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Saturday, 22 June, 2002, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
Tokyo: Food heaven
Sushi bar
Japanese - surprised by European sushi fans

Let me tell you about dinner the other night.

There was foie gras perfumed with vanilla served on rice flavoured with red wine vinegar, a consomme of abalone and scallops, a creamy palest green soup made of white asparagus with a touch of tarragon, and beef that melted in the mouth in its macadamia nut sauce.

There were eight courses in all washed down with fine claret and crisp chablis.

This was not Paris this was Tokyo - my friend Joji had taken us to a restaurant a stone's throw from home which after six years in Tokyo we had not only never been to but had never even seen.

French and Italian diners are impressed by Japan's restaurants
But that is not surprising in this city that I wish to declare the food capital of the world.

Now as I come to leave Japan there is one thing that is really worrying me - what am I going to eat?

Japan has been my home for half my adult life, and in some respects I have become very Japanese.

I bow when I am speaking on the telephone.

I recoil at the idea of wearing shoes inside the house.

I am going to miss the politeness and punctuality, the cherry blossoms in spring and the wind-bells in summer.

Food heaven

The five o'clock music played on municipal loud speakers across Japan to remind children it is time to go home has taken on a mournful ring now that I will not hear it anymore.

'Can you eat sushi?' is a classic conversation opener

But when it comes to eating I consider myself bereft.

Japan is food heaven. As foodies the Japanese leave other nations in the dust.

Within a five minute walk of my house in central Tokyo is perhaps the densest collection of some of the world's finest culinary treats.

I can eat sublime sushi, crispy tempura, elegant noodles, delicate slices of marbled Japanese beef dipped in a classic shabu shabu sauce.

Then there is the fish - grilled plain and perfect or cooked in a hearth of glowing charcoal on a bamboo skewer.

Or there is raw fish, or even the kamikaze culinary challenge puffer fish - which is deadly poisonous unless you know how to cut it like the 18,000 specially licensed chefs in Japan.

Foreign flavours

But what really amazes me is the polyglot of imported tastes.

Dried fish in Japanese market
Raw, grilled or poisonous - fish is key in Japan
My Italian and French friends here agree with me that Tokyo has the world's best of those cuisines too.

And Korean and Chinese and Thai and African and Indian.

Only Middle Eastern and northern European cuisines are curiously under represented in this United Nations of the taste buds.

Food in Japan is not about a gut-busting rush to shovel in as many calories possible as is common in America.

Food in Japan is about savouring an experience - presentation is as important as flavour.

Where the British are famous for talking about the weather, the Japanese rely on talking about food as a safe and satisfying topic of conversation.

Camembert or old socks?

When it comes to foreigners, the challenge is to find out just how much Japanese cuisine a visitor from abroad can stomach.

"Can you eat sushi?" is a classic opener - astonishment still accompanies a positive answer, even though you can buy the stuff in British supermarkets.

The chef called me a maniac for ordering the fermented roe of the crucian carp

The standard follow up is, "What about natto?"

Natto is sticky fermented soy beans which trail whispery strands of goo like spider's web as you lift them on your chopsticks.

Natto has an aroma which is favourably compared to ripe camembert and unfavourably to old socks and it is often served for breakfast.

You mix the beans to a cappuccino-like froth with a raw egg and a bit of soy sauce and mustard and slurp the whole lot up with your rice and miso soup.

Over the years I have come to love it - much to the disappointment of my Japanese friends.

"It's not that we want you to go hungry," my natto-eating friend Emi explained.

She claims many Japanese will not eat natto.

Food fads

Emi believes that some Japanese food only exists because this was once a very poor nation with no access to imports - so whatever there was had to be made edible.

Tokyo street scene
Tokyo - a United Nations of the taste buds
How else can you explain the fermented roe of the crucian carp from Lake Biwa near Kyoto?

It comes in paper-thin slices that look like fresh fig and it tastes like a strong gorgonzola with a tang of citrus.

The chef in the only restaurant I know where it is served called me a maniac for ordering it.

Most Japanese people have never tried it, but they probably have tried Belgian waffles, Cinnamon buns, pomegranate juice, camembert flavoured ice-cream and special deep sea mineral water - desalinated, of course.

All of these have been the subject of food fads here.

I admit I will not miss any of these much.

But what am I going to do if I have a craving for a curry-filled doughnut or my favourite snack - bits of cheese sandwiched between strips of dried squid?

See also:

28 Jan 02 | Business
01 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
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28 Nov 99 | UK
30 Apr 02 | Country profiles
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