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Chinese New Year recipe: Buddha’s Delight (Lo Hon Zai)

April 6, 2016

Buddha’s delight, or 羅漢齋 (lo hon zai), is always on the table at every Chinese New Year gathering in my family. It’s basically a vegetarian stew with lots of different ingredients, both fresh and dried. It’s actually not exclusively served during the new year, but simpler versions of the dish can be found in Chinese restaurants. As you might guess from its name, the stew has Buddhist origins, and is often eaten on the first day of the new year as it’s a tradition to follow Buddhist practice at the beginning of the year. Every family has a different recipe with a mixture of ingredients in it, and it’s easily adaptable to whatever vegetables you can get your hands on. For the Chinese New Year version, it’s usually a bit more luxurious, with ingredients often harbouring some auspicious significance in their names, and some fresh vegetables for colour. All of the dried or specialty Chinese ingredients shouldn’t be hard to find in your average Chinese supermarket, and usually can be kept in the pantry for awhile.

This recipe requires soaking overnight, and can be cooked in advance and reheated on the day, so do allow for some extra time. Quantities of each ingredient are approximate, so feel free to swap in more of what you like and omit ones you don’t.

Buddha’s delight

  • 8 dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 2 long bean curd sticks
  • A handful of dried lily buds
  • 100g cooked lotus seeds
  • 100g dried vermicelli
  • 2-3 wood ear fungus, depending on size
  • 400g lotus root, sliced into 1cm-thick discs and then halved again
  • 50g fried tofu puffs, halved
  • 1 bamboo shoot (from can), sliced
  • Water chestnuts (you can find them fresh or canned – fresh is better, but canned is way more convenient and easier to find), peeled and halved
  • Thumb-sized piece of ginger, sliced into 1cm-thick coins
  • 3 tbps red fermented beancurd, mashed

I also add some fresh vegetables, but it’s up to you in terms of how much you want to add of each ingredient:

  • Chinese leaf
  • Snow peas
  • Baby corn
  • Carrots

Soaking the ingredients

First, soak the dried ingredients. Place all the dried ingredients in separate bowls. Soak the shiitake mushrooms for at least 5 hours, ideally overnight, in cold water. Soak the wood ear fungus for 1-2 hours in water, turning them every now and then so that every part is submerged (they will grow massively in size). Snap the bean curd sticks in half if they won’t fit in a bowl, and make sure they’re submerged in water for at least 1 hour (I use a roasting tray for this). Soak the dried lily buds in a separate bowl for 1 hour in room-temperature water, until pliable. The dried vermicelli should be soaked in a bowl for 30 min-1 hour in cold water.

Preparing the soaked ingredients

Gently squeeze out the water from the rehydrated mushrooms and cut off the stems. Keep the mushroom soaking liquid and pass through a sieve to remove the grit. You will need about 500ml of the soaking liquid for this recipe; you can keep the remaining liquid to use in place of chicken or vegetable stock. Wash the mushrooms and cut in half.

Drain the wood ear fungus, cut off the knobbly bit in the middle and cut into 2-3cm pieces.

Drain the bean curd sticks and cut them into 2-3cm lengths.

Drain the lily buds and cut off the knobbly bit at the stem, then tie them in a knot (this keeps them from disintegrating in the stew, but you can skip this step if you don’t mind the presentation).

To cook the Buddha’s delight

Heat 1 tbps of oil in a large casserole or dutch oven and toss in the shiitake mushrooms. Cook with a pinch of salt until the mushrooms take on some colour. Set aside. Cook the bean curd sticks, lotus seeds, lotus root, lily buds, and fried tofu puffs separately, adding oil if necessary, and set aside each ingredient.

Add another tablespoon of oil to the pot, and when that’s hot, stir-fry the ginger slices until aromatic. Mash the red fermented beancurd to a paste and add it to the ginger, moving it with your spatula until it’s fragrant.

Return all of the above cooked ingredients to the pot, add in a little of the reserved mushroom soaking liquid and a pinch of sugar. Simmer uncovered for about 10 minutes, until the mushrooms are soft.

Now add the remaining ingredients, including the fresh vegetables, and cook for a further 5 minutes, stirring regularly so that the vermicelli soaks up the sauce and there’s little liquid remaining. Adjust the seasoning with salt and sugar. Serve hot, with rice.

(This makes a whopping amount of stew – it will keep for several days in the fridge!)


