Eating Japanese food like a complete jackass

Katsu curry don at Narita International Airport
Katsu kari don at Narita International Airport.

I cobbled together the last few yen on my Suica transit card and a fistful of hundred yen coins to buy the above breaded pork cutlet in sweet and acidic curry gravy, washed down with a bland as a mountain stream lager. I could have taken a parting shot at some more serious sushi or a last ball of octopus fritter at the airport lounge takoyaki bar but I didn’t.

I’m a bad food tourist. I eat Japanese food like a complete jackass.

Despite the public display of nothing but food on my photostream, the trip to Japan was more about catching up with close friends rather than having a forced and micromanaged eating experience. The only solid food plan was to visit and eat a sticky pancake in an all-you-can-drink setting.

When I started researching my trip to Japan, it scared the hell out of me. I’m not the best on-the-beaten-path food tourist and am at my happiest when I find food at what approaches pure randomness. I take tips on board and metastasize them into queer tumors of culinary knowledge; a lingering feeling that I should be seeking out a certain food in a certain suburb or town rather than a beeline to the top restaurant.

Chowhound has a wealth of sample itineraries for Tokyo from people who are clavicle deep in the know, but they err towards foodie accord on what constitutes the best experience; a consensual Japanese-American hallucination as to what makes capital-A authentic Tokyo dining. It is all about canonising the perfect slice of toro from Tsukiji followed by a Edo-era duck sukiyaki rather than serendipitous finds and challenging what exactly constitutes modern Japanese food.

Making a giant tray of processed mayonnaise pasta salad at the Takishimaya food hall (depachika).

Deep down, Japanese food isn’t just about respecting the seasons. It’s about eating like a goddamned fool, the liberal application of the deep fryer and barbecue, about seeking out the newest edible novelty that the world has to offer and drinking deeply from the vending machine and convenience store beer fridge. While the department store basements might be packed with regional specialties, they too hold whatever cupcake happens to be trendy and the cheap, starchy deep fried foods that Westerners tend to eat only from an employee of a funfair.

There is a whole beautiful genre of Japanese food prepared for the sole purpose of eating while getting drunk to avoid the peak hour train crush. Omoide Yokochō, an alley that runs alongside Shinjuku station is devoted to it.


The streets around the station are heavy with yakitori barbecue smoke and beer crates. In the few hours after peak hour, it was nigh on impossible to get a seat even close to a grill. Fluorescent signs illuminate the beer special and battered material of the day.


In this case, deep-fried, battered chicken skin served with a wedge of lemon and sweet processed mayonnaise.


Potato, bacon and onion fried in butter.

Tsukiji Market is not just fish.

whale meat

It also sells fat red chunks of whale meat. Not much of it though.

While the cubed cetacean is pretty hard to uncover (I only saw a single vendor), what does tend to get overlooked is that there is also a gigantic vegetable market next door. Compared to the speed and clatter of the neighbouring fish market, the vegetable sheds are downright sedate. Fewer forklifts and a general lack of food voyeurs striding amongst the hundreds of low rows of boxed vegetables than on the fish side.

tsukiji vege auction

The auctioning takes place on a set of bleachers in the middle of the warehouse, boxed vegetables opened in front of the crowd and quickly sold off.

Fresh wasabi root at Tsukiji

A box of fresh wasabi root. The general quality on show is overwhelming (not that I’m a great pick of wasabi in particular) – but there does seem to be a clear reason for the premiums paid on vegies in Japan.


This is where tuna ends

Tuna at Tsukiji
Whole frozen tuna on a forklift at Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo

I have no hope whatsoever for the future of tuna. The death warrant for Atlantic tuna was written at the last meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, ensuring that current tuna stocks will have a 50% chance of recovering in the next decade. The tuna is one of the only endangered species that you could buy at the supermarket to feed to your cat or rave about eating a perfect red shard atop vinegared rice without social repercussions. I doubt this prevailing attitude will change before the bluefin and yellowfin tuna are well dead.

Roughly, three quarters of the world’s tuna is eaten by Japan and from four in the morning, it looks like roughly three quarters of the Japan’s tuna is at Tsukiji fish market in downtown Tokyo. Frozen torpedoes of fish are lined up in a warehouse for auction, a visual cliche of Tokyo that wrestles for space in travel brochures with Goth Lolitas and that busy intersection in Shibuya.

The auction rooms are currently cut off to tourists thanks to its popularity and the propensity of tourists to fall beneath forklifts. (It appears that the auction area is actually open to a limited number of visitors each day (Cheers, Akila) – I must have missed the cut). Austin Bush has some excellent coverage of the auctions. I concentrated on what happens next.

