japan street food – bento boxes

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Ekiben are special bento boxes for train travel. They are the traveller’s friend, and saviour of the non-Japanese-speaking tourist. Pop into any train station or supermarket and hunt through the shelves of refrigerated delights for something that vaguely looks like something you will eat.

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The egg fried rice is always perfect, and the little pork dumplings hit the spot, even when eaten cold. Or a fish bento box is a delicious change.

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Mostly you can tell what you’re getting – some fried chicken, for example, and the pickles and other accompaniments complement the food.

IMG_8534Sometimes you’re in a rush and end up picking something weird like three types of rice, some Korean fried chicken,half an egg, a piece of smoked trout, something that tastes like Indian potato bhaji, and what can only be described as half a cooked Bird’s Eye beef burger. But you eat it anyway.

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And don’t forget your chilli sauce to liven things up if needed!

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japan street food – vending machine restaurants

Many cheap and cheerful eateries in Japan have a system whereby you place your order at a vending machine outside the door, then present the wait staff with your meal ticket when you enter.

You’ll likely see these places around train and bus stations, or other areas where workers want a quick bite.

Many of the vending machines are not that accessible to foreigners if you don’t understand Japanese script, but hunt around and you will see some have an “English” button or a button with an American flag on it: hit this, and you’re in.

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Feed your money in first before you choose the dishes you want to order, then find the button that looks like it will complete your transaction – it is often down near the money slot. In the photo above it’s the green and black button near the bottom. You will get change and a little paper slip with your order on it. If you are struggling to use the machine, wait until somebody else comes up and watch their process – the food is usually shown in pictures so you should be able to work it out.

Pop inside, take a seat or find a standing space, and your food will be served pretty quickly. You’ll find simple seating with the usual condiments and disposable chopsticks. The photo below shows dumpling vinegar on the far right and soy sauce next in line – note how the Japanese characters differ for future reference!

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Hairbands are often helpfully supplied to keep your mane out of your ramen.

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As well as the usual noodle soups and “sets” (whatever you want with a bowl of rice and some miso soup), you’ll find beef or pork on rice, fried gyoza (usually pork) and other dishes. Add an egg to your rice or noodles for some extra richness – my favourite touch.

The pork rice and gyoza below cost a princely 500 yen (around US$4). You can usually get more rice or noodles for around 100 yen.

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And if it’s all a little too bland you can always reach for the pickled ginger or the ubiquitous shichimi to heat things up!

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japan street food – okonomiyaki

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Okonomiyaki

Also known in the west as “Japanese pizza”, this create-your-own-adventure snack is a staple in Osaka and Kansai province, but the people of Hiroshima claim to serve the best okonomiyaki (or “hiroshimayaki”) in the country.

Essentially a mixture of whatever’s in your fridge cooked on a hot plate, the main ingredients include shredded cabbage, egg and a flour/yam based batter. Depending on your vendor, you could get noodles, pork belly (which looks like rashers of bacon in the photo below), shrimp, octopus, cheese or pretty much anything else thrown in. Osaka okonomiyaki are mixed up before cooking, whilst Hiroshima vendors will layer the ingredients as they cook.

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The finished product is slathered with your choice of condiment: there’s okonomiyaki sauce (like worcester sauce but sweeter), Japanese mayonnaise, seaweed flakes (aonori), shaved bonito fish, spring onion, pickled ginger, you name it.

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The best place to experience okonomiyaki is the Okonomimura or Okonomiyaki Building in Hiroshima, a four-storey building completely given over to individual okonomiyaki stalls, each with their own twist on this favourite food.

DSC01472Pop in and wander the corridors until you find a place that you like the look of. Most of the vendors speak little or no English, some have English menus and some don’t. But it doesn’t matter, because Hiroshima people are some of the friendliest in the world, and they love food, so communication will just happen.

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Choose a spot at the bar and watch the cooks weave their magic.

