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Off the Menu - Chinese Food in Japan and about Yokohama's Chinatown

by Harley Spiller

Chinese Food in Asia (but not China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan)

Winter Volume: 1996 Issue: 3(4) page(s): 9, 10, and 20

It is tough to think of Chinese food when driving through Japan's ceaseless acres of tea bushes and rice paddies. Who wants steamed flounder with ginger and scallion when in Hamamatsu, a city nationally renowned for its eel restaurants? Lake Tung Ting shrimp are far away from Lake Hamanako's fertile oyster beds.

A roast pork bun seems awfully mundane when sitting awestruck before a sushi chef who moves like Seiji Ozawa as he packs the bounciest, freshest, Pacific Ocean fish into indescribably delectable, vitamin-filled bundles. When seated Japanese-style in Shizuoka's Chojiya Restaurant, server of mountain yam cuisine (tororo) to health-conscious travellers since the 17th century, it's hard to think about greasy turnip cakes. Nonetheless, the heavier, spicier flavors of Chinese food can provide a welcome respite from Japan's simpler, more healthful cuisine.

The former capital of Kyoto is Japan's most traditional city, the home of many famous temples and artisans. There are only a few Chinese restaurants for Kyoto's two hundred thousand classically Japanese residents. Nonetheless, Chinese food is the most popular foreign cuisine throughout Japan, closely followed by Korean barbecue, then Italian pasta. Mexican and Thai places are newly popular but, after that, finding foreign fare can be a scattershot proposition.

Japanese food is typically straight-forward and mild; therefore, some Japanese people mistakenly think all foreign food is spicy and flavored with hot pepper. For example, Tokyo's Baseball Cafe, an American theme restaurant near The Egg (Tokyo's domed baseball stadium), misinterprets classic Western plates. They use dried hot pepper flakes in nearly every dish, from green salad to hot dogs.

Perhaps because of their mild native cuisine, Japanese people like their foreign food spicy. They also love seafood, shrimp most of all. Thus it's no wonder that the most popular Chinese dish in Japan is ebi chili (shrimp with chili sauce). A homemade version on a bed of sliced Japanese eggplant was moist, succulent, and superior.

When Japanese people think about Chinese food, they also think abouta subuta (sweet and sour); ma po tofu (bean curd with spicy sauce), and pan fried gyoza (pork and garlic-chive dumplings). Dumpling restaurants surely are omnipresent in the east.

The Japanese gyoza is a direct take-off on the Chinese jiao-tze. The names even sound similar, just like the Japanese ramen sounds similar to lo mein. Although the same cooking techniques are employed, gyoza tend to have a thinner but tougher wrapper than their Chinese sisters, and a heavier garlic-chive flavor.

While many run-of-the mill Chinese spots boast tacky decorations and bastardized fare, nearly all of them serve Japanese-style rice. The Japanese are very particular about rice. The squat native grains are fat and pearly, Cooked until soft at the center, they hold a lot of water and have a creamy taste. At first bite, the heavy texture and plain flavor see unremarkable. Those feelings soon turn to addiction. After eating Japanese rice for a while, Chinese rice seems waterless and less appetizing. Japanese rice is like Japanese cuisine itself: simple, delicious, and healthy.

Pan-Asian restaurants are popular in larger cities but they do not serve Japanese food. Osaka's bustling Asian Kitchen Restaurant dishes out many Oriental foods like Thai Sate, Vietnamese Spring Rolls, Indonesian Nasi Goreng, Chinese Fried Rice, and more. Yet they serve no Japanese food while combination Thai-Chinese restaurants are common. The Japanese are purists about their traditional cuisine. Usually, there are separate restaurants for each branch of cooking; tempura restaurants, sushi restaurants, sashimi restaurants, curried pork cutlet restaurants, you get the idea.

Thus, many Tokyo-ites were shocked, and not a little appalled, when they learned about American places such as David's Taiwanese Restaurant in Queens, where sushi and sashimi are served alongside Chinese food. The classic American standby, California Roll, also sounds terrible to many Japanese, perhaps because of the sub-par avocados available in Japan. Conversely, many Americans don't enjoy sushi, perhaps never having luxuriated in Pacific fish at the source.

The most popular regional Chinese cooking in Japan is probable Sichuan's spicy cuisine with dishes such as Ma Po Dofu. Cantonese food is also very popular but for some Japanese palates, tastes lean a little towards the sweet side. Peking and Shanghai cuisines are also popular. Cold dishes such as jelly fish and prepared wine chickens are prized, but Peking Duck is deemed too rich and oily. Shark's Fin Soup is well-known and well-liked but equally pricy Bird's Nest Soup is prevalent. Could it be that the flavor is too mild and subtle even for the Japanese palate?

