What would you say is the food capital of the world? London, New York, Paris? Well, you’re in for a surprise. It’s, in fact, the restaurants in Tokyo that have earned more Michelin stars than their counterparts in Paris and New York combined! You may not want to waltz into one of these elite restaurants, but, famed for its street food and home to over 160,000 registered restaurants, Tokyo is brimming with gastronomical delights. Read on to find out more!
Sushi is now a household name across the world. The word sushi or ‘zushi’ actually used to refer to the vinegared rice which is the key ingredient, while fillings, toppings, and preparation vary widely. In Tokyo, you’ll even find sushi at the local department and 7/11 stores, and it’s good enough that it usually gets sold out by midday. Some of the popular Tokyo styles are the Makizushi or nori roll, which is the archetypal sushi roll. It is sushi rice with fillings (beef, crab, radish), wrapped in “nori” or seaweed sheets. It is the most popular image of sushi that we all have. Other than nori, it can also be wrapped with cucumber, soy paper, or a thin omelet. Nigirizushi, or “hand-pressed sushi” is an oblong-shaped clump of rice over which a topping or “neta” is draped. The topping is usually seafood, and some toppings, such as eel, octopus, and squid are attached to the rice using nori. Finally, Chirashizushi or “Scattered sushi” refers to a kind of deconstructed sushi where the rice is served in a bowl and topped with a number of toppings and garnishes. It is filling and quick to prepare, and is commonly eaten annually on Hinamatsuri.
You may be thinking of instant noodles, but ramen can be one of the cheapest and most satisfying ways to fill up your appetite and a wholesome meal unto itself. A bowl of ramen is generally served with a rich (kotteri) or light (assari) broth. There are 4 main kinds of broth served with ramen. Tonkotsu (Pork bone) is made by boiling pork bones until the liquid turns golden and is known for the light oily gloss it tends to leave on your lips. Shio (salt) is clear both which gets its flavor from sea salt and meat or fish. Shoyu (soy) broth takes off from a simple base of either chicken, fish, or beef, and is transformed by the addition of soy sauce. Finally, Miso (fermented soy paste) broth became a craze in the 60s due to its sharp and pungent taste. If you’ve never tried any ramen before, try one of the more common ones like those above. But if you’re looking to try something interesting, Miso ramen is a pretty good way to go.
Ramen is usually best enjoyed with a slab of something on top: be it sliced fish, roast pork, vegetables, fried eggs, or beef. You can get a good bowl of ramen for 500-600 JPY, making it one of the most cost-effective meals possible.
Not to be mistaken for Tonkotsu, this is another popular street-style Tokyo dish. Tonkatsu = Ton (pork) + katsu (cutlet). It can be thought of as very similar to a schnitzel – it is a deep-fried pork cutlet rolled in egg, flour, and breadcrumbs. Another of the common comfort foods to be found in Japan, you should have no difficulty finding this anywhere in Tokyo. It’s usually served with a side of cabbage, and the accompanying sauce – which is often thick, fruity, and even spicy – is a crucial element. Consider heading over to Tonkatsu Aoki at Kamata or Minato. Check out Agoda coupons for great discounts on hotels near Kamata too.
Shabu-shabu is a popular one-pot dish in Japan: it is prepared in a single hot-pot style dish called nabemono, and the name “shabu-shabu” comes from the sound made by the stirring of the ingredients. The dish is usually made with thinly sliced beef, and sometimes with the coveted wagyu beef, but it is also known to be made with lamb, crab, pork, chicken, lobster, and duck. It is made by dipping paper-thin slices of meat into a boiling hot broth of water and kelp. It is prepared and eaten one piece at a time because the broth is extremely hot and putting a large chunk of meat would result in parts of it being overcooked. After the meat, the flavorful broth is mixed with the rice and eaten as well, and is usually served with tofu and vegetables. Try it at Kisoji Shinjuku (in Shinjuku) or Seryna in Minato.
