Sea Urchin …Cream Cheese? (Japan)

If you don’t know what uni (うに/海胆 sea innards/海栗 sea chestnut) is, I’ll fill you in on a dirty secret- it’s not the roe of sea urchin, per se. Rather, it’s what secretes the roe.

Not hungry anymore?

I used to think uni tasted like how a durian smells, but I’ve grown out of that association, too. What do you reckon?

No matter how one feels about uni, what I believe to be one of many cool aspects of Japan is the frequent presence of food fairs somewhere on the upper levels of department stores. Those top floors are usually reserved for limited time events, say, jewelry or art festivals, a display of local shamisen, or a collection of typical foods from a certain region/city of Japan.

During my last visit to Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu — mind you, this was a few years ago — I decided to take a chance by popping in various department stores, hoping that a food fest would be occurring. Sure enough, there was a showcase for specialties from relatively nearby Kumamoto prefecture.

Whereas there’s always a nuanced selection at these events – in this case, watermelon sugar and horse stood out – one item stood out a bit more than the rest:

fukuoka-kumamoto-food-fair-uni-sea-urchin-cream-cheeseUni cream cheese, produced in Amakusa city, well-known for its sea urchin harvest. Quite honest to the description – in Japanese, it says “Amakusa uni kaiseki (a quick bite of Amakusa uni before a having tea)” on the right, and “cream cheese” on the left.

In spite of my willingness to try nearly anything once, uni was not a like-at-first-bite for me, way back when. I’ve since jumped on the bandwagon, and in all fairness, I’d spread a bagel or baguette with this stuff any day.

Japanese Convenience Store Sandwiches

When I studied abroad in Japan years ago, I discovered that konbini (コンビニ), or convenience stores had a variety of plastic-wrapped sandwiches, similar to the Uncrustables brand in the United States.  Basically, the ingredients were shoved into a crust-less square of white bread, making your midday nibble very easy to clean up.

Whenever I got nostalgic for a sandwich, I’d try one.  It served a dual purpose– 1) I learned some Japanese through not knowing what the package said, and 2) reminded me that I should really be focusing on Japanese oyatsu (お八つ), or snacks.  (Helpful vocab check: サンド する (sando suru) means “to make a sandwich.”)

Though a few different brands exist, the most prominent one was  ランチパック, the “Lunch Pack.”  Yamazaki Baking started with the peanut flavor in 1984; that and egg have been their best sellers to this day.

Now, consider all of the sandwiches that you’ve eaten in your life.  There’s the egg with cheese and bacon, the BLT (bacon, lettuce, and tomato), pastrami, turkey club, meatball…all good.  Bread seems like a natural home for those ingredients.

Suddenly, you’re offered an all-expenses paid trip to Japan, with one caveat.  The only food that you can consume is a plastic-wrapped konbini sandwich.

Monty Hall is on the sidelines, egging you on.  You give in, take the trip, and begin to realize you may have chosen the wrong door.

We will start off easy.  Yamazaki Lunch Pack, peanut flavor.  Their top seller, and approachable to various palettes.  It’s really more of a peanut cream as opposed to a peanut butter, but the most important aspect is that bread + peanuts = fine and dandy.

3 種類 の チョコ/3 types of chocolate — chocolate creme, whipped chocolate, and a chocolate bar.  Hmm.  Analogs, analogs…right, s’mores.  OK, marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate.  Some casual restaurant chains offer chocolate on pizza.  Pastries.

But they don’t generally use white bread.  Still, it could be worse.

キャラメル板 チョコ & ホイップ/Caramel chocolate bar and whipped cream.  The flavor combo sounds good, but doesn’t it sound a lot better at a patisserie, on a flaky crust?

Rather, who craves this?  I should probably save that question for the next four entries.  Whoops.

豆大福風/sweetened rice cake dough with red pea paste and whipped cream.  We’ve made it to murky waters.

Traditional Japanese desserts are generally made with sweetened glutinous rice (求肥/ぎゅうひ) and bean paste; one of the most famous ones is called daifuku, or 大福.  I find Japanese sweets, or 和菓子 (wagashi) to be rather monotonous, though I do like that they are intended to be consumed in tandem with green tea.

