Japanese Knives 101

Japanese Knives

Japanese Knives

Japanese Knives 和包丁 Wabouchou

There is no better place to invest in a knife than Japan. Although they are not inexpensive, if cared for properly, Japanese knives will last a lifetime. A good knife shop will also carry Western-style knives made in Japan that are sharpened on both sides.

Traditional Japanese knives are sharpened only on one side, and Westerners will find that cutting with them can take a bit of getting used to (be sure to let the shopkeeper know if you are right- or left-handed).  Although most knives sold in the West do not rust, Japanese knives made from standard carbon steel rust easily. You may want to ask for a rust-resistant carbon steel that is easier to care for.

If this is your first time to purchase Japanese knives, you may want to start with three basic knives:

Deba bocho 出刃包丁 knife  with a thick, wide surface, primarily used to prepare fish (to filet, to gut, to cut through bones, and to remove the head)

Usuba bocho 薄刃包丁 knife with a broad, thin blade, used to peel and cut vegetables

Yanagiba bocho 柳刃包丁 Long and slender knife with a pointed tip primarily used for cutting sashimi

 

Other kitchen tools you may find at knife shops:

 

Benriner mandorin: Japanese-made mandolin, less bulky than French ones

Honenuki: tweezers used for pulling bones out of fish filets

Manaita: cutting board

Nukikata: an implement in the shape of a seasonal motif, much like a cookie cutter, used to cut vegetables

Oroshigane: a grater, ideal for grating ginger, daikon, and other vegetables (Note: graters for wasabi, made from sharkskin, are different from the ones for vegetables)

Otoshibuta: small, round, wooden lids that allow steam to escape while evenly distributing heat and gently cooking ingredients; they should be a bit smaller than the diameter of the pot

Tamagoyaki ki: pan used to make Japanese-style omelet

Toishi: water stone used for sharpening knives

Uroko hiki: fish de-scaler

 

Where to get your knives in Tokyo?

Tokyo knife shops.

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Junko Nakahama – Tour Guide to Yanesen Area

Junko Nakahama

Junko Nakahama

My friend Junko Nakahama is a food and wine writer in Tokyo. She has recently started to conduct Saturday tours of the popular shoutengai area Yanesen (Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi). This article from Metropolis magazine (by my editor Steve Trautlein) interviews Junko on some of her favorite foodie spots in Tokyo.

http://metropolis.co.jp/dining/table-talk/junko-nakahama/ (text follows)

Some people become food writers because they love to eat, others because they love to write. For Junko Nakahama, her career came about as a matter of necessity. While studying American literature in the US in the mid-’80s, the Hokkaido native fell in love with the Long Island, New York area, and decided she wanted to stay. Her parents had other ideas, however, and told her she would have to make do without their help. So Nakahama supported herself by writing travel articles, then gradually shifted her focus to food and wine. After taking cooking classes and attending wine school, she won accreditation from the Japan Sommelier Association. Now back in Japan, she writes restaurant reviews, winery reports and dining stories for a variety of magazines, with a special focus on the shitamachiarea of Yanesen; she also organizes English guided tours of the neighborhood called Omiyage Concierge. “I respect cuisine and ingredients which express the homeland and craftsmanship of the producers,” she says. Here are her recommendations for tasting theterroir of Tokyo.

