In my last post, I talked about the world of Japanese pasta and how Japan has reimagined one of the pillars of Italian cuisine. It got me thinking: what would the Italian take on ramen look like? Or rather, what would be the Japanese take on an Italian interpretation of ramen? I found one answer at a place called Nagi Butao (凪 豚王), located not too far from Shibuya station.
One of the most fascinating things about food in Japan is how many foreign foods have been reinterpreted and reinvented in ways that make them distinctively Japanese. I’ve talked previously about tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlet) which is the Japanese version of German schnitzel and American chicken fried steak. And of course there is ramen, which is Chinese in origin but has evolved into a quintessential Japanese dish.
What you may not be as familiar with is the Japanese take on pasta, the stuff that (according to legend) Marco Polo introduced to Italy from the Far East and the Italians have exported right back. You can find Italian pasta in Tokyo and, depending on where you go, it can be quite good. However, the Japanese have also developed their own unique versions that reflect local ingredients and flavors.
One of the fun things about exploring places to eat in Tokyo is that it often takes you to neighborhoods that you would not otherwise visit, especially if you’re a foreigner. After all, great food doesn’t need to be limited to those areas that are well-known or the most popular. That’s certainly the case when I went to a restaurant called Maruchi for tonkatsu (which I wrote about here) and, in an even more recent trip, to an awesome ramen joint called Matador (マタドール) in the Kita-Senju neighborhood. Both are located on the outskirts of Tokyo, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise that many people asked “why would you go all the way out there” when I told them about my plans.
Some of the best places to do gourmet foodspotting in Japan are the food sections of major department stores, which are normally located in the basement level. Yennie Cheung of the blog International Gluttony does a great overview of these depachika, which she describes as “essentially like supermarket delis, except that these would make Whole Foods weep with inadequacy.”
The one my family and I have gone to relatively frequently is in the Mitsukoshi Department store in Ginza, conveniently connected to the Metro station. It is a wall-to-wall Versailles of high quality, spectacularly presented food — European-style pastries and baked goods, chocolates, some of the most immaculate looking fruit you will ever see in your life, a broad selection of Asian and European cuisines, and much more. You really have to be careful not to drool over everything you see.
Items tend to be on the pricey side, as you would expect from an upscale retailer. But we always seem to buy something from the European-style bakery there, Johan, which makes great bread, croissants, and other pastries. They offer some sort of “bread of the day” (at least on the weekends) and there are often a lot of people waiting in line to pick some up.
Of course, any of the Japanese departments stores (especially the high end ones such as Mitsukoshi and Takeshimaya) will have depachika like this. So if you happen to see one while you’re hanging out in Japan, definitely check it out.Mitsukoshi Department Store 4-6-16 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo
Here’s a very nice follow up to the post on Japanese Kit Kats that I did a few weeks ago. RocketNews24 describes how someone in the United States recently discovered that they could order macha (green tea) Kit Kats from a Japanese vendor through Amazon. What he ended up receiving in the mail was not just the Kit Kats, but also a handwritten thank you letter in English and three origami ninja throwing stars like the ones my childhood friends used to make.
Needless to say, he was absolutely impressed by this display of customer service and kindness. It just underscores how nice people generally are in Japan. We need more of that in the world.
Tonkatsu. Pork cutlet covered with Japanese-style bread crumbs (panko) and deep fried. It sounds so simple and straightforward that I have to wonder: how different could tonkatsu be from restaurant to restaurant? How do chefs distinguish theirs from the others? These are the questions I explored during my recent trips to two tonkatsu restaurants in the Tokyo area.