Tokyo Bento

24 Jan 2014  6 Responses »
Jan 242014
 

One of the (many) pleasures of train travel in Japan is buying a delicious bento box to enjoy during the journey. Bento boxes sold for this purpose are so popular that they have their own name, ekiben – eki means station – and most large stations have multiple ekiben shops to choose from.

Often the contents reflect local regional cuisine but my knowledge of Japanese food is still insufficient to recognise much of what I find inside, let alone be sure of where in Japan in might originate.

Still, the pleasure of presentation, variety, texture and taste is a joy and whiles away the time not spent gazing out of the windows at the beautiful views.

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This ekiben from Tokyo Bento in Tokyo Station was just ¥880 (less than £6).

 

As with most addresses in Tokyo, Zenyaren is difficult to find. When your overnight but sleepless flight from London landed only a few hours ago, and you’ve had a scant 1 hour nap since checking into your hotel, it’s doubly challenging. Luckily, Pete and I are with two Tokyo friends, Masamitsu and Voltaire, who manage, with the aid of smartphones, to track down my chosen venue.

How did Tokyoites navigate their city before the era of online maps and satellite navigation?

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Zenyaren is down in the basement of an office building, about 10 minutes walk from Tokyo Station. We are late for lunch and far too early for dinner, so much of the large space is empty. We are shown a large table in one of the cosier side rooms that break the space up.

The key attraction of Zenyaren is that it gathers together in a single place cooking from seven yakitori restaurants across Japan, giving you the chance to try regional yakitori favourites.

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Indeed, our waiter tells us that in his home region, yakitori is commonly made with pork (even though the word itself means fried or grilled poultry).

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With our drinks (umeshu for me, beer for the rest) come minced chicken balls, given crunch by the addition of finely chopped cartilage. Fabulous, and oddly reminiscent of Swedish meatballs!

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We order various mixed platters of yakitori, our waiter explaining the condiments that are intended for each. It’s a good selection, with each of us favouring different skewers, nothing lasts too long. We also try a chicken skin dish, which is very tasty but I’d like better if the skin were crunchy rather than flacid, and some whole fish that are a particular favourite of Masamitsu’s.

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With another round of drinks, the total bill for four is ¥10,220 (just under £70 at the exchange rate during our visit). For those planning to make a night of it, the menu also includes some reasonable drinks plans (where you pay a fixed price for unlimited drinks from a specified selection). Zenyaren is a great place to go with a group and I can imagine it becomes far buzzier when busy, during lunch or dinner hours.

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Although the tourism marketing folks would rather it be known as Omoide Yokocho (Memory Lane), this narrow alley, tucked in by the railway tracks near Shinjuku station in Tokyo, is more commonly and crudely known as Shomben Yokocho aka Piss Alley. This, and a second alley running parallel, are said to be a throwback to pre-war Japan, though given that the area was gutted by a fire in 1999, what you see now is a rebuild of what existed before.

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That said, what is key (to both names) is the feel of the place – cheap, cramped and slightly seedy (though not with the undercurrent of danger a similar corner might have in the UK). With its tangle of overhead pipes, vending machines squeezed where space hardly exists and the ramshackle open frontages of bars, grills and snack dives, it’s quite an assault on the senses.

Immediately, I was transported into one of my very favourite films, Bladerunner. Indeed, only on Googling for the correct spelling of this tiny neighbourhood did I discover that this is widely held to be one of Ridley Scott’s inspirations for the set design, along with nearby Golden Gai.

Along the main alley, we peered into many of the tiny establishments. Some were completely empty, but the scowling faces of the staff as they spotted us put us off entering. In one, four or five salarymen sat at the counter, pointing and laughing at us on each of the three occasions we walked past, trying to choose where to try. I’m not easily intimidated, but on this occasion I was and we nearly left the area to find dinner somewhere else.

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But just as we exited the alley, we found this little ramen shop at the corner.

The staff member by the door smiled as we approached to read the menu outside and that was enough, we went in and ordered via the vending machine.

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Once again, we chose by pictures. The set was available in two sizes – we went for the smaller size – and included a bowl of pork ramen, a bowl of rice topped with roast pork and a marinated boiled egg. A side of fried gyoza completed our order.

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Taking our seats along the counter, we watched the two-man kitchen team slice and prepare the pork belly, fry and steam the gyoza, ladle pork broth from an enormous pot, portion noodles into bowls and top ramen and rice with slices of meat. Efficient in a small space, their movements were streamlined by long repetition.

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At the time we visited, we didn’t know either the name of the little restaurant, nor of the dishes. Now, I can tell you that this small store is called Kitakata Ramen, part of a chain that originates in Kitakata City, in Fukushima prefecture.

There are many variations of ramen enjoyed in Japan. In Kitakata, noodles are made curly, springy and slightly chewy. Our amber-coloured pork broth was light yet meaty and the noodles reassuringly robust. The pork belly slices on top were meltingly soft, with a nice balance of meat and fat. Tasty!

Alongside it, we enjoyed nitamago (flavoured boiled eggs). From the glossy orange colour and texture of the yolk, I could see why these are also known as lava eggs.

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Donburi (rice bowl) was topped with the same soft and tender pork coated in a rich sticky sweet tare sauce. This was absolutely delicious.

