Friday, February 3, 2012

The GGG Essential Guide to:- Japanese food that looks too good to eat…Beware the non-slip Gravy!

Welcome to the third installment of Norman's series of informative and tongue in cheek guides to the quirkier side of Japanese life.

The GGG Essential Guide to:-

Japanese food that looks too good to eat…Beware the non-slip Gravy!

Think of culinary Japan and you automatically think of Sushi, Chopsticks, Soy Sauce and perhaps an irate Chef chasing you down the street brandishing a fearsome looking meat cleaver… no, sorry, that last stereotype is more likely to belong to a UK Chinese Restaurant at maybe around Pub closing time!!
I refer to Chinese loosely in this context as, in the UK at least, the word is often used as a catch all description for any restaurant (especially a “take away” as opposed to a “sit in”) that just happens to have vaguely Oriental dishes on their menu. This is regardless of whether the dishes are actually from China or even anywhere else in the Far East... After all, gastronomic delights such as “Chips**, Cheese and Curry Sauce”, deep fried “Battered Pineapple Rings” or “Pickled Boiled Eggs” in a jar don’t immediately spring to mind as examples of rare delicacies transported from the mystic East aboard some ancient Chinese Sailing Junk. (Unless, of course, the eggs happen to be 600 years old and served up in a Ming Dynasty vase…)
** ”Chips” in the UK can be known as French Fries elsewhere and Potato Crisps in the UK can be called Potato Chips elsewhere - confused ? - you soon will be…

However, it is still possible that some of the slightly more authentic dishes on the menu may have had, at least in part, some Japanese influences in the past, even if only in a very broad brush comparison. Many “Oriental” dishes of course share the same Far East staple ingredients of Rice and Noodles (as does Japan) and these are served up in numerous permutations of styles and flavours. Such are the bewildering array of variations that can be conjured up from these two base ingredients that, just as the Inuit people of the Polar regions have their 40 odd different descriptions for types of “snow”, so too is there a huge variety and diversity in the numerous descriptions of all things “Noodle” and all things “Rice”.

And herein lies the big problem….How can you possibly individually describe 150 items on your menu if 75 of them are best described as “Noodle Thing” and the other 75 should be called “Rice Thing”??
In the UK, the ubiquitous “Chinese” Take Away has an answer to this dilemma, by devising an enormous gaudy plastic Menu board which can easily take up the whole of one wall in the brightly neon lit shop. This Technicolor masterpiece, which describes each dish on the menu in exacting detail, can initially stun the customer at first glance, suddenly confronted them with this Wide Screen vision, a menu delivered in full HD but alas with no surround sound (unless of course someone is singing loudly in the queue behind you…).

Where to look first? How can you ever find the Cheesy Chip and Gravy section hiding in this lot??

Initially, the whole lengthy manuscript (seemingly of Magna Carter proportions), has to be studied in bewildering detail by the squinting (and perhaps swaying) occupants of the recently emptied public house next door. This all quickly becomes quite a cumbersome and laborious arrangement you might think… but not so, because once the preferred dish is eventually located on the menu board, the complex system’s trump card can be played. The auto-swaying customer can simply lean on the counter (for support and perhaps also to reduce the swaying a little…) and prepare to deliver their order. Like a goldfish with only a 3 second memory, the customer at this most crucial juncture in the transaction need not even remember one jot about the details of the food they are going to eat. There’s simply no need as the system will provide the answer. They only have one thing to remember and that one thing is… the Number….the number that the dish appears on the menu list. Sorted! Gone from the memory is actually what you are ordering and shortly going to eat (and/or possibly wear when spilt down the front of your shirt...), like an automaton delivering a speech with a synthesised voice, all you need to remember to say at the appropriate moment is - “I want that Noodle thing…Number 143…and a can of fizzy pop” *** (plus perhaps a small side dish of Cheesy Chips as a Hors D‘oeuvre to eat on the bus on the way home…)

***it’s preferable to use your best Robot / Dalek voice for this bit if you are reading the text out to someone - however equally best not to use this same voice in a real Take Away restaurant or you may well snap the patience of the Head Chef… with the Meat Cleaver…shouting Exterminate! Exterminate! as he leaps at you over the counter…

So to cut through the sensory overload of making a concise, distilled and informed choice from the huge menu on offer (and perhaps also “multitasking” with some swaying, singing and squinting thrown in) the most efficient system to use is to simply to order by number.