Tuna at Tsukiji

The areas where the middlemen transfer and dismantle the tuna is still accessible for death by forklift. Tuna are transferred from the auction area into stalls on handcarts yoked to the elderly, motorised gurneys which appear to be the offspring of a motorcycle and a double bed, and your construction-variety forklift.

Whole frozen tuna on a cart

Tuna are kept cool with blocks of dry ice while they await the bandsaw. The smaller stallholders break down their morning’s buy into component cuts, dividing the buttery belly cuts from the coarser red flesh. It’s a much less sterile process that I would have expected with tuna heads piling up on the concrete floor before the flesh is removed from their cheeks, collar and eyes.

Filleting Tuna at Tsukiji

Fresh fish are hand-filleted. If you’re at all interested in the full Japanese 27-step process for breaking down a tuna, Cooking Issues comes up with the goods.

Tuna at Tsukiji

Once removed from the bone, fillets are further onsold; restaurants and smaller vendors picking up particular cuts to resell elsewhere in the city and sate the endless appetite for this doomed fish.

At least she didn’t mention the war.

What is the point of swallowing the last 10 years of Hanoi food writing from U.S. magazines, visiting said city for a holiday-come-assignment, talking to the self same people you’ve read about in those U.S. magazines and spewing 2,129 words of uninspired, unoriginal, factually inaccurate, poop out the orifice of an American printing press at the other end? I dunno, but maybe the editors at The Smithsonian can tell us.

It’s worth taking a look over at Noodlepie as Graham Holliday eviscerates the latest steamy gut-pile of parachute journalism on Hanoian phở. I’m still amazed that there is a market for articles where the journalists interview just the “cultural translators” – those handy English-speaking experts who can be relied on for a pithy quote – rather than the people who cook the dish on a daily basis.

“It’s a minefield even for Asians”

I had dinner on Saturday at Poon’s Chinese Restaurant in Barkly Street, Footscray. It was the worst Cantonese meal that I’ve eaten in Melbourne. The service was gracious and friendly considering that they were packed and it was dirt cheap. The meal was a mistake but not an expensive one and it filled me with regret but not salmonella. The food was uniformly tasteless like some non-toxic, starchy glue.

Poon’s however, is popular enough to be ranked a local institution much of which seems to revolve around the ritual of regular dining in the same place over a period of decades. The result of a family decision where Friday night is fish and chips, Saturday night is Poon’s. Single sex groupings dining together, having the Boy’s Night Out with a table filled with Crownies; women on other tables sharing a bottle of Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay and splitting Poon’s gigantic (and suspiciously Chiko Roll-like) spring rolls. There were no chopsticks on offer, anywhere.

At a guess, it has been doing the same food in the same place for half a century and the punters love it. Here’s a review from Menulog:

i have been a ‘patron’ of ‘Poons’ for at least 40 years, and would not go anywhere else. The food is fresh, nutritional and very easy to eat. The variations on the Menu are wonderful.

The staff and Management have ALWAYS been good to me and i feel part of their family after all these years, at being treated as part of their family.

i only wish they could deliver to Carlton to where i live, but at least i get a chance to mix with some of the ‘cream of the crop people in our Society when i visit them regularly.

Thank you for allowing me to tell you this wonderful news about ‘Poons’. ( i tell everyone i go there and love it and the staff too )

Who in Australia cares about “Asian food” in a world where Poon’s is rating as well as Flower Drum or Lau’s on user-generated review sites?

When it comes to food from Asia, most Australians are happy with average food. “Chinese food” means a regionless choice of meat stir fried in your choice of bland starchy sauce. Most Australians are content with the local Thai joint doing the traffic light curries (red, green, yellow) straight from the bucket of Mae Ploy. Vietnamese means pho alone. Japanese is aseasonal and what rich people eat (except for sushi, which is no longer associated with Japan). The rest of Asia is a vague unknown, summarised in the thinner chapters of cookbooks with the word Oriental in the title. Above all, the food must be “very easy to eat”. No bones, no heads, no need to even chew.

So Necia Wilden’s article in The Australian newspaper regarding her inability to find or discern premium Asian ingredients was no great surprise to me. Boneless and free from the shackles of mastication. I’m only bringing it up because of the interesting discussion it has spawned over at Progressive Dinner Party. Like Zoe, I read it in the physical newspaper. I paid good money for it in the hope that food journalism in The Australian (and coverage of food from Asia) would be better in 2009 under Lethlean and Wilden’s gaze. I haven’t bought an edition of The Australian since. If it’s been a bumper year for food writing in The Australian, apologies for not supporting it.

