As winter draws closer in Hiroshima, it’s still pretty warm. T-shirt weather, in fact*. As a result, the Christmas lights spun around the trees outside the shopping mall have an extra sheen of surrealism. I’m not really one of those people who moans about the ever-expanding Christmas season, but those lights feel more out of place than usual, halfway around the world in a historically Buddhist country, in the mild November air, wrapped around trees which have clearly had their leaves removed for aesthetic effect.
Anyway, I didn’t make it to Sandankyo on Friday. I’m going tomorrow, but in the meantime, here’s a blog about food.
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One of the little pleasures of travel in Japan is that, almost without exception, each city and each prefecture has a meibutsu (local delicacy). In Hiroshima, people often ask me what food my hometown is famous for, and I draw a blank every time. I mean, leave St. Albans out of it for a moment. What foods is Leeds famous for? Leeds has great restaurants, but I can’t think of one dish specifically linked to the city. I’ve claimed clotted cream fudge and cider for Bristol, which is a half truth, as I’m pretty sure the good stuff comes up from deepest Devon.
Fukuoka is famous for its Hakata ramen, as I believe I mentioned. Osaka is known for its batter, octopus and ginger takoyaki balls, and for Kansai-style okonomiyaki. Hokkaido serves up kaisen-don seafood rice bowls, and Kyoto brings yudofu (simmered tofu) to the table. In Hiroshima’s case, besides the city’s own brand of okonomiyaki, breaded and fried kaki (oysters) are popular. I could take them or leave them, really. More promising, the Seto Inland Sea is renowned for its lemons, and Hiroshima has conjured up lots with this bounty, including lemon cakes and Yoichi’s sublime lemon ramen.
The most celebrated meibutsu from Hiroshima are momiji-manju, maple-shaped candy sold in Miyajima and all over the city. They can have different fillings, but the most common is adzuki, or sweet red bean paste. Adzuki paste is ubiquitous here, disguising itself as chocolate, popping up in cakes and pastries unannounced. It’s okay- slightly earthy and pleasant, but nothing to write home about*. It’s best if combined with another flavour; for example, in mochi (pounded rice cake) it is sometimes combined with walnuts, or better, sesame.
Adzuki aside, there are some store-bought sweet flavours I’d gladly be the brand ambassador for. Sweet potato cakes are a revelation, and I’m also fond of matcha (green tea) flavour, which creeps into unexpected places, like Kit Kats, or this glorious matcha and almond mousse. Writing this, I realise that I never sound camper than when I’m talking about pudding. Apart from Kit Kats, the chocolate brands in the shops were almost entirely unfamiliar to me; I’ve definitely developed an addition to chocolate macadamia nuts, both milk and white chocolate.
Probably my top dessert choice would be a crepe from Sylvios, near Hondori in the city centre. It’s one of the few cafés I’ve visted here to get coffee truly, magnificently right. It’s fucking pricey (600-odd yen for a coffee) so I don’t go often, but they geek out about beans and roasts and blends, and their crepes are a joy even to look at.
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A big part of travelling is trying strange foods, and I’ve certainly had the opportunity to get stuck into some of Japan’s more idiosyncratic delicacies. Natto consists of fermented soybeans joined by tiny sticky fibres; if you pick up the beans, wisps of the fibres are drawn out like gossamer, endlessly ductile. Natto is famously pungent, and like a lot of fermented foods, fondness seems to be culturally acquired. It has a slightly overripe taste, which makes it difficult to enjoy.
And the mushrooms. Dear lord, the mushrooms. Thousands of them of every description, ruling over their own corner of the supermarket. It’s not difficult to see where the inspiration for Super Mario came from. I really like the meaty eringi, which go great in my haphazard stir fries, and sweet, nutty bunshimeji. Some of them are odder though, like nameko, which boast ‘their own natural coating of slime’ and are apparently ideal for soups. Despite this attractive selling point, I reckon they’re best avoided.
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Although I’ve tried any number of fantastic foods from this island nation, I do sometimes miss the endless variety I’d taken for granted in cities like Bristol. Japan’s insularity is occasionally exaggerated by people with an agenda, but in terms of food, it’s totally justified.
A few times, I’ve craved the comfort of simple Italian food, and I’ve been bitten every time. Flavourless pasta with bits of processed meat sprinkled on top. Bland risotto. A honey and blue cheese pizza which took two famously strong flavours and made them collectively unmemorable. Perhaps I’ve been unlucky- lots of people on the internet seem to disagree. Maybe they have more money or perseverance than me.
Why do so many restaurants do Italian food so badly? Some foreign food is definitely cooked well; I’ve found a decent Indian restaurant for when dansak is crucial to my spiritual wellbeing. I had a wonderful kimchi hotpot from a pretty ordinary family eatery. Anyway, since Shinzo Abe is proposing legislation to open Japan to a new wave of skilled workers, I have a request to make; bring over some Italian chefs, please! The more stereotypical the better. I want three generations of a family screaming at each other across a small kitchen as they whip together linguini. Thinking about it, maybe it’s all the shouting that makes the food so good.
Unexpectedly, I also really miss falafel! Before I became a lapsed vegetarian, I was a fan of falafel, but I always took them a bit for granted- easy to find, but eclipsed by more exciting fare. But Middle Eastern food is virtually non-existent here, and at least once a week I find myself pining for a falafel salad bowl, piled high with hummus and couscous. I think I may have discovered the soaring pinnacle of first-world problems.
‘Til next time, with a mouthful of mochi,
From your correspondent in Hiroshima