It’s a universal fact that no matter where one is on the globe, no food is a better pairing for a couple of drinks than spiced minced meat served straight from the grill, oven or fryer. In Japan, this soul-warming / beer soaking concoction comes in many forms, one of which is tsukune, minced chicken meatballs that are commonly served yakitori style (skewered and grilled over special binchotan coal). Although there are references to yakitori dating back to the early 1600s, the largely Buddhist country frowned upon meat consumption, often finding the smell of grilled meat repulsive. Emperor Temmu banned meat in 675 AD, with consumption of wild deer and boars reserved only for the elites during ritualized hunts or for the lower class. This changed during the Meiji era beginning in the mid-19th century when Emperor Meiji encouraged its consumption in an effort to westernize Japan. Meat prices began dropping with the industrialization of farming in the 1950s and yakitori establishments took root near train stations, where salarymen would have a skewer and a beer after work. While our version isn’t grilled, it’s equally as delicious and served with a glaze of soy sauce, mirin, and sake.
Namasu, or pickled daikon and carrots, is a quintessential osechi-ryori, the type of cuisine served for Japanese New Year. Dating back to the times of the Imperial Court of Kyoto, it was considered taboo to cook over a hearth with fire during the first 3 days of the New Year. Therefore a whole subset of osechi cuisine developed around sweet, sour (or pickled), and dried foods. Literally translated, “nama” means thinly sliced vegetables and “su” means rice vinegar, but the version with daikon and carrot became the most popular since the combination of red and white is considered particularly auspicious (carrots in Japan are traditionally redder than in the West; check out our write up about carrots here!). This salad is a great palate opener, with the acidic rice wine vinegar balanced by the umami in the kombu dashi.
Satsuma Potatoes with Black Sesame
So many of the the ingredients that currently are part of a region’s culinary DNA are a direct product of trade and globalization. Many Japanese today, especially of the post WW-II generation will remember yaki-imo carts, the Japanese version of ice-cream trucks in America, where vendors would melodically call out informing the community that there were crispy, caramelized, stone-roasted sweet potatoes to be had. During the cold winter days, children would run out to get this warm, sweet treat. While these carts are a rarity nowadays, the satsuma potato is a beloved indulgence, and with good reason. Like most tubers, this potato made its way to Japan from central South America via the Philippines and China, officially landing in Okinawa in 1605. In 1732, during the Great Kyoho Famine, Aoki Konyo developed a new breed of sweet potatoes that grew well in the climates of central and northern Japan, thereby saving many from starvation. Our version is an ode to the childhood classic of roasted satsuma potatoes with a caramel soy sauce glaze.
Ramen is a relatively recent addition to Japan’s culinary legacy, but arguably its most well known export (sushi hasn’t sustained generations of college students or those on a budget in quite the same way ramen has). In the mid 1800s, as Japan transitioned from the feudal shogunate of the Edo period to the Imperial rule of the Meiji period, it opened its ports to foreign trade for the first time in centuries. Chinese traders capitalizing on this new market brought with them hand pulled Lamian noodles, and by the mid 1900s vendors blowing charumera horns and hawking bowls of noodles were a common sight in port cities throughout Japan. But it wasn’t until 1958, when a Taiwenese immigrant by the name of Momofuku Ando invented a method of flash frying ramen noodles, thus preserving them indefinitely, that ramen noodles gained traction as a global culinary export. As with any food commercialized and commodified, instant ramen noodles pale in comparison to a fresh bowl of ramen prepared with quality ingredients by a passionate chef. And passionate chefs abound in Japan, where principles such as Shokunin (literally translating to “craftsman” or “artisan”, but more broadly understood to mean a singular dedication to one’s craft) and Kodawari (commitment to perfecting one’s craft) have defined some of the greatest restaurants in the world (Jiro Dreams of Sushi anyone?). But thanks to its relative recency, chefs working to craft the best bowls of ramen in Japan are less constrained by tradition, and thus free to experiment with various combinations and new ingredients, as evidenced by the increasing popularity of curry ramen.
Ramen is technically the word for the noodle, not the soup, but it has come to mean both. Ramen noodles are distinct from other types of noodles in that they are made with kansui, an alkaline solution that regulates the acidity of the noodle dough. This allows ramen noodles to retain their structure even while soaking in a hot broth and gives them their signature chewy texture. Without kansui, they’re just noodles.
