We’ve all been spending a lot more time at home recently and redefining our relationship with our immediate four walls, getting intimately acquainted with our surroundings and probably that ceiling crack that you never noticed before. I have learned to love my tiny Tokyo apartment, especially since I have become a Marie Konvert during these times.
Yet I have been missing travel. I found myself staring endlessly at the glass in the washing machine door as if it were an airplane window and I might see clouds on the other side. I even tried snorkelling in the bath (not recommended).
I quickly realised I had reached the limits of my imagination. The inevitable happened: I opened creaky kitchen cupboard doors and attempted to rival my friends and family by producing ever more daring culinary feats. I made hummus and falafel, and baked pitta bread, recalling traditional Jordanian breakfasts I enjoyed in the morning Amman sun. I recreated the crispy garlic fried sakusaku broccoli from my favourite soup curry store from Sapporo in the north, relishing its salty crunch. I cooked medium-rare steak topped with soft garlic butter and served with perfectly crisp roast potatoes. Each mouthful whisked me through a whirlwind of memories, whooshing me to faraway lands and times.
That’s when it struck me. What global cuisines are hidden in Tokyo, in this metropolitan jungle of nearly 14 million people?! (38 million in the greater metropolitan area!)
While Japan has very low levels of immigration, its foreign population has been increasing year-on-year. This trend, combined with the growing number of overseas visitors, has seen culinary options expanding. Surely I could get some rather exotic takeout? Just what was available without breaking the bank? And how authentic were the flavours?
So I approached Tokyo Survival Channel: “Can I go travelling through taste?” I asked.
“Too easy!” they replied. “We know you, glutton! But here’s a real challenge…”
Travel to FIVE CONTINENTS in FIVE DAYS.
I was to assess the taste, the experience… and somehow, their authenticity. Little did I know that I, a self-described food writer, would go on a culinary voyage and discover just how much more I had to learn…
DAY 1: AFRICA (EGYPT) – Uchimura in Kitazawa
I travel everywhere by bicycle. And unfortunately for me starting a “hunt down the takeout” challenge”, the rainy season seems to have arrived early. As a result, I cycled through the wettest coldest most miserable “Egypt” with weather that seemed to have British ambitions.
Some back story: I live less than two kilometres from what looks little more than a run down shop. The sign is faded and worn, and there are only about three tables inside, in front of a narrow counter plastered with laminated menu items.
This is Uchimura, tucked away in the suburbs of Western Tokyo, less than kilometre from the trendy hipster and distinctly teenage area of Shimokitazawa. There are hardly any other shops or restaurants nearby and it simply does not belong.
And it is the perfect example of why I love Tokyo.
I don’t know the story of Uchimura, but I know it is run by Uchimura san, a Japanese woman and her Egyptian husband. On the day I stop by, there are three customers—all men who speak Arabic—sitting at a couple of tables. Mrs. Uchimura turns to me to take my order and I ask her advice for trying “real Egyptian tastes”. She gives me a few pointers and I order too much in my excitement.
I battle the rain on my way back home, eager to quickly unwrap my still warm take-out. I am going to need expert help in analysing my haul, so I call my Egyptian friend Sarah, who has just broken fast for the day as it’s Ramadan.
Before I tuck in, Sarah teaches me to say the Egyptian equivalent for bon appetit: “belhana welshefa”—“with health and happiness.” I mince the pronunciation and look at a bowl of minced vegetables in front of me. I poke my spoon cautiously into the vibrant green and incredibly slimy soup. This is mulukhiya, which, according to an urban legend, takes its name for the term for royalty as previously only royalty was allowed to consume it. Now it is a beloved favourite of all Egyptian children and something that each family makes differently..
I can’t quite believe that I have this obscure dish in front of me at a cost of only 380 yen.
Mulukhiya are the leaves of a plant known as Jew’s mallow, Nalta jute, or tossa jute, but sometimes referred to as Egyptian spinach and almost always eaten in Egypt as soup.
“It is easy to explain it as a kind of spinach. But Egyptian people will get annoyed and say it is absolutely not spinach!”
