Saturday, September 29, 2007

Gastronomic Adventures Part One

I'm in Heaven. Not the heaven of blue skies, warm days, sweet smelling air and a gallery of nature's finest art, but Gastronomic Heaven. Day One in Tokyo and my palate is already on Cloud Nine.

Tokyo has got to be the best food city in the world. You can get ANYTHING and find the best of it all. But for me, it's the simple, down home flavors that make my DNA dance a watusi.

Even here, in the 'burbs where my mother lives, there are little neighborhood restaurants, as unpretentious as East LA taquerias, that have will make me sigh with contentment. Like the little soba shop I stumbled into for lunch.

It was just a neighborhood soba shop. When I walked in, a little old man, probably the owner's father, was loading up the rack on his scooter with steaming bowls of soba for a local delivery. Hmmm. Probably not the best place for soba, I thought, but their outdoor sign for "handmade green tea soba, ¥750" drew me in.

Wow! I had to slowly chew every mouthful to savor each bite. Mmmmm. You just can't get good soba outside of Japan. REAL soba is nothing like the dried soba they sell in US supermarkets. The handmade stuff is labor intensive but divine and I was surprised that this little shop had the Real Stuff. In downtown Tokyo, you can go to famous soba restaurants where they'll give you a scant tray of soba that can cost you an arm and a leg. Honmura An, a multi-generational soba restaurant had a place in New York but I heard they closed shop. I guess most Americans couldn't understand how anyone would want to give up body parts for a little tray of cold noodles. But if I'm away from the Real Stuff for too long, I could and would give up not only an arm but maybe both legs!

And then, walking back, I passed a Tofu Shop. The kind where the owners get up at 4 AM to start steaming the soybeans to make fresh tofu for housewives who'll come in at 6 AM to buy it for their morning miso.

Soy. Let me tell you about SOY. It's the most amazing bean. Over the centuries, the Japanese love affair of this lowly legume has turned out a thousand different shapes, textures, flavors. From lovely yose-tofu, as silky, soft and fluffy as the breasts of Ruben's women, to natto, those fermented beans as stinky, slimy and rotten as Shrek's toe jam (but oh-so-tasty in a way that only those who love ripe, smelly cheeses understand.) In between, there is sliced and fried abura-age that you can stew, stir fry, or fill with meat/rice/vegetables; atsu-age, a thicker kind of fried tofu that's great on the grill; ganmodoki, savory balls of tofu; chewy koya-dofu, frozen and reconstituted… Oh, I could go on and on. And then, with each soy product, there are a million different ways you can cook it. And that's just tofu products! There's edamame that's not frozen and flown in from Taiwan, thousands of different kinds of soy sauce, miso of many colors, and, of course, plain soy beans cooked like…well, beans.

I go crazy trying to choose, but end up buying a soft tofu made of green soy beans and a bag of little fried tofu balls. If they had been fresh out of the fryer, they never would have made it home -- I would have gobbled them up like taquitos.

Tonight, my brother is hosting dinner. He's quite the angler, and a chef. He'll spend a long time honing his knives, then be all stressed out while he prepares the sashimi but I know it'll be a spread of all the wonderful things from the ocean fit for a Mermaid Queen.

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