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A Culinary Guide to Taura, no. 11
As I have walked the streets of Old Taura, I have passed these noren—and next to them the glass display case of dusty plastic food (bowl of ramen, some stir-fried rice, plate of stereotypical gyoza)—and wondered if I should go in, but something always held me back. Except for the noren, I never would have guessed the place was open: the lights aren’t bright inside and I never see movement behind the frosted glass doors.
But Sunday afternoon circumstances were ripe for a visit. We were slightly hungover after a sake meetup on Saturday night (report to come). We were headed to the Taura Bairin to check on the plum blossoms. The curtains were hanging outside the shop, and I felt a growing need to seize the day in the face of our limited time left in Japan, so we slid the door open and found the ramen shop that time forgot.
The tabletops and counters are clean, but everything in the shop seems covered with a layer of nicotine and time. On the tables, the bottles of vinegar, chili oil, soy sauce, and togarashi (hot pepper) are coated with their own contents, handled and handled by the many hands of Tauran customers. The bemused proprietor (he would giggle when I spoke Japanese) served us cold water from a water dispensing machine that must be 40 years old. He took our order—miso ramen with chāshū (slices of roasted pork), a plate of gyoza, and a small bowl of rice—and disappeared back into the kitchen.
We were left to contemplate the room. The floors are cracked concrete suggesting the space could once have been a garage. The ramen shop was trying to tell us it was 1970, but a 2008 calendar hung on the wall, and the TV was showing coverage of the recent Tokyo Marathon. Every detail of this kimokawa (strange but cute) place made me stupidly happy.
The owner/cook took a very long time in the kitchen, but there were reassuring sounds of water boiling, heavy chopping on a wooden board, clinking of pots. He finally emerged with a plate of misshapen, but clearly handmade gyoza, and a gorgeous bowl of ramen topped with in-house roasted pork belly.
We fell to: the ramen broth was unctuous with pork bone marrow (a sign of well-made broth) and instead of the standard garnish of paper-thin slices of pork, there were thick chunks of glistening, fatty, delicious pork belly. My gyoza lay flat on the plate, instead of standing up with perfect perky pleats in the dough wrappers, but they were stuffed with a fresh tasting, garlicky, bright green cabbage filling. We moaned over the food. It was so much better than two other ramen places we frequent that we were kicking ourselves that we had not come earlier.
As I paid the bill, the owner giggled some more as I spoke to him, and told me his name (either Hourai or Hourei, need to recheck this—if I can get him to stop sniggering with delight that a gaijin has come to his shop). On one of the signs, I noticed he also offers “Sapporo Ramen.” I’m not sure what if this means what I think it means (butter and miso broth), but I’ll be back to find out.
Hangovers tamed, we continued on to the plum blossoms. As we walked up to the orchard, we discussed, in that we-totally-get-it way of our retro relationship, that this shop is exactly what we need to defend against the encroaching forces of International Fast Food and slick commercialism. Not much in Taura is slick or commercial anyway, but what more delicious pleasure is there to not know what one will find behind the doors of a new shop? Will the food be good? What do they serve and how will it be different than other places we have been? The only defense against the predictable and prepackaged is to come back and eat the food.
A Culinary Guide to Taura, no. 10
Saturday we were up at the Taura Bairin (plum blossom orchard) to check out the early flowering trees. The wind was blowing hard and after the climb up and back down, we were ravenous. We slid open the door to Sumidagawa Honten, an unagi (eel) and tempura restaurant.
Sumidagawa means Sumida River; one still finds unagi restaurants on the banks of the famous Tokyo river. Now perhaps these places serve mostly farmed, rather than wild eel. The recent contamination scares featured on Japanese TV about imported Chinese eel has made people choose the more expensive Japanese eel (farmed or wild).
Last time we ate here the proprietress showed us an old photo book of Taura about 80 years ago. This restaurant, which was started by her grandfather (or some family member, I get confused in the heat of the conversation), is also about 80 years old. The street in front of the door was once a river that produced excellent eel. Much of the Taura area has been reclaimed, filled in, obliterated with development. The restaurant remains, still a family place.
