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Taking a trip to Tokyo and want to eat your way around the city like a local? Let your tastebuds explore these local delicacies and tick Good Food’s personal favourites off your list.
10 must-try foods to eat in Tokyo
1. Pour over coffee
Japan does coffee in that meticulous Japanese way – with care, love, and exquisite attention to detail. Now you can get quality espresso to drink in trendy cafés all over Tokyo, but my favorite cup comes from a Japanese kissaten (old fashioned coffee house), Monozuki.
Traditional kissaten methods involve making coffee cup by cup, using a pour-over single filter, often using hand-ground beans. The methodical pour-over method properly hydrates the grounds, extracting the flavour and stopping before the extraction turns bitter, producing a smooth, balanced cup.
2. Edomae zushi
Originally, this referred to sushi made in Edo (former name of Tokyo), which used ingredients caught in Tokyo Bay and was sold in the areas that closely bordered the bay.
Today you can get it anywhere, but I think it’s best eaten at the source, in a area of old Tokyo known as shitamachi, where it’s been made and served for hundreds of years. At Mitsugi Sushi near Monzen Nakacho Station, sushi master Shinkichi Mitsugi makes Edomae sushi (meaning in front of Edo) in the classic nigiri style, using the traditional red vinegar that tints the rice slightly pink.
Tea is a way of life in Japan and visitors should try several kinds. Japanese green tea reaches its epitome in matcha. This is the preferred tea of the traditonal tea ceremony, where concentrated green tea powder is combined with hot water and whipped to a foamy froth with a specialist bamboo whisk.
Sometimes served as a welcome drink, it is presented in a tea bowl that is bigger and broader than a regular tea cup. It’s best eaten with something a little sweet (usually wagashi, see below), to offset the delicate bitter notes. Try some at the classical Hama-rikyu Garden teahouse in central Tokyo.
Tempura consists of seasonal vegetables and seafood, carefully cut, lightly battered, and fried in oil that’s exactly the right temperature so that the product is crisp and light. If done correctly, there will be only a few dots of oil on the blotting paper that the tempura is served on.Traditional tempura ingredients include shrimp, slices of lotus root, bamboo shoots, eggplant, shishito peppers, shiitake mushrooms, slices of kabocha squash, and many more. Grab a bowl of mixed tempura over rice (called tendon) at Dote no Iseya near Minowa station, which has been serving it since 1889.
Japanese sweets, called wagashi, are often a bit earthy in flavour and rely on ingredients such as mochi, (glutinous rice) “an” (sweetened bean paste), and kinako (toasted soy powder, a nutty flavor). Wagashi are typically labour intensive to produce. Wagashi reflect seasonality and variety. Try traditional Japanese sweets, like the warabimochi from Ikkouan (near myogadani station), a super soft mochi made from bracken starch rather than the usual glutinous rice, with a dab of azuki bean paste and dusted with kinako.
Japan’s counterpart to the sandwich or the Cornish pasty, onigiri is a handheld snack or meal made from rice formed into a ball, triangle, or square, often with a filling such as pickled plum or a bit of salted fish, and wrapped in a piece of nori seaweed. Modern takes are always being invented, such as fried chicken or kimchi and every convenience store will have a wide selection for a small price.
Soba, which means buckwheat in Japanese, is usually found in the form of thin noodles paired with dipping sauce (tsuyu) or soup and often served alongside tempura. Soba noodles are usually made with a ratio of 80% buckwheat flour and 20% wheat flour, but those who are gluten-free can look for juuwari (100%) soba noodles (celiacs be aware that most soy sauce still contains wheat derivatives). At Sarashina Horii in Azabu Juban you can eat freshly-made noodles that have been made here by this family for over 200 years.
Monjayaki is a form of teppanyaki, or iron plate grilling. It’s a Tokyo dish consisting of a batter of flour and water, and then the addition of a great variety of vegetables, seafood, and meat, to make a savory pancake or omelet. There’s an entire street in Tokyo dedicated to monja, or another fun way to experience it is to go on a monjayaki cruise in Tokyo Bay on a yakatabune, or pleasure boat.
Despite the name taiyaki, which translates literally as grilled sea bream, this is actually a street snack cake shaped like the lucky “tai” fish and filled with a sweet middle. Traditionally, the filling is a sweetened bean paste, but you’ll also find it stuffed with custard, sweet potato paste, or chocolate and the outside grilled to a golden colour perfection. For a cute twist on these already adorable street cakes, head to the Mega Don Quixote in Shibuya for a Hachi-yaki, a version of taiyaki shaped like Shibuya’s canine mascot Hachiko.
10. Shoyu ramen
You can’t come to Japan without trying ramen and while there are hundreds of varieties to be had all over the country, a Tokyo classic is shoyu, or soy sauce ramen. The broth base combines soy sauce with aromatic vegetables and chicken (usually) and is simmered for several hours for a deep savoury umami flavour. Typically topped with bamboo shoots, nori, and slices of roast pork, this is hearty, warming, filling, and intrinsically Tokyo. Try a great bowl of shoyu ramen at Yatagarasu (near kudanshita station) or a vegan version at T’s Tantan.
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What’s your favourite Japanese food? Leave a comment below…