Shibuya and my discovery of Miso

shibuya

Shibuya Crossing has been shown so often in Hollywood films that it is now a modern global icon. I took exit 2 from the Shibuya metro station and came out near the statue of Hachiko, well-known in Japan as the epitome of the faithful the dog. Then I added to the count of people crossing and went into the L’Occitane cafe. It was full of young women recovering from their shopping; I must have been the oldest male there.

All tables overlooking the pedestrian scramble were taken. The maitre d’ was kind enough to find me a table close to the window on the highest floor of the cafe. It was a good table to look out on the plaza from, but not good for photography: I guess that was the intention. I had a lovely view of the giant screen which shows a walking dinosaur in “Lost in Translation”. It was showing zany enough advertisements while I ordered.

I dawdled in the cafe until the light had faded enough to make the man-made lights look better, and then walked down to street level. The place is seething with tourists who, like me, wanted to take a photo which, with luck, would eventually be here. I don’t think I got one, but some of the others may have got lucky. (If you are the young Belgian tourist with a braided beard who was carrying the extra long lens, then I would like to see what you shot with it.)

The luckiest part of my evening came when I wandered into the Shibuya Hikari by accident and found the dining space on the 6th and 7th floors. After strenuous reading of many menus, I finally decided on a place in one far corner of the 6th floor which said it specialized in miso. I’d had miso soups before, but I didn’t know that you could specialize in beans. This was reason enough to sit down. This time I got a place by the window, and managed to over-order. I had two starters: a fresh tofu with pickled black beans, and a chicken with ume and miso. Both were excellent. The cod steak which followed was outstanding, and then I had the rice and miso soup. Now miso soups are usually fairly bland to non-Japanese palates, but this could stand up to my jaded Indian tastes. It was so thick that I discovered the scallops inside only when I held up the bowl. I was really happy to have an excellent meal without sushi, sashimi, tempura or katsu.

I like traditional Japan, but I really love modern Japan. Eating in Japan is a discovery each time!

Historical Tokyo: Senso Ji

In various places I’ve seen the Buddhist temple Senso Ji called Tokyo’s Statue of Liberty or its Eiffel Tower. These comparisons hide more than they reveal. Tokyo gives a visitor so many options that Senso Ji is not on everybody’s map, quite unlike the Eiffel Tower. Nor is the Buddhist goddess Kannon‘s statue in Senso Ji a globally recognized icon like the Statue of Liberty. Senso Ji, however, is a popular destination for families in Tokyo, the mix of locals and tourists around it, and the crowd and bustle, is solidly rooted in East Asia.

kannonfishing

I got off the Metro at the Asakusa station and ambled over to Nakamise Dori, which is the shopping street leading up to the temple. In the one and a half millennia since the founding of the temple, the shopping area has spread a little beyond this ancient road. As you approach the temple along Nakamise Dori, you see a series of paintings on the left which tell the story of the founding of the temple. It starts with fishermen finding the statue of Kannon in their nets. In the photo above I tried to get both the origins of the temple, and the crowds which throng to it today.

kamarimon

Nakamise Dori starts from the Kamarimon, a gate with a single gigantic lantern, and continues to the Hozomon, a gate with three large lanterns (above). These are flanked by two ferocious guardians, now safely behind wire mesh. Inside the second gate is the forecourt of the temple. This is a busy area, containing not only the cauldron with incence and “holy smoke”, but also forecasts of your fortunes at the nominal cost of 100 Yen!

ceiling

Behind this is the equally crowded main hall. The Kannon you can see is a copy of the original statue (the real one is not visible to the public). I chanced to look up and saw lovely murals painted on the ceiling. The photo above is one of the five panels.

groupie

The hall is crowded. Several people were dressed traditionally, women in Kimonos and men in yukatas. I caught a group of schoolgirls thrilled with their get up and taking a group photo. In India if a group of girls as young as them wore saris they would be doing the same. One of the interesting differences between China and Japan is that in China selfies and selfie-sticks are the in thing, but Japan is still full of people taking each others’ photos, or using selfie sticks for group photos.

koi

It was a warm and sunny day, which would have been perfect if it wasn’t so humid. I walked into the garden behind the temple to take an obligatory photo of the carp (koi), but couldn’t bear the weather for too long. In any case, it was getting close to my check-in time.

mochi

So my last stop before I left for the hotel was to eat mitarashi dango: a grilled rice ball with a sweet filling. I chose the sweet pumpkin filling. Whenever I’ve tried this before I’ve had the version with bean paste, but my trip to China helped me to realize that other sweet fillings may also be good. I like it, so I doubled back to take a photo of the shop.

