A Journey Into the Heart of Tokyo’s Food Culture
Follow Yoshiharu Doi, a legend of Japanese gastronomy, on a tour of the hidden spots where a centuries old Edomae tradition respecting nature’s cycles comes to vibrant life.
Tokyo’s Michelin accolades, which make it the world’s most star-laden city, only scratch the surface of the Japanese capital’s food experience.
Perhaps the true heart of Tokyo’s food scene lies in its homey shitamachi downtown neighborhoods. Here, establishments passed down through generations carry on the unique Edomae culinary tradition that sprang up when Japan was ruled by shoguns.
This is a tradition with a distinctive Japanese take on sustainable eating, where nothing goes to waste and the essence of every ingredient is lovingly brought to the fore. The vision goes beyond preserving natural resources. It also means protecting cherished ways of life in which society coexists harmoniously with nature.
To unlock Tokyo’s food secrets, there can be no more masterful guide than Yoshiharu Doi. For decades, the food researcher has reached living rooms across Japan, teaching authentic home cooking through televised programs and recipe books. Doi’s lifelong advocacy of sustainable food lifestyles is today winning a new generation of fans concerned about the planet’s future
Follow Doi on a journey into the hidden streets of Tokyo’s genuine food experience. Along the way, listen to him explain the essence of Japanese cuisine, which treats ingredients as “gods.”
The Essence of Soba Noodles
Taking a sip of lunchtime sake at Kanda Matsuya, a soba shop established in 1884, Doi explains what makes the locale’s buckwheat noodles special: “It’s the dashi in the dipping sauce.” Dashi stock lies at the heart of Japanese cuisine, bringing out the savory umami that today is recognized as one of five basic tastes, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. “The dashi here is so clean, pure,” he says. “In Japan, we appreciate a dashi that brings a whiff of aroma — and leaves just as quickly without a trace — leaving a fresh, clean feeling in the mouth.”
Doi says another unmistakable sign of mastery in the chef Takayuki Kodaka — the sixth generation at Kanda Matsuya’s helm — is the soba he serves in a warm dashi broth. This kake soba style (as opposed to mori soba, served cold with dipping sauce) normally has the disadvantage of turning noodles limp in the hot soup.
“Here, the noodles retain their firmness and edge,” says Doi. “That’s the mark of a master.”
Soba is Tokyo’s original soul food. It’s the treat that sustained the workers who flocked to Edo (Tokyo’s old name) under the shoguns. The beautiful fittings at Kanda Matsuya — such as the andon lantern that adorns the shopfront — are testament to a lifestyle transmitted across the ages. For Doi, that embodies a different aspect of sustainability. “Sustainability also means passing down a flame from one generation to the next,” he says. “That’s an integral part of the philosophy of Japanese cuisine.”
Unlocking the Secrets of Dashi
To deepen our knowledge of the importance of dashi in Japanese cuisine (tasted firsthand at Kanda Matsuya), Doi heads next to NINBEN, a food vendor established in 1699 specializing in katsuobushi, dried bonito.
Edomae-style katsuobushi is called honkarebushi – and is considered the highest grade. To make it, bonito fillets are smoked, covered in a special mold, and sun-dried until they become hard as wood. The blocks can then be scraped into shavings with an instrument that resembles a carpenter’s planer.
The secret to honkarebushi is the mold that gives it a well-balanced umami, without a hint of bitterness. In the Edo period, katsuobushi naturally gathered mold in the ships that carried them to the capital from southern Japan. People found that the mold not only helped preserve the katsuobushi but enhanced its flavor. The serendipitous discovery gave birth to the Edomae honkarebushi style.
Making dashi with honkarebushi is easy, Doi tells us: “Simply put a handful of shavings in boiling water, wait a couple minutes and drain the dashi over a piece of cloth. After a minute, you’ll have a savory stock.”
