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Japan: Travels and Tastes in Asia

8 Oct

So, sorry I haven’ t posted for a while, I actually went on a trip to Japan, hence my absence.  I spent about two weeks in Japan in September.  I had high expectations of Japanese food, I had done some research before hand and was expecting lots of fresh fish and lots of delicate, refined dishes.  What I actually found was slightly different.

Our first stop on our trip was in Kyoto.  One popular dish we had there was a mix, half yakisoba (japanese fried noodles) and have okonomiyaki (japanese pancake).  For me, this felt like japanese pub food.  The noodles had a sweet/sour taste, and were my favorite part of the meal.  The okonomiyaki ressembled takoyaki (fried or grilled octopus), the same brown soya sauce, dried bonito and mayonnaise toppings.  I did not like this dish, too many toppings, so that all you taste is the mayonnaise and the soy sauce.  We met other tourists who loved this dish, for me, it fell flat. Another meal I tried while in Kyoto was sukiyaki.  It’s a type of hot pot, filled with shallots, greens, tofu, mushrooms and thin slices of beef.  Once the items in the hot pot are cooked, you eat them with a bowl of rice and some raw egg.  I was disappointed with the quality of the meat, there was lots of fat on it, and it was so thin, that it quickly got overcooked in the broth.  I ended up eating mostly the greens, tofu and mushrooms with the rice and raw eggs.  Let’s just say, I wasn’t very impressed.   Next, we headed to a small coastal town called Shirahama.  Here, I had chazuke.  Rice served with hot tea, grilled salmon and pickles.  This was served at a simple local restaurant, and the dish was good, but nothing special.  What impressed me, however, was the number of dishes and the presentation.  Despite this being an inexpensive meal, I got eight plates.  This attention to detail and the emphasis on presentation was something that we were often witness to while in Japan.  Presentation is often as important as the food itself. My boyfriend had Donburi oyakodon.  A combination of eggs and chicken served over rice. As always, it was accompanied by miso soup, which is served with almost everything in Japan.  Also, to end the meal, there are often some pickles and pickled vegetables, which are supposed to help with digestion.

While in Shirahama, we stayed at a Ryokan, that is, a traditional japanese hotel.  Meaning, we slept on floor futons, and had supper in our room every evening served by our personal waitress.  Since we stayed there three nights, we got to have a preview of different types of traditional japanese food.  Sobe noodles with pesto sauce served cold, beef served in a hotpot and known as shabu-shabu, kaiseki style meals, sashimi, teppenyaki which was beef cooked on a hot iron griddle and tempura.  Here are some photos of what we ate while at the ryokan, where once again, presentation was very important.

Don’t you just love the fish eye staring out at you?  I have to admit, I didn’t have the guts to eat it…

The next stop on our trip was Osaka.  In Osaka, we had a wonderful sushi supper.  The restaurant was small, and most patrons (ourselves included) sat at a bar, watching the chefs in action.  In Japan, the norm is sushi, with occasional sashimi, but I saw very few maki throughout our trip.  Also, wasabi is rolled into a small ball and placed between the fish and the rice of the sushi, so, you have to be prepared to have a spicy meal!  The fish was incredibly fresh.  One thing I discovered was raw shrimp, something I’d never had in Canada.  Sweet and sharp, almost reminiscent of scallops but with a more chewy texture, I loved the raw shrimp.  As well, we appreciated the fatty tuna, scallops, eel and sea urchin.  Eaten while accompanied with some warm sake of course!

While in Osaka, we also saw several food stands, and some fugu restaurants.  I wasn’t brave enough to try this deadly fish.  I’d heard it wasn’t particularly tasty, and wasn’t willing to risk my life for something that was potentially bland and uninspiring.

We also took a day trip to Kobe, where we visited a Sake museum.

Next, we travelled to Hiroshima.  In Hiroshima, we had supper in a typical Izakaya where businessmen were enjoying casual eats while drinking and smoking.  It’s something we had to get used to, smoking in restaurants.  But it definitely made for an authentic meal.  Here’s a selection of what we ate, which included popular yakitori.

The last stop on our trip was Tokyo.  There, we visited the Tsukiji fish market, the largest fish market in the world.  I wanted to visit it, but you can only do so from Monday to Saturday, if you’re among the 125 first people to arrive for the two morning tours, at 5:30am and 6:00am, to visit the tuna auctions.  The problem being that at that time, there are no subways, so we had taken a hotel in the area.  However, despite getting up around 4:30am, we arrived too late because the line up was already full at 5:10am when we arrived.  Nevertheless, I decided that this was the best place to try sushi for breakfast, where fish is at its freshest.  We particularly enjoyed the fatty tuna and prime fatty tuna, very different from the tuna we find in most sushi restaurants in Montreal.  The tuna melts in your mouth.  The sea urchin was also particularly delicious, creamy and buttery in texture, but with a definite briny taste, amazing!

