When in Merchant Town, Eat as the Merchants Ate …

You could easily walk right by the restaurant we ate at last Saturday and not even know it. It blends into the rest of the old merchant town of Ohmi in Shiga prefecture. Traditional houses and businesses resembling those of late Edo and early Meiji period line the quiet streets; a gentle reminder that Japan hasn’t always been bustling with crowded crosswalks, neon signs, and electronic districts. A group of our English students made reservations at Satou–pronounced sa-toe, meaning “sugar”–where we joined three other tables of diners in a single room and embarked together on an 8-course feast.

We were intrigued when a woman wearing an ornate kimono carried a bowl of what appeared to be snow to our table. Upon closer inspection we saw decorative sake cups chilling in the ice, and in the middle, buried deep, was a glass container of sake. Our lunch was off to a great start as one of our students offered the obligatory Kanpai! before taking the first sip.

There wasn’t much time to admire the snow bowl, because the woman was already placing a small dish in front of each of us. We waited until all the tables in the room were served, and the woman had given an explanation of the dish (that we couldn’t quite understand, so we relied on the rough translation from students ). Then we all started together on the first course: halved shrimp, cucumbers and radish in a cool vinegary broth with specks of seaweed. It was refreshing and reminded us of a Japanese version of gazpacho.

We saw the woman peering at us from behind the kitchen as we finished off our first course. She was probably surprised that us gaijin (foreigners) were using chopsticks. This is a common misconception among our students and restaurant staff. Yes, indeed, we can use chopsticks and we can also eat raw fish!

Our dishes were whisked away and replaced with black lacquer bowls with tight fitting lids. We removed the lids. Once the steam cleared we saw the clear broth, flavored with two kinds of Japanese citrus peels: yuzu (orange) and sudachi (green). In the middle was a block of tofu marbled with some ground shrimp paste. It was covered by a transparent circle. We must have looked confused because my students began to explain that it’s a vegetable like a cucumber that grows in Okinawa . It was so thin that we didn’t notice its taste much at all. Sprouts from a fresh water plant called junsai floated on the surface, but they were covered with a naturally occurring gelatinous substance that made them not as appealing.

As the woman cleared our soup bowls and began to pass out beautiful bright green plates, she explained that they were supposed to be for dessert, but she bought them for the purpose of serving sashimi. We agreed that they were appropriate. Soon our attention was no longer on admiring the woman’s dishes, but on the most beautiful sushi boat we’d ever seen.

Slices of tuna, mackerel, sea bream, and yellow tail, sitting atop a pile of shaved ice, garnished with shiso leaf, and sprouts, were just crying out to be eaten with wasabi and soysauce. The mackerel was especially delicious as it had been soaked in vinegar prior to being served. I was wary at first of eating the skin, but it didn’t deter at all from the flavor of the fish.

Even after we’d devoured the sashimi, I was sad to see the plate leave. The fresh cut flowers poking out of the crushed ice were a stunning table decoration. But the woman had more in store for us, such as a long, ceramic dish filled with little goodies. Starting from the left side there was a small bowl of bamboo, shredded dried fish, and brown seaweed. It was a harsh way to start the 4th course, but we told our taste buds they had to build up some endurance. We still had many things to try. In front of the little bowl was a block of “freeze-dried” tofu, as my students explained to us. This had a much more pleasing taste, except for the small dab of fermented fish paste on top. (I was hoping and expecting it to be something sesame flavored. My mouth was extrememly disappointed).

The soramame (“sky beans” or Japanese broad beans) tricked us. When we put them in our mouths they were sweet like candy. They must have been boiled with sugar. What a nice surprise. Behind them were snow peas with a sweet tomato sauce. The crunchy, pickled renkon (lotus root) was a nice contrast to the sweetness of the beans. This was the best section of the dish.

A piece of salmon with a creamy sesame-tartar sauce was a nice familiar item that we happily consumed. The toothpick with sweet, candied ginger was delicious too. However, we should have saved it as a reward for trying the shredded daikon (white radish) mixed with sea urchin. One bite of that was enough for me. Dustin was more gracious and ate it all.

Working our way down to the right end of the dish, we ate a piece of zucchini with some cooked eel lodged in the center. After eating the sea urchin, the eel was nice and mild, lacking that overwhelming fishy taste. We ended with a whole sardine. My students and Dustin popped the whole thing into their mouths, but I couldn’t eat the part with the eyes. I’ve never been able to eat things that are looking at me. By the time we finished all the items on the dish we were already getting full. A feeling of panic came over us as we realized we still had 4 more courses to go.

The next course didn’t photograph too well because it was moving too fast! We figured a video might capture it better.

A bubbling nabe (pot of soup) was set in front of us, containing leeks, shitake mushrooms, and balls of mochi (pounded rice) stuffed with ground meat. We could have ended the meal right there with the level of satisfaction that we felt.

But the woman returned with more. A bowl of sweet boiled pumpkin, spinach, and bamboo in a light broth with a piece of wheat gluten shaped like a leaf. We must be nearing the end, we thought. Then the woman put a giant bowl of rice in the middle of our table with a thud. We laughed because it seemed like a more appropriate response than a groan.

The rice was so good we only wish we had been able to enjoy it earlier in the meal, maybe in place of the sea urchin. It was steamed with little bits of ginger, infusing the entire bowl with a lovely aroma. It was accompanied by a small dish of picked daikon, nasu (eggplant) and cucumber, and a bowl of miso soup. We were ready to take a short nap right there at the table, but when we heard that the next course was dessert we gave a sigh of relief and decided we could finish the marathon.

Not one, but two desserts awaited us. There’s a saying in Japanese similar to “there’s always room for dessert!” At this moment we had to believe it was true! On the left was a glass with three layers: Sweet red azuki beans and sliced bananas topped off with a scoop of yuzu sorbet, garnished with a few Japanese maple leaves. On the right was a chilled bowl of clear jelly with sliced fruits, decorated with rainbow sprinkles. We washed our excessive dessert down with some genmaicha green tea that has a nice toasty flavor because the tea leaves are combined with roasted rice.

Full and content (well, beyond content) we left the restaurant Satou. The woman in the kimono held out her hand. We’ve been in Japan so long that we almost forgot what that gesture means. Then it came back to us. She happily shook our hands and thanked us for dining in her restaurant. We left with a small gift–some embroidered flower cell phone charms, something modern in the midst of a town so old–and navigated our way back through the streets, just like the merchants did long ago.

One thought on “When in Merchant Town, Eat as the Merchants Ate …

  1. Hi, just found your blog and love it!
    Seems like the 2 of you have a great live here in Japan. Good luck with everything and looking forward for your new post. Cheers

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