Although I am perfectly happy - and often prefer - to travel alone, I have begun to appreciate the different perspectives some of my friends give to places I go to often.
On my yearly trips to Tokyo, for example, I make it a point to meet pals from Singapore who are also in the Japanese capital and we explore new places.
Going to Hidemi Sugino, a patisserie in Kyobashi, with a large group of friends means we can try practically every cake on the menu, and debating which one is best is a fun parlour game.
My Japanese friends have introduced me to restaurants that only locals go to and I treasure those meals very much.
This year, I went to Tokyo with my sister. We don't spend nearly enough time together because she lives in Australia, so it was a real treat for me.
I ended up going to places I wouldn't usually go to and doing things I wouldn't have thought of doing.
My trips to Tokyo are usually planned right down to the last meal. I like that precision; it appeals to my inner control freak.
But my sister wanted me to experience Ameyoko Market. I had never thought of going, so was game.
We made no restaurant bookings one night and headed to Ueno. The sprawling place, formerly the site of a black market post-World War II, is filled with shops selling everything from cosmetics to snacks, as well as food places.
Wandering through the market and getting delightfully lost, we browsed the shops and stopped to eat at places that looked good to us.
One of these was a buzzy izakaya, where we feasted on motsu-ni or beef offal stew, grilled scallops, cold and briny oysters and baked potatoes with butter.
The city was colder than usual during the 10 days we were there. I found myself walking through overheated department stores on the way back to the hotel, when I would usually delight in the cold.
Those potatoes hit the spot so perfectly that cold night and we had two servings, relishing the comfort the dish brought us. Spuds and butter, that's all it was, but how good they tasted.
Potatoes were also the highlight of another new thing I did in Tokyo.
About a week before I left, a friend who had been in the city before us said she would have to miss Furusato Matsuri, but that I should check it out.
On a public holiday, when no restaurants of note were open, we made our way to the annual food festival at Tokyo Dome. After stashing our coats in lockers, we walked down to the arena and tried to take stock of everything.
Different prefectures in Japan are represented at the festival and it is possible to eat one's way through the country in one place. Aside from that, there were bands playing and competitions going on. People were everywhere.
It was one big delightful mess in an orderly country and we plunged right in.
Furusato Matsuri is like every Japanese food fair you have been to, but on steroids. We feasted on steamed oysters, fish cake, softserve ice cream served in melon halves, sausages impaled on bones (where are the bones - which all look the same and curve the same way - from?) and washed these all down with beer samplers.
Everywhere I looked, there were people holding square plates with huge baked potatoes and various toppings.
We found the stall in the Hokkaido section. After taking a bite, I figured I had died and gone to spud heaven. The potato was crammed with cubes of butter and topped generously with mentaiko, or spicy pollock roe.
There was something about the spicy, salty fish eggs with the butter and potato that made me want to eat more and more.
We could not, to my eternal regret, finish it because we were approaching a food coma.
Back home, I hankered after it again, so I decided to replicate it.
It is difficult to find those huge potatoes here, but smaller ones make for a good snack or side dish. Use Russet potatoes because the insides fluff up during baking. Do not skip the step of piercing holes through the potatoes with a fork. Exploding spuds in the oven are no fun to clean up, trust me.
Mentaiko is available in Japanese supermarkets here. Of course, there are other good things to put on a baked spud. The stall also sold a version topped with fermented squid guts.
Those a little squeamish can consider sour cream, bacon, tuna and cheese.
Sitting down to my baked potato in Singapore, I could not help but think it was equally comforting in tropical conditions. I guess a baked spud is good anywhere in the world, at any time.
BAKED POTATO WITH MENTAIKO
- 4 Russet potatoes, about 250g each
- 2 tsp olive or grapeseed oil
- 1 tsp flaky sea salt
- 2 lobes mentaiko (salted spicy pollock roe, above), about 100g
- 10g chives
- 100g unsalted butter
1. Scrub the potatoes under running water, pat dry with paper towels and let dry in a colander. This can be done the night before cooking.
2. Preheat the oven to 200 deg C.
3. Prick the potatoes all over fairly deeply with the tines of a fork (below). This is to prevent steam from building up in the potatoes and causing them to explode in the oven. Place them in a bowl. Pour the oil and sprinkle the salt over the potatoes, mix with hands to coat well.
4. Place the potatoes on a metal rack set over a lined baking tray and bake in the oven for one hour and 15 minutes. The potatoes are ready when a sharp knife inserted into the centre meets no resistance.
5. While the potatoes are cooking, use a sharp knife to slit the mentaiko down the middle lengthwise. Use a teaspoon to scrape the roe into a small dish. Chop the chives. Cut the butter into four equal pieces and refrigerate.
6. When the potatoes are ready (below), take them out of the oven and place them on a serving platter or individual serving plates. Using a knife, cut through the top layer of skin lengthwise, but do not cut through the potatoes. Gently push both ends towards the middle to fluff up the insides of the spuds. Place a chunk of butter in the middle of each one. Divide the mentaiko among the potatoes, sprinkle chives over them and serve immediately.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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