Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Culinary Adventures

Doing the Monja in Kita-Senju

Something destined to be added to pub quizzes up and down the country this week is the question "What does London have 50 of, Paris 98, and Tokyo 191?" The answer is Michelin stars. For the first time ever the rotund tyreman of France has transplanted himself to an Asian city, and the anonymous reviewers scoured back streets to find out just how many fantastic restaurants there are in Tokyo. The result must have amazed the foodie industry in France - and probably Japan as well, having usurped the gastronomic centre of the world. The reviewers judge each eating place on a range of criteria (according to the Michelin website): 'product quality, preparation and flavors, the “personality” of the chef and the kitchen team, consistency over time and across the entire menu, and value for money.'

I've eaten out several times in Tokyo, but as yet never in the kind of establishment vying for the attention of the rubberised Frenchman. Michelin Guides were first produced as a handy leaflet for chauffers, detailing lay-bys and 'garages avec pompe a pneus', and soforth. It's fitting that today the guides are likely read by people who employ chauffers to shuttle them around, as they fork out hundreds of pounds at a time for something artfully arranged on a plate and dribbled with redcurrant 'jus'. Places like Joel Robuchon's Ebisu castle, which knocks out an 18 course banquet for ¥35,000 (£154) are waaaaay outside my price range (although they have set menus for about a quarter of that price). Robuchon won six stars for his Tokyo empire.

What a great job the reviewers had, dining out on incredibly intricate menus night after night. Japanese food can be stunning, in terms of presentation, the mixes of flavours, the freshness of ingredients, and of course the overall taste. When I was there the other week I again made an early-morning beeline for the Tsukiji fishmarket for a 7:30am sashimi breakfast. You pick one of the tiny, narrow countered places there, and duck into the inevitable cries of "Irashaimase!!". The cheerful but earnest sushi chefs quickly go about their business, and within a few minutes you've got the best sashimi you'll ever taste (outside of a Michelin starred restaurant, possibly), half of it unrecognisable, but all of it delicious.

Udon and sobu noodles are wonderfully filling, especially in the slurpy ramen bowls - I amused a cafe of locals by trying to loudly (and correctly) eat them, so much so that they all waved at me as I left. Tonkatsu is breaded pork, eaten with sesame-coated cabbage and plenty of beer, if you're in a hurry you can go for yakitori from a stand-up bar, or curry ordered from a vending machine but eaten inside. Once I managed to have a kaiseki banquet on the southern island of Miyajima - the pinnacle of Japanese dining (and presumably where most of the stars were awarded). Course after course of single dishes appeared, without explanation - tiny shellfish, a small plate of sashimi, a single palm-sized grilled fish, an un-nervingly large marine snail still in the shell, bacon served on a bed of ice. It was all incredible.

But some of the best Japanese culinary experiences are the participatory ones. Thanks to the trend for this shared dining experience, chain restaurants like Benihana have spread out across the West - but the authentic ones are of course far better. Two beer loving friends of mine, Sachika and Yuko, took me to a backstreet place in Kita-Senju, which turned out to be a Monjayaki restaurant. Similar to okonomiyaki, monja is cooked by you at a furnace-like hot plate at your table (well, the plate really is your table). Ingredients are mixed up, cold, in a bowl before the solid bits are plopped into a ring shape, and the liquid sauce dribbled into the centre. It's all folded in and eaten with nifty little metal spatulas. The place we were in was totally in Japanese - I'd never even have found it, much less worked out what to do, without help. I'm sure the Michelin reviewers avoided places where they had to cook their own food - but that's their loss...

Michelin publishes guide to Tokyo
Tokyo - Land of the Rising Stars [Guardian]

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Podge by name...

The last post I wrote was by necessity fairly somber - so it's time to redress the balance with some fluff. Literally, as it turns out, as I saw this brilliant cat story on the BBC website yesterday...

'A cat is baffling his owner by wandering off at night before expecting to be collected by car every morning at exactly the same time and place. Sgt Podge, a Norwegian Forest Cat, disappears from his owner's home in Talbot Woods, Bournemouth, every night. The next morning, the 12-year-old cat can always be found in exactly the same place, on a pavement about one and a half miles (2.4km) away. His owner, Liz Bullard, takes her son to school before collecting Sgt Podge. She also makes the trip at weekends and during school holidays - when her son is having a lie in. Back at home, Sgt Podge has breakfast before going to sleep by a warm radiator.'