Chinese New Year recipe: Turnip Cake

February 27, 2016

The turnip cake, or 蘿蔔糕 (lo bak go), is neither a dessert cake nor is it made of turnips. Normally, Chinese radishes, or daikon (sometimes called mooli in UK supermarkets) are grated, mixed with rice flour and a mixture of dried savoury ingredients, then steamed to form a sort of savoury set pudding. In dim sum restaurants, you’ll commonly find it sliced into rectangles and pan-fried on both sides to give a crispy surface that contrasts with the soft, slightly squidgy innards. This cake always appears around the Chinese new year, with lots of restaurants in Hong Kong selling their own version for you to take home. This version is adapted from Serious Eats.

Before you start: Make sure you choose a good quality radish. Pick one that feels heavy, with smooth taut skin, and doesn’t have too many bruises. It should also be firm and not bendy at all (that means it’s too old). You can buy these in the ‘exotic’ section at the supermarket (for instance, they’re next to the huge herb bunches and yams at the Tesco in Canary Wharf), but you will find much bigger and fresher ones if you go to a Chinese supermarket.

Turnip cake

  • 10 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in cold water for at least 6 hours (ideally overnight)
  • 4 Chinese wax sausages, 臘腸 (lap cheong)
  • 1/2 cup dried shrimp
  • 1 tbsp + 2 tsp brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1.3 kg Chinese radish or daikon
  • 225 g rice flour

Gently squeeze out the water from the rehydrated mushrooms and discard the stems, but keep the mushroom soaking liquid and pass through a sieve to remove the grit. Wash the mushrooms and dice.

Cut off the tips of the Chinese sausages. Cut into small dice, along with the dried shrimp.

In a wok or a big dutch oven, fry the diced Chinese sausages until they’ve rendered out some of their fat, and add the diced shrimp and mushrooms and fry together for about 5 minutes until everything smells fragrant. Mix in the soy sauce and 2 tsp brown sugar, fry an additional 1 minute, and transfer everything to a bowl and set aside.

Peel the radish and cut into chunks. If you have a food processor, stick it in there and let it do the job of shredding the radish. Otherwise, grate it by hand with a box grater, which will take a bit of muscle. In the same wok you used to fry the sausage/shrimp/mushroom mixture, cook the shredded radish, stirring regularly until it is translucent, about 15-25 minutes. Add the rest of the brown sugar and mix well.

Remove the wok from heat and add the sausage/shrimp/mushroom mixture. Add the rice flour in batches, stirring well after each addition. It will become quite pasty and difficult to stir – if it becomes too difficult, add in a few tablespoons of the mushroom soaking liquid to loosen the texture. Try not to add too much liquid, however, as it will change the texture of the cake after steaming.

Scrape the mixture into a baking dish that fits in your steamer. Smooth out the surface with a wet spoon and cover loosely with foil (to protect the surface from water droplets) and steam for about 30 minutes. Check to see if it’s done by inserting a knife – it should be quite set. Let the cakes rest for about 20 minutes before cutting into slices and pan-frying on both sides, or you can just serve them as they are.

Hosting a Chinese New Year dinner, Part 1

February 26, 2016

Last weekend, I hosted a Chinese new year dinner at my house, for 8 people (including me). It’s a little late, but I wanted to show my friends some authentic, traditional Cantonese dishes that are part of the spread during the numerous gatherings during the new year period, and of course, I missed the taste of these dishes from home. I put together a little guide, mainly for myself, should I decide to host another one of these dinners the next year. To make things easier on myself, the menu consisted of a selection of cold starters, braised dishes, dishes that could be made well in advance and reheated, and only a few things that needed to be cooked at the last minute.

Cold dishes

  • Blanched edamame (whole soybeans in their pod)
  • Smacked cucumber in sesame and garlic sauce
  • White-cut chicken with spring onion and ginger dipping sauce

Braised/make-ahead dishes

  • Buddha’s delight, or luo hon zhai
  • Turnip cake, or lo bak go
  • Pork and cabbage dumplings
  • Red-braised pork belly

Last minute dishes

  • Mustard greens with tofu and mushrooms
  • Pak choi with braised shiitake mushrooms
  • Steamed whole fish, Cantonese-style


  • Fried sweet glutinous rice cake (store-bought)
  • Fried water chestnut cake
  • Clementines

It’s a LOT of food to prepare, so I tried to be organised and wrote a schedule for myself, which I managed to stick to:

A week before

Prepare lo bak go. Cut in sections and freeze, well-wrapped.

Prepare dumplings. Freeze, uncooked.

4 days before

Make water chestnut cake.

2 days before

Prepare Buddha’s delight.

