Archive for December, 2008

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008


Here it is New Year’s Eve and I’m excited by toothpicks.

 The supermarkets are jammed with folks buying osechi, traditional New Year’s delicacies, but a toothpick display at Isetan, my favorite department store in Shinjuku, stole my attention.

 Set out next to a gleaming array of sleek Alessi accessories was a modest collection of products from Saruya, one of Tokyo’s oldest shops.

 Since Edo times, Saruya has been a purveyor of handcrafted toothpicks. How could I pass up a pack of 500 shirakaba, white birch, picks priced at only ¥105? The smiling sales woman recommended the more expensive utsugi wood picks, cut from stems of the deutzia crenata bush, as being stronger, thinner, and more flexible, so I bought 250 of those. And I had to have a cordwood-like bundle of the larger, thicker spicewood kashi-yoji, cut with a thin strip of bark still attached. A kashi-yoji is used as a fork when eating Japanese sweets.

 Neanderthals used toothpicks. One of my favorite writers, Henry Petroski, has written a fascinating 464-page book on toothpick technology and culture. Who knew there was so much to say about toothpicks?

 Using a toothpick means I’ve sunk my teeth into something. Not such as easy thing during these lean times.

 Using a toothpick also means I’ve got time to poke around in corners—that I don’t need to rush off to some other task.

 And now that I’ve stocked up, I can look forward to tonight’s soba, and tomorrow’s ozoni soup, and osechi food knowing that I can spend a few quiet moments, like my Neanderthal cousins did, intently probing the gaps, digging out bits, pondering what’s been left behind. 

Where is the Bib Gourmand?

Friday, December 26th, 2008

Last month, the second Michelin Guide to Tokyo was published with stacks of their books, as thick and blood red as Kobe beefsteaks, piled high in every bookstore. 

But where is the Bib Gourmand? The chubby little icon smiling next to a listing serving good food at reasonable prices? 

Why are only starred restaurants listed?  Why the full-page color photos both interior and exterior?  Why the long, dull, lifeless prose? Why the typos?

Consider this description of Yebisu, a one-starred teppanyaki restaurant in Ebisu: “At each counter, chefs skilfully [sic] grill Japanese and Western ingredients right in front of diners.” Wow, right in front of diners. Isn’t that what teppanyaki means?

Or more: “The head chef pays particular attention to colour, composing dishes in tempting colours.” Maybe the writer ought to pay particular attention to redundancy. 

Or more: “After dinner, guests can move from the teppanyaki counter to sofas for dessert.” A sofa for dessert? Make mine lightly upholstered, please.

With an estimated 200,000 eateries in this fine city, why focus on a place like Arakawa, a steak joint, where lunch is listed at ¥52,500. That doesn’t include the service charge, by the way.

Why only three Italian restaurants? Why no Korean restaurants?  Why no Indian restaurants?  Or any other from the vast panoply of world cuisines that Tokyo offers?  Why no ramen shops? 

When Michelin really starts to get serious about eating in Tokyo; when it replaces dull ad-copy-like prose with terse descriptions of food, specialties, and ambiance; when it gets rid of colorful photos of food and interiors; when it includes restaurants that offer good food at reasonable prices; when it lists not only 218 “starred” restaurants but perhaps 518 restaurants of all types and price ranges; then their little red book will become a real guide to eating in Tokyo—as it is in Paris and many other cities—and not merely a collection of glossy promotional brochures for each starred restaurant.

Oden at Konakara

Thursday, December 25th, 2008



 One of the appeals of oden must be the bathing. The bone-warming pleasure of sitting in a hot tub, slowly simmering while you absorb the aromatic qualities of the restorative water. Steam rises. Stress evaporates. And midwinter blues fade. At least that’s how it appears to me sitting in front of, not in, a gently heated copper kettle watching the oden ingredients—the daikon, the hanpen, the tamago, the chikuwabu— float like contented bathers in the fragrant broth.

 Konakara prompts such reveries because the food, the décor, the service (and the sake) conspire to warm the belly, smooth the brow, and ease out all the kinks of the business day.

 Oden is a plebian pleasure. An inexpensive and exceedingly healthy winter treat. As fast food, it is sold by street vendors and convenience stores, but there are a handful of places selling high quality, housemade oden. For more than a decade, Konakara has quietly been serving up some of the best.

