Grilled as you like it

Torikomachi October 18, 2009

Filed under: Eating,Japan,Maebashi — laurel @ 10:39 pm
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Torikomachi’s jidori tsukune

Well it’s been a while since I’ve posted any local restaurant reviews and I’ve been thinking it’s high time. So let’s take a look at Torikomachi, my favorite neighborhood spot for yakitori. You can find Torikomachi just south of Maebashi Station on the same road that leads to Keyaki Walk (the Kinokuniya entrance). Although you can find Torikomachi in Tokyo and other cities around Japan, the sign next to the grill says that they use Joshu jidori (Gunma-raised free-range chickens).

Torikomachi’s bar

If you come with a group you can get a table, but on busy nights, singles and couples usually sit at the bar. If you sit on the far side from the door you can watch the grill-master at work.

If you’re feeling hungry and not wanting to try picking and choosing from the Japanese-only menu, you can choose one of the two set courses in the back of the menu (for two). The “Ume” course includes chopped cabbage, jidori tsukune, one sumi-yaki chicken half to share, yaki-onigiri, tebasaki to yasai nikomi and vanilla ice cream or chicken soup. The “Take” course is all of the same items, except that you get an order of the hitsumabushi rice dish instead of the yaki-onigiri. The set courses are a good variety, but it’s certainly a lot of food, so if you’re not starving, you might want to put together your own selection from the menu.

If you’re ordering a-la-carte, here’s what I’d recommend: first thing after you sit down, order one stick of the jidori tsukune (above) for each person in your group. The jidori tsukune is basically a chicken meatball that’s been slowly grilled and then served with a sweet soy sauce and a raw egg yolk that you can use to paint on another layer of richness on top of the sauce. It’s like a yakitori take on “oyako.”

Sumi-yaki jidori half

While you’re at it, order the sumi-yaki jidori half or whole. Order it right when you arrive because it takes about 30 or 40 minutes to cook. This is one of the best roast chickens that I’ve ever had. It’s slow-grilled over charcoal. The skin is delightfully crispy and seasoned with salt and garlic and the meat is nicely flavorful.

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From the grill (clockwise from top left): yaki-onigiri, chicken liver, hanpen-cheese, aspara-maki

After you order your sumi-yaki chicken you have some time to check out the rest of the menu. There is a great selection of yakitori and kushi-yaki skewers. In addition to the usual chicken or negima skewers, don’t overlook the sunagimo (gizzards) and liver, which are nicely browned and smoky tasting around the edges and tender in the center. Mmm… I also like the hampen-cheese skewers (steamed fish cake with melted cheese), aspara-maki, and meat-stuffed shiitake mushrooms. There’s also a full-page list of flavored tsukune, but I think that the classic jidori tsukune is the best.

The yaki-onigiri is browned and crunchy on the outside and topped with a salty-sweet sauce. The charcoal grill gives it a little smoky flavor too.  You might be thinking, “oh, it’s just a grilled rice ball,” but trust me, it’s a darn good grilled rice ball.

ume-jiso sasami

One of the yakitori items that you shouldn’t miss is the sasami. These are chunks of the chicken tender that are seared on the outside but rare in the middle. They’re juicy and delicious. My favorite is ume-jiso sasami.

close-up view of ume-jiso sasami

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Side-dishes (clockwise from top left): tebasaki to yasai nikomi, marinated okra (otoshi), hitsumabushi , torikomachi salad

Finally, why not try some delicious side dishes? You will get an otoshi (starter) when you sit down: it’s a small side dish of vegetables or sometimes spicy konnyaku. The best side dish (I think so anyways) is the tebasaki to yasai nikomi. It’s a stew made with long-simmered chicken wings in a miso broth with vegetables. The chicken wings are so tender that the cartilage is like gelatin and the broth is super thick and rich. It’s fantastic! The torikomachi salad is made with slices of barely seared chicken with Italian dressing. It’s pretty good, and when you’re eating so much chicken it’s nice to have some greens. If you didn’t get the yaki-onigiri and you’re craving some rice, the hitsumabushi is made with crispy chicken skin, slices of chicken, takuan, green onions and chile threads. First you stir it up and eat some, then you can pour the hot chicken broth on top and eat it like rice porridge.

Torikomachi is open every day except Sunday. There is another Gunma location in Isesaki.