Prepare red braised pork belly.

1 day before

Soak dried mushrooms.

On the day

1:30pm Make ginger & spring onion dip

2pm Wash all vegetables and start chopping cucumbers, mushrooms, tofu, and mustard greens

3:30pm Poach chicken. Slice & plate.

4pm Blanch edamame, sprinkle with sea salt

4:30pm Braise mushrooms. Prepare sauces for vegetable dishes. Smack cucumbers and dress

6:20pm Reheat pork belly and Buddha’s delight, keep warm in low oven

6:30pm Cook white rice

6:45pm Blanch mustard greens/pak choi. Reheat braised shiitake mushrooms. Fry tofu/mushrooms with mustard greens. Keep warm in low oven

6:45pm Pan fry turnip cake, keep warm in low oven

7pm Boil dumplings

7:15pm Steam fish


For dessert: Fry new year cake and water chestnut cake.

I managed to (mostly) stick to my schedule. I had a slight mishap with the poached chicken, which delayed me a little, and I did have to ask Toby to vacuum the house for me while I was busy with the vegetables, but everyone appeared to enjoy trying a lot of these dishes. I also really enjoyed the challenge! (I accidentally forgot to serve the pork belly, though.) Surprisingly, the Buddha’s delight was a lot of people’s favourite dish of the night – it contains red fermented beancurd, which is an unfamiliar taste to many people who haven’t grown up with it. It also contains a hodgepodge of assorted fungus and alien-looking lotus roots, among many other vegetables you would never find in your average Tesco. I was happiest with the whole steamed fish and the poached chicken, as it’s quite difficult to get the texture spot-on, but I thought they were well-cooked and the sauces didn’t overwhelm the delicate tastes of either.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, I’d also cooked way too much food and no one could fit in dessert. This meant leftovers for me all week, which was great. And more dessert for me! I was a bit disappointed that my friends couldn’t try the new year cake and water chestnut cake, which don’t tend to make an appearance outside of Chinese new year. Despite the lack of dessert, however, it was a fun meal surrounded with good friends and laughter.

I’ll post recipes shortly in a separate post!

Savoury Bread Pudding with Mushrooms and Kale

January 31, 2016

Kale. It’s starting to get tiresome, isn’t it? The fact that it’s chock-full of nutrients, how versatile it is, now it’s seen as a trendy food. Once relegated to the category of snobbish foodies who massaged their kale before tossing it raw in salads, now the audience for kale has widened. The hype continues, however, with this recipe.

I’ve been a fan of kale for the last several years. Growing up in Hong Kong, I’d never even heard of kale until I came to London. And it wasn’t until I started cooking for myself in second year of university that I knew what it was. To be honest, the only reason I tried kale was because it was dirt cheap in Tesco and it came pre-washed. It also didn’t wilt into a pile of nothing like spinach. It’s not quite dirt cheap anymore, now that kale-hype has peaked, but it’s still one of my favourite vegetables.

This is one of those recipes where you can substitute almost any leftover greens languishing in your fridge. For me, it was mushrooms and kale – an unexciting but staple combination in my diet. Add in some sharp cheddar and custardy bread, flecked with bits of crispy burnt cheddar (shh…I love them), and you have a perfect comfort food to eat out of a bowl after a long day. I threw this together after working 11 hours at the lab on a Saturday, so quantities aren’t very accurate!

Savoury Bread Pudding with Mushrooms and Kale

  • 100 g kale, shredded
  • 100 g white mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • About 400 g stale bread, cubed
  • 100 g sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • 400 ml milk
  • 4 medium eggs
  • 1 heaping tablespoon of cream cheese
  • pinch of dried herbs – I used thyme and sage

Heat up a pat of butter in a skillet, and when foamy, toss the sliced mushrooms in with a pinch of salt. Cook until all the liquid has evaporated and mushrooms are starting to brown, then transfer to a plate. Toss in another pat of butter and fry the minced shallots until the aroma is so delicious you can’t bear it, then add the kale with a splash of water. Season with salt and cook until the kale has wilted and water has evaporated. Remove from heat and set aside.

Grease a deep roasting dish with butter and fill with bread cubes (if you freeze the ends of your bread like me, place them in a 170C/150C fan oven for 5 minutes to dry them out a bit first), sprinkling most of the grated cheese on top. Reserve a handful of cheese to go on top of your bread pudding, though! That is essential if you want crispy browned cheddar bits. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs, milk, herbs, cream cheese, and a good pinch of salt together.