Every bowl of ramen combines broth, noodles and toppings; the broth is generally a meat, vegetable or seafood stock combined with a seasoning, called tare. There are three main tares - hokkaido (miso), shoyu (soy), and shio (salt), and you’ll be asked which you’d like when you visit a Ramen-Ya in Tokyo. We’re quite partial to both miso and shoyu tares and offer both as options with this menu. The tonkotsu (pork) stock we’ve cooked up is our personal favorite stock for ramen, typified by its rich flavor and creamy texture. Unlike most stocks which rely on a gentle simmer for a short period of time to extract flavor, tonkotsu is made by vigorously boiling pork bones and aromatics for an extended period of time, sometimes up to 24 hours! Alas, we don’t live in the kitchen but have still boiled ours for a respectable 8 hours, plenty of time to extract all the delicious collagen and fat from the bones and give the stock its signature milky white appearance.
The toppings can vary widely, but braised pork, pickled bamboo shoots, and a jammy egg are a classic combination with tonkotsu broth! So that’s what we’ve included here in addition to pickled garlic and fresh scallions. Lastly, ramen is often finished off with a drizzle of aromatic oil and we’ve opted to make a crunchy chili oil here for both heat and texture.
Another dish popular during Japanese new year, we hope this red bean soup makes you rethink any misconceptions you may have had about beans being unfit for dessert (or soup for that matter). With a mild flavor, the adzuki bean is a common ingredient in sweets in Japan, and throughout Asia. Often, the beans are boiled down and combined with sugar to make a sweet red bean paste, which forms the foundation and/or filling of a variety of desserts. Here, the beans are left whole, simmered in a sugary broth for over an hour until pillowy soft and topped with mochi. A brief disclaimer before you dig in, mochi are notoriously chewy, so much so that officials in Japan warn people with difficulty chewing or swallowing against eating them, yet there are still several mochi related choking incidents each year. Please be careful and chew carefully or cut the mochi beforehand!
Japanese whisky has exploded in popularity in the past decade, thanks to Japanese distillers who have been crafting spirits that rival the best bourbons and Scotch whiskies. Founded in 1899, Suntory is one of the oldest distilleries in Japan. And it’s now one of the largest makers of distilled beverages in the world thanks to its purchase of Beam, Inc. (think Jim Beam) in 2014. The whisky highball first rose to popularity in Japan in the 1950s and has seen a recent resurgence in popularity thanks to Suntory’s signature Toki whisky, an excellent and relatively affordable ($40~ a bottle) blended whisky. The Toki highball has become an icon of Japanese drinking culture, now even dispensed from machines! Refreshing and delicious, it pairs wonderfully with this menu and we’d encourage you to add it to your at-home cocktail repertoire. Chill the Toki and a Collins or highball glass in the freezer for 10~ minutes before making. Fill the glass with ice, add 1 part Toki whisky, 3-4 parts soda water, gently stir with a bar spoon and garnish with lemon or grapefruit peel. Kanpai!
If ramen is the best known culinary export of the island, then sake is the beverage to beat when it comes to Japanese libations. Fermented using a unique strand of rice mold known as Koji, and varying degrees of polished rice, sake ranges in flavor from mild and dry, to creamy and sweet. While we don’t have a specific brand to recommend for you here, we would recommend a chilled, dry Junmai sake to compliment this menu. Most good wine shops offer a respectable selection of sakes to choose from and we encourage you to ask what they would recommend!
After a long day at work, many Tokyoites, young and old, will head to a nearby izakaya with coworkers for a few drinks (or more), and plenty of food and conversation. The plates are typically small, and meant to be shared. Everyone starts the evening with a beer and a “Kanpai!”, and then the ordering of food commences. The food kicks off with lighter fare, and as the evening progresses, heavier and richer dishes arrive at the table. The drinks continue throughout - usually beer, sake, and shochu - and the gathering might last for two or three hours. Some revelers might continue on to another izakaya, and maybe even another after that! Once the drinking and socializing are done (or it’s time to catch the final train home), someone will declare it time for shime (from the verb shimeru, which means “to close”) - the final meal of the evening. Shime is usually a noodle or rice dish, and very often ramen.
Here in the world’s most populous city (home to over 37 million people!), there is a vibrant nightlife scene - some of it purely social, and some of it still work-related. Hard work and ganbatte (doing one’s best) are deeply ingrained in Japanese culture - so much so that mentioning someone’s tired appearance is considered high praise indeed, as it surely must be due to long hours at the office. All that hard work earns a person an outlet, and drinking might be that outlet. Similarly, there is an expectation that salary-men and -women (the army of white collar office workers) will oblige their bosses and join them for drinks to cap off the workday. The less bleary reason for the nightlife, however, is perhaps simply that it is uncommon for the Japanese to socialize in their homes - in part due to the small sizes of most homes in Tokyo, and in part because the home is seen as a private place. Whatever the reason, most office workers and university students go out for drinks a few times a week. An evening at an izakaya is a long and lingering event, relished by many. Izakaya are also the venues for dates and celebrations of special occasions big and small. There are fancier izakaya, large chain-run izakaya, and tiny hole-in-the-wall izakaya; some have large menus, some have small, but the gamut of food one might find at an izakaya is lengthy. You’ll find edamame, eggs, pickled vegetables, and many forms of tofu in the lighter dishes. As the evening wears on, you might enjoy dumplings, meatballs, fried octopus, glazed chicken wings, sashimi (raw fish without rice), and yakitori (grilled meat skewers). Some izakaya do have sushi (raw fish with rice) on the menu, but the general consensus is that sushi is best eaten at specialty sushi bars. While izakaya culture bears some resemblance to Western bars, the Japanese rarely drink alcohol without food, and thus the food is as important as the drink at an izakaya.
