Over winter break, I took the shinkansen out to Nagoya to visit my friend Sandy from Lewis and Clark. There are two main reasons people come to Nagoya: the food, and the castle. Nagoya has several meibutsu, or famous food specialties, and I've discovered that unlike American meibutsu (Boston clam chowder, Chicago pizza, Seattle coffee), it's very, very hard, if not impossible, to find these foods outside their home city.
Most of Nagoya's meibutsu have to do with miso. Miso, a soup made from soybean paste, varies from city to city and shop to shop, but in general, Tokyo's is whitish, thin, and light, splitting into clear soup and a cloud of miso in the center when you let it sit. Nagoya's miso, however, is a thick, filling, brown, salty stew.
The first famous food we had was miso udon, udon noodles in the aforementioned miso. It's served in a sizzling hot pot with a raw egg on top, which cooks quickly as you stir it in. Udon has a tendancy to splatter a little as you slurp it, and the brown Nagoya miso stains easily, so cloth bibs were thoughtfully provided.
The miso is actually thick enough that the Nagoyaites use it, a little reduced, for a katsu (fried cutlet) sauce. The saltiness complements the lightly flavored Japanese breading wonderfully.
I've heard and confirmed that miso varies a little from town to town and shop to shop, but the big divide really seems to be Tokyo (white, or shiro) miso vs. Nagoya (red, or aka) miso. The Kansai area (Osaka and Kyoto) either provide a choice of white or red, or serve a miso that's a mix of both. I've never tried the combination, but it sounds pretty good- eating Nagoya miso at every meal could get tiring.
While we're on the subject of food and Nagoya, a couple other specialties are worth mentioning.
-Nagoya's eki-ben, a bento lunch box sold at the train station. Almost everything in it was made of chicken- there was a chicken wing, a patty, and ground chicken and eggs to eat with the rice. There were also some cool sweet green beans.
-Ten-musubi, which are tempura (fried) shrimp rice balls wrapped in seaweed. I guess the shop we bought them from was technically a restaurant, but when the sit-down portion closes at five, they leave a take-out window open, and the woman only has one question to ask: how many? They sell nothing but ten-musubi, and from the looks of the line in front of the store, that's perfectly fine with their customers. I also noticed that the woman working the register was an absolute ninja with her packaging- a hand holding a foil package would appear from behind her, and it suddenly became a beautifully wrapped, taped, bagged package within about three seconds. Whether you need such an elaborate triple-wrapped package for rice balls or not, I don't know.
-Chicken wings (tebasaki). The ones I ate are a secret recipe of a certain Mr. Yama-chan (so the sign on the restaurant says), and they may be the best chicken wings I've ever had. I've had a lot of chicken wing experience, from korean barbeque to soul food, and wasn't expecting much from the Japanese on this. Wings are a food of sloppy indulgence, meant to explode with tangy flavor, whereas Japanese food tends to be pretty delicate, with little bits of salt, spice, sugar, and soy accenting tofu, rice, and other largely flavorless staples. However, the wings we had were crisp without being dry or excessively oily, and covered in generous salt, black pepper, and a spice or two I couldn't quite place.
-Kishimen: basically ramen, except flatter and wider. I don't get the big deal. Tasted like ramen to me. Maybe if I had studied up like Waseda Ramen expert Nate, I'd be able to provide a better review.
I know this Nagoya stuff is slow coming, but life's busy, and just when I'm ready to sit down, process photos, and blog, there's more people to meet, pictures to take, kanji to study, and beer to imbibe. I went on a photowalk near Ueno today with Zooomr founder Kris Tate and the Tokyo user group, and tonight it's off to the 2009 Tokyo blogger meetup. The writers of Observing Japan,
Global Talk 21, Mutant Frog, neojaponisme, Coming Anarchy, Our Man in Abiko, and Trans-Pacific Radio will be there, so it should be a great time.