Pour the egg mixture over the bread cubes and add the now-cooled kale and mushroom. Mix well – use your hands if your bread pudding threatens to spill over the sides of the dish like mine did! – and sprinkle the remaining grated cheese on top. If you can bear the wait, leave to rest for an hour before baking. I didn’t (in my defense I came home at 8:30pm), and it still turned out great, so it’s not essential. Cover loosely with foil and bake for 1 hour at 150C (fan) oven, uncovering the dish for the last 10 minutes.

Enjoy warm.

Summer Celebration Salad

August 22, 2015


This is a beautiful summery salad inspired by a summer salad I had at Quo Vadis last month. There are a lot of components to this salad, so it does take awhile to prep, but all can be done in advance. Lots of chargrilled flavours mingling with super sweet kernels of corn and tomatoes that can only be found in the summer – it’s a lovely way to use up a glut of courgettes and sweetcorn, and if you have the patience to shell loads of fresh peas and broad beans, they really add layers of flavour. Of course, you could swap them out for frozen if they’re not in season where you are, or if you can’t get your hands on ultra-fresh ones. I don’t judge. (I used frozen peas and broad beans.) I’d stress that this salad is very versatile – feel free to swap in whatever is in season, as long as you keep a somewhat similar texture and flavour balance in the overall composition. One of the best things about this salad is the slight bitter notes from the deeply charred courgettes and sweetcorn as well as from the broad beans, but this is contrasted by the super sweet tomatoes and peas. Don’t worry about the quantities here – they don’t have to be too precise. Go with the salad flow!

The one ingredient that I would say is absolutely vital is to get the best tomatoes you can buy. Sad, watery tomatoes just don’t have the same juiciness and intense tomato flavour. I bought these gorgeous heirloom tomatoes from the fruit & vegetables vendor at Spa Terminus and they were on top tomato form. However, if again you have a limited selection of tomatoes, go for cherry or small baby plum tomatoes, as they’re likely to be sweeter and riper than the larger supermarket tomatoes.

For the salad:

  • 800g tomatoes, preferably heirloom/in-season
  • 500g courgettes (approximately 2-3 large ones)
  • 2 ears of sweetcorn (about 1.5 cups of kernels)
  • 2 spring onions
  • a handful of radishes
  • a head of little gem lettuce
  • 150g broad beans, shelled
  • 150g peas, shelled
  • a few slices of stale sourdough

For the dressing (makes approximately 1 cup, more than enough for this salad):

  • 3 tbps lime or lemon juice
  • 1 tbps water
  • 2 tsp honey or maple syrup (to make it vegan)
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup neutral-tasting oil, like sunflower

Cut the tomatoes into 1/8 wedges, and then halve them again crosswise. Try not to lose too much pulp or seeds in the process! Toss them with some salt and drain over a colander for 30 min to concentrate the tomato flavour.

Roughly chop the courgettes into 1-inch chunks (irregular cuts are fine here – in fact, more surface area is good). Toss with salt and drain in a colander as above for 15-20 min. This draws out some of the moisture to avoid a soggy salad. Pat dry with a paper towel. Get a heavy-based pan that can withstand the heat (I used a cast iron skillet), oil it well, and toss the courgettes in when you see the oil shimmer. Don’t be tempted to stir too often; you want the char (but not to the point of burning it). Browning the courgettes could take anywhere between 5-10 min, and you may have to do it in batches so they don’t steam in their own liquid. Set aside to cool.

If your sweetcorn still has the husks attached, shuck them until they’re naked and using a sharp knife, cut the kernels off the ears. I find it easiest to stand it in the centre of a stable mixing bowl, and running a small but very sharp knife down into the bowl. After you’ve collected all the kernels, use the back of your knife to scrape the milky corn juice into the bowl as well, and set aside. (Save the empty ears for stock, or corn soup!) Slice the spring onions and place in the same bowl as the corn. The corn & spring onion mixture undergoes the same treatment as the courgettes: high heat, smoking hot pan, and cooking until the corn takes on some wonderful colour. Set aside to cool.

Slice your radishes thinly, with a mandoline to make your life easier.

If you’re using fresh broad beans and peas, blanch them in a large pot of boiling water and shock them in an ice water bath, so as not to lose their vivid green colour.

Cube the sourdough and with your hands, toss with some salt and oil before toasting them so they take on some colour and crunch on the outside. I used the same cast iron pan as above, because I didn’t want to turn the oven on, but this actually took quite a while because there’s much less surface area in contact with direct heat. You could also toast these in the oven. Set aside to cool.

