Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Walking and Eating with All Star Osaka Walk Part 3 : A Tea Ceremony at Salon de Alice

After that excellent matsusakagyu lunch at Yakiniku M,  my betsubara (Japanese term for "second stomach") was direly in need of dessert.  I needed my sugar fix and make that with a heavy dose of caffeine please!

To end our day on a "sweet" note,  Minako san of All Star Osaka Walk shepherded us back on the subway bound for Matsuyamachi, just two stops away.  With all the wagyu we had just eaten, perhaps we should have walked to burn off the (saturated) fat and calories.

Matsuyamachi Station serves a quiet residential neighbourhood with alleys and back streets that have houses dating back from almost a century ago. Our destination was this renovated old house with a courtyard. Minako san said this had once been a samurai's house, dismantled and brought here all the way from Nagoya.

There are different small shops on the ground floor -- an optical shop with stylish and unique eyeglasses, a leather shop specialising in handmade bags and purses and even an artisanal chocolate maker.

A small boutique has traditional Japanese cloth bags and small crafts.  Everything is so kawaii!

However we were here not to shop (well, at least not yet) but to experience the time honoured Japanese chado or tea ceremony.  We walked up an old, creaky and steep wooden staircase and into this tatami room where the tea ceremony would be held.  
This is Salon de Alice, a place where Japanese traditions like the tea ceremony and the art of wearing the kimono are taught.

An important part of the tea ceremony are the sweets eaten before tea is served.  
These Japanese sweets are generally called wagashi.  Because powdered Japanese green tea 
can be bitter, wagashi help lessen the bitterness and thus enhance the enjoyment of the drink.  
We are given omogashi -- made of glutinous rice wrapped around a sweet bean filling.   
Each one is different -- the pink one symbolises plum blossoms, the blue-green one stands for 
a pine tree and the translucent green sweet symbolises bamboo.  
They look so delicate and pretty but are really quite heavy and sweet  -- one is more than enough to quiet down my betsubara's sugar craving.
Using the small bamboo chopsticks, carefully take one sweet from the bowl and place it on the paper napkin in front of you.

Our tea master is a pleasant lady who is  also the kimono teacher of Salon de Alice.
The tea ceremony takes years and years of dedication and study.  One of my Japanese 
friends told me that she has been studying for twenty years and yet she still feels like a
novice in the art and way of preparing tea.  
Throughout the ceremony, Minako san translated what the master was saying, as she explained each step of the process. 
The cast iron kettle for boiling water is called the kama, the ceramic bowl in front of it contains water and is called the mizusashi.  Bamboo implements are also used like a small scoop for the powdered tea and a ladle to bring hot water from the kettle to the bowl.
The deliberate and measured steps of the tea ceremony are calming and quite relaxing.  
Even 5 year old Martina is quiet and attentive as she watches the tea being prepared.

It's audience participation time!  After we had all watched her prepare tea, the tea master invited us to try and make a cup for ourselves.  Carlo very gamely volunteered.  My legs had fallen fast asleep which always happens when I sit too long on the tatami mat.  I knew that if I tried to stand, I would fall over -- definitely a no-no in a formal tea ceremony.
For a first timer, I think Carlo did quite well.  He didn't commit any huge blunders that would have gotten us thrown out of Salon de Alice.

Jay drank all of his tea and found the face of a  woman at the bottom of his cup.  Can you see the black edge on the bowl which represents her hair.  This is the Lady Ofuku who is considered as a lucky charm.  The ofuku tea bowl is usually given to the guest of honour who will invariably smile when he sees her lovely face at the bottom of his bowl.

I am afraid we disrupted the genteel and elegant atmosphere of Salon de Alice with our gaijin giggles and lack of the necessary social graces.  Fortunately, our host and tea master was very understanding and amiable.  
The tea ceremony gave us a rare glimpse into a beautiful Japanese aesthetic that we felt fortunate to have been part of.
From osechi ryori to premium wagyu to this classic tea ceremony, today was truly a well rounded, well thought out and perfectly planned walking and eating tour.
Ookini Minako san, hona mata!

