It finally happened. I’ve reached an age where I’ve conquered my self-doubt to be confident enough to protest paying for a meal when it’s not up to scratch. Even so, it takes a bit of steeling and it can leave a taste that is worse than the food.
Something that we don’t have so much in the UK is pumpkin. I’m sure all you Americans are squealing “But what about pumpkin pie?” Well, we do without it. Although I’m pretty sure it would improve my life.
As mentioned previously, seasonal food is a big thing in Japan so expect a ridiculous re-flavouring of just about everything every month. This autumn, I seem to have missed out on all the sweet potato and gone straight for the pumpkin.
Let me introduce you to two very popular sweet things in Japan that are total Japanisations of familiar Western products.
1) Harajuku crepes
Harajuku – the pop culture epicentre of Tokyo – has been popularised through artist like Gwen Stefani, eager to absorb and advance it’s colourful melange of fashion. Nowadays, it doesn’t seem to host as many lolitas or cosplayers as its reputation suggests but it’s still the place to go to soak up teen culture. Just like the fashion, the food has to be sugary sweet to match.
Thus, we have the crepes. There are savoury versions but I stare at the neon plastic displays and think that the savoury food might be exactly that: neon and plastic. Not that the sweet stuff is much better, of course. But I hope you didn’t order a crepe looking for a quality dessert – this is all about a sugar hit wrapped in vaguely warm batter topped with the mildest hit of flavour.
And, in autumn, there’s pumpkin pie with pumpkin ice-cream. Did it taste of pumpkin? No. Did I sort of regret it? Yes. But sometimes these things have just got to be done. The crepe places are always colourful and sometimes lit up like this.
They’re not to be confused with all the other colourful and lit up stores in Harajuku…
2) Egg custard tarts
A cursory glance at the big Internet thing tells me that there’s a bit of a debate as to where these originate from. Portugal, England, France…. Middle Ages…Wherever, whenever – it’s definitely not Japan! But these are super-popular out here. I used to get chocolate cream ones in Kyoto. Of course, matcha (green tea) flavour is also available because matcha manages to enter almost anything sweet in Japan.
This autumn, I decided to say hello to the pumpkin custard tart. And whilst I got it from the Tokyu Food Show branch of Andersen, a respectable bakery chain, I can tell you very firmly that pumpkin should never breed with egg custard tarts. It looks beautiful though.
Village Vanguard… that name might seem familiar. But you may have noticed the strategically placed word ‘diner’. This is apparently the foodie offshoot of the legendary variety goods store, Village Vanguard – we’ll return to that in a bit.
Yes, you read that right. This is Round 2 – I went to Tokyo Ramen Show twice! For all the info on this heavenly event, read Part 1. I’m going to cut straight to the noodle and tell you what was worth eating – and believe me….
One thing you can’t help but notice if you spend any length of time in Japan is the awareness of seasons and the seasonal food and products that come with it. Seasons seem to be set in Japan, regardless of the weather. For example, the swimming season runs from mid-July to the end of August, despite the fact that the sea is more than warm enough to allow swimming before and after this.
When it’s September, it ‘becomes’ autumn. This means a wilful ignorance of the up to 30°C temperatures outside and an excruciating amount of layers topped off with a thick scarf. For four amusing and accurate signs of autumn in Japan, refer to this article.