Foodzilla

LONGREAD
Where is he gay, today?
Dotonbori, Osaka
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Some days, Facebook looks like a cookbook.  Posting your dinner to Instagram feels like the modern equivalent of saying grace. I often give my friends a serve over how eagerly they share their food on the social media. I get it, though. Food is more than fuel. It’s culture—especially in Japan.  

The entire nation obsesses about food.  What shall we eat?  Where shall we eat it?  What does it mean?  Locavores are not necessarily hipsters; long-standing tradition demands that when visiting a far-off city, one consumes its fare. If you haven’t eaten the local specialty, you haven’t really been there.  

In fact, Japanese food is more than culture.  Food is history, literature, geography, and pornography.  

No place more so than in Osaka. Notorious for rough manners and a most un-Japanese impatience, Osaka does nothing in moderation—including eat. 

So, on our first night in western Japan on a visit to my husband’s family, we took our appetites out for a spanking on the Dotonbori.  Osaka’s nightlife district, it caters to hungers of every kind.

Dotonboristas generally start at Shinsiabashi, where the covered shopping streets give way to this well-known Osaka scene. 

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Since 1935, the Glico Running Man hawked caramels so perfect, that a single piece could replenish you after running a marathon.  With modern sports drinks and energy bars, his pitch is no longer so relevant.  But like the Sanyo sign in Piccadilly Circus or the Skipping Girl sign in Melbourne, the icon proves indestructible.

Note, though, how Japanese folk wisdom deals with sweets.  They don’t give you a boost of energy, but rather restore it after it’s expended.  Feeling tired is noble; a state of grace that tells you you’ve achieved something. The standard way to fare a colleague well as he leaves the office is otsukare samadeshita, or “you must be tired”.  The Glico Running Man doesn’t look tired, though.  As a mascot—and every Japanese business needs one—the Running Man embodies the spirit of health and energy.

IMG_6547 (2)Not so that other icon of Osaka, a mechanical clown named Kuidaore Taro.  His first name recalls a Japanese word for which we have no direct translation in English; kuidaore is a weakness of character which comes from overindulgence in food. From 1950 to 2008, the beloved Taro stood outside a namesake restaurant, popular with sumo wrestlers who weakened their characters under his watchful, bespectacled eye. Since the restaurant closed, he now poses for pictures outside a shop in which he mainly sells souvenirs of himself. He must be tired. 

Turn left down the banks of the Yodoyogawa, and the buzz picks up.  You’ve arrived at peak Dotonbori, where restaurants shout unsubtly of the deliciousness within.  

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The most unsubtle is this giant crab, whose mechanical claws, legs and eyes flap about like he was just plucked from a tank. That’s Kani Doraku, built in 1960, molded from a then-newfangled material called fibreglass.  Many believe the sign to be haunted.  Just inside the front door, real crabs wait on death row.

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Sayonara, baby!

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of crab.  Crab is just too hard to eat.  My husband, on the other hand, will patiently wield that ice-pickish bit of cutlery which extracts every morsel of (supposedly) sweet, succulent meat from the crab's leg.  

This strikes me as the gustatory equivalent of performing a backward four-and-a-half somersault—beautiful to watch, but the degree of difficulty is far too high for a recreational diner.  For me, even a KFC thigh pushes the boundaries of Not Worth the Trouble.  Anything harder to eat than an oyster doesn’t deserve to see the inside of my stomach.  Crab needs to be  made into a ball, and fried on the end of a claw, Chinese-style.

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Speaking of hard-to-eat things fried into a ball, let’s talk takoyaki.  Small pieces of octopus tentacle hide in a spherical fritter of rice-flour, garnished with barbeque sauce and flakes of dry tuna, which you eat by stabbing with a stick. This dish can be quite tricky to make, and requires a deft hand to rotate the spheres 180 degrees in mid-fry.  These gents are clearly gifted.

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Tricky to make, and tricky to eat.  Takoyaki present the same problem as biting into a potato in a stew; the tentacle inside is much hotter than the outside, but there's no way of knowing how much hotter until you've bitten into one.  You'll clock plenty of people on the Dotonbori sucking air heavily through open mouths.  

Kani Doraku started a trend.  Giant, mutant food bursts through the front wall of almost every restaurant. Here’s a rather striking scallop, which might perch equally comfortably atop a Shell station. 

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Go Well

Those quaint models which sit outside restaurants in Japan—so that no diner will get a nasty surprise when a dish arrives—look puny in comparison. You'll find almost none along the Dotombori. Fittingly, one of the few places which needed to explain the perplexing nature of its dishes was the American Diner.

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Do they expect to sell actual food with this stuff?    Let me speak as a professional adman.  In the course of my career, I spent more intelligence than I care to admit learning the secrets of appetite appeal.  