At the other end of the country

2012-05-12 19.44.43Yesterday as we ate mawa jalebis, we noticed that there was a rival shop just across the lane. The two shops facing each other had the same name, each claimed that it was the original and oldest, and that it had no branches anywhere. The Family and I laughed at this petty display of what was clearly a falling out of partners. That, inevitably, reminded us of a trip to Tripura several years ago, and of our best meal in Agartala.

To get to Tripura from Mumbai you have to cross two countries: most of India, and then Bangladesh. Tripura is surrounded on three sides by Bangladesh and connects to India only through a narrow neck in the east. We flew to Kolkata, and then over Bangladesh to Agartala. On the plane The Family found that we must eat in a restaurant called Adi Shankar. This was well-known in Agartala. We set out on foot from our hotel near the old palace, and eventually, after asking for directions a couple of times, landed up in front of four restaurants in a row, all called Adi Shankar.

I was flummoxed. The Family looked around and found a small shed with a tailor’s shop. She asked the tailor which of the Adi Shankars was the best. The old man replied that the four restaurants belong to four brothers, who quarreled about their roles in their father’s establishment after he died, and ended up dividing the restaurant. He told us that the best food was made by the eldest brother, and pointed out his shop. Since this was the only review we had, we took it at face value, and walked in.

2012-05-12 19.44.13We were early for dinner by Bengali standards, and the place was completely empty. The result was that we got the owner-cook’s undivided attention. Adi Shankar specialized in Ilish, a fish whose name can cause some Bengalis to launch into interminable reminiscences. (It is the national fish of Bangladesh, one of the triumvirate of countries with a national fish.) The tastiest of the fish is supposed to come from the Bangladeshi river called Padma. We were assured that the fish served in this restaurant comes every day from the very same Padma. We had Hilsa four ways: fried, as a starter, cooked in a thin curry, fried and then cooked into a curry, and, finally, cooked in a mustard paste.

What can one say about a meal after three years? Only that the memory still remains fresh in our minds. We must have eaten other things that evening, but we remember nothing else; the memory of the taste of that fish has overwhelmed everything. We took photos of the owners of the restaurant before we left. We went back for dinner once more, but that evening a large party had apparently finished all their Ilish, so we had to make do with other fish. I hope the family is still in business, and that their love of food remains fresh, because some day I want to go back there.

A monsoon Ramazan

2015-06-27 21.02.00

The Muslim calendar follows the moon, and therefore is 11 days shorter than the solar year. As a result, the month of Ramazan shifts over a person’s lifetime. In a couple of years it will have moved out of the monsoon into the heat of May. Then it will be almost 30 years before it coincides with the monsoon again.

For some Muslims, the month of Ramazan is a month of day-long. For those among the rest of us, who are fortunate enough to live in a city with a large Muslim population, this month can be quite the opposite: a month in which every night can be a special feast. The night market around Mumbai’s Minara Masjid is alive these days with "pop-up restaurants" serving wonderful spiced meats with a variety of breads and nans. Over the last decade the area has become more generally known, and a good fraction of Mumbai seems to have passed through the restaurants.

After a heavy meal of spicy meats and fried breads one can press through the crowds to the shops with their special sweets. Last year, while seeking shelter from a sudden shower, we discovered this little shop tucked away in a corner which sells amazing mawa jalebis. The shopkeeper has the look of a sweet-shop owner from a hundred books and movies – sour-tempered and with a waistline which is escaping control. This year we went back for more, even though it didn’t rain.

Re-entry blues

The Family laughs at me as we scan the menu in a fish restaurant in Mumbai. I said "This is expensive, nothing costs less than 90 RMB". We are still talking about China as we tuck into the Bombay Duck, the squid and the Rawas. Every table around us has a few foreign businessmen: a contingent from Japan to the left, some Germans to our right, mixed in with Indian hosts.

We came to eat shark, but they don’t have it today. The Lotus decides that we stay. I have eaten everything on the menu a hundred times, but I know that the Family has never eaten mussels here. I order a plate. The flesh is hard to extract with fork and knife; chopsticks would have been useful. I use my hands. The spices and coconuts are specific to the Konkan coast. Home feels different after more than a month in China.

Tea

Chinese tea is so different from Indian tea that I don’t even know how to begin to list the differences. So, one of the exciting things you can do in China is to taste the teas. It turns out that the best place to do this in Beijing is to go to the Maliandao tea street. This whole street is lined with shops selling tea and tea paraphernalia.

My target was the Beijing International Tea Center, whose entrance is shown in the photo above. This was the only door flanked by elephants that I saw in China. In this one large building you can go from one shop to another tasting their tea. I did not meet a single person who knows English, but this should not stop you. The people here are not only good salesmen, but also seem to like tea. It is an interesting experience to sit down for a tea tasting and converse about tea without understanding the words which are spoken.

