Beautiful Japan and its colorful food

Colorful in the literal sense but also colorful in terms of flavor, presentation, and texture. Japan has one of the best cuisines in the world and the best way to try this is by visiting the country itself.

I was lucky enough to visit the Land of the Rising Sun last month with a group of bloggers and journalists. It was my first time in Japan. And as I said it in previous posts, it is a dream destination for me.

Sakura in Magome
Sakura in Magome

So when my editor texted me (almost two months ago) if I was available to cover a familiarization tour (FAM tour) to Japan, to say that I was excited was an understatement. I was excited to see this beautiful country, which is one of the top tourist destinations in the world. I was excited to experience the country’s world-famous culture, both past and present. I was excited to taste the food—sushi, ramen, sashimi, tempura, udon, katsu, etc.

The destination was Central Japan, yes we toured not just one city but an entire region. Nagoya was our entry point via Jetstar, the organizer of the trip. The Japanese low cost airline started its flights to the Philippines last year and MNL-NGO (Nagoya) is one of its routes.

Nagoya TV Tower and Central Park from Oasis 21 all viewing platform
Nagoya TV Tower and Central Park from Oasis 21 mall viewing platform

Nagoya is home to around 30,000 Filipino residents. It is also the entry point to Japan’s heartland.

Before we get to the food, I’ll give you a quick rundown of the highlights of the trip.

Matsumoto Castle, the oldest castle in Japan
Matsumoto Castle, Japan’s oldest castle

Matsumoto Castle in Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture, is the oldest castle in Japan, built between 1593 and 1594. Made of wood, stone, and clay, it’s one of Japan’s best symbols of building skill and design. It’s one of the most beautiful castles to photographs, because the Japanese Alps play as its stunning backdrop.

World Heritage site Shirakawa-go
UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go is a UNESCO world heritage site located in Gifu Prefecture. The small village is famous for its gassho-zukuri-style thatched roof houses. Situated in a valley up in the mountains, the village is surrounded by hills with lush forests, that is why one of the best seasons to visit is autumn. Wintertime is also best, when snow beautifully covers the thatched roofs.

The famous road of Alpine Route with snow walls on both sides
The famous highland road of Tateyama Alpine Route, flanked by snow walls on both sides

Alpine Route on Tateyama mountain (part of the Japanese Alps) in Toyama Prefecture is one of the most visited spots in Japan and now I can see why. It is famous for the mountain road that is sandwiched between towering snow walls. Located at 2,450 meters above sea level, Tateyama experiences some of the heaviest snowfalls in the world. Workers clear up the highland road of snow every winter but snow still accumulates on each side of the road. Parts of the wall can even reach up to 20 meters high! Best part of the visit was the travel route because of the stunning views left and right like the picture perfect Kurobe Dam. This attraction opens every spring.

Different varieties of begonias
One of several pavilions at Nabana no Sato that houses different varieties of South American begonias.

Nabano no Sato is a garden park at Nagashima Resort. Located in Kuwana in Mie Prefecture, less than an hour away from Nagoya City, the park displays indigenous and imported flora and fauna. The current displays include an exhibition of beautiful begonias of South America; field of tulips; and the Winter Illumination light installation.

Now to the important stuff—the food. As you guys already know, I love Japanese food. So to go the place where it originated was such an amazing experience.

For most of the trip, we were treated to traditional Japanese meals, except on the last day. This means no bowls of ramen or tendon or curry or fluffy cheesecakes or strawberry shortcakes.

Since we were in the countryside, the food were very traditional. I will only mention meals and restaurants that stood out for me, after all, there was a lot of food during the five-day trip.

Magomeya restaurant in Magome
Magomeya’s dining space

First eatery is Magomeya in Magome, Gifu Prefecture. The restaurant is located behind the bus parking space at the foot of the famous Nakasendo Route in Magome. It has a simple and traditional dining space but has an amazing view of the mountains.

The food here are set meals that comes with a bento box of starters, soup, soba noodles, rice, and dessert. In our bento box was a variety of proteins like karaage (Japanese fried chicken), braised fish, and egg omelet. It also has a mix of vegetable pickles and seaweed. The miso soup is like no other miso soup I ever had. It’s filled with ingredients like daikon, carrot, thinly sliced pork, and green onions. The broth is very flavorful and perfectly seasoned (this was so good!).

Magomeya set meal
Magomeya’s delicious set meal

The soba noodles was also a meal on its own. The perfectly cooked buckwheat noodles (chewy but still has a bite) was swimming in a warm dashi broth with a mix of mushrooms and green onions. To finish, a simple not-so-sweet jelly dessert with fresh fruits is the perfect light ending to a delicious meal.

