Japanese cuisine differs hugely between the country’s environmentally diverse and culturally distinct regions. From the mountains of Hokkaido to Okinawa’s subtropical islands, culinary specialties reflect their locality’s ingredients, climate, culture and natural environment. As the gateway for many visitors’ exploration of this culinary-rich nation, Tokyo is often where people begin their discovery of the country’s fascinating food scene.
Having long been a political centre for Japan, Tokyo—formerly named Edo—has long proven its cultural influence on the rest of the nation by being the source of some of Japan’s best-known signature plates. It was here that cooks started using seafood to make tempura and nigiri sushi came into being when chef Hanaya Yohei began placing fish on top of rice at his Tokyo food stand.
While famous foods like these are easily encountered across Tokyo, Japan and further afield, other Tokyo specialities remain unique to the area. These are the dishes to seek out and try creating yourself in the kitchen.
Tokyo’s version of the famous Osaka specialty, okonomiyaki, this savoury pancake with a consistency likened to melted cheese combines batter with finely chopped seafood, meat and vegetables. This dish is thought to originate from a street food made from batter in the late Edo period. You’ll now find around 70 monjayaki restaurants in the Tsukishima district of Tokyo, a man-made island in Tokyo Bay where the dish is said to originate. Diners participate in cooking the monjayaki on a hotplate at the table.
Make monjayaki at home by following this recipe.
A dish topping white rice with battered vegetables and seafood—the name is a portmanteau of tempura and traditional rice dish donburi—tendon is now found in restaurants across Japan. Among the theories behind this dish’s origin is that restaurants Hashizen in Shimbashi and Sansada in Asakusa first made the dish at the end of the Edo period, or that restaurants Nakano in Kanda and Daikokuya in Asakusa came up with the creation at the beginning of the Meiji period. Either way, the dish seems to originate from districts of Tokyo. Two of these restaurants, Sansada and Daikokuya, are still open to this day.
Make tendon at home by following this recipe.
Tsukemen, or dipping noodles, were first cooked up in the early 1960s when chef Kazuo Yamagishi of the now legendary Tokyo ramen restaurant Taishoken created a dish in which ramen noodles are eaten after being dipped into a separate bowl of broth. This became so popular that Taishoken restaurants then began to spring up across the country. You can still eat at the original Taishoken restaurant in Higashi-Ikebukuro but there are outlets across Japan.
Make tsukemen at home by following this recipe.
Defined as a bowl of rice topped with clams and Japanese onion cooked in miso, this culinary specialty takes gourmands to the historic merchant area of Fukagawa in eastern Tokyo. Owing to the area’s abundance of clams, the dish now known as Fukagawa-meshi became the staple meal for the local fishermen during the Edo period. Today, you can try this dish in Kiyosumi-Shirakawa—a neighbourhood of Fukagawa—at restaurants like Choju-an Kyosho and Zentokoro Tempura Katayama.
Make Fukagawa-meshi at home by following this recipe.
Just as sumo has its place in Japanese culture, chanko nabe has its place in sumo tradition. This is the hearty hotpot eaten by sumo wrestlers to build up their weight and strength, with one theory behind its origin linking back to a retired wrestler who cooked for the sumo stable in Tokyo at the end of the 19th century. Tokyo’s sumo stables and Ryōgoku Kokugikan sumo stadium lie within Ryōgoku district of Sumida, Tokyo. Owing to this cultural link, a number of the area’s restaurants specialise in the sport’s signature dish. A converted sumo stable is the setting for restaurant Kappo Yoshiba.
Make chanko nabe at home by following this recipe.
A trip to Tokyo is only ever complete once you’ve spent some time digging into the thriving restaurant scene. As many as 11 three-Michelin-starred and 47 two-starred restaurants exist here. For some of the finest Japanese cuisine you’re likely to find, try dishes crafted from seasonal ingredients at Kagurazaka Ishikawa and Nihonryori Ryugin, and have what could possibly be the best sushi of your life at legendary sushi restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro. Until the time for your trip to Japan comes, try a twist on Japanese classics at a London favourite such as ROKA, Zuma or Jidori.