Though, stuffing glutinous rice into bread and whipped cream?  Pass.

桔梗信玄餅風/Kikyou Shingen Mochi-Style.  What???

If you saw mochi and guessed that glutinous rice was part of the deal, then you’re right.  It also contains kinako, roasted soybean flour, and kuromitsu, black sugar syrup.  So, where’d the flavor originate?

Kikyou is the Japanese word for “balloon flower,” or “Chinese bellflower.”  Although in Northeast Asia it’s a common cough suppressant, the name here refers to that flower being used as an historic crest of the Shingen clan.  Shingen Takeda was a powerful leader during the Warring States period in the 1500s. Furthermore, his family name was apparently borrowed for a type of cloth bag called the shingenbukuro, which is the image you see on the plastic wrapper, the very same one that would ordinarily wrap the dessert inside of this bread.

And it’s a food in itself, made of fried tofu.

雪下キャベツメンチカツ/Sekka (Yukioroshi) Kyabetsu Menchi Katsu.

This flavor of Yamazaki Lunch Pack takes cabbage that has been stored beneath the snow – as opposed to in the fridge – specifically from Inawashiro (猪苗代町), in Fukushima prefecture, northern Japan.  Then, it’s added into a fried minced pork cutlet with tartar sauce.

On a nice baguette, that sounds reasonable.  The type I tried?  Not again.

三浦半島産かぼちゃ入りのコロッケ/Miurahantou-san Kabocha Hairi no Korokke

Due south of Tokyo lies the relatively small Miura peninsula, in Kanagawa prefecture.  Whereas they’re also known for watermelons – don’t get any ideas, Yamazaki – Miura pumpkins are famous throughout Japan.  This bread pocket has a fried croquette made of pumpkins and onion dressing.

Which of the above would you most/least want to try?

Want to find out more about Yamazaki Baking’s Lunch Pack’s?  Check here.

What is Katsuobushi? (Japan)

What is katsuobushi (鰹節/かつおぶし, or okaka おかか)?

Take a skipjack tuna, also known as bonito.

Gut it.

Dry it.

Ferment it.

Smoke it.

If you were a student in an introductory course to the food of Japan, you probably already knew that fish was going to be a common theme.  But katsuobushi, or more specifically, its shavings, are key.

Larger, thicker shavings are called kezurikatsuo and combined with kelp (brown seaweed, or kombu), are vital in preparing dashi (だし), a fish-based soup stock.  Those of a smaller, thinner variety are hanakatsuo.

These plucky condiments are frequently found crowning okonomiyaki, hiyayakko (a cold tofu dish) and takoyaki, and most unusually, are reborn when in close contact with heat;  save a little for Sunday school.

Tokyo - Katsuobushi (2)
Katsuobushi Processing Machine – Basically, you throw the prepared fish into it, and out comes fish shavings.

I saw this machine in Tsukiji Market in Tokyo.  What do you do with it?  Shove one of those katsuobushi bricks into it, and out comes…

Tokyo - Katsuobushi (1)
Katsuobushi Fish Shavings

If you don’t have access to those heavy-duty machines, then how is katsuobushi made?  You could buy a katsuobushi kezuriki (鰹節削り器/かつおぶしけずりき) and do the labor yourself.  These days however, it is easy enough to find the end product in Japanese/East Asian supermarkets.

Tokushima Ramen (徳島ラーメン)

Located on Shikoku, the smallest of the four primary islands of Japan, Tokushima is a small seaside city best known for a 400-year old dance called the Awa Odori, an historic indigo trade, a citrus fruit known as sudachi, and Tokushima Ramen (徳島ラーメン).

Tokushima ramen may not be one of the better known bowls of noodles throughout Japan, having only been popularized at the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum in 1999.  It’s saltier and sweeter than the average Japanese ramen, generally has thin and soft noodles, and unbeknownst to me at the time, comes in three different types of broth.

