Try a taste of the Tokyo food scene
The thing about Tokyo, explains chef Tim Anderson, is that it’s so vertical. “It’s not just busy on one level, it’s busy in three dimensions – it’s a bonkers city.”
And that applies to the food as much as the architecture, hence why it’s the subject of the restaurateur’s latest cookbook, Tokyo Stories.
There are physical and geographical layers to Tokyo’s food, starting with the eclectic, hi-tech vending machines on the subway; the conbini convenience stores where you can order yakisoba pan (fried noodles in a bun) or rice balls; then the street food, like yakitori (Japanese chicken skewers), tempura and ramen.
Plus there’s Japanese home cooking (“kitchens in Tokyo are very small. You might just have a microwave and a two-ring electric burner,” says Anderson), followed by really fine Japanese dining, high-end stuff like kaiseki (multi-course dinners) and sushi, as well as regional foods you can’t get unless you go to that region (except you can get it in Tokyo).
“I wanted to get the whole range,” says Anderson, who won MasterChef 2011, and who first visited Japan in 2002 after his parents bought him a package tour as a high school graduation present.
“I was barely 18, and I remember Tokyo being crowded and bright and crazy and just with so much going on that I was actually really intimidated by it.”
His defining edible memory of the trip is the bewilderment involved in ordering a burger from fast-food chain, First Kitchen.
“It was just really hard,” he says wryly. “Ordering fast food is not as straightforward as you think, there’s always options.”
Going on to teach English in Japan for two years, he later discovered that the joint’s fries – dubbed ‘Flavour Potato’ – come with amazing little seasoning packets you shake up with your chips, so they taste like soy sauce and butter, or garlic and miso. Anderson’s done his own shake-and-season version in the book.
Now 34, he’s got something of a handle on Tokyo’s culinary landscape, and uses his visits to explore “unusual parts of Tokyo to find different kinds of food”.
As such, he’s too busy seeking out new things to have a roster of favourite restaurants to revisit.
“I mainly only know what ramen shops to go to,” says Anderson with a laugh. “And karaoke bars.”
His main aim with Tokyo Stories is to convey the diversity of the food available. “You can go to Tokyo, but also go to France,” he explains. “There’s fantastic French food and Parisian bakeries.”
He added: “I’ve been to my fair share of bad ramen shops, it’s not like it’s a paradise of perfect food everywhere,” he concedes, “but it’s close. There’s not a lot of cities where you can walk in and have a good shot of getting good food, but Tokyo is that place. It may not be great, but it’ll be good.”
Tokyo Stories: A Japanese Cookbook by Tim Anderson, photography by Nassima Rothacker, is published by Hardie Grant, priced £26. Available now.