Saturday, 15 October 2016

Utsunomiya, Gyoza City

On my way to the cultural and historical city of Nikko, I passed through Utsunomiya, which appeared to be little more than a transport hub on the Japan Rail service and an industrial city. Nothing to see here, right? That was until I discovered Utsunomiya is famous throughout Japan as Gyoza City. Home to reportedly two hundred (yes, two HUNDRED) gyoza shops and restaurants, Utsunomiya is not just the capital of Tochigi Prefecture, but the Gyoza capital of the world!

Gyoza are originally from China, being similar to the Pot Sticker dumplings many of us in the UK enjoy when we go out for a Dim Sum fix. These Chinese “Jiaozi” dumplings were eaten by Japanese service personnel during World War Two, particularly those serving in Manchuria. Returning to Japan, people tried to make the little parcels of deliciousness they encountered on their travels when back home. Just like another WW2 import to Japan from China, Ramen, the dish has been tweaked a little after arriving on Japanese soil. Gyoza are smaller and have thinner pastry skin than Pot Stickers. 

Whilst it is renowned for Jazz and cocktails, Gyoza is the real claim to fame of Utsunomiya. You don’t believe me, do you? Well, what about the Venus Gyoza statue in the square outside the station? You can’t argue with a big stone gyoza, worthy of Botticelli himself!
Gyoza Venus

Gyoza is so important here that there is a “Good Gyoza Guide” and “Good Gyoza Map”! I’d tell you more about both of these, but they are written in Japanese, and my ability to read kanji and understand Japanese is severely underdeveloped. So I had to enlist a little bit of help. I was informed that the best two places to sample Utsunomiya Gyoza was the Famous Gyoza Min Min Restaurant and Gyoza Kan. Both were within stumbling distance of the main train station.

Gyoza Min Min

Utsunomiya Gyoza Min Min is an institution. Founded in 1958, their committed staff have provided beautiful gyoza to the people of Utsunomiya for decades, the business growing to 12 outlets in the city. 

Arriving at the Min Min Restaurant near the East exit of the main train station, we saw a hefty queue already in place. It was a sweltering hot day of 30 degrees C or so. Should we wait, or admit defeat? It was number one in the Good Gyoza Map, it was heartily recommended by both our landlady in Nikko and the Tourist Information Office. But how long would we be standing in the heat?

We decided to have faith, although 45 minutes of waiting on a hot and humid day wasn’t easy. The owners realise they are popular and have provided a gazebo and benches for customers at the final stage of the queueing process; very welcome in the conditions, I must say! When we were finally ushered in, we were relieved and more importantly, hungry.

The menu was brief. There is a rice vermicelli dish with pork saboro (lightly stewed minced pork) and vegetables available. But otherwise, there is gyoza. And only gyoza.

You can have your gyoza three ways here; steam-fried (the traditional way), boiled or deep fried. 
The boiled gyoza ordered by the people sitting next to me
You can have it alone or you can have a meal deal with rice and pickles. After that, the choice ends. There is only one filling available. Pork and vegetable. We ordered the traditional steam-fried gyoza at 230 Yen per portion with some Kirin beer. 

Sauces; chilli oil, soy and citrus
Our gyoza proved that food does not need to be fancy to be fantastic. These were superb! Thin, light pastry, with just the right ratio of filling to skin. You will see in the photo below that the browned tops of the gyoza are the surface which have been fried on a hot skillet, whilst the dumplings remained joined together. 

How the whole portion of gyoza are both steamed and fried whilst remaining connected, I don’t know. The contrast between the soft bottom and crispy-soft top fills me with delight. 

The pork and vegetable stuffing is well balanced, meaty, yielding and gorgeous. Queuing for restaurants is not normally my thing, but it was totally worth it!

Cute little gyoza keyrings and bag charms are on sale, in case you want to keep the dumpling love alive after your visit! 