While in Tokyo we had more sushi elsewhere as well.  We tried the famous rolling sushi, where a chef prepares sushi and places plates of sushi on a rolling conveyor belt and patrons choose items as they roll by.  This seemed to be a popular choice for lunch in Tokyo.  As well, we ate at a sushi restaurant where we saw some maki, but it had too much rice and wasn’t comparable to what we find in Montreal.  We also had some sashimi, and the fish, as always, was incredibly fresh.

Later, we rented an appartment in Tokyo, near the Roppongi and Tokyo midtown areas, and there we had some delicious eel, or as it’s known in Japan, unagi.  We also had some delicious edamame beans while at this restaurant, perfect with some sake or Asahi Japanese beer.

While in Japan, we also had a number of noodle dishes, marinated squid, bento’s, and believe it or not, maple cookies.  Here are some photos of what we enjoyed.

All in all, what I most appreciated from Japanese cuisine was the fresh fish and the attention to detail and presentation.  As well, I particularly enjoyed the japanese beer and sake.  What I least enjoyed was the repetitive nature of their dishes, lots of miso soup, noodles, soy sauce, and few vegetables or fruit.  However, I did not embark on this trip as a culinary trip but rather as a regular tourist, so maybe if I had I would have had a different impression.  Hope you enjoyed travelling vicariously through this post, and if you are interested in learning more about Japanese cuisine, here are some interesting links:

http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2035.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Japanese_dishes

http://web-japan.org/factsheet/en/pdf/36JapFoodCulture.pdf

Enjoy, bon apétit and bon voyage!

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Dubai : A culinary experience in a new world…

21 May

I recently went on a trip to Dubai, and had some lovely culinary experiences while I was there, which I thought I’d share here. While in Dubai, there are a lot of contrasts, as much as you have some areas, around the different soukhs (bazaar type marketplaces) which are extremely poor, at the same time, you have areas that are incredibly rich. Thus, it makes sense that the food you find there is equally diverse.

One thing you must visit while in Dubai are these various soukhs.  I visited the spice soukh, which is incredibly aromatic. There, you can find incense, saffron, vanilla and various curries at bargain prices.

As well, there is a huge fish market, which is not quite as nicely aromatic. Indeed, in the Dubai heat, the smell of fish, albeit fresh, lends a rather unpleasant odour to the area. Nevertheless, buyers come by, generally early morning, to get the freshest catch of the day.

As well, you have a very nice fruit and vegetable market, which has a choice not to be rivalled by the Jean-Talon market. We even found some inexpensive black and white truffles, if only we could have brought them back with us by plane!

But what most impressed me at the fruit market were the tables and tables of dates. Sesame dates, dried dates, fresh dates, in whatever selection you desire. The juiciest ones I found were imported from Saudi Arabia, delicious! This inspired our snack that evening, Turkish tea, baklava, and fresh dates… we were being culinarily assimilated 😉

One particularity of Dubai is that since it is a muslim country, alcohol is not widely available. We were able to bring some to our expat friends we were visiting, with a limit of 4L per person. However, you will find alcohol in all the hotels and resorts, thus making it still readily available. One of the exceptions to this rule is the Irish Village. A small group of Irish pubs attached to the large Dubai Tennis stadium. In this slightly incongruous spot, we stopped to have a Guinness and a Stella Artois, under the hot dubai sun.

A popular tourist destination is the Madinat Jumeirah, a huge resort complex grouping several hotels where there are lots of restaurants and pubs to visit. We went for some drinks there and enjoyed a couple of mojitos with a lovely view of the “artificial” lagoon at the Bar Zar.

After which we took a walk within the resort, beautifully lit at night.

We finally decided on a beach-side restaurant called shimmers where we had a wonderful view of the famous Burj Al Arab 7-star hotel as we ate. We had a wonderful steak tartare served with quail egg on top.

I then had a lovely asparagus and mushroom risotto while my boyfriend had fish. It was a lovely meal, served with a lovely rosé wine from Provence, France.

The ultimate in culinary experiences, however, was yet to come. Indeed, one common activity for expats living in Dubai is the Friday brunch. The weekend in Dubai falls on Friday and Saturday, so brunch is celebrated on Friday mornings. However, it is not the tame affair we are used to in Canada, it generally involves limitless bubbly, and eating for hours on end, at a high price tag. Being more interested in the unlimited food then the alcohol, I decided to go for the high end buffet offered at the Burj al Arab, that famous 7 star hotel. We got our expat friends to reserve for us 3 weeks in advance to ensure that we would have a table. The outside of the building is protected by a security gate, where we had to mention our reservation number to get entrance, no wandering tourists allowed!

However, the elegant, sail like outside was not replicated inside, with a rather tacky interior decor. I was told all the gold I was seeing was real, but the effect still came off tacky, not expensive.

Though, the architecture provided a nice view as you looked up in the lobby of the hotel.

But, I wasn’t here to judge the the décor, I was there for the food! The restaurant is located at the top of the building, with incredible views from our seat. Despite somewhat muggy Dubai weather, we had a wonderful view, overlooking the Madinat Jumeirah, and the Jumeirah Beach.

