Enjoy street food delights in Toyko Local with Caryn and Brendan Liew »

Japanese food is far, far more than sushi, teppanyaki and shabu shabu restaurants

By Robyn Lewis
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<i>Tokyo Local</i> by Caryn and Brendan Liew

Tokyo Local by Caryn and Brendan Liew [©Smith Street Books ]


If you have ever been to Japan, you will know it’s a world apart – its unique culture pervades everything, from electronics to garden design, architecture to clothing, and of course, Japanese food.

As a tourist, unless you are lucky enough to have Japanese friends, or another entrée – such as a guided culinary tour – into behind-the-scenes dining (often in tiny restaurants that seat no more than a handful of people), then you may find the food experiences hard to access, and what you do find, at stratospheric prices. So what and where to eat?

Street food is the answer, whether it’s at railway stations (often surprisingly good, especially their bento boxes), izakaya (small bars serving drinks and their speciality snacks), shopping precincts or in one of the traditional back alleys where you can so easily get lost; they all seem to look the same!

Many restaurants and stalls have plastic imitation foods on display so if you don’t speak the language all you have to do is point – they are amazingly realistic and very tempting. Others are hidden behind moren (curtains), or marked only by calligraphy signs and a small bunch of flowers, or by a traditional Japanese lantern above the door.

As the authors note “it would be impossible to dine at every restaurant in Tokyo in a single lifetime” – and that’s if you know where they are! Multiply this by the number of cities, prefectures and rural areas across Japan and you can easily see the extent of the cuisine to sample.

Focussing on Tokyo, “a city where century-old restaurants can be found in between modern ones; where third, fourth and fifth generation chefs… go through the processes that their forefathers went through before them… It is here where a tofu restaurant sits within an Edo-era (1603-1868) compound… chefs at sleek, Japanese-helmed French restaurants work against a background of magnificent ikebana…

This is what makes Tokyo so enigmatic: its intoxicating blend of past and present, its balance of tradition and modernity” and in the authors’ opinion, why “it is Tokyo where the food is most exciting.”

They should know. They once ran their own Japanese café in Melbourne, Chotto, and previously Brendan worked at the three-Michelin-starred Nihonryori Ryugin in Roppongi, Tokyo and Hong Kong. He also studied the art of ramen-making in Japan, before delving into kappo and modern kaiseki cuisine.

Tokyo Local explores the dishes that make up the city’s culinary history, from old to modern, but all of it achievable in your own home, and light years away from ‘simple’ sushi that pervades the West. “It’s the chicken skin yakitori you eat at 2am in a bar the size of a cupboard. It’s the pork curry you devour after having to line up for 45 minutes with a bunch of excited teenagers. It’s the yuzu ramen you slurp after ordering it from a vending machine. It’s the tonkatsu you buy in a vast shopping-centre basement. And it’s the oden that’s served to you by a laid-back surfer from Okinawa.”

Tokyo Local contains 70 recipes exemplifying this style. The recipes are divided into sections of the day: Early, Mid, Late, plus Basics. In making these dishes at home, they note “Japanese cuisine is very flexible, and any protein can be substituted for another… beef can replace pork (the dish name may change)… meat in recipes can be substituted with tofu, mushrooms or other hearty vegetables such as daikon (Japanese radish) or pumpkin.”

Breakfast can be a big affair in Japan: one soup, three dishes, plus rice, fish, sides, and pickles. It’s the first time I’ve seen a recipe book start with pickles, called Tsukemono – “soaked things” – which depending on how they are made, can be crunchy, salty, sweet or tangy. Apparently there are entire restaurants devoted to them.

Here we have Rice Vinegar Pickles; Rice Bran Pickles and Pickled Ginger. The latter is easy to make at home and minus the food colouring in the pickled ginger found on sashimi platters (used as a palate cleanser between different fish). So, why not make your own?

Breakfast also means Miso Soup, which is easy to make and very nutritious (just don’t boil it or it will become grainy). To serve alongside are dished like Rolled Egg Omelette; Kitsune Udon (yes, make your own noodles too); Red-bean Pancakes, and French-influenced street snacks like Yuzu Madeleines and Matcha Financiers. Sounds suitable exotic!

At midday in Tokyo workers pour out of their offices, “heading for their favourite ramen shops, curry houses, and depachika” – the basements of department stores, specialising in food, including Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Western. It is said that the more traditional the store, the better their food, Isetan, Daimaru and Takashimaya being the most renowned.

There are also stalls selling one-dish donburi – rice topped with sashimi, or simmered of fried meats – and konbini, convenience stores (described by the authors as being “far superior… to… its international counterparts”) selling snacks. So much choice!

