Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Hoodwinked Into Delicious!

A trip to Tokyo requires a trip to Tsukiji Fish Market (read about it here--their actual website is atrocious). Thing is, my family is in Kyoto and the mountains outside Tokyo, so in all of my trips to Japan I've only been to Tokyo once, and that was when I was a fourteen year old nitwit, up from Kyoto to see a Denver Broncos exhibition game. The pinnacle of culture during that trip was going to a big fancy banquet at which the Broncos were in attendance. I remember having the same jumbly-stomached trepidation I'd had at the 8th grade graduation dance not long before, where I sat in ill-fitting clothes, not talking to the people I finally had such sweet, coveted access to because I was so painfully shy--the difference this time being that these were enormous and scary men as opposed to young and scary girls. So you see, I didn't get a whole lot out of that trip.

This time however, Tsukiji was high on the list. I was fortunate to have a family friend in Tokyo, who has a great apartment--a short two bridge walk from Tsukiji--she rents out that she graciously offered to us for free. In Japan, free accommodations go a long, long way, further than most places. She offered to "point us in the right direction" from the corner for the convenience store, subway stations, which way to go to get to Tsukiji the next morning; this turned into a mega-brisk walk over the Sumida River into a section called Tsukishima, and through a rather industrial area speckled with tiny little shops selling tsukudani (items such as seaweed or seafood simmered in soy sauce and mirin, which preserves and ups the flavor--talk about umami!). We got a small bit of shio kombu (a thick kelp, usually used to flavor dashi broths, simmered as tsukudani) to snack on along the way, though it's usually eaten with rice, or in onigiri (a rice ball packed with various flavorful fillings taken on the road). As we started weaving in and out of alleyways, the sun began to set, and I realized I was doing something I'd never be able to do on my own--I started to grasp that she wasn't taking us to the Hot Doug's of Tokyo. Before I knew it, we were squeezing into seats shoulder to shoulder with red-faced businessmen in black suits, cigarettes dangling from mouth corners, knocking back shōchū in a small wooden dive littered with paper signs describing, in Japanese kangi, what was available that day. This was the kind of place where even the numbers for the price were in Japanese (i.e. if we wrote out "Five Ninety-Nine" here in the states). Those are easy enough to understand, but meaningless if you don't know if you are ordering the sake or tuna face. Which is essentially the first thing that came out. I saw someone eating large, jagged, mismatched chunks of really red meat as we went in; I thought to myself, "how odd to be eating beef in a place this close to Tsukiji market. And what lean beef!" The glow of an idiot's realization warmed my cheeks as a plate of the same was delivered to our table, with a small amount of wasabi. Knowing that raw beef just does not happen in Japan, and gathering my wits under me, I asked what it was. "Tuna!" Circular motions were made around our host's face. "The cheek!"

I gleefully attacked the tuna, and it was obviously some of the freshest, cleanest tuna I'd ever eaten. Chewy--not melt-in-your-mouth like fatty tuna--and a real treat for us mastication fanatics who choose, say, hanger over tenderloin. More chewy=more flavor. And a whole huge plate of it for 500 yen, not too much over 5 bucks! Beer arrived, and we tucked into the next offering: a steamed bass collar. Great, clean, flavorful flesh--but it was the fat under the skin that made this one so amazing. Rich, not fishy, and it gave me the same warm shivers as a good vein of ribeye fat. A quick rearrangement of seats as a group of pretty rough looking older ladies, high on shōchū and green tea (yes, mixed) slid down for a new batch of diners and drinkers. The already rambunctious noise grew, then out came a stew made of beef tripe and intestine--hard to fathom for some, but cooked long and low, and if you can get your head around it, the richness is super comforting on a chilly night. Deep, deep flavors; myriad textures; powerfully satisfying and beefy. Umami falls well short of a proper description of the flavor. Pickles arrived to bring us out of our stupor of indulgence, then yakitori (grilled chicken and scallion skewers) for a grounding familiarity, and more beer.

And finally, monkfish liver. Foie gras of the sea. Often times, you'll get a nice little disc of it, rolled like a torchon and steamed, served humbly and delicately in ponzu sauce. Not in this case. This was an enormous chunk, served in a rather oily stew. Just looking at it was a challenge--this was a whole lotta liver.  But it was delicious; rich, of course, and not as clean as foie. I took several happy and exuberant bites, then a few courteous bites, then I just plain forced down a few more...and I was done. It was just...so...big. A dozen people could eat this thing and then roll off into the street clutching their bellies. Which is what three of us did. We squeezed back through the crowd--you think Fat Rice is busy and crowded? This place had around 20 seats, and there were about 35 people sitting down. Don't ask me how. Sweatshirt-clad girls delivering food and booze to tables and freshly sliced fish (wrapped in plastic on styrofoam not unlike our packs of ground beef here in the states) to a small table outside for take-away sale split the crowds effortlessly, though not without some helmet-to-helmet contact. Me, I climbed over people to get out--not an easy thing to do, and quite humiliating when you are a 100 kilo white guy. The chef had kept glancing over at me during the meal, most likely thinking of what my liver might taste like, and this was decidedly not the place to pull out the camera and start shooting (a battle I had to have with myself at any restaurant in Japan, with the side arguing "hey--it's going to be a long while before you see this food again" frequently winning out over the "yeah, but there's nothing I can stand less than people taking terrible pictures of their food for several minutes from several angles before even considering eating it" side), so I snapped a quick shot of the chef's face from outside, framed in the door's glass panel.

Slowly, I realized that I'd just had one of the great meals. I was dazed from the entire experience, and there was nothing left to do other than stumble away into the night, back over the river, and eventually through the narrow night streets of the Golden Gai, making a now half-hearted effort to find a bar I'd heard was frequented by Wim Wenders, an expert in devastation, but giving up and falling into an anonymous matchbox joint to contemplate the whole thing. I'd see Tsukiji the next morning, but for now, senses assaulted and ravaged, I sat, and I drank a bit.

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