FAVORITE PLACES TO EAT IN TOKYO

Because I write so many restaurant reviews, I often eat two lunches and two dinners a day. So on a free night, I like to have a light meal of vegetables and fish with a glass of natural and gentle wine. Tabegotoya Norabo is a sacred place for veggie lovers. Chef Makio Akemine visits farms every morning and recreates their scenery in his dishes. I am so happy to fill my body with such healthy and beautiful vegetables. Aizbar is a small wine bar owned by a female chef named Ai Eto who selects wonderful American wines. She has over 80 varieties of vegetables on the menu every night; her signature dish is a salad with more than 30 greens, herbs, root vegetables and traditional Japanese veggies. She prepares each vegetable individually—for example, udo (a mountain plant which produces fat, white, edible stalks) is dipped in vinegared water, and renkon is marinated in champagne vinegar. She offers seasonal fish like lightly grilled mackerel, and her cooked vegetable dishes and risotto are also excellent. Chinese restaurant Wasa is a new addition to my list. Owner-chef Masataka Yamashita apprenticed at well-known Kaika-tei in Gifu Prefecture. You can enjoy a menu full of vegetables and fish here—sautéed horse mackerel with a smoky flavor, sardines with Chinese pepper, eel with green beans and miso sauce. Yamashita doesn’t use artificial seasonings, so you’ll be surprised by the natural flavor and fresh aftertaste of these dishes. I often go to the cozy family-owned restaurant Ocha to Gohan-ya with my non-Japanese friends. The father is a grand chef of fish, the mother cooks vegetable dishes, and the daughter does the desserts and the interior decorating. There are around 15 dishes with steamed rice served in ohitsu (wooden containers), with miso soup, at very reasonable prices.

FAVORITE PLACES TO DRINK

When I’m having a private dinner, I drink only all-natural wines. Uguisu is the most popular wine bar in Tokyo now. All the wine on the list is “bio,” and you can have most of them by the glass at unbelievably reasonable prices. Makoto Konno, the owner-chef, prepares the traditional French cuisine with a nicely casual taste. His salad with 15 vegetables and couscous is my favorite. La Nuit Blanche is a small wine bar owned by Toshinaga Haba, who introduces each wine by telling the story behind it. The authentic Italian cuisine is much more delicious than wine-bar standard. Yamariki just might be the most inexpensive wine bar in Tokyo. In fact, it opened 58 years ago as an izakaya, but the third-generation owner has trained as a French chef and the manager is a certified sommelier. They have a good selection of natural wines, and the pours are extremely generous (Yamariki is undergoing renovation until December; until then, visit the nearby annex). Méli-Mélo is a cozy restaurant with casual French cooking and an excellent selection of wines. Owner-chef Yasuo Munakata apprenticed in France for five years and selects the wines himself. Bistrot Vivienne, owned by a charming lady named Junko Saito, has a good selection of natural wines, too. The energetic atmosphere is also nice.

FAVORITE PLACES TO SHOP

Nodaya is one of my favorite wine shops. Kouhei Sato, who runs the store with his parents and wife, has a huge knowledge of natural wines and is a great supporter of Japanese producers (above). He holds a monthly casual wine party with the customers and invites producers as well. It is a wonderful occasion to exchange observations with the person who made the wine. Nodaya also sells traditional Japanese seasonings like shoyu,mirinkatsuobushi, etc. I drop by the delicatessen Atelier de Mannebiches whenever I am tired from work and don’t want to cook. They offer French home cooking like quiche, paté, caviar d’aubergine and delicious desserts. My favorite bakery-cafe is Konohana, owned by a pair of pretty young sisters: Mayumi bakes a variety of breads using natural yeast and organic ingredients, and Megumi is in charge of drinks. I have attended their baking class and enjoy baking by myself now.

FAVORITE RESTAURANT OR CHEF

Unfortunately this might be difficult for readers to take advantage of, but my favorite chef is Hitoshi Kakizawa, who teaches my Japanese cooking class. Although it is a hands-on class, he sometimes cooks himself and offers a traditional kaiseki course to us. Kakizawa is the second-generation chef of a kappo restaurant named Tsuruju in Toranomon. It closed about five years ago and since then he’s been introducing his technique and philosophy to students. The summer course menu the other day was goma tofu (paste made of ground sesame), hamo-chiri (boiled conger pike served sashimi style), sardines with Japanese plum sauce, rice with sliced sea bream dipped in a sesame sauce, and more. The courses were beyond delicious and made us happy!

