Thursday, August 09, 2007

Asagaya Tanabata Festival - Part 4

When I was a kid, the closest we came to a festival were the local carnivals that traveled to all the little towns and milked the poor and unsophisticated of their hard-worn dough in rigged games of chance and skill. There were three points about them which I really looked forward to as a kid. One was the rides, another was the games, and the last was the food. At the Asagaya tanabata festival, the food seems to be at least 50% of the fun if you go by the number of vendors and offerings.

The second most popular item by far is the Japanese equivalent of a snow cone which is called kakigori. There were at least 6 vendors along the street offering up this cold treat. Given how hot it was during the festival, this is no surprise. Almost all of the vendors sold exactly the same flavors - strawberry, lemon, melon, and "Blue Hawaii". I tried a "Blue Hawaii" one ages ago but can't remember what it tasted like. I think it may have been some sort of fruit punch. The stand shown above also sold "yogurt" as a flavor.

The main difference between a snow cone back home and one in Japan (besides the flavors) is that they are prepared by using a hand crank that produces finer ice. They are also sometimes served with sweet beans or condensed milk but I didn't see any of this sort of thing for sale at the festival. I'm guessing those are more sophisticated versions of kakigori and aren't often sold at tables set up temporarily for festivals.

The most popular item was "franks" in various incarnations. From convenience store dogs to weenies on a stick to the dogs on bones above, a lot of shops seemed to feel that everyone wanted to have a hot dog. Japanese hot dogs aren't like those in the U.S. They have an odd taste which reminds me of bologna crossed with a sausage and are not as soft as your average Ball Park frank. You can't buy American-style dogs in Japan which is fine with me since I don't care for them anyway. The Japanese ones are no picnic either. They aren't better, just different.

There are a good many foods that I wouldn't touch and the item pictured above is one of them. These are konnyaku balls. I've mentioned konnyaku before when talking about the sumo stew chanko nabe. It's a gelatin-type substance which is used in a variety of Japanese foods. Blocks of it are added to stew. My students tell me they are also used to make sweet konnyaku jellied candies which are a bit like a werid Sunkist Fruit Gem.

Every time you mention konnyaku to a Japanese person, they tell you it's "healthy". I'm not sure if it really lives up to all the claims associated with it or if the agency for the advancement of tasteless jellied foods just wants us to think that.

On the flip-side of konnyaku is pure spun sugar. There is always one cotton candy vendor at tanabata. This is the only time I ever see it in Japan and it seems that the people who make it think that quantity is what people want. The bundles are always really dense and the floss is stuck together. I don't know if this is because it's spun too tightly or because it's made beforehand but, back home, really great cotton candy was like whispery clouds of gossamer. If it was a lumpen glob, there was no point in having it so we don't partake.

There's a rather old, run-down and somewhat grubby meat and miscellaneous fresh foods shop that has been on the shopping street since forever. It looked old and unsanitary even when we first arrived 18 years ago. This shop, along with several other places, was offering grilled chicken on a stick (yakitori). This goes hand in hand with the multitude of beer vendors. When my students ask me what Japanese food I like best and I reply with "yakitori", they assume that I'm a booze-hound since they always associate its consumption with drinking alcohol.

This takoyaki (octopus balls, not octopus's balls) stand was set up by a supermarket named Daimaru Peacock. This market is one of a great many in the chain in Tokyo and their vendors have a more professional air about them. I guess those shops who have a big corporation behind them can afford professional signs and shiny clean preparation facilities. It actually seems less appealing in the festival atmosphere because of it's slicker look. It seems like the sort of thing you could buy any time anywhere.

The liquor shop that I mentioned in my New Year's post, showed their international nature again with a French fellow preparing a variety of mini-quiches (on the left) and crepes. Though the crepes were freshly prepared, they were served with the same type of fillings you get from the trendy crepe shops in Tokyo (whipped cream, chocolate, and banana being the most common). I admire the way the French fellow can smile as he stands over a griddle in 90 degree heat.

I'm not certain but the things on the left with sticks protruding from either end may be yet another variation on the weenie on a stick. On the right is tsukune which is a sort of Japanese meatloaf on a stick. In Japan, there's nothing you can't serve on a stick so it can be conveniently held in one hand while you carry your beer in the other.

In fact, it doesn't matter how disgusting something looks, it can be put on a stick and grilled. I'm no seafood fan and the sign I can read in Japanese says "seafood" so I'm not sure what this stuff is. If it's got tentacles though, it's off my edible list. However, if you're put off by eating the appendages of bottom feeders, you can have some wieners since this place was selling them for half the price of the tentacle sticks.