I met one young lady who surmounted the language barrier by typing her responses into her mobile, listening to the English translation through her ear buds, and then repeating it. Sometimes I would have to look at her mobile to see the English and say the words out correctly, so I guess I repaid her for the tasting by teaching her a little English.

But there were people who did not try to achieve this mechanical level of communication. The best experiences were with people who would spontaneously bring out a new tea in order to explain subtle differences in flavours and methods of infusion. I would explain the price range I was interested in, but that did not stop anyone from bringing out much more expensive tea for the tasting. I guess the cost of tastings is factored into the prices.

You can walk out of any tasting without buying tea by saying a few words. But I found that when I wanted something I could discuss the price. Getting the price down by a third was not a problem: in my experience there would be an automatic agreement. Starting at half the price would usually lead to a more prolonged discussion, with the final price settling at between 60 and 65 percent of the initial bid.

This was probably the most instructive evening I have spent. I wish there were similar wine markets in southern Europe.

Icecream

2015-06-03 13.15.31

Fortune cookies are unknown in China. In fact, most of the time you don’t get desserts on the menu in restaurants. But when you slide open the door in an ice-cream chest you see a really large number of colourful packets. It would be fun to trace the history of ice cream in a country where sweets are not a big thing. Many of the flavours are pretty exotic, I haven’t always figured out what I’m tasting. The Family has more experience in these matters, but she can’t always figured it out either. That didn’t keep us from trying them out again and again, especially since Beijing seems to have slid into summer a little early. I guess part of the fun is that we can’t read the wrappers.

Can anyone help with the wrappers in the photo?

The familiar dumpling

2015-05-29 21.00.04 2015-05-29 21.00.24 2015-05-29 21.00.55

Until yesterday I subscribed to the myth that Chinese food in India is nothing like the real Chinese food. But yesterday I walked into one of a chain of dumpling restaurants called Meituan. The menu was in Chinese, the English part was not a translation, but Pinyin: Chinese written out in the Roman script. This left us a little flummoxed. Our terror grew when the waiter explained with gestures that when we made our choices we should enter them into a printed form that was on the table. Eventually this turned out to be easier than it first seemed, because every dish was numbered, and the form had the corresponding number.

This problem being resolved, we turned to the more pleasant job of deciphering the Chinese from the photos. The first discovery was that wontons were on the menu but they were called hun tun in Mandarin (the word we are familiar with comes from Cantonese). Siu mai was also on the menu, but called shao mai. We decided to have one of each, and then add some dumplings which looked familiar, and one which didn’t. When they arrived, these tasted completely familiar: exactly what I have eaten in Chinese restaurants in India. We confidently spiced the wonton soup with the chili sauce and soya to make a complete Indian potage out of it. The unfamiliar looking dumpling was dark in colour and the skin had a very nice flavour. Perhaps it was made of millets.

There were many things which were new to us. Among them was something which had been recommended by a friend: er ba. These are glutinous rice balls rolled in bamboo leaves and then stuffed inside the hollow stem of bamboo to be steamed. We ordered a plate. They were unfamiliar but very good: the flavour of bamboo reminded me of the Kerala breakfast dish called puttu. But the rice has a different taste, and it had little crunchy pieces of something fairly aromatic which added to the experience.

The most surprising items were the other two whose photos are alongside. The Shou Gong Ci Ba was the one dish The Family was dubious about, “I hope it is not egg”. It was the first thing to arrive at the table. I looked at the deep brown sauce and the light tan dusting of garnish over it and said it reminded me of something sweet. It was. The dark sauce was molasses, with a wonderful dark and earthy taste, and the filling in the dumpling was sweet. It reminded me of a traditional Bengali sweet called pitha which my grandmother used to make.

From the fact that the balls came in so many colours, we figured that the Du Jia Zhan Fen Tang Yuan would be sweet. It was the last to arrive. The garnish was sweet: crushed biscuits and peanuts, and the filling was mildly sweet. A good end to a satisfying meal.

Interestingly, the eight dishes we had ordered cost very little. With the beer added on, we paid a touch over RMB 100 for the meal. The Family pronounces it a good meal and the best value we have got from an unrecommended restaurant.

Try to eat something new

2015-05-27 12.27.54

Tired of eating the same things day in and day out? Try out this lovely white and purple cold cooked fish skin. Guaranteed to be crunchy without being gritty, and at the same time somewhat clammy. Not much taste, but a new sensation in the mouth. Never fear, you will survive.