ADDRESS BOOK

  • Omiyage Concierge Tours on Oct 17 & 24. ¥500 per person, includes map. Email jun-nakah@pop12.odn.ne.jp or see their homepage for more info.
  • Aizbar 2F, 2-26-5 Kami-Osaki, Shinagawa-ku. Tel: 03-5434-0117. Open 6pm-1am, closed Sun. Nearest stn: Meguro.
  • Atelier de Mannebiches 1-2-2 Nishi-Kata, Bunkyo-ku. Tel: 03-5804-4242. Open Wed-Mon 10am-8pm, closed Tue. Nearest stn: Kasuga (Mita line).
  • Bistrot Vivienne 4-13-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-6273-2830. Open Mon-Sat 6-10pm, closed Sun & 3rd Mon. Nearest stn: Ginza or Higashi-Ginza.
  • Hitoshi Kakizawa’s Cooking School www.kakizzawa.com
  • Konohana 3-25-6 Asakusa, Taito-ku. Tel: 03-3874-7302. Bakery open Tue-Sat 10:30-6pm, café from noon, closed Sun-Mon & 3rd Tue. Nearest stn: Asakusa. http://mayupan358.exblog.jp
  • La Nuit Blanche B1, 7-2-8 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-6909-9561. Open Mon-Sat 6pm-3am, closed Sun. Nearest stn: Ginza.
  • Méli-Mélo 4-5-4 Iidabashi, Chiyoda-ku. Tel: 03-3263-3239. Open Mon-Fri 11:30am-3pm & 6pm-midnight, Sat & hols noon-4pm & 5-11pm, closed Sun. Nearest stn: Iidabashi.
  • Nodaya 3-45-8 Sendagi, Bunkyo-ku. Tel: 03-3821-2664. Closed Wed. Nearest stn: Sendagi or Nishi-Nippori. www.e-nodaya.com
  • Ocha to Gohan-ya 3-42-8 Sendagi, Bunkyo-ku. Tel: 03-5814-8131. Open Mon-Sat 11:30am-2pm & 5-8:30pm, closed Sun. Nearest stn: Sendagi .
  • Tabegotoya Norabo 4-3-5 Nishiogi-Kita, Suginami-ku. Tel: 03-3395-7251. Open Tue-Sun 5pm-midnight, closed Mon. Nearest stn: Nishi-Ogikubo (Chuo line).
  • Uguisu 2-19-6 Shimo-Uma, Setagaya-ku. Tel: 050-8013-0708. Open Tue-Sat 6pm-2am, Sun 6pm-1am, closed Mon & 4th Tue. Nearest stn: Sangenjaya. http://cafe-uguisu.com
  • Wasa 3-6-22 Yakumo, Meguro-ku. Tel: 03-3718-2232. Open Thu-Tue noon-2pm & 6-10pm, closed Wed & 1st & 3rd Thu. Nearest stn: Toritsu-Daigaku. http://wasa.main.jp/index.html
  • Yamariki Annex 1-14-6 Morishita, Koto-ku. Tel: 03-5625-6685. Open Mon-Sat 5-10pm, closed Sun & hols. Nearest stn: Morishita. www.yamariki.com

Here is the link to her Omiyage Concierge site offering more information on the Yanesen tours (at a basement bargain price!). Tell her Yukari sent you.

http://sites.google.com/a/yanesen.org/omiyage/Home

Setouchi Shunsaikan Antenna Shop

Setouchi Shunsaikan Antenna Shop

Setouchi Shunsaikan Antenna Shop

Setouchi Shunsaikan せとうち旬彩館

Minato-ku, Shinbashi 2-19-10 港区新橋2-19-10

Tel. 03-3574-7792

10:00 – 20:00, no holidays

www.setouchi-shunsaikan.com/ (Japanese)

This shop is a collaboration of both Ehime and Kagawa prefectures in the rich Setouchi inland sea on the island of Shikoku. Naturally this shop has a wide variety of seafood. Ehime is also famous for its production of mikan, a tangerine like fruit that makes a refreshing juice. There is a restaurant on the second floor, Kaorihime, specializes in udon noodles.

Murakara Machikara Antenna Shop in Yurakucho

Murakara Machikara Antenna Shop

Murakara Machikara Antenna Shop

While antenna shops typically represent a prefecture, this shop carries a mishmash of items from all over Japan. The shop is not that organized, so you have to know what you are looking for. There are several antenna shops in the Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan, like Hokkaido, Akita, and many more, so definitely worth spending some time here. There are a wide variety of items including miso, natto, sake, wagashi, sembei, pickles, and more. Perhaps the most interesting is the selection of miso in the refrigerator section. Customers can taste through a variety of miso before purchasing.

