Musashibō Benkei- a key hero in Japanese folklore and a warrior monk of great prowess- is rumoured to be instrumental in the creation of one of the country’s most popular street foods, the dorayaki. Hiding from one of his many foes in a farmer’s house while he recovered from wounds inflicted upon him, he accidentally left his ceremonial gong behind upon leaving the dwelling. The farmer searched for the hero near and far, but to no avail, and not knowing what the object was used for, he placed the gong in a fire and fried little round pancakes on the metal surface. Wrapping the sweet, hot discs around a ball of mashed red beans the treat was born, albeit in a far more fanciful way than the reality of them being based on a Portuguese sponge cake recipe. However you choose to believe they came about, these little gong cakes have become an icon of Japanese cuisine, thanks in part to them being the favoured food of a futuristic robotic cat called Doraemon from the manga of the same name.
Fluffy sponge discs, warmly fragrant with honey and faintly scented with sweet mirin wine, sandwiched around a smooth filling of pureed azuki beans, dorayaki were our first encounter with street food in Japan and helped spark our obsession with recreating the flavours of the country. The ubiquitous little cakes can be bought in nearly every convenience store or bakery, from vendors on street corners and festival markets, even from kiosks on railway station platforms, and now hopefully you’ll try making them at home too. After you’ve perfected cooking your own dorayaki, try experimenting with other traditional fillings such as custard, mashed chestnuts, sweetened whipped cream or the strangely comforting margarine and maple syrup- the last one greatly inspired by the American breakfast staple.
One day in the warren-like shopping arcades of Asakusa, on our first trip to Tokyo, we spotted an enormous queue of people slowly leading past the main Sensō-Ji temple and associated buildings to a wooden food counter set into a wall. Being of the inquisitive type, and knowing that if locals are willing to queue for something then it must be good, we joined the line and patiently waited between a group of school girls and a venerable elderly lady with a walking stick who steadfastly refused to take our place in line. The queue stopped and started. Twenty or thirty people would buy something wrapped in a paper bag and leave, then more waiting before another twenty or thirty people moved along, all the while the smell of freshly baked goods was building ever stronger and filling our minds with suspense. What were we queueing for? Was it savoury or sweet? Was there a choice? The possibility that the language barrier would prove too hard to break through and us end up with nothing flashed through my mind. As we approached the shop front we could make out that they were selling only one thing, large round bread buns which people were greedily eating from paper bags as roving gangs of hoodlum sparrows harassed them for stray crumbs. By now we had waited for around half an hour- a rich, sweet, vanilla scented thirty minutes; we got to the stall and found ourselves confronted by a wall of undecipherable Kanji, except for two romanized words- Melon Pan ¥200. That settled it, we awkwardly ordered two melon pan and shied away to the shade of a gingko tree to see what we had been waiting so long for.
Peeling back the paper wrapper we revealed a pair of relatively plain looking bread rolls, around twenty centimetres wide, light golden brown, attractively scored in a criss-cross, melon rind pattern, but pretty unremarkable- until we tore into them that is. A brittle, aromatic, sugary cookie crust shattered and gave way to a warm, delicate, butter enriched bread, lighter in texture than a brioche but without giving up any of its richness. This unassuming roll was one of the most ethereal breads I had ever eaten and within two minutes it was all gone and I found myself wanting to rejoin the queue for a second taste, realising only then why people were buying them in fives and sixes rather than individual buns.
Grasslands and wooded areas surrounded the old capital of Kyoto for centuries, making the perfect hunting grounds for feeding the wealthy citizens; birds of all sorts from the large colourful pheasants and statuesque pigeons down to small songbirds were trapped by the locals before being taken to market or grilled as yakitori. These days the term yakitori is normally used in relation to chicken, but the word literally means ‘grilled bird’, so it’s no surprise that different regions have their specialities featuring other fowl. To the restaurants around the sacred town of Fushimi, yakitori is all about two birds, sparrows eaten whole including their bones and crunchy beaks, and the meatier and more westerner-friendly quails. After a visit to the most well-known Inari shrine complex in the country- the Fushimi Inari Taisha- it’s almost impossible to leave the area without smelling the charcoal smoke and appetizing aroma of scorched meat wafting from the restaurants selling yakitori quail.
Eating yakitori like this is a primal meal, huddled around a dimly lit restaurant, breathing in the smoke and tearing into the grilled meat. A slightly sweet soy glaze enhanced with the essence of all the birds cooked before yours clings lightly to your lips as you devour the perfectly cooked bird, feeling more like the fox totem of Inari happily munching on a little bird in a shaded grove, than the person you were when you sat down at the bench table. To drink with the delicate flesh of the quails? Beer obviously, but what else to eat? Chicken wouldn’t be appreciated next to the delicate birds, tsukune would feel almost too processed, only one other yakitori favourite would sit harmoniously with the quails and that’s Uzura no tamago, bacon wrapped quail eggs. The ultimate pairing of parent and child found in many Japanese dishes such as oyakodon, the creamy eggs and salty charred pancetta add delicious little bursts of richness between mouthfuls of meat, a squeeze of sharp kabosu juice and a peppery sprinkle of ground sanshō balances all the elements to perfection.
