May 1, 2010

NYC Takashimaya gone; the real thing beckons

Just as I was mourning the closing of the gorgeous Fifth Avenue branch of the Japanese department store Takashimaya, a beautiful and mouth-watering book arrived on my desk. Titled Food Saké Tokyo, it is written by a former Takashimaya depachika (food hall) employee, Japanese-American chef, sommelier and journalist Yukari Sakamoto.

As I flipped through the book, nostalgic memories of our satellite Takashimaya, with its once-delicious Tea Box restaurant, tea counter, Yokumoku cookies and raffiné Japanese ceramics began to seem paltry compared to Sakamoto’s dissection of the real thing: the Tokyo depachika. A combination of the words depā-to (department store) and chika (basement), these underground food extravaganzas are a something like a cross between Chelsea Market and Bergdorf’s, but with many more specialty food shops—pickles, saké, Japanese and western confections, meat, chocolate, to name just a few—representing the best edible and potables the country and world have to offer.

There are many other pleasures to be found in this handy guidebook, which is part of The Little Bookroom’s Terroir series (other volumes in the series include food and drink guides to Burgundy, Rome and Budapest). Filled with hunger-inducing photos, Food Saké Tokyo is aimed at the gastro-tourist who wants to know where to find the best, whether it is miso, senbei crackers, kaiseki (a style of dining composed of an artful parade of small plates) or an inexpensive bowl of ramen. It also includes useful tips on dining etiquette (never let your companion’s beer or saké glass go empty), primers on the Japanese vocabulary of food and drink and listings by neighborhood.

I loved the page that defines food and drink-related giongo and gitaigo, onomatopoeic double words that meld taste, feel, sound and language into a sensory-descriptive whole that English utterly lacks. For example, a bowl of hot, steaming rice is hoka hoka; koto koto is the sound a bubbling pot makes and the stickiness of natto (fermented soybeans) is neba neba.

It’s been years since I lived and worked in Japan and regularly trawled the depachika for unusual foods. When I return for a visit next year, Food Saké Tokyo will be in my suitcase, and I’ll have a pretty good idea of where and what I’ll be eating.