As an island nation, seafood and seaweed feature heavily in Japanese cuisine. While we don’t have fish as a standalone item on the menu tonight, many Japanese recipes rely on flavors and ingredients from the sea for their signature umami. Several of the dishes we’ve prepared for you include kombu (which is a kelp) and katsuobushi (smoked and dried bonito). Umami was actually isolated as a fifth flavor (distinct from sweet, bitter, salty, and sour) at Tokyo Imperial University in 1908; Dr. Kikunae Ikeda was trying to pinpoint an elusive flavor in Japanese dashi (broth). Though it has been around for centuries (most fermented food has an umami flavor), in recent years, umami has taken on something of a mystical quality. Try our ramen broth before you add the noodles and toppings to see if you can taste and describe the umami! After you’ve tried describing it yourself, a fun exercise is to google “how to describe umami.” Is “roof-of-the-mouthiness” what you came up with also?
When it is time for shime no ramen (end-of-the-night ramen), there are countless places to find it - from street stalls to proper restaurants (though proper restaurant ramen might be better appreciated for lunch). Considering the thousands of years of history that Japan has under its belt, ramen is a relative newcomer to the culinary scene. The hand-pulled noodles (lamian) originated in China, and though noodle soup was certainly not a new invention, it was popularized in Chinese restaurants in Yokohama in the early 1900s. In 1958, the name “ramen” (from “lamian”) came about and the same year, an instant version of the soup was introduced to the world. Instant ramen is a pale imitation of the real dish, but it has fed generations of college students nonetheless! True ramen features careful and precise preparation of excellent ingredients, and these are hallmarks of Japanese cuisine.
Many foodies consider Tokyo the best food city in existence - it has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world, and a cult-like enthusiasm for its izakaya culture and ramen shops. When asked where he would choose to live if he could only live in one city for the rest of his life, Anthony Bourdain quickly replied, “Tokyo!”, and that man had more than a few points of comparison! We hope you enjoy your night out in Tokyo - don’t stay out too late!
Featured Recipe: Tsukune
Recipe adapted from “The Gaijin Cookbook” by Ivan Orkin
Makes about 1 dozen meatballs
For the meatballs:
1 lb ground chicken
½ onion, finely chopped
One 1” piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated
½ cup panko
1.5 tsp potato starch or cornstarch
1 large egg white
1 tsp kosher salt
For the Sauce:
½ cup soy sauce
4 tbsp dry sake
4 tbsp mirin
4 tbsp sugar
In a large bowl, combine the meatball ingredients
Using your hands mix the ingredients until thoroughly incorporated
Shape into meatballs about the size of golfballs and place on a lightly greased baking sheet
Put the baking sheet with the meatballs in the refrigerator to firm up and preheat your oven to 400F
Once your oven is preheated, remove the meatballs from the refrigerator and bake at 400F for 17~ mins, a meat thermometer inserted into the center should read 165F.
Meanwhile, combine all the sauce ingredients in a small saucepot and heat over medium to dissolve the sugar. Simmer for a few minutes to thicken the sauce. Then remove from heat and set aside.
After the 17 mins of cooking time, turn your oven to Broil and broil the meatballs for 1-2 mins to brown them, keeping a close eye on them so they do not burn.
Toss meatballs with sauce and enjoy!
Recipes Inspired By:
Let’s Make Ramen!, to be honest we were a little skeptical of a comic book cookbook at first, but Hugh Amano & Sarah Becan have created a wonderfully entertaining and informative cookbook that provides a great foundation for making authentic Ramen
The Gaijin Cookbook: Japanese Recipes from a Chef, Father, Eater, and Lifelong Outsider from Ivan Orkin of the famous Ivan Ramen in Tokyo
Japanese Home Cooking: Simple Meals, Authentic Flavors, an incredibly informative and accessible cookbook by Sonoko Sakai
Japanese Cooking 101 a great online resource for Japanese recipes
Let's Cook Japanese Food! by Amy Kaneko