Japan Eats

They say it’s your birthday

Japan Eats is now two years old. Huzzah!!

It has been two years since we unleashed the Japan Eats website on an unsuspecting public. In that time we’ve posted over 160 stories on every aspect of the Japanese dining experience: recipes, restaurant reviews and special reports. We’ve also featured video exploring such diverse topics as umeshu, Tokyo’s annual Thai Festival and how to prepare kabocha tempura.

Traffic to our site continues to grow, as do the number of visitors to our Vimeo channel and iTunes feeds. Moreover, our site stats revealed:

– The most popular search term is ‘negitoro‘, closely followed by ‘tantanmen‘. Other search terms used to find our site include ‘marunouchi fish domburi‘, ‘how to make kakubin highball’ and ‘work for a Japanese curry shop in japan’ (good luck with that).
– A majority of visitors to the site come from Japan followed by the United States, Canada and Australia. Quite a few of our Japanese guests read us through the magic of Google Translate.
– We also have a healthy following in China, particularly for our videos. People of China! 谢谢!

From the comments, tweets, and emails we’ve received, it’s clear a lot of people don’t just want to read about Japanese cuisine, nor do they merely want to know the best place in Tokyo to order yakiton (Akimotoya in Nogata, by the way). What they really want is to prepare Japanese dishes themselves. Naturally, we’ll do our best to keep the recipes coming. In the meantime, email or tweet us your recipe requests!

What’s next for Japan Eats?

As Chris wrote in the last Japan Eats update, our stories now appear as a regular feature on the Tokyo Weekender website. Please share the love by visiting their site and clicking on EVERYTHING IN SIGHT. Especially the advertising.

This month we published a story from new contributor Justin Potts, and we plan to introduce other writers in the coming months. Remember, we’re always on the look out for new authors. Contact lovitt@japaneats.tv for details.

For those of you in Tokyo, Japan Eats resident drink guru Christopher Pellegrini has started a shochu group on meetup.com. Called CAST (Curious About Shochu in Tokyo), Chris describes the group as “a group for shochu nerds and novices alike. It’s a beverage that is wholly under-appreciated, in all its many forms, and there’s a lot of sage shochu knowledge out there just waiting to be mined. Much of that knowledge is trapped in shochu specialty bars. If that’s where we have to go to find it, then so be it.”

Shochu and umeshu lovers outside Japan shouldn’t feel left out, however. You can join the conversation on our Facebook page, Twitter or our brand new Google+ page.

Out and about: Ama-san in Osatsu

The ladies of Mie offer the freshest catch in town

What makes the pursuit of fantastic and original cuisine so enticing is that it’s inseparable from the unique culture in which it was conceived. In an era where nearly everything that we dine upon is primly packed, shipped, and plainly arranged to follow the path of least resistance to the consumer, somewhere in the recesses of our consciousness we’re aware that what our palate is experiencing is no mere accident. Someone, somewhere was in a position to conjure up a flavor or a dish because it made sense given a situation and resources and people cross cities, states, provinces, mountains, nations, and oceans with their sights set on tasting “the real thing”.

Ama_feat

Two ama-san in Ōsatsu, Mie prefecture.

For many, one early morning excursion to the Tsukiji fish market followed by a sushi breakfast in the charmingly rustic shitamachi is an authentic enough experience of Japan’s culinary obsession with the treasures of the sea.

However, for the inquisitive and adventurous, I can point to about 1,000 women in Mie who can further satisfy your appetite.

To this day, in the small fishing village of Ōsatsu in the southern port of Toba City, Mie prefecture, nearly 1,000 fully active and hard-working ama-san (海女さん – literally “sea woman”) forage for the ocean’s offerings the old-fashioned way – by diving for them, leaving the air supply at home.

While the distinctive white garb and physically demanding practice have history in some other isolated regions of Japan, as well as in Korea, Toba City (including Ōsatsu) is the home to nearly half of the roughly 2,000 active Japanese ama-san – a significant figure in a city with a population of approximately 20,000. Put simply, 1 out of every 20 people in the city (roughly one out of every 10 women!) spends a good 2 hours in the frigid ocean waters most mornings foraging the key constituents of the local diet. The a.m. session was for a long time followed by a bit of rest in the ama-koya, or “ama hut”, with a second outing, once rejuvenated. Nowadays, dives are limited to just one in the morning, partially for safety reasons, but primarily because there are other options for the working woman today. Indeed, most of the ladies pursue other activities in the daytime. Somewhat unique for a fishing village, there’s a reasonable spread of rice paddies which allow for local farming in conjunction with the diving.

An ama-koya, or “ama hut”.

An ama-koya, or “ama hut”.

The other reason for the more “relaxed pace” may well be the fact that most ama-san are in their 60s and 70s, with the oldest active divers in their mid-80s. A handful of up-and-comers are in their early to mid-20s, though. While certain scenes in Ōsatsu may feel frozen in time, these hard-working ladies on the front line are combating the same social issues as the rest of the nation. One can easily forgive them for limiting their active duty to a “mere” morning dive. That said, with the village gradually making its way into the public eye, and with a surprising number of young women now actively seeking to succeed their mothers and grandmothers in the trade (the opposite of the trend we’re seeing in Japan’s struggling farming industry), it’s entirely possible that the vitality of a new generation of ama-san may bring about an entirely new image and lifestyle for women and the local fishing industry.