Walking and Eating with All Star Osaka Walk Part 2 : Wagyu at Yakiniku M

Tourists who travel to both Tokyo and Osaka will realise that when it comes to eating,  Osaka is not just a second city to Tokyo.  While Tokyo may have more 3 star Michelin restaurants, I am fonder
of the casual, laid back and dare I say it -- "proletarian" food and atmosphere that you can find in Osaka.
After enjoying our introduction to osechi ryori at Tsuruhashi Market (see previous post) we set off
with Minako san on the next half of our walking and eating tour.

This is Ebisubashi, one of the most famous shopping places that you can find in Osaka.  Together with Shinsaibashi, which it connects to, this covered arcade is lined with shops, boutiques, restaurants and stretches nearly 2 kilometres long.

Foodies (I hate that word) know that the longer the line, the better the food.   My inner hog is tempted to stop and join the queue but I have to move on.

We leave Ebisubashi and walk over one of the many bridges that cross Dotonbori canal.

The main event for today is a wagyu lunch.  A short walk from the bridge is Yakiniku M, a very popular restaurant in a side street off Dotonbori that had quite a line when we got there. If you are intimidated by the price of wagyu, you will be pleasantly surprised (as I was) that Yakiniku M has
reasonably priced wagyu set courses.

Yakiniku M serves Matsusaka beef or matsusakagyu.   Kobe beef may sound more familiar but matsusakagyu is just as respected and held in high esteem.  Some Japanese gourmets even  call it 
the best wagyu.   The beef  comes from Japanese black cows raised in Matsuzaka in Mie Prefecture 
in the Kansai region.  

The waitress leads us up a narrow staircase to the second floor where diners can eat in their own private rooms.  Surprisingly, Yakiniku M is not a big restaurant, there are some tables on the 
ground floor and just a few rooms on the second floor.  This explains why there are lines 
during lunchtime and why reservations are absolutely essential.

We stayed in a dropped floor dining area good for 6 people but for bigger groups, there are "connecting" rooms where you can open the sliding screens.

We were first given bowls of warm soup which looked insipid and cloudy, reminding me of 
dishwater.  My first sip dispelled all fears --  it tasted of the deep umami essence of beef bones, 
boiled and simmered for hours.

Our matsusakagyu was presented to us on a tray with the different cuts conveniently identified.  There was rib eye, lean beef or sirloin and of course the fatty marbled cut that distinguishes wagyu from other types of beef and makes it particularly prized.

Two small globs of beef fat or suet are on the table.   I hear faint cries -- but it's just my arteries,  screaming in horror.

We put the beef fat on the hot grill and it melts into what I am sure is a delicious-high-cholesterol- artery-clogging oil that will cook our matsusakayagyu.

I start off with slices of rib eye.  It doesn't take too long to cook the meat -- just a few seconds 
of fragrant, mouthwatering sizzling and it's good to eat.  
My first bite dissolves like butter on my tongue.  A thousand voices burst into the Hallelujah 
chorus in my mouth -- effectively drowning out the shrieks and wails from my ventricles.  
What can I say -- tongue beats out brain and heart every single time!

We are given kimchi and a cabbage slaw but today, at this very moment frozen in time and 
saturated fat,  vegetables  are nothing but a distraction.   
I just want to indulge in the melt-in-your mouth goodness of wagyu.  It is truly tokubetsu na (special). 

Sadly, all good things must come to an end.  After that remarkable lunch,  we say good bye,   
the taste of wagyu lingering  in our tastebuds.  I would gladly "kuidaore"  at Yakiniku M any time ... eating myself to ruin (and bankruptcy) with matsusakagyu,  the best beef  in Japan!


For those who want to share the taste of wagyu with their four-legged best friends, 
Yakiniku M sells homemade dog treats made from ... yes, scraps and ends of real Japanese beef.    Aptly called "Slow Dog"  these gourmet treats are packed in colourful take out boxes and contain three kinds of dog treats -- beef jerky,  beef cookies and vege bone sticks.   It's 1,500 yen for each pack and I take a couple home to my labradors,  Nero and Travis.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Walking and Eating with All Star Osaka Walk -- Part 1 : A 5-star gourmet treat at Tsuruhashi Market

I love Tokyo but I love Osaka more.  The buzz,  the friendly people, the casual vibe and the fantastic food are more than enough reasons for me to keep going back (and back and back ...)  That plus the uniquely Osakan concept of kuidaore which literally translates to "eating oneself to ruin".  A most worthwhile endeavour for this pork in the road.
And when you want to kuidaore in Osaka, you will have no better guide than All Star Osaka Walk.  This tour company does regular walking tours of Osaka but you really must try them for their unique and fun customised private tours.  

