Two Muslims in Japan : A Tale of six cities Written by Shifa One thing you need to know about the Japanese is…they love green tea, everything and anything can come green tea flavoured. I am not a huge green tea fan but my sister who now only lives on this as her only caffeine source, loved it. Kyoto Kyoto was our first destination where we witnessed and sampled a bustling Japanese food market, the 36 hour journey and four hour sleep did not get in the way of this day. The market housed lots of different stores (meat, fresh fish, cooked fish, boiled sweets, traditional Japanese sweets, raw meat…) it was incredible to see. The inquisitive foodie in me wanted to try everything that was on offer (they should really bring free samples back!). In the market we tried the following: Traditional green tea sweets- Texture of Turkish delight with powdered green tea flavour on the outside. I could not eat too many pieces as I started to feel a little sick but my sister happily finished it. I would only buy this if you love green tea – otherwise you may feel a little sick after two mouthfuls. Smoked Squid- Soya smoke squid on a stick – exactly what I needed after the invasion of powdered green tea in my mouth. Tasted fresh and full of flavour. Yum! Raw Salmon- Raw salmon pieces on a stick – nothing special but tasted nice. Unsure what seasoning it had but it was fresh and light. Takoyaki- We were told that this snack was a Kyoto speciality. They were made from marinated diced octopus cooked inside pancake batter, topped with a thick Teriyaki like sauce. These were really tasty – hot, fresh and again full of flavour. Definitely worth a try! The best meal I had in Kyoto was a restaurant recommended in the ‘Lonely Planet Guide’ which was amazing. I ordered a set menu which came with four different dishes (oh yes!) which included vegetable tempura, seared bonito sashimi with kiss lime sauce, deep fried lotus root dumpling with amber sauce, omen noodle soup and fresh fig with chestnut sauce. I am not ashamed to say I wiped every plate clean. The sashimi was incredible, the noodles wonderfully tasty (salty, a little spicy and very more’ish), the tempura was crispy and light and the fresh fig desert was one of the best deserts I have ever eaten – cleansing, light but also sweet! As you may have gathered I was one happy (unable to walk) tourist! Whilst visiting the Golden Pavilion, which is a beauty golden temple in the middle of a lake we sampled our first (of many) tea houses. Very bitter green tea is served with a small sweet. We were told by the tea house staff to eat the sweet first and then sip on the tea, which makes it less bitter and appetising – for me, more manageable! Teahouses in Japan are a must – the crockery the tea is served in is beautiful, the tea is hot and warming and the sweets give the appropriate hit of sugar everyone is craving; the views associated with most tea houses are also to die for -so these are definitely worth a visit. Osaka The second stop on our travels was Osaka – the atmosphere in the centre of city was incredible. It was lively, buzzing, colourful, loud and packed with (I kid you not) intertwined streets (grid like system) of restaurants, cafes, shops everything and anything you may possibly need! I felt like a kid in a sweet shop – everywhere I looked there was something different. It was a very ‘ooo’, ‘aahh’ moment. For dinner we decided we had to try the Osaka speciality – Okonomiyaki. This is sometimes called Japanese Pancake/Omelette. It is made from eggs, flour, cabbage and filled with a number of different fillings (meat, fish, cheese etc) topped with different sauces. We opted for the cheese and potato. The chef cooks half of the ingredients on a hot plate in the kitchen and then brings the half cooked omelette topped with stripes of teriyaki sauce and mayonnaise to the hot plate at our table. The food is definitely not a work of art but this omelette was the best thing we needed on a drizzly, humid Japanese night. It was hot, meaty, cheesy, starchy with lashings of teriyaki sauce and mayonnaise! Most definitely something I would recommend a try! Hiroshima Hiroshima was a place where we did not focus on food very much, but none the less found some nice treats and fun places to eat. During a market stall sweep I tried a freshly grilled oyster with cheese (apparently a Hiroshima speciality) – which was lovely, not what I expected but tasted good. We also tried a steamed bun with a conger eel filling – this was so tasty! It was sticky, sweet, salty and light. I wish we had bought a few of these for the road! The best meal we had in Hiroshima was a small, cute local restaurant who’s speciality were noodle based soups. One thing you need know about Japanese cuisine is despite what you order, it will always come with a small bowl of miso soup and cup of tea (unsure of the type). I ordered a seafood noodle soup with king prawn tempura. The tempura were crispy, succulent and the soup light, salty but oh so filling – exactly what I like! Kanazawa The fish market in Kanazawa (noted as one of the top 5 places to visit in Japan) was absolutely huge! It houses about 200 different stalls which mostly specialise in seafood (obviously) but also sweets, clothing, savoury