Don’t expect these ladies to don diving gear anytime soon, though. While “protecting tradition” and suppressing certain costs associated with gearing up may be the obvious reasons, the major factor is more simple: balance. The natural limitation placed on the divers in these conditions places a natural limit on just how much can be caught on any given day during any given season. It’s this balance that has sustained the city and the culture for generations, and the people of Toba see it as the key to continued sustainability for generations to come.

What does this have to do with your insatiable appetite? Well, where there’s a congregation of individuals partaking in a unique and impressive, but largely extinct cultural practice, you’ll also often find open arms welcoming the curious traveler – particularly when there’s food involved! So it is in the ama-san village of Ōsatsu, currently making the push for recognition as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity‘.

Inside the ama-hut designed for tourists

Inside the ama-hut designed for tourists

Although a significant step up in terms of comfort compared to the real thing, a special ama-koya has been constructed specifically for those adventurous individuals who wish to dine only on the freshest morning catch, consisting of freshly grilled sazae, a form of conch or “sea snail”, abalone, as well as the occasional ise-ebi (a member of the lobster family).

It should be noted, however, that while it’s common for clams, scallops, and squid to also appear on the menu, these can’t be classified as part of the “ama-san catch”, as these are left alone by the brave divers. In fact, the primary target for ama-san is seaweed and sea grasses, including ise-hijiki, wakame, as well as awame, a particular variety of kelp which can only be found in local waters, typically only used in local Mie and Kyoto dishes. The varieties of local kelp and seaweed are most commonly prepared boiled or stewed with combinations of soy sauce, sugar, and mirin, often becoming part of soups.

The experience as a whole is most certainly one worth seeking out, as a comforting veil of both vitality and mystery seems to hang low over the waterfront village. Although technically a tourist attraction, the ama-koya offers a chance to get one step closer to the cuisine of local waters than you’ll find just about anywhere else, and the its location far down the oceanfront jetty will conjure a sense of discovery in even the veteran explorer. It’s worth noting that the real ama-koya are not open to the public – the coals burning there are used primarily as a heat source for the small enclosure rather than for preparing meals.

In Japan, quality seafood is never hard to find, but those with curious taste buds and who long to know just where their meal is from would struggle to do better, even in Tsukiji, making the ama-koya dining experience one you’d have a tough time duplicating just about anywhere.

Special thanks to Asami Murata for the photos and wealth of additional information.

Recipe: Tori no tatsutaage (deep fried chicken coated with starch)

Do you know your tatsutaage from your karaage?

Karaage is the deep fried chicken dish familiar to anyone who’s visited a Japanese izakaya. The chicken is coated in an egg based batter and then fried in vegetable oil.

Tatsutaage, on the other hand, is chicken, pork or fish are marinated and then coated with starch.
Here, we’re double frying chicken marinated in a mixture of soy, sake and ginger.

Serve with mayonnaise, ponzu or (our favorite) Thai sweet chili sauce.

Tori no tatsutaage

Tori no tatsutaage

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • 500 – 600 g chicken thigh
  • 2 teaspoons of salt
  • 1 tablespoon of sake
  • 1 tablespoon of soy sauce
  • 10 g of ginger
  • 6 – 7 tablespoons of potato starch (or corn starch)

Method

Take the chicken from the refrigerator and allow it to come to room
temperature.

Next, cut away any fat or gristle. Place the chicken on a tray and sprinkle salt over the pieces. Again, leave it for 20 minutes. Wipe away any remaining moisture with a paper towel.

Prepare to marinate the chicken by peeling and grating the ginger. Now cut the chicken into 5 cm square pieces. Put them into a bowl and marinate for 30 minutes to an hour in a mixture of the sake, soy sauce and ginger.

If you haven’t already, fill a deep fryer with enough vegetable oil to cover the chicken (5 – 7 centimeters ought to be enough). Heat to 170 degrees centigrade.

Evenly distribute the starch on a tray. Coat each piece of chicken before gently dropping it into the oil. Take care to shake off any excess starch before dropping the chicken into the oil. It’s also worth noting that the chicken should be coated in starch right before frying.

Deep fry each piece for 2 – 3 minutes, then remove them from the oil and allow them to rest for a further 2 – 3 minutes. In order to maintain the temperature of the oil, it’s best not to fry all the pieces at once.

Now it’s time to fry the chicken a second time. Do so for 3 – 4 minutes, or until the chicken becomes brown. Keep a close eye on the bubbles erupting from the chicken as it fries – they will become smaller when the chicken is ready to remove from the oil. Before you take the chicken out of the deep fryer, turn the heat up so that the outside of the chicken becomes crispy and you can easily drain the oil.

Once the oil has drained away, serve with your choice of condiment.