Mura Kara Machi Kara Kan むらからまちから館

Chiyoda-ku, Yurakucho 2-10-1, Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan 千代田区有楽町2−10−1東京交通会館

Tel. 03-5208-1521

10:00 – 19:30 (10:00 – 19:00 on weekends and holidays)

http://murakara.shokokai.or.jp/ (Japanese)

Hokkaido Dosanko Plaza – Antenna Shop

Hokkaido Dosanko Plaza

Hokkaido Dosanko Plaza

Hokkaido Dosanko Plaza 北海道どさんこプラザ

Chiyoda-ku, Yurakucho 2-10-1, Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan 千代田区有楽町2−10−1東京交通会館

Tel. 03-5224-3800

10:00 – 19:00, no holidays

www.dosanko-plaza.jp/ (Japanese)

The large northern island of Hokkaido is famous for many agricultural products including kombu, potatoes, dairy products and its rich seafood including salmon and crab. Potatoes are represented here with croquettes, dairy with soft cream cones and the trendy salted caramels and the seafood selection changes seasonally. Here you will find some Japanese wine made in Hokkaido. Hokkaido’s climate is ideal for growing grapes as it stays much drier than the rest of Japan. Also, the cool evenings allow the grapes to ripen slowly giving the wines a nice, natural acidity. German varietals, especially a steely Kerner, does well in Hokkaido. And, it is also known for its unique fruit wines, look for strawberry, sweet melon (think cantaloupe), or pear. I’ve been drinking the strawberry Hokkaido wine for over twenty years. One of my Japanese aunt’s does not drink a lot, and she likes these as they are light in alcohol, sweet, and fruity.

The Hokkaido Dosanko Plaza is conveniently located in the same building with a few antenna shops so worth a visit if you have time and are curious about regional foods.

Kagoshima Yurakukan Antenna Shop in Yurakucho

Japan is a small country, about the size of California, yet each prefecture and region has its own local food and the Japanese treasure these regional products. There is no better expression of the diverse terroir of Japan than its local commodities. Kombu harvested from the rich mineral waters of Hokkaido. The southern prefecture of Kagoshima is famous for its sweet potatoes, which are the base for its heady imo jochu (sweet potato shochu).

Antenna shops act as both stores offering items that are often hard to find outside of the region as well as public relations office offering brochures about the local area. From local beverages like sake or shochu, pickles, sweets and meats, these antenna shops offer great finds and are worth carefully perusing. If you are looking for pottery from a certain region, for example the pastel glazed Hagiyaki from Yamaguchi, then these regional antenna shops are a good place to start.

Some shops will have restaurants featuring local foods, kyodo ryori (郷土料理) and these too are a great way to try food you normally would not have the chance to.

Kagoshima Yurakukan

Kagoshima Yurakukan

Kagoshima Yurakukan かごしま遊楽館

Chiyoda-ku, Yurakucho 1-6-4, Chiyoda Building 千代田区有楽町1−6−4千代田ビル

Tel. 03-3580-8821

10:00 – 20:00 (10:00 – 19:00 weekends and holidays)

www3.pref.kagoshima.jp/foreign/english/profile/gaiyou/yurakukan_main.html (English)

Kagoshima also on Kyushu is famous for its shochu, in particular imo jochu from sweet potatoes, of which the shop has an unusually large selection. The cuisine is rich with kurobuta (Berkshire pork) products, Satsuma age fish cakes and more. The restaurant on the second floor, Ichi nii san, serves up a kurobuta based menu in a variety of presentations including tonkatsu or shabu-shabu.

Osechi Ryori – Japanese New Year’s Day Cuisine おせち料理

osechi

Homemade osechi ryori

I made this osechi ryori set the first year I was married for my Japanese husband’s family. It took about a week in total (not all day but using parts of each day) of menu planning, shopping, and assembling each dish. Only the kamaboko and black beans were purchased.