I started off with some small bites, to whet my apetite.

A piece of eel surrounded by a creamy salmon sauce with some smoked salmon and dill, served with a small toast and some orange sauce was delicious! There was also a piece of lobster tail served with light wasabi sauce, and finally some beef carpaccio served with a fig and some nuts, which was the weakest of the three, being somewhat bland.

All beverages were unlimited and free, except of course alcohol, and strangely enough for me, water. So, I started off with some fresh pressed pineapple juice and some exotic tea.

Next I opted for a seafood platter. A raw oyster (which was just okay, though I felt it didn’t have that ocean taste which true fresh oysters seem to have). The salmon gravlax was delicious and left the salmon’s taste very much present. The lobster was very fresh and cooked to perfection. I also liked that it was served with lemons in cloth to avoid getting seeds in your meal. Finally my eel sushi roll was uninspiring, obviously not their forte.

With so much food available, it is tempting to try everything on hand, but I knew I had to be picky and pace myself.

Next, I decided to have a caviar tasting, at the caviar station. Five different kinds of caviar, served with blinis and sour cream. Though, I am unable to tell you what they were as I could not understand the server who was offering them. I can say that I preferred the smallest black caviar, which had the best tartness and ocean taste. And, I must say that I found the sourcream a little overpowering when served on a blini with caviar.

Still trying to be reasonable, I next choose a small plate of rabbit pâté served with a small toast and some blackberry jam, it was a perfect combination, with a nice blend of salty and sweet.

The buffet was very diverse, so we next tried some chinese dumplings. I preferred the shrimp dumplings in their transluscent pockets, though the breaded dessert balls with their red bean paste were also excellent.

Being a cheese afficionado, I could not go by the cheese station without sampling most of what they had to offer. Here is my cheese plate, with mostly french cheeses, some delicious comté from eastern france, some deliciously smelly munster, goat cheese, brie, and the list goes on. And yes, I confirm, I ate every last crumb on this plate!

Next, I opted for the pièce de résistance, they had a foie gras station, where you could have your foie gras cooked in front of you, and served over a lovely brioche bread, served with some fig jam, greens and a delicious veal sauce, simply amazing! And all this unlimited as well!

I then opted to go back for some of my favourites, and some new elements as well. While not impressed with the sushi, I tried some salmon, tuna and octopus sashimi, some more caviar, more lobster, and some curried beef, and a lonely sardine with hummus.

Then, it was finally time for the dessert. Having already stuffed myself with the previous courses, I opted for a light dessert: dates stuffed with almonds, a chocolate covered strawberry, a chocolate praline, a lovely miniature key lime pie served with gold leaf (yes, real gold leaf!), and some macaroons. Funnily enough, the dates were not that fresh and nothing as compared to the ones I’d picked up at the market a few days back, the macaroons as well were only mediocre. The praline however, was chocolately perfection, and the chocolate covered strawberry and key lime pie did not disappoint!

All in all, while expensive for a buffet, I definitely felt it was worth it. We arrived at 10am and left around 3pm, had loads of delicious food, enjoyed a wonderful view, and have an experience to recount about my visit to Dubai.  For a complete viewing of the food available, check out my video on youtube:

http://youtu.be/CYYZZnCioRM

That night, we opted for a bar on the beach, the Barasti, where we enjoyed some drinks on a terrace by the beach.

On our last day in Dubai, we happened on a small restaurant, Saladicious. We started off with a delicious cheese fondue.

A bit incongruous on this warm day, but it was on the menu and we were intrigued, and it was delicious. We were also pleasantly surprised by the choice on the menu, I had a wonderful salmon sashimi salad,

while my boyfriend had a beef sashimi salad,

our friends enjoyed a greek salad

and hot dog. So, this restaurant, while not necessarily out of the ordinary, provided a great end to a wonderful week in Dubai, filled with interesting food.

So, I hope you enjoyed my explorations of Dubai food… I will keep you apprised of my future food explorations, be they in Montreal or elsewhere… Enjoy and bon apétit!

Shimmers, Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai
http://www.jumeirah.com/Hotels-and-Resorts/Reiseziele/Dubai/Madinat-Jumeirah/Restaurants–Nightlife/Casual-Dining/Shimmers/

Bar Zar

http://www.jumeirah.com/Hotels-and-Resorts/Reiseziele/Dubai/Madinat-Jumeirah/Restaurants–Nightlife/Bars-and-Nightlife/Barzar/

Irish Village, Dubai
http://www.irishvillage.ae/HomePage

Barasti, Dubai
http://www.barastibeach.com/

Burj Al Arab, Dubai
http://www.jumeirah.com/Hotels-and-Resorts/Reiseziele/Dubai/Burj-Al-Arab/Restaurants-And-Nightlife/Al-Muntaha/

Saladicious, The Walk Jumeirah Beach, Dubai
http://www.saladicious.com/deli/index.html