In a dimly lit Tokyo pub, between hand-labelled bottles of “shochu” liquor and rickety wooden benches, Kunihiko Saiki serves up kingfish and snapper sashimi, tender squid tentacles and deep-fried tofu.
Around the corner, in a plain little basement bar, chef Nobuhiro Ando quietly prepares small portions of salt-grilled prawn and julienned potatoes with spicy cod roe.
While gourmet guides such as the Michelin are spreading Tokyo’s reputation as one of the world’s culinary capitals, a new book explores the lesser-known corners of the food scene here: “izakaya” pubs, which produce a dazzling array of small dishes out of tiny, cramped kitchens.
Izakaya – the Japanese Pub Cookbook celebrates these unlikely foodie haunts and their cuisine, combining shochu-soaked anecdotes and pen portraits of izakaya chefs with recipes for their tasty snacks and appetisers.
“Casual and small-plate dining is really taking off,” said author Mark Robinson over a plate of tofu at Saiki’s eponymous pub in Ebisu, a lively neighbourhood in central Tokyo.
“Izakaya food is a part of that a new way of eating and sharing, of expressing yourself through what you order.”
Robinson, an Australian-Japanese journalist, has lived and eaten in Japan since the 1980s.
Between bites of squid and sashimi, interrupted by raucous laughter and banter from fellow diners at the counter, he lists what he loves about Japanese pubs: the informal atmosphere, the izakaya master’s personal touch, the fresh, seasonal dishes.
“People should know that Japanese food is fun and Japanese dining can be fun. I still think the main image of Japanese food is things like sushi and tempura, things that are quite formal.”
Izakaya food fits into a global trend towards fine dining in a casual, late-night setting.
More varied than standard gastro pub fare, cheaper than sushi at a restaurant, the small dishes served in Tokyo’s pubs take punters on a little tour of Japanese cuisine.
Just don’t call them Japanese tapas.
“You hear it translated as Japanese tapas and I really dislike that, because it doesn’t sound very appetising for a start and also it sounds a bit like it’s somehow a copy or adaptation of something,” Robinson said.
“But it’s uniquely Japanese, and always has been.”
The eating style, however, is similar. As with tapas, izakaya food is ordered as a broad, random selection, from glazed chicken meatballs to boiled broad beans to spinach with sesame sauce.
With its tens of thousands of bars and restaurants crammed into basements, skyscrapers, and lantern-lit back alleys, Tokyo is one of the most competitive gastronomic markets in the world.
To survive, izakaya masters have to economise on space – many bars consist of a counter, a closet-sized kitchen and a dozen seats, with diners huddling together under a low ceiling.
The chefs are also extremely shrewd in the way they choose and prepare their ingredients, letting not a single scrap go to waste while preparing superb dishes that will entice customers to come back for more.
Just like their colleagues in Tokyo’s luxury eateries, many of whom refused to be featured in the new Michelin guide, izakaya chefs tend to eschew publicity.
Finding chefs who agreed to being written about was a challenge for Robinson.
For adventurous diners, the hidden, underground feel of many izakaya is part of the experience.
“Michelin kind of blew it open a bit,” Robinson said, ordering another round of sake.
“It’s almost a secret how well you can eat here. But the secret is out now.”