Tokyo horse flesh: Sakura nabe at two classic restaurants

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

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A recent poll conducted on myself revealed that the vast majority of me had no objection to hippophagy, horse-eating, something we carnivores have been sinking our teeth into since we first started banging two stones together and hurling spears.

If horseflesh was good enough for my Paleolithic ancestors, and still is for many modern Paleos following their primal diet, and is consumed with gusto by the Chinese, French, Italians, Mexicans, Brazilians, Argentinians, Mongolians, and by many other-ians, it ought to be good enough for me.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREIn fact, it’s better than good enough. Despite pangs of Black Beauty-induced guilt from the minority of myself, the lean nutritious meat is deeply delicious.

So what’s up with those “shocked” customers of the British supermarket chain Tesco who learned that dabs of equine DNA were present in their so-called “beefburgers”? Just exactly what do they think was in those economy meat units selling 8 for £1?

Tesco’s own regulations state that such value pack patties need only contain 47% “meat.” Aren’t those customers put off by the “drind,” the dehydrated rind or skin that is boiled then used to bulk up cheap “meat” products? Maybe not, because it can be labeled as “seasoning.”

Photos of the “tainted” patties show them to be miserable pinkish slabs seemingly extruded from an industrial pipe, then guillotined into disks by a dull blade. The small percentage of horse DNA found in those meat units was probably the most nutritious part of the whole processed concoction.

Japan, though, has a long and respected history of equine cuisine. Two of my favorite horseflesh establishments, Nakae in Taito ward and Minowa in Koto ward, have both been serving sakura niku, (cherry meat) for over a century.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREThe sakura moniker comes from the bright red color of the flesh which has a fine, close texture and a faint underlying sweetness. It also has more protein, less fat, less sodium, less cholesterol, and fewer calories than beef or pork. The meat is usually sourced from horses, two to six years old, free ranged and grass fed in Kyushu.

One of the best ways to jumpstart your Paleo genes is with an order of niku sashi, thin slices of raw horsemeat sashimi from the senaka, or lower back of the beast, served with a dab of freshly-grated ginger and a shoyu dipping sauce. Another popular dish is the pale pink abura sashi, slices of sashimi from back of the neck. The tender flesh is also served as basashi zushi, (horsemeat sushi) or as steak tartare.

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREThe main attraction, however, at both establishments is sakura nabe, a sukiyaki-style dish you cook yourself in a shallow iron pot at your table. The pot holds a rich warishita broth made of dashi, shoyu and mirin. Into this broth you place a mound of shirataki, thin noodles made from devil’s tongue root; a few slices of negi, welsh onion; a couple slices of fu, wheat gluten dumplings; and thin slices of bright red momo niku, from the thigh, moistened with a spoonful of sweet brown miso.

Once the stew starts bubbling, you remove each tidbit one by one, then dip it—just as in sukiyaki—into a cup of stirred raw egg as a sauce. Be sure to keep your eye on the meat, advised the kimono-clad waitress, for it quickly colors in the simmering sauce. Eat it when it still has a few pink blushes.

In both restaurants, sitting side by side up on a kamidana, the god’s shelf, are a seemingly discordant pair of dieties: Daikoku-sama, the god of business prosperity and Batou-sama, the god and protector of horses. Apparently, they’ve worked out an agreement.

Nakae:  1-9-2 Nihonzutsumi, Taito-ku. Tel: 03-3872-5389. Monday to Friday: 5pm to 11pm. Saturday/Sundays/Holidays: 11:30am to 10pm (Last order one hour before closing).  http://www.sakuranabe.com/

Minowa: 2-19-9 Morishita, Koto-ku. Tel: 03-3631-8298. Lunch 12 noon to 2 pm. Dinner 4 pm to 9:30 pm (L.O. 9pm). Closed Thursdays. May thru October also closed on the 3rd Wednesday of the month. http://www.e-minoya.jp/

Minoya: Horse flesh nabe in Morishita

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

Minoya is a Tokyo landmark. For over 110 years, this venerable establishment has been serving sakura nabe, a sukiyaki-type dish but made with horsemeat, to Morishita locals and connoisseurs. Nowadays, though, most Japanese are not familiar with the taste of sakura niku. Pork, beef, and chicken are much more popular. Horseflesh, however, is truly delicious.

The sakura moniker comes from the bright red color of the flesh which has a fine, close texture and a faint underlying sweetness. One of the best ways to discover this for yourself is with a side order of niku sashi, thin slices of horsemeat sashimi from the senaka, or lower back of the beast, served with a dab of freshly grated ginger and a rich shoyu dipping sauce. Another popular side dish is the pale pink abura sashi, slices of sashimi from the back of the neck.

The main attraction at Minoya is the sakura nabe (1800 yen), a dish you cook yourself at the low table. You will receive a shallow iron pot containing a rich warishita broth made of dashi, shoyu and mirin. You’ll also get a plate carefully arranged with a mound of shirataki, thin noodles made from konnyaku; a few slices of negi, welsh onion; a couple slices of fu, wheat gluten dumplings; and some morsels of luscious fat which will later melt into the sauce. Draped over all this are thin slices of bright red momo niku, from the thigh, moistened with a spoonful of sweet brown miso.

If you are not sure how to proceed, an oba-san waitress will place a few ingredients into the pot and start the gas fire for you. Once the sauce starts bubbling, you remove each tidbit one by one, then dip it—just as in sukiyaki—into a cup of stirred raw egg as a “sauce.”

Besides being deeply tasty, horseflesh is also healthier with more protein, less fat, and half the calories of beef or pork. Be sure to keep your eye on the meat as it cooks, for it quickly colors in the bubbling sauce. Eat it when it still has a few pink blushes, said the oba-san.

Inexpensive additions to your one-pot meal are the side dishes of yakitofu, tofu branded with dark grill marks, and enoki mushrooms. Bottled beer, Asahi Super Dry, or saké or a highball of Super Nikka seem to be the tipples of choice. Although half-bottles of wine are also available.

The pace of your meal, then, is up to you as you add, cook, take and dip each ingredient to the slow sizzle and hiss of the bubbling sauce.

The traditional Japanese-style room is large and open with cool reed mats covering the tatami. You’ll sit on a white zabuton at one of the low stainless-steel covered tables arranged along two walls. Old fashioned white globe lamps hang from the the richly-grained wooden ceiling lined with cherrywood crossbeams. This “sakura” motif is repeated in the five-petalled flowers cut into the wood of the shoji screen doors which line both walls and the serving dishes and sauce pots.

At one end of the comfortable room, under a rope noren, are large sliding windows which look out on a neat miniature garden complete with a little waterfall, rocks, and a pool of swimming koi.

When you are ready to leave, pay at the table and receive a well-worn wooden “check-paid” billet. Take that and the other wooden billet too, the one for your shoes that you left in the black-pebbled genkan as you entered.

2-19-9 Morishita, Koto-ku. Tel: 03-3631-8298. Lunch 12 noon to 2 pm. Dinner 4 pm to 9:30 pm (L.O. 9pm). Closed Thursdays. May thru October also closed on the 3rd Wednesday of the month.

For the complete review, and other of my reviews, please check out Metropolis magazine.