Sunday, 2 November 2014

Japanese Junk

One of the best things about travel is that the rule book goes out the window. 5am pint at the airport? Bloody marys on the plane?  Half a giant packet of strangely flavoured crisps, bowls of spicy fish curry and rice or whole basket of Danish pastries for breakfast? Why not?

The same goes for foreign fast food. Why does the same dreary McDonalds I walk past every day seem so much more alluring in foreign climes. Of course it’s context; the three in the morning, jet-lagged, Hong Kong McD’s cheeseburger that tasted like nectar, the McFlurry studded with Baci chocolates in Tuscany, the McGreek Pita burger (surprisingly edible) in Rhodes or the McLobster rolls that we all became addicted to one long summer in New England are always going trump the limp Big Mac, bought in post-boozing haste and regretted at leisure.

The first stop, prompted by blogger Skinny Bib’s visits to Japan that always seem to include one of these classic cheeseburgers, was Mos burger, where I was keen to try one of their famed rice 'buns' as well as the classic meat patty with the special meat sauce and oversized tomato slice.

The cheese burger was pretty decent; the (a little too thin) patty glazed with a gooey slice of white plastic cheese and the meat sauce and (thankfully not too dominant) tomato again bringing a little something different to proceedings. Add an extra patty and some spice (the hot version comes with chopped jalapeños) and you’ve got yourself a very passable fast food effort.

We also threw an ebiken burger into the mix, a glazed bun stuffed with a bread crumbed disc of prawns and finished off with tartare sauce and shredded white cabbage.  This was excellent, the croquette full of sweet pink crustacean pieces and the cabbage, whilst sounding odd to our Western palates, bringing a refreshing crunch to the party. They also offer the classic Japanese fried pork cutlet, again with cabbage, and also with cutlet sauce and hot mustard; tonkatsu in a bun.

The best, or certainly the most interesting, of the three was the rice burger which consisted of compressed discs of glutinous rice, millet and barley - brushed with a sweet soy glaze and grilled until slightly crisp outside - which masqueraded as the bun, stuffed with a seafood patty of squid and small shrimps with chunks of edamame, carrots and onion.

Really, this was nothing like a burger, tasting rather more like the container of slightly dried out Chinese fried rice you find at the back of the fridge; which of course is the very best thing you can find at the back of the fridge and the one reason I would like to see Mos on these shores in the future. Also, top marks to the guy who was working on the top floor of their Downtown Kyoto branch when we visited; a real gem.

The most expensive burger we ate on our trip was at Lotteria, another fast food chain that originated in Japan (its HQ is now in South Korea) known for their beef and teriyaki burgers and fried chicken; they were also the first to introduce the ebiken (shrimp) burger back in 1977.

We were there to sample the limited edition Wagyu burger, part of their promotion to offer a special item from every prefecture in Japan (I think, if my rather limited understanding of the box the burger came in was correct…). This one was from Tochigi, which is known for its strawberries, hence the addition of strawberry jam infused béchamel sauce to the burger…

As well as the strawberries, there was also a (molten) application of a sticky brown sauce (tonkatsu?) while the burger itself was also suspiciously nuclear temperature which, alongside the absence of a crusty exterior, pointed to the potential involvement of a microwave somewhere along the line - although it was hard to tell if the soft, rich fattiness of the meat was more a result of the cuts/breed used and wanting to preserve its tenderness by not overgrilling.

All of this probably sounds as if I didn’t enjoy it, and I did. The patty itself was huge and, as mentioned above, the meat almost pate like in texture and very juicy. Both sauces, and the glazed bun, leant sweetness which verged on being cloying, but the meatiness of the beef and the saltiness of the tonkotsu just pulled it back from the brink.

Whilst still in Shinjuku we called in to a well-known burger establishment for a McWee (spotless facilities), but ended up also ordering their two Halloween specials to share. The first was the witch inspired number, with it’s the black bun infused with bamboo charcoal. Inside was a double beef patty, yellow mustard, spicy black (squid ink-infused) sauce and fried onions.

