Indagare – My Tokyo Picks

Saiseisakaba in ShinjukuSome of my favorite spots in Tokyo in an interview with Indagare – a great travel website. (text follows)

Born in Japan and raised in the United States, Yukari Pratt Sakamoto, the author of the soon-to-be-released Food Sake Tokyo(Little Bookroom, $29.95), is a true Tokyo food insider. Trained as a chef at the French Culinary Institute, she has worked as a sommelier at the New York Bar and Grill in the Park Hyatt Tokyo. She is also the first non-Japanese to pass the rigorous exam to become a “shochu advisor.” Sakamoto, who splits her time between New York and the Japanese capital, also does food tours for Bespoke Tokyo. She spoke to Indagare about the rich culture of culinary Japan and how visiting gourmets can get access to the famously dense urban jungle that is Tokyo.

What do you personally find most fascinating about Tokyo’s food scene?

The depth of the food culture is impressive. Take sushi for example. Most non-Japanese think of only nigrizushi (also called Edo Sushi), but in fact there are several types of sushi including oshizushi (pressed sushi), inarizushi (in deep-fried tofu packs), sabazushi (a special sushi made from mackerel), and chirashizushi(scattered sushi) just to name a few. This is part of what is so amazing about the food culture. So much of what is intriguing and curious is rarely seen outside of Japan.

Where can visitors see this diversity?

Sweets: the variety is dizzying, from wagashi (traditional Japanese confectionaries) that have been made with the same recipe for centuries, to classic Western pastries. Perhaps the most impressive is the seafood, with a variety of seafood that would make most fishmongers in America blush. A visit to Tsukiji Market, the world’s largest seafood market, with over 1,600 stalls in the wholesale market, can give you an idea of the diversity that is consumed in Japan. And hands down, the most fascinating part would be a visit to depachika, the epicurean food floors in the basement of department stores. I have the great pleasure of having worked at Takashimaya’s depachika in Nihonbashi (the flagship store) for two years.

Has the food scene changed in recent years?

Yes, with a nod towards Slow Food. More and more vendors are proudly displaying where their ingredients come from. In particular, with the recent food scares like mad cow disease and bird flu, the Japanese are eating more locally produced food.

You are a “shochu adviser.” What does this title entail?

Shochu is a distilled spirit native to Japan. Unlike vodka or rum, which are usually about 45 percent alcohol, shochu often is about 25 percent. Plus, it’s often consumed watered down, so when you drink it, it is only about 12 or 13 percent, so like a glass of wine. It can be had on the rocks, or with hot water. And what makes it unique is that it is made from a variety of base ingredients like soba (buckwheat),kokuto (brown sugar), rice, mugi (barley), or even things like kuri (chestnuts). Each of these contribute a unique flavor profile to the shochu.

Where can visitors try different types of sake and shochu?

There are many great places to have sake or shochu in the city. My favorite izakayais Yamariki in Morishita. Most izakaya will have both sake and shochu. There are also many tachinomi, or standing bars, where you can poke your head in for a drink or two with some side dishes. Saiseisakaba is a standing bar that specializes in hormones (innards). The other place to try local sake and shochu are at antenna shops. Antenna shops are small shops and restaurants representing the food of different prefectures of Japan. Kagoshima prefecture is famous for its shochu;Kagoshima Yurakukan has a wide selection of local shochu (often hard to find items), and there is a restaurant on the 2nd floor where you can try these by the glass.

Tokyo was awarded more Michelin stars than any other city in the world last year. What do you think makes the city such a culinary Mecca?

First of all, the city is so large and there are so many restaurants, it was awarded many stars but Michelin has not even covered half of the city. So, really, it has probably twice as many stars as they have been granted. The dining experience is so grand, as there are many shops that specialize in one type of cuisine, and they perfect it: tempura, sushi, or soba noodles, for example. Also, the customer is king in Japan, so the level of service is very high. At kaiseki restaurants, every thought is taken to ensure the diner has an experience that each detail is paid attention to. If it is hot, then the first course will be cold and vice versa for example. Naturally, the rich offering of seafood, meats, and vegetables contribute to this as well as the attention paid to presentation. Perhaps what makes the cuisine most unique is the concept of “shun” or seasonality. You can dine at a kaiseki restaurant four times a year and each meal will be completely different.

What are some dining customs to know about/understand when eating in a traditional Japanese restaurant?

  • Don’t rub your chopsticks together.
  • You should finish your bowl of rice. If you don’t think you will eat all of it, ask for a small bowl of rice.

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