Top left box: datémaki egg and fish cake rolled omelet, kamaboko (fish cakes), black beans, tazukuri or gomamé, kuri kinton (chestnuts in a sweet potato mash).

Top right box: nimono of chicken, carrots, renkon, gobo, konnyaku, and pea pods.

Bottom box: kazunoko (herring roe), namasu (pickled julienned carrots & daikon), sesame dressed gobo, kuwai, kobumaki (herring wrapped in kombu), and pickled renkon.

This article first appeared in Metropolis magazine.

Trying to find somewhere open on and after January 1, when the New Year holidays have shut doors all around Japan, can be trying. Hence the tradition of osechi ryori, or seasonal food, dishes targeted at providing sustenance over the laidback days at home. Most can be prepared ahead of time, lasting for days when kept in a cool environment.

Like everything else in Japan, osechi ryori can be bought packaged exquisitely in deluxe boxes called jubako. At department stores such as Takashimaya, late October sees the spectacle of the first day of pre-order, when lined-up customers stampede inside to snap up the coveted limited-edition boxes. These tend to include offerings from Michelin-grade and other award-winning chefs, top-class hotels, and famous ryotei (luxurious Japanese restaurants)—and can fetch up to ¥200,000 per box. For those without a six-figure salary however, local supermarkets and conbini also sell—more affordable—box sets. Some mix in Chinese and Western elements, while others highlight regional cuisine.

Every year has its trends, and 2012 is no different. Look out for a proliferation of low-calorie options, and “yawaraka osechi”— soft foods for elderly customers.

COMMON COMPONENTS

  • Tazukuri—Candied dried sardines, formerly used as fertilizer in rice paddies, hence their other name gomame (“50,000 grains of rice”)
  • Kazunoko—Herring roe simmered in soy and dashi broth, symbolizing fertility
  • Kuromame—Simmered sweet black beans, a pun on the word “mame” for diligence and hard work in the upcoming year
  • Kohaku namasu—Pickled, red Kyoto carrots and strips of white daikon make up the celebratory colors of red and white
  • Kamaboko—Steamed fish cakes, also in the nationalistic colors
  • Kuri kinton—Mashed sweet potato with sweet chestnut, the kanji is a play on prosperity
  • Yude ebi—Boiled shrimp, whose bent backs refer to having a long life (check out some elderly on the bus for a visual explanation)
  • Kobumaki—Kelp, often wrapped around herring or salmon. A play on the word “yorokobu,” for happiness in the home
  • Tai—Sea bream; a play on the congratulatory greeting “omedetai
  • Sato imo—Taro root, symbolizing a great number of descendents, from the way the little potato-like vegetables proliferate
  • Renkon—Lotus root, the holes of which allow us to see clearly into our future
  • Daidai—Bitter orange, whose name is a homonym for future generations

Look out for spice packets for steeping in sake to make o-toso. The spice pack looks like a tea bag and is filled with herbs including cinnamon and dried sansho berries, and produces a delicious drink for New Year’s Day, thought to stave off illness during the winter season.

Foodie’s Guide to Tokyo Part 1/2

photo by Tama Miyake-Lung

photo by Tama Miyake-Lung

This article which first appeared in Metropolis magazine highlights do not miss spots in Tokyo for foodies.

http://archive.metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/674/localflavors.asp (text follows)

We are spoiled rotten here in Tokyo. The food-savvy consumers of Japan have raised the bar for the dining culture to a level found in only a few cities throughout the world. Here are my favorite parts of town when foraging for food in Tokyo.

To really get a feel for what the city has to offer, the best place to start is, obviously, Tsukiji Market. The inner market will be moving to Toyosu in 2012, so come and see this historical area while you can. Avoid it on Sundays, when it’s closed, and refer to the calendar for other holidays. While most people go to get their sushi at the source, I am addicted to the anago tempura at Tenfusa—tender eel in a crispy tempura batter sprinkled with a sweet soy dressing over a bowl of steaming rice.