Ume mania! July 25, 2009

ume fresh

This year, the rainy season seemed to start pretty early this year. The clouds and drizzling rain tend to make me think of ume, which comes into season during the rainy season. Remembering all the good stuff that I made from ume last year, I couldn’t wait for the harvest. At first, the ume are small and green, and they are imported from the southern parts of the country. Of course, Gunma has plenty of ume trees, especially around Mount Haruna, so I waited.

Early June became late June. “The time is right,” I thought. I asked Mr. Y., who had brought a crateful of his own ume to school to share with the teachers if he would have them this year as well. “Of course, I always have too many so I will give them to you. You know, young people these days don’t know what to do with ume so it’s so nice to see someone your age making ume-shu and ume jam,” he told me in return. But being the tennis coach means that Mr. Y. doesn’t have much time off on the weekends to harvest 20 ume trees. By the time term exams rolled around, it was pretty late in the season. I was opening the last jar of last year’s jam and really looking forward to having more.

The Monday after exams started, Mr. Y. brought the ume. It wasn’t the usual crate though, it was just a small box. “These are for you,” he told me. “Every year, I harvest 300 kilograms of ume. It’s so hard, it takes all day. But this year, it only took 10 minutes. I’ve never seen anything like this.” I was really touched that he had saved some of his harvest for me even though it was much smaller than usual.

It looked like one or two kilos. They were quite ripe, but that’s just fine for jam. I had dinner plans already that night, so I decided I would make the jam the next day. Some recipes say that you should soak the ume for up to a day for “aku-nuki,” that is, to remove the harsh flavor of the underripe fruit. I also figured that being submerged in water would keep the oxygen off of the fruit and slow its ripening. I was wrong. By the time I was ready to make the jam, the fruit could barely keep itself together. It seemed like the ripening had accelerated and the fruit was so soft it fell apart if I touched it too hard. I got out the paring knife and trimmed off the bad spots. By the time I was done, I barely had 500 grams of Mr. Y.’s precious fruit. “Well I can’t just waste it,” I thought, so I got out my pot and made the world’s most pathetically small batch of jam. In the end I had one jar of ume-shiso jam to put up and another third of a cup that went into the fridge.

The next day, I was on a mission. I was going to find ume to finish my preservation projects. First I checked at my usual grocery stores, Ito Yokado and Apita. Apita usually has a nice display of ume along with all of the supplies you need for ume-shu, umeboshi, and jam, but alas, they had already packed it away for the season. Next, I rode my bike across town to check at my favorite farm-market, Shoku-no-eki. They had a display for ume, but they were already sold out. I asked a clerk, but she said I might be able to get them the next day between 9 and 9:30, but the ume had been extremely popular lately. Being that I have school from 8:30 to 4:30, that wasn’t going to work out unless I could find a way to sneak out for an hour or two without being noticed. Not a good idea. Almost ready to hang my hat up, I went across the street to the local mega-mart, Besia. Lo and behold, they had ume; imported from Wakayama prefecture and quite ripe, but ume nonetheless. At least I could make some more jam with them. I bought a kilo and a bag full of canning jars.

On the way home, I passed by Fressay, a smaller grocery store that I rarely shop at. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine store, but there’s not one near my house, so I don’t usually think to go there. I remembered that I needed another bag of sugar to make the jam. I went in and thought, “What the heck, I should see if they have any ume here.” I passed by most of the fresh produce displays. Just as I thought, no luck here…. wait a minute… what’s that tucked into the corner next to the refrigerated section? If it wasn’t the last two bags of ume. And not just any ume, but plump, firm, green ume harvested right here in Gunma. Well it was turning into my lucky day. I got my sugar and both bags of ume and was on my way. On a whim I ducked into a small, run-down looking drug store and found the sarashi cloth (traditionally used for many things including straining dashi) that I haven’t been able to find at any of the big markets and chain drug stores. Score 2 for me!

I got home around 7 and I didn’t want these ume to suffer the same fate that the last ones had, so I got to work right away. Clean and soak yellow ume. Take photos. Start cooking yellow-ume jam.  Clean and soak ao-ume. Bottle half of yellow-ume jam. Add shiso and shiso vinegar to remaining jam. Bottle ume-shiso jam. Start cooking ao-ume jam. Pack ume-shu jar with layers of ao-ume and rock sugar. Bottle ao-ume jam. Bottle ao-ume jam. Take more photos. Clean up. It was nearly midnight by the time I’d finished—hot, exhausted, and spattered with jam. Maybe I went overboard buying three kilos of ume, but I’m really looking forward to a year of delicious ume jam and ume-shu.

