The richness of Tokyo can’t be felt until you arrive. This huge, dense population delivers a vibrancy that spills over into the streets, allowing you to wander and explore for hours. The food culture of Tokyo is one of the city’s many intriguing characteristics, offering endless variety which extends far beyond sushi and ramen. While you could amble aimlessly and never experience a bad meal, these are the top foods that you should make a point not to miss before leaving.
Matcha Milk pancakes
Tokyo has managed to stay on top of the Matcha green tea trend that exploded internationally. Even with the best London restaurateurs offering exclusively Matcha-fusion cuisine, Tokyo still wins in being able to perfectly marry the rich, strong taste of Matcha with the competing flavors of the dish. Desserts are one of the more popular examples of this… walk down almost any street in Tokyo and you will see Matcha green tea cakes, cream puffs, chocolate, ice cream and more. However, California’s Urth Café gets it just right, offering Matcha milk pancakes that provide a sweet energizing indulgence for any time of the day.
Local family tea farmer Akihiro Nakai provides his exclusive organic matcha green tea to Urth Caffé, which is carefully harvested every spring by Akihiro, his brother and son. The high altitude of his tea estate means he doesn’t have to use the chemical spraying rampant on lower-altitude tea gardens. This elevates the humble everyday pancake to a top-quality, ceremony grade indulgence.
Every chef has their own signature dish and depending on where you’re eating, that can end up being the case of one concept being more outlandish than the other. But in this instance, veteran chef Toshio Tanabe’s “Soil Soup” stands out as being particularly representative of a subtle Japanese aesthetic; connection to the earth and the natural world. The soup is made from real earth from the ground. (The soil is a mulch of coffee grounds and palm-fiber, which is slowly and carefully prepared and fermented to render it edible). His method is to chop up burdock root, stir-fry it with the composted earth, and then simmer and strain the resulting mix into an earthy broth.
Takoyaki may be Japan’s most popular snack, resembling something between fried calamari and a French-fry dumpling. A piece of octopus is fried inside a wheat flour batter, then topped with bonito flakes, seaweed, mayonnaise, and tare (a thick, salty sauce). You can find these filling balls anywhere in Japan, mostly as an instant street food. Made in a special scooped cast iron grill, you can try your hand at making these in the Roam kitchen (our Takoyaki Pan is Roam community manager Marika’s favorite kitchen item!)
Coffee at a Kissaten
Before Starbucks brought in the takeway coffee craze, there was a thriving culture of cozy and smoke-filled local coffee shops. Most have disappeared, but l’Ambre, founded 1948, has continued to thrive. A romantic and authentic step back in time, the 100+ year old owner Ichiro Sekiguchi has always hand-selected his premium coffee beans, some of which he ages for decades. The cozy intimate space and bubbling steel coffeepots creates an atmosphere that cannot be imitated.
Wagashi are the traditional Japanese sweets that accompany ceremonial tea, said to stimulate the five senses. They date back to the Edo period in Japan and are linked to Kyoto, the city which invented them. Made from Mochi (a marzipan-like glutinous rice flour), the sweets are manipulated into intricate creations of flowers and leaves, which are then exhibited glass cases which make them look more like precious jewels. Made from plants and varying by season, the constantly change in flavor and appearance. While these confections are widely available, the Toraya store is one of the oldest makers of these traditional sweets, having supplied confectionery to the royal family since the 16th century.
Yuzu is a a lemon-like fruit which adds the perfect citrusy touch to many signature Japanese dishes. Yuzu contains 3 times more Vitamin C than a lemon, and is traditionally used in Japan for health baths. Yuzu takes the ramen experience to the next level. You may have sampled ramen outside of Japan, but this variety offers a richer broth and perfectly-cooked noodles (timing is everything) with a refreshing lemon twist that can only be referred to as a “blossoming in the mouth”. Afuri Ramen is the ultimate place to try this all-time favorite.
Japan is famous for having the most expensive fruit in the world. Of course you can sample the fruit parlors at Takano or Sembikiya which truly raise fruit eating to an art. Known for reaching exorbitant prices (a single piece of fruit in the thousands of dollars), Japan considers fruit to be a luxury item largely due to its history, in which it was used to make offerings to the gods. This high-end fruit has now come to be viewed as an important symbol of respect, and is often gifted to someone of importance or strong personal value.
Of all the luxury fruits you could sample, we recommend the Satonishiki cherry. This cherry is not from Japan’s renown cherry trees, which are cultivated for cherry blossoms and don’t bear any fruit. The Satonishiki cherry is small, bright and red and arrives in season in early summer. May-June is the perfect time to sample this delicacy from nature.
Spiritual Japanese cuisine is referred to as Shojin Ryori, simple yet varied vegetable dishes prepared by Buddhist monks in the temples. Today you can try these mouthwatering dishes at Itosho, is a humble little restaurant that has been serving Buddhist temple cuisine for 40 years. Even now, with a Michelin star to its name, Itosho continues to serve straightforward, health-giving cuisine. Expect to sample hearty soba noodles topped with tororo, yam, suimono clear soup, and deep-fried eggplants with grated daikon (to symbolize the snows of winter).
The main course are bite-size cuts vegetable and tofu, not fried in tempura (in a batter) but frosted with a coating of tiny “pebbles” made of mochi (glutinous rice flour). Eaten with just a touch of salt, the flavors are clean and deep, just like the concept of shojin ryori itself.