Inside is a Japanese family oasis, calendars, personal photos, eel posters, small tables, a tatami area in the back with shopping bags and a backpack and other casual evidence of their life. Two members of the family, the grandmother and her five-year-old granddaughter, look up at us from their lunch. They look remarkably alike, and are clearly besotted with each other. Grandma recognizes us from our earlier visit and immediately starts chatting us up: “Welcome, please sit anywhere. Been to the bairin? Not yet fully flowering, huh? See here, trying to teach my granddaughter to use chopsticks is tough and takes a lot of patience.”
The girl’s young mother takes our order. I drink a sake (Takezuru junmai) and Carlos a beer. The drinks come with the standard snack at this place, hone sembei, deep-fried eel spines. So good, crunchy, full of umami, a meaty, salty taste.
Photo: Takezuru junmai sake and hone sembei (deep-fried eel spines).
Grandma leaves us to enjoy and makes giggly but pointed conversation with her granddaughter: “Eat some more, good? Yes, that’s good.” The girl is attacking her rice, making funny shoveling motions with her chopsticks in her little pudgy hands. She keeps looking up at grandma and smiling. I suddenly long for my Amah. (I hope you are reading this.)
The girl is eating leftovers and rice, some bits from oden (stew) and other nibbles. Grandma gets up and offers us some tazukuri (tiny soy-glazed dried sardines, the kind that goes in the New Year’s food). I mention the New Year’s connection, and she gives me the Beaming Smile of Japanese Approval. What a suck up I am.
Dad returns back to the kitchen from somewhere. Mom takes a phone order: “6 pm, four unadon, um hum, ok, no problem.” Grandma tells us that 90 percent of their business is delivery.
Photo: Jō unajū (first class eel set). Unajū, eel on rice, eel liver soup, turnip and daikon pickles, gobo (burdock root) and enoki shira ae (tofu dressing), with an unusual hint of curry powder in the dressing.
As we are waiting for our food, Grandma shows us a raw fukinotō, a green bud of Japanese butterbur. She invites us to smell the petals, which have a slightly medicinal odor: “Do you think you would like it? It’s my favorite.” Well, duh, we will eat it. She has it added to Carlos’s tempura set. It’s a bit like celery but with more flavor.
The little girl finishes lunch and plays a bit of “peek at the gaijin” with us through the swinging door to the kitchen. At one point she reaches into a basket next to the door; she does it slowly and deliberately, as if we won’t notice her secret hiding spot. She fishes out a small pink bag. It contains soap bubble equipment. Grandma cleans up the lunch table and takes her granddaughter by the hand. They march outside to blow bubbles.
I ask the mom for some details about the soup and the dressing on the gobo. She starts writing kanji on her order pad for me: kimo sui (liver broth), shiro ae (tofu dressing). We, the husband/chef and his wife and Carlos and I, all thank each other too much. We leave in the sweet fog of Japanese politesse and grilled eel fat.
A Culinary Guide to Taura, no. 9
Kaeru means both “return” and “frog” in Japanese. The mistress of Kaeru was born in Hiroshima and misses her hometown (hence she is yearning to return). The night we went she was alarmingly battered and bruised from a fall down the stairs (something to do with her dogs), but she was in good spirits. When we asked about the name of her place, she cheerfully asked us, “Don’t I look like a frog?” Actually, she does, but I refused to say so to her face. I just laughed politely and drank my beer.
She has been running this tiny, very local, somewhat untidy, yet comfortable place for ten years. Her husband is in the Japanese Navy (ok, technically the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force), and we had a good discussion about Navy life. She has a sizable collection of frog statues, stuffed frogs, and frog memorabilia. She also collects Zippo lighters. This is not a sterile business; it’s a lived in place, full of memories and personal touches.
Madam Kaeru (I neglected to get her real name) serves Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, which is quite different from the more famous Osaka style. Osaka style has a lot of batter (made of yamaimo and flour). Blue Lotus has a good post on the standard pancake, with a separate link to a recipe. Hiroshima style—or at least the style she serves—has very little batter. Her daughter (pictured, who very much does not look like a frog) made a very thin crepe of batter on the grill, sprinkled a good amount of dried sardine powder on top, and then topped that with a huge mound of shredded cabbage and bean sprouts.
After the cabbage and the bean sprouts, she adds whatever additions you would like. We chose bacon and shrimp. She said next time we should order the house special of mochi and cheese.
