Undiscovered New York: East Village by way of Japan

Japan lies more than 6,500 miles away from New York, separated by an entire continent and the world’s largest ocean. But don’t let the distance fool you – there’s no place in the U.S. outside the West Coast that packs more Japanese culture per square foot than New York City.

Throughout the city you’ll find numerous Japanese restaurants, cultural events and businesses. Although the variety is great, covering everything from sushi spots to Japanese department stores like Takashimaya to Cherry Blossom festivals, finding New York’s Japanese culture can be a workout. It’s scattered all over the city.

Thankfully there is one area you can go to get a taste of Japan all in one place – Manhattan’s East Village. No area offers a higher concentration of Japanese culture. Though it bears no official title, the area is practically its own “Japantown,” boasting authentic Japanese businesses and cuisine: laid-back izakayas, quirky toy stores, hidden sake bars and authentic Japanese groceries are all waiting to be discovered.

Is that plane ticket to Tokyo not in the budget this year? Cheer up – consider New York as your backup option. Want to eat some of the best ramen this side of the Pacific Ocean? Do you know the difference between hot and cold sake? Looking for a place to pick up that obscure Astro Boy figurine? Then grab your suitcase as Undiscovered New York takes you to Japan by way of the East Village…
If there’s one Japanese food we particularly love here at Undiscovered New York, it’s ramen. The truth of the matter is nothing beats the perfect combination of salty noodles, spicy toppings, fatty pork and crunchy vegetables that comprise one of Japan’s most famous dishes. You really have to try it to understand why.

New York’s East Village is ground zero for some of the city’s best ramen spots. Foodies love to debate which ramen shop has the best and/or most authentically Japanese ramen. Is it David Chang’s Momofuku Noodle Bar, a relative newcomer that now includes three sister restaurants? Or what about Ramen Setagaya, the spot many purists claim is most faithful to the Japanese ramen recipe? Not if you listen to the owners of straight-from-Japan Ippudo, the newest addition to the East Village’s brewing “ramen wars.” The only way to decide is to head to the East Village and try for yourself. Forget the fact we didn’t even cover the East Village’s numerous yakitoris, izakayas and sushi spots. That’s enough for its own post!

Japanese Toys
It’s sometimes said that New Yorkers live in a state of perpetual adolescence, always delaying the onset of adulthood for the priorities of career, finances and fun. There’s certainly some truth to that statement when you consider the preponderance of Japanese toy stores in the East Village, offering the latest and greatest in Japanese playthings.

Among the favorites is Toy Tokyo, stocking everything from your favorite 1980’s movie figurines to Japan’s favorite monster, Godzilla. Just a short walk east is J 1 Pan Toy, which carries a similarly impressive collection of Japanese stationery, DVD’s and greeting cards. Just one block north is Giant Robot, a gallery space with a smallish collection that tends to skew more towards the savvy and obsessive figurine collectors. If you still can’t get enough of that Japanese merchandise, there’s Aica, a retailer that specializes in “hard-to-find” collectibles straight from the motherland.

Time for a drink
If all the salty ramen and scouring of Japanese toy stores has made you thirsty, it’s time for a cold beverage. You could do worse than stopping by Decibel, an “underground” sake bar that’s literally hidden in the basement down a flight of steps. Stocking a huge selection of more than 70 varieties of the beverage, it’s a great place to try both hot and cold sakes and hang out with a friend.

If your thirst is more of the non-alcoholic variety, never fear, the East Village boasts several authentic Japanese grocery stores. Grab yourself a cold bottle of green tea or some Pocari Sweat over at Sunrise Mart. Nearby is Korean grocer M2M, which stocks a surprisingly large array of Japanese products, as well as JAS Mart on St. Mark’s.

Big in Japan: A taster’s guide to green tea

Yesterday, I wrote about Japan’s national beverage, namely the humble yet refined glass of green tea.

However, just as no two glasses of wine are created equal, green tea is just as varied as the finest fruit of the vine.

Indeed, there are a multitude of specialty green teas, each varying in taste, texture and complexity.

While a true vinophile would never consistently drink glass upon glass of red wine, green tea connoisseurs take great pride in sampling the full spectrum of brews.

But how do you tell the difference between sencha and matcha?
Aren’t all green teas simply dried leaves seeped in hot water?

Ah, my young grasshopper!

You have much to learn, but fear not as today, I’m going to present you with a handy taster’s guide to green teas that will hopefully get started on the long road to green tea devotion.

To get started, click on the link below to take a tour through the wide and wonderful world of green tea, one of nature’s most perfect beverages.

With millennia of history dating back to ancient China, green tea has undergone some incredible transformations over the generations.

Of course, all aspiring aficionados of green tea should start with ryokucha, or quite literally true tea (緑茶).

Green tea in its simplest form is so common in Japan that it’s known as just ‘tea’ (お茶; ocha) or even ‘Japanese tea’ (日本茶; nihoncha).

Nine times out of ten, true tea takes the form of sencha (煎茶, broiled tea), which is distinguished as being the first and/or second flush of tea leaves that have been dried in the sun.