Irori hida beef
Irori’s Hida beef cooked on a ho leaf

Another must-try restaurant is Irori in Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture. The eatery in this heritage village serves Japanese meals in its most traditional form. This includes slices of beef cooked on a ho (local tree) leaf with miso paste, tofu, bean sprouts, and green onions. This was, for me, the best beef dish during the trip! What’s even better is the restaurant uses Hida beef, one of Japan’s high grade cattle meats (in the level of Kobe beef). The set meals also comes with the usual starters like vegetables, smoked fish, tofu, and a bowl of rice.

Dinner setup at Bizenya restaurant in Gujo
Bizenya’s traditional dining setup

Then there’s Bizenya in Gujo City in Gifu Prefecture. The restaurant has a beautiful traditional garden and has a traditional dining setup. The restaurant’s setup lets its diners sit on cushioned legless chairs on the floor, covered with the very comfortable tatami mat. The beautifully presented meal has the usual starters. Note that appetizers vary per restaurant.

Fresh sashimi
Uber fresh sashimi
Tempura
Traditional tempura is served with plain or flavored fine salt

Bizenya served us a variety of starters including extremely fresh sashimi (tuna, salmon, etc.) and steamed sea snail. The restaurant also served mixed tempura. At this point I discovered that tempura is originally served with plain or flavored fine salt and not the sweet ginger-soy dipping sauce we Filipinos are familiar with. The main dish is the beef (Hida, no less) sukiyaki, which we had to cook on the table by ourselves.

Hitsumabushi unagi
Hitsumabushi Bincho’s grilled unagi

The last memorable meal for me was the bowl of unagi at Hitsumabushi Bincho at La Chic mall in Sakae area in Nagoya City. Nagoya is famous for its unagi or freshwater eel. The restaurant chain serves the grilled unagi on a bed of rice and different condiments including dashi broth. This dish can be eaten in three ways—as it is; with nori, green onions, and wasabi; and with dashi broth. Diners can divide the big bowl of unagi and eat it however they like. Personally, I like the nori-green onionswasabi combination.

Traditional Japanese food is what I expected it to be—clean, beautiful, and flavorful. Some dishes may be for an acquired taste but most are overflowing with umami goodness. I will detail what to expect from traditional Japanese meals on my next post. And also watch out for what food souvenirs to buy in Japan.

You can also read my Manila Bulletin Lifestyle article here.

Jetstar offers low fares to Nagoya and flies four times weekly to Manila / www.jetstar.com

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Asian food with a twist

When opening a restaurant in Manila, one sure fire way to succeed is to offer something familiar with the Filipino palate. And when it comes to food, you can never go wrong with Asian. Well, unless you serve bad food.

The secret behind the menu of Toast Asian Kitchen, one of the newest restaurants in the metro, is a collaboration between experienced and young chefs with different cuisine expertise. According to the restaurant’s managing director Timo Roxas-Chua, the menu was created by several chefs who tried and tested several dishes that keep in line with the Toast brand which they call “playful cuisine.”

Quesong puti croquettas
Quesong puti croquetas

Right off the bat, Timo says that Toast is not trying to be an authentic Asian restaurant. This is immediately clear on the menu because each classic Asian dish is not served as it is, but with an interesting twist. Located at Ayala Mall The 30th in Pasig City, the restaurant is banking on Filipinos’ love for food and big appetite to try something new.

For instance the “gyozig” is a hybrid of the classic Japanese dumpling and a Filipino pulutan favorite, an instant hit to customers. The resto also fuses together Western techniques with Eastern flavors like the quesong puti croquetas and Thai basil chicken poppers.

Tom yum meatballs
Tom yam meatballs

“I really believe that all these Asian dishes are intertwined with each other. Most Asian dishes have the same raw ingredients,” he said.

Some of the must try dishes include the “Blaksa” or black laksa. The resto’s version of the Peranakan favorite is mild—in terms of heat but the flavors are there—and the soup is colored by squid ink, hence the name. Another is the yakitori skewers, specifically the melt-in-your-mouth wagyu beef cubes yakitori flavored with teriyaki or soy glaze.

Wagyu cubes yakitori
Wagyu beef cubes yakitori

The twice cooked pork belly on a bed of salted fried rice is another must try. The protein in this hearty meal is first braised then seared in a pan then tossed in a honey-garlic glaze.

Twice cooked pork belly with salted egg fried rice
Twice cooked pork belly on salted egg fried rice

“The inspiration came from my different travels. Asian food has gone way, way up unlike before. Before we only want to travel to the States or Europe, when we go to Asia, it’s only for shopping. Now, I want to go to Hong Kong and eat goose or I want to go to Japan to eat ramen,” Timo explained.

But what makes the restaurant different from others is its Tasting Room, a space dedicated for drinking hard to find liquors, spirits, and craft beers. Timo and his partners’ previous businesses are bars, so having this room in a resto is just combining their love for drinks and food in one setting. This is their first venture into the restaurant business.