The next day I took a jar of the yellow ume jam and ume-shiso jam to school for Mr. Y. to thank him for sharing his ume with me. I made up a little white lie that I had mixed the ume he gave me with some from Wakayama so that I could make enough to share. Imagine my surprise when he said, “Really, that’s amazing. I thought they would have all gone bad!”

ume finished

this year’s finished products: ume-shu, ao-ume jam (green ume jam), ume-shiso jam, and yellow ume jam

recipes: ume jam and ume shiso jam
ume-shu at Blue Lotus update: this year I didn’t poke the ume with a skewer and, upon tasting, they were much more firm and crunchy than last year’s.

I got a great tip from a former teacher from school the other night while we were talking about my ume projects. She said that you can make umeboshi using any recipe and instead of putting the umeboshi in a large ceramic crock with weights to pickle, you can put them in a zip-top plastic bag and weight that instead. If you eat them quickly you don’t have to sun-dry them, but if you want to keep them for a long time dry them according to your recipe. I’ve never made umeboshi myself, but this sounds like an interesting trick that I might have to try next year.


Early summer’s bounty June 24, 2009

Filed under: Eating,Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Maebashi — laurel @ 10:27 pm
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shoku-no-eki june

June in Japan: spring turns to summer. The winter wheat turns golden and bows under the weight of the plump heads of grain. The harvested fields are replaced by new-grass-green rice seedlings. The glorious pink azaeleas spill their blossoms onto the pavement below shopfront window boxes. Ajisai (hydrangea), possibly my favorite Japanese blossom, unfurls it’s cheerful pom-poms of color. And welcome too to the rainy season. Everywhere there is color along the ground, but the sky is mostly grey.

The bounty of early summer provides a much needed contrast to June’s drizzly grey skies. In June we say goodbye to the last of the spring vegetables and welcome the early fruits of summer. So what’s in season now? Here’s a sampling of what I bought on the first weekend of June. Almost everything was grown in the city of Maebashi or in Gunma prefecture (except for the citrus, which is from Wakayama prefecture, and the biwa (loquats) from Nagasaki).

Spring fruits and vegetables:
kara oranges
ama-natsu oranges
biwa (loquats)
gyouja ninniku (I think these are ramps)

Summer vegetables:
baby corn
green beans

By last weekend, the citrus and strawberries were finished but the cherries, melons, and eggplants have come into season now. I’ve especially been enjoying delicious watermelons from Ota city in Gunma. I also have some onions, carrots, new potatoes, and daikon that I harvested from the Kobayashi’s organic garden at the sweet potato farm that I’m looking forward to.


Alex and Laurel’s Photoblog has moved! February 11, 2009

Filed under: Eating,Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Maebashi,Travel — laurel @ 8:25 pm
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If you’re a fan of our Photoblog, Maebashi Eki, you may want to update your links. Due to some changes at photoblog.com, Alex has moved the photoblog to wordpress. You can find us now at alexanderlaws.wordpress.com. Enjoy more photos of our adventures in Japan and abroad. Although I call it Alex and Laurel’s photoblog, credit really goes to Alex for creating and maintaining the photoblog, so please check out his hard work!


Ton Ton Matsuri December 19, 2008

Filed under: Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Maebashi — laurel @ 10:20 pm
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I suppose one obvious sign that I live in the inaka (countryside) is that my town has a festival called Ton Ton Matsuri, which basically means Piggy Piggy Festival, or maybe Porky Party. It was a celebration of pigs and pork in honor of Gunma pork, a famous local product around here. One of the highlights of the day was the baby pig race. I don’t think there’s anything cuter than piglets in tank tops running down a corral. Actually, they didn’t quite race, they kind of meandered from one end to the other, with one or two of the contestants getting lost along the way. The little guy in the shirt above turned out to be the winner, while the one below never made it to the finish line. But they’re both cute as the dickens, aren’t they?



Soba Kyoshitsu: a handmade soba lesson October 26, 2008

cutting soba tachi-soba style

Our friends Judith and Kurtis are preparing to move back to America soon and as a farewell present to them, the proprietors of our favorite soba restaurant, Shunmi, treated the four of us to a lesson in making handmade soba. We began our lesson by learning about different styles of soba.