Ebi Furai- colossal, breaded, deep fried prawns- became the signature dish of Nagoya thanks to a quip made by the television comedian Tamori at the expense of the city’s dialect and accent. Misunderstanding of this joke led to the nation believing that Nagoya excelled in making the succulent, sweet prawns coated in shatteringly crisp shards of panko, and the city was happy to adopt this modern meibutsu as their speciality. In reality ebi furai was created during the Meiji Restoration period of the late nineteenth century in response to the increasingly popular deep fried yōshoku dishes such as tonkatsu and menchi-katsu that were being served in the larger, metropolitan cities. Traditionally made using Kuruma ebi (Japanese imperial prawns) which can grow to a monstrous thirty centimetres in length, nowadays the more ecologically sustainable black tiger shrimp is used in making this celebration of oversized shellfish.
Breaded, fried prawns have since become one of the most common ingredients for bentō packed lunches, crammed into ebi-sando sandwiches smeared with coleslaw or even served hotdog style in long soft bread rolls topped with creamy tartar sauce. Perhaps our favourite way to eat ebi furai though is paired with another yōshoku bentō staple, the Japanese take on potato salad. Creamier and more tangy than your typical potato salad, this version uses mashed potatoes studded with nuggets of smoked ham, crushed hard boiled eggs, salted cucumbers, and ultra sweet, exploding kernels of corn bound together with the ubiquitous Kewpie mayonnaise and a dash of vinegar. These two dishes make a delicious light meal when combined with some thinly shredded cabbage and a drizzle of the thick Worcestershire-style sauce that goes so well with fried breaded foods, or they work wonderfully well individually as starting points for making a packed lunch.
The last thing many people can imagine wanting to do on a hot, humid day in late Summer is to huddle over a deep bowl of ramen, with clouds of meaty steam billowing up and enveloping your face while you slurp on mouthful after mouthful of scalding hot noodles slick with unctuous pork fat. This of course would be a huge problem for the tens of thousands of ramen-ya owners all across the country, if not for the wonderfully refreshing and reviving noodle dish Hiyashi Chūka which dominates their menus in the more oppressive months. Sitting comfortably on the halfway-line between a crisp salad and the familiar bowl of soup noodles, hiyashi chūka keeps many of the most popular ramen toppings but adds plenty of crunchy fresh vegetables and replaces the savoury broth with a chilled vinegary dressing, making this the perfect dish for a lunchtime spent hiding from the midday heat. Like most dishes in Japanese cuisine, the colour and temperature of the food is just as important as the flavour and texture, and in this most summery of noodle dishes they all come together harmoniously to cleanse, stimulate and revitalise the senses.
In our version of hiyashi chūka, we’ve incorporated two of the most popular toppings- crab sticks and cucumber- directly into the chūkamen themselves to create an even lighter noodle base. We’ve crowned this tangle of enhanced noodles with a crunchy slaw made from spicy radishes and turnips, earthy carrots and crisp nashi pear to add even more freshness, and a springy, knobbly chikuwa fishcake for an extra hit of sweet ocean flavour. All of that is doused liberally with the bracing vinegar, soy sauce and sesame dressing at the table with extra on the side for those who want a more intense, soupy mouthful.
Transporting fresh fish from the coast of Japan to its major inland cities was almost impossible before the advent of refrigerated trains; the days required to travel by horse resulted in inedible, spoiled goods unfit for the population of the Kansai region. The only reliable means of getting fish to the then-capital city of Kyoto was to preserve it in some way- fermenting the fish in rice was popular, which extended its shelf-life to six months or more but altered the flavour dramatically. In this early form of sushi, the rice was discarded and only the soured, preserved fish was eaten; it would take another three or four hundred years until the mid 1600s for a version with edible rice to evolve. As the techniques for making sushi developed, the preservation of the fish improved but palates accustomed to the old style dishes yearned for the sour tang and started adding vinegar to the rice, creating the seasoned sushi rice we know and love today.
Sabazushi, still one of Japan’s most popular forms of sushi, lies comfortably between the fish preserving necessities of old that led to the development of sushi and the modern, perfectly crafted slices of fish atop vinegared rice that spring to mind as this most ubiquitous Japanese delicacy. Glistening, iridescent, tiger-striped fillets of mackerel are salted and lightly cured before being wrapped over a pillow of seasoned sticky rice and sliced into perfect, jewel topped pieces. Traditionally in Osaka, you would press this in an oshizushihako box mould to create a rectangular block, but we prefer to make it Kyoto-style and shape it by hand so you can appreciate the naturally domed top that the fish forms. Whether you press it or not this makes a plate of beautiful, two-bite sized morsels; delicate, refreshingly tangy and with just enough of the rich, creamy fattiness that we love mackerel for.
