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Zoltan in Japan

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By Zoltan Szabo

I have just returned from a trip to Japan With a fine bunch of Canadian & Aussie chefs and journalists, namely Sasha Chapman, Iris Benaroia of The National Post, Anthony Walsh from Canoe and Oliver Bonacini Restaurants, Guiness World Oyster Shucking Champion Patrick McMurray of Starfish, Justine North of Sydney's Becasse and Joanna Saville from Australian Gourmet Traveller.

The trip was initiated and sponsored by Rudy Guo of Spirit of Hospitality and Hideyo Watanabe of Yoshikin Metal Industry Co., LTD. manufacturer of Global chef's knives. The idea was to show us around Tokyo, as well as Yoshikin's manufacturing facility in Tsubame-city Niigata, 2 hours NE from Tokyo. At the manufacturing headquarters the chefs and I met with many product developers and designers and spent a full day with them, working on the first steps of creating a new line of chef's knives, oyster shucking tools and waiter's corkscrew. But, working aside, the trip was a fantastic food and sake adventure!

Upon arrival at Tokyo’s airport we were picked up by Hideyo and taken to the Grand Hyatt in the Roppongi, downtown. The first thing I noticed in my elegantly appointed suite was the heated toilet seat, as well as the bowl's "mist" and "jet" functions. (I am still wondering about the purpose of the "jet" button). After freshening up we headed out for dinner.

Walking to the restaurant we were amazed by the stylishness of the locals almost each and everyone wearing real designer clothing, in true fashionista manner. Also, the cleanliness of the city was incredible.

Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market is largest fish market in the world! The size of a village, it took us hours to wonder around! Two days in a row we woke up at 4:00 AM, so we could get there in time to watch people bidding on yellow fin tuna caught over night! ...And sushi made from that fresh fish just tasted a little different than at any Toronto sushi parlour! The best meal of the trip might have been at a very small, but so busy sushi place in the heart of the market. Apart from the tuna, we also had eel, cuttle fish and shrimp, all the freshest and raw; and "shirrako" (cod sperm) served with a little dash of soy sauce, chille and lime - so delicious!

Then my heart broke when I saw minkie whale loin for sale at a special stall. But I still tasted it... it looked like rich game, texture and taste of it reminded me of calf's liver. Japan has a long history of whaling. Current whaling conducted by Japan is a source of political dispute between pro-whaling countries and anti-whaling organizations. In 1982, the International Whaling Commission voted on a moratorium on commercial whaling to go into force in 1986. While Japan initially intended to oppose the moratorium, they in submission withdrew due to the threat of economic sanctions made by the United States. Nevertheless, Japan continues whaling today under a "scientific research permit". "Scientific research permit" my sexy ass...! I saw whale meat with my own eyes at the market on butcher's stand offered for sale to everyone! Or was that after the "scientific research" was "performed"? But, hey, what do I know?! After all, I am merely a wine steward who loves to eat and drink.

Other food favourites from the trip included large bowls of soba and udon noddles with octopus and shrimp tempura, and seaweed we had right on the street by the market. Chicken and horse sashimi were good; and the elegantly translated soup dish "steaming cock with noodles in broth?! Of course we insisted the ladies order it, just so we could hear them?

We all felt very macho after having blowfish sashimi or "fugu" as it's called in Japanese. Apparently you need a special licence to catch, sell and/or prepare blowfish! Since (as fans of The Simpsons know) the skin and certain internal organs are highly poisonous to humans. Tetrodotoxin is a powerful neurotoxin that can cause death in nearly 60% of those who ingest even a tiny amount of it. Once a few milligrams of the toxin are consumed the toxin blocks the sodium channels in the nervous tissues, ultimately paralyzing the muscle tissue, including the heart. Curiously, the toxin seems not to be synthesized by the fish itself, but by bacteria associated with the fish. The fish has a mutation in its own sodium channels which makes it resistant to the effect of the toxin.

Honestly, it was not so great, the blowfish. It had a fairly firm texture and not much flavour. I recalled my friend and Japanese food expert Michael Pataran (who’s just opened Shogun Revolver! in Nassau, The Bahamas) explaining he thought it was drab and really for adventurous stockbrokers. It’s the thrill of Russian roulette? Whatever. I’m not sure it’s worth the 20 to 30 deaths each year.

Michael is also an expert on sake, we have drank a lot of it together, so I could not believe how little the average Japanese know about their own national beverage. Throughout this trip we had lots of cheap stuff, which was served hot and not chilled as I was taught. Not that it really mattered, since we had tons of fun. We did have many fine bottles too. My favourite styles of sake are Junmai & Dai Ginjo. I also like Nigori, the sweetest of sakes and unfiltered, cloudy so it looks like milk. I remember tasting Sato no Homare "Pride of the Village" Junmai Ginjo from the Sudo Honke Shuzo kura in the Ibaraki prefecture, Kanto Reg. with Michael back in the summer and thought that it's just superb!  Made from Yamada Nishiki rice, 50 % polished, in super premium style. Would make a great Christmas present! Take my word!

Japan is also know for natural hot spring baths and spas, called onsen in Japanese, although we could not really try one due to time limitations. A volcanically active country, Japan has thousands of onsen scattered along its length and breadth. Onsen were traditionally used as public bathing places and today play a central role in directing Japanese domestic tourism. Onsen come in many types and shapes including outdoor and indoor baths. Baths may be either public run by a municipality or private often run as part of a hotel, traditional inn, called ryocan. We spent a couple of nights in a ryocan while up in Niigata. There was a public bath, for sure, very clean and comfy. Four of us pretty big guys slept on the floor, beside one another, in an extremely small room. Before going to bed we all sat around a small electrically heated table with a blanket on top, stuck our feet underneath it, drank plenty of shochu (barley made "Japanese Whisky") and sake and peeled oranges...Because that's so Japanese, ya know! That's what our cute young "tour guide" (an employee of Yoshikin) told us anyways! There was also lots of joking around and some '80s and AC/DC played off the laptop of Patrick McMurray, and some Japanese cigarettes!  Maybe even some dancing. How could you not dance when Alphaville's "Big in Japan" was playing?

Before it was time to head back to Canada, we had cocktails at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel's 38th floor posh spot, Signature. I can’t remember the name of the chef, who served molecular gastro-inspired French meets Japanese, not my favourite style. But the one thing I do remember is the bathroom! Wow! It was just splendid with urinals against the window and a view of the city...! Stunning! Just like shamelessly peeing out the window! So, we all gathered, boys and gals, in the men's room and enjoyed a few moments of friendly and cozy time together...The problem was that when we asked for a few "molecular" cocktails to be served for us right in there they pretended that they do not speak any English, so it was back to the main room.

Good times in Japan! Many thanks to Rudy Guo who is an inspiration to us all! And I wish to thank Global knives for making this trip possible. In my opinion, Global knives, especially the Global Pro line, are by far the best in the world!



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