A Moveable Feast
A foodie's gastronomical love affair with Japanese food.
My gastronomical love affair with Japan started with my first bite of a maki roll at a café restaurant in New York when I was still a freshman in college. The indelible moment: wooden chopsticks in my fumbling hands, I picked up the salmon roll and placed the plump piece solemnly on my tongue: Crisp nori, buttery and sweet salmon, the rice firm but delicately laced with vinegar. In this girl-meets-sushi storybook story, I fell hard.
Ten years later, during a week-long vacation in Japan, I remembered that moment as one does a first kiss and sought, nostalgically, to try to recreate that new food magic. One night, when hunger started gnawing at around 11:30 pm, we sauntered out into the chilly night and sought comfort over a steaming bowl of noodles at a neighborhood ramen shop. In Japan, ramen shops are legendary, noodle proprietors acquiring the mantle of Zen masters for their creations. Yearly contests are held and ramen shops go belly-to-belly like world class sumo wrestlers. A high ranking guarantees bragging rights and long queues.
There was nothing grandiose in this shop we entered though it did have the air of a place that sported a high ranking title or two in the past. The no frills bowl of steaming noodles placed before me was only dressed in a rich and briny broth of miso and pork fat. The corn, scallions and sliver of seaweed added texture to the unctuous, fatty base. The soup glimmered in my bowl and then on the corners of my mouth and my lips as I devoured it. In the small space, only the sounds of the oil jumping on the hot pan, the pots with their boiling stock and customers slurping could be heard.
From the frenzy of Tokyo, we traveled up to Nikko, two hours to the north of the city. For the train ride, my friend and I stocked up on bento boxes. The Japanese have taken the unassuming lunchbox concept and raised it to an art form. Inside, lovingly compartmentalized, were a pair of shitake mushrooms, an ornamental looking salmon, egg and radish cake, pieces of fried tofu, red rice with beans and white rice.