One of the things that I enjoyed most about Japanese food was how incredibly fresh everything tasted. The seafood is some of the best I've ever eaten, and fresh fish is highly prized in Japanese culture: perhaps unsurprisingly given that the country is an archipelago comprised of more than 6,000 islands. I visited Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, and Otaru fish market in Hokkaido, where I saw an incredible array of fresh and live seafood. With both markets full of restaurants serving the markets' offerings, you could try it with hardly any time wasted in the journey from sea to plate.
My favourite seafood dish was definitely the seafood bowl I had at Otaru fish market. With a base of sticky rice, you could then choose a topping of whatever seafood you wanted. I chose crab, salmon roe and salmon. The flavour of the bowl somehow managed to completely encapsulate the sea, and it was a bit of a revelation to me. This should have been pretty similar to sushi as the components are essentially the same, but I think the proportion of seafood to rice took it to another level: I mean, just look at the amount of seafood in that bowl! Plus, being able to mix different types of seafood in the same mouthful was divine.
|Seafood bowl at Otaru fish market|
For me, the delicate sweetness of fresh seafood is really best enjoyed raw - and this, of course, is something you can eat in copious amounts in Japan with their incredible sushi and sashimi, which I also ate plenty of!
|A selection of sushi at Hanayoshi restaurant, Niseko|
Boy, do the Japanese love their sweets! Be it Royce Chocolate, daifuku, or delicate langue de chat biscuits, there is a veritable feast available to the sweet-toothed traveler in Japan.
Although it would be impossible for me to dislike chocolate, the Japanese chocolate certainly doesn't come close to its European counterparts, like those of Swiss chocolatiers in my opinion. The Japanese sweets that really stood out for me, however, were the dairy-based desserts. I spent most of my time in Hokkaido, which is well-known for the delicious milk produced by its cows! I sampled a number of milk desserts, including ice cream, milk pudding, cream puffs and cheesecake.
|Clockwise from top: Milk pudding from Takahashi Ranch Milk Kobo, Niseko; milk flavour ice cream from Yamanaka Dairy Farm; a selection of cheescakes from LeTAO cafe in Otaru.|
Their dairy desserts make the milk the star - they're not overly-flavoured with other ingredients or sickly sweet, so you can taste the milk really well. It's weird that I like these so much because I don't actually like milk a great deal in the UK (I always buy almond milk instead), but this milk tastes really good, so fresh, and I imagine it is much higher quality than the milk you buy down your local corner shop in the UK. I particularly loved the LeTAO Double Fromage cheesecake (the bottom left piece on the above plate), which somehow manages to have quite a subtle flavour whilst still being incredibly rich, and the two layers made for a lovely contrast of textures. They sold these at New Chitose airport, and I was really tempted to buy a whole cake to take on the plane back. Maybe next time!
I also really love the Japanese melon jellies, and these are something I do always bring back with me. They're bite-sized jellies with a really strong melon flavour, that you suck out of their plastic tubs in a more or less inelegant manner. The Japanese Yubari King melons after which they are flavoured are really expensive - the one pictured below was selling for 2680 Yen, the equivalent of about £15!
|Yubari King melons at Otaru market|
More or less everything in Japan comes with either rice or noodles, so if you don't like either, you may have a bit of a problem! Luckily I happily devour both. Although ramen was originally an import from China, this noodle soup is now considered to be a quintessentially Japanese dish.
I realise I have been talking about Hokkaido specialities a lot (I really need to go back and try cuisines of different provinces/islands!), but when given the choice, I would always go for a ramen served with a dollop of Hokkaido butter and corn. The butter gives the broth such a rich and creamy taste, and I love how the sweetness of the corn cuts through the savouriness of the miso broth. My all-time favourite ramen is undoubtedly the snow crab and corn version I had at The Lookout Cafe. It was exactly what I needed on my last day of skiing. This despite the fact that I'd probably consumed more crab than most people do in a lifetime over the course of my last trip. There's no such thing as too much crab!
|Ramen with snow crab, Hokkaido butter and sweetcorn|
I love the variety of Japanese dishes, how fresh and good quality the produce is, and how beautifully the dishes are presented. However, Japanese cuisine is a little low on vegetables for me! They do have some incredible salads (with beautiful miso dressings), delicate pickles and vegetable tempura, but when it comes to main dishes, almost everything is comprised of fish or meat with rice or noodles, which doesn't leave much space on the plate for your five a day. Also, as most dishes have added soy sauce, I think my daily consumption of sodium was quite high when I was there. However, I'm sure Japanese people don't eat at home exactly what I was eating in restaurants: if I ate out in London every day for two weeks I'd probably be complaining about the lack of vegetables and high salt content of the foods too. And as Japanese men and women live longer than any other population on earth, I can only come to the conclusion that they must be doing something right when it comes to their food.
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