Unless that is, you happen to live, say, in Japan...

By now, you might well have guessed that the Japanese (as we will see in many of these GGG Essential Guides…) have, of course, managed to go one better. Gone are the complex and gaudy plastic menu boards, gone also the more “trendy bistro” chalk and blackboard menus. In Japan, all is neatly replaced by an altogether more adventurous, 21st Century, artistic solution.
Rather than trying to read the whole menu and having to imagine what the different dishes might be like, the Japanese regularly enjoy the fantastic concept of being able to actually see what they are going to get before they order it. A three dimensional menu showing exactly what you are going to get is often placed, pride of place no less, in the front window of many Japanese Restaurants. Represented in incredibly detailed plastic resins, there are row upon row of highly accurately detailed food dishes, all of which are available on the menu inside. By using plastic replicas like these you simply don’t have to use so many words to describe the ingredients of a dish and In this way, not only the look of the food is reproduced (after all, a good photograph in the menu could do this adequately), but the physical size, composition and texture of the meal can also be accurately depicted. It is very much a case of “WYSIWYG” (What You See Is What You Get).
The real challenge of course, is not the simple dishes on the menu, Green Peas and Carrots after all are perhaps not so hard to reproduce in plastic.... Where the real skill comes in is trying to represent things like Ice Cream Sundaes or delicate seafood salads.
Here the art of the plastic food designers goes into realism overdrive! Nothing is too much trouble to reproduce for, just as the human eye can quite easily spot an obvious flaw in a painting, the eye is also drawn to any slight inaccuracies in a plate of reproduction food. You could say that the overall illusion is only as good as the worst item of plastic food on the plate. With this in mind, you soon find yourself searching in a bowl of Salad for the dodgiest looking item, the one giveaway thing that breaks down the illusion of realism….but more often than not there isn’t one!!
Such is the attention to realism that even the condition of the food is considered, the Gravy looks runny, the fruit looks to be freshly washed and even the condensation on the inside of a (plastic) glass of (plastic) ice cream is modelled to give the illusion that the glass is very cold (when of course all the plastic is actually sitting at room temperature as seen below…)

Not to be left out, even the kids are well catered for in Plastic!

As “WAON” the flying dog says here on the side of his bowl, delivering your dinner by aeroplane “is a lovely way to eat” and what kid wouldn’t want their food to land on the table piloted by a dog sitting in an open cockpit, complete with ears a-flappin in the wind! The Japanese really are the Kings of Cute!

However, If there has to be a down side to all this artistic ingenuity, I have managed to find it…On one occasion, yours truly was faced with the slightly embarrassing situation in a restaurant of knowing exactly what I wanted to eat from looking at the food in the window, but then, and this is the crucial bit…not being able to describe this order to the waiter inside the restaurant! The result was I had to then drag the poor waiter outside his own restaurant so I could point at the desired dish in the window! Luckily he saw the funny side of all of this and proceeded to produce the meal laid out exactly as I had seen it previously shaped in plastic! Quite amazing…
I’d better warn you that this last picture is of some real noodle soup and I am pleased to report that it was very tasty!. The Dish is called “Udon” and to eat it you are given chopsticks (yes, even to eat soup….!) and a special wooden ladle called an “Otama” which gives its name to “otama-jyakushi” which is Japanese for a Tadpole! (because of the round body and long handle / tail).
See you all for another “GGG Essential guide” for use in everyday Japan very soon…
Sayonara! Cheers N.

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Another great insight into the side of Japanese life most of us never see. Keep checking back for the next installment and also for the latest news on the resumtion of the flight which is fast approaching.
The Gyrox Team.
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