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April, 2010 | Manolo's Food Blog
Archive - April, 2010

Not hungry

The deep satisfaction of vegan cuisine on the magic mountain of Koya-san seems to have stymied Mr. Henry’s urge to write. He feels spiritually cleansed. He feels gastro-intestinally cleansed. Ideas and aperçus about food in its many transmogrifications flit continuously through the Henry imagination, but fail to perch on solid outcrop. What is happening?

Mr. Henry is simply not very hungry.

The seasonal combination of warm weather, flowering trees, and a noticeable layer of winter fat round the waist together with a strange energy bounce from reverse jet lag left him without an appetite for anything more than good coffee, bananas, yogurt, pecan raisin bread and dark chocolate in the morning, and for salads, cheese and wine at night – all foods difficult to find in Japan, apart from good coffee, that is, which was uniformly excellent except at the one expensive hotel the Henry party visited, the Swissôtel in Osaka.

Mr. Henry is usually disappointed by restaurant coffee, particularly in fine dining establishments where management bumps up your bill an extra seven bucks for an acrid, watery, lukewarm espresso instead of charging an honest buck fifty for a hot cup of paper filter drip.

A recent New York Times article decried the nauseating coffee you get in Paris. Of all beautiful places where you most want to sit outside, drink a coffee, and watch impeccably dressed women swish-clicking past, Paris was once the first choice. But since the French all suffer from rotten-coffee stomach cramp, it’s no wonder they are so depressed.

People watching in Japan holds special merits. Thigh-high boots are de rigueur. Although this is a fashion mistake, and although women in Japan all seem to have misshapen knees from kneeling on tatami mats, and although high heels induce an awkward gait (apologies to The Manolo), when sitting gazing from behind your cup of rich, delicious coffee you need not wait very long for the happy chance to examine yet another youthful thigh.

Fashion trends no longer originate in Paris. Look to Tokyo for the next new thing in fashion as well as in food. Pickles and raw egg on rice for breakfast, anyone? Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

Vegan dinner at the temple

For two weeks the Henry family has been traipsing across Japan, land of salty snacks and tepid green tea. Back home in New York they find that crunchy rice crackers (senbei with nori) inhabit each jacket pocket.

The trip’s one great discovery, found in the famous Kyoto covered food market street (Nishiki-koji), were dried umeboshi, the tart salt apricot-plum found in a bento box. Dried ones pack all the punch of fresh ones, but taste slightly sweeter, an amazing mouth experience that keeps the palate satisfied and amused long enough for the shinkansen to travel from Hiroshima to Osaka.

In case you go, be forewarned. In Japan there are very few internet connections, no iPhone service, and no trash cans, all the more remarkable because Japanese streets are immaculate. You could eat off the floor.

In the Ginza Mitsukoshi a fresh-faced young woman offered Mr. Henry a free chocolate truffle imported from Paris (over $1 each). Although excellent coffee is widely available ($5 per cup), fine dark chocolate is very scarce. After eating half, he passed the uneaten portion to his devoted consort who characteristically took no notice of him. The truffle dropped to the floor. Seeing no trash can nearby, confident in the cleanliness of Japanese floors, and unwilling to waste the precious truffle, Mr. Henry straightaway picked it up and popped it in his chocolate-deprived mouth. Her spine shivering, the Mitsukoshi woman squeaked in horror.

The one unforgettable meal took place in a 15th-century Buddhist mountaintop temple (Shojoin-in, Koya-san) partly converted for use as a ryokan. In a beautiful tatami room adorned with painted six-panel screen, a muscular monk with shaven pate served a vegan dinner comprising every conceivable fresh bean, mountain yam, and tofu preparation.

Koya-san signature fresh tofu had a toothsome custard-like texture and a slightly caramelized flavor. Cold boiled spinach had been quick-pickled in a light rice wine vinegar and seasoned with a sesame peanut sauce. Of the many pickled and preserved fruits and vegetables, the most unusual was the whole pickled kumquat. You eat the whole thing, seeds and all.