Two high rises overlooking the Sumida River connected by a walkway. Seems a bit risky in an earth-quake prone area.
Saturday morning came way too early. After 4 hours of sleep I pulled my carcass out of bed to head back out to the area of Tsukiji market for a soba noodle class I booked well in advance through a school separate from the sushi classes. I fell in love with the buckwheat noodles after having them fresh for the first time. They are far superior to the dried variety. With a warm, earthy flavor and rustic texture they are unique in the pasta world. I was excited about this class because my first attempt to make them at home ended in abject failure, so I wanted to understand why. I made my way to the train station and the 45 minute ride was rough. I hadn’t even had enough sleep for a hangover to kick in yet, but it thankfully never got too bad. I was a little fuzzy headed in the afternoon hours, but that was the worst of it. I made it to my destination only a few minutes late, but that was due to unavoidable and unforeseeable bridge construction.
Akila Inouye has a cooking studio overlooking the Sumida River just upstream from the market and almost visible from his 4th floor kitchen windows. He conducts private and semi-private lessons in this space that is associated with the Tsukiji Soba Academy and has the feel of a well outfitted, heavily modified apartment kitchen. There are computer monitors mounted everywhere that are accessible though the 3-4 wireless keyboards and
Akila sensei demonstrating how to roll the soba dough into a seamless ball.
mouse sets set up around the area. The equipment is very efficiently organized and every inch of the limited space is utilized. Akila sensei was a kind and generous instructor, stopping to offer little bits of information about ingredients we were using as we went along, like the highest buckwheat producing regions (Hokkaido is the largest producer but their harvest season is earlier in the year due to their higher latitude and earlier winters), the difference between mirin and sake (it has more to do with the variety of rice used in brewing than just the sugar content of the final product), and a trick to getting a Maillard reaction in a stock or thin sauce liquid quickly and without scorching it (heated iron bar quenched into the liquid), he was full of interesting information and happy to share it.
The number printed on these plastic guides indicate thickness. The yellow one is 1.5mm, and that's the target thickness for our soba dough.
When I arrived the first thing he did after introductions and giving me the class material was ouline what we would
The tightly packed and efficiently organized kitchen space.
be doing for the day. First was a walkthrough of dipping sauces, broths and sauce bases used. Next was a demonstration, where he would walk me through the entire process and give me a little hands on each step of the way while doing most of the work himself. Then there would be a tasting with cold soba, a dipping sauce, and a salad application that included nameko mushrooms that would be lunch. After that he would have me do everything, while he guided, so I could get a solid feel for each step of the procedure with my own hands. Then there would be another tasting of soba in hot broth and we would conclude the lesson.
A fun day with an enthusiastic teacher.
The first revelation of the day came quickly and went a long way toward explaining the failure of my first attempt. Buckwheat flour is gluten free. One of the biggest fears I had in my experiment was overworking the dough, which any pasta or bread maker will tell you means the resulting dough will be rubbery and the end result tougher. This is due to the fact that overworking, or overmixing a dough causes more glutens to be formed from the flour proteins, and when they get cooked they bind up and get tight, creating a denser bread or noodle. With a naturally gluten free flour as 80% of the mixture overworking the dough becomes nearly impossible.
The next revelation had to do with moisture. Soba noodles generally start with a mixture of flours, 80% buckwheat and 20% AP flour as a stabilizer. The water added to that is much less than one would think logical because buckwheat flour is extremely
The view out Akila seneis window overlooking the Sumida River.
hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs water from anywhere, including the surrounding air. For this reason, ambient humidity in the room you are preparing the noodles in should be taken into account when calculating how much water to add. Akila had multiple gauges around the room to make absolutely sure he knew the moisture content of the air in there at all times.
I ended up being the only one signed up for that day so it was essentially a private lesson, and he asked questions along the way to guide the lesson in direction that would best suit my needs. He knew I was in Tokyo attending a sushi school, and he knew I had a good working
Soba noodles, dipping sauce, condiments, and a soba salad with simmered nameko mushrooms, myoga ginger, grated daikon, and shredded obah.
knowledge of Japanese ingredients and cooking techniques in general so he skipped over some of the things that a total beginner would need to hear so I could get the most from the experience. He was a good sensei and bursting with enthusiasm for the subject and passing on what he knew. I might go back and see him again before I leave Tokyo.
Sunday washoku class covered a variety of dishes in the donburi family. Essentially a bowl of steamed rice topped with blanket of cooked ingredients sometimes bound with egg, each dish generally has the suffix "don" attached (katsudon with fried pork, gyudon with beef, oyakodon with chicken). While we were doing katsudon we also covered tonkatsu and it's traditional sides and sauces. I finally figured out what that goofy pan with the handle that sticks straight up I always see in Japanese kitchen stores is for. Cooking the toppings for donburi so they are the perfect size to cover the rice in the bowl.
