14 February, 2009

Doraku Restaurant: Food From Home

I wonder if there are any ex-pats in Japan now drooling at the memory of good whole wheat toast, black tarry and salty sweet licorice, turkey with cranberry sauce, a pile of mashed potatoes, a thick crusty and juicy pizza, or any one of a number of foods that to you spell comfort or "home".

The list is certainly not exhaustive but it contains a few of the foods I craved in Japan that were hard or impossible to come by, or at least without a lot of forethought and a bundle of money, since they had to be imported. I admit I succumbed occasionally and shelled out for something I thought I really needed to get over the hump of yet another Thanksgiving or Christmas away from family.

Strange thing was, when I did get my hands on something it was not always a successful experience, because different countries have their different ways of cooking things, different sized ovens and dishes and implements and this makes an enormous difference to the results of your cooking. As you may have noticed when you are in a strange kitchen your results can vary and be frustrating; cooking in another country poses a number of challenges that only experimenting and experience can help you to overcome.

Japanese ovens are tiny table-top versions that do cook efficiently and quickly, but take a bit of manoeuvring to get the results you want, especially if you are using recipes from home. You might need to reduce the pan size and cook your recipe in batches. You will certainly need to pay close attention as the cooking time may be half what you are used to. You will need to adapt your serving style as well, as plates will usually be significantly smaller than at home. And you will almost certainly adapt by serving things in unaccustomed dishes, perhaps in small bowls rather than on plates to facilitate eating with chopsticks.

You won't be able to produce identical results even for foods that you could make with your eyes closed at home. Unless, that is, you have a western-style oven, in a western-style kitchen, in a western-style house, and you eat off dishes from home. This would be hard to pull off in Japan without a lot of effort and money.

So when I tell you that I have discovered a Japanese restaurant in Halifax that faithfully reproduces the Japanese experience you can understand how difficult this must have been, and how special this is. A few weeks ago my son treated me to lunch at a small restaurant on Dresden Row called Doraku. I was not only fed authentic and delicious Japanese food but came away with that sense of repleteness that you only feel when you have been treated to the best comfort food you can imagine. Some of that comfort came from the fact that looking around made me think I had been teleported to a small neighbourhood restaurant in Japan. There was a sumi-e scroll on the wall in black and white. There was a simple green plant whose stem was wired to climb corners at unusual angles. There was a pot of genmai-cha and the right cups to drink it from. There was sushi that was so flavourful and meltingly tender that it was even better than much I had eaten in Japan. There was a steaming bowl of Kitsune soba, chopsticks on rests, gracious service and a horikotatsu-style private room to eat in.

On leaving there was even a goshiso sama deshita from me and an arigato gozaimashita from them. Really, I am the one who feels thankful. I have been missing Japan, a place that I spent 9 mind and soul altering years of my life and that I think of as my second home. I have been missing the temples at New Year's with the bells ringing, the beautiful garden outside my apartment, the cat left behind, my herb garden with its mature Rosemary, the students I taught for many years. Many things I have been missing, and while I knew that, it was not in the forefront of my mind every minute. It took this meal, and the enormous sense of well-being it brought me to acknowledge that while I may have left Japan, Japan has not left me. Part of me has become Japanese, I think, and that side responds with love and gratitude whenever I encounter places that allow me to feel, even for a short time, that I am at home.

Now that I know that I intend to keep that part of me alive and happy with further studies and by pursuing things I started there. I think I may have another go at sumi-e and studying Japanese. I know for sure that I will be cooking more Japanese food at home, and as often as I can I will be visiting the little miracle that is Doraku for meltingly tender sushi and food from home.

Doraku Japanese Restaurant
1549 Dresden Row

Halifax, Nova Scotia
Tel: (902) 425-8888

Tuesday to Saturday 11:45-2:30, 5:00-9:30
Sunday 5:00-9:30

I can recommend the fried sweet potato sushi, the asparagus sushi, the kitsune soba, and the genmai-cha. The sake is okay, too. But if you want something else, I'm pretty sure everything is delicious.


pohanginapete said...

VJ, that list in your first paragraph got me drooling, and I'm not even an ex-pat living in Japan (might be someday, though). I've just finished dinner — fresh tomato, bocconcini and basil salad drizzled with local olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a little good salt; and a potato, onion and (ahem...) bacon fry-up (just enough bacon to flavour it. It's not the same without it). Not too shabby.

I do almost all my cooking on two gas rings. I do have access to a bench-top oven, but seldom use it. It's amazing how one adapts to what's available — and cooking simply, on gas burners, stands me in good stead for when I'm in the mountains.

Curiously, the word verification for this comment is "gases". I trust it's referring to the method of cooking, not the consequences.

vegetablej said...

Hi Pete:

Love those potato, onion, and ahem fry ups. I still do them but with garlic, maybe tomato and feta cheese chopped up (which melts), and herbs. Basil is a taste star, maybe my favourite herb, if I had to or could choose just one.

I cooked on a two gas ring stove the whole time I was in Japan, amazing how good they are. Gas is the absolute best for cooking, if you ask me - quick, hot and easy to control.

So you might be thinking of going to Japan? Interesting, care to elaborate?

Thanks for sharing your lunch with me, love that kind of thing, and the local olive oil sounds delicious. They grow olives 'round thereabouts? Too cool.


pohanginapete said...

It's more a desire than an intention or plan, VJ. I can't see myself travelling much for the foreseeable future. Still, one never knows.

We produce some very good olive oils now. Of course, getting good olive oils from overseas is difficult, as they're often well past their best by the time they've been shipped through the tropics. The oil I mentioned is from trees growing in our district; it was a gift purchased for me at a local farmers' market.

I'll try your version (or a minor variation) of the fry-up. It sounds delicious :^)

Cha-chan said...

Here's to tending to our Japanese hearts. I really do hope you find some time to devote to your Japanese passions. If there is any support I can provide remotely, I am most happy to! I'm working on this myself, though I am quite fortunate in that my job is all-Japan-all-the-time. But outside of work, my tea ceremony practice needs attention! Gambarimashoo.

vegetablej said...


Your job sounds lovely, except I know _anything_ all the time can be overkill. I appreciate the offer of moral support. I think your comment falls in that category. Thanks!