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a culinary journey

  • Category :
  • travel and wine and food
  • July 10th, 2005

    One of the most amazing things about the trip to Japan is the food. When we were traveling from Tokyo to Beppu, I couldn’t help but notice the huge differences in the regional food. With a size not bigger than California, it is amazing that these differences are so apparent. One thing for sure is that Japanese, like the French, take pride in the origin of their produces. Even Calbee potato chips have special edition made with salt from different regions.

    Japan is an island economy, which means for a long period of time, its population is fairly isolated. And for a long period of time, the feudal social system didn’t really encourage migration of people. So you end up with pockets of economy that depends heavily on its local produces and commerce. That on top of geographical limitation, you get a very interesting mix of food.

    One thing we must not forget is the stickiness of cuisine from its origin. Even though Hong Kong is an international metropolis with much of its population coming from different regions of China, its main diet is still Cantonese cuisine. So it’s not surprising to find Tokyo and Kyoto having distinct differences in their’s food offerings. Being closer to the water, Tokyo’s diet (and much of its supermarket shelves) made up of mostly fresh fish and seafood, while vegetable and fruit command an astronomical price. A watermelon can set you back $100 USD, where the same green fruit only goes for $16 in Hiroshima. Arbitrage? Not with a 75lb backpack.

    Kyoto on the other hand belongs to the Kansai region. A walk in their market you’ll notice the high number of stores specializing in pickled vegetable. However, they are very different from those in Takayama. Takayama locates between Kyoto and Tokyo in the mountain region. Because it doesn’t have access to sea water fish, their diet consists mostly of fresh water fish, miso, wild mushroom, wild ferns, beef and pickled vegetables. The majority of their pickled vegetables are root varieties. And they are only lightly pickled that much of the original taste remains. In Kyoto you can find pretty much everything under the sun being pickled.

    In Kyoto, most of the fish consumed are either cooked or preserved; with the most popular item being broiled conger eel and salt cured saba pressed sushi. Dried fish was very popular too. I am suspecting it has a lot to do with military purpose. Back in the days, Kyoto is a strategic location for west Japan. While visiting the Hemiji Castle I was impressed by the ingenuity they put into incorporating the defense strategy into the building. Being able to control your food and water reserve is a very powerful tool from a military standpoint. Having preserved vegetable as your stable diet would allow greater mobility when deploying your troops and buy you valuable time in a enclosed defense.

    Traveling to KoyaSan was not only a nice change of pace, but also an experience in culinary sense. KoyaSan is a Buddhist retreat build in the mountains. 3 transfer and 2 hours from Kyoto later, we arrived at KoyaSan. The air is crisp and clean, so as the food. One of its main diets is tofu, different kinds of tofu. Some are first dried, and then rehydrated; some are creamy and taste like milk; some have the taste of sesame paste. Other vegetables are cook with only a subtle taste, mostly with sake. You really need to clear out your mind to be able to taste it.

    Traveling west we reached the China Perfection. It was named so for it proximity to mainland China. One would only expect this geographical proximity brings infusion of culture. You can definitely notice that in the food court. Instead of fresh fish or pickled vegetables, it was filled with pork and other seafood slow cooked in sweet soya sauce. Dumpling and sticky rice is very popular too. The taste of the food is definitely stronger. One of the dish in our dinner in Miyajima was a whole fish cooked in sweet soya sauce, something done very often to Chinese cooking. Later it strick me as strange, because the origin of these cooking usually comes from regions that are not able to get a fresh supply of seafood. Japan, esp Miyajima, being an island would never have that problem. Which further confirm that it has to be an outside influence.

    Going further south we reached Beppu. The food…don’t even mention it. It was horrible. Being on a vocanic region, it relies heavily on geothermo energy. Which means a lot of cooking was done by the streams of hot springs. Everything taste like the water that you take your bath in. So they tried to cover up the taste by condiments such as mayo, whcih makes it even worst. The only thing that was good about the food in this place was its fruit. Vocanic soil is pretty much the richest soil you can ask for. But other than that, if you like the smell of sweaty feet, this would be heaven!

    If you are willing to take the time to stop and listen to your food, it too will tell you a lot about the history of the place.

    Entry Filed under: travel,wine and food

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