Disappointingly, the bun was more of a washed out blue, the colour of your favourite band t-shirts turns when you’re a teenager, although the oozing sauce was far more ominous in colour. Overall it was ok, if not memorable, although I was a big fan of the crunch the deep fried onion shards provided.

The, distinctly unscary, ghost influenced burger showcased a crispy coated chicken fillet with a camembert cheese and shredded iceberg topping. I’m starting my own one woman crusade to see more camembert in burgers, as this was actually rather nice and could have even been blinding with a crustier bun, less homogenous chicken and even more cheese; one to practice at home.

After eating the McD's black burger I had to try the BK version for comparison; a quest that saw us scouring the streets of Shinjuku, as well as the labyrinthine passages of Shinjuku stations subterranean shopping streets (as well as being the world’s busiest station it has 60 exits), for a BK that I ‘knew was here somewhere’.  A quest that ultimately ended in frustrated failure and retreating to the hotel for a vending machine beer and a soothing session in the in-room massage chair.

Thankfully the processed meat Gods were with us the following day as we, unwittingly, stumbled straight into a BK in Asuskusa after visiting the Senso-ji temple. It proved worth the wait for the Kuro Pearl burger if only for its startling, if not particularly appetising, novelty. The bun was a far darker hue than McDonalds and the addition of liberal amounts of black pepper gave it some pep; even the cheese was an ebony shade, coloured with more squid ink.

Refreshment came from one of the most popular Japanese sodas we encountered, melon flavour, whose neon hues were toned down somewhat by a swirl of vanilla soft serve. Ridiculously lurid an ridiculaously sweet, but knocked the beginnings of an early afternoon hangover on the head, so full marks for that.

What is life, to paraphrase W.H Davies, without time to standing around eating crisps, possibly my very favourite of 'junk' foodstuffs (all foodstuffs). Of all foreign comestibles crisps are possibly the most appealing to me as I have rarely met a bag I haven’t got along with.

To add to my excitement, Calbee, Japanese crisp manufacture, also have several shops in Tokyo dedicated to freshly frying the potato snack. Here you can pick crinkle cut, normal or potato tubes, all freshly made from real potatoes here on the premises (you can watch them all hard at work behind a glass screen) and topped with various different toppings including chicken, cheese and caramel.

I chose the crinkle cut with spicy cheese sauce, and soon a cup of sliced spuds, straight from the fryer were in my hands. What I found curious about these is they were still warm, which is standard for a chip but unusual for a crisp (unless you’ve carelessly left a packet of Walkers from the petrol station on your dashboard in summer. Not that I'd know...).

Calbee also make the Jagabee range of potato sticks, the new love of my life (although I'm not sure if their tea making skills are quite up to the Ewing's). It is impossible to adequately explain my love for these, pitched somewhere between a French Fry (the British crisp variety) and a hollow Chipstick. They also come in some of the best flavour combinations, including vegetable soup, baked potato and my favourite, soy sauce and butter.

Other findsincluded sweet potato Hula Hoops, currently my favourite type of Hula Hoop, and the famous Bōkun Habanero, the most popular spicy potato snack in Japan, and likely the most recognisable to foreign crisp fiends on these shores. Bōkun Habanero means ‘tyrant habanero,’ a pun on both the  chili pepper and the Roman emperor; the character that advertises the crisps, a grinning devil like character, has also become a bit of a cult figure and focus of a popular Japanese internet meme.

For Japanese standards these are spicy - although they are also available in a bebinero version, which features a younger version of the regular character - but I also found something far more exciting in the form of a version that is ten times hotter than the original.

If you don’t feel like destroying all your taste buds then the extra-spicy powder comes in a separate packet, enabling customers to add as little or as much as they like, and the potato hoops even have serrated edges to trap as much as the powdered napalm as possible. Hawt stuff and certainly worth the effort of carefully transporting a couple of bags home. Just a shame (not really a shame) that I'll have to make a return visit for that rice burger.

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