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Gyoza! Such a simple item and one we enjoy regularly at home. These were thinly wrapped, stuffed with a delicious chicken filling and cooked perfectly so they were soft and crunchy, both.

In this restaurant, iced tea was provided in jugs on the table rather than water; this was the only place we saw this.

One of the things I’d been worried about before our trip was how easy it would be to eat well without spending a fortune. “Japan is very expensive”, was a common refrain when people heard about our trip. Our total bill was just 990 Yen (£8.25). For that we had filled up on simple and delicious food. We’d be very hard pressed indeed to do that in London.

 

Just a few days before we left for Japan, a fortuitous discovery of a national holiday meant I needed to change the first couple of nights of our itinerary, including our hotel reservation. Cue another internet search for dining recommendations in the area of the new hotel.

Tsunahachi caught my eye immediately; a small tempura chain founded in the 1920s, with a strong reputation for great food using fresh, seasonal ingredients. The honten (original shop), housed in a traditional, albeit extended building, looked the most appealing, and was only a ten minute walk from our hotel.

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Arriving not long after it opened for lunch, we joined a short queue outside, that moved relatively quickly, into a smaller seated queue inside. Within 10 to 15 minutes, we were seated at the upstairs counter. There is also a counter downstairs, as well as non-counter dining room areas.

Although there was an a la carte menu, like all the customers around us, we both chose a set lunch. Pete ordered the hira zen, the least expensive set at 1,260 Yen. I went for the tempura zen at 1,995 Yen.

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A big part of the pleasure was watching the chefs work, preparing the seafood, vegetables and batter and carefully frying each piece before delivering it to the serving tray in front of each customer.

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Both menus came with miso soup, rice, green vegetable pickle, soft grated daikon (white radish) which we were shown how to mix into the dipping sauce. The daikon was actually a revelation, full of flavour but none of the astringency I associate with large white radishes.

As in most restaurants in Japan, hot tea and ice cold water were included and topped up regularly.

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Tempura is traditionally served with green tea salt. Tsunahachi also provided regular white salt, seaweed salt and shiso salt.

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Both menus included tempura prawn, vegetables, white fish tails and shrimp kakiage. Mine also had tempura eel and an additional pickle.

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The tempura batter was so light and crunchy, but not at all greasy. Each item was perfectly cooked so that both the batter and the item inside were fresh, juicy and full of flavour. The shrimp kakiage were particularly good.

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Following the example of another customer, and an approving nod from our tempura chef (who gave a shocked shake of his head when I moved to dribble a little of my tempura dipping sauce over my rice), we ate the green vegetable pickle with the rice.

At the bottom of the cup of miso soup were lots of tiny clams, which gave it a fresher, rich seafood flavour.

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Lunch trade was brisk, and whilst we didn’t feel rushed at all, nor did it seem the kind of place to linger. Indeed, other diners seated after us, ordered ate and left before we finished our meals. I wonder if evening meals are paced a little more slowly. If you’ve dined here in the evening, do please leave me a comment to let me know.

Although we found it easy to eat for far less than this during our trip, I think our bill, approximately £28, was good value for the standard of food we enjoyed.

Address: 3-31-8 Shinjuku, Tokyo
Telephone: 03-3352-1012

 

By the time we arrived at our hotel in Shinjuku in the early evening, we were absolutely exhausted. It’s a long, long way from London to Tokyo! After checking in and taking all our luggage into our room all we wanted was a quick early dinner and to go straight to sleep.

But when we stepped out of our hotel, we discovered that the nearest eating options were an Italian trattoria, a Starbucks and a doughnut shop. Without walking further than we had the energy for that evening, the only Japanese option we found was a small canteen within a nearby food store, Konne.

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At the entrance to the dining area was a vending machine with no English instructions or menu descriptions. We weren’t sure what we were meant to do. During my research, I had read about restaurants where you place an order via the vending machine, pass the ticket on to the staff for fulfilment and wait for your food to be served.This sounds so simple, and indeed, during the rest of the trip, it was something we did on a number of occasions. But on this first night, we felt nervous, unsure of ourselves, even a little intimidated by our own ignorance…

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Keen not to let such a minor challenge defeat us, and very determined not to settle for Italian or Starbucks, we approached the machine. One of the pictures looked rather like curry rice, we thought, and another was surely chicken karaage (deep fried battered chicken) with rice and miso. Even if the chicken turned out to be fish or some other protein, it would likely be perfectly tasty.

1200 Yen (£10) went into the machine, we made our choices and two tickets popped out.

We went inside, handed the tickets to smiling staff and took a couple window seats in the corner. Observing other diners helping themselves to (free) water and tea, we followed suit.

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Before long, our dishes were served: a large bowl of meat curry and rice and a plate of freshly fried chicken karaage with a crunchy, dressed salad, a bowl of rice and miso soup.

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Tasty and filling, both meals were quickly demolished.

Less than an hour later, we were tucked into bed, snoring gently and dreaming of tomorrow…

 

Only later did I discover that Konne is a well-known shop specialising in goods from Miyazaki Prefecture on Kyushu Island in the South of the country. The restaurant offers a small selection of set meals prepared with ingredients from this region.

Address: 2-2-1 Yoyogi, Shinjuku Southern Terrace, Shibuya Ward, Tokyo
Open 7 days a week 11.00 – 20:30.

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