If you are not a morning person or it’s a Sunday, head instead up to Ameyoko in Ueno. The narrow street bustles with energy, and stores are popping at the seams with goods spilling out onto the road and into neighboring stalls. Hawkers call out with their scratchy voices offering discounts to the housewives. While Ameyoko cannot be compared to Tsukiji, you will find seafood, fruit, vegetables and some imported goods. Come in the fall and see the coveted matsutake mushrooms, often from China, at discounted prices.

Getting in gear for your kitchen? Kappabashi, between Asakusa and Ueno at Tawaramachi station, is best-known as a place to pick up plastic food. Once you find that perfect sushi keychain, though, wander the streets and go where the real finds are. Kappabashi is where chefs and restaurateurs go to set up shop. If knives are what you are after, make a beeline to Kiya in Nihonbashi. The shop has a fantastic selection of cutting utensils in a range of prices, as well as other kitchen gadgets.

My favorite part of the food culture in Japan is depachika, the grand food floors in the basement of department stores. The newly revamped Isetan in Shinjuku sparkles and shines. Don’t miss the sandwiches at Alain Ducasse’s premiere boulangerie, Be, or the sweets at Pierre Herme, considered by many to be the top French patisserie. In the wine shop there is a sleek bar where you can select from a long list of toasty, smokey whiskeys. Or pick up a bento and a beer and take the elevators to the roof-top garden for an impromptu picnic away from the crowds of Shinjuku.

While Osaka may be famous for okonomiyaki, Tokyo has its own, much messier version, monjayaki. After getting out of the station at Tsukishima, follow your nose to “Monja Dori,” where it looks like time stopped about 25 years ago (left). The secret to enjoying monjayaki is to have your server help you make the first one or two until you get the hang of it. If you can manage to make it thin enough, you’ll find that the pari pari crispy bits put okonomiyaki to shame. Suggested toppings include cheese, mentaiko and mochi.

Another area that smells so good it’ll have you jumping off of the train is Koreatown in Shin-Okubo. Come here for yakiniku, but if you like to cook at home, then make time to check out the local supermarkets, where you can find kimchi, pajong mix, and the finger-licking-good Korean nori.

If you have time for a day trip, head south to Yokohama’s Chinatown for some great street food like steamed buns stuffed with chopped barbecue pork, sticky rice with chicken steamed in a bamboo leaf, and tapioca in coconut milk. While it lacks the energy you find in, say, New York’s Chinatown, and although there seems to be a curious lack of actual Chinese people, the area does not lack in restaurant options, and there are plenty of markets to pick up salt-laden stocks and dried scallops for soups.

Another day trip that does not disappoint is to Utsunomiya. Actually, the city itself is a bit depressing, but the number of gyoza restaurants is tremendous. Go with a couple of friends and hit as many places as you can for pork-filled dumplings, fried or boiled.

The urban adventure does not end here. Check out next week’s issue for Part Two of our Foodie’s Guide to Tokyo—with a look into various cuisine and specific shops to indulge in here in the metropolis.

Check out next week’s Metropolis for the second and final installment of our Foodie’s Guide to Tokyo.

For more information about Tsukiji market, see www.tsukiji-market.or.jp/tukiji_e.htm.

Tenfusa. 5-2-1 Tsukiji, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3547-6766. Open Mon-Sat 6:30am-2pm, closed Sun and hols. Nearest stn: Tsukiji

Kappabashi: http://www.kappabashi.or.jp

Ameyoko:www.ameyoko.net

Kiya. 1-5-6 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo-ku. Open Mon-Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 11:15am-5:45pm. Tel: 03-3241-1141. Nearest stn: Mitsukoshimae. www.kiya-hamono.co.jp

Isetan. 3-14-1 Shinjuku. Tel: 03-3352-1111. Open daily 10am-8pm. Nearest stn: Shinjuku-Sanchome. www.isetan.co.jp

Tsukishima: www.gurume-tsukishima.com

Korea Town: http://korea-zanmai.com/tansaku.html

Chinatown:www.chinatown.or.jp

Utsunomiya Gyoza: www.gyozakai.com

Foodie’s Guide to Tokyo Part Two:

https://foodsaketokyo.wordpress.com/2009/12/08/foodies-guide-to-tokyo-part-two/

Dining at Depachika

Depachika

Depachika

Depachika, the amazing epicurean basement food halls of department stores have small eat-in counters. These are perfect for solo diners or for customers with limited time. This article originally appeared in Metropolis magazine and highlights some of the best dining options in depachika.

http://archive.metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/648/localflavors.asp (text follows)

We all have our fantasies, and mine involves food. So going down into a depachika to take in all the sights, sounds and smells is, for me, a natural high.

