A Culinary Guide to Taura, no. 10

Sumidagawa Honten

Saturday we were up at the Taura Bairin (plum blossom orchard) to check out the early flowering trees. The wind was blowing hard and after the climb up and back down, we were ravenous. We slid open the door to Sumidagawa Honten, an unagi (eel) and tempura restaurant.

Sumidagawa means Sumida River; one still finds unagi restaurants on the banks of the famous Tokyo river. Now perhaps these places serve mostly farmed, rather than wild eel. The recent contamination scares featured on Japanese TV about imported Chinese eel has made people choose the more expensive Japanese eel (farmed or wild).

Last time we ate here the proprietress showed us an old photo book of Taura about 80 years ago. This restaurant, which was started by her grandfather (or some family member, I get confused in the heat of the conversation), is also about 80 years old. The street in front of the door was once a river that produced excellent eel. Much of the Taura area has been reclaimed, filled in, obliterated with development. The restaurant remains, still a family place.

Inside is a Japanese family oasis, calendars, personal photos, eel posters, small tables, a tatami area in the back with shopping bags and a backpack and other casual evidence of their life. Two members of the family, the grandmother and her five-year-old granddaughter, look up at us from their lunch. They look remarkably alike, and are clearly besotted with each other. Grandma recognizes us from our earlier visit and immediately starts chatting us up: “Welcome, please sit anywhere. Been to the bairin? Not yet fully flowering, huh? See here, trying to teach my granddaughter to use chopsticks is tough and takes a lot of patience.”

The girl’s young mother takes our order. I drink a sake (Takezuru junmai) and Carlos a beer. The drinks come with the standard snack at this place, hone sembei, deep-fried eel spines. So good, crunchy, full of umami, a meaty, salty taste.

Sake and hone senbei

Photo: Takezuru junmai sake and hone sembei (deep-fried eel spines).

Grandma leaves us to enjoy and makes giggly but pointed conversation with her granddaughter: “Eat some more, good? Yes, that’s good.” The girl is attacking her rice, making funny shoveling motions with her chopsticks in her little pudgy hands. She keeps looking up at grandma and smiling. I suddenly long for my Amah. (I hope you are reading this.)

The girl is eating leftovers and rice, some bits from oden (stew) and other nibbles. Grandma gets up and offers us some tazukuri (tiny soy-glazed dried sardines, the kind that goes in the New Year’s food). I mention the New Year’s connection, and she gives me the Beaming Smile of Japanese Approval. What a suck up I am.

Dad returns back to the kitchen from somewhere. Mom takes a phone order: “6 pm, four unadon, um hum, ok, no problem.” Grandma tells us that 90 percent of their business is delivery.

Photo: Jō unajū (first class eel set). Unajū, eel on rice, eel liver soup, turnip and daikon pickles, gobo (burdock root) and enoki shira ae (tofu dressing), with an unusual hint of curry powder in the dressing.

Photo: Unajū (grilled eel on rice).

As we are waiting for our food, Grandma shows us a raw fukinotō, a green bud of Japanese butterbur. She invites us to smell the petals, which have a slightly medicinal odor: “Do you think you would like it? It’s my favorite.” Well, duh, we will eat it. She has it added to Carlos’s tempura set. It’s a bit like celery but with more flavor.

Tempura teishoku
Photo: Tempura teishoku.

Photo: Tempura (sweet potato, eggplant, shrimp, pumpkin, and note the fukinotō—green vegetable in the lower right of the basket).

The little girl finishes lunch and plays a bit of “peek at the gaijin” with us through the swinging door to the kitchen. At one point she reaches into a basket next to the door; she does it slowly and deliberately, as if we won’t notice her secret hiding spot. She fishes out a small pink bag. It contains soap bubble equipment. Grandma cleans up the lunch table and takes her granddaughter by the hand. They march outside to blow bubbles.

I ask the mom for some details about the soup and the dressing on the gobo. She starts writing kanji on her order pad for me: kimo sui (liver broth), shiro ae (tofu dressing). We, the husband/chef and his wife and Carlos and I, all thank each other too much. We leave in the sweet fog of Japanese politesse and grilled eel fat.

Sumidagawa Honten Kitchen
Photo: The kitchen.