Sunday, 27 April 2014

Springtime (is back) in Poland

One of the best things about travelling is to come back home. This time I enjoyed it even more than usual. While I was in Asia the Spring has come to Warsaw. More magnificient than ever. You can see it in every colour. So let's rejoice all that she has to offer.

Friday, 25 April 2014


Any tale about Japanese food would not be complete without a visit to a belt sushi restaurant. This is one of those truly Japanese inventions, that although it's been making inroads in foreign countries, it's still a quintessential Japan-only experience. So, what is a belt sushi restaurant, exactly?

As the name suggests, it's a restaurant (a sushi restaurant to be precise) but unlike in a traditional place, where the food is brought to you by a waiter, or served directly by a sushi master, at a belt sushi restaurant, your sushi travels to you on a conveyor belt.

From that conveyor belt you can pick what you like (unless, of course, it happens to be somebody else's order, then hands off!) and on that conveyor belt your special order travels to you from the kitchen.

Because, of course, you are not limited to the selections moving on the belt. You can also place specific orders.

A few years ago this was done by an intercom at your table. Not very easy and not very convenient. These days you have automated touch screens at your disposal. And at my hosts' favorite kaitenzushi place, the screens are even multi-lingual. You can place your order in Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, English, and of course, Japanese.

But not every kaitenzushi place is that advanced. In many, the only language is Japanese. Luckily, all menu items are shown as photos, so even then you can be certain that what you are ordering is what you really want.

Most of the time, all plates have the same price, usually about 110 yen (give or take a few yen). So you know exactly how much your final bill will be.

And speaking about plates, they are color coded!!! Don't like wasabi? No problem! You can order your sushi without the hot green paste! At Sushiro (the restaurant I visited), the wasabi-free sushi is served on white plates. And different color plates are also used for special orders that are more expensive than the standard fare.

And what if you are not a big sushi fan? Is there something you can still eat at a kaitenzushi restaurant? Of course!!! The menus can be quite extensive! You can enjoy almost anything from fried chicken and french fries to udon soup and salads. And sweets and cakes for dessert! There is also hot matcha to drink.

Few people know it, but conveyor belt sushi restaurants have been around for a very long time. The belt sushi pioneer was Mr Yoshiaki Shiraishi, who opened the first such restaurant in 1958 in Osaka.

So when you visit a belt sushi restaurant, you not only can eat yummy, cheap sushi (but be sure to pick a popular and busy restaurant! that way you can be certain the fish they serve is fresh), but also experience a part of Japanese culinary history.

Enjoy!!! (and go easy on the wasabi!)

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Utsunomiya Gyoza

I don't know about you, but spring makes me really hungry. My horsey body requires fresh nutrients and interesting flavors to fill the blah void of winter in my stomach. After recalling the fantastic taste of okonomiyaki last week, I have decided to take a longer way home from my stay in Thailand and to visit Japan once again. Japaneese food is amoung my favourite ones after all.

Regardless of what you might have heard or read, Japanese food is not really all that strange, or different. The chefs of Japan are masters at taking familiar European or Chinese flavors and making them into truly superior creations. So plenty of what you may eat in Japan will actually appear, or rather taste, somehow familiar, but at the same time - different. Sometimes better, sometimes odd, sometimes puzzling, but never bad, and never worse than the original.

Take a humble Chinese dumpling, for example. The master cooks of Japan turned it into one of nearly national obsessions - gyoza. And let me tell you, there is no better place in Japan to eat gyoza than the biggest city in Tochigi prefecture - Utsunomiya. Why? It's the self-proclaimed Japanese capital of gyoza. In addition to producing the most dumplings per capita, it's also the national champion in gyoza consumption. People here eat more gyoza than anywhere else in Japan. Though it's been a tough competition with the city of Hamamatsu - for a few years its inhabitants ate more dumplings than Utsunomiyans. The good folk of Utsunomiya did not take kindly to such a very serious humiliation, and finally in 2013 Utsunomiya became number 1 again. So not only do they produce boatloads of gyoza, they also eat more than anywhere else in Japan. And probably, anywhere else in the world. Don't believe me? Take a look at this menu.

And this is just the menu listing specials for one day only (Wednesday). That particular restaurant has a different dumpling menu for every day of the week. And how many dumpling varieties do they serve? I lost count at 60-something. Yep. Over 60 types of dumplings at just one, simple, everyday restaurant in a simple, everyday shopping center. Unbelievable? It is!

