story & photos by Lisa Ludwigsen
When I stepped off the plane in Tokyo I really had no idea where I was headed. I planned to spend a couple of weeks visiting friends, eating lots of sushi, exploring the place I was born, and zipping around the country on the bullet train. I couldn’t imagine how much this brief vacation would shape my appreciation for everything about the Japanese and their contradictory, complex culture. Somehow this tiny country of 125 million people manages to successfully balance a deep commitment to its ancient history with quirky, whimsical fashion, frenetic pop culture, and tantalizing, creative street food.
Sold in small shops or on streets throughout Japan are the otherworldly takoyaki or “octopus balls”—a thin batter of finely chopped octopus, eggs, flour, and dashi, a seaweed stock that is poured into a cast iron griddle of uniform cups. As it cooks, the batter is quickly turned using chopsticks until the resulting ball is golden brown and slightly crispy on the outside and creamy inside. Takoyaki are topped with bonito flakes or seaweed, or in one spot, little flakes of gold leaf. They taste like fluffy, not quite thoroughly cooked fish cakes.
It’s not a surprise that the Japanese have balanced salty, sour, sweet, crisp, and savory umami. Fermented foods are an ongoing part of life there and eating in Japan really feels good. I wondered why Americans couldn’t embrace a cool, crisp, lightly pickled cucumber on a thick skewer as a quick snack, especially when it’s offered up in a big tub at a street market.
The universal appeal of deep-fried anything is in full glory in katsu—a variety of items like yams, chicken pieces, even hard boiled quail eggs, that are coated in fluffy panko, skewered, and deep fried. They’re eaten on the go or taken home.
And don’t forget the bento box—artfully arranged assortments of rice, fish, umeboshi plum, pickled vegetables, and fried meats. Bentos reflect the incredible attention to detail paid to all aspects of life in Japan, making something as simple as eating rice a deep pleasure and meditation on thoughtful living. Fancy bentos are sold at transportation stations. Simple, basic “work meal” bentos are found at convenience stores.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for two hungry and tired Americans was the fantastic selection of snacks and meals at convenience stores. Yes, food at 7-11 stores in Japan was yummy, inexpensive, and surprisingly high quality, with not a shriveled hot dog in sight. We ate at least one meal a day at a 7/11 or Lawson’s Market. To-go sushi, seaweed-wrapped rice triangles filled with pickled meats or veggies called onigiri, thick slices of soft bread sold by the slice, light and creamy desserts, and even coffee Jell-O. Perhaps most surprising was Japanese egg salad, a soft, fluffy concoction of egg and savory mayo sold in vacuum sealed packages. I’ve tried making egg salad with Japanese mayo from Japantown and been unable to capture that uniquely pillowy texture and taste.
If food reflects a place’s culture, then Americans can learn a lot from the Japanese. Pay attention to the details, concentrate on ways to make basic ingredients shine, and look for the opportunity to make the simple into something special, even with humble street food.