My friend had been mentioning it on and off for a long time: horsemeat. We make a point of dining somewhere different every weekend but since eating blowfish several years ago nothing had come close to the exoticism (to put it politely) of eating the flesh of what is considered one of man's best friends.
Horsemeat is know as 'sakura', literally 'cherry blossom', in Japanese because of its bright pinkish color. It is consumed in many countries of the world, including France, Italy, Romania and Belgium, as well as Japan. Needless to say, it is by no means a major cuisine in Japan, and restaurants serving it are few indeed.
We discovered a 'sakura-nabe' (literally 'cherry blossom stewpot', i.e. horsemeat cuisine) restaurant in Tokyo's Daito ward, very near what until about 50 years ago was famous as a red-light district. My friend informed me that horsemeat, low in fat and high in protein and therefore traditionally popular with athletes, is considered something of an aphrodisiac - at least insofar as it invests one with the vigor necessary for a good long night of it. The restaurant, 'Nakae', celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The building itself was destroyed in the Great Tokyo Earthquake of 1923, but miraculously survived the Second World War.
We exited Minowa station on the Hibiya subway line and made our way to Nakae. On our way I recounted to my friend how I'd read recently about how Buddhism decrees that the eating of horseflesh does great harm to one's karma. Hardly had the words left my mouth when around the corner came a bevy of stout women dressed in black, followed by their black suited husbands, all a bit tipsy, obviously back from a funeral! (Buddhism is Japan is associated primarily with funerals.) We walk another block and, lo, a black cat crosses our path! Friendly enough, it was though. Rolled over and let us scratch its belly.
We were welcomed by what must have been a man in his late 60s, if not early 70s, and seen upstairs to our low table on the tatami flooring where a waitress, probably in her late 50s, kindly attended to us for what became a long laidback and pretty drunken evening. As antique as the surroundings and the staff were, the clientele were overwhelmingly young and hip (if, at 43, I can do myself the favor of being included!)
We went for 'ippin ryori' (i.e. ordering dishes one by one) as opposed to a set course. Horsemeat certainly looks redder than beef, but as far as taste goes, if no one told you, you would probably not know the difference. Knowing it's horsemeat, it does have what could be called a slightly sweeter taste than beef, but eaten with the sesame dressing, the shredded onion and the soy sauce it is served with, the difference is academic. The raw horsemeat slices did however taste very good (apologies to Brigitte Bardot!), particularly with the onion. After the raw slices we had a horsemeat and vegetable stew, and with a few extra condiments that pretty much did us for the evening. Washed down with beers and then shochu, we took it very slowly, absorbing the timelessness of the surroundings with the horse-inspired art on the walls (see photo on right), tongues getting looser as the evening went on.
The bill was not small: 17,000 yen (USD150) for the two of us. Ancient as the establishment was, they were marketing savvy and presented us not only with a bag of horsemeat-related goodies on leaving, including special Nakae cookies and samples of facial products made from horsemeat fats and oils, but a 100th anniversary commemorative DVD about the restaurant! Back out on the wide, quiet Dote Avenue, with the ghosts of old spent pleasures, drunk, warm, full: we hadn't just eaten, we'd partaken - and in more than just food, but in history and a little bit of old Edo legend.
Daito ward, Tokyo.
Restaurants in Tokyo Bars, Restaurants, Clubs
Monday, October 31, 2005