While we’re on the topic of food, let’s not forget how important combining drinking with eating is in Japan. Yuki, José, Davíd, and I went out for shabu shabu one night to give a “tabehodai” (all you can eat) restaurant a run for its money. The name shabu shabu comes from the sound meat makes as you stir it with chopsticks in a iron pan filled with broth in the center of your table, resting over an open flame. José advised us to order a rich soymilk broth in which to boil our meat, which was just about the best idea ever. We’d run low on meat and vegetables, hit a little button under the table, call out “sumimasen!” when the waitress arrived, and order another stack of meat. The two Spanish brothers had a “no meat left behind” policy, so I’m sure the restaurant proprietors weren’t entirely happy that we consumed dozens of trays of beef, along with piles of vegetables.
A popular place to head after work is the Izakaya, the name of which comes from “to stay” and “sake shop”. More traditional Izakaya serve small dishes alongside drinks in a bar setting, like the one Jason Wong, MIT SM ’71, took Ira, Yuka, and me to some distance from Shibuya one night after work, where we proceeded to sample little skewers of chicken and strange organ meats, while marginalizing a bottle of Spanish cava. After being in a lab all day, a dinner where no one talks about work was a great way to relax. The Izakaya was filled with Japanese businessmen and women similarly unwinding, smoking, and drinking one another under the table.
Most Japanese homes are too small to entertain a large group of friends in any sort of reasonable manner, so heading to an Izakaya is the best alternative. In Osaka, Dylan invited to a birthday party at an Izakaya called 12.6. No idea where the name came from, but the front rooms had leopard-print tablecloths and mirrors everywhere. We were led to a back room with illuminated tables, where a variety of tiny dishes were served to us as we basked in the glory of “nomihodai”, or “all you can drink”.
The birthday people were French and Japanese, so the party’s conversations were in broken English, florid French, and enthusiastic Japanese. Someone stole my camera at one point, so I have photos of the 20-something partiers doing what the French and Japanese do best: consume vast amounts of wine and beer.
Two of the French were on a round-the-world trip (chronicling their adventures over at Around the Woorld [sic]), and had just left San Francisco, so we swapped stories of the ferry building and Napa. One had just gotten laid off and was looking to find the next place to live and work, so he convinced his buddy to add a few more countries’ stamps to their passports. I also ran into a number of Europeans at a hostel in Hiroshima who were doing the same thing: apparently now is the time to spend money on travel after becoming bored with life on the Continent.
The waiter was even convinced to join in the birthday singing when the cake came out of the kitchen.
In recent decades, “themed” Izakaya have sprung up in Tokyo and surrounding environs. One chain of Izakaya is called the “Lock Up” with a prison concept: they’ll handcuff the main “perpetrator” as you walk in the door, and sometime in the middle of the night a prison break occurs, complete with guards chasing prisoners throughout the restaurants.
This week in Tokyo, MIT alumna Yuki found a themed Izakaya called “Arabian Rock” with a Middle Eastern theme. (In the same building as the Lock Up, of course.) We entered the stairwell to hear “A Whole New World” from Aladin being played. The doors and windows in the darkened Izakaya were sculpted into arches and decorated with Islamic motifs as Arabic (mercifully, not Disney) music (as well as the odd Bollywood song) wafted over the private rooms and niches of the restaurant. The hostess was wearing a bellydancing costume, jangling with every move. Arabic script graced the walls, though a giant taxidermic bear battling a snake on the wall left us scratching our heads.
We were seated and the waitress brought out golden eggs, “laid by a golden bird this morning”. The menu featured a variety of drinks, some of which glowed.
A salad was decorated with an edible net.
The best part was the dessert course, which included a forest of small people made of strawberries and puff pastry, facing away from a volcano made of raspberry ice cream.
And finally, out came a horse-drawn carriage drawing a cart made of a jelly roll filled with cream and decorated with cookie wheels and a strawberry on top.
I really can’t wait to get home and try my hand at making desserts as tempting as the ones at Arabian Rock.