Spring Forward

In the UK today the clocks have gone forward by an hour, and British Summer time has begun. In reality of course spring has only just ‘sprung’. Spring time in Japan is synonymous with Cherry Blossoms or ‘Sakura’. I visited in September last year, so missed out on this spectacle. I hope to go back in the near future to see the fantastic displays myself. In the meantime, I have sought out the blossoms in London.

Holland Park in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea is home to the Kyoto Garden. Other than Kew Gardens, I believe this is the only public Japanese Garden in London. The garden was donated by the Chamber of Commerce of Kyoto in 1991, to celebrate the Japanese festival in London in 1992.

Whilst it is a small area, unlike Kew’s efforts, it is a beautiful space with a cascading waterfall in to a large pond. Spend a few moments on the stone bridge and the koi carp will soon appear. The colours of these sacred fish are so varied. Most of the carp I saw in Tokyo and Kyoto were a dark grey/brown. The water is full of copper coins that visitors have thrown in for good luck.

There are some other small water features, gravel paths, stone sculptures and even a resident peacock. The park is free to visit and is open from 07:30 am to thirty minutes before dusk. It is often quite popular, so I suggest arriving early and making the most of the peace and quiet.

I visited specifically in search of some of England’s spring blossoms. My morning walk to work passes under a Magnolia tree, and the smell is nothing short of divine. It has been a daily reminder to get to the park. Unfortunately, due to the unusual heat in December/January a lot of the blossoms came to early and were killed off. However, I did manage to find a few stunning examples.

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The white (plum) blossoms were in the main area of the park outside of the garden. However the pink (cherry) blooms were by the pond and looked lovely against the contrast of the blue skies. The trick to spotting the difference is to look at the shape of the petals and the buds. Plum blossoms have round petals with circular buds. Cherry, blooms a little later in the year, with a notch in the petals and oval buds.

In England, one of our symbols of spring is the daffodil. There was a large area in the park full of bunches of this iconic yellow flower. I couldn’t resist snapping a picture.

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It is perhaps still a little too soon for the best blossom displays. I will wait for a few more weeks before making a trip to Kew and the large Japanese garden there. I don’t think I could ever tire of walking under the blankets of blossoms and enjoying the fragrant smell. No wonder the bees are such a fan!

 

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It’s in their Bones

Last weekend some old friends visited me in London. It seemed only right that I take them to a Japanese restaurant for Dinner, and I heard little protest.

I had a hankering for ramen, so I took them to the first Japanese restaurant I tried in London : Shoryu. This was my third visit to the Soho branch, and I was certainly not disappointed.

Like Ichiryu (as featured in my first blog ‘My Second Love‘) Shoryu was set up by the same team as the Japan Centre. It is a restaurant specialising in Hakata tonkotso Ramen. This is a rich, thick, white pork soup with thin ramen noodles from the Hakata district of Fukouka city in Japan.

Shoryu’s tagline ‘It’s in our bones’ refers to the method of making the pork stock. In my opinion, this base is the most important part of the ramen dish. Without good flavour in the stock, the dish can lack depth. Each pan at Shoryu boils for no less than 12 hours!

My first experience of ramen was in the heart of Tokyo. We had arranged to meet some friends in the centre. They took us along to a very basic looking restaurant. However, all was not as it seemed. Outside the entrance were two vending machines. After a brief moment of amazement we hesitantly put in some money. I punched a couple of buttons that seemed to be a soy based pork ramen and some gyoza. The machine then printed a little pink ticket. In typical Japanese efficiency, you simply waited for a seat in the busy restaurant, and handed your ticket to the chef at the bar. For around £6 we ate very well. Ramen is considerably more filling than it appears…you have been warned!

Unlike the dish in Shoryu, this one was a lighter, clear soy based stock. I think I prefer the (to quote a friend) ‘creamy but not creamy’ pork bone base. Back to London, the three of us ordered the ‘Shoryu Ganso Tonkotso’ (£11). This is the signature ramen pictured above. It is topped with dried nori seaweed, slices of pork belly, half a soft boiled egg, spring onions, kikurage mushrooms, ginger and sesame.

We decided to fill our table by also ordering pork buns, edamame, and pork gyoza. My favourite were the gyoza. They were perfectly crisp with deliciously seasoned meat inside. I’m hoping to go on a gyoza making class soon, and will of course keep you posted.