For Doi, katsuobushi epitomizes Japan’s sustainable food culture, rooted in ancient beliefs that live on today. In Japanese culture, all of nature is inhabited by gods, from birds even to the smallest pea. Nothing must go to waste.
The artisans who handcraft katsuobushi make use of every part of the bonito. The discarded bones are roasted to create crispy, calcium-rich snacks. The head and guts are given to farmers for fertilizer. “We find a use for everything,” says Doi, “remembering that the bonito itself is a god.”
In katsuobushi culture, there is also a spirit of trusting nature to do its work, without human intervention, allowing sun and mold to deepen umami. “In the West, creation tends to be about people making something new,” says Doi. “In Japan, we tend to think of creation as about nature deepening the old.”
Sweets for Cherry Blossom Season
It’s time for a midafternoon snack, and Doi takes us next to Yamamoto-ya, also known as Chomeiji Sakuramochi, on the banks of the Sumida River. The tiny shop’s founder, Shinroku Yamamoto, invented sakura mochi sweets in 1717, with an inspired idea to wrap his confections in cherry leaves soaked in salt.
The aim was to preserve the rice cakes filled with sweet azuki bean paste. But the faint saltiness — combined with the fragrance of leaves from the cherry trees lining the river — gave the sweets such a distinctive appeal that they went on to become a popular snack across Japan.
For Doi, Yamamoto-ya evokes how, amid inevitable flux and impermanence, Japanese culture finds rootedness in a constancy that is at once heritage and renewal.
Tokyo people delight in the way Yamamoto-ya offers unchanging comfort (“ballast to the soul,” Doi calls it) that is renewed every year during special moments, such as cherry blossom season, when people admire the river’s famous blossoms while enjoying Yamamoto-ya’s sweets.
This is an Edo tradition going back three centuries. A woodblock print in the shop depicts two women in kimono walking under the cherry trees, carrying baskets of sakura mochi for people enjoying hanami – or cherry blossom viewing. It is the enjoyment of hanami and sakura mochi along the Sumida River – at the heart of Edo life -- that gives the experience its unique Tokyo appeal.
Trapping Nature’s Freshness in Batter
As Doi enters Tenmo, a tempura restaurant established in 1885, a delightful sizzle and savory aroma greets the senses, stirring an appetite for dinner.
The secret to the sounds and smells — and the crispness of the tempura — resides in the sesame seed oil the shop has been using since chef Shusuke Okuda’s grandfather’s day. Tempura made in Tokyo’s Edomae tradition uses sesame oil pressed from roasted seeds that produce a richer aroma and darker hue.
Chatting with Doi behind the counter, Okuda explains that roasting prevents oxidation even at high frying temperatures, bringing a lightness that prevents an oily-stomach feel (while trapping in the freshness of ingredients such as shrimp and conger eel).
For Doi, Tenmo’s tempura evokes one of the beauties of Japan’s food culture: keen appreciation of the changing seasons. With nature’s cycles, diners encounter new delights to look forward to. Summer at Tenmo is a time to appreciate abalone, for example, while in winter one finds kuwai, a bittersweet tuber.
“We experience great joy in the hatsumono — the first catch or produce of the season,” says Doi. “The appreciation of seasonal ingredients that spring up, reach their maturity then fade away brings us closer to nature.”
At Tenmo , this enjoyment of passing seasons is experienced in true Edomae fashion — as Okuda carries on a tradition of serving up the freshest catch from Tokyo Bay. ( Edomae is made up of the words “Edo” and “mae ” – or in front of — denoting fish from waters “in front of” Edo.)
Okuda can carry on this Edomae tradition thanks to the dramatic progress Tokyo has made cleaning up the bay – bringing back fish once thought lost forever – since the beginning of the new millennium.
“The Edomae tradition is enjoying revival,” says Doi, “as Tokyo Bay comes back to life.”
With nature’s renewal, Tokyo’s gastronomic traditions also find fresh vigor, as chefs in the purest Edomae style pass on the torch of a unique sustainable culture to the next generations of food masters.
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