Tear the lettuce into bite-sized pieces with your hand, because rustic is so much better and you’ve done enough chopping already.

To make the dressing, combine all the ingredients into a jar with a tight seal and shake away until it emulsifies. Season aggressively with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Any extra dressing can be stored in the fridge for a few days.

Now it’s time to assemble everything! Toss everything together into the biggest bowl you can find. You’ll probably use about half of the dressing but that’s entirely up to you. Let the flavours marry together for about an hour before digging in.

Where to eat in Tokyo, and other tips for Japan

July 11, 2015

I went on a short 9-day trip to Japan last week with some old friends. Thanks to Google Drive, we’d planned an epic gastronomic itinerary, complete with custom maps and spreadsheets (if anyone wants access, let me know). Our itinerary was Tokyo – Kyoto – Tokyo and it was exhausting but brilliant and I’ve already started looking at flights for 2016. I’ll list some of the restaurants we tried, as well as some tips for eating out in Japan at the end.


While I went to two ramen places during this trip, I really wish I’d gone for more late-night ramen munchies. There is an entire world of ramen to explore in Tokyo and I am deeply regretting I only tried two. But there’s only so much my stomach could handle! I would also note that while I remember where we had Ramen #1, I have no recollection of its name or street address. We’d just stumbled across it after walking from Kiddy Land near Meijijingumae to Shibuya. So although I had many ramen shops on my List To Try, I also highly encourage just walking into any random ramen shop, because 90% of the time it will be better and cheaper than anything you could get in London. No guarantees for other parts of the world.

Kyushu Jangara Ramen (Harajuku branch)

It’s touristy, it’s located in a touristy area in Harajuku, just a few minutes’ walk from the famous Takeshita Dori shopping street, but it’s a damn good bowl of noodles – we’re talking less than £6 for a massive bowl. Their most popular is the Kyushu Jangara ramen, with a blend of pork and chicken soup. The base is still creamy from the pork bones but has a lightness to it from the chicken. It comes with mentaiko (spicy cod roe) which dissolves and gives it an additional complexity. The bowl also contains two types of pork – big chunks of tender pork belly braised in a savoury soy-based broth, and slices of pork belly. For the adventurous, the Bonshan is their version of tonkotsu. Their soup base is ridiculously thick, practically coating the spoon, but it’s thick with collagen and gelatin. There is a definite masculine funk to this soup, very porky, almost overwhelmingly so for me. I can see this being a winter favourite, however. The third option is the Kobonshan ramen, which is a similar blend of creamy pork and chicken soup but with an additional garlic. Warning – this is REALLY garlicky, in a marvelous way. Finally, we tried the tsukemen, which had thicker, curlier noodles. The noodles themselves were toothsome and chewy, and the dipping soup base was addictively savoury. I believe this soup is made from seafood as well, which makes it that much tastier. A great option during the oppressive summer heat.

Do upgrade to the nitamago egg (soft-boiled) which costs an extra 120 yen. The sight of the golden yolk spilling out is one to behold.

There are various branches all over Tokyo. If you’re hankering for a particular ramen style, though, check before you go as not all of them are available in every location.


 Tsukiji Donburitakumi つきじ 丼匠

Tsukiji Market, one of the must-see destinations in Tokyo, is home to several restaurants that used to cater to the workers at the market, but many have now become tourist attractions in their own right. Two sushi shops in particular, Sushi Dai and Sushi Daiwa, have skyrocketed in popularity and queues of 3-5 hours are not unheard of. There was absolutely no chance for our group of six to even consider queuing, so we just popped into Tsukiji Donburitakumi a few alleys away which, thankfully, did not have a queue. They specialise in donburi, or rice bowls topped with fresh fish and seafood, and there are a huge variety to choose from. My rice bowl was topped with creamy uni (sea urchin), ikura (salmon roe), chutoro (fatty tuna), and lean tuna. At 2200 yen (£11.50), this was great value for money for such fresh seafood. It was one of the quickest meals we had in Japan – we were in and out within 15 minutes, as a line of waiting people grew behind us. Honestly, I don’t see the point in waiting for the two most popular shops in Tsukiji Market. They might be really cheap, but other shops are most likely just as cheap (if not more affordable), and source fish that is equally fresh, without having to sacrifice half of your day. I might be biased, however, because I knew we had a killer splurge meal at a fantastic sushi restaurant at the end of the week…

Sushi Iwa いわ

Sushi Iwa is a high-end sushiya, with counter seating for only six people. According to some people at Chowhound, the second-in-command chef at Sushi Iwa can speak practically fluent English and is open to accepting foreigners. I would highly recommend finding one that is able to converse the same language as you or at least one of your dining companions. It’s a very personal, intimate experience. Interaction with the chef is part of the experience, and your foreign, non-Japanese-speaking presence at the counter only serves to form a barrier between you. In our case, our entire group sat at the counter (there were five of us in total) and had the chef not spoken a lick of English, we would have eaten our meal in silence. What happened instead was a gradual conversation that built up as the meal progressed and more sake was consumed.