As a big fan of cocktails, I was delighted to see Shoryu has a new range for spring. I had the ‘Kaoru Lavender’, a gin based cocktail with cucumber, lime and lavender (bottom). My friends had the ‘Sakuranbo Bitter’ (left) and the ‘Murasaki Le Fizz’ (right). The last was my favourite, featuring sake, passion fruit and prosecco. We paid £11 for these. However, they have a happy hour Mon-Thurs when they drop to £6 each.

One of my friends had never tried ramen before, but I think it’s safe to say she was a convert. After all, who can resist a large warm bowl of delicious noodles? I know I certainly can’t. I look forward to my next (inevitable) visit to Shoryu.

Whatever you like…grilled

Whilst I was in Tokyo, one of the first foods recommended to me was Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き). The literal translation of the Japanese is ‘grilled as you like’. It is a savoury pancake consisting of a batter, eggs and cabbage. The rest, as the title suggests, is up to you.

There are two different types of Okonomiyaki, Osaka and Hiroshima. Osaka has the cabbage mixed with the egg and batter to create a large pancake. Hiroshima style is more like a folded omelette with the cabbage and other fillings inside. I was lucky enough to try both in Japan, and I have to say, it was tough picking a favourite.

The first okonomiyaki I had was at Aqua City shopping centre in Odaiba, Tokyo. The restaurant was called Tsuruhashi Fugetsu. It was so good that we went multiple times. In fact, so frequently that the waiters recognised us.

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Osaka style Okonomiyaki

On one of many occasions we shared the above. The beef mix with a fried egg and spring onion, pork yaki-soba inside an omelette, and the pork, prawn and squid mix. Both Okonomiyaki were covered in the traditional bonito (fish) flakes, Japanese mayonnaise and sweet/smokey Okonomiyaki sauce. All of this, plus a glass of delicious plum wine, cost the three of us around £8 each.

A Japanese friend also recommended a great place in Kyoto, Issen Yosyoku (壹錢洋食), to try the Hiroshima style. It wins the title for quirkiest restaurant I have ever been to. Inside you’ll find Geisha mannequins, supposedly to trick drunken men in, and risqué wooden plaques on the walls.

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Amazing display outside Issen Yosyoku
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Quirky interior, complete with Geisha mannequins and slightly risqué decor

The restaurant name can be translated as the equivalent of 1 US cent (Issen) Western food (Yosyoku).  The menu could not have been simpler. A large picture of okonomiyaki and the price. The only question from the waitress ‘how many?’ Some people were sharing it as a snack, but we went for one each and an Asahi (Japanese beer widely available in the UK). Although it was not as cheap as 1 cent, it still came to just under £5. It was delicious, even if we could not name all of the ingredients inside.

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Variation of Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki

Having tried each variety of this Japanese snack, I loved both. Hence, naturally, I have been on the lookout for it in London. The first few times, I cooked my own. I’ll cover this in more detail in a later post, along with some recipes. However after a little research I found Abeno. I insisted my boyfriend come along, and we arrived to a quiet restaurant on a Saturday lunchtime.

Not far from the British Museum, Abeno is very inconspicuous from the outside. My hopes soon picked up when I saw the hot plate in the middle of each table.  I really liked the blue and white plates, and was pleased to see the traditional (very useful) spade-like tool for cutting Okonomiyaki.

We ordered a large Tokyo mix okonomiyaki (prawn, squid, and pork) costing £14.95, and pork Omu-soba to share (£12.95). Omu-soba is Yaki-soba noodles wrapped in an omelette and drizzled with ketchup and mayonnaise. This may be controversial, but for me an Omu-soba beats an English fry up any day! It’s a shame that Japanese food in the UK is so much more expensive. Still it’s cheaper than flying out for it!

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Pork, Prawn and Squid Okonomiyaki with bonito flakes, powdered seaweed and those incredible sauces.

To my delight, just as in Tokyo, the food was all prepared at our table. The raw ingredients were brought over, mixed and grilled on the hot plate. To try and help with the temptation to eat it early, the pancake was covered with a saucepan lid. This also has the practical element of steaming the pancake, keeping it light. In Japan there was no such lid. Instead there was a fun back and forth with the waiter. Can we eat it yet?!

The Omu-soba was cooked separately in the kitchen. I would have preferred the noodles to be put on the hot plate. This way they become slightly crispy. Despite this, everything was delicious. It was almost as good as restaurant in Tokyo.

I will continue to look for a restaurant serving the Hiroshima style Okonomiyaki. In the meantime, I have found a few more recipes to try out at home!