I’m not going to tackle the racism behind grouping food from Asia together into an undifferentiated and monolithic bloc, skipping between cuisines as if there was no need for specialist knowledge in any of them. Provincial food for The Australian, it seems, only comes from refined palates in Europe.

It’s the Chicken Tonight approach to food that also concerns me: if only I had the right stir-through sauce recommended to me as authentic, the curry would taste the same as at my hotel in Phuket. So how to come by this knowledge? Getting a recommendation from the person that owns the store is just not good enough, as Wilden puts it:

“How do I know this soy sauce is organic?” I ask the young woman in the Japanese grocery store near my home. “Because it says so on the label,” she says, pointing to the Japanese characters on the bottle’s posh paper wrapping. Ah, right.

The key, according to the article, is to get a chef to tell you what is good, preferably one with an Asian last name or a cookbook the size of a family sedan. Actually going out, buying a few things and then tasting them is not mentioned. You only learn to cook through your own experiences and your sense of taste is subtly different to everyone else and above all, should be trusted. If David Thompson recommends Megachef brand fish sauce but you enjoy $3 a bottle Tiparos, go with your own tastes. At most, experimenting with different brands will be less than $5 a hit.

Buying ingredients is no minefield as Tony Tan mentions in the article, at least in comparison to the minefields that I’ve seen built for Cambodians and by Cambodians. Ask the shopkeeper. Try different things. You won’t step on anything that will turn you, your children or your livestock into a fine pink mist. So who is this article meant to service? What is to gain from making cooking certain cuisines at home look more difficult and less satisfying?

Just to put on a particularly Bolshie hat, newspapers have so little to gain from pimping out fresh food – it is the Simon Johnson’s of the world that buy ads in the food sections of newspapers and not your local Vietnamese grocer. There is a need for newspapers to prop up a system that recommends branded goods over raw ingredients. If word got out that fresh ingredients make much more of a difference in cooking than processed ones, all hell would break loose. People would be smashing in the Lean Cuisine fridges in your local duopolist supermarket in a fit of rage.

Just to bring things back to the world of Poon’s rather than some parallel universe where people care about what they eat, The Australian’s food section is aimed squarely at the Poon’s market and not at me. It’s aimed at people who buy the best fish sauce as a display to others that they buy the best fish sauce rather than as a pungent condiment whose value is in its consumption. This is the food journalism for the people who have been eating the same Chinese food for decades and are unwilling or unable to try somewhere new without someone else validating and translating the experience for them.

Xiao Long Bao in the Gastrodesert: Little House, Bundoora

Xiao Long Bao, Little House, Bundoora

I think that it was Australian food writer John Lethlean who labelled the region north of Heidelberg in Melbourne as a gastrodesert. On the surface, it’s gastronomically grim up north; the oleaginous wasteland of charcoal chicken and Smorgy’s. People speak with fondness of shopping mall food courts and premixed bourbon and cola. If Stuff White People Like was written by an Australian white person on unemployment benefits, these are the Likes with which they would Stuff themselves.

Like any desert, the surface appearance is deceptive. There is a whole hidden ecosystem, not as rich as much of , but still prepossessing. Witness the above xiao long bao, the Shanghainese soup-filled dumpling that is currently enrapturing well to do Melbournites via the CBD restaurant Hutong. This was to be had in Bundoora, well north of the Heidelberg hinterlands at Little House Restaurant. I’d always thought that the idea of a hidden menu at suburban Chinese restaurants was a racist conceit. Sure, there is the occasional suburban menu where you need to read between the lines of poor translation but my experience is that restaurants put whatever they’re trying to sell at front and centre. The specials board in Mandarin tend to turn up on the menu elsewhere in English. The secrets involve organ meat.

This is not the case at Little House. Xiao long bao appear nowhere on the menu – I’d received a tip from a previously unknown source that these were some of the best dumplings in the state, a claim that I was only going to verify simply because it sounded too ludicrous to carry any truth. Anonymous tipsters paid big bucks in Hong Kong, so why not north of the gastro-divide?

Granted, it is not as good as Hutong’s version – Little House’s xiao long bao has slightly thicker pastry and is not formed with the same delicate hands – but it is a good third cheaper and it fits with the homely appeal of Little House. They are a dumpling that is well above average. Hutong is opposite Melbourne’s best known Cantonese restaurant, Flower Drum. Little House is next to a suburban tattooist run by a man named “Nugget“.

Little House, Bundoora, Melbourne

The rest of the menu is modest Shanghainese with a heavy dose of Szechuan – mapo tofu, lamb, chili aplenty. Malaysian is on the sign but barely referred to on the menu, maybe a remnant of a previous owner.

Location: Little House Restaurant, Dennison Mall, Bundoora, Vic