Last November, I had the great good fortune to visit a friend who
was living in Tokyo. I have long been interested in Japan, and I loved
my experiences there, but my reaction surprised me. I’d been to
several destinations in Asia, and this contributed to the sense that
Japan was not really Asia, but rather a large Asian-themed park. In
most of Asia, you can’t drink the water, traffic is chaos,
transportation is antiquated, and electricity is conserved. In Japan,
you can drink tap water, traffic is well ordered, transportation is
ultramodern and efficient, and electricity is used with wild abandon.
There are lovely temples, gardens, and palaces that you can visit, but
then you stroll back into sophisticated, hip, modern Japan. The only
evidence that you’re really in Asia seems to be the squat
toilets—and even those are not ubiquitous in Japan. Japan is
clean, efficient, and slick, and it just seems too familiar and to
perfect to be “real” Asia.
Fortunately, you can visit all those temples and palaces, and
they are splendid. The best place to really indulge in temples is
Kyoto, once the capital of Japan. Kyoto was never bombed during WWII,
so it is blessed with fabulous examples of old Japan. I visited all the
places one is supposed to see, including Ryoanji, with its serenely
raked rock garden, and Kinkakuji, a temple that is completely overlaid
in gold. Kinkakuji sits at the edge of a lake, and the golden temple
and the surrounding mountains and gardens, splashed with bright
autumnal colors, were all reflected in the water. It was incredibly
beautiful. My other favorite sight in Kyoto was Nijo Castle. This
amazingly lovely building—miles of wood and painted
panels—offered a wonderful glimpse into court life of a
millennium ago. One of my favorite aspects of the “castle”
was the “nightingale floors.” The wooden floors have been
built in such a way that, as one walks on them, they twitter and chirp
like a bird. It’s lovely and musical, but had the very practical
purpose of ensuring that no one could sneak up on you.
We also visited Nara, the oldest city in Japan and the
country’s capital before Kyoto. The main things to see are the
city’s parks, temples (Buddhist), and shrines (Shinto). One
temple, Todai-ji, is the largest wooden structure in the world,
constructed without the use of nails. Another delight of Nara is the
Nara deer—hundreds of diminutive deer stroll through the parks
and wander amid the tourists.
Tokyo, too, offered much to see, from the serenity of the
Imperial Palace to the dazzle and crowds of Electric City. The
Edo-Tokyo Museum was one of the most interesting museums I’ve
ever seen. It takes you through the entire history of Tokyo, from its
earliest days through the rule of the shoguns to World War II to the
present. In some places, full-sized buildings have been recreated, and
everywhere, there are fascinating displays and collections.
Well, I could go on for a long time about my adventures in Japan, but I
want to mention the important fact that Japan is paradise for food
lovers. All the major department stores have incredible food floors,
with everything from the most exquisitely prepared local dishes to the
most outrageous European chocolates. There are food shops everywhere,
from sushi makers to French bakeries. The markets are amazing. The
Nishiki-Koji Market in Kyoto extends for blocks, and you can get
everything from the freshest ingredients to full meals. In Tokyo, a
must see is the Tsukiji Fish Market. You have to arrive before 8 a.m.,
but the experience makes it worth the effort. This “market”
process 5 million pounds of fish every day! It is an
overwhelming sight—fish and seafood, dozens and dozens of
varieties, from tiny shellfish to long silvery eels to massive bluefin
tuna—in unbelievable numbers, stretching for blocks. And everyone
is moving at very high speed. Everything is processed, packed, and
moved within a few hours. One sees stacks of containers already labeled
for shipment overseas, but there are also long lines of trucks waiting
to whisk the incredibly fresh fish to restaurants and stores around
Tokyo It’s mind blowing. And the fish market is surrounded by
blocks and blocks of markets selling everything from herbs and spices
to mushrooms to rice cookers and chop sticks. It’s no wonder the
Tsukiji area is known as Tokyo’s kitchen.
One of the great joys of Japan is that, while one can unload a
lot of money on food at a high-end restaurant, it is possible to eat
really well on a budget. There are myriad small places that cater to
the working classes, offering noodle and rice dishes, soup, or tempura.
I came to love Japan’s version of fast food: pick the dish from a
picture or from an array of plastic replicas of the food, note the
number of the item you want, go to a vending machine and put in the
price of the dish (usually no more than $4), grab the ticket the
machine spits out, find a seat, and hand the ticket to a speeding
waiter. Tea and soup appear instantly, and the dish you ordered comes
only a minute or two later. All the dishes are classics: soba noodles
with shrimp tempura, udon noodles with vegetables, rice with Japanese
curry, and more.
I could go on for a lot longer about the wonders of Japan, both
culinary (I didn’t mention the Kobe beef, did I—wow) and
cultural. But I think it’s time to close and give you a recipe.
Donburi means “rice bowl,” though the word has come to
refer to a category of food served in these large, deep bowls. Rice is
the base of every donburi, with a variety of hot toppings being ladled
over the top. Beef was first used in donburi in the mid-1800s, when
eating beef was no longer forbidden to the common people. Gyu
donburi means “beef rice bowl,” but this is commonly
shortened to simply gyudon. There are a few exotic ingredients in this
dish, but once you have everything on hand, it’s a breeze to
Cut the onions into thin half-rings. Cut the
beef into bite-sized pieces (see note below about sliced beef). Put the
dashi, soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and sake in a large frying pan over
medium heat. Add the onion slices and simmer for five minutes, or until
the onions begin to get a bit softer. Then add the beef and simmer for
a few minutes longer, until the beef is cooked through with no pink
showing. Serve over white rice in deep bowls.
You’ll probably need to visit an Asian
grocery store to find many of these ingredients. While dashi, a fish
stock that is the base of a surprisingly large range of Japanese
dishes, can be made from scratch, most people now opt for one of the
easier ways of producing it. The two options I’ve tried are the
powder—just mix it in hot water, and there’s your
stock—and the small bag filled with all the classic ingredients,
which you then drop into water and boil for ten minutes. The second
version offers a little better flavor, but the first version is much
easier and is good enough for most applications (including gyudon).
Look for dashi (powder or bag) that has bonito flakes high up on the
ingredients list, as this is the real flavoring agent behind
traditional dashi. I usually look for dashi that doesn’t have
MSG, but that’s just a preference—Asia uses lots of MSG, so
it has nothing to do with authenticity.
Mirin is a sweet rice wine, but you can usually
find “cooking mirin” in the vinegar and soy sauce aisle,
even in stores that don’t otherwise carry alcohol.
Any Asian grocery store with a meat counter will
likely have pre-sliced beef on hand. You could also ask the butcher at
your regular grocery store to slice the beef —sirloin, rib eye,
and top round are nice choices—into the ¼-inch-thick
slices needed for this dish. Be aware that the slices of beef purchased
in an Asian grocery store will often be the full size of a steak, just
very thin, and you need to cut them a second time into strips that are
about 1 inch wide. Note that the strips of beef for gyudon are
generally a bit thinner than what you normally find cut up and sold as
“stir fry.” So your best bet is to get the Asian-style
sliced beef and then make your strips.
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