Food is tricky. It needs to be photographed (or Photoshopped) with care.   You've got to get close, so you can see the texture.  It should be cut into a bite size, and angled to suggest that the bite is on its way to your mouth.  Appetising food must steam, splash or crumble.  

None of that happens in images of Dotombori food, nor in its unchewable acrylic models.  One wonders if the culture of lifeless, too-perfect plastic fakery has given the Japanese foodie low standards of edible allure. This Korean BBQ can make even steak look blah.  Let me repeat: steak.  

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A prominent chain of ramen restaurants gave up on the giant ingredient schtick. Since an enormous noodle would look as appetising as a radiator hose, Kinryu Ramen opted for a dragon—in deference, one assumes, to the Chinese origin of the dish. 

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But the dragon symbol works on another level, too.  The dragon is manly.  And real men who get real drunk need noodles. 

In Japan, ramen serves as the ultimate drinking food.  Water to rehydrate you, oil to line your stomach, and carbs to soak up the next beer. Kinryu has perfected the art of drunk-wrangling; they serve their customers on the street, where the lads can happily puke, smoke, and text their impatient, stood-up girlfriends.  

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These guys were so busy texting and talking they failed to notice their food was ready.

 

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At a slightly more upmarket ramen joint, drinkers enjoy a peaceful Tampopo moment

The Dotombori feels fast, loud and chaotic.  Precisely the sort of place you don't want to eat a dish that requires the chef's utmost concentration, lest it kill you.  That's the deadly puffer-fish of the genus Takifugu, or river pig—better known simply as fugu.  

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Puffery

On the Dotonbori, fast-fugu joints abound.  This McFugu restaurant is called Zuboraya, identified by its beloved fishy mascot Ronald McRespiratoryparalysis.  

Thrillseekers maintain fugu is best enjoyed as sashimi—thinly sliced raw pieces served with wasabi and soy—in such quantities that your lips feel dead, but your lungs still work.  Brave foodblogger Chinito found that his visit to Zuboraya left him with a working tongue, but shaky legs which recovered in time for dessert.  Personally, I prefer getting shaky legs via beer—the safe alternative

This Osaka institution has been numbing customers since 1920, so I guess their attrition rate remains acceptable. In the local Osaka dialect, zuboraya means loose, casual, or sloppy.  Never had a hankering to try the deadly delicacy, but if I did, I assure you it would be in a restaurant that looked nervous, uptight, and expensive.  

Sensing that I was a little overwhelmed by the food-circus, my husband led us into the most ancient part of the Dotombori.  The ruckus gave way to peaceful, metre-wide streets.  

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The bars and restaurants, though busy, were smaller and more exclusive. Such small restaurants in Japan often cater to a select, regular clientele; one really needs to be introduced by a standing patron to earn a full welcome  There's a word in Japanese for a first-time restaurant visitor: Ichigen.  The word smells of gauche. 

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A different Taro

Religious artefacts began to appear.  It suggested we were approaching a shrine. 

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As one might expect at a shrine, maneki neko (beckoning cats) promised good luck.  In this neighbourhood, the cats  had a bad case of kuidaore

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The maze of alleys opened to a small square, with an open pavilion at its centre.  This modest building is the Hosenji Shrine, which the Japan National Tourist Organisation describes as "newer", dating back to 1637.  (They should write New York apartment ads)     

Hosenji houses the god Fudomyoo, a fierce scrapper who can kick the ass of evil spirits with a few not-quite-kosher MMA moves.  If you need heavy duty good luck, you must splash him with water.  The many Dotombori waitstaff, chefs, barkeeps and tipsy revellers do this often; it's given him a coat of moss that recalls Oscar the Grouch.  As kids, didn't we all have days where we prayed for an intercession from Oscar the Grouch?

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One assumes that jittery diners can stop by for a pre-fugu pray.  Handily, Osaka's most exclusive fugu specialist sits just across the street. The Asakusa Hosenji restaurant presents a discreet front, exuding an air of calm that many diners would find comforting should—Fudomyoo forbid!—they find dine themselves into the afterlife.   

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Mercifully, one needn't risk an agonising death to eat here.  They have a second, much safer specialty.  It's turtle.  

I suggested perhaps this might be a nice delicacy on which to feast (as long as the restaurant practiced strict separation of crockery).  I mused that some nice turtle sashimi might be just the ticket for two hungry gents.  

My husband sneered, in the way that spouses reserve for each other when one of them has committed a faux pas that is just a little too much in character.  After executing a monster eye-roll, the size of which I'd never seen before on a human being, he scolded me for knowing absolutely nothing about turtle!   Turtle, apparently, is far to gummy to eat raw; you need to soupify it for hours.  A pointless discussion about the merits of turtle for our evening meal followed, brought to a close by a look at the prices on the menu.  