The Liews start their lunch recipes with Oyakodon, a donburi containing both chicken and egg, hence the name which means ‘parent and child’. The dish was apparently created in 1891 by the wife of a fifth-generation restaurant owner that is still in operation. This is Japanese comfort food at its best, and long may it endure.

There are dishes for minced chicken, a staple of Japanese home cooking; Gyudon or Soy-simmered Beef; plus a number of curries, or Kare, which were introduced by the British in the 1800s and have since taken on a Japanese life of their own, often including grated apple for sweetness. There’s even a curry festival in September!

Vegetarians and fish lovers aren’t forgotten however, although in general this book is very light on seafood, at least until evening meals. If you have even wondered what to do with sea urchin roe (uni), look no further that Uni Pasuta, Sea Urchin Pasta, which stretches a luxury ingredient and takes it to extra heights with (optional) caviar in a further refinement called Yoshoku.

Shojin Ryori is Zen vegetarian cuisine, and includes recipes such as Sesame Tofu; Hiryoze (Tofu Patties); Miso-grilled Eggplant; Tempura Asparagus; Dashi-simmered Vegetables; and a spring favourite of Broad-bean Rice.

There is a whole section on Bento, named after the wooden and lacquer boxes in which these foods have been served since the late 1500s. Train-station Bento evolved in the late 1800s along with Japan’s railway transport system, and you can eat very well there, although many famous restaurants also serve Bento, made with more expensive ingredients.

Just getting through the lunch recipes in Tokyo Local is going to take me a year! Noodles (men) feature heavily in another section, and many are store-bought – you just make the toppings and the broth. Honestly if this book alone doesn’t make you want to go to Tokyo, nothing will. There’s even an entire section on midday sweets, which can of course be more easily purchased at local patisseries.

Tokyo at night is a city of neon lights, and stores open until all hours. Late means very late, even for locals, who can often be seen in office windows working until 9 pm, then to go out eating and drinking before they catch the last train home.

There are alleyways filled with Yakitori stalls, tachigui or ‘stand bars’ – which trace their origins to food carts of the 1600s – right through to Michelin-starred dining. As the authors note, “Japanese establishments tend to focus on one cuisine, a reflection of their shokunin philosophy: the mastery of one craft by perfecting it over and over again.” But then there are izakaya which offer a huge range of foods to wash down with your beer or sake.

To start, Tokyo Local includes a ‘make from scratch’ ramen project, which takes up three pages and “is best attempted over a weekend”. I think I’ll stick to dried or frozen if I make the Chilled Ramen one hot summer’s night. And of course there’s a Yakitori recipe, using chicken thighs and chicken mince, plus Grilled Pancakes (Monjayaki) and a Savoury Egg Custard called Chawanmushi.

Variety seems to be the keynote in this Late section, with seafood offerings ranging from Crab Croquettes and Prawns with Vinegar Jelly through to Snapper Rice; Braised Kingfish and Daikon; Pickled Mackerel to Ponzu Bonito.

Pork is clearly a night-time street food winner too, with Panko-crusted Pork (cutlets); Pork Simmered with Ginger; Pork Belly Stew; and Shabu Shabu.

Beef is less of a luxury in Japan now (save the expensive wagyu fillets) but is still very highly prized, especially from Matsusaka, Kobe and Omi prefectures, where the animals are pampered and massaged. Their take on roast beef in the form of Miso-marinated Roast Beef (fillet) is delicious, and Sukiyaki is a great cook-at-the-table way of making a fillet go a long way.

Cheaper cuts like round find their way into Beef Tataki, which makes a great starter for sharing, and there’s a Beef Tendon Stew, rather like lamb shanks cooked until they fall apart.

There are a few more sweet temptations like Sweet Sake, which is made with fermented rice (another weekend project for the dedicated!); a Portuguese Castella Cake made with honey, which was introduced to Japan in the 16th century (only 5 ingredients, so use good honey and free-range eggs) and a Strawberry and Pistachio Pound Cake, which would look great at Christmas.

The book ends with recipes for Basics including Rice; Milk Bread; Tempura Flour; Dashi and various sauces, and a Basic Salad Dressing made with sesame which is now a regular in my pantry, plus a glossary to translate some of the more unfamiliar terms.

Overall, I love this book. It’s fun and inspiring, the 70 recipes are generally achievable, and if you’ve been intimidated by Japanese food in the past, now’s the time to change that. If you can’t get to Tokyo, pour yourself a wine, beer or sake, and get cooking. Kanpei!


Tokyo Local – Cult Recipes from the Streets that Make the City by Caryn Liew and Brendan Liew is published by Smith Street Books and distributed by Simon & Shuster (Melbourne, 2018; hc; 224 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$39.99.

It can be purchased online via Booko.com.au here »


Read the media release here and scroll down for some recipes.



  • japan-all (JP)

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