Okonomiyaki

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Nagasaki, Unzen, and Shimabara July 20, 2010

Our next stop in Kyushu was Nagasaki. We had a pleasant morning stroll in the Teramachi district.

That’s a big pot! It might be hard to tell from the photo, but you could probably fit about ten of me in this pot. You can see a tiny person wearing a pink shirt in the background, that’s how big this pot is.

After our stroll we headed to Chinatown. We had Nagasaki’s famous “Chinese” noodle dishes, sara udon and champon. The noodle dishes were pretty forgettable, in fact, they seemed to be the same toppings on top of different noodles.

But while we were waiting for seats in the restaurant for lunch, we had some buta-kakuni buns that were very tasty.

The next day we headed out early in the morning to Unzen Onsen. Like Beppu, Unzen also has an area called a “hell,” where sulfurous water and steam bubble from the ground. Most of the hell is pretty dry these days, and crisscrossed with pipes and hoses that siphon the hot water off to the onsen hotels.


a ghostly tree in Unzen

In some spots steam vents out of the ground. Spiky yellow sulfur crystals form around the mouth of the fissure.


A basket of eggs cooks on top of a steam pipe

As at any onsen with a healthy number of tourists, they’ve devised a way to use the onsen’s heat to cook eggs to sell. This pipe basically vents steam directly out of the ground. Top it with a basket of eggs and a towl and you’ve basically got yourself a little egg-oven.

After Unzen we headed to Shimabara, which is just a short bus ride away. Shimabara is known as a city of water, with many famous canals, fountains, and springs. Koi are a famous symbol of the town.

First we enjoyed a lunch of guzoni at Himematsuya. Guzoni is the famous dish of Shimabara, a filling soup made with eel, fu (wheat gluten), kamaboko (fish cake), chikuwa (more fish cake), tamagoyaki (egg), shiitake, hakusai (napa cabbage), lotus root, gobo (burdock), chicken, mitsuba, and of course mochi (those are the white rice cakes on top of the soup in the picture). Mmm… if you find yourself in Shimabara, definitely try some guzoni.

After lunch we walked around to see the sights in Shimabara. First we went to Shimabara castle. Then we went to the city of swimming carp and the Hama-no-kawa spring.


Aren’t these funny looking birds cute?

Interested in Nagasaki, Unzen, and Shimabara? Check it out here: http://www.ngs-kenkanren.com/eng/cs3.html
http://www.city.shimabara.lg.jp/english/003.html

See more from our trip at Alex’s photoblog: Nagasaki and Unzen and Shimabara

 

Ippudo ramen in Hakata June 26, 2010

Filed under: Eating,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 4:10 pm
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Ippudo’s honten kasane aji ramen

After Beppu we were off to Nagasaki, but not before changing trains in Fukuoka/Hakata. It was around dinner time, so we decided to try one more time to find the Ippudo Honten. Ramen is one of my favorite foods when traveling in Japan for many reasons. First of all, it’s hard to mess it up, so wherever you find a ramen shop, you are almost sure to find a good meal. It’s also filling yet affordable. And finally, it’s one of those foods that will be hard to find once we go back to America, so we had better enjoy it while we can. Ippudo is a famous chain of Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen shops, and we often stop in at their Ueno location for lunch when we’re on the way to the airport.

I had read in the Japan Times that the original shop has a honten-only tonkotsu made with additions of caramelized onions and chicken broth that sounded worth searching out.

We already knew where one location in the Tenjin district was, so we stopped in there to get directions to the honten.


the hand-lettered menu


Hakata pork bun: a quick and cheap snack

They directed us a few blocks down the way. We found this location. The long line of guidebook-in-hand customers snaking out the door was a good sign that we were on the right track…

…but the fact that the shop had two stories should have been a dead giveaway that this couldn’t be the original shop! When it was our turn to be seated, the host kindly told us that we were in the wrong place and showed us a small map to the honten that was affixed to the outside wall of the restaurant (but obscured by the long line of customers). The real honten was actually still a block away.


Ippudo Honten

Aha! Finally, we found it on the third try. Of course there was a line here too, and this location was much smaller, so it wasn’t moving as quickly. We were starting to feel pretty hungry, but we were inside soon enough.


bowls waiting to be filled with ramen goodness


help yourself to some pickles


hitokuchi (one bite) gyoza

Of course, we had to get the honten kasane aji ramen since it was what we had come all this way for. We also got an order of hitokuchi gyoza to snack on. The honten kasane aji ramen came topped with not just onions, soft-boiled eggs, nori, and charshu pork slices, but also sliced vegetables, naruto (fish cake) and mini wontons. Don’t make the mistake of ordering your soup and noodles “futsuu” (average); instead I always ask the waiter “osusume wa?” (what do you recommend) and get it that way. This is how I learned to order the noodles on the hard side. The noodles continue to cook in the hot ramen broth, so they’ll be too soft and plump by the time you’re finished if they’re already average to begin with. So what’s the verdict on honten kasane aji ramen? I think it was indisputably worth the trouble.


I love the slogan on the staff T-shirts: your happiness of eating this ramen makes us happy

While you’ll have to go to Hakata to try the honten kasane aji ramen, you can enjoy Ippudo’s other ramens (I recommend the akamaru) here in Gunma at their new(ish) Takasaki location:
群馬県高崎市上大類町809番地1号 | Gunma-ken, Takasaki-shi, Kamioorui-machi 809-1

 

Beppu June 24, 2010


Takegawara Onsen, Beppu

We headed off to Beppu on the Sonic limited express train. The hotel had a nice outdoor onsen on the rooftop so we could enjoy the view of the stars and the hot bath. In the morning we checked out of our hotel and walked along the shore (which was lined with giant concrete erosion control “jacks”) before walking to Takegawara Onsen. Takegawara is a historic onsen that dates back to 1879. There we took a sand bath: you dress in a cotton yukata, lay down in the hot sand, and the bath attendants bury you up to your chin in steaming hot sand. You lay under the sand until you feel just a little bit cooked and just a little bit crushed, before they tell you to wriggle out of the sand and rinse off in the bath. Unfortunately by the time my “bath” was finished, the morning sun was shining right in my eyes, so I had to close them. The feeling is uniquely oppressive yet refreshing.

After the bath we hopped on a bus to see some of Beppu’s famed jigoku (“hells”). The first one we arrived at was Hon-bozu Jigoku (Real Monk’s Hell), which is managed independently of the other hells. The jigoku is named for the hot bubbling mud that resembles a monk’s shaven head, and the historical  handout that we got said that when the geyser first opened up during an earthquake there was a monastery on the site and the monk was tossed into the air by the hot steam (I hope that part is just a legend). In any case, the muddy hills were pretty cool to look at so I would definitely recommend this jigoku.

There was also a spot where volcanic gases vented out from under a rock. Lots of people have left their coins here and the 5 and 10 yen coins turn an impressive shade of violet.

Next we walked downhill to Umi jigoku (Sea Hell). This hell was very popular but also very beautiful. The water is a beautiful aqua shade. There are some torii that lead to a small shrine. Onsen tamago in a basket suspended from a bamboo pole cook in the main pond.


onsen tamago

In addition to the main pond there is a large, emerald green pond. In the pond you can see lotus flowers and giant lily pads which are apparently large enough to float small children on.


Umi Jigoku’s Chinoike

There is also a mini Chinoike (Blood Pond) there. Although it was small, on that day this Chinoike was much more impressive than the real thing.


the real Chinoike

Unfortunately, it was really sunny that day so the jigoku were not at their photogenic best. The steam rising from the ponds was a little thin and a lot of them were just plain old boring. I’d say that Umi Jigoku was the best value and Hon-bozu Jigoku was pretty interesting. Bozu Jigoku, next to Umi Jigoku, was a huge disappointment and hardly seemed worth the 400 yen entrance fee. Shiraike Jigoku was just ok, but might be better on a cooler day. Chinoike Jigoku seems to have potential, but was pretty boring on a sunny day.

Of course our day in Beppu wasn’t all hells an photo-taking. We also stopped to enjoy some snacks. I wanted to try the onsen tamago at Umi Jigoku, but unfortunately they’re sold 5 at a time. I didn’t really want to eat 5 boiled eggs so we had some ice cream and an onsen steamed custard (it was just ok). Outside of Shiraike Jigoku, some vendors were selling eggs cooked with onsen steam by the piece, so we bought some. They were much firmer than the onsen tamago that I’m used to (I suppose that makes sense, steam is hotter than most onsen water) and pretty bouncy (well done). I suppose in the end it’s just a novelty, but it was a pretty tasty snack. We also found a shop selling moromi soft serve. Moromi is a kind of chunky, whole-grained relative of miso that is often used as a vegetable dip. It’s a little sweet and tastes a lot like miso. So how was moromi soft serve? Pretty good, actually.

 

Silver Week in Kyushu: Hakata/Fukuoka June 19, 2010

Filed under: Eating,Four seasons in Japan,Japan,Travel — laurel @ 11:25 pm
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Fukuoka’s yatai street

September in Japan has the public holidays Respect for the Aged Day and the Autumnal Equinox. Respect for the Aged Day always falls on a Monday, while the Autumnal Equinox always falls on September 23rd. If, by a quirk of the calendar, there is only one day in between them, a new holiday called Kokumin-no-hi (People of the Nation’s Day) is created. Well, last year, just such a day occurred. Like Golden Week in the spring, many people used this extra-long holiday (which became known as Silver Week) as an opportunity to travel. We took Thursday and Friday off too and took a whirlwind tour of Kyushu.