Notice the nice green apples on the paper in front of this stand? There aren't any apples for sale here or, in fact, anything with apples so I don't know what these guys were thinking but it wasn't truth in advertising. On the left, they're making okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki sort of defies explanation since it's a bit like a pancake/omelet hybrid that you can slop nearly anything else into. The pans in the center are likely okonomiyaki fixings. On the right are chocolate-covered bananas. You can't miss them as they're next to the omnipresent weenies on the grill.

There were two stands selling caramel corn but I decided to use this one instead of the one of the bored and forlorn-looking woman standing all alone in front of her brown-goo-covered corn. This one was more interesting because it really looks like these two are flirting with each other behind their corn aquarium.

One of the things I noticed after looking at these pictures is that two food groups are over-represented at the festival - parts of former living creatures on sticks and things involving sugar. There aren't many items from the carbohydrate or fruit and vegetable groups comparatively. I'm guessing this is because meat/seafood on a stick goes with booze (and there were a lot of beer sellers there who I haven't bothered to show pictures of as they're all pretty boring) and sugar appeals to the kids and young women. The picture above shows a rare offering of grilled corn and rice balls (onigiri). I love yaki-onigiri but don't often have occasion to eat it since I'm too lazy to make it on my own and I have to go to restaurants or bars to order it. Grilled onigiri has a crispy outside which has a lovely grilled flavor and is tender and soft inside.

The items above are dango. These are chewy balls of sticky rice-flour goop that don't have much flavor themselves but are served with different sauces. They're sometimes sweet and sometimes savory. They remind me of eating an unhappy marriage of licorice and taffy but every Japanese person I know loves them. My main issue with them is with the texture though it could also be that the first variety I ever tasted was coated with a massively sweet bean paste and the second was done with soy sauce. I have a rather stand-offish relationship with soy sauce and only like it as a condiment rather than a side dish so it was all a bit overwhelming for me.

Given how much the Japanese love the combination of cucumbers and summer, I'd have expected to see more of them for sale but this was the only one. One of my former coworkers said he was hiking around Japan at one point and a farmer offered him a cucumber on a stick which was wearing a thick coat of salt. He said it looked like it would be disgustingly salty but it was quite refreshing in the heat of summer. In some of my husband's other pictures, there are girls eating these during their night-time partying.

The sign in front of this display says "viking sushi". Usually, "viking" is used to talk about "all you can eat" style buffets but in this case it appears to be used to denote large, cheap rolls of sushi. I'm not so sure that I'd trust huge rolls of sushi for a little under a buck. They could be filled with the stuff pictured below.

These look like animal bladders but I believe they are squid minus the tentacles. The sign on the left does say "squid" but I don't know if that sign is for this display of weirdness or for some other. I guess they cut off the tentacles so they could grill them and sell them on sticks.

There are a ton more pictures but most of them are people who are selling only weenies or kakigori. I'm not sure why there was such a hot dog explosion this year but it did seem to be the food du jour this time around. I'm sure that someone out there will conclude that it's all America's fault since any food that isn't squiggly, wiggly, raw, or made with rice and isn't healthy for you is being forcibly jammed down Japanese gullets by big, bad Americans. However, if I had to guess what brought on the serving of all these sausages, I'd say someone hit the giant celestial boar (this being the year of the boar) and someone made the most of it. ;-)


Chris Salzberg said...

Great post! I missed Tanabata this year unfortunately although I live nearby, but your post was a great wrap-up.

Shari said...

Hi, Chris, and thanks very much for your kind comment!

I've actually got more left to go. My husband did a pretty detailed "photo journal" so I figured I'd get it out in pieces as best I could.

I believe there are two more in the buffer with some pictures of the night-time festivities and the hanging figures that are everywhere.

Also, thanks for linking to my article on the festival in your Global Voices Online! It's much appreciated!

Kai|Kat said...

Your last picture really is a row of squid. I should know... I eat a lot of it. ^_^

That cotton candy really looks like... cotton. Balls of cotton. Ick.

Helen said...

Konnayaku on a stick isn't bad, especially with really hot mustard. Hubby and I get some at a highway rest stop once in a while. It is full of fiber, I think. And, I've started to eat the low cal jelly fruit cups of this stuff. It makes a nice break when I want a fruity taste.

Isn't it annoying how people in Japan say a food is "healthy"? I've noticed that they rarely say natto is delicious, just how healthy it is! I still can't quite believe it. I've had it....twice. That was enough for my lifetime!

Anonymous said...

Great post! I miss Japan (currently in the U.S.)
But, I would have to say you are wrong; takoyaki, okonomiyaki and yakisoba are typical "festival foods"! Takoyaki in a festvial atmosphere is something so different from that in daily life.
(it may be because takoyaki used to be a special food available only at festivals when I was a kid, at least in Tokyo)

Anonymous said...

WOnderful pictures - a lot of the food I would love to munch on. Those 'animal bladders' look like cuttlefish parts to me, which I'd love grilled (with some curry sauce slathered on).