Monday lunch was at an Indian joint not far from the school and Tuesday was Yoshinoya, a Japanese chain that
Tonkatsu plate from Sunday washoku class.
specializes in gyudon. The translator in washoku class encouraged us to go there if we hadn't already and there's 3-4 in Shinjuku. one of which is 50 meters from the front door of the school so we really had no excuse. Wasn't bad, wasn't great. It was a chain, after all. But odd for a chain (perhaps not in Japan) they served a raw egg with your bowl of simmered beef and onions over rice. That's what is traditionally served with it, but chains like this usually play it sake to point of near sterilization in my experience. Apparently not in Japan, though.
The rest of the week at TSA was full of tests and test preparation.
Raw egg with a yolk separator and a fuck-ton of sliced negi onion with your gyudon. They do fast food differently here...
Primarily we did 3 tests. The first hosomaki test, thin single ingredient rolls. The aji horse mackerel test, consisting of filleting, skinning, and cutting the fillets for nigiri. The last test was the first nigiri test. Each of these were timed. So we had to make 3 hosomaki of 2 different types, cut and presented to exacting specifications, within 5 minutes. For the aji we had 10 minutes, and it was graded on a descending scale, meaning we start at 100% and for each flaw the sensei finds we get marked down 5% (each bone left in, too much meat left on the frame, a broken skeleton, skin left on, poorly cut, not long enough for nigiri, all -5%) and anything over 11 minutes was -10%, over 12 minutes was automatic fail. This test was going to count toward graduation since we weren’t going to return to the subject. We had 3 tries to do it and the highest score we got is the one that was counted. The last test was
Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food chain specializing in gyudon.
nigiri, and this one had me worried. We were to make 15 nigiri in 3 minutes. Senei came around and checked them at the end of 3 minutes and ejected any that weren’t the proper shape. The remainder had the fish peeled off the top and the rice ball weighed. They had to fall between 15-17 grams to qualify. Any that were in that range were counted and the results of 3 runs were tallied at the end. Of the 45 we had to make in 3 tries 32 of them had to be of proper weight to pass.
Hosomaki and nigiri tests are a pass/fail situation. Even if you ace every other test in the finals if you fail EITHER of those you don’t get your diploma. The midterm tests for these were more for us to see where we stand on these, and don’t count toward the final scores for graduation, but it was all stressful, none-the-less. The hosomaki test was Tuesday and I aced that one, coming in under the 4 minute mark the final test calls for, so that was no sweat. The horse mackerel test was Wednesday and I fumbled the first try but I got a score of 95 on the last run, and that’s the test that counted the most at this point, so I was happy with that. The dreaded nigiri test was Thursday, and it had me a little nervous. I was not doing well in the trial runs leading up to that day.
One of the passages in the maze of alleys that is Golden Gai.
Thursday in class was a little tense, with more dicking around and playful jabs at each other to break the tension. Our days are broken into 3 periods. First period that day they threw a whole fish at us, inada (very young Hamachi) and told us to break it down and slice it for nigiri, setting the nicest 40 pieces aside for the test and the rest would be used for practice leading up to the test. The second period was all practice. Then lunch. Damian, Nelson, and I headed over to the tonkatsu place we went to the first week of class because it was close, easy to get to, and we knew it was solid. The atmosphere was a little dense. Not heavy and hard to breathe dense, but the anxiety for the coming test was there, just below the surface. Conversation was fairly light.
Of the 8 international students only 3 of us passed the nigiri test. Jeremy, the student from Singapore who already has a job lined up at the TSA Singapore branch, took his time and made 15 perfect nigiri each run of the test. A perfect score. Nelson, the young guy from Portugal who currently lives in Switzerland and works at a sushi bar, passed with a little more sweat than Jeremy, but he passed. Of the 32 pieces needed to pass the test I got 32. Passing, but just barely. I got the required 15 each run and I didn’t have any disqualified for shape or size but my weights were what it came down to. For the finals we need to get 18 in 3 minutes and they will be tougher on form so I need to focus. The one test that most are dreading as much as nigiri finals is katsuramuki, the long, thin peel of daikon radish that Morimoto is so famous for. We need to make a 10cm wide, 40cm long sheet that weighs 40 grams or less, and we 10 minutes to do it. This one is not a pass/fail but graded on a point scale so I’ve already figured out what I need to score on all the other tests in order to graduate if I completely bomb katsuramuki. It’s also the very last test we take, so we’ll know if we have passed by that point or if we need some kind of score on this one. I’m shooting for a passing score before we even walk into that test. Of the 7 tests we need to pass 5 are scored, one we’ve already done (aji) and we need 350 combined points from those to graduate. With 95 points in the bag I need 255 points from 4 more 100 point max tests. If I bomb katsuramuki then I need to get 255 in 3 tests, meaning at least a score of 85 or higher on each one. I think I can manage that, I just need to work on nigiri. The give us an extra hour to stay and practice after class every day and I intend to take advantage of that every remaining day until the finals, 3 more weeks.
