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Eating in Tokyo: Our Favorite Foods

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Every morning before starting out on another day in Tokyo, I would ask Jürgen what he was most excited about. It didn’t matter whether we were planning to visit an ancient temple, a renowned museum, a crazy festival or a gorgeous garden, his response was always the same: “Eating.” And I would thoughtfully nod in agreement. Of all the things Tokyo has to offer, its delicious and surprisingly affordable food is probably the highlight. This is a city in which it’s almost impossible to eat poorly.

Omurice
Omurice

As a foreigner, ordering your meal in Japan isn’t always the easiest task in the world. What is Mentaiko? Katsu-sando? Karaage? Are these fish guts? Cow brains? The words are so unfamiliar that anything is possible. But the first time someone suggested omurice, I knew I could rest easy. I ordered with confidence, and watched with satisfaction as exactly what I expected was placed before me: an omelette served atop rice. Omurice! Sounds simple, and it is, but somehow Tokyo’s restaurants elevate this no-nonsense dish to a delectable art form. [Photos]

Udon
Udon

Thick white noodles made from wheat flour, udon competes with soba and ramen for noodle dominance in Tokyo. At its simplest, udon is served in big bowls of hot broth, topped with scallions, but there are endless ways to order it. Topped with tempura. Served with a piece of sweet tofu called aburaage. Accompanied with mochi: a glutinous rice ball (not my favorite). You can have cold udon, udon with veggies, or with raw egg. It’s one of the cheapest and quickest meals in Tokyo, and the chewy noodles always hit the spot. [Photos]

Tonkatsu

We had been introduced to tonkatsu, breaded pork cutlets, during our time in Busan, South Korea, but the deep-fried dish is originally from Tokyo. Like udon, this is a dish you can order in a variety of ways: in a sandwich, covered with curry, or atop a bowl of rice. But in our estimation, the classic tonkatsu plate is still the best: served with a heaping helping of shredded cabbage, and topped with a dark and tangy Worcestershire-style sauce.

Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki

It might seem wrong that, as a customer in a restaurant, you’re forced to cook your own meal. But when you can skip all the prep-work — all the chopping, thinking and balancing of ingredients — cooking can be a blast. We consistently enjoyed the okonomiyaki restaurants we went to. You choose the mix that sounds best, then pour the batter out onto the perfectly-heated plate in front of you. The flipping is tricky, but within minutes you’ll have a wonderful pancake-style dish. Or a horrid, splattery clump of half-cooked dough. [Photos]

Takoyaki
Takoyaki

Frequently, we’ll be indulging in a favorite new foreign food and I’ll say something like, “Why don’t we have this back home? This would totally be popular in America!” But while eating takoyaki, I didn’t say that. I mean, I enjoy takoyaki, but I seriously doubt that it will ever succeed with my countrymen. These are, after all, fried octopus balls. Deep-fried dumplings of dough, each concealing a big chunk of octopus. They’re cheap, yummy and popular in Japan, but Americans are more likely to embrace seppuku. [Photos]

Tempura
Tempura

Tempura is fried food, nothing less and nothing more. Fish and vegetables tossed in a flour batter and dropped in oil. Unlike octopus balls, fried food is a concept which my inner-American has no problem with. But somehow tempura tastes different than what I’m used to. Lighter, crispier and healthier. The batter is kept cold and clumpy, not mixed too much, and the frying is done in regular vegetable or canola oil, for the barest minimum of time. You can find tempura restaurants ranging from the very cheap to the quite expensive, but what you’re unlikely to find is tempura done badly. [Photos]

Sushi
Sushi In Tokyo

It’s sushi, and this is Tokyo. Do you want me to elaborate on that? You know it’s delicious. It’s delicious, fresh, perfectly prepared, served in millions of wonderful restaurants on every corner, and it’s absolutely affordable. Come to Tokyo and eat as much sushi as you can stomach, because when you go home and are charged eight dollars for a single piece of tuna nigiri, you’ll wish you had eaten more. [Photos]

Soba
Soba

We learned how to make soba noodles during a day spent with a master chef. But it was by watching (and listening to) fellow patrons in the restaurants of Tokyo, that we learned how to slurp. Soba are hand-cut buckwheat noodles, normally served cold, with a small bowl of soy-based dipping sauce that’s garnished with spring onions. You grab a few noodles with your chopsticks, dunk them half-way into the sauce, and then … slurrrrp. One of our favorite meals. [Photos]

