the waiter brought our bowls to the table, he also brought a container of thick, dark red miso sauce which he poured over the katsu with a flourish. I was impressed at how well the flavors went together and how much I enjoyed the red miso. It may be the most unique katsu experience I’ve ever had and I’m so glad I didn’t skip it just because katsu is “common”.
Japanese convenience stores are called colloquially by the Japanglish word “conbini” short for “convenience” in a language without “v”s. By my friend’s request I popped into the local convenience store on my last night as her guest to get dinner. When I lived in Yokohama for a summer, I often made meals from the conbini. There’s bento (lunch boxes), onigiri (amazing rice triangles stuffed with yum and wrapped in seaweed), and a plethora of random foods to pick and choose from.
Conbini food is almost always fresh. It’s a stark contrast to gas station foods in America that are filled with preservatives and have a shelf life sometime past the nuclear apocalypse. You can actually eat healthy from a Japanese convenience store. After days of dining out, my friend was craving a simple salad, a bag of greens costing about a dollar. I had been grabbing onigiri (one of my fav snacks) for lunches and afternoon pick me ups all through the vacation so far, so I looked to see what else was available for eats and I found a conbini food I had entirely forgotten the existence of!
During my summer stay, I ate these cold noodle bowls ALL THE TIME. It’s in the refrigerated section, and has a plastic bowl with fresh udon noodles and packets of sauces and toppings. Back in 2015 the ones I got had a fresh egg, but the one I found this time had what I think was dehydrated egg? Maybe a new health law? Anyway, I found the flavor that was my favorite and was very excited to get to have it again after almost 3 years. I also got myself a “long day” reward: juice box sake! That’s right, you can buy sake in a cardboard box with a straw. Your inner kindergartner and your outer adult can both be happy as you sip booze from a tiny box.
Travel and food are such a huge part of my life. Although I had previously taken my responsibilities as a food tourist lightly, I’m vowing not to do so in future and thus my summer plans involve ever growing lists of “famous foods” I have to seek out in each place. I’m not turning this into a food blog full time, but I think I’m going to take a cue from Mr. Bourdain and let my belly lead the way in a few more adventures.
In fond memory of Anthony Bourdain, who’s shows about exploration and food contributed to the desire I have to travel and share what I find. Thank you.