Navigating menus abroad can be something of a challenge for a flexitarian, particularly throughout Europe where waiters tend to fix you with a look somewhere between bemusement and outright suspicion when you ask for a meat-free option, before pointing you towards the veal.
A recent trip to Japan took this confusion onto a whole new level. Not only was the language baffling, but the products themselves were so unrecognisable that you would often be left looking at a market stall or supermarket shelf with no idea if something was animal, vegetable, or mineral:
On our first night in Kyoto, more than a little jet-lagged and disorientated, we unwittingly found ourselves in a kasieki ryori restaurant. These very traditional restaurants complete with kimono-clad waitresses and tatami mats to sit on, have no menu. After much sign language, we established that instead of ordering, we would just be brought a selection of speciality dishes, and after much shaking of my head and pointing to the Japanese for fish in my guidebook, we agreed that mine would be served “no fishu”. What followed was one of the most memorable meals I’ve had in a long time. A tray of tiny plates each containing a different exquisitely prepared but unidentifiable dish, while tofu bubbled away on a stove.
We didn’t have the slightest inkling what many of the dishes were, and this element of surprise was one of the great things about it. Of course it can also be risky – halfway through the meal I opened up a bamboo-leaf wrapped green gelatinous lump, only to take a bite out of it and discover it was pudding – fortunately I’d chosen to avoid committing the even bigger faux pas of dipping it in soy sauce. It got me thinking that in this age of 250,000 ways to order a burger with not a single element of the meal left to chance, how rare that we have the opportunity to be truly surprised by a meal – apart from Dans Le Noir, there is virtually nowhere in London where you can genuinely have no idea what you’re eating – perhaps kasieki should be the next step in the ubiquitous small plates trend.
Oh, and if you are in Japan and really struggling with a menu, you can always refer to the somewhat unappetising display of plastic representations of the dishes – from small noodle shops to white tablecloth restaurants, these are everywhere – one trend that I’m not sure would catch on over here!
Posted by Lottie