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Friday, Aug. 19, 2005
TOKYO FOOD FILE
FROM THE ISLANDS TO INDOCHINA
Urban oases for summertime dining
Trapped in Tokyo through another steamy summer and, not surprisingly, we are dreaming of south-sea islands. Sun-dappled beaches of pure white sand lapped by the calm, azure ocean; the wind soughing through fields of sugar cane; and a plate of stewed pigs' ears and goat sashimi washed down with high-octane awamori liquor. Ah, that's heaven -- or at least the Okinawa version.
Japan's southernmost prefecture may not boast one of the world's great cuisines, but its islands -- at least the more remote ones -- come very close to subtropical perfection. And these days Tokyo has a growing number of bars and restaurants providing that exotic experience, vicariously, at least. And so here we are, feet tapping to the rhythmic twang of a sanshin, the Okinawan three-string shamisen, and head nodding to the plaintive, haunting singing of the isles. We are in the heart of Roppongi, four floors above the crossing, in Shimauta Paradise.
It's a simple, laid-back izakaya, with a vaguely maritime feel to the decor. The ceiling is low but the large communal tables with long benches give it a spacious feel. The young crew, amiably casual but generally on the ball, wear T-shirts and jeans. Some customers even sport cut-off shorts and sandals. This is certainly not your typical Roppongi crowd.
To slake the thirst there is (of course) Okinawa's very own Orion Beer, both on tap and in bottles. It's a very average lager that's best drunk very chilled. They also have three microbrewed beers, all quite anemic, from Ishigaki-jima. But to truly get into the spirit of the Ryukyus, a shot or two of awamori is essential.
Shimauta Paradise stocks a selection of about 50, some as rough and ready as the proverbial rocket fuel, others pot-aged (known in dialect as kusu) to a certain degree of refinement. In potency, they can range from a mere 25 percent to a frightening 60 percent. Stand back if you (or those in your vicinity) light up a cigarette.
There are few surprises on the food menu, although the English version only lists the main items. Even those who find the taste of goya (bitter "melon") too strong should enjoy the salty crunch of the deep-fried, thin-cut goya chips. But we weren't impressed by the hirayachi -- a limp, second-rate version of Korean-style chijimi "pancakes."
All the standard Okinawan dishes are present and reasonably correct. The various kinds of champuru (stir fries with tofu and egg) include hechima (gourd); goya, naturally; and nakami, a spicy mix of organ meats. And if you don't fancy the ashitebichi (simmered pig trotters, surprisingly good, if fatty), then don't miss the rafuti, rich cubes of soft simmered pork belly, which are tasty and satisfying, if not as mouth-meltingly tender as they should be.
Hungry toward the end of the evening, we filled up with soki soba -- hearty wheat noodles in a wholesome pork broth (to give it extra zip, pick out that chili-awamori sauce from the condiments on the table). They also serve up taco rice, that mongrel mix of spicy minced meat, taco shell and chopped cabbage, which has somehow become Okinawa's new national dish.
A couple of evenings each week they clear the tables in one corner and there is live music (music charge from 1,000 yen), sometimes in traditional vein but often the kind of happy island folk-pop that is just as much of a hybrid as the taco rice. It's all a bit lacking in intensity -- much like life on the islands. But who cares? Here in the heart of the city, at Roppongi ground zero, we'll take any form of escapism.
* * *
Sometimes, though, intensity is exactly what we crave -- on our plates and on our taste buds. And we know exactly where to find it: just outside the International Forum, under the arches of the Yamanote Line railway track, halfway between Yurakucho and Tokyo.
Phuket Aroyna Tabeta is the only place in town we know that serves full-throttle Thai street food without pulling the punches. One glimpse of the curry pans lined up by the window; one whiff of those spicy aromas; one second listening to that sweet, smooth Siamese pop music, and you know you've left Japan far behind and touched down on the Andaman coast.
All of the kitchen and floor staff are young Thais, and they act -- and, more importantly, cook -- just as if they'd never left home. Where to start? You won't do better than the "B Set," a plate of the succulent, fatty "stewed" pork (kao ka mu), served on rice garnished with some coriander leaf, a few dabs of chili sauce and a bowl of hot clear broth on the side.
Other favorites of ours include the "E Set," which features a small bowl of their mild shrimp and eggplant curry, some of that same delicious simmered pork and dark mustard greens scrambled with egg; and the "Thai Okayu Set" (in English it's called "rice gruel combination"), the simple comforting rice congee providing a neutral sounding board for the six spicy little side dishes that accompany it.
Contrary to popular stereotype, Thai food doesn't have to be screaming hot. But if that's what you're after, then the wonderful, tongue-cauterizing fish (mackerel) and bamboo shoot curry will see you right. It's a sour curry, flavored with tamarind and without any coconut milk to mellow off the powerful chili heat. If this does not induce streams of sweat, you should check into your nearest funeral parlor.
But it's not just the food we love, it's the whole package. Every couple of minutes you feel the trains clattering overhead. The furniture is basic but solid, and everything's clean and tidy. Better still it's totally nonsmoking. You pay for everything as you put in your order, and your meal will be in front of you in the blink of an eye.
Did we mention the prices? As advertised all over the outside, every single food item is priced at 630 yen. Up to 3 p.m. they only serve set meals, but thereafter they offer a good range of a la carte dishes (don't miss that deep-fried fish with sweet-spicy sauce). The beer (Kirin on draft; Guinness, Singha or Phuket lager in bottles) is all 600, yen or if you're seriously settling in for a session, there is Mekhong "whiskey" by the glass, half or full bottle (600 yen/ 1,700 yen/3,200 yen).