Most soba restaurants make Edo soba, but Shunmi specializes in a type of soba known as tachi-soba. While making Edo soba is mostly practiced by men, tachi-soba is the type of soba that is made in the countryside, and the technique is often passed down by the women in the family. Edo soba is prepared by rolling out a very large sheet of dough that is folded several times and then the layers are cut using a pushing motion with a large, hooked knife with a flat blade. On the other hand, tachi-soba is cut with a different style of knife, and the knife is drawn through single sheets of dough that are stacked together. The cutting is done with just the tip of the blade. While Edo soba is cut using a guide board that ensures that each noodle is cut to an even thickness, tachi-soba is cut with no guide, so an evenly thick noodle is a sign of a skilled chef.

Shunmi prepares their noodles fresh every day, judging each morning how many customers they will get depending on the weather. They are only open at lunch and they said that they will get about 30 customers on a sunny day, but only 20 on a rainy day. They serve both ni-hachi soba, or 80% buckwheat and 20% wheat flour with a bit of egg and tororo-imo (ground yama-imo), and ju-wari soba, which is 100% buckwheat and water. After seeing how much work goes into the handmade noodles, it is amazing that we can buy their lunch set with tea, dessert, pickles, and seasonal tempura vegetables for just 1000 yen.

ready to make soba: enameled bowls filled with pure buckwheat flour

To make the soba, we began by putting 500 grams of buckwheat flour into a large laquered bowl. The water is usually about 50% of the amount of flour by weight, so we measured 250 mL into measuring cups. The amount of water needed can vary with the temperature, humidity, and other weather conditions, so it’s added gradually. First we added half the water and used our fingertips to mix the water into the flour and rub and big lumps with the flour, creating a mix that looked about like panko breadcrumbs. Then we added half of the remaining portion of water and mixed again. Our goal was to create an even mix that looked almost like beach sand. We added more water, little by little, using our fingertips to rub the pieces of dough together. When the dough bits had gathered into lumps about the size of small potatoes, we smooshed them all together and kneaded the ball until it was smooth. Then we split the dough in half, and rolled each half into a ball and rolled the ball on the side of the enamel bowl to smooth out any wrinkles. We flattened each ball into a disc and put one in plastic while we rolled the other.

Making the soba: the dough beginning to come together | the dough kneaded into a smooth ball

We rolled the dough out on a large wooden board with a long rolling pin. We were taught to push the pin with our palms, moving them in circles to press the dough and gradually rotate it on the board. After the dough is rolled into a large circle, we had to focus our rolling on the corners to create a relatively square piece about a millimeter and a half thick. My first circle didn’t start off very well, so our teachers called it the “map of the world soba.” After my troublesome first attempt I had a much better time with my second piece. I really enjoyed rolling the soba: the long, circling motions and the dry “swish swish” sound of our floury hands on the rolling pins was very meditative and relaxing.

the sheets of dough

After we had each rolled our two sheets of dough, we stacked them all together and then cut our noodles. We took turns cutting by laying our hand lightly on top of the layers of dough and using the back of our thumbs to guide the knife, cutting thin, even strips. As we drew the knife along, it was amazing to watch the noodles gracefully fall to the side, our dough becoming soba.

Next we learned to make Judith’s favorite soba topping, kurumi sauce (walnut sauce). We started with a mix of toasted sesame seeds and walnuts, about 50 mL per serving. We ground the nuts and seeds until smooth in a suribachi then added a bit of hot water to help bring out the fragrance. Finally we mixed in soba tsuyu, about 100 mL per serving, to give the sauce the proper taste and texture. It’s easy!