Tokushima Ramen at 麺王

The most common broth is brown, using tonkotsu (豚骨), or pork bone broth, and a darker soy sauce.  Fried pork, spring onions, and a raw egg (already mixed-in in my photo) round out the Tokushima style.

Other types of Tokushima ramen might be yellow, due to chicken or vegetable broth and a lighter soy sauce, or whitish, using tonkotsu and a lighter soy sauce.   Also, rice is a common accompaniment to Tokushima ramen, as if there weren’t enough carbs on the table.

The Sweet Potatoes of Kawagoe (Japan)

Kawagoe (川越), a roughly 30-60 minute ride from major train stations throughout Tokyo, is also known affectionately known as Koedo (小江戸/Little Edo), whereas Edo refers to Tokyo’s former name.  As Kawagoe made it through World War II only receiving minor damage, many of its most famous structures, the 蔵造り (くらくり/koora-zukoori), or warehouses, survived:

Old Town Kawagoe, Japan

For that reason, it is one of the gems of Saitama prefecture, and one of the reasons that I visited.

Alas, there was another motivating factor for the short-haul north of Tokyo– the 芋 (いも/ee-mo) , or sweet potato.

“Imogura,” the Kawagoe Sweet Potato Mascot

That freaky fella above is called いもグラ (ee-mo gu-ra).  It is one of hundreds (seriously) of ゆるキャラ (yooroo kyara), or mascots designed for companies/tourism bureaus throughout Japan.  There are even annual competitions among said mascots; if you want to forego nightmares for some time, don’t click this link (in Japanese).

Kawagoe is one of the sweet potato centers of Japan; this was particularly important for the region during the war, as other foods were quite scarce, and more susceptible to pests/extremes in weather.

Although I referred to the character 芋 to refer to sweet potatoes, that character can also mean potato, or country bumpkin.  You see, the other part of Japan best known for sweet potatoes is present-day Kagoshima prefecture, on Kyushu island.  A section of that prefecture used to be called Satsuma, which begets another way to say sweet potato, 薩摩芋 (さつま・いも/satsuma ee-mo).  More still, loanword enthusiasts would appreciate the term スイートポテト , which literally reads “suii-to poteyto.

Stroll through Kawagoe, and you’re bound to come across numerous food shops and souvenir stores vending this hardy tuber; sweet potato noodles, a sweet potato-centric set menu, desserts, ice cream, candies, and who knows what else?

Fortuitously, I found one of my favorite sweet potato snacks, daigaku imo (大学芋/ dai-gakoo ee-mo).  It means college potato, and is made of caramelized sweet potato sprinkled with black sesame seeds.  The sign showing its name is written in Japanese above, and the dish itself is photographed below:

My time in Kawagoe was rather limited – if judged solely by the food I didn’t get to try – so I must revisit.  That said, here are a couple more delights sampled on that day:

Grilled sweet potato-coated karintou (花林糖・かりんとう).  Karintou are sweet, deep-fried  snacks made of flour, yeast, and often brown sugar.  Though they often look like things you’d find crawling across the floor, to me, they’re delicious.

Termites!  No, no.  Actually, these いもかりんとう饅頭/まんじゅう (ee-mo karintoh-man-juu) were excellent.  Manjuu are typically made with rice powder, flour, buckwheat, and red beans (adzuki), but these used burdock and carrot powder for the outside, and sweet potatoes inside.

Are you as big of a fan of sweet potatoes as I am?

Oden (おでん): Japan’s Wintry Snack

Tokyo - Oden (1)

What’s that floating by the cash register of many Japanese, Taiwanese, and Korean convenience stores?   It’s called oden (おでん), something you will generally see once the colder months kick in.

The big question: What is oden?  It’s a type of hot pot in which fish plays an important role, both in the stock – also known as dashi, made of kelp and katsuobushi – and as a bobbing ingredient.  Eggs, a starch called konjac, tofu, and various pieces of vegetables and meat commonly round out the oden basin.  Another ingredient is called shirataki (白滝) is sometimes part of the oden pot; it is made of the root of the elephant yam, also known as konjac.  This root contains a fiber called glucomannan which makes you feel full for a longer period of time.