Having gained popularity during the Edo period of Japanese history, soba noodles are made of buckwheat and are therefore far more nutritious than white rice. The word soba itself refers to buckwheat, but it is unlike the thicker wheat noodles, udon. Soba noodles are served both hot and cold. Cold soba is eaten by taking a small amount of noodles and dipping it in tsuyu – a sauce made using cooking stock, sweetened soy sauce, and a kind of sake. For hot soba, the noodles are eaten as a kind of noodle soup in a hot broth of tsuyu, but this tsuyu is thinner than the sauce used for cold soba. There is a huge variety of toppings that you can experiment with. The best part is that slurping is considered perfectly acceptable when eating soba noodles!
Mitarashi Dango (rice ball skewers) is a kind of dango that is commonly available as street food in Tokyo. While they are also sold at supermarkets and department stores, the ones you’ll find on the street are cheap enough (around 100 JPY) that you’d be better off getting them instead. These are a kind of dango thought to be originally from Kyoto. Dango is rice-flour (mochiko) balls that are prepared in a variety of ways. The mitarashi Dango are 3-5 Dango skewered on a stick and covered in a sweet soy sauce glaze.
One of the most popular street foods in Tokyo, Yakitori are grilled chicken skewers made by skewering the meat with a Kushi (made of bamboo or steel) and cooking it over a charcoal grill for an unmistakable smoky flavor. The seasoning can be either simply salt, or tare sauce (made from broth, vinegar, and soy sauce). Yakitori is available in many forms, based both on location and kind of meat. You can find frozen yakitori in convenience stores, at street vendors called Yakitori-ya, at local pubs called izakaya, or at high-end restaurants. The izakaya is a great idea if washing it down with beer sounds appealing to you. Some of the types of yakitori include Sasami (breast), tsukune (meatballs), torikawa (grilled and crispy chicken skin), and momo (thigh). Torikizoku in Shinjuku is one of the popular places to savor this, or you could try one of a couple of small but lip-smacking joints in Yurakucho.
Okonomiyaki is savory pancakes with endless possibilities: the word itself comes from the word “okonomi”, meaning “as you like”. There is a wide variety across Japan, but the batter for most preparations is a kind of tempura batter, and some restaurants have a special system where you can make it yourself! The chef will hand you a bowl of raw ingredients that you can then pour onto the pan, wait till it cooks, and serve yourself! If this sounds like too much risk, there are plenty of restaurants that will make it for you too. Of course, the star ingredients are the toppings here, and you can have sliced pork belly, seafood, minced meat and much more. You can think of okonomiyaki as a kind of omelet but much, much heartier! Find it at Kiji in Shinagawa and Okonomiyaki Sometaro in Asakusa.
Takoyaki is often referred to as “octopus balls” and was first made popular in Osaka, but are now quite popular in Tokyo. They are typically made of a ball of batter stuffed with octopus (tako), green onion, and tempura shavings in a special cast-iron pan (takoyaki-ki), which heats it evenly, whisked after the filling is put in, so that the ball is crispy on the outside and gooey and soft on the inside. The sauces are a big part of the final dish: mayo, teriyaki, and Japanese Worcester sauce are common, but, there’s plenty of creativity around. Gindaco is one of the more popular chains for Takoyaki, and is located in several places around Tokyo.
The national drink of Japan, you’ve certainly heard of sake! An age-old drink, sake is commonly referred to as rice wine as it’s made by fermenting polished white rice. Interestingly though, unlike most wine, sake is made by the fermentation of the starch (much like beer) in the rice and not the sugars in fruits. Sake is commonly consumed along with meals in many restaurants across Tokyo and Japan, and it would be a shame to leave Japan without having some. Try Gen Yamamoto in Minato not just for the sake, but for great selection and expertise of cocktails. They have 4- or 6-round tastings too!
Tokyo is much more than just the capital of Japan! A bustling mega-city with a huge population, it is also the place to find a dizzying variety of food and other culinary delights. With a number of restaurants that consistently score 3 Michelin stars every year, there’s plenty of high cuisine to be found. But there’s also a number of small alleys with little restaurants and street stalls that can serve up some of the best food you could imagine. Arigato!