Recently the Cute Gardener and I were hankering for a Japanese food fix. This normally happens to us when we’ve spent a few months eating heavy doses of Italian and American gastropub cuisine and need a break. It typically comes on strong at the beginning of summer when we start itching for an elegant, simple and pure meal. Over the course of the past few years, we’ve had enough Japanese for me to compile a little observation guide below, illustrated by a trip to Kiwami.
Japanese Food 101
1. Don’t get suckered in by the edamame bowl. It’s a common bag in the frozen food section at Trader Joe’s these days and just like chips at a Mexican restaurant or bread at an Italian one, it keeps your tongue from experiencing the finely attuned parade of beauty that is yet to come. Or, alternately, don’t get suckered in by the blistered shishito peppers, which I am more prone to do because you will numb your taste buds completely.
2. Always order sashimi but look for the daily specials imported from Japan for your first picks. Then wheedle your way through the exotics. There’s nothing like a fresh piece of raw, unadorned fish to bring your palate back into check and kick off your meal. If you can see through your sashimi, it means the chef/owner is stingy. It also means I probably won’t be coming back.
5. Try to stick with raw as much as possible. The Japanese are the best at creating fresh little taste sensations from fish to pickled vegetables to utilizing the least amount of ingredients to present something that still comes across complex and sublime. Like kumquats and cherry tomatoes on whitefish with bright notes of cilantro.
6. Look for items on the menu that you may have never seen at another restaurant. Oftentimes the mysterious dishes are ones signature to the chef or the region of food he/she is cooking from and therefore, like old standards in mom’s kitchen, become the surprising treats. Like the lobster and crab soba noodles we found here swimming in an earthy broth and a nice juxtaposition of tart pickles.
8. Don’t trust cute little gimmicks in a spoon unless you’re going to spring for the Spoonful of Happiness at Koo in San Francisco. After that bite, nothing since has been able to compare for me.
9. Eat your vegetables. The Japanese do them of so well and it gives you a chance to try out all those foreign, tantalizing things you are afraid to buy at the supermarket like kabocha squash and pickled radishes.
10. Save your fried food consumption for the pub. As delicious as halibut cheeks, and anything else for that matter, are while being enveloped in dough and scorched in hot oil, it seems like a blasphemy amidst an environment of such culinary elegance and grace.
11. Never, ever order a roll. Why waste a good piece of raw fish by mucking it up with mayonnaise, tiny bits of sharp veggies, and then mashing it all together between rice when you can have all those separate elements in another dish more true to the clean Japanese aesthetic?