Open 11am to 8pm. Take away and frozen gyoza to cook at home available too. If only I could have brought a couple of boxes home!

Gyoza Kan

Another recommended gyoza restaurant was Gyoza Kan, again well rated on the Good Gyoza guide and recommended by the city’s Tourist Information Office. Not to be outdone by Gyoza Min Min, Gyoza Kan have employed some razzle dazzle to entice punters to their dumpling deliciousness. Stone statues of Sumo wrestlers, terracotta warriors, Godzilla, Kannon (or Quan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy) stand guard outside....

They also have their own Gyoza statue, hewn from a hunk of rock. He’s a cute fella, isn’t he? 

You’ll find posters and signs with him all around town. And he’s emblazoned on the backs of the Gyoza Kan staff uniforms…

 …and pint glasses!

Office workers escaping the grind for a well earned lunch break

Gyoza Kan have a slightly different USP from Min Min. Whilst Min Min excel in just one type of dumpling excellently executed, Gyoza Kan have multiple fillings to their gyozas. Fourteen fillings, in total, to be exact! Pork, “stamina” kenta, perilla, cheese, shrimp, shark fin, small pork, garlic free, pork and vegetable, pork with Chinese leek, mushroom, spicy, garlic and finally, Maitake mushroom. 

You can eat your gyozas as they are or dipped in sauce, chilli oil, citrus, soy or a mix of soy and citrus, depending on your filling or your preference. 

I’m a sucker for prawn gyoza at home, so immediately opted for shrimp. Roughly chopped chunks of prawn filled my lightly browned steam-fried dumplings. Again, the skin to filling ratio carefully judged to avoid heaviness on one extreme and fragility at the other. 

The Maitake mushroom filling had a strong flavour more reminiscent of porcini than humble button mushrooms. They actually taste a little meaty, and go down a treat!

Pork and vegetable had to be ordered in order to compare with Min Min. The filling here was generous and full of piggy goodness, although the gyoza shell was not executed with the same level of skill. It is still a very pleasing, great quality gyoza that people in London would be crying out for. 

Garlic (and prawn) was Him Indoor’s choice as he loves all things garlicky. The garlic flavour and aroma is strong, but not overpowering. The hubby was rather disappointed that I enjoyed this gyoza filling as he didn’t really want to share them with me!

Like Min Min, Gyoza Kan have been successful enough to expand to a number of branches. Being pressed for time, we visited a branch close by the train station entrance, as it was a fair journey for us on our very last day in Japan to get to Narita Airport. But a wonderful final lunch!

I should mention that Masashi and Kirasse were also recommended to us as serving excellent gyoza. Had I the luxury of more time, we would have visited. Also, we didn’t have time to visit the castle here, which originally dates back from 1062, but has been substantially rebuilt in 2007. But when the best gyoza in the world are calling for you in the Gyoza capital of the world, what else can you do except for tuck in!

Snigdha and Him Indoors paid for their wonderful gyoza with crisp, clean Yen notes. This review represents Snigdha’s genuine opinions. Snigdha has not received any incentive for posting this review.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Mauritian pop up at Trader Vics for October

Trader Vic’s is a Polynesian themed restaurant. It is a colourful, informal place aimed at a young crowd. Situated at a side entrance of the same building as London’s Park Lane Hilton, you know it isn’t going to be cheap. Apparently, the classic Mai Tai cocktail was invented at a Trader Vic’s restaurant back in 1944. The London branch is somewhat younger, having been established for some 15 years. 

We visited on a Friday night, to find a fun atmosphere. There were Londoners enjoying the start of the weekend and tourists making the most of their trip to the capital. The sound system was on and the lights were low. First things first, we had to find out whether the Mai Tai cocktails were all they have claimed to be. 

