Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Our Fukuoka Christmas 13 - Wagyu wishes fulfilled at Beef Taigen

Why am I still writing about my Christmas vacation in March?  I procrastinate too much -- putting off writing for tomorrow ... or how about Friday?  Next week?
Well  dear reader, if you thought that you were going to read about Fukuoka till the cows came home ...  here is the absolute last post.  
I hope you will be "moo-lified"

From the bad puns, you will have guessed what this post is about.
Steak is not high on my list of favourites but once in a "rare" while,  I do get a hankering for a nice piece of beef.  This usually happens when I am in Japan as wagyu -- with its unparalleled marbling, is my beef of choice.  
While westerners may not like wagyu for this very same character,  this is what I feel makes it unique and deliciously different. 
Jay and I were strolling around Canal City when we came upon Beef Taigen, a popular wagyu chain in Fukuoka.  

There were quite a lot of interesting photos outside the restaurant.  This  shows the select group of ranchers from Kagoshima Prefecture who raise the black cows and supply Beef Taigen with all grades of wagyu.
I did a bit of research and discovered that more than two thirds of the black cows in Japan come from Kagoshima.  Of course there are other types of Japanese cows but black cows are what we normally associate wagyu with. 
Kobe and Matsuzaka may be more well known but Kagoshima is the "moo-ther" lode (sorry  for another bad pun!)

A butcher's chart is also displayed outside.  I try to guess what the various parts are but can only come up with the rump (10 or 11?) ) and the tongue or cheeks perhaps, another obvious guess.
Would ribs be number 7?  And is that oblong shape beside the number 15  tenderloin?  
I guess I will never make it to butcher school.

The branch in Canal City is always full of  shoppers and tourists since the prices for meals are very reasonable.   One of the specials is a wagyu hamburg steak for the very attractive price of just 1,100 yen

While long queues are normal during lunch and dinner time, we arrive way past noon and are seated right away.  The steak of the day is 3,000 yen which we are told is a 150 gram sirloin.
We order that and a hamburg steak. 

After a while our  lunch trays are brought out.  Jay's sirloin steak setto came with a bowl of rice, miso soup,   salad and three types of condiments -- seasoned salt,  and two types of shoyu based sauces.  Freshly grated wasabi is also included and Jay said that wasabi and salt on steak was a delicious discovery for him. 

I could not quite believe that this generous serving weighed just 150 grams.   Surely they must have made a mistake?  
But the menu clearly stated that all cuts of beef are 150 grams and all orders are served medium rare, unless the customer specifies otherwise.  Medium rare is how we normally order -- 
I think it is the ideal doneness for an excellent cut of steak. 

I had the hamburg steak or hambaagu as the Japanese call it, since the waitress said it was their specialty.  Of course my secret plan was to swipe a piece or two from Jay's sirloin. 
With the combined beefy aromas rising from our respective hot plates, I knew that our clothes would smell of wagyu for the rest of the day. 

The Japanese hambaagu steak should never be thought of as a hamburger steak -- they should not even be mentioned in the same breath.   
Beef Taigen's hambaagu is made with only the best cuts of prime grade wagyu, definitely no gristle, no extenders.  The patty is simply seasoned with salt and pepper, to bring out the undeniable  flavour of superior beef.
 Like Jay's steak,  my hambaagu is cooked medium rare -- lightly pink inside with a nice even  lightly charred exterior.  

Jay is down to his last piece of steak -- and he's eating it and not giving it to me.   
I did get a taste of the sirloin  and it was every bit as delectable as I had known it would be.  
The marbling increases the flavour aside from making the meat so mouth meltingly tender. 