 The secret of good oden is in the broth. Tokyo-style broth is a hearty stock strongly flavored with soy sauce. Osaka-style broth is lighter, milder, and flavored with sake. But Chef Nakata, who has worked 20 years in the Kansai and 20 years in Tokyo, bases his Konakara stock on a harmony of shiitake mushrooms, kelp, katsuobushi, and mackerel. When asked whether his invigorating light broth is Kansai style, his cheerful face swiftly became a mask of mock sternness. “It’s Konakara style!“ he said, “We don’t imitate anyone!”

 Well, that’s not exactly true. The “hyotan” gourd motive, repeated throughout the restaurant—in the chopstick rest, the dishes, the lamps, on the indigo noren, even in the special gourd-shaped copper kettle—was the favorite symbol of Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who thought the gourd brought him good luck. Nakata admits that he borrowed the idea from the shogun.

 And so far, the gourd seems to be working. The tiny restaurant is been crowded every night. A U-shaped counter, at which 20 can sit comfortably elbow to rib, surrounds the softly gleaming copper kettle filled with those bathing tidbits. The walls are plastered with the mud and straw of a vintage farmhouse and are cracked to look a century old. Care has gone into choosing the dishes which ae sturdy, beautifully crafted utensils in the mingei, folk craft, tradition. The beer cups are nostalgic Edokiri cut-glass tumblers, red for women and blue for men. You enter this relaxing rusticated setting through a lovely landscaped entranceway with a gourd vine growing from a ceramic pot.

 Presiding over the oden is Aikawa-san and her daughter. Aikawa ladles out every serving and if the broth runs low, she’ll reach under the stove for the bucket of stock and pour in just enough to top it off. In a free moment, she’ll do some washing up.

 Every day Chef Nakata prepares the various items from scratch. The oden tane, ingredients, are steamed, fried, grilled, or parboiled, then brought out to the copper oden kettle to simmer and marry with the broth.

 There are some forty items to choose from. A few of my favorites are the daikon radish, hanpen (steamed fish paste cake), tamago (hard-boiled egg), chikuwabu (a tube-like flour dumpling), mochi kinchaku (a fried tofu pouch filled with tender mochi), chikuwa (a grilled fish paste dumpling) , and ganmodoki (a deep-fried ball of tofu filled with diced vegetables). While simmering, the tane absorb the balanced flavors of the stock lifting the taste to a sum greater than the parts.

 A moriawase assortment is the way to go. Each dish is served with a generous ladle of broth and it’s perfectly acceptable to lift the saucer and sip from it. You can also add a dab of sharp mustard to your oden, if you like playing with fire.

 Nakata searched for sake that compliments his oden and found two excellent brews from Nara, Kuromatsu Kurotake, and  the Junmai Ginjo Maboroshi, which is brewed using Muromachi period techniques. Toyotomi would certainly recognize the taste. Toyotomi also like the Nara sakes.

 Nakata offers other, non-oden dishes, as well. His salt-roasted nagaimo with its slippery, crunchy texture is served with bright green matcha salt. Four plump oysters in a broth with mitsuba and shaved myoga and naganegi shavings, again fragrant with yuzu.

 A house speciality is the cold hand-made udon with sesame sauce that you grind yourself.

 At the end of the meal, you’ll be given a postage stamp-sized slip of paper with a price written on it, and the words “arigato gozaimasu.” But after eating at Konakara, you’ll want to be saying those words yourself.

 Because oden is usually considered a winter food, I asked Nakata about the trade during the warmer months. He smiled and said, “If it’s delicious, they will come anytime.”

 Konakara (03-3816-0997), Yushima 1-9-6, Bunkyo-ku.

Hours: 18:00-22:30.

Closed Sundays and holidays.


Looking for Mr. Nakayama

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008


Kenichi Nakayama is the end of an era. Now anyone with enough money can buy a set of “yaki imo” gear and overnight become a “yaki-imo” man. Not so with Mr. Nakayama. I love this old guy, and when my story came out on him four years ago, I tried to find him to give him a few issues of the newspaper, but he wasn’t at his corner. Perhaps he finally retired.

Here is my story:


Kenichi Nakayama is thinking of retiring. He’s been selling yaki imo, roasted sweet potatoes, from his two-wheeled cart for over 40 years, and now at 79, he says, his legs just aren’t what they used to be.

 With the cast-iron roasting box, a day’s supply of firewood, and 30 kilograms of potatoes, his cart is as heavy as a sumo wrestler. “It’s like muscling Konishiki around! I work up a sweat,” says Nakayama, a small wiry fellow with thoughtful eyes, a quick toothless smile, and a deeply tanned face—creased and weathered.

