Monthly Archives: February 2012

Chinese food – getting greasy on the culinary trail

As regular readers will know, I’m more than a touch obsessed with eating good quality grub. Hell, it’s half the reason I decided to travel through Asia for six months in the first place.

Yet after four weeks of endlessly impressive and invigorating meals in Japan, a place where even something as unhealthy as tempura can be balanced out with super fresh pickles and steamed veg, we hit China.

 

In fairness, the first few days, spent partying and pootling around Hong Kong, were punctuated by dim sum to die for at the excellent Maxim’s Palace, as well as delicious and healthy squat and gobble noodles, destroyed in record time in our dash to the races at Happy Valley.

 

But since then it’s been a grease fest of truly epic proportions. Lunch and dinner everyday in Shanghai and Guilin, our two stops in the Chinese mainland so far, has involved staring down at empty dishes with a shimmering pool of oil looking back up at us. Whether it’s fried rice, greens, pickled cucumbers or ribs, every single dish is ruined by a willingness to kill flavour with fat. Only steamed veggies seem to escape the curse. Endless thirst and culinary disappointment are fast becoming a way of life for us in China.

 

Just one place so far has managed to rise above the crushing mediocrity. Southern Barbarian, sitting down a small backstreet in Shanghai’s French Concession and recommended by Marta, our Airbnb host, was an oasis of sumptuous fresh mint salads, beef kebabs without an ounce of fat and mashed potatoes with local veg tossed in. This Yunnanese restaurant was made all the better by chirpy staff and a beer list that even allowed me to indulge in a Coopers Green. This was not your typical Chinese oil merchant.

 

I know I’m not alone in complaining about Chinese cuisine. For a country that is renowned for its vibrant food, it’s been a surprising disappointment. China is incredible, but finding healthy, grease-free food is a task that’s starting to look beyond me.

 

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Japan’s over packaging obsession

With a beaming smile, the girl at the checkout expertly wrapped my doughnut in grease proof paper, slipped it into a paper bag, taped it precisely and placed the neat package in a fresh carrier bag. Aside from my shameful doughnut habit, rising to a Homer Simpson-esque five-a-day at the midpoint of our Japan trip, this was indicative of a particularly bad habit that dogs shops throughout the land of the rising sun. Namely, endless over packaging.

 

Every single shop we’ve bought something in over the past four weeks has insisted on handing us the goods, whether it’s a single apple or a ¥50 biro, in dainty bags that always, without fail, wind up being shoved in the bin. For a nation so (rightly) obsessed with separating rubbish and ensuring recyclable bottles, cans and papers are separated from combustible trash, this strikes me as utterly bizarre. Carrier bags might be reusable, but more often than not end up in bins. They’re just about the most unenvironmentally friendly object consumers get their hands on.

Most amusingly of all, paper shopping bags from clothes stores are almost all covered in thick waterproof plastic when it rains, utterly negating the point of handing out recyclable paper bags in the first place. The times we’ve said we’re ok to go without a carrier we’ve been met with bemused looks. Asking our Japanese and expat friends about this, they’ve told us this just doesn’t happen.

As a confirmed (and admittedly tedious) eco-bore, I’m amazed by this approach. Moan as I do about supermarket shoppers back home using endless carrier bags, bags for life and totes are always in abundance whenever you pick up a pint of milk at Sainsburys.

But it’s not just bags. A KitKat comes in a cardboard box, with three bars inside, each wrapped in thick, hard to open plastic. Every single vegetable or fruit at a supermarket is tightly packed in unrecyclable cellophane, whether it’s a single apple or a hefty radish. Marks and Spencer’s insistence on putting its over washed and too-perfect groceries in needless packaging has nothing on this

It’s hard to understand just why Japan insists on such standards. Perhaps using so many bags is simply down to a wish to provide helpful service that makes consumers feel valued, while wrapping up produce is aimed at protecting from disease, a distinctly Japanese concern. Either way, surely such an unenvironmentally friendly approach is unsustainable.

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Temple graduation in Chiba – our best day in Japan

Clambering the gantry and being cajoled into position by chirpy Japanese grandmothers, it was hard to fathom exactly how we’d found ourselves in this position. It was a bright, if chilly day in Chiba prefecture, two hours across the bay from Tokyo, and we were about to star in a group photo celebrating the graduation of 10 new Buddhist monks. In 20 years time, surely the same chattering wives and mothers who were being so friendly would look back on this snap and wonder who the hell those two beaming gaijin standing at the back were.

We’d been brought to Chiba by Mizuki, Keeley’s language exchange friend. His brother was one of the 10 new monks and we were here to witness him arrive back into society after 100 days of fasting and meditation. After setting out at 6am from Tokyo, we were bleary-eyed when we hard the first distant sounds of drums and chanting. Yet when the 10 arrived at the temple gates, clothed in white robes and led down by temple elders, we were mesmerised.

Standing around the ‘God tree’, where this Buddhist sect’s founder was first enlightened, the new monks clicked castanet-like instruments and chanted an ancient Japanese mantra. After quarter of an hour or so of this, they disappeared to prepare for their cleansing ritual, while we took to the assembled gantry for the family photo.