Ramen
Ramen

I thought I knew all about ramen noodles. I went to college, after all, and survived four years on a diet of Papa John’s pizza, beer and ramen. But I knew nothing. Those dried-out noodles in styrofoam cups have as much to do with real ramen as Pringles have to do with potatoes. From the first steaming bowl I tried in Tokyo, I was hooked. I could eat ramen for weeks and never get sick of it, especially since there’s such variety. Every region of Japan has its own spin on the dish, and you can find them all in the capital. Especially popular in Tokyo are tsukemen, or dipping ramen noodles. [Photos]

Shabu-Shabu
Shabu Shabu

A pot of broth is set upon the burner built into your table, and soon the waitress will bring a tray of vegetables and meat. Once the broth is boiling, you start plopping in the food, leaving it to cook for as long as you want. Then you eat it. Shabu-shabu is another Japanese dish which asks the customer to do the cooking himself. The name is derived from the sound the food makes as you stir it around the pot. I’d be more inclined to call it “hiss hiss,” but “shabu shabu” is apparently how the Japanese ear hears that sound. At any rate, this is a fun meal to enjoy with friends. [Photos]

Japanese Cookbooks

More Omurice Photos
Omurice
Omurice
Omurice
Omurice
More Udon Photos
Udon
Udon
Udon
Udon
Udon
More Okonomiyaki Photos
Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki
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More Takoyaki Photos
Okonomiyaki
Okonomiyaki
More Tempura Photos
Tempura
Tempura
Tempura
More Sushi Photos
Sushi In Tokyo
Sushi In Tokyo
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More Soba Photos
Soba
Soba
Soba
More Ramen Photos
Ramen
Ramen
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Ramen
More Shabu-Shabu Photos
Shabu Shabu
Shabu Shabu
Random Tokyo Food and Sake Photos
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Tokyo Food Blog
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June 28, 2014 at 3:28 pm Comments (5)

Our Favorite Shibuya Sights

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We spent many entertaining evenings in Shibuya, which has become one of the most exciting areas in Tokyo. There are so many bars, shops and things to do here, that it would be hopeless to attempt listing them all. But here were a few of our personal favorites.

Cat Street Tokyo
Cat Street

Perhaps the best way to approach Shibuya is along Cat Street, by way of Omotesando. This curvy lane follows the old path of the Shibuya River, and brings you past loads of cool designer stores, vintage clothing shops, and cozy cafes. It’s is one of the most popular areas among the young and hip of Tokyo, and serves as a relatively laid-back introduction to the craziness you’re about to experience in Shibuya. [Location]

Shibuya Goat Cafe
Sakuragaoka – Goat Cafe

Found on the quieter southern side of the tracks, Sakuragaoka has won fame not for its food or drinks, but for its doormen. In a cage outside the cafe are two braying goats. Sweet-tempered Sakura is white, while boisterous Chocolat has a brown coat. You can pet Sakura without fear, but take care if attempting to touch Chocolat; that feisty beast will head-bash anyone who gets too close. The goats are fun, but our favorite part of this cafe was its familiar atmosphere and excellent food. [Location]

Photo Boxes

Yes, fine, the most important thing is inner beauty. Blah blah, now shut up and get out of the way, so I can get inside this photo box and show you what real beauty looks like.

You can find Fashion Photo Booths all over Tokyo, but for some reason it took a trip to Shibuya before we felt brave (or drunk) enough to step inside one. Want freakishly huge eyes like a Disney character? Want smoother, lighter skin like the finest porcelain? Want your wrinkles to vanish along with the last of your self-regard? Then these photo booths are for you. Results can range from terrifying to hilarious. But probably not beautiful.

Uobei  Automated Sushi Restaurant
Uobei Automated Sushi

Sit down in front of a terminal at Uobei, and scroll through the options. Tuna nigiri, that sounds good. Salmon with mayo? Yes please. And a tempura shrimp roll for only ¥108? That’s crazy, I’ll take it. Selections made, you press “go.” A couple minutes later, a tray with three plates zips out along a magnetic belt, stationing itself in front of you. You grab the plates, press a button and zip, the tray flies off, back in the opposite direction.

Ostensibly prepared by humans, the sushi at Uobei is delicious and fun, but will make connoisseurs turn up their nose. One offering, for example, is cheeseburger sushi. Yes, we ordered it. Yes, we loved it. Though Uobei forces you to miss out on the human engagement which makes experiencing a foreign culture so rewarding, sometimes it’s nice to just look at color pictures of food, press buttons, and eat in blissful peace, no talking required. [Location]

Karaoke Tokyo

(With our friends from Chic Soufflé and Not Hemingway’s Spain)

Karaoke

You’re in Tokyo, so you’re doing karaoke. No, that’s not a suggestion, nor is it a threat. Just a simple declaration of fact. You’re in Tokyo, so you’re doing karaoke. Grab your friends, have some drinks, and relax. This isn’t American-style karaoke, where you’re asked to bleat in front of a huge crowd of strangers. In Japan, you rent a room, and the only people who will ever hear you are those you trust.