I raised a toast to the Kagoshima black cow to thank him for his sacrifice of top quality 
beef  goodness.  He did not die in vain -- he fulfilled our wildest wagyu wishes.  
And of course,  here's a toast to finally finishing up this Fukuoka series.  
I hope that by reading my posts, you'll be inspired to visit one of these days.  
If you do,  head to Canal City and pay homage to wagyu at Beef Taigen


Monday, March 6, 2017

Our Fukuoka Christmas 12 - Yakitori Zen ... a barbecue state of mind

Put it on a stick, place it on top of an open flame and I'm yours!
Whether it's a bright red hotdog or bits of tripe, a slice of pork belly with fat or tightly bunched together chicken entrails ...  if it's barbecued, it's food that I love.
The humblest piece of meat, with the proper seasoning or marinade is transformed once it's grilled.  
In Japan, the equivalent of barbecue is yakitori -- mostly grilled chicken but diverse enough to  include other meats, fish or even vegetables.
Yakitori is a popular offering in izakayas or bars.   My favourite yakitori joints are smoky, boozy
little places, usually nestled in narrow alleys or under the train tracks and frequented by salarymen and locals. 

On this trip to Fukuoka,  there were many restaurants around our Airbnb apartment rental, one of which was a yakitori place right in our building.   How convenient -- I could pop down and have my 
yakitori fix anytime.

A few evenings later, this is just what we did.  We traipsed down to Yakitori Zen (an apt name
for the state of mind that good food invariably reduces me to) for a few skewers and a few beers.

 Yakitori Zen was a bit bigger, neater and certainly better lit than most of the hole-in-the-wall,
along-the-riles (by the railway tracks) places that I normally go to in Tokyo.
There were a few tables for bigger groups.   We hesitated as to where we would sit but the chef waved us over to sit at the counter in front of the open kitchen. 

I was happy to see an english menu.   At Yakitori Zen, you can order a la carte or have your skewers by the set.  Tonight,  we were just "grazing" so  we ordered one serving composed of  7 skewers,  "omakase"  style (chef's recommendations).  

Izakayas normally give you small dishes of otsumami or snacks to go with your beer.  
These are placed in front of you the minute you sit down.  
If there is a "table charge" (between 300 and  500 yen)  this is what you are paying for.  For places without a "table charge"  like Yakitori Zen,  these are on the house.
Our small bowls had stewed mushrooms with bits of chicken and an appetiser of simmered vegetables with fried tofu and a few slices of hot red peppers. 

I could not wait to sip my beer -- ice cold and heavenly.  Hand torn cabbage leaves tossed with a refreshing ponzu vinaigrette  is not a salad but is meant to be eaten with the yakitori -- think of it as having slaw with your barbecue.

On the counter is a glass encased chiller with trays of the various prepared yakitori sticks -- just waiting to be seasoned and grilled.  On the first night that we visited, we ordered the set but on our next visit (yes, I went twice)  I just pointed to what I wanted to eat.

Yakitori can be seasoned two ways -- shio or just lightly salted and tare, brushed with a special sauce.  Normally the chef makes his own tare so you never quite get the same flavour from each yakitori place.  While I prefer plain shio some cuts of meat are better eaten with tare sauce.

With our counter seats, we had a ringside view of  the chef as he worked  -- here he lightly drizzles the skewers with salt (usually also mixed with a bit of ground pepper).

The sticks are placed on the grill for just a minute or two. The skewers are frequently turned so that a 
good sear can trap in the juices.  Yakitori is never dry but always moist and juicy.

Our omakase set  started with sunagimo or chicken gizzard which is one of my favourites.  
The other skewer looks like tsukune or chicken meatballs but the chef said it was made of  both ground chicken and pork. 

Our next skewer was sinful but scrumptious pork belly with negi or japanese leeks, a riff on the classic negima.  
Some poor octopus lost a few of his eight legs, giving it up for this tako yakitori -- it was soft but still firm and just so delicious.  
Check out Yakitori Zen's special chopsticks at the top of this photo. Rough hewn twigs that looked like they had  been taken straight from the tree.   

Reba or chicken liver, alternated with bits of scallions, is brushed with tare sauce and dredged through sesame seeds.  The sesame seeds and the bits of crunchy char work together to remove the mineral-ly, metallic  taste of chicken liver that I normally do not like.

We have a few more skewers -- mune or chicken breast is paired with sliced white onions. 
We also get chicken with asparagus stalks -- the chef's healthier but no less tastier version of the 
more common  aspara bacon (bacon wrapped asparagus). 
And I finally get to taste the chef's excellent tsukune or chicken meatballs glazed with tare.   
Motto biru kudasai! (one more beer please!)  
Full disclosure -- we had double orders of the tsukune right after we tasted it.  