The first thing that hits me is its gloopy texture. It reminds me of mozuku, a kind of seaweed found in Okinawa, often served in slimy, vinegary form to be slurped at breakfast. It’s sharp enough to wake you up. I begin to realise how poorly travelled I am and how my knowledge only excels when it comes to Japanese regional cuisine.
But mulukhiya is basically a bowl of comforting garlicky gloop. I totally get why kids love it. I would never have ordered it, I tell Sarah, but now I feel it that my world has changed. We eat it on rice, she says, or add rice into the bowl. My brain begins to tick over the possibilities.
Next, I unwrap three cubes of grilled lamb kebab meat, juices running out onto my plate. Simple, but seasoned and succulent, I can scarcely believe I have acquired lamb—a relative rarity in Japan—at such good quality and such a good price.
I work my way through musa’ah, baked aubergines with green peppers and tomato, a flavour combination that compels me to eat more and more, and I spread foul, a traditional paste of fava beans on top of falafel pitta. Sure, the pitta is light on tahini, and the usual herbs of coriander and parsley are replaced with shredded cabbage, a popular and cheaper alternative in Japan. But every mouthful whizzes me to past travels in the Middle East (Egypt is technically in Northern Africa, but I feel like I am covering two continents in one here—TSC, do I get bonus points?!)
DAY 2: NORTH AMERICA (SOUTHERN USA) – Soul Food House in Azabu Juban
Soul Food House is legendary among those in the know in Tokyo. Opened by David and LaTonya Whittaker in 2015, it has already been featured on David Chang’s Netflix show Ugly Delicious and has rapidly gained a loyal customer base.
And there might be another show in the pipeline, LaTonya tells me warmly as I stop by to place my order. She is from Mississippi and her husband David is from Georgia, which explains their menu of Southern and Cajun cuisine. I have brought along Louis, another Georgia native as my expert.
I tell them I am a food writer and announce, very proudly, that I am going to be travelling via food. We all quickly establish that I am way out of my territory. I don’t know a thing about Southern cuisine, and my American geography somehow got lost along the way?!
They are both incredibly kind to me, despite my blatant ignorance. “Stop by again, Sweetie,” LaTonya tells me. “Let’s chat more when we open our dining room again.” [NB: their dining room is now open again!]
Louis and I drag our takeout hauls back to our respective apartments and resume our discussion via video chat. The cornbread – perfectly sweet and crumbly – leaves us both in a contemplative silence.
This is the real deal, he says, tucking into country-fried chicken. I have got the country-fried steak—a thin steak covered in a flavoursome peppery and oh-so-moreish batter, served on top of creamed potatoes, that I am smothering onto my side of garlic green beans so garlicky that I am definitely thankful that I am dining alone. I consider composing a poem of appreciation to the macaroni cheese.
Overwhelmed by nostalgia, Louis before launched into tales of all his favourite country-style diners.
I ask what country-style is. He pauses. “Eating more butter than is strictly necessary?! I definitely feel like the portions are large—larger than the rest of the US.” (Editor’s Note: (From Florida) If it ain’t swimming in butter or fried and sweet, it ain’t good Southern cookin’!)
Louis’ eyes are far away. He is travelling down various tunnels of memory. I drag him back and ask him for guidance on my ratings.
“But there’s one thing you can’t always replicate – and that’s how nice the people are,” he says.
Hey David and LaTonya, we wanna come hang with y’all soon (“y’all” = my attempt at American slang).
DAY 3: ASIA (India) – Priya in Hiro
I know what you’re going to say. Japan is already in Asia!
I’ve got my answer prepared for you. Asia is the LARGEST continent. Indian food could hardly be more different.
And I’m British. There is A LOT OF Indian food in the UK, so I should have a good opinion on it. Either way, I’ve not actually been to India, so that is what I am going to have to rely on.
There is one problem: I didn’t actually eat that much Indian in the UK. That’s partly because growing up in the countryside meant that actually decent offerings were far and few between. And partly because my father accidentally poisoned me with Indian takeout when I was seven. Indian food was on my blacklist for a long time after that.
However, the past is in the past and I have since developed an alarmingly high tolerance for spice. I hanker for a good curry and naan.