We thought that in Shibuya, karaoke might be too expensive, or that we’d have to wait in a long line. But in fact, this turned out to be the best place for it. There are a lot of halls, and maybe because they’re forced to compete, they’re cheap. You normally rent a room for an hour at a time, and the price includes all the drinks you want. The machines can be switched to English, and the song selection is excellent. Kanye West? Guns n’ Roses? System of a Down? 99 Luftballons? Shibuya’s karaoke halls have you covered. But as for your friends’ ears… they’ll have to cover those, themselves.

Crazy Shibuya
Maidreamin’

We sat down at our table in this below-ground restaurant in Shibuya, and were instantly made dizzy by the pixellated decor. Maidreamin’ is a cafe that takes its inspiration from the 8-bit world of Mario Brothers. I don’t remember any flirty french maids in the video game, but perhaps they were on Level Eleven.

We leaned back in our chairs and allowed ourselves to be entertained by a super-sweet cadre of hostesses who brought us food, served us beer, blew us kisses, taught us cutesy-pie songs, and even danced to ear-splitting J-Pop on a tiny stage in the middle of the cafe. It was a bizarre, very Tokyo-ish evening out and even though our personal tastes run more toward butlers, we had a great time. [Location]

Tokyo Tower Framed Photo

More Photos from Cat Street
Cat Street Tokyo
Cat Street Tokyo
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Cat Street Tokyo
More Photos from the Goat Cafe
Shibuya Goat Cafe
Shibuya Goat Cafe
Shibuya Goat Cafe
Shibuya Goat Cafe
Another Beauty Box Photo
Beauty Booth
More Photos from Uobei Automated Sushi Restaurant
Uobei  Automated Sushi Restaurant
Uobei  Automated Sushi Restaurant
Uobei  Automated Sushi Restaurant
Uobei  Automated Sushi Restaurant
Uobei  Automated Sushi Restaurant
Uobei  Automated Sushi Restaurant
A Couple More Karaoke Photos
Karaoke Tokyo
Karaoke Tokyo
Another Pic from Maidreamin’
Crazy Shibuya
Random Shibuya Pictures
Crazy Shibuya
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June 20, 2014 at 12:04 pm Comments (2)

Sensei of Slurp: Making Soba with a Master

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We met Akila Inouye at the entrance to Tsukiji Fish Market bright and early on Tuesday morning, and realized right away that we were going to have trouble keeping pace with him. In the market, he darted ahead of us, racing from stand to stand, comparing prices, and buying everything we were going to need later in the kitchen. It would turn out to be a long day, but Akila never once slowed down… and I don’t think we ever caught up.

Soba Sushi Cooking Class

Akila Inouye is a master chef and founder of the Tsukiji Soba Academy, which trains both professionals and determined amateurs in the art of cooking Japan’s famous buckwheat noodles. He invited us to follow him for the day, and watch as he prepared a number of dishes; not just soba, but sushi and onigiri (rice triangles). It was an excellent opportunity we weren’t about to pass up.

After shopping at the fish market, we walked over to the nearby studio where he gives his classes. Jürgen and I took seats as Akila settled down into a task he clearly loves. With every egg cracked, salmon sliced, and rice triangle formed, he became more animated. He prepared everything quickly and efficiently, and always with the perfect utensil. I don’t know if this is a Japanese thing, or an Akila thing, but I’ve never seen a kitchen so crammed with tools and knives and pots and devices, and everything in its right place. The kitchen was small enough so that Akila hardly had to move. He’d shoot his arm up 40° to the right and grab a whisk or a pan, usually without even having to look.

Within no time, he’d whipped up a breakfast of salmon onigiri and miso soup. After eating, we hopped on a train and headed out to Kawagoe, where our education would continue. He had invited us to his home studio which (I wasn’t surprised to discover) looked exactly like the kitchen in Tsukiji: packed to the brim with utensils and perfectly organized. If we owned even a twelfth of Akila’s cooking equipment, our kitchen would be an absolute disaster.

Soba Sushi Cooking Class

Organization is a major part of Akila’s method. Before we began cooking, we sat down at the table with paper and pen, and puzzled out how the day should progress. He listed every ingredient, estimated the time it would take to prepare, how long it had to marinate, and whether it should be done immediately or just before serving, and soon we had a nicely-ordered list of tasks.

I won’t go into detail about each item sliced, diced, rubbed and soaked, because there was a lot going on. It took hours and although we got tired watching, Akila’s energy never flagged. By the late afternoon, he was ready to prepare the soba. He started at the very beginning, with a perfectly-measured blend of flour, into which he mixed a precise amount of water. He had even checked the room’s humidity and consulted a chart before deciding how much to pour in. To make the perfect soba, you have to do things perfectly.

