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Tokyo, Japan

Pickles, Oysters, Red Bean Cakes—Oh My! (Or The Many Fried Things On Sticks I Ate in Japan)

Yes, my friends, you’re seeing it right. Pictured here is a REALLY HUGE PICKLE on a stick. I bought it from a street vendor in Kyoto on the road leading up to Kiumizudera, a prominent old temple complex that’s sort of like the Acropolis of Japan. Anyone who knows me well knows that I absolutely adore pickles. (Longtime readers of this blog know that I even make them myself.) Luckily for me, Japan is a veritable pickle paradise, and cucumbers are just the tip of the, um, cucumber. Whether it’s vegetables like burdock root and cabbage or fruit like the brutally sour umeboshi plum, Japanese cuisine is replete with cured items. As a result, there are also a lot of stores selling pickles, with most of them cut up and placed in bowls to enable patrons to taste before buying. Taste I did. But I am going off on a tangent: Pickles were only one category of the many fascinating and delicious street foods I ate in Japan, a country where even the tiniest detail (or bite, as the case may be) receives a stunning amount of attention.

Another major class of street food was what I like to call “fried things on sticks.” Among these was the maple leaf-shaped treat pictured here, which had a sort of rubbery tofu-like texture and was studded with pieces of octopus. Momiji, the maple leaf, is the symbol of Hiroshima and its neighboring island Miyajima, because of the area’s stunning fall color. To be quite frank, this particular momiji looked much better than it tasted, but perhaps the other flavors, which included shrimp, cod roe, sea eel and cheese, would have redeemed the concept. Other fried treats were far more successful. At the open-air Nishiki Market in Kyoto, Daddy Salmon got something that looked almost like a Twinkie on a stick. Inside the fried shell was a rich, soft squash filling, which was such a pleasant surprise that it prompted Mango Mama to take a few extra bites, all while declining to get her own, despite Daddy Salmon’s protests.

For a country that supposedly frowns on walking while eating, handheld creations were not difficult to come by. Another favorite came in the form of steamed buns with characters edibly imprinted on their plush, rounded tops. The first one of these I tried, in Miyajima, was stuffed with a mix of conger eel and vegetables. The bun had a pleasant chew, giving way to the warm, soft filling, but I found the flavor of this one to be a little meek and the texture a little mealy. Later in the trip, when descending from Kiumizudera in Kyoto via that same road that yielded the pickle on a stick, we found another stand selling similar looking buns. This time the filling was beef with burdock root, and I purchased one for each of us. These were deeply savory, well spiced and had a great textural contrast, thanks to the mushroom-like pieces of burdock root. I could eat these beautiful buns for breakfast, lunch or dinner and at all points in between.

Of course, this being Japan, seafood was another major street-food category. One of the best street snacks we tried were fried oysters in cream that we happened upon during a rainy-day walk in Miyajima. Rich and molten in the center, these were like eating a rich oyster chowder in a glorious handheld pocket of friedness. But probably the most impressive bit of street fare we tried was a baby octopus on a stick. Called tako, these guys are delicious, tentacles and all. It took us until the first person bit into it the head to realize that this octopus’s noggin was stuffed with a bright yellow, hard-cooked egg yolk. The yolk was perfectly done, not chalky in the least, and the textural contrast between the taut octopus meat and the gentle softness of the egg bordered on a revelation.

Last, but not least, let us turn to desserts. We didn’t eat much street food in Tokyo, but I was astonished by the uniformly high quality of the Parisienne-style bakeries there. At one particularly museum-like spot where the counter ladies all wore impeccable uniforms, I ordered a near-perfect creme puff, paid the ladies, nodded courteously and then walked outside and proceeded to chow down. Heavenly! In Miyajima, the momiji makes its most famous appearance in little maple-leaf shaped filled cakes, known as momiji manju. While the most common fillings are red bean, green tea and chocolate, I also tasted strawberry, orange and a few other wacky flavors. Call me a purist, but I liked the red bean one best. That’s because it strikes the best balance between sweet and boldly savory without the overwhelming saccharine sweetness of flavors like strawberry or the weakness of the chocolate. A final favorite dessert was actually part of our breakfast sampler at Nishiki Market in Kyoto. Having refused to buy her own fried, spiced squash thing on a stick, Mango Mama spotted a sign that said “Tofu Doughnuts.” Intrigued, she ordered a bag of them. These were tasty, light little fried rings of dough. We didn’t quite see where the tofu came in—maybe they were made with soy milk—but we were more than happy to eat them, nonetheless.