Tokyo - Oden (2)

You can even find your favorite oden in a vending machine.  Collect all 1000.

From left to right, ganmo (がんも)- a disc of fried tofu with vegetables; gyuu suji (牛すじ)- beef tendon; tsumire (摘入/つみれ)- fish balls.

Now, we’re going to focus on one member of the oden clan: chikuwa.

Chikuwa (竹輪) is a tube-shaped fish paste cake.

Unusually, I noticed on a Japanese television channel a man playing a chikuwa as a flute.

Tokyo - Chikuwa Oden (1)

Okayama - Chikuwa Oden (2)Coincidentally, a few years later, while on a trip to Okayama I happened to pass by this statue of what else, Chikuwa Flute Man.

Grilled Curry (焼きカレー) from Moji, Japan

Moji Grilled Curry/門司の焼きカレー

Given Name: 焼きカレー (background and recipe in Japanese)

Alias:  Yaki* Curry, Grilled Curry

Place(s) of Origin: Moji*, Kitakyushu, Japan

Place Consumed: Moji, Kitakyushu, Japan

Common Features: Rice, Japanese curry sauce, cream/cheese, eggs

Background: Years ago, for my second visit to the island of Kyushu, I decided to visit Kitakyushu. It is an industrial city that for lack of a better description, affords nearby views of the city of Shimonoseki on Honshu, Japan’s largest and most populous island.
Close to Moji train station is an area called “Retro Moji (レトロ門司),” a section with buildings from the late 1880s, when this district became a regionally strategic port.

Moji Port Train Station, Moji, Japan

Although one of my goal’s was to visit Shimonoseki, a city famous for fugu*, I had read that the Moji district of Kitakyushu had a little something of its own, baked Japanese curry.
For those of you familiar with standard issue Japanese curry, which employs something of a blue-collar demi-glace replete with pickled ginger and pearl onions, Moji’s yaki curry is nothing like it.

The grilled curry was a bit decadent, what with cream forming a moat around the pile of eggs, resting on top of potatoes and rice, all blending together to create a slightly sweet and salty baked Japanese curry.  The cheese melted right in, which emphasized how filling the yaki curry was.  Some local Moji restaurants even add their own flair with beef and pork options.

*Yaki = 焼き/焼, cook, bake, roast, grill
Moji= 門司, formerly a city, now a district in Kitakyushu;
fugu= 河豚, 鰒 or フグ, poisonous pufferfish/blowfish

New Tokyo Take-Out Serving Mehari-zushi, One of Japan’s Oldest Snacks

Meharizushi with Shrimp Tempura, at めはりと鶏天みふく

To explain a bit about what Finding Food Fluency can represent, I’d like to introduce to everyone today’s meal, mehari-zushi (sushi becomes zushi, depending on the preceding sound), coming to us from Japan.

Mehari-zushi – 目張り寿司 – is one of the oldest recorded fast foods in Japan, dating back hundreds of years to Kumano city in Wakayama prefecture (source, in Japanese:  At the time, Kumano was in a state called Kishuu (紀州), which comprises of parts of present-day Wakayama and Mie prefectures.  Mehari-zushi is simply a ball of vinegared rice enveloped in pickled mustard leaf.  That’s right, no fish, no bait, no mayonnaise, just two major components.

The origin of the name is amusing; since the mehari-zushi clumps used come quite big – with each one intended to be a snack for hungry workers – the Japanese name roughly translate as “sushi that makes your eyes open wide,” since opening your mouth wide does the same for the eyes (見張る/みはる).

Although it’s much more common in the Kansai area of Japan (where Wakayama, Osaka, and Kyoto are), a new mehari-zushi restaurant, めはりと鶏天みふく (Mehari to Chicken Ten Mifuku) opened on April 20th in the Tsukiji district of Tokyo.

As a huge fan of Japanese food and Tokyo, I can’t wait for international tourism to restart, particularly in Japan.  Knowing that mehari-zushi aren’t so easy to find in the capital makes me want to add this take-out shop to the endless list of places to try.

Restaurant link:
Restaurant location:

%d bloggers like this: