Trip to Japan / Bento and street food

We’ve just been on a sourcing trip to Japan. This time, it was to Fukuoka, in the south part of Japan, to Kobe, to Osaka in the western part, and to Tokyo. Japan is the country with the most Michelin stars, and people there are always keen to discover new tastes. Each area has different types of local food, so it can be a fantastic experience for tourists to taste local seasonal dishes.

Personally I always try and have the seasonal Shokado-bento in Aoyama Tokyo. The lacquer bento box has partitions, allowing each compartment to contain different tastes and different textured foods, without them mixing. So it is possible to enjoy sashimi, grilled, deep fried and boiled food all in the one box. I also think it looks beautiful. Quite a different idea from having one big plate dish.

Each area of Japan has distinctly different tastes in food. As I grew up in a suburb of Tokyo, my tastes are pretty much Tokyo-oriented. The northern part of Japan is very cold and, as they have a great deal of snow in winter time, they go in for more salty tastes. Historically, salt was an important ingredient to keep food during the winter time, as not much fresh food were available in those months, especially in isolated snow-covered villages. So their tastes for salt are related to preservation. Each family and each area inherits and develops their tastes locally.

Unfortunately I could not go to north Japan this time, but I did go south. Fukuoka is one of the main cities in the south part of Kyushu island. Fukuoka is very famous for street food – Ramen noodles being one of the best known. I have seen many Ramen noodle shops in London lately, as this is becoming trendy Japanese food. Ramen is a bowl of egg noodles and hot soup with some topping, such as boiled egg, spinach, sliced roast pork, spring onion etc.  Ramen noodles are real street food, and are regarded as cheap fast food, perhaps something the equivalent of burger and chips or fish and chips or sandwich for Japanese people. Some Japanese people love to have Ramen after couple of drinks. I do not think it is a good idea for diet to wear summer cloths though!

This time I had a bowl of Ramen noodle in the Hakata station, waiting for my Shinkansen (the bullet train) to go to Kobe. It coast less than £5.00, and a guy next to me asked a waiter to have a second helping of noodles (just the noodles), which cost only £0.80. He could even have had a third if he wanted! We have this service in Japan. Yes, Ramen is pretty much fast food in downtown Japanese cities, but as it is also the country with the most Michelin stars, these Ramen restaurants are also developing and improving their own soup every day, to keep it fresh and competitive. Customers are keen to discover new tastes, and new star Ramen shops, so each shop has to improve its skills and specialities. Some of them use pork stock, and some fish stock or beef stock or chicken stock. Some blend them too. Customers even hunt around to find which soup stock is their favourite! It is great fun to find your own favourite soup in Japan!