Monday, November 19, 2012

Tsukiji Market and Kappabashi-dori

You might expect that I’ll start my tale of food shopping in Tokyo with the tuna at Tsujiji or the knives at Kappabashi. We’ll get there, don’t worry. But I want to start with this egg that I bought at a convenience store called Lawson’s. I hear 7/11 stores carry them too.

Rightfully, you should be skeptical about how perfectly cooked this egg looks on the picture plastered on the packaging (the one on the left). McDonald's salads look fresh in pictures too. But on the right is a picture of the real egg after I peeled it and took a bite. I’d be happy if upscale restaurants in the US always got eggs done this perfectly. This egg summarizes the food in Tokyo in one tight little package. Actually, it summarizes the whole experience of this city and culture. It raises ordinary to extraordinary. It prizes uniformity, perfection, harmony and balance in all things: from fine art to public bathrooms.  Even the lowly convenience store that I would avoid like the plaque in the US didn't fail to pleasantly surprise me.

To tell you the truth, I’d never set foot into a 7/11 type store if it weren't for Chris, my fellow student at a Taste of Culture cooking school. He introduced me to these delightful eggs, and I decided to buy one myself to take to the airport with me.  Why put up with the torture that is American Airlines meal when Japan is the packaged food paradise!?  I took the deepest breath possible before going through the doors and held my breath trying to minimize the amount of putrid burnt coffee smell I had to endure. Eventually, I ran out of breath and inhaled. To my surprise, it didn’t smell bad. No burnt coffee. It actually smelled like normal food -- mildly sweet and savory as most food in Japan tends to be.  Apparently a 7/11 can offer a bigger cultural shock than Tsukiji!  But enough about convenience stores.   Let’s move on to the real food and equipment shopping.


Writing about Tsukiji is like writing about Notre Dame.  What can I say that wasn't said before?  It’s a temple of fish where tuna the Zeus rules supreme and is worshipped by mortals. I didn't go to see an auction. It’s  an experience that is fun to brag about, but big frozen tunas and screaming men don’t do much for me. I was much more interested in what’s inside those tunas and that can be easily seen without waking up at 5am. In fact, I suggest you wait for the craziness to calm down and get to the market around 9am. There’ll be plenty of lovely fish to drool over and you won’t feel in the way as you would in the morning.

My friend Junko Keller (in the picture below), with whom I was staying, offered to show me around.  She is a Tokyo native and a culinary instructor, so having her by my side was incredibly fun and enlightening.
Our morning snack of figs

Fall is the mushroom season: nameko on the left; matsutake on the right

I lost count of how many different vegetables I found pickled at Tsukiji.  My favorite was pickled lotus flower stems.

This is not tuna.  It's bonito (katsuo in Japanese).  That's what they make katsuobushi out of for dashi stock.  It's the "baby" of the tuna family due to its petite size.  Oh, how I miss it.  It's so rare that we see it fresh in Boston.  
  These little dried fishies covered in a sweet soy glaze are a snack I got introduced to at Tsukiji and got hopelessly addicted to. I brought some home with me and my daughter made them disappear in 2 days.  I love how nonchalant 5-year-olds can be.  "Mommy, what should I do with the head?"  "You eat it."  "Oh, ok."  Sammy pops the fish head in her mouth.  "Mmm, crunchy!  Yum!"

And of course, there was tuna -- glorious tuna.  I had a moment of silence staring at this delicious loin, mourning the fact that here in Boston within hours of where the best tuna is caught, I see nothing but pathetic yellowfin in the stores.  
You see how the color gets lighter near the skin?  That's the fat.

The problem with Tsukiji is that unless you live in Tokyo and have a kitchen, all you can do is drool. But at Kappabashi-dori, you can buy stuff that you can take home with you.

I could buy a Misono chef’s knife and a yanagiba (sashimi knife) in the US, but it gave me great joy to hold them and choose them in person. Niimi is a huge store in Kappabashi area that can’t be missed. The staff is incredibly helpful and one salesperson spoke English.

I also picked up 2 otoshi-buta (drop lids) that rest directly on the food and not on the edge of the skillet. They are used to trap some of the steam in, but not all of it -- idea not that different from the French parchment paper lids called cartouche. Another use for otoshi-buta is to press on the food while it cooks to promote good contact with the skillet. Something tells me these little lids will come in handy not only for Japanese cooking.

Japanese ceramics are everywhere -- one plate prettier than the next. I chose a few pieces to give to Jason with the promise to fill them with sushi as soon as I get back. Of course, nothing I could possibly bring him could be an adequate enough “Thank you” for the amazing opportunity he gave me.

The only practical piece of advice I have about Kappabashi is to come with plenty of cash. Credit cards are often not an option no matter how much you spend. While visiting Kappabashi, take a look around Asakusa with its beautiful temple and busy market streets.

Happy Shopping!


Anonymous said...

If you really want the good tuna at the freshest possible, get Jason to go fishing for it (and yes, software people do go fishing). That's why I chase after tuna ;-)

It does taste better after a few days on ice...taste is much stronger fresh and the flesh is a bit mushy.

Helen said...

I'll tell Jason he's been volunteered for a fishing expedition :) Yes, tuna benefits from some aging. I hear many sushi places in Japan will keep it for a 3-4 days before serving.

My pet peeve with tuna in Boston is not that it's not fresh, but that it's not fatty. Most stores only carry yellowfin and it's really not comparable to big-eye or bluefin. If you ever end up with too much tuna from one of your fishing expedition, I'd be happy to buy some from you :)

Anonymous said...

Just make sure he's aware that the probability is 1 in 4 so you're not too disappointed if he comes back w/o tuna.
If he's really willing to do it, I'll let him know when I go next year (usually in the fall to increase the odds and fattiness)'s around a $240 trip ($200+tip) on Thursdays out of Scituate. At least he'll have someone to talk geek (Java, web, mobile, etc.) with so he doesn't get bored staring at the ocean wondering where the fish are ;-)

One time I went (1 out of 3 for me), we got to split a big tuna and we ate sushi for a week and found out that it is possible to get sick of eating toro and sashimi even if you mix it up w/ semi-cooked tuna recipes :-P

Unknown said...

I just got back from a trip to Japan amongst other places. I remembered reading this article and had it in my head that I needed to try a 7/11 hard boiled egg. Now, I usually don't like hard boiled eggs, but for the 68 cents they were charging, I figured I had to try it. Unbelievable! It was somehow perfectly salted and with a yolk that was exquisitely done. None of that chalky texture that I'm used to. First time I actually enjoyed eating a hard boiled egg. I assume this must be done in a temperature controlled water bath or something like that. I can already see my next kitchen project...

I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned that the quality of the egg is a pretty good proxy for food quality all over Japan. We spent our time between Kyoto and Tokyo, and I'm pretty sure you couldn't get a bad meal if you tried.

I was surprised how inexpensive things were too considering the quality. Multi-course lunches for under $10 and even the 8-course "omakase" dinner we crossed our fingers when ordering at a swanky Tokyo sashimi joint ended up costing about half of what we expected and much less than a Boston establishment would have charged.

Thanks for this great write-up and for getting me to try something amazing that I otherwise wouldn't have. That's why I keep coming back here!

Helen said...

So glad your trip went well! Japan is one of the yummiest places in the world in my opinion :) Next time I'll have to make it to Kyoto.

The egg -- precise temperature water bath is probably it, and I am guessing it's brined for several days before cooking to allow the salt to get through the shell.