Japan Street Food (Tokyo, Kyoto) A Retrospective March 2023
A few dream-filled weeks have passed since the heady trip to Tokyo and Kyoto - and ASG has had time to process the sights and flavors of its street food.
There is a lot of the obvious and the known, but we like to keep a watchful nose and eye for the subtle, eating with discernment and care. This allows us insight into the food. We like to think it also shows respect to those that make it. A part of our motto is to appreciate an element of street food that makes it unique - the passing of someone’s cooking from their hands to yours. This is the essence of street food.
In the case of Japan, and upon the bias of the visit to both Tokyo and Kyoto, we did extract an essence to explore - loving the act of throwing ourselves down the rabbit hole. These elements, like all elements of cooking, may be obvious, but there are other avenues to explore with them. This is what excited us about the vibrancy of Japan.
Matcha. We had already developed some ideas about matcha from a least explored side - that of savory matcha recipes. Having that little knowledge through a few recipes, we did not understand that green tea and match is a thing in Kyoto. We had come upon a small shopping area right off the Katsura River, Akogareya, that had a lot of unique souvenirs. Among these were unique foodstuffs - and among these were green teas, matcha and sakura petals. There were spices and healthy foods.
It is said that tea was introduced from China to Japan some 800 years ago, and in Kyoto. With that lineage, tea has evolved, and, like much of human endeavor, experimented and refined.
And, matcha, a subset of green teas, is interesting in that it has journeyed into ubiquitousness. And this does not happen without passion and innovation. Matcha’s adjacency to sweetness, is, of course, what lead to this dispersion. The green tart taste of tea, its powdery texture - leans in well with sugar and honey. So, matcha quickly made its way into street treats, sweet teas, lattes, ice cream, custards and so much more.
While doing some recent research at a local 99 Ranch Market, matcha’s influence is quite easy to find - with items punctuating the shelves.
Where our interests are piqued is how matcha may lend itself to savory dishes. Sweet is done, it’s understood - matcha is alike the ubiquitousness of vanilla. But matcha’s savory side - not so much.
ASG will be exploring this flavor profile in the near future - trying a growing list of recipes to see if matcha could wind its way into savory foods as has peppers.
Meat. Now, that sounds funny - like ‘duh’ funny. ‘Meat - yeah we get it.’ But, one thing ASG has appreciated on its several visits to Japan is that they do not overly adorn their skewers or other street meats - its as if the subtlety of the flavoring is only meant to bring out more of the flavors of the meat itself.
There is a bit of a Western flaw - the idea that flavors must be wide-ranging and varied. We almost believe many sauces, chutneys, and other condiments came out of covering bad food. This is not a negative - in fact, who doesn’t love sauces. But there is something to be said in street grilled foods or sushi where only the very subtle is applied, and typically to enhance the flavor of the meat, and not to cover it.
This simplicity, another Japanese ideal which we appreciate, seems to be applied to some of its food. (Eat an egg salad sandwich, by example here - so simple it brings you to what the dish actually portrays. It portrays egg, light mayonnaise and perfectly soft white bread. You know exactly what you are getting.)
An example we love to partake when visiting Japan is chicken yakitori. The cooking of bite-sized chicken, on a skewer, cooked to a perfect temperature and handed immediately over to eat. Now, that is oversimplistic - but, in its purest form - that is exactly what it is. Take that concept, and combine witht he legendary focus and patience of a Japanese cook, and its definitely not ‘just’ that - it’s the careful preparation in that simplicity that concludes perfectly.
The chicken is cut from a specific part of the bird. The charcoal will be specific and at a specific temperature. The length of time it cooks, the amount of salt, the addition (or not) of pepper. The char on the meat. The milieu in which the food is served - this adjacency of smells and smoke play into the experience.
And that is just a single example. ASG will explore of this simplicity in the preparation of meats and how it hits just right.
And…that’s one example. ASG will likewise explore the simplicity of ingredients and how that plays into the enjoyment of food.
Seaweed. Alike matcha, this may seem like a foregone conclusion - until, like us, the ubiquitous of seaweed caught our eye on this trip. We didn’t fully appreciate how seaweed is used. Of course, it shows up in sushi. It shows up too, in soups. It shows up in quick food - an edible wrapper for a variety of foods to take on the go - making less refuse.
And seaweed’s flavor is complex, it is unique. It tastes like the sea. It tastes green. It has salt and umami notes. It is filling on its own as a snack. In all of this, when used with great effect - how impactful a seemingly simple ingredient can turn out to be.
And, a gripe, seaweed has gotten more expensive with its popularity. For a brief, beautiful period of time, it was inexpensive.
Seaweed salad, a highlight for us at ASG, was relatively cheap and made for a no brainer when changing up your ‘green’ side. Then, as prices climbed, it became less attractive to use when striking on a cheap food source. (If you can imagine too, there was a heady time when sushi was an inexpensive proposition for a meal.)
Popularity aside, seaweed is a staple of the Japanese diet, with roughly 4.6 grams being consumed daily per person. Now, that may not be seaweeds largest consumer, but it cannot be ignored - South Koreans, in comparison, eat about four times that amount daily. It is such a common element in so many entrees, snacks and even drinks.
Popularity aside, seaweed is such a part of the Japanese diet, that about 4.6 grams are consumed daily per each person. Now, that may not be the largest consumer, but the use of it cannot be denied (South Koreans may eat four times this amount daily). It is a common element ranging from main entrees to snacks to drinks.
This minor fixation on seaweed brought an interesting challenge - despite this ubiquitousness - are there any emerging or corner cases of seaweed for its next culinary acts? Where is seaweed in challenging the world to incorporate its goodness, meanwhile keeping sustained methods of harvesting?
Keeping that eye out, for example, there is use of seaweed in mayo. This combination of natural saltiness and umami flavors lends itself well. There is a recipe on line for coconut oil and seaweed popcorn - likewise shifting the flavors of something traditionally Asian, but different at the same time.
Matcha. Meat. Seaweed. As we continue down the roads all around the world - we keep our tastebuds open to the possibilities of deliciousness tomorrow. We appreciate Japan, its people, and all of its vibrant tastes…
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