Friday, March 7, 2014

Intangible Cultural Heritage

Do you want to know a cool fact? Japanese cuisine is counted on the list of items considered by the United Nations as "Intangible Cultural Heritage." I thought I knew about Japanese food before this trip - the sushi and sashimi, ramen, and curries - but it really is something unique. The preparation, the ingredients, the composition and the presentation can be as important as the taste of the dish itself. 

I did not have one single bad meal during my time in Japan, even though many times we did not take the time to research good restaurants, instead ducking into random eateries that we stumbled across. The food is light, healthy, yet flavorful, full of fresh vegetables, seafood, and a savory taste. 

For our first lunch, we wandered into a little family restaurant along the path that leads up to Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Temple. The owner was quite friendly and ushered our whole group out of the cold into the warm and cozy restaurant. I ordered the specialty of the place, a tofu hot pot. The savory and warming soup was filled with a variety of vegetables, some pieces of an egg omelette, and fish cakes. The tofu was incredibly fresh and soft. 

For another lunch, we went to an udon restaurant. Udon is a type of noodle made of buckwheat. I got a bowl of the udon with lots of fixings, including egg, seaweed, green onion, and mushrooms. A typical bowl of noodles like this in an ordinary restaurant costs about 800 yen, which is equivalent to $8 USD. 

Many of our meals out would be accompanied by an appetizer of pickled vegetables. Sometimes pickles would come out at the end of a meal as well. Kyoto is famous for all sorts of pickles - in markets I would come across vendors selling dozens of pickled vegetables, including daikon radish, eggplant, seaweed, cucumber, almost anything imaginable. They are crunchy and refreshing!

Now you can't go to Japan without having some ramen! We were really fortunate to come across a fantastic ramen shop without doing any prior research - we were walking along a street come lunch time, and we smelled a delicious aroma wafting out from this shop. I am very glad we decided to go in! The shop only had a few types of ramen, including pork and chicken. I got the vegetable ramen cooked in pork broth, which came with a soft-boiled egg on the side.

It was the best ramen I have ever had! The broth was thick and rich, and the noodles were springy, chewy, and fresh. I am never going to back instant ramen again!

One night, we stayed in a temple in the city of Nara. During our temple stay, we were treated to a traditional Buddhist vegetarian meal. We were served lots of small dishes and rice. Everything was cooked simply but was incredibly fresh and tasty. We were given steamed tofu and pumpkin, tempura vegetables, some sort of egg salad with greens, and lots of pickles! The rice was chewy and perfect with a splash of soy sauce. Several people commented to me, "If this is what vegetarian food can be like, perhaps I can become a vegetarian!"

I discovered a new favorite dish - oden. Oden is a savory broth filled with various items such as egg, tofu, fish paste, radish, and seaweed. It's the perfect comfort food on a cold drizzling day. Right before this lunch we had been trekking through the bamboo forest in this area called Arashiyama in eastern Kyoto.

On my last day in the city, my visiting friend and I went to a beautiful shop and cafe in the Gion District. I was craving something hot. This cafe served a matcha au lait, which is the fresh green tea powder mixed with hot milk. My drink was quite fancy! You can't see it in the photo, but there was a tiny gold leaf floating on top of the milk foam. The matcha was so good - slightly bitter, rich, with a deep green tea flavor. None of that fake green tea syrup that they probably use in Starbucks!

I miss Japanese food a lot! Singaporean cuisine can be delicious but it often is so heavy and blunt with its flavors. I hope I can find a good and affordable Japanese restaurant here.

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