Wonderful stuff. Firstly - that's probably the best name for a cat I've ever heard. I remember Bill Bryson once writing that you should never name an animal something you'd be too ashamed to yell from your back door - but obviously that isn't going to be a problem with this wandering moggie. Secondly - I hope he gets some exercise after his well-earned breakfast snoozing, because if he keeps on getting ferried around between meals he'll have to be promoted to Captain Podge. Thirdly - Norwegian Forest Cat? According to the Cat Fancier's Association breed profile database, they 'explored the world with the Vikings, protecting their grain stores on land and sea' (I won't tell you how long I thought about that before I realised they meant protecting the grain from mice).

Anyhow, Podge saunters off every evening to do his feline business, apparently crossing a nearby golf course. Then the following morning between 8:00am and 8:15am he presents himself at the same point on a distant street and patiently waits for his taxi service to arrive. What he does in the intervening hours isn't known - maybe he got nightshift work at a nearby grain warehouse, or something. Mrs Bullard only has to open her car door and he appears and leaps in, which would become unfortunate should somebody else park there around the same time and get out to stretch their legs. She also says that if it's raining he'll be hanging about under a nearby bush - surely what Podge needs is an old glass coffee table left outside which he could use as a cat-sized bus shelter.

There is a sensible reason for this - as there always is. Apparently a woman who lives near that spot used to feed Sgt Podge, so he became conditioned to going there. The first day he didn't come back, Mrs Bullard rang her neighbours to see if anyone had seen him, then drove about before finding him on the side of the road in that location. The crafty feline has now tuned in to the fact that he can wander over for some food and then if he waits, can get a lift home in the morning. Only in Britain would his owner silently agree to these demands - and only in Britain would a story about a punctual cat become the most emailed article on the BBC website. Sgt Podge, I salute you! (I only hope you chip in for the petrol now and again...)

Cat's daily routine baffles owner [BBC]

Sunday, November 11, 2007


The Menin Gate, Ypres

On the 11th of November 1918, the Great War finally ended. The conflict had resulted in the deaths of over 20 million people, injured more than twice that number, and destroyed families on almost every continent. As a result, the 11th day of the 11th month was declared a day of remembrance for those who had fallen, and the 11th hour when the treaty was signed became a poignant moment of reflection. Today is Remembrance Day, when we think back on those who have given their lives - or who had theirs taken away - by war and conflict. Up and down the country ceremonies are held and wreaths of scarlet poppies laid, and old men don uniforms to honour their friends who died in the fighting.

The largest gatherings are at the Cenotaph in London, a city highly familiar with war. It was here in 1897 that a french polisher called George Curtis and his wife Rose had a baby boy, whom they named Ernest. Raised in the east London area of Bow, Ernest had three brothers and three sisters. He must have had a hectic childhood as part of a large family in the centre of one of the busiest industrial cities in the world, at the end of the Victorian era. I don't know where he went to school or what kind of a career he was thinking of going into - maybe he was considering following his father into the family business. However, in 1914 the escalation of a conflict in the Balkans resulted in the German empire crossing through neutral Belgium to attack France, drawing the British into war. Ernest, who was now 17, joined the army.

He joined the London Regiment, 2/9th battalion, commonly known as the Queen Victoria Rifles. A Terratorial force created during the war to bolster numbers, they were part of the 2/1st London Division. In May 1915 they became the 175th Brigade of the 58th Division, having been merged with other local units such as the Hackneys and the Finsbury Rifles. In late January 1917 the entire 58th was relocated to France, to serve on the Western Front. The Queen Victoria's had a distinguished record already, with the 1st-Line battalions having fought at Neuve-Chapelle in March 1915, during which Lieutenant Geoffrey Woolley became the first Territorial Army soldier to win the Victoria Cross. A memorial to him and the Queen Victoria's still stands at the top of Hill 60, as the vantage point they fruitlessly defended was named.

Ernest and his mates must have heard stories about these acts of bravery. As their 2nd-Line regiments were deployed in the front lines, talk of previous battles would have been ever present. They would have seen the injured men removed from the lines, and the devastation caused by continuous shelling and bombardment. The British and Allied troops had been fighting for over two years, losing and re-taking the same ground, and calling up reserves to replace shattered divisions. Ernest's 58th Division were sent to the lowlands of Belgium. On the 17th of June engineers detonated nineteen enormous mines that had been painstakingly planted under the German positions at Messines Ridge, killing upwards of 10,000 in a single moment.