Wasn't there someplace here in Osaka that made food really cheap and easy, for gaijin dolts like me, I asked?  

And with that question, my fine husband knew exactly where to go.  

What did we eat?  To find out, you'll have to wait for Part Two.  Hint: the picture at the top of this post is a clue. 


Ththththth!

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We were at our favourite Greek resturant in Munich, speaking English with our Greek waiter.

"There you are!" he said, as he presented my meal.

"Thank you," I replied.

He smiled.  "It's so nice to hear someone who can pronounce theta. Nobody in Germany can do it."

Of course, he didn't say Germany.  He said "Dzermany".

Flourishing a perfectly-voiced dental fricative, I added. "That's right." 

A gentleman from Barcelona piped up from the next table. "Other languages use theta, too" he corrected us. "Don't be thilly."

"Without doubt," I replied, " but nobody sticks the tip of his tongue up to his front teeth and blows like a Greek or an Englishman."  I basked in the word teeth.

A nearby German  became quite piqued.

"Sagen Sie mal", he asked, "sind Sie Französisch?" Tell me, are you French?

"Nein, ich bin Französisch nicht," came my reply.  No, I'm not French.

Of course, I didn't say ich.  I said "ick".

He sneered.  "Ha!  That was the worst ich I have ever heard.  Your nicht sounded like a chihuahua trying to shit." 

"Harumph" I grumbled, in my best English.

He chortled over his spanakopita.  "Oh, you Englishy types with your thinking and your theories and your thumbs!  But none of you can say ch!" 

I shouted to a Scotsman across the room, easily identified through his kilt and tam o'shanter.  "Hey Jock, wazzup!"

"Och, laddie..." he began.

"That's enough, thank you." I said, and turned back to the German chap.  "See?  English speakers can ach and och like the best of you." 

"You're completely wrong!" he replied, with a directness the world so admires in his countrymen.  "Any one can make a ch when it follows a nice rounded vowel like an ah or an oh.  But not when it follows a delicate sound like an ee or an ih that you actually have to make with your mouth and not your throat already."

He had a point.  One can sound consonants in different ways.  Think of the humble L.  It sounds a bit different when you use it to say line and when you use it to say hall.  This is known as a "light-L" and a "dark-L" respectively.  .

We English native speakers hear the two Ls as the same.  Polish—a fiendishly complex tongue—actually uses separate letters for the two sounds.   Natives of some other languages can struggle with one L, and not the other. 

My husband, whom you may recall is Japanese, has mastered the light-L.  I often hear him say a perfect let's take the lift, with none of the R/L confusion that afflicts speakers with an Asian mother tongue.  Not so the dark-L.  Should you meet him in a hotel, don't ask him where the ballroom is.  Nor should you discuss the movie star, Errol Flynn.  Nor require him to use the word uncontrollable.

Conversely, it's the light-ch that gives us English speakers trouble.  We end up saying ich—a common sound in German—as an ish or an ick.  It mainly occurs at the end of syllables.  Which gave me an idea. 

"OK, Mr. Gescheithosen.  You may think you're pretty smart, with your lippy th at the beginning of words.  So tell me.  What do you enjoy at the end of a hard day?"

"A bath," he replied. 

Except he didn't say bath.  He said "bus". 

"Perhaps you have a particularly nice ride home, so I'll allow that", I said.  "But here comes the clincher.  Say the word clothes...in one syllable!"

"Clozes." he fumed.

Others around him tried to help. "Clothis", interjected a lady from Berlin.  A gent from Schwabing tried "Clodzes".  A fine attempt came from a rural Rosenheimer with a "Clozzess".

Ha!  Our Greek waiter merrily celebrated by putting his tongue up to his incisors and letting out a big "Thththththththth!"   .

I joined him in a jolly "Ththththththththththth!", too.  Soon, all the English speakers in the room pitched in with a nice big, long "Thththththththththththth!".   Except for the Scotsman, who was arguing over his bill. 

 

This post is part of the Awful German Language Blog Hop on Young GermanyServus to you, Nicolette Stewart!


Celebrate My Fit of Pique!

Bite Me Black Dress

What does it take to unleash your indignation?  Eight years ago, a calendar and a couple of beers did it for me.

It came to my attention that some busybody proclaimed the second Monday in January as National Clean Off Your Desk Day.  This impertinence provoked me to declare the following day, January 13, The International Day to Bite Me.   

The busybody in question was one Anna Chase Moeller, daughter of Bill Chase, who co-founded the Chase's Calendar of Events in 1957.  Rumour has it that Anna helped in the family business, and in so doing, shared a desk with her father.  As is the case with pretty much all entrepreneurs, forward-thinkers, creative personalities, and productive people of every stripe, the desk was a mess.  In a snit, Anna declared National Clean Off Your Desk Day to humiliate her father's habits.  Once a year, Bill was forced to sacrifice a day of personal productivity to appease his daughter, who no doubt could have worked on the goddamn kitchen table if the sight of actual work upset her so goddamn much.  Neat-freaks have used it to shame us normal people ever since. 

