This post contains my all time favourite dishes in Tokyo. It needs no further introduction and I will go to the first dish:
Those of you who know me, will know that I have a soft spot for ramen. I also have a soft spot for yuzu, which is a citrus with a unique fresh taste. In Japan, yuzu is used in all sorts of cooking, savory of sweet. One bit of yuzu peel on a slice of tofu, for example, will lift the tofu from normal to wow. I am biased. So when 3 of my Japanese friends told me about yuzu ramen at Afuri あふり, I rushed there right after I landed at Haneda airport.
It tastes SO GOOD. The chasiu pork is blow torched before serving, the yuzu makes the bowl quite light, the noodles are the thin type which is just my taste and the egg is gorgeous (I do not know why, but I think eggs in Japan taste the best in the world. May be it is the water). The longer I look at the picture now, the more it makes me drool and feel extremely hungry.
Afuri is apaprently popular amongst ladies, because the soup is lighter than eg. tonkotsu pork bone and therefore is better for the waist. Go early or be prepared to be in a queue.
My travel philosophy is, eat whatever that makes you happy! Therefore I do not share the same concerns of the ladies going to Afuri, and would always get my favourite ramen soup tonkotsu, the most evil but satisfying type of ramen broth. Tonkotsu is so good, because it is made over boiling pork bones over a very very very long time (anywhere between 10 – 20 hours depending on methods), so the broth is the concentrated essence with deep flavour.
The other types of broths, miso and soya, does not require the same time commitment to make. This is not to say that they do not taste good, but my heart belongs to tonkotsu, as I started my ramen adventure in Fukuoka in Kyushu, where pork bones soup is most prominent. While I learned Japanese in Fukuoka, ramen was lunch every other day. My friends from school were also fans, and we would visit Ichiran一蘭 most often.
Why this ‘prisoner style’, you ask. This is the theory behind:
- Their ramen is so good, you should focus on enjoying it.
- Ladies tend not to think they look that attractive when slurping noodles. But they want to do it, as slurping is enjoyment. Sitting facing a counter means that they can happily slurp away.
Those wooden panels between seats can be folded away, so you can actually go with friends and feel that you are eating together side by side.
Oh and do not expect to see staff who works there, except the one assigning seats and greeting.
Here is what to expect when visiting Ichiran:
- Select your order and pay at the machine by the door (you can always get a second round and pay at your booth inside too)
- Get into the line, and wait to be assigned a seat. There is an electric display showing the live occupancy which is pretty smart.
- When you are seated, help yourself with some water on the tab (picture below). Wait for the curtain to be rolled up in front of you.
- Ramen will be served, and you probably won’t see the staff’s face. They would like you to focus on the bowl!
- When you are done eating and feel like you would like more, instead of ordering a new bowl, you have the option to order kaedama 替え玉 which means an extra portion of noodles. That is of course, provided that you still have plenty of broth left in your bowl.
- To make 2nd round orders, use the paper provided, place it on the tray on the designated slot, and your curtain will magically roll up.
Note for first timers in Japan:
- Slurping noodles is totally ok, and recommended since it shows that you are enjoying the dish
- Drinking the soup and emptying the bowl is a sign that you loved the food, and to some level a respect to the chef. That said, it is totally ok if you are not the type who will finish the soup to the last drop, just drink however much you wish.
Can you spot something funny with the english on the tab? Well if that made you giggle, you will probably giggle many times more as there are interesting translations everywhere!
Izakaya 居酒屋 (japanese tapas and bar)
I love food at Izakaya, but I do not visit them as much as I wish to. That is because I am no fan of smoking, and I am yet to find an izakaya which has a designated non-smoking area. I actually feel sorry for waiters and waitresses in Japan where they are forced to take in all the second hand smoke everyday.
Having said all these, I would still make at least a visit to an izakaya for the food and atmosphere. My go to over the years has became Tsukada nojo 塚田農場, which has multiple outlets all over Tokyo. Their staff is young and energetic, yet they make you feel extremely welcomed and warm. They make every single guest feel welcome, by doing something unexpected and memorable. I shall give a couple of examples shortly.
About the food: izakaya could have some weird dishes for westerners such as grilled ox tongue on a stick.
My first visit to Tsukada nojo was with my Japanese teacher, whom I became friends with. She was telling with huge excitement that they do the best fried chicken (karaage 唐揚げ) ever, and how it is different to any other restaurants as they serve it with a bed of egg salad.
Of course she was right. The chicken had a crispy skin while the meat was moist inside, and eating it with the egg dip was perfection.
Anyone who is more adventurous should try this raw chicken sashimi (torisashi, combining tori which means chicken, and sashi from sashimi). Yes you are hearing this right. Raw chicken. Well it is actually seared on the outside. I know, this dish will not appear in Denmark in a million years. But the Japanese eat raw eggs, raw fish and many other things raw. I was also skeptical in the beginning, but thought that if people got sick from it then it would not still be on the menu.
You roll a slice of chicken with spring onions and that spicy raddish thing, and the spring onion made it seem less weird to eat raw chicken. I surprisingly liked it.
And what is this monster looking dish?
It is called motsunabe もつ鍋, aka pork intestines in hot pot, a Kyushu (west japan) specialty.
Well the red blob is mentaiko, a fish roe which I love and people generally eat it raw with rice. Here it is part of a hot pot with chicken soup, which apparently is full of collagen. Whether or not it really was good for my skin, the broth was very tasty. In my mind the mentaiko is ruined when cooked… and I could not get myself to stomach the intestines, chewy and hard to digest food is not my favourite.
How can restaurants make the dining experience memorable?
Here is answers from Tsukada nojo:
- Give a complementary starter: in their case, it is some fresh cucumbers and cabbage, with their homemade miso dip which is addictive and delicious.
- Make people feel special: once I got a loyalty card which looks like a business card, I wrote my name and I became the “manager” at the restaurant. The next time we got a complementary dessert with a danish flag painted with chocolate on the plate.
- Send people home with a little gift: you get their miso dip in a lille container to take home, so you can remember them the day after.
Felt warmly welcomed by this
And decided to return a thank you message
Some friends took me to Sakura tei さくら亭 for some DIY okonomiyaki (japanese savory pancake). The place is in Harajuku, it was in the middle of winter at night, freezing cold, and that 400 meters from the station seemed like an extremely long walk, with lots of twists and turns. I will never walk pass the shop and discover it myself.
This is the impressive presentation of the okonomiyaki ingredients. That mountain of mentaiko fish roe…mmm… I should have mentioned, okonomiyaki is mostly made out of cabbage, flour, water and eggs.
How to make your own okonomiyaki:
- mix the whole bowl of ingredients together
- pour the whole thing onto the hot metal board in front of you and spread it out into a circle using the spatular
- place bacon slices onto the pancake (if there are any)
- when it is cooked enough on one side (4-5 min), flip it and wait for it to cook
- when both sides are cooked, put some mayo and okonomiyaki sauce on, followed by sprinkles of katsuoboshi (fish flakes) and seaweed. The amount of these condiments are entirely up to your taste. After all the name of the dish suggested so, since okonomi means after your taste, and yaki is to pan fry/grill. Like the Danes, I like it almost drowning with the okonomiyaki sauce, lots of seaweed, a little mayo and katsuoboshi.
- cut into pieces and share amongst your friends