For several years now, I have spent 10 days in Tokyo in January. I used to go in April, but I find winter much more friendly. The year-end tourists have gone home. Winter temperatures allow me to walk and walk. Seasonal food, such as shirako (cod milt), is best eaten in Japan. I can slurp ramen all I want without breaking a sweat.
And each year, I stay in Shinjuku, in a hotel that is close enough to the bright lights and the noise, but far enough from their effects.
For that time, I think of Shinjuku as my neighbourhood, even though I go all over Tokyo on eating adventures.
One thing that's missing, however, is that when walking purposefully to the train station, or taking a leisurely stroll in the area after dinner someplace else, it is hard to connect with the people all around me.
And there are many people in Shinjuku - salarymen in suits and overcoats, chic women, drunk office workers boisterous on a night out, students.
I wonder what their lives are like, what's underneath the veneer that all Japanese people seem to sport. The language barrier stops me cold. The faces are impassive. Nobody lets their guard down, least of all to a tourist.
Then I watch Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories on Netflix.
Based on a manga which was made into a successful TV show, the 10-episode Netflix series answers a lot of questions I have about the people I see in my temporary 'hood.
The show is about folks who patronise a diner called Meshiya in the backstreets of Shinjuku. It is open from midnight to 7am and run by a man simply known as Master (played by Kaoru Kobayashi, a huncle if ever there was one).
His menu is simple: Pork Miso Soup Combo, beer, sake, shochu. But he will cook anything his customers ask for, provided he has the ingredients on hand.
Each episode centres on one dish, usually a simple one such as corndogs made with Japanese pancake mix and tubular Japanese fishcake, egg tofu, hot pot, sauteed yam or ham cutlet.
The food usually means something to the person who orders it, and it is the often intriguing relationship between diner and dish that prompts me to devour the series in one sitting.
Big emotions - love, betrayal, loss, explosive secrets and secret longings - are dealt with in an intimate and compelling way. The show peels away layers of armour, allowing me to imagine the rich lives of the people I walk past.
Sure, there is buffoonery, in the form of a group of salary women and a couple of barflies who function like a Greek chorus. Yet, the comic relief does not take away from the heart in the stories.
The actors chow down for real in the show and relish their food.
I do too, vicariously. Then I figure I should stop longing and start cooking.
One dish that catches my fancy is tonteki, pork steak that is the speciality of Yokkaichi, a city in Mie prefecture.
It features in Episode 3, about young realtor Shigemi Suzuki, who knits sweaters for men she has crushes on. One of these guys loves tonteki and so, of course, she does too.
Master does a version with a thin sauce and grated onion. I have never had the dish, so I do some research and decide to go with the original version, with a thicker sauce. It is simple to make and tastes very good for so little effort.
Tonteki is usually made with pork loin, but even if you can get a piece with a layer of fat on top of the chop, the meat can turn out dry. I experiment with pork loin, pork neck and pork shoulder, and the shoulder is my preferred cut because of its marbling.
In supermarkets here, you can buy large pieces of it called pork shoulder block. A 250g to 300g piece is good for two people, with rice.
What makes the dish is the sauce, made with simple pantry ingredients. Japanese supermarkets sell Japanese Worcestershire sauce, which tastes fruity and is not as pungent as the British version. It makes a difference to the dish. Do not sniff at the ketchup either, because its tanginess makes the sauce instantly appetising.
As I prepare to head out to my not-so-secret happy place, I think about the stories I've watched on the show, about the mysterious Master, who has a scar running down the left side of his face, from mid-forehead to mid-cheek. What's his story? What's his dish?
I wonder if I might stumble on a midnight diner. It seems a distinct possibility, given all the little eating places in Piss Alley near Shinjuku station, or in Golden Gai.
• 2 cloves garlic
• 5 to 6 leaves cabbage
• 4 Tbs Japanese Worcestershire sauce (below)
• 1 Tbs shoyu (Japanese soya sauce)
• 1 Tbs sake
• 2 Tbs mirin
• 2 Tbs ketchup
• One 250g to 300g pork shoulder block (below)
• 1/4 tsp salt
• Freshly ground black pepper
• 1 Tbs cooking oil
• 2 cherry tomatoes
1. Peel the garlic and slice thinly.
2. Rinse the cabbage under running water, pat dry, stack the leaves, roll them up and slice thinly crosswise. Set aside.
3. In a small measuring jug, combine the Japanese Worcestershire sauce, shoyu, sake, mirin and ketchup. Stir to combine.
4. Rinse the pork under running water, pat very dry with paper towels. Rub with the salt and pepper.
5. Pour the oil into a frying pan with a cover and set it over medium heat. Drop in a sliver of garlic and when it sizzles, add the rest of the garlic. Fry until the slices turn a light golden brown. Do not let the garlic brown too much. Remove with chopsticks onto a plate lined with a paper towel.
6. Pour out and discard the oil in the pan. Place the pork in the pan, keep the heat at medium and sear for three minutes. Flip it over and cook another three minutes. Hold the pan cover in one hand and the jug of sauce in the other - pour the sauce into the pan and immediately clap on the cover. Turn the heat down to medium low. Let cook three minutes. Flip the pork over and cook another three minutes, four if using a thicker piece of meat.
7. Remove the pork from the pan and place on a cutting board. If the sauce is runny, continue to cook it, uncovered, until it reduces enough to coat the back of a spoon. If it is already thick and glossy, turn off the heat.
8. Slice the pork and place it on a serving plate. Spoon the sauce over it and scatter the garlic chips on the meat. Place the cherry tomatoes, sliced in half, and cabbage on the plate. Serve immediately.
Serves two with rice
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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