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Friday, Feb. 4, 2005

TOKYO FOOD FILE

In search of the real flavor of Yokohama's Chukagai


In some quarters it's become almost knee-jerk to denigrate Yokohama's Chinatown. Too clean and tidy, they sneer, it feels like a theme park. It's just for tourists. And, the most serious charge of all, the food just isn't authentic. To which the Food File would retort: Perhaps so; not necessarily; and that depends on where you eat.

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The twin peaks of top-flight dining in Chinatown are Manchirou and Heichinrou. There's very little to choose between them, either in terms of their elegant Cantonese cooking, their unashamedly lavish hotel-lobby decor, or the impersonal smoothness of their well-greased operations. If we tend to favor the latter, it is because of the bold declaration on the menu that says Heichinrou shuns the use of MSG and artificial additives.

No matter how accomplished and refined their food may be, Chinese food on this level is always best appreciated in large groups, preferably on expense accounts. So what to do if you're a couple or, heaven help you, if you're exploring the area solo? There are too many smaller restaurants that serve up well-intentioned, if not formulaic, meals for visitors who aren't interested in the full-blown Chinese food experience. How to navigate your way around? Just follow your eyes and your nose.

If you're walking down Chinatown's main street, Chukagai-Odori, you can't miss Tung Fat (known in Japanese as Dohatsu Honkan). And you won't be the only one to stop, marvel and salivate at the window display of chickens, ducks, spare ribs and sausages, all cured a bright, festive red. There are also trays of assorted tripe and animal innards. This is a place that isn't shy of advertising that it deals in real food.

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The scale is modest and the decor is restrained: Here you can relax and roll up your sleeves. Although they offer full-course meals of standard-issue Cantonese fare, unfortunately they feature few of those appetizing dried meats arrayed in the window. So it's far better to order a la carte from their pictorial menu.

Start with a portion of the sausage (cho-zume in Japanese) and one of duck (ahiru) -- both available in half-plate portions. The duck is served with a small saucer of sweet plum sauce that nicely offsets any residual fat; the pink, fatty pork sausage is rich and chewy. Both are delectable.

Follow that up with an order for some of their deep-fried yuba rolls, stuffed with a moist mixture of egg, cabbage, shrimp and ham; some wok-fried greens; and a bowl of their mixed (go-moku) noodle soup. Add a couple of bottles of beer or some Shaoxing rice wine (shokoshu in Japanese), and you will leave happy and replete.

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It cannot be denied that Chinatown has lost some of its atmosphere and former patina -- grubbiness, many would say -- as it's been smartened up. That gentrification process was accelerated with the opening of the new Minato-Mirai subway line straight through from Shibuya, which opened to great fanfare a year ago this week. But explore the back alleys, and there are still pockets that remain untouched by the clean-up.

It's easy to overlook Togenton, tucked away on the side street known as Shanghai-dori. It is currently celebrating its 45th anniversary and, frankly, it does look its age. Even so, it remains one of our longtime favorites, precisely because of its homey appearance and the cramped intimacy of its few tables.

This is one of the few places in the area where you can eat Chinese style congee (kayu in Japanese) complete with you-tiao, those long, deep-fried dough sticks that are an essential part of breakfast to countless millions in Shanghai and northern China. So what if Togenton doesn't open till lunchtime? That thick, smooth, stomach-warming rice porridge still tastes just as comforting in the afternoon.

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The congee ranges from basic -- plain rice, with a dough stick cut up in it -- to the gourmet: Their special congee (ask for tokusei Togen kayu) includes shrimp, scallop holdfasts, abalone, sazae (turban shellfish), and small fish balls, and they even offer a top-of-the-range congee with shark's fin (fuka-hire).

There is a take-out window, where you can pick up more of those you-tiao for tomorrow's breakfast, as well as da-bing, crisp, flaky, pan-grilled buns (either sweet or savory), sprinkled with sesame. And like all Shanghainese restaurants, when autumn comes around Togenton devotes most of its energies to crab, its specialty being drunken crab, drowned in Shaoxing rice wine drawn from the coarse, clay pots lined up by the front door.