“Depachika” is a mix of two Japanese words: depa comes from department store and chika means basement, where the food halls are traditionally located. The basements also often have direct access to major train stations, from where more than 2.5 million people commute in and out of the city every day—and that’s a lot of potential customers. Depachika are almost always packed with finicky consumers choosing from among the best food in the world, from outlets of famous shops from Paris, Milan, London, New York and all over Japan.

My fantasy became reality when I worked as the sommelier in the wine department at Takashimaya’s flagship store in Nihonbashi for two years. Exploring the store, meeting vendors from around the country and, best of all, trying all the food—it was a grand time and I’m still fascinated with these glorious floors of food. Here is a selection of the best that Tokyo’s depachika have to offer.

• For satisfying “fast food,” squeeze into a seat at San Marco Curry House (Tobu Ikebukuro and Odakyu Shinjuku, among other locations). The current wadai (hot) menu item is Iberico pork curry. Iberico pork is the Kobe beef of Spain and is in high demand in Japan. It’s most often seen as Jamon Iberico, or cured. The pork that’s used in the curry is the uncured kind, thin slices with a thick layer of fat. The dark color like Mississippi mud comes from squid ink, which softens the curry, creating a rich and intense dish.

• Tobu department store in Ikebukuro is the Konishiki of depachika. With well over 200 stalls, it always leaves me with my head spinning. Start off with some sake or wine at the Raku bar located in the liquor shop and follow-up with some hitoguchi (bite-size) gyoza from the Osaka-based shop Yamu Yamu Sai Sai.

• At Takashimaya (both in Nihonbashi and in Shinjuku), try Peck’s panini laced with Italian cured meats, or visit a branch of Maison Kayser (Matsuya in Ginza, Isetan in Shinjuku, Daimaru at Tokyo station and Takashimaya Nihonbashi) for its tempting sandwiches. Try pairing them with a salad from the RF1 health food store, which has outlets at most good department stores.

• For a taste of Japan, consider the eat-in counters at Maisen for tonkatsu or Tsunahachi for tempura, located next to each other in Takashimaya Times Square in Shinjuku. With either the breaded, deep-fried pork tonkatsu, or the tempura fried in sesame oil, it’s hard to go wrong.

• Don’t leave a depachika without stopping at the fruit stalls. The same shops that sell outrageously priced melons also have freshly squeezed juices, cut fruit (for a single slice of that juicy melon), or a fruit sandwich—kiwi, strawberries and melon on white bread slathered with whipped cream. Senbikiya and Lemon are two shops to keep your eyes peeled for, the former in Takashimaya in Nihonbashi and the latter in Seibu in Ikebukuro.

When I was working in a depachika, the constant yelling and screaming of the clerks became white noise, but for customers it can make eating there less enjoyable. Isetan has a new garden on its roof where customers can picnic on the grass or relax on a bench. Isetan holds some of Tokyo’s best food events, too. Vendors come in and set up shop for a week or so, selling their treats for a “limited time only.”

On one recent visit, I first headed down to the depachika, where I found a Frenchman offering samples of exquisite pate de foie, which I bought along with some pork rillettes and pate de campagne from Lean Luc, a Hokkaido company that makes authentic French charcuterie. Then, after picking up a bottle from the wine shop, I headed up to the roof, where I spent a warm weekend afternoon picnicking on the lawn. For a food fanatic like me, it doesn’t get any better.

