The expected and unexpected when it comes to food in Japan, from Kobe beef to bruleed sweet potatoes and sweet potato custards

Assuming that you actually have taste in food, eating in Japan is like a dance on your tongue: there are endless textures and flavors and mouth feels that it could never possibly get boring. There are the regional differences, such as okonomiyaki (fried savory pancake) of Osaka (ingredients all mixed) versus Hiroshima (ingredients are layered, AND they include a very generous layer of NOODLES!), differences based on different climates, geographies, and specialities (Hakata style ramen with its milky white pork bone broth vs. Sapporo ramen for its miso-based broth vs. Kitakata ramen for its soy sauce based pork broth, etc.), and one thing many people don’t think about when they think of Japanese cuisine: chili peppers! While Japanese food is not known to be spicy, very hot chili peppers are used liberally in southern Kyushu, southern Kanto and Izu, and Okinawa.

Given all this, it’s hard to spend any time in Japan and not eat well. You can eat well regardless of whether you are going to an onigiri stand off the street that sells stuffed rice balls for the equivalent of $1.50-3 USD each, $6 non-descript ramen shop, a 3-Michelin star sushi omakase, a renowned French restaurant (according to the New York Times food section, Japan is the place to go for the world’s best French food now. They wrote that French people just don’t want to take the time and energy to slave away in kitchens, while Japanese people not only love French food, but they are obsessed with the technique, learn it in France, then bring it back to Japan for everyone there to enjoy), or the takeaway counter at the nearby train/shinkansen station. Our first meal was takeaway from a spot at Tokyo Station, where Chris got us three ekiben (“eki” means “station,” and “ben” is short for “bento,” so station bento boxes or boxed meals) of A5 beef over rice with tamago, unagi over rice, and another beef bento. We inhaled our food, which in total cost about $12 each, but could easily sell for twice that amount if you had sold the same bento in New York. These are the relatively inexpensive things you can enjoy while visiting Japan; you know you are getting “value” because something equivalent (and likely lower quality, relatively speaking) will either cost a lot more where you came from, or just be a smaller quantity.

We took a day trip to Kobe on Tuesday, where we (of course) sought out a Kobe beef restaurant that would be comfortable enough for a toddler. We landed on a spacious restaurant called Mouriya, which specializes in Kobe beef. We chose two set menus, one for Kobe rump steak and one for Kobe ribeye, which came with ample additions, including seasonal soup (ours was pumpkin – very creamy!), rice/bread of choice, a generous helping of various vegetables (even lotus root!), and tea/coffee to end. The quality of the beef was just as high as you’d expect it to be, and the ribeye really did melt in your mouth almost like butter. I especially liked that Mouriya had chefs that would cook all the food in front of us, so it served as entertainment both for us and for Pookster, who really loved interacting with our chef. She giggled endlessly in the beginning as he made cute gestures and waved to her. It probably also made our seating arrangement more bearable for her for a longer time, especially since as a toddler, she cannot sit still for too long anywhere.

Kobe beef was expected, but what we weren’t quite expecting was the ubiquity of sweet potatoes in desserts everywhere. I was aware of this trend before this trip because I’d see social media posts and videos about this recent Japanese food trend. You couldn’t go to any neighborhood in Osaka, Kobe, or Tokyo where there was not at least one or two sweet potato dessert options. Certain places were fully devoted to the sweet potato theme, serving sweet potato custard, ice cream, and cakes. Others sold sweet potato based smoothies (wow!). A lot of stands just sold sweet potatoes that were roasted, split open and given a sugar topping, then “bruleed” on top with a torch. I saw so many young children running around with this sweet. I suppose this was a “healthy” dessert option for a child, so I totally understood why parents would give this to their school-age children. While we didn’t indulge in the sweet potato brulee, we did pick up a little custard from a train station stand in Osaka that was topped with a pureed sweet potato swirl, sprinkled with candied baked pieces of sweet potato. It definitely DID taste like sweet potato, but a little sweeter of course. These types of desserts can actually make you feel less “guilty” about indulging in dessert. It’s no wonder it’s so popular here!

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