We don't know where Ernest fought in the upcoming battles - or even if he did - but after the June attack at Messines the conditions became truly awful. August 1917 was appallingly wet, reducing the boggy wetlands of Flanders to deep mud. The famous photographs of soldiers walking on wooden duckboards through lunar landscapes were taken at this time, during the third battle of Ypres. Soldiers who slipped off these boards often sank within seconds, weighed down by their equipment. The bloodbath continued - at Pilckem Ridge the allies lost 32,000 casualties gaining 2000 yards. It's inconceivable what these men went through, the things they saw and experienced.

After the weather destroyed any chance of large-scale offensives, a new strategy of short attacks was decided upon by the allied commanders. This was launched in September 1917. On the 8th of September, Ernest was killed in action. We don't know where he was, or what he was doing, or even how he died. He was 20, and his body was never found. The war continued without him, involving notorious battles at Polygon Wood and Passchendaele. His unit was merged with others as they all lost men - the Finsbury Rifles were disbanded completely after their casualties. The fighting would continue for another 14 months after Ernest's death, until the armistace on the 11th of November 1918.

After the war his sister Ethel married a man called Alfred Dodds. They had a daughter named Elsie, who is my Grandmother. Ernest Curtis was my great great Uncle. One of his other sisters, Rose, kept a framed picture of him in uniform on her wall until she died. As his remains were never recovered, his name was placed on the Menin Gate in Ypres with the inscriptions of 54,322 others who also have no known resting place. He has an entry on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database - 'Rifleman EV Curtis (391842) London Regiment, Queen Victoria Rifles. Casualty number 1608861.' My parents have been to see his name on Panel 54 of the Menin Gate, and one day I will too. Until then, all I can do is remember him and all the others during this Remembrance Sunday.

Casualty 1608861, Rifleman EV Curtis
Geoffrey Woolley VC and Hill 60

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Japan Roundup 2

Tokyo - so good they named it twice. Well, not really. 1998 was the 'French year' in Japan - so to celebrate, Paris dispatched a replica of New York Harbour's famous guardian to Japan for the twelve months of festivities. Removed in 1999, it was so popular that it was re-instated in 2000, where it remains today. In the background is another landmark from the city, the Rainbow Bridge - so called because at night hundreds of lights of red, white and green twinkle away, giving a colourful frontage. It connects the city to the reclaimed island of Odaiba, and if you want to see Liberty close up, take the Yurikamome monorail to station U-07 (Daiba).

A traditional Japanese Shinto wedding ceremony in the Meiji Shrine. I was there for a couple of hours, and saw at least four of these groupings have their pictures taken before proceeding through the main shrine buildings to another ceremony. It was interesting to see the happy couple in traditional garments, with the other members of the party in black suits and suitable dresses. The bride does look as if she's just stepped out of the shower, but her white wedding kimono (a shiromuku) is possibly a nod to the white wedding dress. The actual Shinto ceremony is very short, solemn, but heavy on symbolism.

The Cosplayers give me a wave at Harajuku - I was trying to take a subtle photo of them being snapped by the dozens of Western tourists, when they turned around and gazumped me. But it's impossible not to smile and wave back at them - it's not as if anyone forces them to arrive at the station exit every Sunday morning with their small wheeled suitcases of 'regular' clothes so they can change back before they go home. There are plenty of people in the UK who dress up at weekends to become other characters, it's just that Cosplayers get photographed every time they turn around.

This is apparently a highly significant tree, inside the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura, about an hour south of Tokyo. I wish I could read the signs at places like this, but my Japanese extends only to a few hopefully useful phrases and associated hand waving. However, I was wandering up through the complex of buildings when I opened my guidebook and it mentioned the incredibly old tree by the main shrine steps. I would have just walked past it otherwise, but this Gingko tree predates the building (moved here in 1180), so is over 1000yrs old. In 1219, the third Minamoto Shogun was climbing these very steps to pay his respects when he was knifed by an assassin who had been hiding in the branches.

'Daibutsu' is a word familiar to many people who travel to Japan - it means 'large Buddha'. This, as you can see, is what a Daibutsu looks like. Also in Kamakura, this holy sculpture was forged in 1252, weighs 125 tonnes, and is 36ft high (10m). It's the second largest statue of the diety in Japan, behind the 16m Buddha enclosed in the Todai-ji temple in Nara (which I visited in 2005). The Kamakura one is more impressive, I think, because it's exposed and seems more enormous as a result. You can also go inside it, which I did, for Y20. It's basically a large bronze cave, with the great dome of the head above you. The statue stands in the open like this because the Todai-ji style temple which surrounded it was demolished by a tsunami in 1495.

I just love these haircuts...