"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Thursday, May 07, 2009

"I bet I can eat 50 eggs gyoza"

On Sunday afternoon, I returned to one of my favorite restaurants in Tokyo. You won't likely find it in any guidebook and, to be honest, I don't even know its name, but if you find yourself in the Kameido area of Tokyo, just look around near the station for a tiny dive in a side alley across from the train station with a long line outside and you will know you've found The Gyoza Joint.
It isn't much to look at. It is a dingy, slightly dirty, run-down place a little larger than your average basement rec room with a long narrow U-shaped counter running two thirds the length of the place and a raised tatami straw mat-covered platform running along the wall by the door. At the top of the U, next to the door is the open kitchen, a space with just enough room for two men to stand in front of a row of hot cast-iron pans about the size and shape of trash can lids. They don't need a lot of room for a lot of equipment

Those wooden boxes hold uncooked gyoza and they went through a stack of them that reached the ceiling in the half hour we were there. Even on a cool spring day with the doors open it's hot and humid inside. The walls are slightly sticky and the table we sit cross legged and shoeless at is cheap formica with squeeze bottles for the condiments - the holy trinity of soy sauce, vinager and hot chili oil - straight from the 100 yen shop. A stained, hand-lettered piece of card spells out the prices in multiples of 250 yen.
Remember that old Saturday Night Live bit with John Belushi as the counterman in the Greek diner? It didn't matter what people wanted, they got cheeseburgers, chips and "No Coke, Pepsi". Belushi would bellow out "cheeseburg! cheeseburg! cheeseburg!Pepsi! Pepsi!" and the cook, three feet away, usually played by Dan Ackroyd with a cigarette dangling from his lip would dutifully shout back "cheeseburg! cheeseburg! cheeseburg! Pepsi! Pepsi!" as he threw more patties on the grill. Belushi would urge chatty or indecisive customers along with "Cmon, cmon, we got to have turnover!"
Imagine that in Japanese with a couple of plump old ladies hollering "Gyoza! gyoza! beer! beer!" and you have an idea of the atmosphere. You don't even order here, except for drinks. You just wave for another plate of the finest cheap gyoza in town - five to a 250 yen plate - or another quart bottle of ice cold Asahi or a Birley's Orange Soda. (They might serve something else but I've never seen it). Fresh plates arrive like clockwork until you start to slow down and when the feeding frenzy ends, the waitress counts the plates and empty bottles and hands you the bill.

If you don't know what gyoza is, first let me express my pity. Poor you. Moving right along, gyoza are Chinese dumplings similar to shu-mai, but in Japan they are usually pan-fried instead of steamed or boiled. For those of you completely unfamiliar with asian cuisine, think of little envelopes of fresh pasta stuffed with ground pork, cabbage, ginger and garlic and then fried/flash-steamed in a pan until the bottom is just started to turn brown and crisp, and top is al dente. They are sometimes called Chinese pot-stickers in North America, I suppose because they stick to the bottom of the pot if you aren't careful.
And they are easy to make at home. We buy the frozen wrappers at the grocery store for the sake of convenience, but the wrappers are not hard to make either. This is the best recipe I've found so far.  

In Japan, you find them everywhere - in convenience store bento lunches, frozen in the grocery store or fresh made in the deli section and they are a staple item on the menu in  izakayas (Japanese pubs). They are a common item in the many sorts of gluttony contests held here all the time (Eating machine Joey Chestnut set the world record last year at 231 gyoza in ten minutes in LA) and there is even a sort of gyoza theme park where you can try a dozen different kinds of gyoza with different fillings (shrimp is delicious!)

We also went to a small festival to mark the start of the Golden Week holidays in Japan at this little shrine

There were all the usual food stalls selling takoyaki octopus balls, corn on the cob and flavored shaved ice, but the best looking was the trout-on-a-stick booth,  because everything tastes better on a stick.

(all photos by my nine year old son Kentaro, except the close up of the gyoza)


David said...

You live in a wonderland, don't you? Anyway, your post made me so hungry and thirsty that I rushed off to the Superstore, just in case they had frozen gyoza. I had to settle for sushi. Dammit.

Trout on a stick. That gives me an idea for the next family barbecue.

Shinigami Kayo said...

Jots down recipe. We eat a great deal of them here. Outside of that we love the open farmers market here that spans 2-3 blocks, all thru the summer. The Hutterites are where we get pie, and fresh produce is common. I would love to make my way through your market though. Sounds llike a fun place.

the rev. paperboy said...

shini, the most interesting market is the wholesale fish market in Tsukiji, where they auction off the tuna catch every morning at the crack of dawn. If it swims, you can buy it there, often live.

Anonymous said...

I need these.

sa said...