Our chef was rather shy but not unfriendly.   I liked his twists on the normal yakitori varieties --  
his "zen" focus resulted in perfectly matched ingredients and flavours.
While there was an assistant to slice the meat and deliver the orders to the tables,  the chef himself  attended to us seated along the counter while at the same time, cooking up the orders as they came in.

At the other end of the counter, our seat mates were obviously enjoying an evening of beer-y banter and what seemed to be a steady supply of yakitori

Izakaya fare includes other items besides yakitori -- agedashi tofu is a popular order.  
Silky tofu is dredged through cornstarch and lightly fried till a crisp golden crust covers the creamy block of soybean softness.
Set on a light dashi and shoyu sauce,  the chef's version comes with thinly sliced nori and grated daikon topped with a smudge of pickled ginger.  
Lightly simmered shishito peppers remind me of my favourite Galician treat - pimentos de  padron -and provide just the faintest sweetish heat. 

Yakitori Zen offers sashimi but only chicken,  duck and the specialty of Kumamoto  -- basashi or sakura yukke aka horse meat sashimi.  
Before you condemn me for eating My Little Pony,  please let me tell you that horse meat is part of the culinary traditions of  the Japanese and I was in no way eating something taboo. 
I had first enjoyed sakura niku (as horse meat is called) many years ago in Tokyo and remembered how much I was surprised by the delicate taste of the meat.
Sakura yukke is often served with a mild and sweet shoyu  sauce.  A small raw quail's egg 
yolk is placed on top of the meat  -- everything blends so well together that we finish the dish in no time at all. 

We took our sweet time at Yakitori Zen, enjoying the "zen" like feeling of being completely 
at  peace.   Or was it merely a yakitori and beer induced stupor? 
If you are ever in Fukuoka,  don't miss out on ascending to this "zen" state of mind.  
Look for  Yakitori Zen along Meijimachi dori, somewhere off the Sumiyoshi-jinja.  
The door is marked by this simple piece of wood that looks somewhat like a walking stick (or the rough chopsticks you'll find inside).

N.B. Thank you to my son Gani for some of his photos used in this post. 


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Our Fukuoka Christmas 11 - In the black at Go Kitchen

When on vacations of a week or more,  I prefer to stay in apartments rather than hotels.
It somehow gives me the feeling that I "belong", at least for the time that I am there.
I like exploring the neighbourhood -- buying bread from nearby bakeries,  shopping in the small markets and enjoying meals in restaurants that have not been discovered by tourists.

On this trip to Fukuoka, we were lucky to stay in a quiet neighbourhood.  On walks to and from the apartment, we would often pass by this cozy little cafe called Go Kitchen.
It was full of regulars during mealtimes -- office workers from the nearby buildings and residents.  
The blue door looked quite inviting.  Green plants and wooden penguins  on the window sill added to the eclectic, homey appeal. Rough hewn wooden benches  hopefully meant that smokers were not allowed inside the restaurant. 

One afternoon we finally decided to drop in for a late lunch.  At 3 p.m. the place was nearly empty.  I immediately like the unpretentious, comfortable vibe.  Menus on the table were in Japanese and our waitress could hardly speak or understand english.   
She beckoned us outside ... were we being thrown out of the place?

It turned out she wanted to show us the signboard which had photos of their 
(I'm guessing) specialties -- hamburg steak, a tomato based pasta dish and something 
I could not quite identify, so I had to point and ask ... "kore wa ... omurice desu ka?"  
She smiled enthusiastically -- "Hai! So desu."
Food once again had broken the language barrier!

After we all trooped back inside, I settled down in our booth which had a good view of  the
chef probably making our meal .  A counter for diners wraps around the entire kitchen. I loved the simple overhead shelves for  cups and bowls,  sake and shochu bottles --  a tasteful and efficient way to maximise the limited space. 

