Why would you cook in Tokyo when you can eat out so well is something I’ve been asking myself every day. Tokyo is the first destination of our year-long grand tour where I haven’t cooked. If you’ve been to Tokyo, you can appreciate why. If you haven’t, then read on.
One of the huge advantages of staying in a holiday rental over a hotel is having a kitchen to cook in, which is what we’ve tried to show you so far this year on our global grand tour.
For us, cooking isn’t about saving money, although that’s obviously a bonus, but is more about being able to visit local markets, buy and cook fresh local produce, and to cook the dishes I’ve learned to make from locals (from Marrakech to Puglia), from chefs (in Barcelona, Paris and Kotor), and at cooking schools (from Venice to Paris).
Occasionally we’ll also do a bit of entertaining, whether it’s to cook dinner for new friends (in Ceret, Sardinia and Puglia) or hold a party or two (in Dubai and London). But mostly, food is an avenue way to get beneath the skin of the place we’re settling into for a while – in the case of this year-long trip, two weeks.
So why haven’t I wanted to cook here in Tokyo? Why would you cook in Tokyo when you can eat out so well?
Why Would You Cook in Tokyo When You Can Eat Out So Well?
So when I first laid eyes on the compact, well-equipped kitchen in our Tokyo apartment in Akasaka, I had all intentions of making some Weekend Eggs and doing a Tokyo edition of my series on The Dish, as we have in every other place we’ve settled into so far this year. That was until our third day in the city when we realised that eating out in Tokyo is such a treat that we were never going to do much more in the kitchen than make tea or coffee or mix an evening drink.
In the mornings we’ve found that we’re often not hungry as a result of some late-night nibbling, whether it be yakitori on Omoide Yokocho (Memory Lane) or a long evening at an izakaya (a Japanese bar that serves food). And due to the worst jet-lag we’ve experienced in many years, coupled with late-night drinks and conversation, we haven’t exactly been up at the crack of dawn. Of course the crack of dawn appears to be 4.30am judging by the light coming through our windows.
Breakfast doesn’t seem to be a big deal for the Japanese either. The local favourite of rice, some fish, and a raw egg was one of the dishes that I could have recreated, but that probably wouldn’t suit everyone’s taste for my Weekend Eggs, would it? There’s an omelette dish called tomago yaki, but it’s generally made in a special cake-like tin and is sweet — not really breakfast material in my opinion. So, no Weekend Eggs from me this destination.
And with the definitive plate for The Dish for Tokyo, where do we start? Gyoza? Udon? Soba? Yakitori? Sushi? Oden? Shabu-Shabu? Tonkatsu? Tempura? Truth be told, I would have had a hard time making one of these dishes for less than you could buy them in any one of the dozens of dedicated eating establishments that specialize in them — not to mention making them as good as the local chefs do, even the humble ones in food trucks.
To do a sushi cooking class when you won’t be buying fresh fish from the Tsukiji Markets every time you attempt sushi seemed futile and ultimately frustrating – it takes years to learn the art of sushi making. Even buying the fish from the markets is an art, although I didn’t do too badly prepping tuna sashimi at Enrica Rocca’s cooking school in Venice recently. We’ll save the Tokyo sushi making course for a future (longer) trip.
Plus there are so many different styles of food to try in Tokyo that as it is we have had difficulty getting through them all. One thing I desperately wanted to experience, braised pork belly (butaniku no kakuni), hasn’t appeared on any of the menus in the places we’ve been to and we’ve been kept so busy eating as it is, I haven’t had time to seek it out.
Compounding this predicament (ah, the problems of travel writers… you feel sorry for us, don’t you?) has been the enormous selection of delicious take-home snacks in the supermarkets. Lara has consumed so many dried fish snacks she has started to meow like a cat in a cat cafe.
So I make no apologies. I’m guessing it could take months of living in Tokyo before I’d be craving something that wasn’t from Japan, because the cuisine here offers so much variety. Having eaten so well in Tokyo, I’m now going to find it hard to eat Japanese food outside Japan. I want to return and eat more, not try and replicate it at home. Is there a greater compliment to a cuisine than that?
Why would you cook in Tokyo? To prove my point, here’s a sampling of some of the meals we’ve had within walking distance of our apartment, just so you get whey I won’t be cooking in Tokyo this trip.
Where We Have Eaten in Tokyo in Walking Distance From Our Apartment
On our first night we went out looking for noodles, but ended up eating at an izakaya (Japanese bar with food) after stumbling across Nogizaka Uoshin, an izakaya with an emphasis on seafood. The seats were milk crates topped with cushions, the diners were all locals (most on an after-work eating and drinking marathon), and the affable staff had the day’s specials handwritten on paper signs stapled to their t-shirts. It was rowdy. It was fun. The seafood was fast disappearing from the open display at the front counter, and we were in heaven. Sashimi, oysters, tempura… we couldn’t have had a better welcome to Tokyo. Another night we tried an ‘upmarket’ izakaya called Takewaka. Every single morsel of food that hit the table was sublime from the little appetisers to the eel, from the octopus to the fish skewers. Sigh.
On one late start to the day we were headed to our favourite Japanese burger joint, Mos Burger, up the hill in Roppongi when we saw a noodle shop and ramen specialist called Kohmen, jam-packed with slurping local diners. Not a tourist in sight. We couldn’t resist slipping in and not surprisingly had some fantastic food. The basil gyoza and little succulent pork appetisers were brilliant. And the ramen soups, ladled out of absolutely enormous pots, were stunning. The ramen may have come from a chain – they have three ramen restaurants in Tokyo – and might not be from some famous noodle king, but damn it was amazing stuff.
Sushi and Sashimi
Another morning we decided we didn’t really need to try a crazily-priced sushi restaurant (where the set menus can easily pass £100 without drinks) and decided instead to risk a more affordable and more local sushi eatery that we’d noticed was very popular with office workers for lunch and local residents for dinner. While the tuna was transcendent, everything else was merely great, but as we left they were filleting a whole fish for dinner service – that’s what you want to see! It turns out that the place, Itamae Sushi, is considered great by locals. Oddly enough, they are originally from Hong Kong and have made the news in Japan recently with their bids at Tsukiji Markets for whole tuna. That explains it.
The thing is that all of these places are within easy walking distance of our apartment in Akasaka. There are so many outstanding spots to eat in our neighbourhood that we could easily spend a month having lunch and dinner here and not walk through the same restaurant doors twice.
Is it any wonder I didn’t want to spend any time in the kitchen? Why would you cook in Tokyo? How many trips to Tokyo do you think it would take before you might be tempted to cook in your own kitchen and not eat out?