And how come the city is number one in gyoza consumption in Japan. Just take a look at this.

This is a very conservative (read: small) order for just two people (and one horse). One of these people was a woman, of rather small dimensions, if my horsey eyes can be trusted. And get this! Restaurant gyoza consumption is NOT counted towards the overall total in gyoza gluttony. ONLY dumplings purchased at stores and prepared and eaten at home are included in the final tally. So not only do these people eat like gyoza-hungry monster when they go out, they also eat like gyoza-hungry monsters when they cook at home.

Ok, ok, but what is this gyoza anyway? Think giant ravioli, or pierogis, but with savory filling only (though novelty sweet versions also exist, like choco-banana gyoza, for example) - meat, cabbage, vegetables, garlic. Lots and lots of garlic. I think nearly every culture has its own stick-to your-ribs type of dumpling. And in China and Japan, it's gyoza.

So, just how serious is this gyoza business in the city that calls itself the gyoza capital of Japan? Very serious. There are over 300 gyoza restaurants in Utsunomiya. And yes, you guessed it, they serve nothing but gyoza and rice. Deep-fried gyoza, skillet fried gyoza, steamed gyoza, gyoza in a soup, boiled gyoza, and who knows what else. On the east side of Utsunomiya station there is a small area with probably the highest concentration of gyoza restaurants in the whole country.

And the most famous of these restaurants is Min-Min. This is what you can expect at any Min-Min branch in Utsunomiya.

A long line of gyoza-hungry monsters waiting patiently in line to satisfy their dumpling cravings. Long lines are normal at top gyoza restaurants, be prepared to wait for up to an hour. But that's not all. Utsunomiyans are not only huge gyoza lovers. They are also a little bit crazy. They think gyoza is not only tasty, but beautiful as well. As beautiful as the Venus de Milo. Don't believe me? Take a look at this. Yep, it's the famous Gyoza of Utsunomiya, patterned after the (a lot more) famous Venus.

But wait, that's not all! They also have a special gyoza festival. It takes place during the first weekend in November and is treated with nearly religious importance and devotion.

But wait, that's still not all! They also have the Utsunomiya gyoza theme song and dance (performed here by the lovely cheerleaders of the local pro basketball team - Tochigi Brex). Hey, watch at your own risk. But don't blame me later if you develop a sudden craving for dumplings!

Time to eat now, not much left for me from the order that I have shown you above.

Saturday, 12 April 2014


I was really hungry all day long yesterday. It was one of those days when you just can't help but think "what's for dinner?" And suddenly, visions of exquisitely delicious food pop into your head and you're even more hungry. I'm sure you all know what I'm talking about. We all have such days. Well, mine was yesterday. And it was around 3PM when I finally realised what I wanted to eat for dinner! I wanted… I wanted… Okonomiyaki!

And as soon as I said, or rather, thought "okonomiyaki", I suddenly realized I missed Japan. Yes, okonomiyaki is a Japanese dish, and it's a perfect excuse to talk about Japan today! 

The first time I tried okonomiyaki was at a nondescript okonomiyaki-only joint somewhere in the boonies of the northern Kanto Plain. There was no mistaking it for anything else - it was a Japanese restaurant serving Japanese food.

The guests sat on the floor, but unlike at more traditional places, we didn't have to sit seiza. Under each table there was a special hole to put your legs in, so even though you sat on the floor, it was the same as sitting on a chair. Sounds very strange, but trust me, it's really comfortable.

In the middle of the table there is a hot griddle where the guests cook their own food. Yep, you cook your own food. Yep, at a restaurant. Sounds odd, but actually, it's a lot of fun. We chose the option of "tabehoudai" meaning "eat as much as you want" with the time limit of 2 hours. That meant within 2 hours we could order as much as we wanted, and eat until our clothes wouldn't fit anymore. And that is all fine and dandy, but what exactly did we eat? What is this "okonomiyaki" thing?

I've seen it called "Japanese pizza" or "Japanese pancake", but my hosts assured me that both of these descriptions are totally incorrect. Okonomiyaki simply means "fry what you want", and as long as you follow a few simple guidelines, you can indeed "fry what you want" for your okonomiyaki.