The sushi, except that it was fantastic and I’ll probably never be able to have this experience outside of Japan. It’s not considered to be the pinnacle of sushi in Tokyo, by any means, but for a foreigner who bills herself as quite an adventurous and well-seasoned glutton, it was just right – not too intimidating. At my level, I probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference anyway between the most highly-ranked sushiya and Sushi Iwa. The service was lovely; we were treated as if we were very special customers, although we definitely weren’t, and this was one of those instances where I felt frustrated at the no-tipping culture in Japan because there wasn’t any other way of expressing our appreciation aside from repeatedly saying thank you! However, this experience comes at a price; it came to 24,600 yen (including drinks), or £130. Despite the high cost, I think it’s worth it, and if I ever go back to Tokyo, Sushi Iwa is definitely on the list to re-visit. I’ll post a full review on this soon, with pictures and names of all the sushi we were served.


Ningyocho Imahan (Ueno Hirokoji branch)

Our hotel concierge reserved a table for us here for some sukiyaki action. Sukiyaki is a Japanese hot pot dish where thinly sliced beef and vegetables are simmered in a shallow pot in front of you, usually in a soy-mirin sauce. Typically, the food is dipped into beaten raw egg before eating. You can choose from various set menus, but we all went for the sukiyaki with rice set. The quality of beef is also up to you – I went for their top quality Japanese beef, and you could see the intense marbling of fat in the slices. This didn’t come cheap (9,720 yen, or £50) but the meal was outstanding. A waiter cooked everything tableside and served the beef slice by slice as it was cooked, each time with more veggies and tofu. The beef was silky and fatty, and the sukiyaki sauce didn’t overwhelm the flavour. The final rice course was served with some barely-scrambled eggs which had been cooked in the same pan, which of course was now chock-full of flavour from the beef and vegetables. A fantastic dinner, although the waiters don’t speak much English.


Yoroniku よろにく

Of course, to really taste the flavour of Japanese beef itself, we had to try yakiniku (grilled meat). Yakiniku once referred to Korean restaurants in Japan, but now is known as any type of meat, usually beef,  and vegetables cooked on a grill in front of you. Yoroniku is one of the most highly-rated yakiniku restaurants in Tokyo, and it has the bonus of having an English menu. We ordered the 7,000 and 9,000 yen set menus (£36 and £47, respectively) which came with the same amount of food; the only differences were in the cuts and quality of the beef. All the beef comes from Japan and has gorgeous marbling. The beef is cooked by your waiter and then served to you, so you barely have to lift a finger. We started with an assortment of pickles and raw preparations of beef, then moved onto grilled thinly sliced beef. The grilled beef is then broken down further into salt-based or sauce-based beef, progressing onto the more special cuts of beef. There were lots of unusual cuts , such as the 3rd stomach and inner thigh, as well as more common cuts like the sirloin. All of them were beautifully tender without being too greasy. The grilling really enhanced the beefy flavours without being overpoweringly smoky. One of the best cuts literally had to be rolled and eaten in one piece, as instructed by your waiter, otherwise your chopsticks would tear the meat – now that’s melt-in-your-mouth.


Marugame Seimen 丸亀製麺

We walked into a random udon shop in somewhere along the way between Omotesando, Harajuku, and Shibuya. (Thanks to Tabelog and Google, I managed to find out its name despite not having taken any photos of the interior!) There was a long counter where you chose your udon (hot, cold, type of soup/dipping sauce) and you slide your tray to the next self-service bit where you can add assorted tempura for an additional charge. If you’re hungry, you can choose a larger serving of udon. I chose the oroshi-shoyu chilled udon, which came with some grated daikon, green onions, and a little wedge of lime, tossed in a light and refreshing soy-based sauce. In hindsight, tempura wasn’t the best idea – it had been sitting out for what seemed like hours under a heat lamp, and it was greasy and limp. But the udon noodles themselves were a revelation. Chewy, bouncy, slippery, with the chill adding a particularly toothsome bite. I love my chewy noodles. My entire meal cost 500 yen (£2.50), with the tempura.  If a chain restaurant in Tokyo can offer their customers such great quality udon at these frankly absurdly low prices, why can’t London do the same?