Friday class had a much lighter atmosphere. All the tests were over and we had a new exercise to run through,
Sushi Bar Simulator.
counter practice. First period was spent cleaning live scallops, then they split us into teams of 2 and threw the ingredients at us we would need to run our mock sushi bars. After we were set up, ther were 4 counters to work with for the whole class. They grouped us into teams of 7 this time to run the exercise. The problem with there being 8 international students in the class of 30 was solved by putting Graznya, the woman from France who speaks a fair amount of Japanese, in with the native students. In the Sushi Bar Simulator 2 of us were to act as chefs, 4 guests, and 1 server/FOH. There was green tea and soup made for us to serve (the miso soup was made with added shrimp heads from the whole
One of the passages in the maze of alleys that is Golden Gai.
amaebi that were broken down for the counters and also included aburaage and was garnished with chopped spring onion). The guests would sit down, order 3 nigiri, soup and tea if you felt like it, and then they would leave and we would rotate jobs so everyone got to play each role at least once as well as guest a few times. This would be our lunch. I went for the guest role first since I was nearing painful hunger by this point. Then I played chef for a round, then guest again, and finished on service. That soup was really good. Mental note on using the fried tofu and shrimp heads. At the end of the day it was a fun and light way to break up what was a stressful week.
Friday night came roaring in after class, and several of the guys headed to yakitori town in central Shinjuku. The network of narrow alleys where all the 7-10 seat, cramped little yakitori and ramen shops are piled on top of each other. I ran back to my apartment to drop off my gear from school since they require us to clear out of our lockers every Friday night so they can use them for the weekend classes. I quickly learned to make this a practice as lugging that shit around when bar hopping the tiny claustrophobic bars is exponentially more difficult with a load of crap to carry around. By the time I was ready to join the festivities I shot out a message to see where everyone was at. I was given a location and I was out the door.
About 15 minutes left of my 40 minute walk I got a message from Tyo asking where I was. In knew this meant they were looking to leave the bar they were in and possibly look for a new destination. I picked up the pace. When I arrived at Damian had already departed and the 2 Japanese students from class that had joined the group
Oh, look! Charcoal grilled sticks of chicken bits and offal! That's a rare sight in these parts!
were ready to leave as well. They all paid up and Tyo decided he was calling it a night too, so that left Nelson and myself. He was still up for a night on the town and I was ready to suck down some yakitori so we headed to another stall in the alley. After eating a little bit there we decided to head over to an area of Shinjuku known as “Golden Gai”. A network of tunnel-like alleys not dissimilar to yakitori town but the shop it contained were all just bars. No real food menus to speak of, just drinking establishments. Very few of them seat more than 6-7 people, and that’s pretty tightly packed in. Once we got through the innocuous looking garden entrance we arrived in the maze of passageways around 6pm, right when the bars should be opening. Or at least we hoped. Truth be told there were only a few places ready to seat people at this time. We made a couple laps around the area to survey our option and walked by a bar that was blaring the Ramones out the front door. I made a mental note. All of the bars in Golden Gai are uniquely themed to help them stand out among the myriad of competitors. This competition also means a lot of these places charge a cover to get a seat so you don’t have the urge to wander out and see what another bar has to offer. There are quite a few that don’t, however, and they are advertised as such in large English signs right out front. These were the ones we were looking for tonight, because screw paying a cover. Once we had made an initial reconnaissance run through the labyrinth we passed it once again and headed inside.
A bar called Mongolian Drunk. They weren't open, unfortunately.
This was all the room I had in this place to maneuver the phone for a picture.
With an American theme, the “5 Gallons” bar was decked out with Jack Daniels and Harley Davidson paraphernalia everywhere, American flags, and shelves upon shelves containing various bottles of Old No. 7. The bar-tender was quite obviously the guy who ran this show. A fit, middle-aged Japanese man who wore lightly brown tinted sunglasses, a faded brown denim shirt, and shaggy hair. There was only one patron in this bar when we walked in, a typically demure young Japanese woman that giggled with a quickly covered mouth when she heard us answer the boss-man’s question of where we were from and that we were studying sushi while in Tokyo. Sushi chefs are looked upon with a fair amount of admiration, it seems, and even students of the craft are almost looked at like rock stars. Part of the individual branding in these bars is in their approach to bar snacks, as each one has its own variety. At the 5 Gallons it was a ramekin of cheese puffs made from fried rice cracker balls tossed in cheese powder that the bartender/owner poured out of a bag as soon as we had a beer in our hands.