One city, Yokohama, is on the outskirts of Tokyo. It boasts a population of three and a quarter of a million people, and contain's Japan's biggest Chinatown (Chukagai). As of January 1996, a registered population of twelve thousand seven hundred seventy-nine Chinese people (chuguokujin), live mostly nestled between Yokohama's famous Motomachi shopping strip, Yamashita Park, and Yokohama Stadium.

The earliest Chinese settlers in Yokohama can be traced back to 1861, just after the port city was opened to overseas trade. Mostly from Canton, they worked as compradors, tailors, shoemakers, musical instrument makers, and printers. Although the restaurant business is today's most typical occupation, Chinese restaurants did not appear to begin until the 1890's.

Yokohama is an exotic gateway where Japan first encountered the outside world, and visa versa. There are Chinatowns in other Japanese cities such as the one in Kobe, but Yokohama is the place most imbued with Chinese culture. It is a bustling and unique place that draws more tourists per year than Tokyo Disneyland!

The Holiday Inn Yokohama not only provides a perfect base from which to explore, it houses the sumptuous Chungking Chinese Sichuan Banquet Restaurant. Both Chinese and Japanese people are accustomed to family-style dining and large wedding banquets, so restaurants throughout Japan routinely offer party platters and multi-course dinner 'sets.'

This hotel restaurant has a large dining room as well as more than a dozen private rooms with Japanese-type tatami-mat seating for between four and sixteen guests. Elegant tables are appointed with classy details like Chinese soup spoon rests and salt wells.

Some of Chungking Chinese Sichuan's more popular banquet dishes include Lobster (or beef) in Taro Nest, Abalone Mushrooms with Baby Bok Choy in Oyster Sauce, Winter Melon Soup served in the melon, Sliced Abalone in the shell, Cold Appetizers served in the shape of a peacock, and a whole Ginger Scallion Fish.

Japanese couples can easily spend in excess of one hundred thousand US dollars on weddings. The Yokohama Holiday Inn offers a choice of Japanese, Chinese, French, 'Foreign Kaiseki' or 'compromise' wedding sets. Prices can exceed two hundred US dollars per person for any of them. The least expensive set listed, however, is for Chinese fare at one hundred dollars per person. These prices do not include drinks or liquor. Typically, Japanese people drink a quick beer with their Chinese appetizers, then switch to Shao Xiang Chinese wine with their main courses.

Huge and richly decorated gates border Kinshoshak; Chinatown's main drag. A gigantic sign, actually a four-tiered dumpling steamer, opens and closes with big puffs of smoke ala Times Square's Winston man. The first impression is that this must be The world's cleanest Chinatown. It was boiling hot outside, but The streets were never filthy nor stinky. Japanese locals told me, however, that they consider it a rather pungent locale.

Things foreign always seem to end up in Chinatowns. Yokohama is no exception. There exist restaurants specializing in Copenhagen and San Francisco fare. Trinket shops push items from African, Guatemalan, and other foreign shores. Cigarette machines are a source of wonderment for any Asian tourists because they contain offbeat brands such as Virginia Slims!

Hawkers press Chinese restaurant menus upon visitors, and it is hard to resist streetside steamed buns. Filled with any number of ingredients, these massive and well-loved snacks abound in Japan. Throngs of Japanese and foreign tourists must consume a million buns a day! A huge steamed pork bun, loaded with coarsely chopped meat, gao wa (leeks), and tiny cubes of pickled mustard green, can cost up to five dollars. Surely, it weighed over one pound; that fresh, pink pork was hot, bursting, and filling.

The same style buns are served in New York's Chinatowns, but they are small, crude, and greasy in comparison. Freshly roasted chestnuts are peeled for you at nearly every corner. There are more packaged sweets than in other Chinatown around the world, and dozens of impeccable dessert shops purvey a universe of fancifully-shaped 'moo' cakes.

Japanese chefs are known the word over for their exquisite plattering. Kyoto's famous kaiseki meals, for example, involve a gorgeous procession of beautiful foods intended to please all of our aesthetic senses. The many small but delicately-presented courses are meant to be eaten with the eyes. Window displays of plastic food are de-rigueur, and Chinatown is no exception. Restaurant showcases are filled with plastic displays: lots of flowery cold appetizer plates; a four-foot high tower of lobsters with carrots carved into pagodas; a sucking pig urrounded by real flowers; spinach-colored mu shu skins' whole fish set off by pine fronds; miniature egg-rolls and one?inch bowls of won ton soup. All play to the Japanese penchant for eating with the eyes.