We always base ourselves in Kyoto but it's easy to travel to and from Osaka --  and since we discovered the Direct Q Express of the Keihan Bus Company, it's become even easier.  Now, we
don't have to suffer through rush hour on the train -- we just board the bus which whisks us in comfort, straight from Kyoto Station to OCAT or the Osaka City Air Terminal in the Namba area.  

In OCAT,  we met up with Minako san, owner of All Star Osaka Walk.  We boarded the subway and got off at Tsuruhashi Station.

This is Minako san,  energetic, passionate and very enthusiastic owner of All Star Osaka Walk.  
I've done many tours with her and she always comes up with something new and interesting 
about Osaka,  the culture,  the history and yes, the food.  Today, we will attempt once again to kuidaore and our first stop is Tsuruhashi Market.

Martina stops to pose by this cutout board that shows traditional Korean costumes.  Tsurahashi Market is right in the centre of Koreatown where many Korean Japanese live.

I passed by the dry goods section and just had to stop when I saw this bright display of
colourful traditional Korean blankets.

In the wet market section, stalls sell cooked Korean food like my favourite pajeon or pancakes.

And naturally,  you can find all kinds of kimchi being sold in Tsuruhashi Market.

Many of the Koreans who live in Koreatown are second and even third generation Korean-Japanese.  So it's not all kimchi and banchan, you'll also find pickled Japanese vegetables.

Tsuruhashi is also a fish market where you can get the fresh catch of the day.

 Fat and large oysters are so enticing,  I want to sit down and douse them with spicy 
pinakurat (coconut vinegar).

For carnivores, there are cuts of pork, beef and yes, organ meat or horumon which has become 
popular lately, specially among young Japanese ladies, Minako san tells me.

It was just a few days to shogatsu or the New Year, a very important occasion for the Japanese.  Christmas is nothing at all compared to this almost week long holiday. The market was full of shoppers buying what they needed for the celebration.

I saw these shogatsu wreaths that the Japanese decorate their homes with.  These are made of 
rice straw,  pine leaves and mandarin oranges or daidai.  Apparently the name of these 
oranges also translates to "generation after generation" which makes them auspicious symbols 
for the New Year.

Minako san points out these large carrots that are not coloured orange but are a deep dark red.  Because red is a lucky colour,  these carrots are included in the osechi ryori or the traditional New Year dishes.

The Japanese take great care in preparing for shogetsu by cooking osechi ryori -- 
different small dishes placed in gorgeous lacquer boxes that are eaten on New Year's day.  
Minako san tells me that osechi ryori can now be bought cooked or ordered from restaurants, 
a big help for those women who do not have the time to make all the dishes from scratch.  

These are herring roe called kazunoko and the millions of tiny eggs packed tightly together means many descendants for the family.   And of course, gold is a most fortuitous colour.

After walking  through the market, we arrive at a little corner amidst the fishmongers' stalls  
with a few chairs and small tables.  Minako san tells us that this section has been  exclusively 
set up for her All Star Osaka Walk clients.

Thanks to Minako san, we are able to taste a few of the dishes that make up osechi ryori. 
She gave us each a plate of small bites  and explained their meaning while we ate.
The deep black glossy soy beans called kuromame are symbols of good health and hard work 
while the large white beans are called hanamame or flower beans.  
Both are boiled in a sweet sauce and are soft but slightly chewy and so good.  
On a side note -- kuromame are very expensive as I found out myself when I tried to buy some uncooked, from the supermarket.  
There are stewed lotus roots or renkon which are considered lucky because of their "holes" through which you can see ahead to the future.  
Long and sturdy burdock root or gobo is a wish for a longevity and a stable life.  
Kohaku namasu is vinegared radish and red carrots that symbolise good fortune.
My favourite konnyaku along with other stewed vegetables like bamboo shoots, mushrooms, 
tofu are collectively called nishime and symbolise family well being (perhaps because they all blend and complement each other).
It's all so informative and yes, everything is delicious. I eat up every little bit on my plate -- now I 
am sure to have a lucky and happy new year.