In the past few years tonkotsu has become the coolest style of noodles to be seen eating or making here in the UK; a thick, unrefined, intensely meaty broth, served with the regular gang of ramen toppings, chashu pork, boiled eggs and bamboo shoots. Restaurants vie to see who has the longest simmered stock with the most opaque suspension of fat and collagen, while critics search for the ramenya with the softest pork and the most unctuous fat. Worthy of equal praise and attention though, is the lesser known, neglected relative of tonkotsu, and one of the unsung heroes of the noodle world- Tori Paitan Ramen. A richly satisfying, creamy broth of chicken bones, skin and cartilage, milky in appearance and sticky on the lips from the copious amounts of fat and gelatin present and the long periods of fierce boiling. To accentuate the deep chickeny flavour of the broth, we’ve added lots of garlic in the form of fried garlic chips and a spoon of powerful, garlic infused duck fat which lends an intense muskiness and a brilliantly rich mouth feel to the finished soup.
A bowl of ramen wouldn’t be complete without some slow-cooked meat to top your mound of noodles, but rather than use the traditional pork, we’ve kept our paitan a purely poultry dish and created a torchon of chicken by wrapping together thigh and breast meat in a layer of skin. When sliced thinly, this sausage of chicken makes the perfect topping for ramen and falls apart at the slightest pressure from your chopsticks.
We’ve been visiting noodle restaurants for almost as long as I can remember, and have passed over a basic sounding dish on the menu many times, dismissing its simplicity in favour of the more showy, topping laden bowls. That is at least, until a couple of years ago whilst on a lunchtime visit to a market in Kyoto, we stopped by an udonya and tried the curiously named Kitsune Udon (fox noodles) for the first time and became instant converts. A deep bowl of perfectly cooked, thick white udon, a slightly smokey, fish based soup, and a single piece of inari-age, simmered in a sweet soy and mirin liquor until the sponge-like tofu had absorbed a massive amount of flavour. The clean soup paired with the rich, sweetness of the tofu was an incredibly soothing combination, and one that we’ve tried to eat as often as possible since our first taste.
Many people like to add narutomaki or kamoboko to their kitsune udon -and feel free to if you want, they’re both delicious additions- but we like to keep ours uncomplicated and the way we’ve always eaten it in Japan; just the noodles, the broth, a sweet slab of toothsome inari-age and a mound of spicy, fresh spring onions. Perfect comfort food if you’re feeling a little under the weather and great fuel for foxes on a night-time prowl.
Steaming hot crescent moons, an aromatic mixture of juicy pork, cabbage and garlic chives encased within a chewy skin, fried on one side until shatteringly crisp and served with a slightly sour dipping sauce. Gyoza have become an integral and hugely popular part of nearly every ramenya’s menu, finding their place as an almost essential accompaniment to the deep, nourishing bowls of noodles. When cooked poorly they can drag down a memorable dish of ramen, but if cooked well, with consideration and care, they have the power to raise a lacklustre meal to giddy heights, providing a contrasting texture to the silky noodles and soothing broth. High quality frozen gyoza wrappers are available in most oriental supermarkets these days, meaning that home-made dumplings are more achievable than ever before, and while the filling and pleating of the little parcels can take a while to get used to, there’s a huge amount of satisfaction to be had when you gaze upon a tray of your handiwork.
Hanetsuki gyoza are a recent variation of these classic pot-stickers, where a number of plump, steamed dumplings are fused together in a hot pan with a thin mixture of flour and water. This batter crisps and darkens to form lacey skirts or wings (hane) around the edges of each dumpling, creating more surface area for crunchy, brittle bubbles to form and when placed in the middle of the table, it makes a fantastic tear-and-share style dish, perfect for relaxed dining with friends.
Yaki Udon is a Fukuoka variation on one of Japan’s most beloved street foods- yakisoba, or fried noodles. A colourful mixture of lightly wilted but still crunchy vegetables, a mound of chewy noodles and a scattering of meat or seafood, all fried together and coated in a sweet, fruity and slightly spicy sauce. At festivals and in parks up and down Japan you’ll find yatai food carts serving yakisoba, the smell of the sōsu caramelizing on the huge iron hot-plates enticing you over and tempting you into having a bowlful. Despite the name suggesting it should be made from buckwheat soba noodles, most of the country makes yakisoba with long, thin wheat noodles similar to ramen, while the people of Fukuoka have elevated the dish to an even more substantial place by making it with our personal favourite noodle, the thick and toothsome udon.
A seafood yaki udon was perhaps the first Japanese meal we ever ate, back in 2001, and it has remained a firm favourite since then. Not many weeks pass by without us making a panful at least once, loaded with vegetables for a quick after-work evening meal. It’s an almost infinitely flexible dish, add whatever vegetables or meat you like to it, just make sure that they’re bright, colourful and full of varied flavours and textures.