 Nakayama used to roam through Tokyo’s neighborhoods, pulling his load up the steep slope to Yasukuni Shrine, or venturing down to Shinbashi. But some years ago, he learned it’s best to sit in the same spot and let people come to him. He used to sing the evocative yaki-imo song to attract customers, but he’s jettisoned that tactic too. His regular customers know where he’ll be and when he’ll be there.

 Nakayama sets up shop, as he has for decades, on a sidewalk in Aoyama in front of the parking lot that was once (and will be again) Kinokuniya supermarket.

 The ishiyaki technique, stone roasting, is Nakayama’s forte. His roasting box contains river pebbles—brown and black, smooth and shiny, in sizes from pea to walnut. Under the roasting box is a small compartment with a live fire that Nakayama constantly tends. His firewood is free. Like other yaki-imo vendors, Nakayama gets his wood from recently demolished houses or shops around the city. He carries a folding saw to cut this lumber to the proper length for stowing on the cart.

 With a small wooden paddle Nakayama scoops furrows into the hot pebbles, fills the furrows with fresh potatoes, then rakes and pushes the stones until the potatoes are half-buried. The river stones will cook the potatoes at 70 degrees centigrade—the optimal temperature for converting potato starch into sugar, explains Nakayama. The slow constant heat brings out the sweetness, he adds.

 Waiting for the potatoes to cook, Nakayama sits on an empty 18-liter soy sauce can with boxes of potatoes stacked beside him on the pavement. Some vendors let their potatoes roast on a wire grill above the heated stones, he says feeding another piece of old Tokyo to the fire. This mushiyaki, steam roasting, method is easier, he admits, but potatoes don’t taste their best that way.

 In about 40 minutes his potatoes are ready. If they’re not sold immediately, he keeps them warm, wrapped in newspapers, in a special compartment above the roasting box. They’ll keep for several hours.

 Nakayama hails from Kyushu. As a very young man, he attended the Yokaden, the prep school for the Navy Air Force. He then joined the Tokotai, the Special Attack Unit of World War II, the suicide pilots known as “Kamikaze.” He went on several practice runs, but when it came time for his first and last mission, “There were no planes left to fly,” Nakayama says with a shrug.

 After the war, he came to Tokyo and knocked around at different jobs until he found his niche. When Nakayama first started out, yaki-imo work was much more competitive. “Each vendor had his own territory,” he recalls. “And if you wandered into another’s turf, there would be trouble.” That doesn’t happen anymore.

 “I used to bump into four or five yaki-imo guys around Aoyama. But they’re gone,” he says adding a board to the fire.

 Around each wrist and forearm Nakayama wears an old grey sock with the toe cut off. The socks protect him from burns on the edge of the roasting box as he leans in to turn the potatoes or stir the stones. “Beni azuma potatoes from Shikoku are the tastiest,” he says. “Early in the season, good beni azuma come from Kyushu, Shikoku, or Hamamatsu,” he explains, “but after October, the Kanto potatoes become tasty. Now I use Ibaragi potatoes mostly.”

 Nakayama always buys his spuds from the same shop. His customers expect a tasty potato and he’s got to provide a consistent product, he says pointing to an opened box. He can tell at a glance if a raw potato is up to his standards—a dark mauve skin and a shiny surface means it will be delectable. “Some customers, mostly the older ones, like a firmer potato,” he says. “But the young women want a softer one. I don’t know why.”

 Nakayama has experimented with different types of potaoes. Idaho potatoes are good, he admits, but if they don’t sell right away, they lose their flavor. Murasaki imo, the purple sweet potato, however, he covets. “They are very delicious,” he says wistfully, “but hard to come by in the Kanto area.”

 Yaki imo season runs roughly from October to May. In warmer months, Nakayama used to sell ice candy—popsicles in milk, orange, melon, azuki, and lemon flavors—along popular riverbank areas such as Futagotamagawa. Riding a bicycle equipped with insulated coolers, he’d sell 500 sticks a day. But it wasn’t profitable. “I had to buy dry ice, special boxes to keep everything cold,” he says shaking his head. “And every two or three hours I had to let other vendors have their turn.”

 Nakayama now sells potatoes the year round. People who love yaki imo will eat them anytime, he says. He charges a flat rate: 400 yen for a small potato and 500 yen for a large one.

 Pulling  his cart up the long slope of chic Omotesando street from Harajuku used to be easy. When he was younger, he didn’t notice the climb nor the weight of his cart. Now he’s got to ask a passerby to lend a hand.

 Nakayama would like to retire. “But my customers would be inconvenienced,” he says poking at his fire with a stick. “There’s no way around it—I’ve got to keep on working for awhile.”