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The best part is that your okonomiyaki is served from the hotplate, so each bite is as hot and as fresh as the first one!

japan street food – takoyaki

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I’m not a huge fan of Japanese food. My palate is much more attuned to the more robust flavours of their Indian, Thai, Indonesian and Malaysian neighbours. I recognise and appreciate the Japanese approach to food, their clean palate, their appreciation of texture, their focus on impeccable presentation, but it’s never my first choice when eating out.

So how does a woman last twelve days in Japan and what does she eat? Last time we spent time in this wonderful country I ate a lot of deep fried chicken curry don from the ubiquitous Yoshinoya, and bought some chilli sauce to season my food.

This time around we ate a lot of street/casual food, probably because we spend quite a lot of time in Osaka, the city that loves to eat. Osakans are known by their Japanese neighbours as the people who will eat until they drop (apparently Osakans will bankrupt themselves for food, whilst those in Kyoto will bankrupt themselves for fashion).

Takoyaki

Osaka loves takoyaki, a cheap street food otherwise known as octopus balls. They are cooked in what looks like a poffertje pan. The cook throws a small chunk of octopus into each circular depression and adds a pancake-type mix in on top. Most sprinkle in tempura scraps (which frankly look like Rice Krispies to me) and some spring onion and/or pickled ginger. The takoyaki-wrangler uses a long bamboo skewer to coax the mixture into perfect spheres, as the queue grows longer and longer.

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They are served in a polystyrene container or bamboo boat, brushed with a brown worcester sauce mixture, squirted with Japanese mayonnaise and sprinkled with aonori, a type of ground-up seaweed. The final flourish is a generous handful of shaved bonito fish, which melts onto the top. Some vendors also offer chopped spring onion which is delicious.

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They are messier to eat than you’d think: each ball is still quite liquid in the middle, so the trick is to wait a few minutes before you eat the first one otherwise you will burn the roof of your mouth.

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Everybody has their favourite vendor to go to, but head to Dotombori in Osaka and join the end of the longest queue and you won’t be disappointed.

rudimentary café

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16-18 Leeds Street, Footscray
Tel 0497 058173
https://www.facebook.com/Rudimentarycafe
Mon-Fri 7-4; Sat-Sun 8-4

Rudimentary is the latest representation of Footscray’s stealthy gentrification-round-the-edges. Four forty-foot containers on a previously derelict block of land at the back of the shopping strip, with seating indoors and outdoors, and plenty of space for bikes, kids and growing their own veg. What’s not to like? IMG_8847 I head in on a warm autumn day for a spot of breakfast/lunch. There’s an all-day breakfast list as well as some more substantial bites from 11am. It’s noon and I am too hungry to decide. It’s an interesting menu of modern Australian basics, with a clear Asian twist as an homage to the local area. My kind waiter waits patiently as I talk myself out of my “normally, usually” breakfast of poached eggs on toast, roast tomato and avocado (all of which are available) and into a sandwich. The soft shell crab bun looks most tempting but I am told the celery is built into the slaw, so I opt for the smoked brisket, kimchi and asiago cheese creation, all served on a warm Zeally Bay bun. “You’re making the right decision”, I am told. My “very weak English breakfast tea, half strength please” comes out perfectly brewed with the tea leaves removed and an assurance that they will make it again for me if it’s not right. I don’t have to wait long for my bun, served with a dollop of fresh greens.

