Friday, 5 September 2014

Grill The Foodie: Japan

Our regular series “Grill the Foodie” is all about getting inside a country’s food and eating experiences from the perspective of travellers and expats living abroad. Why travellers and not locals? Well sometimes locals don’t know what makes their country’s cuisine so unique and wonderful they may not have any other points of reference as their own food is all they have experienced. We will delve into what makes world cuisine great and why travellers love to eat so much. We want you to be inspired by what is happening around the world, how others enjoy their food and how food can unite cultures.


This weeks Foodie who is ready for a grilling is my good friend Karen. I have been friends with Karen since we were sweet school girls (or possibly not so sweet depending who you ask). She is the most genuine, cool and quirky person I know. Her zany antics have provided me with entertainment for nearly two decades now...man are we that old!
Karen had a single ambition once leaving school, it was to see the world. Hundreds of hours were spent labouring away at her job squirrelling away the money until she had enough to leave little old Goulburn in her wake. 
She now resides in Japan and her foodie facebook posts have me green with envy. I knew she would be the perfect candidate for our Grill The Foodie interview.

How long have you lived in Japan for?

A while now…! I think this is my 4th year this time round, I had lived here for about 2 years before, with some time back home in between.

Where are you currently living and have you lived elsewhere in Japan?

I’ve only lived in Osaka! Outside of staying with friends in and around this area, I’ve called Osaka home for all of my stay.

What inspired you to move to Japan?

I’m not really sure there was one thing that was inspiring to come to Japan. Right place and time I suppose. I had been living in China for almost 2 years and was looking for more travel. An opportunity came up and I found work, and friends to stay with and help me get set up. Initially there was a thought to head home [Sydney]. There is always a moment of loneliness living abroad, especially in a country where language barriers are rife! But I think that is very important to appreciate the quietness of cultures different from your own.

Do you find yourself eating out or cooking at home whilst living in Japan?

A probable good mix of both I think. We [bf and I] live in Osaka city. We both work close to home as well. There are endless cheap eats around us, so it really depends if we want to give our cooking muscle a workout or not.

What are your favourite local dishes when eating out?

EVERYTHING! I think one of the biggest misconceptions about Japan is its cuisine. Well it definitely was for me! I’d imagine dishes with a lot of rice, sushi, noodles etc. But there is so much more! Osaka is renowned for food and comedy! It is pretty common to go to a tiny restaurant only specializing in one dish. Maybe only with 10 spots, you order then eat; pay and then leave allow room for the next customer. I have a favourite sushi restaurant we often head to not only for the fantastically fresh seafood but also for the chefs. They are comedians! One time we were sitting at the counter next to another couple, where it was clear it was their first date. After the girl had gone to the bathroom, one of the sushi chefs was giving the guy hilarious tips for his date.

What are your favourite local food haunts?

Every place we dine at is local I suppose. Generally you can eat all dishes throughout Japan, but different regions may specialize in different meals. For example udon is famous in a place call Kagawa in Shikoku, west of Osaka. Pork and [an extremely bitter] vegetable goya is famous in Okinawa.
Osaka is famous for okonomiyaki [oh-con-no-me-yak-key]. Which I’ve heard described as ‘Japanese pizza’, but is nothing like pizza! It’s a pancake or frittata-like dish, made from cabbage, egg & flour batter, as well as pork toppings or seafood, and special brown sauce, usually with a topping of katsuo-bushi [fish flakes].

What Japanese dishes do you best like to cook at home?

Nabe is fun to cook at home, only in the winter though. It’s hot pot, and extremely healthy. It’s super cheap, and usually we invite friends around, and we all sit [on the floor] around our hotpot bubbling away with ingredients everyone brings, usually meatballs, chicken, pork, beef strips vegies vegies and more vegies. At the end, and you always stay until everything is eaten, the broth is combined with rice to make ‘zosui’ to make a rice congee.

Are there any Japanese dishes you would like to make yourself but haven’t mastered the techniques?

ALL OF THEM! When I cook at home, I usually cook comfort foods or dishes that I know, usually from my childhood. Growing up in rural Australia we stuck to meat and two veg. So I tend to cook up those kinds of meals! When I visit friends’ homes I like to stick my head in the kitchen to see the preparation of dinner. There is so much that goes into it. There are always so many dishes, from sautéed vegetables, to miso soup, Japanese beef cuts, noodle salads etc. I would love to learn just how to cook 5 dishes at once, all being served at the same time! There is a beautiful rhythm and harmony to Japanese kitchens!


What surprises you most about Japanese food?

The variety as well as the price. Eating out is quite inexpensive here, especially when you factor in service. Service in Japan is fantastic. I would say you could dine out for $10-$15 [dinner], and guaranteed you will be bursting at the seams and will leaving smiling, or bowing, or both.


Is there a street food scene in Japan and if so where is the best place to find it
and what are the best dishes?

Street food isn’t that common here. It’s something that just hasn’t caught on. Slowly there are bars opening up outdoor dining, but nothing in comparison to South East Asia. Japan is a weird mesh of traditions and innovation. On one hand there is the old way; where women cook at home, men earn and life revolves around the home kitchen. But people nowadays are working more, and not starting families. So there is this disposal culture here too. In Osaka there is an area along the Dotombori river, with lanterns hanging and local vendors bellowing out for your business. You can eat Tacoyaki here (octopus balls).

As an expat are there any Japanese foods that you have a total disconnect with e.g. don’t understand or outright hate?

Probably delicacies like horse meat sashimi, and of course whale and shark fin. I believe shark fin is only served in Chinese restaurants but it is widely accepted to eat, as it is believed it has beauty-enhancing qualities!

What is your favourite food memory or food story from Japan so far?

When I first arrived, I was staying with a friend and his family, and they treated me so well. They drove me all over Kansai; we visited many temples in Kyoto, as well as in Nara. We dined in Osaka too. We went to a beautiful restaurant in Kyoto called Ume no Hana, which translates to the flower of plums. It served only tofu! I love tofu, but the thought of going to a restaurant where its main ingredient was tofu, I was a little apprehensive. But as soon as we arrived all those fears disappeared. The restaurant was tucked away behind a meticulous garden, full of Japanese flowers and bonsai trees. When we entered we were ushered to our private room, where I had to duck as the doorway was about 2/3rds my height. We proceeded to eat endless tofu dishes, that were not only delicious and unique but beautifully presented as well. We finished with a tofu dessert as well!

For tourists, what local foods would you say are must haves on their trip to Japan?

An obvious start would be sushi. Sydney does have many great sushi places I’ve eaten at, but nothing compares to the quality and presentation of sushi here. If sushi isn’t your thing, I would say you’ve got to try the many different broths of Ramen soups. From collagen broths to thick miso broths there are so many different tastes and flavours.

Are there any Japanese foods or experiences that make you feel close to Australia?

Maybe yakiniku [Japanese barbecue] reminds me of home. There isn’t any real similarities with any Australian foods / cuisines, but purely for the amount of meat you tend to eat when you have yakiniku, reminds me of Aussie BBQs.

If you ever return to Australia for good what foods or food experiences will you miss most from Japan?

I think I would miss the service the most. I love when I go out to [Japanese] bars, Japanese dishes are served, almost like tapas. Your table is filled with small dishes full of varieties of colourful food. It’s very social and it’s wonderful sampling so many different meals.
Originally posted on Friday, 5 September 2014 by

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