February 15, 2010 by bethanjthomas
Everyone has a ‘number one meal’ – a culinary experience which tops all others, that is once in a life time. Just as a failed romance may have a profound effect on your future relationships, this meal may set an unobtainable bar for all other food to reach and destroy your hopes in things ever being so good again.
This is the story of my ‘the one’, and it begins in an unidentifiable, never to be returned to restaurant somewhere in Japan…
It was literally a meal of epic proportions which I had no conception of during the drive through the tea hills of Wazuka to the family run restaurant.
As we entered the tiny wooden house and I took of my shoes, we were greeted by the chef’s kimono clad wife and handed a glass of sake. This drink was truly a revelation to me. I’d had sake before, but I’d never been bowled over by it, far preferring a glass of wine. I was potentially influenced by my time living in China and South Korea, where I was forced to drink copious amounts of baijiu and sujiu, which always tasted like drinking bleach.
Over the course of this meal, however, we had three different types of sake and none came close to the first one in my eyes. It was beautifully cloudy, with a slight fizziness which I had never experience in any other 40% volume drinks. It definitely suited my palate with sweet fruity peach flavours making it incredibly drinkable.
There was no menu and no choices to be made as I happily sipped my sake. I just sat back with my feet dangling down a ledge into the floor whilst I understood nothing that happened around me.
Ignorance was certainly bliss as I was greeted by an incredible plate of food. Edamame beans, a whole shrimp, tiny pickled fish and tomato. I hate cold tomatoes, but I devoured all of this one, its sweet juiciness contrasting with the firm, buttery taste of the shrimp. I’ve never tasted anything like it, despite its simplicity and haven’t eaten another tomato since.
The next course took my breath away. At face value it could be described as a bowl of soup with a lump of bread, but it was so much more. I have never tasted anything like it and doubt I will again. The light miso soup had plankton throughout it lending it small bites of ‘crunch’ as I devoured it all. The baozi (soft white bread bun) itself was laden with scallops, making it the most luxurious bun I’ve ever eaten.
Delicate slices of sashimi followed with soy sauce, apricot jam and lavender flowers for decoration. I was almost speechless now, wondering what on earth could be coming from the kitchen next…
Warm, smoked goby. That was what. With a stem of pickled ginger and potato. Its contrast to the simple, delicate flavour of the sashimi was sensational.
A stuffed pumpkin arrived shortly after with warm, creamy richness to take my taste buds on yet another journey.
By the time that the sixth course arrived, I was content, tipsy and entirely unconcerned about what I was eating. I believe what arrived was a bowl of roasted vegetables in miso soup with a katsuobushi topping. All I remember is that it was a delight as at this point I’d stopped asking my hosts to explain.
The meal finished with tempura, but not shrimp, pepper or sweet potato as I was used to. Instead, whole baby sweetcorn with their green shells still on arrived on my plate. Providing they are picked early enough, they make succulent, crunchy, sweet mouthfuls of joy.
And with this, the dream ended. Thick, umami laced gyokruo green tea cleansed my palate and gave me time to reflect on how this incredibly food had evolved through Japanese history at the same time that shepherds pie and faggots had rolled into existence in England. It all seemed such a shame for my great nation.
I left the doors of that restaurant happy as Larry with no regrets other than the fact I forgot to take the address.