items as well as a number of different restaurants and cafes. We also enjoyed another lovely hot cup of Matcha green tea! Obviously we had to try sushi in a famous Japanese fish market – this experience was pleasurable but very eye opening. I naively always dip my sushi into bowls of soya sauce, this is wrong according to the staff in the sushi pop up restaurant we visited and the numerous Japanese locals (who found it hilarious we were eating it wrong). One must drop soya sauce on top of the sushi before you eat it, never dip as this ruins the soya sauce bowl and the nicely packed rice! Back to the sushi, it was oh so fresh and I could eat sooo much! It was strangely (strange for me) accompanied by a seafood broth, which was warm and…fishy. No flavour…just fish flavoured water. We tried swordfish, tuna, squid, salmon and fresh local fish on our sushi/sashimi which was really nice. I love how you can eat a lot of sushi and not feel full – bonus! However, the best sushi throughout the trip was on our last day in Kanazawa. We ordered a ‘Kanazawa special’ which came with a small bowl of sashimi and 2 sea snails (cooked – I think) amongst other things. The sashimi was so incredibly fresh, it melted in my mouth but the real star of the set menu were the sea snails. Never in my life would I think I would have tried snails, but here in Japan…the opportunity presented itself and I reluctantly agreed. I was completely and pleasantly surprised, the snail was much tastier than the raw fish, it had a very meaty flavour to it…in fact, it tasted very similar to chicken! Tokyo This was our second to last final stop in our Japanese journey; three places stood out to me as great food haunts. The first was a small, side cafe we stopped in for lunch – we were on a mission to find great Ramen but alas Ramen in Japan is made with pork stock! Nooo – so a word of warning, triple check if you are resound on eating Ramen in Japan. We thankfully had a translator who mentioned that they do not usually say the soup is made from pork stock as it so common and not really thought about. However, in this cafe we were given the option of a noodle salad and deep fried aubergine bites with a Japanese sticky and salty sauce. The aubergine was incredibly tasty; hot, spicy, tangy – had a Thai feel to it but it was packed with so much flavour. We inhaled this plate in a couple of seconds (no exaggeration) it was that good – apparently this dish is a speciality in Tokyo! Only thing I can say it try it, try it, try it!!! The second place was a chic and understated restaurant that was recommended in the ‘Lonely Planet Guide’ again. It was modern, clean and empty! We ordered a set menu, which included two starters, a main dish and dessert. This cuisine was not the typical, street style and rustic Japanese food we had become accustomed to – it had modern and slight European twist to it, which was actually really pleasant and enjoyable. The dishes included fresh crab, langoustine, spring onion and parsley soup, fresh sashimi, roasted melon, miso soup (obviously), fish broth and the most amazing dessert. A passion fruit and elderflower ice cream – honestly this is the best ice cream/dessert I had tasted in a long time! In fact, so good I actually ordered another portion! The final place was a cooking class we attended in Tokyo. Here we made: 1) miso soup, 2) teriyaki salmon, 2) avocado and tuna salad and 3) boiled butternut squash. The food was undoubtedly the best tasting food we had tasted throughout our journey. It was homely, packed full of flavour but also relatively easy to make. The teriyaki fish was to die for!! In fact, we were still full from our lunch (mentioned above) we didn’t know how we would be able to fit the fine food in our stomach but…when presented with amazing smelling and looking food – what stomach could say no? It was a really interesting and great experience as our Japanese cook gave us the history of Japanese cooking; why they have lots of small different dishes for each meal, what they represent (colour and cooking style) and how to easily make Japanese dishes at home. I would definitely give this a go! Recommendations: 1) Japanese cooking class 2) Sushi and Sashimi (if you can, in a fish market) 3) Okonomiyaki 4) Sea snails (don’t knock it until you have tried it) 5) Matcha green tea with Japanese sweets Grumblings: 1) Pretty much zero halal places here! 🙁 2) All ramen is made with pork stock 3) Breakfast in Japan is pretty hard to find if you booked hotels without breakfast (which we did for the majority) – all I can say is thank goodness there was Starbucks at every corner! 4) If you don’t like fish eating out will be very difficult – there are not many vegetarian options 5) English tea + milk – this was so hard to get! We actually took a bag of PG tips with us but getting the hotel staff to deliver milk to the room so we could drink it was probably the most challenging task we had in Japan! Take powdered or sachets of milk if you can! About Shifa Shifa has been interested in food for as long as she can remember. She enjoys finding new places to eat, either expensive and chic, homely or a hole in the wall that serves amazing grub. Nothing upsets her more than bad food and long nails.