The image of Tokyo often represents the overall image of Japan. When a first-time traveler to Japan thinks about food in Tokyo, he or she may consider eating sushi and other simply ‘Japanese’ delicacies. It is probably uncommon for one to think about Tokyo as a specific locality with its own distinct set of cuisines to offer. Though not exactly confined within the arbitrary boundaries of Tokyo city, one of the famous regional cuisine is monjayaki.
Tokyo’s local tradition?
It is said that the delicacy was originally a simple flour product that was made by mixing flour with soup stock and grilling it on the hot plate. There are various explanations tracing the name monjayaki. One of the more common one suggests that people often formed letters (moji, 文字) when making the dish, resulting in its naming mojiyaki 文字焼きand eventually, monjayaki. Originally a downtown snack that was popular amongst children until more ingredients were added into the dish where it started to take form of the monjayaki we know today. Subsequently, it came to be known less as snack and started to transform into a food embodying the traditions of downtown Tokyo, eventually becoming promulgated as a local cuisine.
Perhaps, one may be more familiar with okonomiyaki, a pancake-shaped delicacy from the Kansai region of Japan. Monjayaki is a dish that is made on the same flat hot plate used when making the okonomiyaki, yakisoba and other teppanyaki dishes.
Apart from being just a regional dish, it is seen as a symbol of identity during ‘face-offs’ between people from Tokyo and those from Osaka. At the place where I had worked previously, company dinners were often held at okonomiyaki restaurants but never at monjayaki restaurants because a bulk of the company was from Osaka and it seemed like a hometown pride for them to eschew monjayaki shops. It is said that it is important for Osaka people to be able to flip an okonomiyaki successfully, a step required in making the okonomiyaki. In comparison, I personally think that monjayaki requires more skills because in order to allow the liquid mixture to harden without leaking away. I would advise all first-timers to watch a demonstration done by the shop attendants before your first attempt.
Right in the cultural heart of Tokyo — Asakusa!One of the main areas famous for monjayaki in Tokyo is Asakusa, a famous tourist area. Yet, tourists are often too quick to leave after visiting the well-known temple. Asakusa is an overlooked cultural heart of Tokyo, embodying much of the downtown culture. The area houses one of the three surviving main comedy theaters, yose, in Tokyo. The area has also been refurbished to maintain an architecture that resembles the traditional look of the downtown street. A trip around the area in the evening and you can find monjayaki shops as well as many shops offering the interesting alcoholic drink ‘hoppy’ along a street, known as Hoppi Yokocho. Hoppy is a drink that mixes non-alcoholic beer with shōchū. It used to be popular amongst common workers in the area as a cheap alcoholic beverage when beer was not readily available for the regular commoner.
The next time you visit Asakusa, try a trip in the evening and stay back for dinner at one of the monjayaki shops and unwind with a glass of hoppy.
SummaryNotwithstanding the guise that it takes on as the cosmopolitan capital city of Japan, Tokyo is a region with interesting history and traditions. While tourism tends to be effective in spreading information, it can also be selective and concise about its information. Instead of eating what is probably available everywhere else in Japan or even maybe back in your country outside Japan, why not indulge in some Tokyo local cuisine the next time you pop by the city? You may be able to obtain a more unfiltered glance of local Japanese culture.