It’s no secret that Tokyo beats Paris, New York and other top culinary spots with the most Michelin-star restaurants. Even the United Nations agrees; in 2013 UNESCO added traditional Japanese cuisine, washoku, to its “Intangible Cultural Heritage” list. But beyond the fine dining that has resulted in these numerous accolades, there are some distinct culinary offerings that are worthy of exploring during a trip to the city.
Steve Trautlein, a journalist and editor based in Tokyo for more than 15 years, leads culinary excursions through Palace Hotel Tokyo. Here he offers some advice and insight into exploring Tokyo’s B-kyu gurume (B-grade cuisine; above), a category of popular food that is – despite its title – by no means second-class.
1. For the best introduction to Japanese cuisine, head to the basement food floors of upscale department stores like Takashimaya, Mitsukoshi and Isetan. Free samples abound!
2. Most noodle shops ask customers to place their orders at a Japanese-only ticket machine. But fear not, kanji-challenged: just punch the button in the top left corner, which is where the owner typically lists the speciality of the house.
3. The crustless white-bread sandwiches at Tokyo’s ubiquitous convenience stores – filled with tuna, ham, hard-boiled egg or deep-fried pork – are as integral to the culinary life of the city as ramen or sushi.
4. Onigiri rice balls help hardworking salarymen and OLs (office ladies) get through the day. The selection at well-regarded chain Omusubi Gonbei, with dozens of locations in the city, includes onigiri made with brown rice.
5. If you want to hang with Tokyoites while they blow off steam, visit the casual pubs known as izakaya. Ordering is a snap, thanks to the picture menus.
6. Dining on okonomiyaki is as fun as it is delicious. There are even places where customers can prepare the savoury pancakes on their own tabletop griddle.
7. For a more interesting self-cooking experience, head to the Tsukishima neighborhood, where dozens of restaurants specialize in the griddled, slurry-like dish monjayaki. It’s similar to okonomiyaki, with a softer, more liquid batter.
8. The food at Tokyo’s major chain restaurants is consistently high-quality – and most of them have English menus to boot. Try tempura at Tenya, beef bowls at Sukiya or Hanamaru’s udon noodles.
9. Originally from Osaka, takoyaki (batter-coated octopus balls) have become a street snack enjoyed nationwide. The Gindaco chain serves them up at takeout counters all over Tokyo.
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.