On their return, the monks had stripped down to just a single cloth covering their modesty, chanting as they were led to ten bamboo buckets filled with icy water. As they grew louder, the water began flying. Drenched, these ten men were being purified in body and mind. This was a truly magical experience and one we would never have seen on a regular temple tour through the tourist hotspots of Kyoto and Nara.

Having left Mizuki’s brother to his religious duties, we drove up into the hills to his family’s own temple. Here we slipped off our shoes and entered a freezing cold yet amazingly welcoming environment. We lit incense, prayed and then ate stunning okonomiyaki, made Osaka-style (like an omelette) by the temple’s housekeeper. She claimed to have sensed that our small party was coming, despite not having been told.

After a second lunch of tempura, we visited our final temple. Here we were told our fortunes and hung then on a nearby tree, before being taken inside and instructed in writing out a prayer in kanji by a resident monk, who then placed them in a beautiful golden Buddha.

Undoubtedly, this was the most moving and interesting day of the trip so far. Having taken in so many temples, it was a privilege to go to one and be given the inside track on exactly how they work and why they hold such an important place in Japanese culture.

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Japan’s Muzak obsession

Buying over-packaged apples to the strains of The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows is not something I ever imagined I’d find myself doing on a cold Monday evening in Kyoto. And yet at the beginning of last week I found myself walking the aisles of a 24-hour Fresco while that particular psychedelic number and a whole host of other Beatles tunes blared out over the store’s speaker system.

The thing is though, this kind of aural stimulation isn’t that unusual in Japan. Or rather, any kind of aural stimulation isn’t unusual in Japan. This is a country seemingly incapable of being anywhere without a soundtrack.

While supermarkets tend to prefer proper tunes (as well as the Fab Four we’ve been treated to Whole Lotta Love and Radiohead’s High and Dry while out grocery shopping), Muzak is the order of the day everywhere else. And I really do mean everywhere. Elevators in department stores, hotel lobbies, street corners, even a floor polishing machine at Shin Kobe station. You name it, whether it’s a xylophone interpretation of every track from Dusty in Memphis or a pan-pipe rendition of the Titanic theme tune, there’s a Muzak version of something for any occasion and every location.

It feels as if there’s an overriding need to provide something to listen to while in an urban environment. Something to mask the general hubbub and roar of traffic. Osaka and Kyoto are the worst offenders. The most unsuspecting of streets in both of these cities are the homes of some truly mind-numbing tunes.

As far as I can make out, this plays largely into a major dichotomy surrounding Japan. When it wants to do quiet and contemplative, few places on Earth can match it. Nowhere allows you to stop and think like hill-top shrines and hidden temples. But when it wants to do urban and brash, it appears Japan has to go the whole hog. Nowhere in town feels sacred, thanks largely to Muzak and music.

Still, hearing Mother Nature’s Son, one of my favourite Beatles tunes, while pondering whether to pay 600 yen for a punnet of strawberries is perhaps my most left field highlight of the trip so far. But with one week left here, I certainly wouldn’t complain if the speakers pumping out Muzak on Japanese city streets fell silent, even for just a few minutes.

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MOS Burger, Okonomiyaki and more Japanese treats

The Japanese burger odyssey took a turn for the worse earlier this week. Following a string of recommendations and coming at the end of a cold day in Kyoto, we ducked into MOS Burger, one of Japan’s most well-loved burger chains.

The results were, frankly, disastrous. Presented with a pallid cheeseburger, evidently cheffed up en microwave, we stared at each other in bewilderment. Could this be the same place given such wholehearted praise by fellow food connoisseurs? 

This was lower than a McDonald’s in the burger pecking order and no mistake. Despite having not tasted one of Ronald M’s creations since a particularly boozy night in Sydney four years ago, I would have gladly traded this MOS monstrosity for a Big Mac.

And so we’ve decided to ditch western food for good. Well, until we hit Tokyo again next week. So far, we’ve been utterly vindicated. The Japanese food we’ve eaten since our MOS excursion has been superb.

The highlight was undoubtedly at Okura in the ancient Japanese capital, Nara. Here we ate stunning Okonomiyaki, Japanese-style omelettes cooked at your table.

As you can see above, the portions were not insubstantial. I plumped for kaizoku-yaki, a seafood special. The waitress arrived at the table with a huge bowl of fresh squid, oysters, shrimp, scallops and clams, topped with chopped spring onions. The whole platter sat on top of a countless number of beaten eggs. All the food was swiftly mixed together, before being expertly spread onto our table’s hot plate.

The resulting omelette was one of the most sublime meals I’ve eaten in Japan. At one inch thick and about a foot across, it was an absolute gutbuster, but the shrimp was beautifully cooked, while the soy sauce spread on the dish at the last minute shot the whole thing through with bags of flavour.

Since then, we’ve indulged in well-balanced traditional Japanese breakfasts and gobbled gorgeous noodles under the arches at Osaka JR station. The burger search can wait. And we only have to MOS Burger’s woeful fayre to thank.

 

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