In 2017, The International Day to Bite Me falls on a Friday.   By coincidence, the first Friday the 13th of every year is National Blame Someone Else Day.  (It's also National Rubber Duckie Day, but that's another story.)

On Friday, August 13 1982, a sleepy Michigan woman found that her alarm clock had failed to ring.  This set off a cascade of lateness and bad luck that hounded her throughout the day.  The National Blame Someone Else Day commemorates her string of excuses and apologies.  In truth, it should be National Blame Fate Day, since the mechanical failure likely had no human source.  Unless it was the woman herself who failed to set the alarm on August 12—in which case we should celebrate National Sorry, It's My Own Damned Fault Day.

Who was this unfortunate woman?  None other than a certain Mrs Anna Chase Moeller.  

Clearly, this amounts to an abuse of privilege. Anna's way to vent petty annoyances was to declare a day after them, because in the days before the internet, she was one of the few who could.  Well, two can play at that game now, eh?

Screen Shot 2017-01-14 at 08.58.53By the authority vested in me by Typepad blogging software, Deutschland über Elvis declares The International Day to Bite Me 2017 open for all.  The ritual Flipping of the Bird will take place across Germany and the rest of the world, perhaps flipped all the harder because it might occur over Friday drinks.  

Personally, I spread the message by keeping calm.  On the International Day to Bite Me graphics page, you'll find an #ID2BM Keep Calm message, created on the official Keep Calm and Carry On Merchandise Store.  I had it embroidered on a pillow, suitable for screaming into. 


Brexit Explained

Brexit
Where is he gay today?
 A burger joint on Fulham Broadway, London.

Overheard from the next table, a group of men in their early thirties. 

"Of course you got sick.  Can't 'elp it if you travel abroad."

"Mate o' mine reckons you can get sick from just handling the money. It's filthy."

"A lot of them carry their money in in their arse-cracks.  The criminals are so afraid of looking gay, they won't touch another bloke there." 

"They say you should get your cash out of the machine in the morning, put it in your pocket, and jump in the swimming pool."  (Murmured agreement)  "Yeah, the chlorine cleans it right up."

Conversation ends as Spanish waiter arrives at table with lunch. 

No, I'm not making this up. 


Denglisch or Dancais?

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As you approach Stuttgart, the A8 Autobahn takes a precipitous dip. A big, menacing sign warns you that the speed limit is reduced to a lousy fifty miles an hour, under the headline Gefahr Danger Pericolo.  

I drove past that sign weekly for two years, intrigued.  The road connects Munich and Vienna with Strasbourg and Paris.  Why would the authorities write a sign in German, English and Italian, and neglect French? 

OK, I'm kinda slow.  But many fellow English speakers assume that when you see an Ungerman word in German, it's been borrowed from English.  Though less prone to lexicographical thievery than our own tongue, German has stolen quite a bit from west of the Rhein. 

This adds une complication for those of us whose mother tongue doesn't inflect—that is, doesn't change grammatical rules depending on whether a noun is masculine, feminine, or neither.  

All other things being equal, German assigns a neutral gender to nouns borrowed from a foreign tongue; das Sushi, das Curry, das Handy, das Big Mac. On the other hand, if a word sports a gender at the source, then it carries over into into German.  Latin words hopped directly over the Alps into scientific usage without a detour into English; that's why der Radius looks butch, but das Radium sounds like it's had the snip.

Tricky for those words which come via English rather than from it.  A credit card arrived this week and the issuing firm urged me to download die American Express App, turning this petite slice of software into a woman.  I hadn't thought about it until an online pal prompted me to ask why it should be so.  Surely, the term app came straight out of Silicon Valley.  It ought to be gender neutral. 

But Silicon Valley is fond of Latinate terms, which English sucked up from Norman French.  La application enters German as feminine, die Application.  This shortens into the rather girly term, die App.  

So it didn't surprise me to overhear two bemused people in the supermarket, wondering aloud in German, whether the product pictured above was das Pain, or der Pain.  And if the latter, should it not be im Bäckerei?

My husband, who you may recall is Japanese, thought this was a stupid name for a hot sauce, too.

In the Meiji era, Japan imported many exotic foods, along with the words to describe them.  Sensibly, they chose most of their new Western diet from France—let's be honest, if you could choose among global cuisines, would you choose any from the English-speaking world?  To him, pain (パン) will always mean bread, no matter how much American marketers boast of the agony their condiments inflict.  

When speaking German, you cannot be laissiez-faire about such things.