 Although we did see the photo on the menu outside, Jay and I were both taken aback when his order of hamburg steak arrived at the table. 
It looked like it had been rolled in tar!  Had the kitchen burnt it?  Why was it so black?
It turned out that a black sauce had been poured all over it.  The hamburg steak itself was perfectly cooked.  Broiled not fried, the hefty patty was succulent, juicy and beefy.  
The hamburg set at Go Kitchen  came with buttered vegetables plus a bowl of hot rice 
and miso soup.  
It's your typical yoshoku dish where western influences are blended with Japanese tastes and preferences.

My omurice did not look like the normal omurice at all.  It came in a gigantic pasta plate that almost covered the entire tray.   The same black sauce that blanketed Jay's hamburg steak was slathered all over the egg and rice. 
This black sauce must be Go Kitchen's very own special concoction.  Jet black with a satiny sheen, 
it did not taste like any sauce I had tried before.  I could not pinpoint it specifically as salty-sweet 
or sweetish-spicy.    The consistency was not quite thick but it wasn't soupy either.
It was certainly savoury and full of umami goodness.
 It completely confounded us and we just had to keep tasting it until we finished everything on our plates.

 Omurice is customarily served with tomato ketchup -- whether on the side or squeezed on top.
Since this obviously had been removed,  the chef had incorporated ketchup with the chicken broth fried rice so each spoonful reminded you that this strange looking dish was an omurice indeed. 
Go Kitchen's version fused tradition with the chef's innovation -- and it worked, deliciously.      

We lingered long after our late lunch -- still trying to decipher the inexplicable puzzle of 
Go Kitchen's uniquely flavourful  black sauce.  Perhaps another visit is needed before we can crack 
this  riddle.  In the meantime,  I'll have another glass of beer!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Our Fukuoka Christmas 10 - Foraging (and feeding!) at the Hakozaki Nomi-no-Ichi

One of the few places where you can find something irresistible, quirky, unique, priceless and yet affordable is a local flea market.
In France, these are called marche aux puces (literally, market of fleas), in Madrid, the biggest is called el rastro  and in Japan, the old-timers fondly call them nomi-no-ichi.
By whatever name they are called, flea markets sing out their siren call to me and I can never resist.
I did my research before our trip to Fukuoka and found out one would be held on December 23 -- just in time for our visit. 

Flea markets open and close early so the early birds get the proverbial "worms".  
The Hakozaki -gu Flea Market opens at 7:00 so we set off right after breakfast. 

The bus ride to  Hakozaki-gu took a little over 30 minutes.  I had been here last June but Jay and Gani had not,  so a visit to this third most important Hachiman shrine in Japan was the first priority.   There were more pigeons than shrine goers this early in the morning.

Hakozaki-gu's entrance is guarded by a huge stone torii.  Beyond it is the Hakozaki  Nomi-no-Ichi.  
Some major temples and shrines in Japan hold regular flea markets as the grounds are usually extensive and can accommodate many stalls and shoppers.  
In Kyoto, there are monthly flea markets at To-ji and Kitano Tenman-gu that are extremely popular with both locals and visitors alike.

There are over 200 stalls at the market -- it is probably Kyushu's largest and certainly one of the biggest in Japan.

This shopper has already snagged a prize -- a fabric covered footstool plus some more items in her shopping bag.  Perhaps she's on her way home. 

Like any flea market,  there are all sorts of items for sale, some of it new but most are "pre-owned"
or "pre-loved".
Vendors have set up their stalls from behind their parked vehicles with merchandise carefully arrayed on folding tables.  
This reminds me of Paris week-ends spent at my favourite Marche aux Puces de la Porte de Vanves where cars and even light trucks are squeezed side by side with items for sale spilling out onto the sidewalk.
Of course this being Japan -- things are a lot more neat and orderly.

Jay and I had been looking for a cast iron tea pot and we saw several "good as new" examples at the market.  They were well below department store prices so we were happy to have finally bought

The comical slightly ribald tanuki (a fairytale racoon like creature) is a common sight outside izakayas. Carrying its little sake flask,  it invites you to drop by and have a drink.  We bought a
small tanuki statue from this friendly vendor who gave us a discount -- even before we had asked
for one.
By the way,  as in all flea markets,  good natured and fair haggling is allowed! And in Japan, a
polite  greeting and smile will certainly go a long way.