My target was Priya in Hiro, which has a comprehensive and extensive menu of Northern Indian cuisine and all the dishes I was used to seeing. They even serve a chicken tikka masala, sometimes half-jokingly, half-seriously described as the UK’s favourite dish.
“Indian food in the UK is the disgraced younger nephew of Indian food,” says Mia, my expert for the evening. Hailing from India but having lived in several countries, including the US and the UK, I knew I could count on her for “some very strong opinions”. I kind of wished this were a reality TV show; I think she would relish the role of Simon Cowell.
Mia laughs. “Let me temper that statement. It has naturally been scaled back to match British tastes so there are less spices. I find it generally to be blander.”
I warn her not to try the average Indian palace in Japan. Fresh chillies are not sold in supermarkets. Curries are normally on the sweet side and with minimal spice. Asking for your curry on the hot side tends to involve an exorbitant amount of chilli powder emptied over the dish.
However, Mia suddenly makes a startling admission: British Indian food is probably the best Indian food she has had outside India, save for Hong Kong where she is currently based.
I feel pretty pleased with that accolade. Food in the UK gets a bad rap, despite having improved immeasurably over the past couple of decades. It is hard to rival the diversity and richness of the flavours on offer in London. Tokyo doesn’t come close, but the past two nights have proved it has got a few surprises hidden up its streets.
Tonight I have gone for two classic items. I tuck into samosa – spiced potatoes, onions and peas, wrapped in a thin, triangular pastry parcel. The heat is gentle but the flavours come together well and I am delighted to discover cashew nuts.
Next up, lamb rogan josh, described on their website as “braised lamb chunks cooked with gravy based in browned onions, yogurt, spices and herbs.” The flavours are richer than any I am used to in my day-to-day Tokyo life. Although I am not overwhelmed at first bite, it grows on me with layers of complexity and a gentle heat starts to come through. It’s all very pleasant but it feels… a little tame. I like my curry to be wild and free, instead of subtle and suggestive. Sadly, the lamb is not as tender as it should be and I struggle through a couple of chunks that leave me dreaming of the succulent Egyptian kebab.
Yet the sauce is made for mopping up with naan. And even better than that, I have cheese naan. This is on almost every Indian menu in Japan and Mia says innovations are definitely allowed. She tried some kind of truffle naan recently. I am now dreaming of truffle cheese naan.
DAY 4: SOUTH AMERICA (PERU) – Peruvian Cuisine Aldo, Minami-Aoyama
If I am going to South America, I am going to Peru. To be fair, it is the only Latin American country I’ve been to. I spent a month travelling the country with my mother. We arrived in Lima, coincidentally the day before the city held what is the continent’s largest food festival, Mistura. That marked a fitting start as to what was to be an unexpected gastronomic month.
Peruvian cuisine is mind-blowingly good (and the portions stomach-bustingly large). Not only do Peruvians do incredible things with the incredible variety of potato and corn the country is home to, but Chinese and Japanese immigration have created complex and unusual dishes.
I head to Aldo, a restaurant in the fashionable Aoyama neighbourhood and run by a Peruvian chef of the same name. On my cycle ride there, my mind is tormented. I can’t decide between two classic Peruvian dishes that are true comfort foods found on most restaurant menus. Lomo saltado—a dish believed to have Chinese-Peruvian roots: strips of sirloin beef, stir-fried with onions, tomatoes, and potatoes, seasoned with soy sauce, vinegar and coriander, and served with rice in a decadent double carb fest. Or aji de gallina – a creamy chicken stew, made with (the mild and yellow) aji amarillo peppers, walnuts, spices, garlic and turmeric, often containing hard boiled eggs and olives, and also served with rice.
I decide I simply must have both. Aldo pops his head over the counter from the open kitchen and smiles. No problemo, it seems.
He tells me he’s been living in Tokyo for 30 years now. “You weren’t even born!” he laughs.
I was, I tell him, and pocket the unintentional compliment along with a freshly cooked, piping hot dinner box to take home.