Oh yeah, except that the hardest part might be making a delicious tsuyu. Shunmi starts by making kaeshi, a seasoned soy sauce mixture made with soy sauce, sugar, and mirin. They age the kaeshi to develop flavor for 3 months. After that, they mix it with homemade dashi to make the finished tsuyu. Of course, they wouldn’t share their secret recipe, but they gave us a hint that they use 3 kinds of katsuo to get the proper flavor.

our soba, cooked and ready to eat – you can see that some of the noodles from the irregular ends are a little short

We finished with a lesson on how to cook the noodles properly. They use a huge pot of boiling water to cook the noodles. They cook each portion by itself, not 4 portions in the pot at once. They usually cook the noodles for just 60 seconds. Since our beginner’s noodles were a little thicker than usual, we cooked them for 70 seconds. After removing the noodles from the hot water, it’s important to wask off the excess starch by rubbing them vigorously in a colander with cold running water. Then we dipped them in a bowl of ice water. Finally the noodles were ready to serve. We piled them on a zaru (strainer) and put bowls of kurumi sauce next to them. They also made us some fall-vegetable tempura, served with regular tsuyu, and delicious pickled cabbage and cucumbers with shiso buds. They served the pickles with a yuzu-soy dressing that gave them a completely different, and of course still delicious, flavor.

The finished meal: homemade soba; eggplant, cucumber and cabbage tsukemono; tempura of fall vegetables, green beans, and kurumi (walnut) sauce

We finished the meal, as always, with a pitcher of hot soba cooking water, which is called o-yu. After you’ve eaten all of your noodles, you pour some of the hot, starchy water into your dipping sauce to make a tasty soup that you can drink. It’s thought that drinking the soup with the cooking water is very healthy.

Our teachers even sent us home with the leftover noodles, but unfortunately we couldn’t eat them fast enough. If you want to enjoy the taste of fresh soba, you’ve got to make it the same day. I tried my hand at making my own tsuyu, and while it was good, it doesn’t measure up to Shunmi’s.

Our soba making lesson was one of the most fun and educational things that I’ve done in Japan. Of course, with typical Japanese hospitality, our hosts wouldn’t let us pay for our lesson, ingredients, or even our dinner, saying that they’re glad to do it for us. We had thought this might happen so of course we brought some omiyage, but it’s such a small thing compared to such amazing generosity and teaching. Alex and I are looking forward to many more happy lunches at Shunmi in the future. I also hope that after we return to America (someday) I’ll be able to remember my lessons and make my own inaka soba at home.


Kakigori: the taste of summertime in Japan August 27, 2008

Filed under: Eating,Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Maebashi — laurel @ 12:34 pm
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Jumonjiya’s pineapple and ice cream kakigori

Although it may not feel like it this week due to our grey skies and rainy days, summertime in Japan is usually hot and humid. Last summer in August the temperature rose over 40 degrees Celsius (about 105 Farenheit). The muggy weather really saps my energy.

A great way to refresh your body when you’re feeling the heat is with a cooling bowl of kakigori, shaved ice. You can buy shaved ice at a lot of places like festivals and family style restaurants: you can find it anywhere where you see the red and blue flags with the character for koori, which means ice, but if you really want to appreciate the cooling refreshment of kakigori you should go to a specialty shop. Here you’ll find that the ice is shaved finely into a fluffy ball of snow and topped with just the right amount of syrup. Two of my favorite shops in Maebashi are Noguchiya and Jumonjiya.

Noguchiya is a few blocks from my school, so many students head there for an after school snack in the summer and fall. The ice is refreshing and not too expensive, but since it’s often crowded with students from many of the nearby schools, be prepared for a wait if you’re going on a weekday afternoon. They have an old-fashioned ice shaver that makes a huge, fluffy mound of ice. You can choose from a huge list of flavors. My favorite is the early-summer special flavor of no-ichigo, wild strawberry, but late in the summer it’s sold out. I also like matcha flavor, which is sweet and bitter. In addition to choosing your flavor you can also add condensed milk or sweet adzuki beans for a little extra.

Noguchiya | tools for carving and carrying ice blocks at Noguchiya

Noguchiya’s ice shaver | Noguchiya’s kakigori, kanro (plain syrup) with milk and adzuki

Jumonjiya is on the north side of town off of Route 17 in the tiny front room of a small house. The menu offers several varieties of sweets, including about five flavors of kakigori served with or without icecream. The ice is here is sophisticated, served as a neat ball topped with an adorable scoop of icecream and the syrup on the side. Your dessert comes with a steaming hot cup of green tea, which seems a bit strange in the summer, but it helps to rewarm your mouth after you’ve cooled it off with a big bowl of shaved ice.


Many people say that the keening of cicadas is the sound of summertime in Japan, and I think that sitting back and listening to the cicadas with a bowl of kakigori is the taste of summertime in Japan.

copyright 2008 LMS