At every flea market I go to, there is always a stand-out item that I really want but know that I
cannot bring home.  I recall, with some regret --  antique light sconces, ceramic topped apothecary jars, vintage steamer trunks (!),  a large beautiful green leather suitcase ---  and other one-of-a-kind finds that were too fragile or too heavy to lug back home.
Today's most wanted item was this vintage bamboo and rattan rocking chair that stopped me dead in my tracks.  It was definitely a find but would never have fit in my luggage.

Antiques were out in full force.  I wonder how old this child's pedal car is?  Made of tin and wood,
it may not have been in  mint condition but it is still something that a collector would definitely snap up!

I am not sure if this vintage metal wash basin set is actually functional or merely a decorative piece.

Some vendors have added home grown produce to their usual merchandise. 

One of the items I look for in Japanese flea markets are old obis -- those broad sashes that are tied around kimonos.  They are usually made of gorgeous, rich silk brocade.   I have quite a few stashed away so for today,  I was just "looking".

A small scoop of these wooden beads costs 500 yen each.  I have no idea what I will use them for ... 
a Buddha bracelet maybe?  I buy two scoops. They hardly weigh anything and are so pretty that I could not resist. 

Poor, forlorn Teddy -- looking spiffy and clean as he sits with his valise, waiting for some child
to take him home.

These tote bags were re-purposed from old obis and kimonos.  The designs are traditionally Japanese and would make unusual omiyage or pasalubong.  The lady that you see in the photo told me that she makes them herself.  They were a steal at just 500 yen each.  

I am always attracted to traditional Japanese clothing --  at the market, there are haori coats
(loose, worn over a kimono) and happi coats (for informal wear) in different colours and designs
for the different seasons.  
Over the many years of combing through various nomi-no-ichi, I have bought quite a few of these 
coats at unbelievable prices... would you believe 500 yen for a lovely embroidered purple coat?! 
I have recycled and worn them on formal occasions  -- giving a new and fresh look to standard evening dress. 

There are plenty of lacquer ware and beautiful stone and ceramic plates, bowls and cups but these 
are now also available in local Japanese surplus shops.  

Audiophiles and bibliophiles would be happy rooting through boxes and crates of books and vinyl LPs  at the market.

Fancy some vintage toys -- monsters, robots, action figures even some Buddhas or Gods of Fortune?
E.T and Harry Potter are also in attendance.

While flea markets do have food stalls,  I was a bit surprised to see this yakitori stall.   I associate yakitori with boozy evenings in smoky izakayas.  To see one in the middle of a bright morning
was a bit disconcerting.  But there it (happily) was.
The smells of grilled meat over a charcoal fire wafted through the cold air -- reeling us right in.  

No english signs available -- just point to each skewer and ask if it is tori (chicken),  buta (pork) or gyu (beef). 

On the rightmost are tsukune or chicken meatballs.  These are dipped in tare,  a sweetish spicy sauce.   Beside it are skewers of kawa -- the deadly but delicious chicken skin. On the leftmost plate are skewers of horumon or beef and pork offal.

As you order, the grill master finishes cooking up a half-cooked skewer, brushing it several times with his special tare or  sauce. The yakitori in this stall are all tare,  there is no yakitori shio (salt)  which is what I normally order. 

There are tables and plastic chairs so we can enjoy our barbecue at leisure.
While there are no plates we are given paper cups to hold our yakitori sticks. 
Water and other drinks are available from the vending machines nearby.  I would have gotten
a cold beer but it seemed much too early in the day for that.

The yakitori was hot and delicious.  Aside from the tsukune, we also had pork skewers, momo or chicken thigh and mune or lean (and healthier)  chicken breast. I wish I had bought that beer after all.

Despite our limited language skills, we were able to chat with the friendly chef, who was kind enough to allow us to take photos.  
This unplanned and tasty stop was  the perfect way to end a most productive morning foraging through the finds at the Hakozaki-gu Nomi-no-Ichi

NB Thanks to Jay and Gani for some of the photos used in this post!