There are two things that seem to capture the primordial imagination of human taste buds everywhere: meat on a stick and deep fried food. The Japanese have brilliantly merged these two concepts to create kushiage, also known as kushikatsu.
Kushiage could be described as the lesser known cousin of tempura and is identified with the city of Osaka. I ate at a kushiage bar during a visit there a few months ago, located literally under the tracks of the train station (you can hear the trains regularly rolling by overhead). It was standing only, utilitarian, a bit grungy, and crowded with travelers and salarymen grabbing a quick bite and a beer or two before heading on their way to wherever.
I tried a broad assortment of the offerings – including beef, chicken, pork, shrimp and tuna – with some coming straight out of the fryer (delicious) and some tasting like it had been sitting out for a little while (meh). The kushiage was a bit on the greasy side, though not as much as other fried foods I’ve had back in America. You dip the food into a communal metal vessel of dark sauce that tastes similar to Worcestershire. You also eat it with a side of raw cabbage leaves which I found nice to have in between bites of kushiage, but doesn’t do anything to up the healthiness factor of the overall meal.
But this doesn’t mean that kushiage could not be something fancier, as the restaurant Tatsukichi (立吉) demonstrates. With three locations in the Tokyo area (Shinjuku, Akihabara, and Urawa), Tatsukichi serves up gourmet kushiage that is sophisticated and creative in a laid back atmosphere.
The restaurant is set up around several frying stations, each with about 13 seats and served by its own chef. The ordering process is very simple. The rotation of skewers is basically set (the menu changes according to what’s in season), so just you tell the chef what you can’t or won’t eat, and then he hands you a stick of kushiage one by one at a steady pace as they come out fresh from the deep fryer. He points out which of four or so sauces to dip for each one. You eat and drop your empty skewers into a tall cup provided to you. When you think you are full, you just tell the chef you’re done and the restaurant calculates the tab based on the number of skewers you have. Each stick costs about 200 yen.
And wow, what an amazing lineup of kushiage they have. It’s a far cry from that hole in the wall in Osaka. Salmon and cheese. Beef, deep fried with two tiny dollops of grainy mustard on top. Asparagus wrapped in bacon, topped with hollandaise sauce. Crab claws. Shrimp with shizo leaf. Mushrooms. Whole piece of garlic. Okra. Various little fish. There was even a kushiage version of okonomiyaki (a Japanese pizza/omelet) on a stick. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I’ve noticed afterwards that I don’t have that feeling of oil sticking to your insides that can come from eating deep fried food. This is sublime stuff.
On my most recent trip to the Tatsukichi in Shinjuku, my companions and I decided to try their desserts which are deep fried, of course. We ordered the ice cream cone, the chocolate, and the banana. The desserts looked cool and tasted fine but were nothing to write home about… except for the chocolate, which had a gooey inside surrounded by a crispy layer with whipped cream and chocolate sauce on top. Totally drool worthy.
Tatsukichi is popular with locals, as evidenced by the wait. But I’ve noticed that many of my Japanese friends have not heard of the place. I show them the pictures and their eyes go wide, followed by that surprised “eeeeeEEEEHHH?!” that I will always find endearingly funny. They didn’t realize that kushiage could be like that.
Perhaps it’s time for me to take them out to a part of Tokyo they haven’t seen before.
Tatsukichi locations in the Tokyo area:Shinjuku branch: 4th Floor, 3-34-16 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku Akihabara branch: 3rd Floor, 4-14-1 Soto-Kanda, Akiba Ichi Urawa branch: Urawa Parco 5th Floor, 11-1, Higashitakasagocho, Urawa-ku, Saitama-shi, Saitama Prefecture