After visiting the Tsukiji fish markets proper (see Part 1 of this post), our guide for the day, Tokyo foodie and sake expert, Etsuko Nakamura, takes us across the road for a wander around the outer market.
“For me, this is just as interesting, if not more interesting in some ways, than visiting the fish market, and definitely more interesting than the tuna auction!” Etsuko tells us as she leads us on a tour of what is a paradise for foodies, where scores of shops sell everything from handmade knives to kitchen supplies and each shop specializes in a particular product or type of produce.
Four or five shops only sell Tamago-Yaki or Japanese omelette, in different versions, from sweet to salty, plain, with seaweed or vegetables. There are tofu specialists selling every conceivable form of tofu – they even sell tofu ice-cream! Countless shops sell nori (seaweed) and nothing else – the seaweed with wasabi that they were giving away samples of was pretty wild!
Etsuko takes us to a shop specialising in ‘unagi’ or dried fish in all its many shapes and forms, which she reveals is actually seasonal. “It’s so popular in Japan because it’s healthy with loads of vitamin B and is a great energy source,” she says. July is the month to buy it and there’s a particular day when there is so much unagi that the smell is enough to get people down here.
Many of the shops only focus on specialty products from a particular region. One shop focuses on the finest quality beef from Yoshizawa, another on seafood and the colossal summer rock oysters from Ivakaki that we’ve been enjoying while we’ve been here. They’re so tempting some visitors bought them on the spot and downed them at the stand!
Other shops specialise in bonito flakes (Katsuobushi), used to make dashi – the stock that forms the base of many soups and sauces in Japanese cooking. The customers were all regulars getting their stock to make stock.
At a shop specialising in products from the region of Kanogazawa on the coast, Etsuko points out some tarako or spiced cod roe from Kyusho, which she tells us you can eat by itself with rice or can cook and serve with noodles or even pasta. Just when we see the connection to the Italian bottarga (see this post), we spot some bottarga displayed on a stand beside the tarako. “Here it’s called karasumi, and we slice it thinly and serve it with sake – it’s the best pairing possible!” Etsuko says, her face lighting up. Sake is her specialty.
“Ah, this is interesting for you!” Etsuko exclaims, pointing to another display at a nearby shop, “These are the salted ovaries from the fugo (poisonous blowfish). You slice it very thinly and eat it by itself or grilled. They haven’t figured out why preserving the ovaries stops it from being poisonous. It’s very salty but delicious.”
Etsuko takes us into a shop that initially appears to specialise in frozen food, but which Etsuko reveals is the place where Tokyo’s gastronomic chefs come to buy the pre-prepared bits and pieces, ingredients and garnishes that are used to create the intricate dishes that make up the multi-course meals that comprise a Kaiseki feast. “Kaseki was the meal that originally accompanied tea ceremony,” Etsuko tells us, “So the dishes were simple, and pure, but elegant. Now the dishes are so much more elaborate.” These are the places the Michelin guide loves.
We ask Etsuko for a recommendation as to one we should try because we’ve found the sheer number of places overwhelming and it’s hard to know which guides to trust. Etsuko sighs. “It’s difficult. Japanese people simply don’t eat at these places, at the places that foreigners do – unless it’s a businessman trying to impress some people, or it’s a very special occasion. These places are so expensive…”
Etsuko’s response is similar when we ask her for tips for the best sushi after we see tourists crammed into a sushi joint that is in all the guidebooks. She screws up her nose at the particular place, telling us it’s no better than any other sushi joint. Not to mention that the whole sushi breakfast thing is something only the tourists do. You’ll see far more rubber boots at the local noodle joints and sandwich shops at the markets than in the sushi restaurants – for a variety of reasons.
“There are so many great sushi places in Tokyo and no one place is going to be that much better than another one at a certain standard. You can pay anything from ¥5000 for a set to ¥30,000 for sushi in a top place, but locals would never pay that much unless it was a very special occasion or it was a business meal,” she says. “All the sushi is fresh and good in Tokyo. Just go to the places that locals go.” As we discovered, the main difference at the top end is the reputation of the chef and the chef’s presentation of the sushi.
As if to prove her own point, when we ask Etsuko where we can take her for lunch, she leads us out of the markets to a simple teishoku (set menu) place. It’s a sultry day, it’s not yet noon and the outside tables, even those in the sunshine, are packed, along with the tables inside. We bag a table in the shade as soon as one is free, and while we’re downing icy cold beers, long lines begin to form out front.
Each day there are different specials – today it’s sea urchin (which Lara and Etsuko opt for) and a local fish (which I choose) – and each set menu comes with vegetables, sauces, pickles, miso and rice for the equivalent of US$9 or UK£6 per person, along with some of the cheapest beers we’ve bought in Tokyo. There are no English menus, staff don’t speak English (but it would be easy enough to point if Etsuko wasn’t here), and thankfully, there aren’t any tourists lining up, so it’s right off the radar.