Toast's Tasting Room stocked with hard to find spirits, liquors, and craft beers
Toast’s Tasting Room

Toast also commissioned Singaporean mixologist Jason Gray to create Asian inspired cocktails for the restaurant. The bartender created four signature cocktails namely: Tokyo Fog Cutter (whiskey, sake, lemon juice, cloudy apple juice, and absinthe), Pomelo Sour (vodka, lime, red bell pepper and ginger), Seoul Searcher (gin lime, Thai basil, pomelo, egg white, and white pepper), and Jack Sparrow (spiced rum, jackfruit, apple, lime juice, pandan syrup, and egg white)

The interiors also doesn’t scream Asian or a new modern restaurant. It has a rustic and bar feel. The space definitely stays away from the trend of modern interiors that can be a bit stiff and overused.

Toast interior
Toast’s main dining space

“I wanted something homey or rustic, not your typical restaurant. I believe this rustic feeling is long term. It grows on you unlike modern restaurants and practicality wise it doesn’t grow old,” he ended.

Read my Manila Bulletin Lifestyle article here.

Toast Asian Kitchen and Tasting Room, ground floor Ayala Malls The 30th, Meralco Ave., Pasig City / Facebook and Instagram @toastkitchenph

Filipino-inspired Japanese-Peruvian dishes

Okay, that title is a bit confusing. How can food be Filipino, Japanese, and Peruvian at the same time Well, ever since Nobu opened here in Manila, foodies (myself included) have wondered how would it incorporate its cuisine with Filipino flavors. After all, it’s a common practice for international restaurant chains to include Filipino food/flavors on their menus when opening shop here.

For those who are unfamiliar with Nobu, the US-based restaurant’s cuisine has Japanese and Peruvian influences, thanks to its genius founder, chef Nobu Matsuhisa. His fusion food is the reason why restaurant is so successful, which first opened in Los Angeles, California. The restaurant is so good, Hollywood actor Robert De Niro invested in it and he eventually became a business partner of Chef Nobu. Now, the restaurant has several branches worldwide.

A selection of sushi
A selection of Filipino-inspired sushi.

Two years ago, Nobu opened here in Manila, not just a restaurant but a whole luxury hotel. It’s Nobu first hotel in the world. Although the hotel opened with a rocky start, the restaurant proved why it has been successful around the world.

Last April, Nobu launched its special menu, a collection of Filipino-inspired dishes. For a chef, this is a tough menu to make especially when the restaurant’s cuisine is already fusion. Adding another cuisine to the mix can be daunting.

Kurobuta and foie gras sisig bao
Kurobuta and foie gras sisig bao

But Nobu Manila’s head chef Michael de Jesus is no stranger to Filipino food because Pinoy blood runs through his veins. Coming from Nobu Las Vegas, chef Michael joined Nobu Manila last year.

“The challenge is to marry almost three different kinds of cuisines but still holding our identity because Nobu is Japanese-Pervuian. And now we try to add a Filipino aspect,” the Filipino-American chef said.

The special menu took a cue from the very successful Filipino-Japaese omakase dinner by chef Michael and Nobu NYC executive chef Ricky Estrellado last year. Chef Michael, through the help of his Filipino team, chose popular Pinoy dishes and translated them to their food—Filipino with a Nobu flair.

Uni palabok 02
Uni palabok

The nigiri and sushi selection is a clear standout. One nigiri features a lightly seared tuna topped with a “ginataan” sauce. The flavors were on point. The familiar creamy flavor of coconut milk with ginger, garlic, and added heat from chili peppers. Another standout is the tuna sisig roll, a sushi roll made of cooked tuna—sisig style—with cucumber and peppers.

The most impressive dishes on the menu are two Filipino classics, palabok and kare-kare. The uni palabok is a rich comforting dish on its own. Instead of a shrimp-based sauce, chef Michael used uni or sea urchin roe, giving the sauce that rich yet familiar seafood flavor. Instead of rice noodles, udon was used and is topped with prawns, onsen eggs (Japanese soft boiled eggs), and Nobu’s version of crushed chicharon. The finely crushed “chicharon” is actually made of bacon, seaweed, and sesame seeds.

Wagyu beef short ribs kare-kare anticucho
Wagyu beef short ribs kare-kare anticucho

The wagyu beef short ribs kare-kare anticucho on the other hand, is an elevated version of our beautiful peanut stew. Using high grade beef, the peanut sauce is mixed with the Peruvian anticucho sauce which is made of lemon, vinegar, and various herbs and spices. It’s also presented beautifully with steamed vegetables on the side like Japanese eggplant. You would need a cup (or two) of rice for this.

Chef Michael was able to fuse together the flavors from the three cuisines. The special menu is a definite must try for foodies and especially for the fans of Nobu.

Read my Manila Bulletin Lifestyle article here.

The Filipino-Inspired Nobu Specials is available until June 30, 2017 / Nobu Manila, Level 1, Nobu Hotel Manila / +632 800 8080, +632 6912882 / guestservices@cod-manila.com / cityofdreamsmanila.com