Of course, the Japanese are also extremely partial to matcha (抹茶, rubbed tea), a finely ground tea that is the centerpiece of the tea ceremony.

Somewhat reminiscent of green flour, matcha can also be used to flavor a variety of confectionaries including ice cream, rice flour cakes and sweets.

Another excellent brew is genmaicha (玄米茶, brown-rice tea), which is usually a hearty a healthy blend of sencha, matcha and roasted genmai (玄米) or brown rice.

Genmaicha in particularly has a unique history since it was first brought to Japan by Myōan Eisai, a Japanese Buddhist priest who also introduced the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism.

Are you with me so far? If so, also be on the lookout for the following:

Shincha (新茶, new tea) Freshly picked and dried tea leaves that tend to make an appearance in the markets a few times a year.

Bancha (番茶, common tea) This blue-collar brew is made from the trimmed unnecessary twigs of the tea plant.

Hojicha (焙じ茶, pan fried tea) Sencha takes on an entirely different taste after it has been gently roasted in a frying pan.

Gyokuro (玉露, jade dew): The highest grade of Japanese green tea that is famous for its pale green color and extremely high caffeine content.

See – this just goes to show you that with a little time and practice, anyone can become an aficionado!

** All images were courtesy of the WikiCommons Media Project ***

Big in Japan: What is green tea?

Quick question: when you think of Japan, name the first thing that comes to mind?

(No peeking – hurry up as time is running out!)

OK. Time’s up. Did you come up with any of the following:

a) Raked pebble gardens occupied by meditating monks
b) Kimono-clad geishas clip-clapping through Kyoto back streets
c) Scenic panoramas of cherry-blossom covered landscapes
d) Fluorescent-garbed teens wandering around futurescapes

Well, while all of these answers are certainly correct, today’s posting is on something decidedly more humble in scale, namely a simple glass of green tea.

Perhaps more than any other culinary staple, green tea has a long and distinguished history as Japan’s national beverage.

In fact, entire cultural pursuits such as sad? (?????, literally the way of tea) have been dedicated to this appreciation of this humble but highly refined beverage.

Which of course brings us to the next question at hand: what is green tea?

Green tea or ryokucha ( ?????; literally true tea) refers to any beverage made solely with the leaves of Camellia sinensis that have undergone minimal oxidation during processing.

(In layman’s terms, we’re talking about minimizing the natural process by which tea turns black, which quite simply would result in black tea, not green tea!)

Intrigued? Hope so as there is plenty more to learn about the preferred beverage of Zen monks everywhere!

Like most things Japanese, green tea first originated in China several millennia ago, though the product was later refined – some would argue perfected on the islands of Japan.

Just as corn or wheat has numerous strains, the tea plant is extremely susceptible to different growing conditions and harvesting times, which has resulted in several unique final products.

However, the important characteristic of all green teas is that they are not allowed to oxidize to the same extent as traditional English style teas.

So, while your morning cup of English Breakfast can sometimes be powerful enough to necessitate a few added scoops of sugar, green tea is nearly always light enough to be drunk in its pure form.

As a result, green tea has significantly less caffeine than black tea and coffee, though this is not to say that the drink isn’t chock full of vitamins and minerals.

Indeed, green tea is thought by both Eastern and Western doctors to have a number of purported health benefits.

In fact, there exists a whole body of medical evidence (not to discount millennia of Eastern traditional knowledge) to suggest that regular green tea drinkers are protected from a variety of health ailments.

From preventing cancer and heart disease to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, there may be a whole lot more in your morning cup of tea that just a quick shot of caffeine.

Love green tea as much as I do?

If so, tune in tomorrow for a handy and helpful green tea taster’s guide that will have you sipping and characterizing rare brews in no time at all!

** All images are courtesy of the Wikicommons media project **

Don’t Poo-poo Pu-er Tea

Who cares about the price of tea in China? More and more people globally. A recent article in the WSJ says that there’s been a run on China’s most popular tea, pu-er (aka pu-erh, or pu’er, or Bolay tea). A recent sale netted the seller almost $40,000 . . . for a single 3.5oz cake that was 60 years old.

Like all true teas (as opposed to fruit “tea” or herbal “tea”), it’s made from the Camellia sinensis plant. Pu-er tea is only slightly oxidized, like green teas, has a smoky taste, and is sold generally in bricks or cakes, which are usually round, discus-like objects, looking like large cow-patties. It comes in “raw” or “cooked” form.

Unlike most teas, it’s meant to be aged, even for many years, and, supposedly, it gets better with age. 150-year old cakes go for over $13,000 sometimes. And collectors are drinking this tea up.

According to people we met in China, this was the most prized and most typically drank tea (not the oolong tea you usually get in Chinese restaurants in the West). Further, the black tea we typically drink in the West is fairly rare there. And you sure won’t see a tea bag.

In fact, while sampling and discussing the relative tastes and benefits of various teas, the owner of a small tea shop laughed off the fact that we enjoyed black teas, told us that the caffeine would surely kill us . . . and then offered us a cigarette.