Him Indoors decided to go for the signature Trader Vic’s Mai Tai (£12.50). Strongly alcoholic but with a degree of fruitiness, Him Indoors dubbed it “wonderful” and one of the best Mai Tai cocktails he has ever had. Praise indeed, as it is his all-time favourite cocktail. I opted for the Mango Mai Tai (£12.50). It had lovely mango and pineapple flavours to hide considerable punch. Just what the doctor ordered after a long week at work!

Our reason for visiting is that I was invited, with a guest, to try their latest island-hopping “Island Fusion” pop-up menu. Trader Vic’s are keen to share the food of other tropical islands with their customers. Having already had pop-up menus based on the food of Jamaica and the Seychelles, they have teamed up with Shelina Permalloo, the creative force behind Mauritian street food restaurant Lakaz Maman and Masterchef winner from 2012. 

Trader Vic’s, London is famous for its barbequed food. Chef Shiran Fonseca was keen to show me the two huge wood fired barbeque ovens in the restaurant, located behind a great glass screen in view of the bar. We opened the door and stepped inside, immediately being hit by the heat. The ovens have to be tended carefully and the food cooked with great attention to prevent over cooking. The steaks and ribs are cooked here, in separate ovens.

The Mauritian Island Fusion menu will be available for the whole of the month of October. The items are:

Trader Vic’s BBQ Spare Ribs (£14.00)

Prawn and Octopus Croustillant (£12.00)

Island Style Papaya Salad (£11.00)

Gateaux Piment (£9.00)

Anana Confit (£8.50)

Or you can opt for a Island Fusion platter for two with the full menu on one board for £19.00. Perfect for the curious!

I had the chance to speak to Shelina about the menu. She explained to me that she wanted to bring out the influences from her childhood and the most representative elements of multicultural Mauritian cuisine. 

But what did I think about the food?

The house spare ribs were smoky and full of that flavour you can only get with a wood fired oven. I love finger food, and gnawing the meat off these ribs was always going to be something I enjoyed. This is a key dish from the Trader Vic’s menu. 

Prawn and octopus croustillant was a cute little battered set of fritters where the seafood was “just cooked”. This is how I like to eat my seafood, so for me this was just right. Served with a coriander and coconut satini, this would make a lovely starter to share. 

The papaya salad was made from green papaya, in similar fashion to the famous Thai green papaya salad Som Tam. However, this version is less incendiary with much less raw red chilli. Phew! I have found that although I love Som Tam, there are many I find I can barely eat as they are way too hot. This was balanced with a touch of sweet and the cashews and citronelle brought the flavours and ingredients of Mauritius to the fore. 

Gateaux Piment I discovered is not actually a cake. My schoolgirl French misled me! It is a fried patty made of lentils, very like the south Indian and Sri Lankan savoury snack Vada. Served with a tomato and chilli chutney, this is vegetarian friendly, crunchy and spicy. These are my kind of snacks, crispy on the outside, crumbly on the inside. 

The pineapple portion was drizzled in chilli and tamarind, giving a tiny burst of heat and a good dose of sour to balance out the sweetness of the pineapple. Anana confit, I have been informed (I have never had the good luck of visiting Mauritius) is a street food classic. I can see why it would be a fab treat you could eat at almost any time of day in the tropical sunshine. After a wet and rainy day, I felt a craving for sunshine.

I also had a great time enjoying a bowl of the excellent Rum Cava cocktail. Designed for sharing, you get rum, juice and cava with a healthy supply of ice and extra long straws for sipping. The cocktail was excellent and the presentation conducive to informal fun with friends. Love it!

Snigdha and Him Indoors visited Trader Vic’s as their guests. This review represents my genuine opinions. I have not received any payment or other incentive for posting this review.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

September 2016 Favourites List

This month's pictures are from Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社, Fushimi Inari Taisha) in Kyoto, Japan. Tourists call it the Thousand Torii Gate Temple because of the hundreds and hundreds of vermilion wood Torii gates in the temple complex. It was originally founded in the year 711, but with the gates being made of wood, they have to be replaced from time to time. I wouldn’t like to bet on how much of the site is “original”. Not that it matters.

