City guide: Tokyo, Japan
Eka Wong is a doctor who fell in love with Japanese culture and cuisine at a young age. He recently wrote a book called Hungry in Tokyo, and started a website (adventuresofekawong), to document all his culinary adventures in Tokyo. Lucky for us, today, he takes us on a food tour of his favourite spots, in his favourite city.
What inspired you to write a book about food in Tokyo?
I fell in love with Japanese cuisine the first time I visited Tokyo 15 years ago. That spurred me on to study Japanese, so that I could understand the Japanese culture, the cuisine, the restaurant scene, and, importantly, the origins of the Japanese ingredients better.
The restaurant scene in Tokyo is dynamic and vibrant. Over the years, I have arranged gourmet tours for my family and friends to interesting and unique restaurants. Friends of friends would ask me for recommendations, during which I would find myself scribbling maps on napkins whilst explaining excitedly about each place. Then one day it struck me, why not write a book? So that's how it all started.
How did you go about gathering the information for your book and actually try out the places you talk about?
Before I started writing the book, I sat down and brainstormed about how the book would be: It would be practical, and yet colorful. The book was to be broken down into 8 areas that a visitor is most likely to be at, and it would highlight a variety of restaurants that would be around that visitor.
I gathered most of my data via Tabelog, a popular Japanese restaurant review guide. The places I chose would have to be reasonably priced, be within walking distance from the train station, generally not require reservations, and importantly a place that I would want to go back to over and over again.
After drawing out a long list of restaurants, I would visit each one of them personally and try out their speciality dish. My trusty Nikon DSLR was always at my side to take shots that would draw out the most gustatory side of each dish. Food photography has always been a long term passion of mine.
Which restaurants/eating places have given you the best memories in Tokyo?
Each of the restaurants have their own distinctive characteristics. The few that stand out are:
Nogata-ya in Omoide Yokocho at Shinjuku for its soulful ambience and simplicity. It is an izakaya (Japanese eating-drinking bar), the size of a rectangular bedroom! Just one chef, a couple of benches to fit 8 comfortably, a grill, and lots of sumibiyaki (skewers cooked on a charcoal grill) and beer/sake.
Toshi Yoroizuka in Roppongi for their dedication to the art of dessert. Yoroizuka-san was trained in Europe for over a decade, and came back eventually to set up his own patisserie. His desire is to breathe life into his desserts; his desserts are prepared from scratch right before one's eyes at his dessert bar at Roppongi's Tokyo Midtown. I've caught the man himself before, preparing our dessert. A humble man.
Ninja Akasaka in Akasaka for its novelty, and ingenuity. It is a themed restaurant, and no surprise, the waiters and waitresses are dressed as ninjas, and the restaurant is designed as a ninja's hideout. The dishes are playful and delicious. Nuff said. I shan't leak out any more spoilers.
Pictured above: Nogataya, Toshi Yoroizuka
Everyone is always trying to eat as much as they can when in Tokyo - what is your strategy for trying as much food as possible?
There is so much to eat in Tokyo. I often recommend staying in Tokyo for a week to get a good grasp of the food scene there because the variety is mind-boggling. From noodles to rice, from traditional cuisine to fusion, from savory to dessert.
My strategy is to target places that are close to each other to minimise travelling time, head out early to hit that breakfast/lunch place early, and walk a lot to build up that appetite for the next meal. I don't find Japanese food to be filling, hence at times, it is easy to have 4 meals a day.
If you only had 2 days in Tokyo, would be your choices for each meal?
That is a tough question. If I only had two days, this would be my itinerary:
For a light dessert, I would head to Takano Fruit Parlour, located in Shinjuku's Takashimaya, for fruit-based desserts and parfaits.
For dinner, I would take a short train ride to quaint Ebisu to have Kushiyaki (lightly deep-fried bread-coated skewers) at Kushi-Tei.
This would be followed by mousse-based cakes at Hidemi Sugino at 11am - their cakes get sold out quickly!
For dinner, a hearty Shabu Shabu meal at Onyasai, just opposite Tokyo Midtown.
Pictured above: Sushi Dai (credit: Ed Lau), Sushi say, Hidemi Sugino
What is your favourite Japanese dish, and where in Tokyo do you go for this?
My heart tears apart whenever I get asked this, because I love everything that I eat in Tokyo. A good Una-don (Unagi on a bed of warm fluffy rice) is hard to find. Hosakaya at Jiyugaoka is a treasure stuck in time. Apart from serving reasonably-priced carefully-grilled mouth-watering Una-don, their ambience is homely.
Pictured above: Hosakaya, Una-don at Hosakaya,
Can you tell us about some traditional Japanese desserts that are worth trying, and where to find them in Tokyo?
Traditional Japanese desserts are evergreen. Toraya is one of the oldest traditional Japanese confectioners in Tokyo. They have branches in just about every Depachika (basements of department malls which are filled with counters selling food and desserts of every kind). Their main cafe is at Ginza, though they have branches at Roppongi, Marunouchi and Nihombashi.
They serve Anmitsu (a symphony of red bean paste, jelly, fruits, chewy white Shirotama coated with black sugar syrup), Kuzu-kiri (jelly noodles in black sugar syrup), Oshiruko (sweet soup made from simmered azuki beans with dumpling) and more.
Another favourite traditional Japanese dessert of mine is Dango (Japanese chewy dumplings made from rice flour - coated with a variety of flavours). I get my fill from Oiwakedango at Shinjuku. They have a bench just outside their store for a quick bite.
Pictured above: Toraya Cafe in Omotesando Hills, Oiwakedango shop
What are some of the craziest Japanese foods that you've tried?
Junsai じゅんさい is one of the weirdest Japanese plants I've ever had. It is a floating leave of the Brasenia plant, with a thick mucilage coverage which has been hypothesised to function as an anti-herbivore defence trait. It has a rather plain flavour, but a crunchy bite to it.
Whale meat is one of the craziest Japanese food I've had so far. Komagata Dozeu in Tokyo serves it simmered in a soya-sauce based stock, with heaps of spring onions piled onto it. The whale meat is pretty chewy. Something I wouldn't mind having again but I won't go out of my way for.
Pictured above: Komagata Dozeu (credit: gigazine) Eka at Dozeu
For people who aren't very discerning sushi eaters, how do you define GOOD sushi, and how can you tell if sushi is good?
Good sushi is not purely defined by the ingredients alone, but also by the chef. He plays a crucial role in the whole experience. He serves as a guide to help decide the sequence of sushi one should have, and the pace one should have them. A good chef is knowledgeable, and attentive. He is one who is able to elaborate more on one's favourite types of fish. He is also one to flavour the Neta (the ingredient on the sushi, be it fish, clam or egg) adequately that no more soya sauce is needed.
But as with most communication, the diner has an important role to play. To feedback what was good, and what is desired. Only when there is this bond, the sushi dining experience is enhanced. This goes beyond the quality of the rice and the Neta.
What are some of your must do's when you travel?
I love to explore the cuisine of the place or country I visit. It tells alot about the people: their habits, their behavior, their passion, and their priorities. Family run restaurants are the best places to observe this.
If possible, I try to learn a bit of the language of the place that I am travelling to. I try to look for an adventure, a new experience. I quote G.K. Chesterton: "The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see."
Stylish places to stay in Tokyo
This lovely apartment provides panoramic views of Mt Fuji on a clear day!
Going to Tokyo? Check out more places to stay in Tokyo on Roomorama.