If our first meal in Tokyo did not make this clear, Japan is a nation of adventurous eaters. While many of the meals that are prepared at restaurants are done so with obvious care and artistic flare, proving the old addage true that we eat first with our eyes, this is not always the case. Take the Osakan culinary delight, Okonomiyaki, a savoury Japanese pancake cum omelette that roughly translates to “what you like, grilled”, because the possible mix-in ingredients that are added to the batter are limited only by one’s imagination (and perhaps the iron-coating on one’s stomach!). Okonomiyaki has not really infiltrated mainstream Japanese cuisine in North America, but almost any foodie worth his or her salt will have heard of it. Always looking to push the boundaries and try something new, we decided that while in Tokyo, we had to try the regional twist (and Tokyo specialty), Monjayaki.
Monjayaki is rarely mentioned in guidebooks (we read about it in passing on WikiTravel’s Tokyo page), but a girl at the Tokyo Tourist Center in the TMG gave us the straight scoop: ride the Tokyo metro to Tsukishima and take Exit 7. There you’ll exit onto a street known as “Monjayaki Alley”, as the entire road is essentially composed of Monjayaki shops, nestled side by side. From afar, the street looks quaint and charming, but step up to any Monjayaki shop and you’ll see that these restaurants are boisterous and bright.
With Monjayaki shops as far down the street as the eye can see, choosing a place to eat may seem overwhelming, but we just stepped up two a place that looked relatively busy and had two welcoming hostesses and tossed our hat into the ring.
We were given an English menu with a dizzying number of options, but it didn’t take us long to decide on the Special Monjayaki, which boasted shrimp, squid, pork, plus “10 other ingredients!” Sold!
In most cases, Monjayaki is a DIY affair – you cook the ingredients on the hot grilltop at your table, then scoop sections of it onto your plates with a little shovel-type implement that you then use too eat (this stuff is way too volatile to use chopsticks with!). Thankfully our waitress offered to cook the Monjayaki for us instead (we obviously had no clue what we were doing), which was an offer we were more than happy to accept. Watch the video below to witness our Monjayaki come into being:
Do a little research on Monjayaki, and you’ll often find it described as a runnier or more gooey Okinomiyaki. In both looks and texture, this is the red-headed step-child of Okinomiyaki. Seeing the finished product, two thoughts race through your mind:
1. I’m not sure this is done cooking
2. This looks like this was eaten by someone else a few hours ago
Not ones to be dissuaded by the vaguely vomitous-looking mess before us, we harnessed our fear and dug in. We have no idea what all 10 ingredients included in our Monjayaki were (in addition to the named ingredients, we know there was cabbbage, corn and flaked tuna), but what we can say is that despite its looks, it was delicious! It sort of had the texture of melted cheese and the flavor profile was otherwise very similar to the Okinomiyaki we have sampled previously. Also, if you pace yourself right, as you get to the final bits of Monjayaki, you’ll find that a crispy crust forms on the underside, which adds a yummy toasted dimension to the whole dish. Just goes to show that looks can be deceiving and it’s always worth trying something at least once!
To fellow fearless feasters, we highly recommend checking out Monjayaki if you ever find yourself in Tokyo. Not only can you fill your belly for relatively cheap (our Monjayaki was only 1450Y and easily fed the two of us), but for a city that sees its fair share of tourists, it was the one place we went where we were the only “gaijin” around. Best of all, the dish is largely circumscribed to this one street (!), and not really found in the rest of Japan. If you’re looking for the quintessential Tokyo dining experience, we’d wager to say that this is it!