The main ingredient in okonomiyaki is cabbage, and to that cabbage you can add whatever you like - from pieces of chicken or seafood, to cheese and bacon. The only rule is that there are no rules! Sounds scary? It's not! It's delicious!

The batter to hold it all together is made from a mix of flour and potato starch, you add some water, an egg, mix it all together, and voila! You have your very own okonomiyaki. Fry on both sides, pour some sweet and tangy sauce on it, sprinkle some crushed seaweed, add some bonito flakes, and enjoy.

There are many regional varieties of okonomiyaki, but all have this in common - cabbage in the mix, pancake shaped, fried. And so we mixed and we fried and we ate until we could eat no more.


My hosts insisted that in addition to okonomiyaki, I also try monjayaki. Hmmm… how shall I say it? It was an interesting experience.

Monjayaki looks like something regurgitated by a very sick feline. You have to close your eyes in order to be able to put it in your mouth.

But once in your mouth? Bam! It's delicious! I don't know how the Japanese have managed to do this. How something that looks so vile can be so tasty. It really takes a lot of skill and imagination to be able to accomplish it.

So, are you hungry now? I know I am. Do you want to make okonomiyaki with me? Yes? Don't worry, it's really simple. Let's try to do it together! We will need:

  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 egg (or 2, if you like eggs)
  • a pinch of salt 
  • water
  • 1 T potato starch, or potato flour
  • plain flour - as much as necessary

Mix everything, make sure it's not too runny or too thick. Add water and flour as needed. It should resemble pancake batter. To this batter you add:

  • shredded cabbage - as much as you want, enough for the batter to hold it together
  • anything else you want: shrimp, squid, chicken, meat, bacon (all cooked, of course), vegetables, cheese, kimchi, potatoes, and so on.

Mix everything carefully, make sure it's not too runny.

On a hot, oiled griddle form a pancake and fry on both sides until the batter is thoroughly cooked. Easy? Easy! To make it even easier, my hosts made for you this tutorial.

If you can't buy a ready-made okonomiyaki sauce, don't worry, you can make your own. Just mix 3 parts of ketchup with 1 part worcestershire sauce. Add 1 tsp of soy sauce for every 4 tablespoons of the mixture.

Ready? Let's eat! Itadakimasu!

P.S. Yes, yes, we guessed you would also dream of a guide for monjayaki. Here it comes. Enjoy!

Saturday, 5 April 2014


After a few weeks spent in Bangkok it is time to move on to see a bit more from this fascinating country. Everybody on the platform!

The train is coming. Well, it is surely not a close relative of the French TGV or Japanese Shinkansen.

Luckily, again the signs are bilingual. We have places in the car number two.

After a bit more than two hours we arrive in the city of Ayutthaya.

The city of Ayutthaya was founded in 1350. It used to be the capital of the kingdom of Siam. Today, you can see its remains in the Historical Park, classified as UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Historical Park is mainly populated with religious buildings, grouped in numerous Wats. Here comes the Wat Phra Ram, one of the most ancient (built in 1369).

The area is large, unfortunately the buildings are in a pretty bad shape nowadays.

Here you can admire Wat Ratchaburana, dating back to 1424. It was built by King Boromrachathirat 11 ( also known as Chao Sam Phraya) who has ascended to the throne after his two elder brothers killed each other in a battle over succession to the throne. He built this Wat at the sight of their deaths, to house their burial remains.

There are many of these conic structures here.

 Then comes Wat Chaiwatthanaram.

Since this is a buddhist temple, we could not miss a Buddha or two. Some of them even come dressed in the traditional orange clothes.

While others are just fine in their stone outfit.

The nature is trying to win back the place with all its strength. You can see it best here, in Wat Mahathat (but bear in mind the fight between architecture and nature started here already in 1374).

I know what you want to say now. No gold? Of course there is a golden Buddha in Ayutthaya as well. We just need to move to Wat Phanan Choeng.

And here comes the golden statue.

You tell me it is a big one? Well, what will you say of this one?

Alright, I propose we sit now a bit and take some rest. Maybe next to a nice lake in the park. It is really warm here (remember that the temperatures here vary during the year between 31 and 37 centigrade).

Just be careful not to scare the local pets!

* * *

This was our last day in Thailand. Beata, thank you again for taking me here! Let's move back to the railway station. And let's do it in style ...