The music stayed a consistent theme, the Ramones, the entire time we were there. When asked if we would like it to change I informed them that this was the deciding factor when we chose this place. We were soon joined by an American couple, Matt and Lyndsay from San Francisco were on a business/vacation combo trip to Japan and this was their last night. They were scheduled to fly back at 12 midnight the following evening. Though they live in San Fran, it was quickly discovered that Matt was born and raised in the Detroit area, Sterling Heights to be exact. I often tell Sara that I find people from Michigan everywhere I go, and I can now extend that to a global scale. Detroit refugees are every-fucking-where!
After an hour or so of chatting we all decided to see what else was in the neighborhood, so we paid up and moved
Matt, Lyndsay, and the wall of CD's.
out. It wasn’t long before we found another no-cover bar and settled in. A little larger than 5 Gallons, this one was run by a diminutive (even by Japanese standards) woman with an outwardly lively and hospitable demeanor. The bar snacks at his one were a variety of prepackaged, single-serving packages handed out in a wooden bowl to each guest. They were all edible, but one was memorable. A little bag of fried ramen noodles dusted in the seasoning powder one might find in the foil packet that came with instant noodles. The defining feature of this particular venue was the wall of CD’s that sat behind the bar. From 70’s to 90’s, there was quite an eclectic selection. Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Earth Wind, and Fire, Cyndi Lauper, Iron Maiden, David Bowie, and beyond, she would play whatever we wanted to hear. With a very short discussion (and surprisingly no strong-arming from me) we agreed on Black Sabbath as out first selection. We were soon joined by another group of English speaking guests, mostly of Asian descent but there was one European in the group of 5. We spent the next hour and a half (I’m guessing) chatting with our new friends and enjoying the company.
One of the colorfully lit bars in Golden Gai.
A stairwell in Golden Gai up to a second level micro bar.
Once that group decided to call it a night we all decided to move back over to yakitori town to get something to soak up the beer in our stomachs and the sake sloshing around in Lyndsays head. While the rest of us were contented with beer she was hitting the sake like it owed her money. Stall after stall in yakitori alley was filled to capacity, some even turning us away before we even opened our mouths. We finally found seats at a place that had a second floor. Accessible through a steep and narrow stairwell, the cramped little room had barely enough space to maneuver to our table. Once we were seated Nelson and I started explaining to Matt and Lyndsay what they could expect and what would suit their palates. Being American and NOT chefs we took it as a given that they would not be interested in the same steaming pile of grilled chicken offal that keeps Nelson and I coming back to these places. Matt was fairly fearless, and didn’t shy away from it though.
After a very short period Lyndsay needed to get out of the super confined space and get some fresh air. The stale, smokey, unmoving air in the overcrowded room was too much for her to handle at this point. It wasn’t said out loud, but I suspect her already sensitive stomach was a bit turned by the discussion of skewered chicken innards. By the time she made her way back down and Matt vowed to come find her after 30 minutes (he initially said 10 or 15, but she pushed it back herself) our orders had arrived and we sent her down with a plate of tsukune (chicken meatballs) we
Fried ramen bar snacks! Fucking brilliant!
ordered for her because they are in no way offensive to Western palates.
After 20 minutes or so, the plate we sent down with her made it back to us via the server with one remaining skewer on it. Taking this as a sign that she was ready to go, we paid the bill and headed back down. We found her at the end of the alley that opened up to the main streets of Shinjuku. We all exchanged contact info, said out goodbyes, and headed off to our respective beds. Nelson dropped down into the first subway station we passed. He had had enough of the light but constant rain that was harassing us all night, and I couldn’t blame him. I was going to walk the 30 minutes back to my apartment. Screw paying money for the subway when it wasn’t that far and walking is free. About 10 minutes in to that walk I was rethinking my decision. I just wanted to be in bed, and it was only 1am by this time. I had already committed, though, and there wouldn’t be another train station without doubling back or going out of my way.
Saturday would be my first day to sleep in for the past 2 weeks, with Sunday classes at TSA and the soba class on the previous Saturday. NO rest for the wicked, though. I had to be up and functioning by noon at least because my weekly call to Sara and then reservations for dinner at restaurant omae XEX awaited me the following day. Formerly Morimoto XEX, but I was unaware of the difference until after our meal. They still had a signature Morimoto dish on the menu, to boot, so my confusion was not set straight by the experience. Oh well. It was damn tasty, still. Which is where I will pick up next time.