Ryogoku Sarara

This is the Japanese tea room situated within the Edo-Tokyo Museum (which, by the way, is entirely worth your time, especially if you ask for a volunteer tour guide). We went in with low expectations; it is a museum cafe, after all. For breakfast, we each chose an udon set. If the noodles had gone to school, they would have received an “exceeded expectations” grade. Again a perfectly toothsome chew to them, this textural element so often missing from London’s udon scene. The toppings and soup, on the other hand, were a little boring, but satisfactorily serviceable for a quick museum breakfast.

Once again, you can walk into any random restaurant that serves udon and I can pretty much guarantee you that your udon noodles will be better than any place London has to offer.


Seikou 晴光

We stumbled across this unassuming shop purely because we had seen the massive line at Daikokuya, another tempura institution in Asakusa, and we were on a search in the rain for a similar tempura restaurant. Fortunately, Seiko had a little flag that said “tempura”. It’s a Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurant, meaning that it serves great food at a great price, and the Guide wasn’t wrong (at least on this count). It appears to be run by two brothers. Everything is fried to order in front of you by the chef, and instead of tentsuyu, the typical dipping sauce for tempura, you get seven different types of salt to go with your tempura. All the sets range between 1,000-2,000 JPY at lunch. Given the expertly fried food and the attentive service, it’s brilliant value for money.

Tips for traveling and eating in Japan

  • No tipping. It’s rude. (Also, super refreshing to never have to tip!) Always take all the change you’re given.
  • Do try and make restaurant reservations as soon as possible, if you have certain places in mind. Most of these destination restaurants are small and some, like kaiseki or sushi restaurants, will most likely be reservations-only, as they buy only what they need a few days ahead or even on the day. Our restaurant reservations for this trip were arranged through the hotel concierge by email. I just sent a list of restaurants (prioritised, in case of unavailability) and dates. If you decide to take this option, choose a hotel which is at least mid-range; 2* hotels are less likely to accommodate your requests. Otherwise, there are restaurant reservation services online, although most take a small fee. Of course, if you can speak Japanese or you have a friend who can, this probably isn’t an issue for you.
  • Following on from above, ask your hotel concierge to find out whether there are any English speakers at the restaurant, or an English or picture menu. It is extremely difficult to navigate a Japanese-only menu and it just causes stress for both you and the waiters. We struggled, even with knowledge of basic Japanese, when we stumbled across a Japanese-only izakaya.
  • Download lots of translation apps, if you have a smartphone. See below for a list of recommended apps.
  • To use those translation apps, you’ll need an internet connection. We rented a pocket wifi (essentially a mini portable router) from Global Advanced Communications, which worked out to be fairly cheap when the cost was split amongst us. The regular 75 Mbps pocket wifi plan we chose was fine, although in parts of Kyoto we had no signal and the battery wouldn’t last a full day. Switch it off if you’re not using it during the day. Don’t put it in your actual pocket, because this thing gets hot.
  • If you’re eating food from a street stall, stand to one side for consumption. Eating while walking is considered rude in Japan.
  • We found it was uncommon to pay at the table. The waiter usually brings you the bill, face-down, as soon as you’ve finished ordering your food. Take this up to the counter with your money and pay at the till.
  • Watch out for toilet shoes! If you’re in a place where you’ve been asked to take off your shoes, chances are that there will be toilet slippers provided for use only within the toilet.
  • Buy a PASMO/IC card for transportation when you get to Tokyo. This is like London’s Oyster card, or Hong Kong’s Octopus card, but unlike the Oyster card you can also use it at most convenience stores and vending machines. Topping up your card with the machines can be tricky – ask a station attendant for help if need be. PASMO/IC cards are interchangeable and can be used in Kyoto as well.
  • If you have a Japan Rail pass, travel on the JR lines within Tokyo is also included. Just show your ticket to the attendant at the manned station gate and they’ll wave you through.

