Bad Hair Day, Good Food Day

Pork for lunch and raw egg for dinner. Does it get any better?
Sunday, November 20, 2005

Tonkatsu meal Today was a good food day. I went to a recommended tonkatsu place for lunch (Katsukura), on the 14th floor of a department store. They give you toasted sesame seeds in a mortar to crush up and mix with their special sauce. Barley in their rice added a nice texture, and their smoked tea had great undertones. This was probably the only pork dish I would like, though it was definitely fattier than I would have hoped for. Still it tasted good. I ordered the “extra special” cutlet, which was from some name brand pig. I wonder what the usual pig tastes like. This was another place that give you tons of food: cabbage, pickles (yum!), rice and soup accompany the pork. They offered free refills of the side dishes, but I had a hard enough time just finishing what I was served.

Sukiyaki restaurant I wandered around Shinjuku at night, looking for food, having struck out twice with guidebook recommendations. I could find neither restaurant, and the facts that one had no English sign out and the other was on the fourth floor of a building that wasn’t marked did not help. So I wandered around frustrated, my thoughts dipping into the realm of “McDonald’s would work,” and “Maybe I’ll have that PowerBar.” Finally as I was at the end of my rope, a beacon of heaven appeared down an alleyway. The sign said “sukiyaki” and they had an English menu with “welcome prices,” meaning they gave a discount to Yankees.

So I went in and ordered the sukiyaki, figuring I should try this dish while I’m in Japan. The downstairs room where I sat had only three tables and a few seats at the counter, where I got to sit and watch them make odd looking cocktails. I’m brought a bowl of salad with a great ginger dressing. Then a 1-inch cube of fat is placed in a cast iron skillet atop a burner, and a raw egg in placed in a bowl in front of me. I sit intimidated for a while, imagining how long it takes for the fat to render fully. Fortunately, when the server comes to cook for me, she only covers the base of the skillet before cooking (though the fat stays in the whole time, and I one point I pick up the soft gooey mass with chopsticks thinking it is a mushroom. Glad I didn’t eat it.)

Sukiyaki ingredients The woman cooking for me is very nice, and even goes so far as to lie to me about how good my Japanese is after I keep repeating “arigato” (I lied to her about how beautiful Tokyo is). She explains the ingredients: Chinese cabbage, bamboo shoots, Shitaki and other mushrooms, tofu, potato noodles, beef, and edible leaves from a chrysanthemum plant. (I had learned earlier in the day at the Meiji Shrine that chrysanthemums held special value in Japanese culture, so that was a nice continuum for the day.) I’m intrigued by the ingredients. My cook places some of the ingredients in the skillet, spoons over some sugar, drips on soy sauce, and then fills the skillet with fish broth. She explains that the meat will be very hot, so they use the cold raw egg as a dipping sauce. She has me beat the egg with my chopsticks and she places some of the meal in my egg bowl. OK, here we go….

The passport health department told me to stay away from raw egg and live chickens for fear of bird flu, and every good American knows that raw eggs contain salmonella, especially these that look like they’ve been sitting out all day. Well, it is too late to back out now, I figure, so I taste the egg drenched beef, and it is really good. A bit sweet, a bit salty. I had expected the beef to cook the egg a little bit, so it would be more like beef with scrambled egg, but it did not. Apparently it wasn’t that hot, but it was definitely too hot to eat straight from the skillet.

We’ll see in the next few days whether I’ve contracted any disease. Was it worth ¥3000 to get bird flu? Probably not, but it sure did taste good.