Japan is one of those countries where even if you visit it as a pure tourist, you’ll still get a lot of valuable experiences due to the fact that the culture permeates everything. Nonetheless, to really get a sense of how everyday Japanese people enjoy some of their evenings out, visiting an izakaya (Japanese pub) is a must. There, people drink, but also enjoy excellent food at the same time. It’s a far cry from a lot of the frozen and fried pub food found in America as the quality and creativity is often much higher.
Our last meal before leaving the beautiful country of Japan was at Kurara where two of our Japanese friends took us. We met up with my friend – a foreign exchange student I met in high school who I happened to stay in touch with over the years – and his wife for the second time during our stay in Japan (the first night we met them we went to a restaurant named, Miroku). They wanted to give us an experience that we wouldn’t find on our own, so the plan was to not only have us enjoy Japanese hot pot (which is different than the Chinese version), but to also kick it up a notch with offal hot pot (Motsunabe)! My wife, despite being a generally adventurous eater, wasn’t especially eager as she has a mental block about the idea of offal more than the actual taste. I, on the other hand, was very excited to try something I would never have found on my own in Japan.
The meal consisted of drinking, eating, and general merriment as my friend busted out our old high school yearbook to show, or rather, horribly embarrass us in front of our wives. Throughout it all, the owner of the restaurant, Mr. Akio Arai (below) greeted us personally and took group photos for us in the intimate restaurant setting. The whole experience was more than we could have hoped for in terms of trying new things with old friends.
Service and Atmosphere
Kurara is a small restaurant with a bar to the left as you walk in and a few tables to the right. There are a variety of alcoholic beverages like beer, sake, and shōchū, displayed that people can enjoy while eating delicious hot pot. The setting is warm and intimate, but at the same time casual enough to allow for shared bursts of laughter. The owner of the restaurant, Mr. Akio Arai is an extremely friendly and accommodating man who makes visiting the establishment even more enjoyable.
Much of the food we enjoyed at Kurara contained some kind of offal or animal “guts” as my friend kept saying. That may not sound very appealing to many Americans or Western people, however, offal is enjoyed in much of the world. It’s a great way to respect the animal by using all or most of its parts. Liverwurst, pate, and hot dogs could be considered a kind of processed offal, so it’s not really that strange. With that said, Kurara also offered a variety of excellent non-offal dishes that delighted both those that enjoy offal and those that are more squeamish at the idea.
Appetizer Salad – Honestly, I don’t remember exactly what made up this appetizer dish, only that it tasted very good. The light sauce on the left and the creamy (maybe mayo) dressing on the right with the fresh vegetables showed off a refreshing combination of flavors.
Beef Liver – This dish consisted of cooked, marinated beef liver that I thought was really excellent. It wasn’t pungent, gamey, or strong in flavor like some liver preparations. In fact, the texture was probably the most tender liver I’ve ever had and the flavor was of light beef and minerals to still let you know what you are eating. I enjoyed this very much and even my wife tried a small bite. She said the flavors were good, but it was really more of a mental block when it came to eating it.
Chicken Guts – I don’t remember exactly if this next dish was chicken or not, but I believe it was. I really enjoyed this dish as well because the pieces had a firm yet tender texture and the flavors were very simple. Once again, the innards didn’t taste gamey or strong in any way. A true sign of excellent preparation by the chef.
Veggies – One of the simplest dishes was also one of my wife’s favorite. It was just fresh cabbage, tomato, and some kind of pickled/fermented cucumber served with mayo and a savory sauce. We could simply dip the vegetables in the sauce for some cool refreshment or add them to the hot pot for some crunch.
Fresh Sardine – Many of us have a pre-conceived notion of sardines as always coming in some kind of canned preparation. While I enjoy a good canned sardine as much as the next person (especially with a little pickled onion and French bread),
Hot Pot (Nabemono / Motsunabe) – The star of the show was the hot pot itself brought to our table and set on a hot plate to heat it. The fresh vegetables, herbs, and bits of offal in the pot awaited a hearty helping of delicious broth to cook down the dish. Once heated, we each took a ladle full of all the ingredients and enjoyed the combined flavors. The vegetables added substance and flavoring while the offal added texture and a hearty depth to the dish. One great thing about this type of hot pot is that those of us that like to experience or eat offal (or “guts” as my friend says) can enjoy it while those that don’t can avoid those pieces, but still enjoy the richness of the soup’s total flavor.
Grilled Chicken – No izakaya is truly complete without some excellently grilled meats. In this case we had some chicken that was excellent and perfectly cooked. The outside was crispy and flavored with fresh herbs while the inside remained very tender.
Hot Pot Finishing Touches – Towards the end of the meal, the hot pot contains mostly broth, but that doesn’t mean the meal is over. All of that delicious broth shouldn’t get wasted and so my friend showed me a way to make the broth more substantial. Our server brought us an egg, which my friend then mixed af the table and added to the broth while it was warm, but not hot. This tempered the egg so it could incorporate with the broth to mildly thicken it. Then we brought the temperature of the hot pot back up and served the remains of the broth, which was very delicious. I never experienced this method before and thought it was such a great way to use every part of the meal.
Our meal at Kurara gave us a wonderful sense of how Japanese people might go out after work or on a weekend for a relaxing, quality meal, with excellent drinks. At the same time, our experience was made that much better by the special attention given to us by the owner, Mr. Akio Arai, who made us feel especially welcome despite our language barrier. Perhaps the best part of the meal was sharing it with good friends who took the time to give us a true taste (both figuratively and literally) of their proud culture.
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