Cheap Eats of Japan Not Lost In Translation

I’ve been back from Japan for a week now, and while I’ve fully recovered from jet-lag, I am still thinking about the stunning beauty and myriad mysteries revealed to me on the trip. The tastes and textures of the food I ate there—some familiar and some completely novel—played major roles in my experience of the country. Japan has a reputation for being pricey. Daddy Salmon, Mango Mama and I did have some expensive meals. But many of the best-known restaurants are relatively inexpensive places that have gained their reputations by focusing on one dish and learning to make it to perfection. The first such place we visited was a ramen spot in Tokyo called Sapporo Junren, specializing in Sapporo-style miso ramen. Although Sapporo Junren is pretty famous and is widely regarded as the best place in Tokyo to get miso ramen, we would likely never have known to look for it (let alone know how to find it) if it hadn’t been for our intrepid guide, Yakitori. An American photography writer living in Tokyo, Yakitori is the son of a college friend of Auntie Pasti and Corny Uncle. He occasionally does tours of Tokyo on the side, and he knew exactly where to bring us when I told him that food was a top priority.

Takadanobaba, the neighborhood where the restaurant is located, is has become the ramen capital of the city because of its proximity to a couple universities. The line was out the door when we showed up at the restaurant (a good sign), but it moved pretty quickly as people got up from their stools at the counter that formed a three-sided rectangle around a serving area connected to the kitchen. As with seemingly everything in Japan, we ordered our ramen from a vending machine in the restaurant’s vestibule. To be precise, we picked out the kind of ramen and toppings we wanted and paid for them at the vending machine, which then printed out a ticket, which we then passed along to the server who submitted it to the kitchen staff. All-in-all, it was a highly efficient operation. We all ordered the spicy miso ramen (sans pork for Daddy Salmon). The broth, thick with miso paste and redolent of pork and chilies was one of the best I’ve had. The pork melted in the mouth, noodles were al dente with excellent chew and bamboo shoots, scallions and ginger added essential textural contrasts. Within one bite, this soup had put all New York City ramens to shame.

Our next chance to try a Tokyo favorite came the following day when we were out wandering in the high-end Harajuku shopping district. I had read about Maisen, a restaurant known for tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets). Numerous people had also recommended it to me before I left New York. It happened to be in the neighborhood, and we needed lunch. Unfortunately, we did not have Yakitori to guide us, and we had not mapped out the restaurant’s location before leaving our guesthouse. Streets aren’t really named in Tokyo, and addresses are mostly absent from buildings. The guidebook’s map was sketchy at best. We were mere blocks away, but none of the people we asked had any idea what we were talking about. After walking in a series of frustrating circles, our hunger overcame us and we sat down to eat at another cafe. It was only after eating that we walked a bit further down Omotesando (the Madison Ave. of Tokyo) and saw a sign pointing to Maisen. I wasn’t exactly starving then, but hey, there’s nothing wrong having a fried pork cutlet for dessert, right? Unfortunately, we didn’t have the appetite or inclination to sit down to another meal, so we didn’t get to see the interior of the restaurant, which is apparently a former pre-World War II bathhouse. Instead, I stepped up to the restaurant’s outdoor takeout window and ordered a classic tonkatsu sandwich, made with a folded piece of thick flatbread, shredded cabbage and a piece of tonkatsu doused with a sauce made from ketchup, Worchestershire, sake, mirin, ginger, garlic and sugar. The bread may have hindered my appreciation of the cutlet’s perfectly crisped exterior, but there is no denying that this was a tasty sandwich.

Our travels soon took us out of Tokyo. The next chance we had to try a classic spot, with a specialty dish came in Kyoto. While Daddy Salmon was off fishing with his new Japanese buddy, the latter’s wife Matcha took Mango Mama and me on a tour of some Kyoto sites. In between temples and gardens, we stopped at Omen, a Kyoto landmark, serving thick chewy udon noodles. The two-storey restaurant was packed with people, and the line extended out the door. After about 10 minutes we were seated upstairs. Matcha’s English skills were quite limited. Our Japanese skills were all but non-existent, but at Omen it’s easy: all you do is order “Omen.” What arrives first is a platter of vegetable trimmings, including bean sprouts, green beans, daikon, spinach and scallions, along with a bowl of toasted sesame seeds.

Next comes a bowl of hot (or cold, depending on how you order) seasoned broth and another bowl of udon noodles, cooked and sitting in warm, unseasoned water. Matcha showed us how to add our desired combinations of vegetables and a couple spoonfuls of sesame seeds to the broth. We then lifted the udon from its bowl and dunked it in the seasoned broth before popping it in our mouths and slurping it down. While not as complex as the ramen broth, this had a cleaner flavor that was obviously intentional. The slightly salty richness seasoned the vegetable additions and added the perfect slick of flavor to the excellent noodles. I’m pretty sure I could eat this soup once a week, whether in hot or cold form. As it turns out I might be able to. While we were eating, Matcha told me that, in addition to its other Kyoto locations, Omen has a New York location on Thompson Street in SoHo. I’m planning to check it out as soon as I can get down there. The menu looks pretty different from the one in Kyoto, but it does offer “homemade udon made in our traditional style.” It’s funny how sometimes you have to travel around the world to realize the greatness of what you have back at home.

Sapporo Junren
3-12-8 Takadanobaba
Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan
+81.35.338.8533

Maisen
4-8-5 Jingu-mae
Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan
+81.34.370.0071

Omen
74 Ishibashi-cho, Jodo-ji
Sakyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
+81.75.771.8994