Some of my best friends and acquaintances in Japan are Mama-san. This sounds very exotic, conjuring up pictures of large-breasted hostesses who provide wonderful food and drinks for needy and weary visitors. Of, course, large beasts are not usually part of the image here, but we can find the izakaiya, or informal bar, on most street corners. They are indicated by colorful red and white lanterns hanging outside, and inside are usually fairly small windowless cafes with a counter and beer pumps, food display cases, etc. and tables and chairs to sit at.
We do not need a reservation unlike for formal restaurants here, so we can go spontaneously and always be sure to be able to get tasty cold beer or sake (rice wine) or sho-chu (barley or potato vodka) and freshly cooked varied food. I live in the mountains of western Japan outside Osaka, so my local izakaiya which is called Yama– chan or ‘Mama Mountain’ down a long flight of stone steps from my front door, is so convenient. Apart from that, it is highly gourmet, and being passionate about cooking myself, I have got to know the Mama-sans – there are two of them so we’re very blessed – and we exchange dishes. They are always keen to try to make their extensive menu more cosmopolitan.
Going there is always a great yet inexpensive treat. We open the door and are greeted loudly by three or sometimes four warm, apron-clad young women. In Japan, vendors and restaurant owners always shout loudly when customers enter their establishment to show their gratitude to the gods!
Immediately, we are provided with iced water and oshibori (warm/chilled wet scented towel to refresh our hands), and the handwritten menus hanging above the counter, are swung around in front of us so we can place our order. There’s so much to choose from, but while we choose, we order freshly poured delicious malty beer in large glass mugs. In the hot summer here, almost everyone enjoys Japanese beer’s effervescence, which temporarily takes your breath away.
Sitting at the counter on high chairs is desirable because we can see all the cooking going on. The space behind the counter to westerners is incredibly small, but all the equipment and attractive serving dishes are fitted into their special niches, and the staff know the layout intimately. Food is ordered, the fresh ingredients are displayed, and the cooking using all manner of equipment from frying pan to steamer to Bunsen burner to rice cooker, begins. The fragrances and site of the food being transformed into dishes is fascinating, so I love watching.
One of the most fascinating processes is native to Kansai in general and Osaka in particular, and involves octopus, a great delicacy here. It is called takoyaki and is available everywhere here, but our Mama-san’s version is highly gourmet. This is what it consists of.
A thick batter is made using flour and soya and so on – the ingredients of this batter are usually a closely guarded secret, so I cannot say more. Then small pieces of tendarised octopus are added to it. The cooking involves a large pan set on gas heat with between 15 and 25 round indentations about 3 or 4 diameters across. This special pan is greased with vegetable oil and heated until smoking, and then the batter is poured to fill each receptacle. Almost immediately the cook, using two long-handled turners, works rapidly to turn the crisping spheres so that they can brown evenly. This is a real skill, especially at speed.
The smell is gorgeous while cooking, and eventually these crispy tasty spheres are turned out into an attractive dish, sprinkled with bonito shavings and eaten with a little mayonnaise if desired. This is a delicious light snack, and especially gourmet when made by our Mama san, who smiles and chats away while she’s performing this feat.
While we are drinking gorgeous chilled beer, it is our Mama-san’s habit to serve some tasty okazu, various snacks involving bamboo and lotus root, exotic cuts of fish and meat, sushi with fresh salmon or gyoza, small steamed pastries filled with ginkgo nuts, cabbage and minced beef, and so on. Then the other dishes arrive, one after the other, freshly cooked, steaming hot and garnished with lemon, grated white radish, and unusual vegetables like chrysanthemum leaves and mountain potatoes.
We invited our Mamas to come for European lunch which I will describe in the next post. It was a very exotic lunch indeed. We must remember that Japan is a monoculture, so international exchanges re unusual for the majority of the nation. Some Japanese people have never ever been close to a foreigner. It is a privilege to be in Japan at this time as it opens up to the influences of the world.