Soon he had crafted a beautiful sphere of dough, which he flattened into a disc using a series of rolling pins. Once the dough had reached exactly 1.5 millimeters in width (which he ensured by carefully measuring it), he folded it three times and began chopping, using a cleaver he had himself designed specifically for the job.

Soba Sushi Cooking Class

Within no time, we had bundles of soba noodles, which were briefly boiled and then served. But our instruction hadn’t ended yet, because almost as important as knowing how to cook soba is knowing how to properly eat it. Akila explained the process: how to mix the dipping sauce, how many noodles to grab at a time, and so on. We were clumsy, of course, but there’s one aspect of soba-eating we revealed ourselves to be naturals at. As we sucked the first noodles loudly into our mouths, he looked up with delight. “Wonderful slurping! I like it!”

We ended the night with a big bowl of sushi, served with crisp tempura. It had been painful watching the live shrimp be torn apart, twitching violently as their legs and heads were methodically removed, but their sacrifice was worth it. We were also treated to shimmering cuts of horse mackerel, colorful cod roe, eel, and tuna atop vinegar rice.

Akila’s Tsukiji Soba Academy has proven to be a major success, and he’s welcomed students from around the world, including the personal chef of Steve Jobs. He’s also been frequently invited to the USA to provide lessons. In short, he’s one of the best, and it was a privilege to spend the day watching him in his element.

Tsukiji Soba Academy – Website

Japanese Cookbooks

Soba Sushi Cooking Class
Soba Sushi Cooking Class
Soba Sushi Cooking Class
Soba Sushi Cooking Class
Soba Sushi Cooking Class
Soba Sushi Cooking Class
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Soba Sushi Cooking Class
Soba Sushi Cooking Class
Soba Sushi Cooking Class
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Soba Sushi Cooking Class
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Soba Sushi Cooking Class
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Soba Sushi Cooking Class
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Soba Sushi Cooking Class
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June 17, 2014 at 11:49 am Comments (2)

The Plastic Foods of Kappabashi

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Perched atop the Niimi Building, the giant head of an Italian chef welcomes visitors to Kappabashi-dōri, where Tokyo’s restaurants come to buy the things they need to run their business: chopsticks, cups, bowls, knives, takeaway containers, and naturally, an infinite variety of plastic foods.

Kappabashi Fake Food Tokyo

We’ve come to truly appreciate plastic food and, when deciding between restaurants, will always choose the one with the most plastic food in its windows. No, it’s not some disturbing new diet. It’s just that, in Japan, menus tend to be written in Japanese and only Japanese. (The nerve!) Not only are these plastic foods the only way for us to know what’s being offered, they’re also a convenient way to order. Rather than looking up the translation for “Curry Noodles,” we can drag the waitress over to the window and point.

On Kappabashi-dōri, we discovered the stores from which Tokyo’s restaurants buy their plastic foods. More than mere marketing tools, these fake plates of spaghetti, tonkatsu, sushi and cakes are vibrant works of art worthy of admiration. Ice cream, sashimi, hamburgers, overflowing mugs of beer… it all looked so good, I had to constantly remind myself that “This is plastic, plastic, plastic,” lest I succumb to a futile feeding frenzy.

It’s not all plastic foods on Kappabashi-dōri. There are other stores selling every kind of kitchenware you could want, from ceramic plates to tea sets, all at bargain-basement prices. This is an area meant for restaurants to buy in bulk, but unlike at Tsukiji’s wholesale fish market, visitors are more than welcome to browse and make their own purchases.

Location on our Map

Buy Fake Sushi Here

Kappabashi Fake Food Tokyo
Attack on Titan!
Kappabashi Fake Food Tokyo
Kappabashi Fake Food Tokyo
Kappabashi Fake Food Tokyo
Kappabashi Fake Food Tokyo
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Kappabashi Fake Food Tokyo
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Kappabashi Fake Food Tokyo
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Kappabashi Fake Food Tokyo
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Kappabashi Fake Food Tokyo
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Kappabashi Fake Food Tokyo
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April 18, 2014 at 3:06 am Comments (4)
Eating in Tokyo: Our Favorite Foods Every morning before starting out on another day in Tokyo, I would ask Jürgen what he was most excited about. It didn't matter whether we were planning to visit an ancient temple, a renowned museum, a crazy festival or a gorgeous garden, his response was always the same: "Eating." And I would thoughtfully nod in agreement. Of all the things Tokyo has to offer, its delicious and surprisingly affordable food is probably the highlight. This is a city in which it's almost impossible to eat poorly.
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