First off, we flew into Fukuoka, which is also known as Hakata. They used to be two cities but are now one. It seems that they haven’t been able to settle on a name yet (Officially it’s Fukuoka, but the train station is Hakata). We had an afternoon to see the city before heading off to the hot spring town of Beppu.


A very narrow building along the river

We caught a bus to get to an area called Bayside Place. Wikitravel had recommended it as a good place to go for a date… well, not so much. As far as we could tell it was closed for renovations… or maybe just closed. The Hakata Port Tower is in the same area, so we went up to the top for the view. After enjoying the scenery we came back down and walked back to the downtown area.

Now we were getting hungry. Since we were in the Tenjin area, we stopped into an Ippudo Ramen that we passed, seeing if it was the honten (original store). It was not, so we appeased our stomachs with a Hakata pork bun before heading back out in search of food.


Hakata pork buns


waiting for a seat to open up at a yatai

Hakata/Fukuoka is known for it’s yatai, which are open air food stands like the ones you see at festivals. We went walking along the yatai street at Nakasu looking for something to eat. It was really crowded, so we found one where the wait seemed reasonable and enjoyed a bowl of Tonkotsu ramen. Tonkotsu is Hakata’s famous style of ramen made with a thick, white, pork bone broth, thin noodles, and slices of pork.


tonkotsu ramen

After dinner we went walking through the colorful Canal City shopping center before catching our train.


Canal City


Canal City

See more from Fukuoka at Alex’s photoblog

 

Spaghetti with Mentaiko Cream Sauce April 19, 2010

Filed under: Cooking,Japan,recipes — laurel @ 10:14 pm
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spaghetti with mentaiko cream sauce and squid at Mashimo

First of all, I’ll be honest, that’s not a picture of my spaghetti with mentaiko cream sauce. I was hungry, and my spaghetti wasn’t about to sit around and wait until I took it’s picture, so I ate it. But it was so good that I thought I should share the recipe, so here’s a picture of spaghetti with mentaiko cream sauce at Mashimo restaurant. (theirs also looks a bit prettier than mine)

My local grocery store, Apita, had a big Kyushu food festival over the weekend, which meant there were lots of vendors with famous products from Kyushu like black sugar, sweet potato desserts, tonkotsu ramen, mugi miso, and mentaiko. Mentaiko are pollock or cod eggs that are marinated with chiles, and a famous product of Fukuoka City in Kyushu. The mentaiko looked pretty good, and I had regretted not buying some when I was in Kyushu last fall, so I decided to make spaghetti with mentaiko cream sauce for dinner. These were salty, savory, and spicy, but not too spicy.

I noticed a jar of capers in the pantry when I was getting out the spaghetti and thought that the salty flavor of capers would go well with the mentaiko so I chopped up a spoonful of those and added them too. It wasn’t until after I had put the mentaiko into the hot oil that I realized that I should have removed the eggs from the membranes first. Oops. (RECIPE UPDATE: I made this again and decided that it is much better to stir the mentaiko in just before serving so that they stay raw. They are less tough and more flavorful this way.) After letting the eggs and capers cook for a few seconds in a mix of olive oil and butter, I added some milk and cream and simmered in briefly to make a sauce. Finally I stirred in the pasta and some chopped parsley and it was ready to eat. Simple and delicious!

Spaghetti with Mentaiko Cream Sauce (UPDATED RECIPE!)
by Laurel Swift

100 grams mentaiko
1 clove garlic, grated on microplane or oroshi-ki
1 teaspoon salt-packed capers, rinsed and chopped
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 to 2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup milk and cream, mixed to your taste
200 grams spaghetti
chopped fresh parsley

Heat a large pot salted of water to a boil.

Remove mentaiko eggs from the membrane. Soak the membranes in the milk and cream that you’ll use for the sauce to save any remaining flavorful goodness. Discard the membranes.

Heat the butter and olive oil in a large frying pan or pot (A wide-bottomed pot with high sides is actually good here because the mentaiko have a tendency to pop and jump when the hit the hot oil). Add the garlic and capers and brown for about 30 seconds. Add the milk and cream. Simmer for a minute or two until slightly thickened. Turn off heat until the pasta is ready.

While you’re cooking the sauce, add the spaghetti to the pot. Cook until al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving some of the cooking water.

Add the cooked pasta to the pan of sauce and gently cook in the sauce for about a minute. Add some of the reserved pasta water or some milk if the sauce isn’t liquid enough. Just before serving add the mentaiko and stir until they are evenly incorporated. Sprinkle with chopped fresh parsley and serve.