The next hour I spend floating in a kind of heaven. You know you’ve hit upon something good when you have to keep alternating between two dishes simply because you can’t decide which you like most.
The beef is succulent and perfectly flavoured. I try a single potato by itself. I can’t be in Japan, I think. Potatoes like this simply don’t exist!
Then I tuck into the aji de gallina, the creaminess caressing me, a mild heat building, the occasional olive or quail’s egg leading me down a different flavour path.
Both dishes are as good as I remember—if not, better than some versions I had. Yes, there are some Japanese oddities in the bento – some pickles to go with the rice, next to potato salad and even pasta salad. These are undoubtedly an adaptation for the Japanese market but they are both tasty enough (especially since the beef juices have run into the pasta…)
But I am already back in Peru, sitting in a rustic restaurant, scraping my plate clean, reflecting on the unexpectedly barren landscapes that make up much of the country that contrast the luscious rainforest inland, and all the other amazing and surprising things I had seen.
DAY 5: EUROPE (FRANCE) – Chez Olivier, Ichigaya
How outrageous would it be to get a Michelin star meal as takeout?
Quite outrageous. So I did.
Chez Olivier, which opened in 2009, is one Michelin star restaurant run by—you guessed it, Olivier, a chef from Bordeaux. He has been cooking up some incredibly luxurious takeout menus, even more so on the weekend.
In beautifully packaged, albeit-still-plastic-takeout boxes, I unwrap my meal. My hors d’oeuvre is smoked salmon and vegetables terrine, cottage cheese and herbs cream. It is like an artwork; it is so beautiful I felt a bit guilty stabbing it with a fork and promptly destroying its structure.
The crispy tang of the vegetables unites in harmony with salmon and the cottage cheese cream. The ingredients list is mind-boggling, ranging from Japanese additions, such as shiitake, sudachi citrus, and daikon, to Normandie cottage cheese and espelette pepper, a kind of spice from the southern region of France.
I am eager to tuck into the main: osso-buco a la piemontaise served with spring truffle tagliatelle—a veal shank stewed to melt-in-the-mouth tenderness in white wine, tomato, orange, lemon and herbs. Originally an Italian dish, France shares a border and so of course there are crossovers.
I poke the veal with my fork and it falls off the bone as it should. The sauce—lighter than I expected—has well-balanced citrus notes that complement perfectly the earthiness of the truffle. I am soon scraping my plastic dish with a spoon and minimal shame.
While I have consumed a lot of French food in my time, I decide to call up a French friend Arnaud. A blurry picture appears on my phone. He is having a picnic with his girlfriend Alice, who is also French and has also coincidentally dined at Chez Olivier. C’est parfait, as they say in French.
“It is a very good place,” says Alice. “I feel that the flavours have been moderated to suit Japanese – the taste is milder than in France.”
“But going to the restaurant really does feel like dining at home. At the start of the meal, they bring you a basket of sliced baguette and it tastes just like the real thing! It is probably the closest you can get to the real thing in Tokyo without going to France.”
As a critique from a French person, I take that as a glowing endorsement.
I wished them a good day and tucked into a chocolate mousse cake with raspberry puree which made me whimper with delight in a manner entirely inappropriate for a dining room. Maybe Michelin star food should always have a takeout option just in case.
THE UNEXPECTED CHALLENGE
Tokyo, you are one sneaky city…I would never have imagined it would be possible to travel to five continents on five nights through takeout food and had such good quality and overall authentic and exotic tastes.
But the challenge exposed how limited my fledgling food knowledge is. There was so much more I had to learn and new dishes to be tasted. On just the first night, I ate an Egyptian soul food made from a plant I had never heard of … and this was available for 380 yen down the road, in the middle of Tokyo’s western residential suburbs.
Bravely venturing out for global tastes took me to different areas of the city that I had rarely or never been to. Then, the different flavours would whisk me off to faraway lands.
Through my mission, I found I wasn’t missing travel so much anymore; I was falling in love with Tokyo all over again. But I also realised that the challenge was to continue: I was just at the beginning of my food journey.
Support local businesses and Tokyo’s vibrant food scene. Get takeout. Order extra and give to a friend. Deliver smiles.