I fell head over heels in love with Japanese food. It’s one of the reasons I’m still here. Whenever I seriously contemplate returning home I start weighing the pros and cons and the con that gives me heart palpitations is the thought of not having access to authentic Japanese cuisine. Usually my ruminating comes to an abrupt halt after that consideration. Food is that important to the quality of my life. I mean, I spent the first few years here missing soul food (especially Mama’s cooking) and wondering why doesn’t someone open up a decent soul food restaurant in this area. But, after a while, I stopped even missing that. My annual trip home seems to sate that craving and more often than not I come to the realization, with a mouthful of baked macaroni and cheese or some potato salad that, yeah it’s delicious and all, but it ain’t nothing to move back home for.
And, sure, maybe if I had been weened on Japanese food from birth I would feel the same way about Ramen, Yakisoba and Okonomiyaki. But I wasn’t weened on it. And I don’t feel the same way about it as I do about soul food. I am totally infatuated.
Then, what happens? I go to China..the birth place of many of the staples on the Japanese menu (let the truth be known) as well as a staple back where I grew up in NY. I mean, I’ve eaten about as much Chinese food in my life as I’ve eaten soul food. Definitely more than McDonald’s or any other fast food. Chinese food is that ubiquitous in NY. And, I loved it.
I learned in China, however, that I’d never really had Chinese food before.
There were many strange things on the menus in China…
But I didn’t sample any of them. I am not a braveheart. My first night in China I kept it easy peasy Japaneasy and ate Peking (Beijing) Duck at a safe restaurant recommended by a reputable Japanese travel magazine.
The ‘chefs’ pull up beside your table with the ducks whole- looking like they ought to be quacking- and begin carving up your bird into thin slices.
Then, they give you a little tray with their special sauce and some scallions and a saucer of soft taco like bread and you make little Peking Duck burritos.
Man, that was some good eating. A duck will never be safe in my sight again. I’ll always be envisioning it as I had envisioned it that night in Beijing. And that was just the beginning…
There are many different types of noodles in Japan. My favorite is udon. It’s a thick noodle with a silky taste that usually accomplishes the unusual here in Japan and fills this capacious cavern of mine.
Living in Japan you get quite used to a little noise with your meal. If you go to certain sushi bars are yakitori spots the staff are always yelling, gesticulating and slamming dishes around though quite skillfully. So, when I strolled into a noodle shop in Beijing, that specialized in Chinese Udon, I wasn’t caught entirely off guard by the racket. They do a little routine, the waiters do, when they bring your udon, of adding all seven of the ingredients, various beans and veggies and what nots. It’s very noisy, but the result, as in Japan, is well worth the shell shock.
Add a couple of special Chinese sauces on the side and the Udon is off the charts!
I also ordered some of my favorite Chinese dish (since I’ve been living in Japan, that is, and have acquired a liking for Tofu), a spicy tofu meat stew, rice and a Chinese brew and I was set! As you might expect, the Japanese version of the dish below is not the same. I can’t really explain the difference. Maybe it was partially psychological, I suspect. I mean, knowing I was in China maybe I predisposed myself to believe that the authentic Chinese version would be far superior. Whatever the reason, it was just that: far superior!
On my final night in the Middle Kingdom, I got really daring and went to a VERY local restaurant. Maybe they’d not only never served a foreigner before but perhaps had never even seen one. The previous restaurants I had gone to had been recommended in that aforementioned travel magazine. But I wanted to eat what the locals eat (and at local prices) and by the final day I had become thoroughly acclimated to the Chinese style reaction to my foreigness (having been accustomed to a certain amount of it here in Japan), so I ventured out.
And I’m so happy I did!
It was a family restaurant, but nothing like Jonathan’s or Bamiyan (a Japanese Chinese food chain). More like an Izakaya but the emphasis was more on the food than the drink.
The atmosphere was laid back…everyone knew everyone. There were no smoking signs on the wall but some of the customers were smoking regardless and I got the impression that the regulation was imposed on them from on-high and not by the management. It was an unremarkable establishment. A hole in the wall.
But, the food! I guess the best American equivalent of the dish I ordered would be Sweet and Sour shrimp, but this dish was crazy delicious!
And I also ordered some Chinese gyouza (dumplings). The Japanese ain’t got nothing on their forebearers, I gotta tell ya. This was bar none the best gyouza I’ve ever tasted.
The Chinese beer tasted like the malt liquor I used to drink when I was a teen. A cross between Olde English 800 and Schlitz Malt Liguor Bull. It was natsukashii (brought back fond old school memories) of hanging with my boys in the ‘hood drinking 40s and getting lifted and exorcising the munchies with some Chinese food (-:
I left that restaurant, and indeed, China feeling great! It was a very memorable experience and I hope to return someday, if for no other reason but to tear into some more of that fine Chinese cuisine.