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Friday, Aug. 7, 2009

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Coastal curries: The food counters of Little Thailand on the Kamakura coast serve a great range of Thai street-stall staples. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Surf Kamakura's spicy Asian turf


A chilled bottle of Singha beer forms a ring of condensation on the table. The heady aromas of fried garlic, lemongrass and curry spices waft from the kitchen in the corner of the wooden hut. Two waitresses gossip in Thai.

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The riverside terrace of Beach Lounge Yuigahama offers excellent views of the surf and tasty food including tod man kung shrimp patties, spring rolls and green curry to go with ice-cold beer.

The sea sparkles. A surfing video flickers noiselessly on the screen behind the bar. The sound system plays house music, the beats merciless in the midday heat. Another typical day on the beach in Koh Samui? Rather closer to home, in fact. We're just an hour south of Tokyo, tucking into lunch on the Kamakura coast in Kanagawa Prefecture.

The cluster of temporary beach huts affectionately known as Little Thailand has been a regular fixture on this stretch of Yuigahama Beach for six summers now. Operating just for the months of July and August, they are set up and staffed by a number of established Thai restaurants in Japan (one from up the road in Kamakura itself; another as far away as Narita in Chiba Prefecture).

While this year's incarnation is more compact than in years past — don't expect any muay thai boxing or traditional dancing — there's still a massage room (totally above board), a stall selling shapeless Thai fishermen's pants, and the inevitable henna tattoo artist. Most importantly, the food is as reliable as ever, with trilingual menus that cover a good range of tried-and-true street foods.

It works like a miniature food court — think a mellower waterfront version of the Yataimura (Foodstall Village) in Hyakunincho, north of Tokyo's Shinjuku district. You order from whichever counter takes your fancy, then seat yourself at the communal tables in the center of the stalls. It's well sheltered, cool and comfortable, but there's one major drawback: From here you can't actually see the waves.

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Nepalese competition: Piping-hot tandoor-baked nan is served at Himalaya Curry.

That's why this year, we transferred our affections away from the Little Thailand enclave, to the elevated terrace of a hut known grandly as Beach Lounge Yuigahama. You can't miss it as you arrive at the waterfront. It stands on its own, right by the estuary of the narrow river looking out on the surf. Primarily it's a bar — you get contemporary dance music not Indochinese pops — but thanks to the Thai ladies in the kitchen, the cooking certainly holds its own.

The ¥1,000 set lunches are good value but we decided to explore the extensive a la carte menu, which lists more than 60 items. We started off with delicate spring rolls stuffed with shrimp, freshly made, light and appetizing, and a plate of tod man kung, deep-fried patties of shrimp with the obligatory dip of sweet-spicy red chili sauce on the side — perfect with that first chilled draft beer.

Spice levels are kept well in check. The som tam (green papaya salad) was far from the fiery concoction you would find in the Issan region of northeast Thailand, but still crisp and refreshing. The green curry with chicken offered barely a tingle on the tongue, but was tasty nonetheless, with a fried egg to give it an extra dash of warm, summertime color.

For "authentic" Thai cuisine we'll stay in Tokyo (or fly to Bangkok). For prime location, though, this is mighty hard to beat.

U ntil this summer, the only exotic flavors on this stretch of the coast have been Thai. Now there's some serious competition from Nepal. Himalaya Curry is a new beach hut set up by the friendly little Nepalese restaurant of the same name in Sangubashi, on the far side of Yoyogi Park in Tokyo.

No prizes for guessing what's on the menu. The eponymous curries — choose from chicken, egg, mutton or vegetable — are mild and creamy, like a kinder, gentler variant of north Indian cuisine. What makes them stand out here on the beach is that they're served with freshly made nan that arrives puffed up and piping hot, straight from the tandoor oven.

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Plain nan goes best with the curry (a basic set meal is ¥900). But the two special varieties — cheese or coconut, each an extra ¥300 — are great just on their own or helping down a nice cold lager (premium Gorkha, Everest or Nepal Ice Beer). Other nibbles include vegetable samosas; Tibetan-style momo (steamed chicken dumplings much like Japanese sui-gyoza); and brochettes of fish or chicken tikka, also cooked in the trademark oven.

It's a long way from Kathmandu to the Kamakura coast, and the friendly kitchen staff, all Nepalese, seem rather less at ease than their Thai counterparts. But Himalaya Curry is definitely worth searching out. Not that you have to look far, it's right by the entrance to the beach. Just look for the distinctive Nepalese double-triangle flags fluttering above the roof.

I f the crowds around the beach huts get too intense, you don't have to go far to find quieter surroundings. The open expanse of sand on the other side of the river is rarely as busy. There's another good reason for making that short stroll: Beach House Asia, one of our favorite summertime wateringholes in the area.

We like the tranquil setting. The deck chairs on the elevated seating area give a great view out over the bay, making it the ideal place to cradle a sundowner or settle in for a few cocktails under the stars. Better yet, Asia has a food menu that bats well above average for a beach hut.

Despite the name, the influences are as much European as Asian, with a good dose of Okinawan flavors too. If you've never tried the old surfers' standby, taco rice, here is the place to do it (¥900). The ground beef has a good balance of sweet and spicy and the side salad is fresh and crisp. Where are the actual tacos? That's the point: it comes with rice instead!

There are some good seafood dishes. And if you want to eat really locally, order up a Kamakura shirasu-don (¥800). The warm rice comes with a topping of tiny fresh whitebait that have been caught from the Kamakura bay, seasoned with a mix of aromatic ginger and shiso leaf.

The vegetables are outstanding. They are organically grown in the hills above Kamakura, on a small plot farmed by Asia's owner. Don't miss the plate of assorted vegetable sticks served with a tasty warm anchovy dip in bagna cauda style.

Asia also has a stage that hosts occasional live music. Sometimes things get a little loud, but mostly it's a place that runs to an easygoing reggae beat. If Yuigahama is the local version of Koh Samui, then this must be Kamakura's equivalent of mellow, hippier Koh Phangan. It's a whole lot easier to get there from Tokyo, though.

Little Thailand, Beach Lounge Yuigahama and Himalaya Curry: Yuigahama-Kaigan, Kamakura-shi, Kanagawa-ken (no phones). Open daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (last order 9:40 p.m.). Nearest station: Kamakura (JR Yokosuka Line). From the main exit of the station, go out to the main street (Wakamiya-oji), turn right and continue until you hit the coast (about 10 minutes' walk). Beach House Asia, Kamakura Chuo-Kaigan; www.kamakura-asia.com; open daily 8 a.m.-late (last orders for food 9:15 p.m.). Baan Phu Thai, 533 Hanasaki-cho, Narita-shi, Chiba-ken; (0476) 23-0224; www.baanphu- thai.com; nearest station: Narita (JR). Himalaya Curry,4-6-1 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; (03) 6410-8455; www.himalaya-curry.com; nearest station: Sangubashi (Odakyu Line).


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