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Saturday, Nov. 14, 2009

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

List twist: unheralded Japanese foods


Man cannot live by bread alone. No, he must also have lists.

For these days all kinds of lists are running amuck throughout every variety of media, sort of like . . . Well, like this . . .

The Three Best Metaphors to Describe the Spread of Lists:

3. Like ooh la-lahs at a Can-can dance

2. Like gooseflesh at a late fall nudist camp

1. Like germs at a kissing contest

With this list madness resulting in list after list that will jerk your life to a halt and demand to be read. Such as the . . .

Top Five Dried Fruits . . . Top Six Ugly Bugs . . . Top Seven Annoying Sounds . . . Top Eight English Expletives . . . And so on.

How could anyone pass these by? Lists are irresistible and List Fever is upon us.

Alas, I too am a victim. The other day, in musing upon Japanese food, I hit upon — what else? — a list!

Not a list of famous Japanese foods. For in this day and age, all the world has come to salivate over offerings of sushi, tempura, sukiyaki and more. Mainstream Japanese cuisine has long since debuted on the culinary stage and now plays to packed international audiences around the globe. Even in Paris, that citadel of fine dining and all things French, I recently found it easier to find a Japanese restaurant than I did a taxi.

No, a list of well-known Japanese foods is too mundane. Who would want to read that? That would be like reading a list of "Top 10 Shoe Colors." Or "Best Animated Mice." We can all guess what's coming.

My idea is to list those Japanese delights that everyone who lives here knows well, but which have never made a big splash abroad. These foods must have followers, especially in Japanese communities, yet when a hungry customer pokes his/her head in that Japanese restaurant in Paris or Manhattan or Dubuque, Iowa these are not the dishes he/she has in mind.

And that's too bad. Because all are huge hits with foreigners.

Drum roll, please . . . Presenting the Top Five Unheralded Stars of Japanese Dining

5. Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is often described as a Japanese-style pancake. This description earns points for technical merit, but loses badly on components. With the components of okonomiyaki being flour batter, shredded cabbage, and an assortment of other choices, from chicken to shrimp and everywhere in between. In fact, the word "okonomiyaki" loosely translates as "fried choice."

This concoction is sizzled up with an egg on a hot plate and then served like a pancake, after first being painted with Japanese meat sauce and dappled with bonito flakes — which dance about in the heat. Okonomiyaki thus scores as an experience as well as it does a food. Tasty, filling and goes great with beer.

4. Tonkatsu

Every time I hear the word "tenderloin" I think of an athlete with a pulled muscle. And the words "wiener schnitzel" somehow remind me of a Dachshund.

But if you have eaten either tenderloin or wiener schnitzel then you sort of know Japanese tonkatsu — or breaded pork cutlet. Except . . . tonkatsu is thicker and far more tender, with the same to be said for the breading. Plus you get to eat all the shredded cabbage you want, served liberally with tangy meat sauce. Tasty, filling and goes great with beer.

3. Gyoza

Gyoza are sometimes called "Chinese dumplings" or "pot stickers" in the States and often go unordered because no one knows what the hell either term means.

Gyoza are thin pockets of dough packed with spices and minced meat and vegetables. What makes Japanese gyoza different from the original Chinese variety is that they are fried as opposed to being boiled. Fried gyoza are then dipped in gyoza sauce and slide down easily — and often. And they go great with beer. Yes, I do have a wee pattern working here.

2. Japanese Fruit

But now the pattern is broken. For not even I drink beer with fruit. Japanese mainstays range from Velcro-skinned tangerines to sweet, seedless grapes to strawberries as big as your fist to Asian pears so yummy they make you squint with joy, and more. No one thinks of fruit when they think of Japanese dining. But they should. All are just sensational.

1. Curry Rice

Not sushi, not tempura, not yakitori or yakinikuthis is Japan's national food, beloved in every single household all across the land by all ages. The dip-style curry of India has evolved here into a stew-type broth that is ladled over rice (or even tonkatsu with rice). Sometimes spicy and sometimes sweet, curry rice is never a mealtime miss. Find me the Japanese who doesn't like curry rice and you'll find me a true culinary grinch.

And we foreigners list in curry's favor too. Everyone loves curry rice.

And — you betcha — it goes great with beer.



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