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Aalawi: Found: Tokyo’s little Jamaica

by Robbie Swinnerton

We’d been planning on a little beach action last weekend, but the weather weirdness put paid to that notion. No monsoon moping for us, though: We struggled through the deluge down to Aalawi, a laid-back corner of Ebisu that is forever Caribbean.

Our feet were drenched, but it was well worth the wade. The green, gold and black flag above the street and the gleaming oilcan barbecue by the door send out a message as clear as the insistent reggae beat inside. Here you eat and chill in true Jamaican style.

Aalawi — the patois way of saying “all of us” — is a simple, laidback place, with comfortable retro cafe furniture and Red Stripe beer posters on the wall. Owner-chef Toshiyuki Ibayashi lived for over a year in Jamaica, and he has re-created the easygoing ambience and robust cooking of the roadside eateries found across the island. He’s also brought back with him a dynamite recipe for jerk chicken, the spicy barbecue that has become Jamaica’s de facto national dish.

Every chef on the island has his or her own formula for the spice mix that is rubbed into the meat before it is placed over the grill. Ibayashi blends onion, thyme, pepper, scallions, pimento and garlic, along with a few proprietary secrets that he is unlikely to divulge, no matter how nicely you ask.

He does not use the handsome oilcan grill outside — apart from occasional outdoors performances, it’s for show. But everything is cooked to order over a bed of glowing charcoal in his kitchen, and it’s excellent. The chicken is coarsely cleavered into chunks, so the best way to tackle it is to pick it up and gnaw it off the bone, and, yes, you’ll want to lick your fingers afterward.

It may not be as searingly hot as it would be served in Port Antonio, the town where this dish was reputedly born, but the result still puts a considerable tingle on the tongue. If you want to ratchet up the heat factor, then anoint it with a few drops of Grace Hot Pepper Sauce, the homegrown Jamaican rival to Tabasco.

Ibayashi uses the same formula for jerk pork, spare ribs and even an oriental variation on the theme, jerk tofu, slices of firm bean curd doled up with stir-fried vegetables. As main dishes, these will be presented with a serving of rice ‘n’ peas — the Jamaican terminology for rice cooked with red kidney beans — plus trimmings of crisp deep-fried plantain chips and a few slivers of pickled vegetables.

Another approach, one that has become our standard strategy, is to order a couple of servings of jerk as starters to go with a bottle or two of Red Stripe. When we’re ready to bulk up with rice ‘n ‘peas, we order it with meaty Brown Stew or the sweet-spicy Rasta-vegetarian version known as Ital Stew, which is prepared with plenty of rich coconut milk.

Aalawi may not be the only jerk joint in town — we’ve come across occasional food stalls run by emigre Rastas or local hippies with more enthusiasm than finesse. But it is surely the only restaurant where you can find ackee and saltfish, a Jamaican specialty that pairs salt cod, similar to Portuguese bacalao, with boiled ackee, a starchy fruit with little flavor when (as here) it is taken out of the can. We tried it at Aalawi once, out of curiosity, but were not impressed enough by the salty-bland combination.

Even at lunchtime, do not arrive expecting fast-food service. Settle in and while away your time. Take in the brightly colored mural — a rainbow over herb-green mountains with a Rasta (is that St. Bob Marley?) strumming a guitar. Gaze at the videos flickering on a screen in the opposite corner. Or tune in to the sound system, which is usually filled with dancehall and ragamuffin beamed live and direct (via the Web) from London stations or Irie FM in Kingston.

There are mango smoothies and various ice creams for those with a sweet tooth. But we would rather linger with a shot of dark rum, a cup of coffee and a plate of festival, the patois name for the deep-fried breads that usually accompany the main course in Jamaican cuisine but which here are slightly sweetened, like stubby doughnut cigars.

This may not be refined food, but it ‘s satisfying. It’s also very affordable. Even with a drink or two, you may find it hard to spend more than ¥2,000 each.

How’s that for roadside-dining authenticity?