June 11, 2013

The Amazing Tokyo Basement Food Hall

One of my favorite memories of living in Tokyo is of wandering the eye-popping aisles the depachika, department store basements that are traditionally devoted to prepared food, produce and groceries. In Japan's culture of incessant gift giving, the depachika is handy for dropping into and buying the box of luxury rice crackers, container of Kyoto pickles or Japanese and western confections to take on your next social visit.

So I jumped when chef, sommelier, shōchū advisor, and now Tokyo food guide Yukari Sakamoto offered to take me on a quick tour of the Shinjuku Takashimaya's depachika during my recent trip to Japan. Yukari is also an author: she wrote a great book on Tokyo food culture, Food Sake Tokyo, which I wrote about in this post.

The first thing we saw were some amazing Muscat of Alexandria grapes (pictured above), sugared on the outside to look like gorgeous pieces of frost-covered Venetian glass, and much too beautiful to eat. The grape is from an ancient, genetically unmodified vine and its pure flavor is highly prized in Japan, where it is grown in greenhouses. Just take a look at this review of a Muscat of Alexandria-flavored KitKat bar, and you'll see how the glamorous globes have infiltrated every level of consumption in Japan. 

There were other beautiful fruit preparations, too, like these white peach halves suspended in kanten, or  arrowroot gelatin.

The famous Kyoko kaiseki restaurant Kikunoi has a pretty space in the Takashimaya depachika, and we swooned over not only the take-away foods on offer, but the gorgeous bowls they were served in, like this Oribe bowl, lower left, which held  unohana, a dish of okara (tofu lees) simmered with dashi, usukuchi (lighter in color but saltier in taste) soy sauce and mirin. This is a classic dish from Kyoko, which is famous for its tofu, explains Yukari. My grandmother made this dish with strips of carrot and I think bamboo shoots, and I always liked its taste and texture, which was slightly nubbly. Next to the unohana in the picture are bowls of kiriboshi daikon and hijiki.

When it comes to buying beef, most Americans can only dream about the kind of transparency that's  found in Japan. Check out the picture above. When you buy this kind of extravagatly-marbled beef at Takashimaya, the individual identification numbers of each type of meat is posted. You can then go to this site, input the ID number, and up pops information on your meat, from breed, gender, and date of birth to the hometown of the animal and location of its raising facility. Yukari says she's seen information on what the cow was fed, too, though that information doesn't seem to be included on this site. 

In the fish department each individually wrapped serving of sashimi is carefully labeled so that buyers will know the name of the four different types of fish included. When there are several different kinds of white fish, the labels can be helpful. While we've heard plenty of reports of mislabled fish in America, Yukari says this is not a problem in Japan. Her husband Shinji, a fishmonger and former Tsujiki fish market buyer "was always pointing out mislabeled seafood to me at American seafood counters," she recalls.

It the US, Yukari adds, "Sadly many people handling seafood have no idea what they are working with." The large variety of seasonal seafood in Japan has bred more knowledgeable fishmongers, and home cooks will even change up their cooking methods for a fish depending on when during the seaons it's purchased. "For example," she says, "katsuo (skipjack tuna) has a lean season and a fatty season," and preparation would vary accordingly. 

Here's a refined version of the puffed rice crackers that you can find in American health stores. 

International cuisines are not totally shunned, either. The shellfish in this paella kit looks better than anything you can  find in New York.

I learned a lot more on my tour, but this is probably more than enough for you. Thanks again for the great tour, Yukari!