Gotta Get Food Shopping Tips in Japan

Kanji Ridden Packaging

Kanji Ridden Packaging

Shopping for food in Japan can be intimidating as there is often little to no English on the packaging. Here are a few tips for some of my favorite food products and how to use them in your kitchen. This article originally appeared in Metropolis magazine:

http://archive.metropolis.co.jp/tokyo/574/localflavors.asp (text below)

Exploring a new food culture can be an adventure for some, and intimidating for others. Even if one can read Japanese product labels at the supermarket, deciphering what is inside the package is not always so easy. I have been eating Japanese food for almost four decades and I still find myself scratching my head trying to make sense of it all. Along the way, though, I have come upon a few delights that I would be selfish not to share. Explore and enjoy! Being curious can be a good thing.
Kinzanji miso and su miso (金暫時みそ and 酢みそ)
Miso offers itself in a myriad of ways, beyond the ubiquitous miso soup. The dressings that can be whipped up, or conveniently purchased, are also addictive. I like to keep kinzanji miso in my fridge as a savory dip for crudités of cucumbers, carrots and daikon. Kinzanji miso has a heady, sweet aroma and a chunky texture. It is a healthy alternative to creamy vegetable dips. Su miso is a blend of sweet saikyo miso and vinegar, and is commonly found as a dressing over quickly blanched dark greens, or with blanched octopus. This puckery, slightly sweet dressing can brighten up many dishes. A salad composed of lettuce, carrots, tomatoes and wakame seaweed with this dressing makes for a refreshing side dish. I like the conveniently packaged su miso by Marusan. Take some along with you for your hanami picnic.

Yuzu kosho (柚子こしょう)
Something missing in Japanese food is heat. The Thais and Koreans have more than their share of spicy food—we have wasabi and karashi. So in my pantry you will find a jar of yuzu kosho. This thick, salty paste is simply yuzu, chili peppers and salt. You will find both red and green versions, depending on the color of the chili peppers. It is a great garnish for yakitori, steamed vegetables, udon or as you please. Chef Josh DeChellis of Sumile in New York City suggests putting yuzu kosho on fresh scallops and then lightly sautéing them in a pan.

Aji tsuki nori (味付き海苔)
Nori is the crispy seaweed found wrapped around maki sushi rolls or some onigiri. There is a variety of nori available on the market. The non-flavored type is used for sushi; flavored, or aji-tsuki, nori is used with traditional breakfasts. Traditional Korean nori is quite irresistible with salt and sesame oil. For a real treat, Yamamoto Noriten (available at Takashimaya) has nori flavored with offerings such as uni (sea urchin), ume (plum), mentaiko (spicy cod roe) and salmon, to name but a few. It makes a great alternative to potato chips for a healthy snack.

Nama fu (生麩)
Fu, a delicacy from Kyoto that is also a staple in vegetarian diets, is a form of wheat gluten—it is literally pure protein. Fu is either dried or nama (raw). The dried version does not have much flavor, but like a dry sponge it will soak up the liquids in which it is immersed. You’ll find rehydrated fu in sukiyaki or in a simple bowl of soup. However, it is the nama fu that makes a great, healthy snack. On a recent trip to Kyoto, I picked up two decadent flavors of nama fu, bacon and cheese. The nama fu can be lightly sautéed in a non-stick pan, without oil, for otsumami with beer.

Satsuma-age
(さつま揚げ)

OK, “fish cakes” may not sound appetizing; however, anything that is deep-fried should not be overlooked. Another great snack or side dish is satsuma-age, fish cakes that have been deep fried. Most likely you have seen this in the oden case at your convenience store. Some satsuma-age can be eaten at room temperature, just slice and indulge, but I prefer to quickly sauté them. At shops which make them by hand you will find a variety of stuffings, from traditional gobo (bamboo roots) to more modern fillings like corn and cheese.

Yukimi daifuku (雪見だいふく)
There are a few things in life that you never forget, such as your first kiss, high school graduation, and the first bite of yukimi daifuku. Maybe not, but if you are going to try one thing new, do try this. Vanilla ice cream covered with a thin layer of mochi that all melts in your mouth. I do not have a sweet tooth, but do have a soft spot for this treat, available at your local convenience store. (You’ll find yourself sneaking out of the house for a late-night Yukimi daifuku craving before you know it.)