Apps to download on your phone

  • Learn Japanese – this is a great basic phrasebook which works offline.
  • Google Translate – best for its ability to take a photo and scan it, but its literal translations leave much to be desired.
  • Innovative Language 101 – great for learning some basic Japanese before you go (I recommend Absolute Beginners seasons 1 & 2). Join their free trial and download as many audio tracks as you can within the trial period!
  • Tokyo Subway Navigation for Tourists – developed by Tokyo Metro Co., this travel planner shows you how to get between stations on the metro, and it works offline. Do note that it doesn’t include the JR lines or other rail lines.
  • Hyperdia – on the other hand, this app works includes every single line in Japan, which means you can use it outside Tokyo. On the downside, the UI is a little harder to navigate and it can only be used with an internet connection.
  • Imiwa? – this is a multilingual Japanese dictionary which is helpful if you can write kanji or katakana/hiragana on your keyboard. Also has many phrases and a notes section where you can jot down words or phrases you’ve recently learned.

More posts to follow, including full reviews of some of the aforementioned restaurants and a guide to eating out in Kyoto as well.

Sushi Tetsu, Clerkenwell

June 7, 2015

After eighty phone calls to Sushi Tetsu, I finally was able to score a reservation for dinner last Saturday. A few days in advance, we were asked to confirm our reservation and to choose what menu we wanted – a la carte or omakase. We requested the omakase course which included 12 nigiri, 1 hand roll, and tamago (sweet egg omelet) to finish (£80).

From the beginning, we could tell it was going to be a special experience. Sushi Tetsu is run by a husband-and-wife team, Harumi and Toru Takahashi, and it’s clear they’ve dedicated their hearts and souls to this tiny oasis in Clerkenwell. As soon as we got through the door, Harumi-san greeted us by name, which was such a welcoming way to start the meal. The theme of warmth and friendliness, like going to your family friend’s home, was a recurrent one throughout our time at Sushi Tetsu.

When you order omakase, you are leaving it up to the chef to choose the best selection. If we had ordered this selection a la carte, the price would have been roughly the same as the omakase course. If you do go, I highly recommend you choose the omakase. The procession of nigiri, the types of fish that accompany the nigiri – this is all carefully and deliberately decided by Toru-san. Roughly, more delicate flavours were served at the start of the meal, progressing to oilier and richer types of fish towards the end. I did not take any photographs during the meal – it’s an intimate space, with only seating for 7 at the counter, and I felt it would have been awkward to start snapping away in full view of everyone.

Toru-san has a way of bringing out the best flavour of the fish without overwhelming it with other additions. You are encouraged to eat it with your hands, and no seasonings are required. What is wonderful about Sushi Tetsu is that Toru-san always gets his seasoning spot-on. Each fish has its own entourage of seasoning, if you will; this included lime zest, citrus juice, various herbs, soy sauce, spice blends, and a few other sauces that peppered the sushi counter. Watching Toru-san make his creations was like watching a ballet dancer, dipping into pots and bowls and plates. The list that follows is the rough sequence of the nigiri, each formed one by one and placed carefully onto a beautiful ceramic plate in front of you.

Sea bass
Soy-marinated maguro
Torched scallop
Torched jumbo shrimp
Snow crab
Seared o-toro
Seared mackerel
Salmon roe gunkan maki
Minced fatty tuna with spring onions and pickled radish hand roll

I can remember the taste of all of the individual nigiri with incredible clarity, but there were a few ones that clearly stood out as my favourites. The torched scallop, jumbo shrimp, and o-toro (fatty tuna) were gorgeous in their simplicity, just beautiful big pieces of fish draped over rice, having been passed through a raging blue flame. I don’t know what magic Toru-san did to the fish, but each piece seemed to be a hyperbole of itself. I really enjoy seared fish because the aroma just fills the room and adds yet another layer of sensation. I was also a fan of the shari, the rice component of the nigiri. It was well seasoned with a good balance of vinegar and salt, and just warm enough – body temperature – from being gently moulded.

For drinks, we chose a beautiful sake, Gasanryu Gokugetsu, which was served in a lovely glass that looked more suited for champagne than sake. I am far from a sake expert, but this was the best sake I’ve ever tasted. Extremely fruity, all peaches and cream, and also quite floral, with hints of lychee. Very sweet. All I can say is, it tasted like it was made from shimmering gold, rainbows, and sparkles, and it has a price to match. But I will be seeking this out as soon as possible.

We ended with a stunning piece of tamago (Japanese sweet egg omelet). I’ve never had tamago that actually tasted like a sponge cake before, but my mind was blown. And it was a fantastic way to end the meal. This definitely won’t be my last time at Sushi Tetsu. Keep an eye out on their Twitter @SushiTetsuUK as they tweet about last-minute cancellations. This experience has made me all the more excited for our upcoming trip to Japan!

Sushi Tetsu

12 Jerusalem Passage
London EC1V 4JP