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Pickles, Oysters, Red Bean Cakes—Oh My! (Or The Many Fried Things On Sticks I Ate in Japan)

Yes, my friends, you’re seeing it right. Pictured here is a REALLY HUGE PICKLE on a stick. I bought it from a street vendor in Kyoto on the road leading up to Kiumizudera, a prominent old temple complex that’s sort of like the Acropolis of Japan. Anyone who knows me well knows that I absolutely adore pickles. (Longtime readers of this blog know that I even make them myself.) Luckily for me, Japan is a veritable pickle paradise, and cucumbers are just the tip of the, um, cucumber. Whether it’s vegetables like burdock root and cabbage or fruit like the brutally sour umeboshi plum, Japanese cuisine is replete with cured items. As a result, there are also a lot of stores selling pickles, with most of them cut up and placed in bowls to enable patrons to taste before buying. Taste I did. But I am going off on a tangent: Pickles were only one category of the many fascinating and delicious street foods I ate in Japan, a country where even the tiniest detail (or bite, as the case may be) receives a stunning amount of attention.

Another major class of street food was what I like to call “fried things on sticks.” Among these was the maple leaf-shaped treat pictured here, which had a sort of rubbery tofu-like texture and was studded with pieces of octopus. Momiji, the maple leaf, is the symbol of Hiroshima and its neighboring island Miyajima, because of the area’s stunning fall color. To be quite frank, this particular momiji looked much better than it tasted, but perhaps the other flavors, which included shrimp, cod roe, sea eel and cheese, would have redeemed the concept. Other fried treats were far more successful. At the open-air Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Daddy Salmon got something that looked almost like a Twinkie on a stick. Inside the fried shell was a rich, soft squash filling, which was such a pleasant surprise that it prompted Mango Mama to take a few extra bites, all while declining to get her own, despite Daddy Salmon’s protests.

For a country that supposedly frowns on walking while eating, handheld creations were not difficult to come by. Another favorite came in the form of steamed buns with characters edibly imprinted on their plush, rounded tops. The first one of these I tried, in Miyajima, was stuffed with a mix of conger eel and vegetables. The bun had a pleasant chew, giving way to the warm, soft filling, but I found the flavor of this one to be a little meek and the texture a little mealy. Later in the trip, when descending from Kiumizudera in Kyoto via that same road that yielded the pickle on a stick, we found another stand selling similar looking buns. This time the filling was beef with burdock root, and I purchased one for each of us. These were deeply savory, well spiced and had a great textural contrast, thanks to the mushroom-like pieces of burdock root. I could eat these beautiful buns for breakfast, lunch or dinner and at all points in between.

Of course, this being Japan, seafood was another major street-food category. One of the best street snacks we tried were fried oysters in cream that we happened upon during a rainy-day walk in Miyajima. Rich and molten in the center, these were like eating a rich oyster chowder in a glorious handheld pocket of friedness. But probably the most impressive bit of street fare we tried was a baby octopus on a stick. Called tako, these guys are delicious, tentacles and all. It took us until the first person bit into it the head to realize that this octopus’s noggin was stuffed with a bright yellow, hard-cooked egg yolk. The yolk was perfectly done, not chalky in the least, and the textural contrast between the taut octopus meat and the gentle softness of the egg bordered on a revelation.

Last, but not least, let us turn to desserts. We didn’t eat much street food in Tokyo, but I was astonished by the uniformly high quality of the Parisienne-style bakeries there. At one particularly museum-like spot where the counter ladies all wore impeccable uniforms, I ordered a near-perfect creme puff, paid the ladies, nodded courteously and then walked outside and proceeded to chow down. Heavenly! In Miyajima, the momiji makes its most famous appearance in little maple-leaf shaped filled cakes, known as momiji manju. While the most common fillings are red bean, green tea and chocolate, I also tasted strawberry, orange and a few other wacky flavors. Call me a purist, but I liked the red bean one best. That’s because it strikes the best balance between sweet and boldly savory without the overwhelming saccharine sweetness of flavors like strawberry or the weakness of the chocolate. A final favorite dessert was actually part of our breakfast sampler at Nishiki Market in Kyoto. Having refused to buy her own fried, spiced squash thing on a stick, Mango Mama spotted a sign that said “Tofu Doughnuts.” Intrigued, she ordered a bag of them. These were tasty, light little fried rings of dough. We didn’t quite see where the tofu came in—maybe they were made with soy milk—but we were more than happy to eat them, nonetheless.

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