The shrine is a Shinto one at the base of the Inari mountain. This is important since Inari is the god of rice, a major staple of Japanese food. Hence devotion shown at this temple leads to abundance of food and therefore prosperity. It should come as no surprise therefore that the gates are often funded by Japanese businesses.

Even with the throngs of visitors who come here each day, religious pilgrims, tourists and instagrammers, it is still possible to achieve a feeling of calmness here. The beauty and grace of the place remains, unspoiled. This is thanks to the perfect little Torii gates, the hillside, the forest and trees, the overall sense of being surrounded in nature despite being quite close to the city. It is, quite simply, a lovely place to be.

The temple’s symbol is a wily jackal, often with a key between its teeth. This key is that for the rice granary, highlighting the link to Inari and the hope for the proliferation of food in the future.

To get here you need to take the JR Nara line from Kyoto to the Inari station. It only takes 5 minutes or so, it is a rapid and easy journey. Or you can get there from the Keihan railway via the Fushimi-Inari station. 

I hope you like the pictures. But here is the stuff you came here for, my selection of stuff which has piqued my interest this month!


Mung bean noodles are called Cellophane noodles as they are so transparent. Here's a recipe from Bangkok's Chinatown using just soaked Cellophane noodles, pork and prawns:

A seasonal beetroot and pink peppercorn gratin. Perfect as for meatfree Monday, or as a side dish with meat.

5 minutes to prep, 50 minutes to cook and it will create its own gravy. Honey and mustard chicken thigh tray bake:
Preserving and pickling is back! Here is a recipe for old fashioned English Piccalilli and a ham and egg pie to eat it with. (You could cheat and just buy a Melton Mowbray one, though!)

Roopa suggests this as a side dish for your curry night. But why not have it with pork or lamb chop on a weeknight? Or even as your veg with Sunday lunch?
Hank Williams (and later the Carpenters) sang "Jambalaya, Crawfish pie, File gumbo". But did you know that File is a powder made from ground sassafras leaves? Here's a recipe for File Gumbo. Now, where can I get some File from...

Sicilian food is unique; Italian but with Greek and Middle Eastern influences and ingredients. This Sicilian baked sausage with potato, tomato and herbs by Diana Henry has those typical flavours of chilli, fennel, garlic and spicy sausage.

I love Thai sweetcorn fritters. This Indian version by Thomasina Miers just means a little added spice!
A spin on the classic Thai dish Larb Gai from 2014 Masterchef winner Ping Coombes.
Pa amb tomaque or Pan con tomate is a classic Catalunyan tapas dish. So simple, so flavourful.
A guide to Garam Masala by Kavey - what it is, how to use it, and how to make it!

Articles/Know How:

Raw eggs deemed safe for pregnant women:
The Mediterranean diet isn't so much a food deprivation and starvation programme (as many diets are), it's more of a philosophy on food.

Back to school time! So here's a useful and practical guide to healthy packed lunches for school children.…/guide/healthy-lunches-for-kids
Interesting ideas on how to put together salad dishes without being a slave to fixed recipes.
What you might have missed at Snig's Kitchen:
A review of Cafe Spice Namaste's Curry For Change Khaadraas Club. Featuring the dream team of Cyrus Todiwala, Romy Gill and Pervin Todiwala. An amazing night of food, drink, chat which has made a big difference to a small charity with a massive impact.
My review of Kate Tempest’s show, playing her new album Let Them Eat Chaos in full on her home turf at Brockley’s Rivoli Ballroom:

My review - now at online magazine Flush The Fashion:


The Runaway Jury


The X Files (1st Season)


Mogwai – The Revenants
Mogwai – Rave Tapes
Explosions In The Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care

Please note: as with every monthly Favourites List, all of these items have been selected by me simply because I love them. I do not receive any money, benefits in kind or other incentive for posting these links or recommendations.