An old classmate of mine, who learned of my trip to Hokkaido, warned me against taking other members of my tour group – especially ladies, kids and the elderly – to an izakaya, which is a type of an informal Japanese gastropub.
I am not sure where she got the idea, but for her an izakaya is an extremely noisy and crowded place with middle-aged guys spilling their drinks everywhere and filling the air with rancid tobacco smoke.
She was speaking of her own experience when she traveled with her husband to Shinjuku in Tokyo many years ago.
The food at the “izakaya” was so-so but the worst was that they felt so uneasy the entire time they were there as they had to be on guard amid all the drunken customers.
I bet they had visited a bar, not an izakaya. The former is just a place where you get yourself drunk, while the latter focuses on the quality of food and drinks they serve with an emphasis on the pleasure of the total dining and drinking experience.
Izakayas are generally family-run bistros which loyal customers regard as important social venues where they interact with one another.
Every izakaya has its own killer dish that customers fall for. They also serve seasonal dishes using local ingredients, making diners feel at home.
That said, not many izakayas cater for tourists because there’s the language barrier and owners fear one-off visitors, who tend to be a bit too enthusiastic, might upset their loyal customers.
The izakaya that I chose is managed by a young couple in Sapporo. They cook not only traditional Hokkaido cuisine, but also come up with creative food ideas.
Two of their creations were excellent. The first was ramen salad, in which the noodles were deep-fried and then placed on top of a big pile of shredded cabbage with salad dressing.
That’s so ordinary, you might say. But it tasted so refreshingly new that everyone finished the dish without leaving a trace.
The other was fried shrimp toast, which was truly challenging. Each one was bigger than what I would have at Fung Shing Restaurant in Hong Kong.
Unlike the traditional Cantonese shrimp toast, the toast from this izakaya was made from minced fish. The meat had been beaten until it became quite elastic; it was so tender without any trace of artificial additives.
I rcouldn’t tell what fish was used, so I asked the chef.
Golden threadfin bream, he said. I couldn’t believe it. How could the texture of a familiar fish become so exquisite? Ah, the skills of a master chef!
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 19
Translation by John Chui
[Chinese version 中文版]
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