Tea lunch (dim sum) popularly called yamucha or 'drink tea,' is a common treat. One restaurant listed their ten best sellers (in Japanese, of course): Steamed Pork Dumplings, Fried Dumplings, Mango Pudding, Shrimp Dumplings, Steamed Buns (stuffed with shrimp and chili sauce), Small Fried Patties of Rice (with corn, ham, scallions, etc.), Large Shark's Fin Dumpling, Fried Wonton, Fried Sesame Balls with Black Bean Paste, and Lychee Sherbert.

Kai Him Kaku; Yamashita Town 147 (Hong Kong Road), Yokohama has an eternal line for this place, which only serves from 11:40 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., and then again from 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. No plastic food in the window, eighteen diners cramped downstairs, thirty-two upstairs. Food--Cantonese. Old clocks and lace curtains nestle white fungus, swallow's nest, prized herbs, and special cooking stuffs. The line had already formed when we arrived at just before 11 a.m. We were treated to nearly an hour of incredulous pouts, slowed strolls, and astonished looks from passersby who couldn't resist commenting. Despite its faceless front, tin serving dishes, and ugly rice bowls, many know it as the most famous Chinese restaurant in Japan. Decor? Schmecor! The Japanese know that the Chinese eat with their stomachs. Kai Him Kaku is the real McCoy.

There was a full seating waiting for the doors to open. 'Sorry, no gyoza, try sui mai.' Hot and freshly-made, these crude-looking, golf-ball-sized nuggets bear no relationship whatsoever to the pre-rolled variety. The soft rice-skin is barely there, clinging to the meat in some places, completely melted away in others. Dipped in a mild yellow mustard, these simple ingots of pork make a remarkably satisfying opener, especially after the long wait in line.

Japanese ladies work the front, Chinese men the kitchen. The famous Subuta (sweet and sour pork) was disappointingly close to the Americanized version. The only differences were the addition of fresh Chinese cucumber, more vinegar, and less sugar. Squid with Oyster Sauce points out an important difference between Japanese and Chinese brown sauce. While Chinese use a lot of oyster sauce and lots of garlic to make gravies for fish and meats, the Japanese use only rice and soy products: sake (rice wine), mirin (sweetened sake), soy sauce, and just a hint of garlic. Japanese cooks only use oyster sauce as a background flavor.

Kai Hin Kaku's Young Chow Fried Rice had an intriguing cross-cultural twist. In addition to the usual ingredients, the Chinese chefs added pretty pink-and-white swirled flowers of naruto, a special Japanese fish cake from Nagasaki. Another cross-cultural dish is Boneless Japanese Eel with Vegetables in a sweet and spicy sauce. The thousand-year-old duck eggs and soups looked exemplary. Here, thirsts are quenched with big bottles of Kirin.

Oh, geez, did I forget to mention the shrimp at thirty dollars for four pieces? Mongo Cerng Choong (ginger scallion) crustaceans with just the tips of their heads lopped off. Wok-browned with delicious soy sauce and cooking oils, the females contained huge amounts of roe. They arrived with a tin bowl and a challenge: 'This is for the skins if you can eat it all.' We discarded some shells at the get-go, but by the end of the feast they were retrieved and swiped through the glorious sauce. Four huge and flawless shrimp weighing one third of a pound each--crusty oceanic perfection. Chinese food in Japan is good. Real good. It is also available with chile sauce.

Must tell you, it was intriguing to learn about some of the differences between Chinese and Japanese tastes. A Taiwanese restauranteur in Yokohama knows that the Japanese love natto, a fermented soy bean that is extraordinarily strong tasting and smelling. Yet he was afraid to introduce his clients to cho tofu, an equally strong-smelling fermented bean curd from Taiwan. Similarly, Americans generally dislike natto as much as Japanese people can not stomach blue cheese. Nonetheless, adventurous souls are always willing to try new flavors. It's an eater's world, growing smaller and smaller as we learn more and more about each other's tastes. This New Yorker has now seen a Shanghai man pour French wine over Japanese noodles while flying fifty thousand feet above Canada. Such boundaries and perceptions of taste need to be explored and broken down. Flavor and Fortune is ripe for the task. Stay posted.

Readers, please note that this article would have been impossible without the love and gracious forbearance of Hiromi Yamashita, and the carefully considered guidance of her friends Yamada, Yoshio, Hiroku, and Tani, the silver fox.
Harley Spiller, a foreign culture aficionado who has just returned from two weeks in Japan, often writes of his travels seeking great Chinese food. When not doing that or other things, he is eating at Chinese take-out places and gathering their menus. Some of his collection of over six thousand Chinese menus is currently on view at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, New York City. In early 1997, he will be seen cooking an eight-course Chinese banquet on The Learning Channel.

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