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The brisket is a delicious oblong slab of meat, the cheese already melted as far as I can tell. The vegetables are a little too chunky to be helpful in a burger-type arrangement, and huge squares of bok choi stem prove impossible to bite through, as does the meat at times given its bulk. The bun is, helpfully, substantial enough to hold the whole thing together but it’s a messy job. By the time I’m finished my hands and face could really do with a wet wipe. It’s delicious. I’ll come back another day to try them on my “normally, usually” breakfast. Not sure if it will become a regular haunt, as it looks a tad too child-friendly a space for this child-free diner. But lovely to have on the doorstep for sure.

nuevo latino los rodriguez

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553 Barkly St
Footscray, Victoria, Australia
03 9995 1198
This place used to be a video store. Nestled between Indian eateries and grocery stores, brothers Sal and Juan Rodriguez dared to buck the WeFo trend and open a Latin American restaurant in this drab-looking premises. And what a treat we’ve been given.
Our first visit was on a steaming hot Sunday afternoon in late November, when the restaurant was not long open. The decor was a little haphazard but homely enough. Electric fans tried in vain to help with air circulation. We were virtually the only people in the place. Sal came and welcomed us, bringing sangria and fruit punch to cool us down, with a sampler size of “Latin pho” as he called it: a casserole of vegetables and offal which tasted far better than it looked.
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The stereo was pumping out some good salsa music, so after ordering we got up to practise our newly-learned salsa moves. Sal immediately turned up the music, announcing that they were “chefs by day and salseros by night”. He and brother Juan, the chef, run this place – although their mum was also on the premises and looked pretty much in charge to me.
I got the sense that I was going to like this place, despite its basic look.
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We focused on meat. The twice cooked pork belly came on a bed of fresh salad and a generous dollop of guacamole. The secret, we are told, is that they marinate the meat for at least twenty-four hours in rum. Right. All I know is that it was some of the best pork belly I’ve eaten, and a huge portion too.
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The carne asada was served with a flourish on a steel skewer. Lighted cured in brine, it was delicious, although I would have liked it to be a little more “asada”. The salad was beautifully fresh.
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Sal came and chatted to us, giving us salsa tips alongside the history of the family. Originally from El Salvador, the Rodriguez family migrated to Australia in the eighties and have always lived in the western suburbs. They wanted to bring to West Footscray a taste of home, some real Latin American cooking, live music and a sense of community.
Three months later we finally make it back to Nuevo Latino. It’s another steamy Sunday but we get down there just as the kitchen in closing and the band is packing up. The place is pretty busy this time and the decor has changed, with whitewashed walls, Latin American flags and the leftover balloons and flowers from yesterday’s Valentine’s banquet giving the place a festive feel. There’s nothing for it but to order a margarita.
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We are greeted like old friends, Juan waving madly from the kitchen. Are they mixing us up with somebody else, I wonder? Nope. Sal calls to the DJ to change the music to something more danceable, and calls to us to move the furniture if there isn’t enough room for us to salsa.
I couldn’t help but order the pork belly again. It was too delicious last time. Orlando went with a steak special. This time the meat was beautifully cooked, seared on the outside and perfectly pink on the inside.
We watched the waiter bust a few serious salsa moves with a friend and decided there was no way we’d be dancing this time.
Later Sal came and chatted, telling us all the news. They’d been a late invitee to that weekend’s Footscray Latin Dance festival, but they have been doing their own thing every weekend anyway, showcasing the cruising of different countries with guest chefs, and live music every Sunday. This weekend it was Colombian. Orlando chatted to the guest chef whilst Juan emerged from the kitchen to dance with me.
How can you not love a place like this?
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 Nuevo Latino on Urbanspoon

the pizza protocols

  1. Only thin and crispy is acceptable. The thinner and crispier the better.
  2. Only tomato base is acceptable – no barbecue sauce or other unauthorised alternatives.
  3. Maximum four toppings allowed, in addition to tomato base and cheese.
  4. Cheese may be mozzarella or shredded cheddar/tasty cheese; caution should be exercised when selecting any other cheese options.
  5. Absolutely no fruit on pizzas.
  6. Absolutely no chicken on pizzas.
  7. Ham is acceptable; bacon is not. Nobody knows why.
  8. Pizza fusion (e.g. chicken tikka pizza, lamb shawarma pizza) is not acceptable under any circumstances.
  9. We acknowledge the existence of white pizzas, but choose not to endorse their use.

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That is all.