I was eating a bowl of kale with chopsticks at a noodle bar in downtown Woodstock, New York, when I thought about how different the mainstream American diet could be. I railed against the typical American way of eating before I went to Japan and, then after nine days in Japan, I experienced just how screwed up we are in the United States when it comes to balanced eating (as well as many other things, but this blog focuses on travel). This is what you usually find at American airports, which reflect what you find in many American neighborhoods.
McDonald’s and Starbucks can be found in Japan, but thankfully they don’t dominate a street corner. In Japan, I ate fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I ate seaweed and pickled vegetables with my fish. I ate a few things I couldn’t identify. Instead of a basket of bread while you wait for the main course, we received a bowl of cabbage leaves coated in a light, tangy vinaigrette, which was delicious, and, as Mike noted, a more nutritious alternative than nachos. Many of my meals had a slice of roasted acorn squash, and I got to the point where I so looked forward to this fleshy crescent chunk of food that I was disappointed when my entree didn’t feature acorn squash. Thanks to Japan, I have an acorn squash sitting on my kitchen counter at home, waiting to be roasted, sliced, and added to just about everything except breakfast cereal.
I’d like to say we were among the throngs that waited for breakfast at the famous Daiwa Sushi at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market, but we weren’t. Perhaps next time. Tsukiji Fish Market has a ton of cheap eateries, so we opted for one without a line and enjoyed some of the freshest sushi, specifically the chu toro, a tasty cut of tuna, and I don’t even think we spent $20 USD. Walking around Tsukiji Fish Market, there’s so much on the chopping block every single day, you wonder if there’s anything left in the sea. Japan accounts for 30 percent of the world’s tuna consumption. After having fish three meals a day, several days in a row, I now think that nothing at the Tsukiji Fish Market goes to waste.
And then there’s that lunch in Kyoto’s Gion District that my daughter refers to as “the lunch with too many eyeballs.” Whole shrimp had been tossed into all of our entrees, and a shrimp antennae was eerily waving from Anna’s bowl of broth. I tried to fish out the rest of the shrimp body before Anna noticed what was floating beneath her noodles, but, failed.
Eyeballs aside, our meals always featured vegetables, even at breakfast where little salads were often served alongside a “Western” buffet of eggs and bacon. Japanese serving sizes were small and always filling. Everything was lightly flavored and not buried in sauces. No one felt gassy, bloated, and bursting at the belt buckle with regret. The Japanese are known for their love of perfection and presentation, and every entree we received, from takeout sushi at Tokyo’s “Family Mart” convenience chain to the Bento boxes on the bullet train to Park Hyatt Tokyo’s bountiful breakfast buffet to the Mexican Bento boxes in Kyoto were thoughtfully arranged. Nothing ever, ever looked thrown together by a cook who had lost his appetite for the job. Even “the lunch with too many eyeballs” was attractive and deceptively appealing (I’m not a shrimp lover, whether it’s just the tail or a tail attached to eyeballs).
I’ve said this on Twitter and I’ll repeat it here: why hasn’t the Azuki bean taken off in America? Ok, maybe Americans don’t associate the word “bean” with dessert. My first introduction to Azuki bean sweets took place fifteen years ago at a Chinese restaurant in Vancouver, British Columbia, and after that I was hooked. Why can’t sweet Azuki bean paste be added to the Pop-tart? Americans don’t know what they’re missing. I’m not saying ditch chocolate, but rice cakes with sweet Azuki bean paste are delicious, they go great with green tea, and are the perfect way to cap a meal of fresh fish, rice and vegetables. For folks craving more Western style desserts, Kyoto offered beautifully crafted “Nature Doughnuts,” as they were called, that were too cute to eat, and did not contain Azuki beans. Japanese sweets are always beautifully wrapped and the sweets themselves sometimes looked like dried flowers in glass.
After a week of fish and rice, we all started to crave some familiarity. While strolling Kyoto near Ponto-cho, part of the Hanamachi district there, we walked by a gleaming avocado which turned out to be a sign for Cafe Dining Avocado Mexican. I’m a guacamole junkie so lunch was Mexican Bento boxes, an avocado cappuccino, a broccoli-kiwi smoothie (yes, my favorite color is green), delicious cactus ice cream served with slices of fresh avocado and “Day of the Dead” spongecake with fruit. The place appeared popular among locals; few waiters spoke English though they offered an English menu, as was common around Kyoto, and the restaurant was filled with trendy-looking Japanese ladies who lunch. It was interesting to experience a Japanese interpretation of Mexican food; again, the servings were small, but appropriate, and absolutely delicious and spicy. Anna was relieved to eat something she recognized, and everyone enjoyed the break from the seafood and rice. Our other “Western” caving was a quick evening bite at Mos Burger, which isn’t yummy, but is certainly visually entertaining. I kept a menu as a souvenir.
Back to portion control in America and eating my bowl full of kale. The bowl overflowed with kale and ended up providing three meals over the weekend. Three meals for $11 may feel like a bargain, but I would’ve much preferred half that bowl of kale, which would have filled me up, for half the price. Mike’s chicken entree took up more than half his plate and was swimming in sauce. I know complaints about US food portions tend to focus on fast food chains, but the kale came from a chic noodle bar and the chicken came from a fancy schmancy restaurant. Why do we dish up so much for a single meal? Are these large portions rooted in our frontier origins…are we really that worried about finding our next meal? I longed for Japanese balance on my plate.
Back to Japan, where portions were appropriate and opportunities for walking off breakfast, lunch and dinner were boundless. After filling up on small servings of healthy foods, we strolled Japan’s cherry blossomed streets because everything was in full bloom while we were there. This was the view outside Cafe Dining Avocado Mexican in Kyoto near the canal. This Mexican joint is in a beautiful neighborhood known for geisha houses, traditional tea houses and the preservation of classic Japanese architecture. There are cobblestone streets and small lovely private homes, restaurants, and shops along the way. This area is what you think of when you imagine “Kyoto” for a few blocks away, you encounter more of the urban artery with department stores lining block after block. What you do learn from walking around Japan’s streets is whether it’s a historical neighborhood or a busy thoroughfare, the Japanese take a lot of pride in their cuisine, and just about anywhere you go (except maybe Mos Burger), you’ll find something delectable and thoughtfully, artfully crafted.