Once the cabbage and bean sprouts cook down a bit, she cracks a whole egg on the grill, breaks the yolk with her spatula, and quickly spreads it into a perfect circle the same size as the pancake. Then, she flips the whole pancake onto the egg. She adds a layer of either udon or soba (yakisoba, made of wheat, not buckwheat soba). She incorporates the second ingredient you ordered (in our case, some grilled shrimp went into the pancake). She flips the whole thing over again and garnishes it with okonomiyaki sauce, a handful of dried bonito flakes, and sesame seeds. Finally, she quarters it and adds some mayonnaise on top.
The whole time her daughter was cooking, Madam Kaeru was backseat cooking, “Not so much. Don’t forget the sauce. Press on it more.” It was delicious. We drank, we chatted, we stuffed ourselves. We thought we had put away a good amount, but the Japanese couple at the table behind us ate two whole pancakes each. This ain’t no kaiseki place, friend.
A Culinary Guide to Taura, no. 8
Saito-san gave me a call last week to ask if we wanted to reserve for New Year’s Eve. And so last night we walked down the hill and joined three groups of men who were merrily into the shochu when we slid open the door. We started with Aoi me no samurai (Ichi no Tori‘s featured local sake, a tasty, full-bodied pure rice sake).
Photo: The starter (from left): namako (sea slug) in a dressing of vinegar, red peper, mirin, and green onion, cooked shrimp wrapped in a thin slice of daikon, cucumber with a dab of white miso, steamed broccoli rabe.
Not pictured: shitake mushroom skewers and negima (chicken and Japanese leek skewers).
Photo: Fried Oyama chicken with curry salt.
At one point, four of us started singing along with the music on the stereo, but now we can’t remember what the song was (my god, was it something by the Carpenters?). Everyone knew the words in English and we were belting it out.
Photo: Bottles of the house shochu.
We tried a second sake: Suigei ginjo. The “Drunken Whale” had a pronounced grapefruit nose; the taste started soft and classic, but finished fresh and tart on the back of the tongue. Yum.
Photo: Lotus root stuffed with shrimp and egg and deep fried, served with green tea salt.
Photo: Buta kaku ni (stewed chunks of pork belly and green beans), served with Japanese mustard.
Not pictured: a sabisu (complimentary) salad of okara (soy pulp left after pressing soybeans for tofu) with scallions, carrot, and kamaboko (fish paste sausage).
Dan Fogelburg’s “Leader of the Band” starting playing at this point, and we got a little maudlin about his death this month.
Photo: Kishinami-san and Saito-san.
Photo: Lemon mousse.
A Culinary Guide to Taura, no. 7
Photo: The fresh noodle counter at Funashokuseimen.
Funashokuseimen means “ship food manufacturer of noodles” but the name is a pun on the neighborhood name, Funakoshi. So, maybe it should be: The Nautical Noodle Maker of Funakoshi. A Japanese naval base is within walking distance, so the ship pun in the name is very apt, but mostly I have seen Toshiba factory workers in blue overalls eating here. They come for a quick meal (the shop is open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.), bolt it down, and head to (or back to) work.
At the fresh noodle counter there are “fat” and “slender” udon (made from a very fine, white wheat flour) and different quality grades of soba (made from buckwheat flour). The signs at the bottom of the photo say “ultra-high quality soba” and “most high quality soba” with prices to match. They also sell little packets of the broth or dipping sauce to go with the noodles. I’ve made a few dishes at home with Funashokuseimen noodles. I was there in early December and they were advertising the soba made with newly harvested buckwheat (shin-soba).
The eat-in area (above) features ladies in kerchiefs behind the food preparation window (who all ran away after I asked to take a photo). It’s a no frills, no table service, bus your own tray, get your own water place. They serve run-of-the-mill soba/udon dishes like tempura soba/udon, zaru soba (cold noodles with a dipping sauce, served on a flat slatted bamboo tray), tanuki soba/udon (noodles in broth with a garnish of the little fried bits left over from making tempura), kare (curry) udon, and so on. Nothing gourmet, but a very cheap, decent, quick meal.
This place is better than the average noodle joint that one would go to in a frantically busy commuter train station. After all, Taura/Funakoshi is a sleepy little place away from the frenzy of Tokyo and Yokohama.
The sign below says, “take out is also OK,” but it is written more like “take out orders also will be humbly agreed to.” The lunch box says it all.