After that osechi ryori "degustacion",  Minako san brings us lightly simmered tako or octopus.
Even the fat tentacles are so tender that the toothpick pierces the meat easily.  It reminds me 
of pulpo gallego that I enjoyed so much along the Camino.  The octopus comes with a sweetish 
dipping sauce.

Next up is maguro sashimi taken from various parts of the fish.  Each bite sized morsel
delivers  a different texture and taste.

I must have been the only one (aside from Minako san of course) who truly enjoyed this pack
of shirasu sashimi.
Shirasu  (whitebait) are tiny almost translucent fish -- these were so fresh that I think some of them were still moving.   They were cool and smooth and slid down my throat without any effort.  
Minako san said that fresh raw shirasu was a rare treat since the fish does not keep and is usually cooked or seasoned immediately.
I have eaten whitebait before but always dried,  vinegared or fried.
You will not find fresh shirasu in any supermarket but only in fish markets and only when they are in season.  

This very friendly young lady joined us at our table. Together with her mother,  she works
 in their fish stall across the way.  Minako san called her "Miss Tsuruhashi" perhaps because
she was such a hospitable "host" making us feel completely at ease.  She is the typical Osakan --
open, friendly and with a ready smile and laugh.
With wonderfully fresh food and such warm hospitality,  Minako san and All Star Osaka Walk's little corner of Tsurahashi Market made for a truly 5 star gourmet experience.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Koganeya in Kyoto -- "Ichiban" Ramen in the basement of Avanti Mall

Right behind Kyoto Station is unprepossessing Avanti Mall.  Take the underground walkway and emerge at Basement 1 where the mall's restaurants are.  While there are different types to choose from -- izakayas, a barbecue wagyu place,  a soba restaurant, an Italian pasta place ... it is the ramen place called Koganeya that is a hidden gem.

Avanti is a no frills, no fuss mall frequented more by locals than tourists.  The basement where the eateries are is about as basic as you can get.  You'll find Koganeya at one corner near the escalator.

There are no english menus but the board at the entrance is easy to understand. 

This is the omnipresent vending machine where you choose and pay for your food.  
Because there are photos of the various dishes and beverages, ordering is easy. I asked the 
waiter what their "ichiban" or number one ramen was and he recommended the 800 yen 
tonkotsu ramen.   I don't normally like milky tonkotsu ramen preferring a clean, clear broth 
but since I asked,  I had to take his word for it.

We came in at a bit early for dinner so we had the place to ourselves.  

Koganeya has a much bigger space than any of the restaurants in Ramen Koji in Kyoto Station.  
The open kitchen is centrally placed so you can see it  from almost anywhere you sit in the restaurant.

The waiter spoke a little english and came by to pick up our order stubs.  He asked how we 
wanted our noodles -- normal, hard or harder but quickly suggested that the harder noodles were 
the preferred option.

When my ramen bowl came out,  I found it so kawaii that there was a small sheet of nori printed with a multi-lingual thank you note on top of the soup.  

The nori of course is edible and after I had dissolved it into the broth, I took a sip of Kogenaya's ichiban tonkotsu ramen.  
This has got to be one of the best tonkotsu ramen I have tried --  no, change that, this is one of the best ramen that I have ever had!  
The broth was dense, deep, delicious and tasted of long simmering pork bones.  There were 
small drops of an oily black soy sauce which did not  distract from the broth's complex pork taste.
The garlic was not overpowering.  The ajitama eggs were perfectly cooked.   
Blend a bit of the yolk with the noodles and broth for a  creamy umami explosion in your mouth.

In addition to the ramen, Jay and I split a chashu don.  The pork slices were soft and succulent and melted in the mouth.   A bit of ichimi togarashi or pepper flakes  sprinkled on the soft runny egg yolk did wonders to kick up the flavour.  Mix everything up with the rice and it makes a good side dish to the tonkotsu ramen.

Cheers to Koganeya Ramen!  You should have a space in Ramen Koji where the best ramen restaurants are.  But for my purely selfish purposes, I much prefer that you are unexposed to the tourist crowds, undiscovered in the basement of Avanti Mall.