You have to look even harder to find Toki. Hidden well away from the main drag, on a narrow side alley running between Ichiba-dori and Hong Kong-dori, this newcomer has already established itself as one of Chinatown's minor gems. The specialty here is dao-xiao mien -- Shanxi-style hand-shaved noodles.

Owner-chef Wang has apparently been cooking noodles this way since he was a lad of 15, and the expertise is evident. He picks up a huge lump of freshly kneaded noodle dough and with deft flicks of his knife shaves off flat strips straight into a large pan of boiling water. The resulting noodles are remarkably uniform in size, and have a wholesome texture chewier than that of regular noodles that are dried before cooking.

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Although Shanxi is closer to Beijing than Chengdu, its cuisine has much more in common with the ultra-spicy fare of land-locked Sichuan. This is reflected throughout Toki's menu -- just look at the picture of the karashi-wakadori, the chicken meat virtually hidden under a pile of chili peppers.

Likewise with the dao-xiao mien, which are served in four different ways: in a light broth, with cha-shu pork (aimed at people more used to ramen, surely); covered with a delicious stew of slow simmered beef in a thick, slightly piquant sauce (ask for gyu-niku men); in a spicier, fiery-red sauce, with large chunks of pork (tantan-men); and served on a wide plate with a sauce of ground pork, whose livid color betrays its take-no-prisoners chili heat (jaja-men).

Apart from the stray tourist who wanders in at weekends, your fellow diners -- like all the staff -- are likely to be speaking Putonghua. The music that emits is lilting Chinese pops. There are few concessions to Japanese sensibilities here. Apart from the Sapporo beer, you could be on the Mainland. In places like this, all talk of authenticity seems redundant.

After pushing through the dawdling, gawking crowds, then singeing the outer layer off your taste buds, it's time to repair to that haven of calm that is the Goku Tea House, on the outer fringe of the neighborhood. This too is a new venture, a spacious second-floor room above a retail shop where you can browse at leisure over teapots and accouterments and shelves of rare teas from Fujian, Hangzhou, Taiwan and other notable provenances.

They offer scores of different teas -- green, blue, black, white or brown -- each with its own properties, taste and aroma, each served in a specific type of vessel. Some must be brewed in small teapots, others in clear glass cups. The Chinese tea ceremony may not be as codified as that in Japan, but the procedures are still clearly laid out.

Thankfully the waitresses understand they must run you through the process -- even helping you (though only in Japanese) select a tea to meet your mood and budget. The cups must be warmed and the first brew immediately drained, to remove the bitterness. Appreciating the aroma of the tea is every bit as important as its taste, so you will be shown how to use the small, thimble-shaped "nose cup."

Each serving of tea will permit at least four infusions, so by the last time round you will start to feel a growing sense of expertise. That felling of well-being is, of course, one of the physiological effects of taking good quality tea, especially if it is enhanced by doing so in such relaxed, unhurried surroundings.

Tung Fat (Dohatsu Honkan): 148 Yamashita-cho, Naka-ku, Yokohama, tel. (045) 681 7273, www.douhatsu.co.jp Open 11 a.m.-9: 30 p.m. (Saturday, Sunday & holidays 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.); closed first and third Tuesdays. Lunch from 840 yen; dinner courses from 4,200 yen; most credit cards.

ogenton: Yamashita-cho 165, Naka-ku, Yokohama, tel. (045) 651-0927. Open 12:30-9 p.m. (Saturday, Sunday & holidays 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.); closed Monday. Lunch from around 1,000 yen; dinner from 1,500 yen (plus drinks); no credit cards, cash only.

Toki: Yamashita-cho 138-14, Naka-ku, Yokohama, tel. (045) 226-1090. Open 11.30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5.30-9.30 p.m. (Saturday, Sunday & holidays 11.30 a.m.-9.30 p.m.); closed Tuesday. Noodles from 700; no credit cards, cash only.

Goku-Chaso: 2F, Yamashita-cho 130, Naka-ku, Yokohama, tel. (045) 681-7776, www.oisii-net.co.jp/goku/top/home.htm

Open 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed third Thursday of month (except if a national holiday). Teas from 500-1,000 yen; snacks from 350 yen; light meals from 1,000 yen. Credit cards accepted.


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