Maggie Beer’s Japanese culinary tour
Maggie Beer has visited Japan 10 times in the past two decades. “I love it,” she says. “I love the culture, the culinary ingredients, the energy of Tokyo and the calm beauty of the Noto Peninsula. It is always at the top of my travel list.”
Maggie’s favourite city is Tokyo. “Everybody has to go there,” she insists. “It’s a buzz of a city. Even Shinjuku Station – the busiest railway station in the world – is an adventure. Department stores in Tokyo are incredible, too, and I go straight to the food section,” where the painstakingly displayed produce and bento boxes are works of art.
A highlight of any visit to Tokyo is the Tsukiji (the world’s biggest fish market), where the tuna auction begins with the ringing of bells at around 4am. These days, entry to the auctions is restricted, but, says Maggie, “there are fantastic markets on the outskirts of the Tsukiji, selling vegetables, pulses, spices, pickles – and there are similar markets in every Japanese city. A trip to a food market is essential.”
Another of Maggie’s essentials is the Golden Gai, a fragment of old Tokyo, where narrow laneways are lined with tiny bars that fit only a handful of people each. Once the haunt of artists and bohemians, some of these bars still only accept members.
Maggie’s days in the Japanese capital were punctuated by meals in restaurants – some that have Australian connections.
“You must eat at Shirosaka,” she >>
insists, “because this is great modern Japanese food. Chef Hideki Li learnt from the masters in Japan and then worked with Australia’s Tetsuya Wakuda, which opened up his world.”
Another favourite chef is Koji Fukuda, who was head chef at Australian Luke Mangan’s Salt restaurants and has opened Terra Australis in Tokyo.
Back to nature
Maggie describes the Noto Peninsula on Japan’s west coast as “pristine and truly beautiful – rugged coastline, fertile farmland, Zen temples and hot springs.” It is renowned for its seaweed, sea salt and seafood.
“In Noto, I learned about tradition,” she says. “I slept on the floor in a traditional inn. I was absorbed into the whole experience. I made mochi rice balls with the ladies in the community centre. I tasted a squid sauce that had taken the chef three years to make. I had never seen tradition in action in the same way before.”
Maggie’s guides on the journey were Chikako and Ben Flatt. “Ben is an Australian chef with an Italian culinary heritage,” she explains. “He married a Japanese woman and they have melded their interests and cultures, and run a restaurant and traditional inn, called Flatt’s.”
Food to shout about
Maggie adores the city of Osaka which, she says, has a different food culture from Tokyo. “It’s more casual, open, last-minute,” she explains. “It’s food to be shouted about – some chefs spruik what they’re doing.”
Maggie spent her evenings walking along cobblestone alleys in the old part of the city and along the river, with its lively atmosphere, outdoor performers and food stalls. “Osaka is also known for its masterful sushi and sashimi,” she adds. “The chef we visited, Osamu Ueno of Kigawa, specialises in a traditional kappo-style dining, which is very sophisticated.”
Maggie’s final stop on this tour was Naoshima, an island in the Seto Inland Sea (Seto Naikai) that has become a living gallery for contemporary art. Once a fishing village, then a waste dump, the island is now a place of “breathtaking natural beauty, dotted with extraordinary architecture, sculpture, painting.” Naoshima was a little extra that Maggie and her husband, Colin, added to the trip, to spend time with close
Maggie exploring the streets of Osaka.
A Thousand Rice Paddies at Shiroyone Senmaida on the Noto Peninsula. LEFT: Sashimi at the Kigawa restaurant in Osaka.