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Digging in: the rise of B-kyū gurume

by Steve Trautlein

Everyman Eats is a new column about the phenomenon of B-kyū gurume (B-grade gourmet) — inexpensive, down-home cooking that reflects local culinary traditions. This first installment considers 10 moments that helped shape the recent B-kyū boom.

Ramen hits the big screen (1985)

Director Juzo Itami’s award-winning comedy “Tampopo” premiered during a national craze for Ogikubo Ramen, a noodle dish made with a fish-based broth and dark soy sauce that’s become associated with the eponymous Tokyo district. With quirky subplots featuring food-obsessed characters, “Tampopo” prefigured B-kyū gurume’s focus on neighborhood cooking.

Noodle Mecca Kanagawa (1994)

When the Shinyokohama Ramen Museum opened in 1994, it not only promoted noodle dishes emanating from Hokkaido to Kyushu, it let ramen enthusiasts feel they were part of a nationwide cult. A similar note has since been struck by Tokyo’s Gyoza Stadium (2002) and Yokohama’s Cup Noodles Museum (2011).

Takeru Kobayashi conquers (2001)

Nothing gladdens the hearts of the Japanese more than the sight of a homegrown athlete succeeding abroad, so when Takeru Kobayashi bested the field at the 2001 Nathan’s Annual Hot Dog Eating Contest, the locals were justifiably proud. Kobayashi’s triumph sparked an enduring craze for competitive eating — and helped cement the idea that everyday food can have superstar appeal.

Ladies welcome at Kohmen (2002)

There was a time when a woman eating by herself in a ramen shop was like a vegan in a yakiniku (barbecue) restaurant — it could happen, but pretty much only by accident. That all changed in December 2002, when the design-savvy Kohmen chain debuted in Tokyo’s fashionable Ebisu district. With dim lights and semi-private seating, the venue offered — finally! — a noodle shop a woman could call her own.

Kimukatsu slices the field (2003)

Time-honored dishes such as rice bowls and Hamburg steaks constitute the bulk of the B-kyū gurume menu, but new approaches do occasionally creep in. Case in point: the cutlets at Kanto-based tonkatsu chain Kimukatsu. The cooks here slice each hunk of pork into 25 thin strips, then layer them into a mille-feuille cutlet that, when deep-fried, retains the meat’s juiciness while extracting maximum umami.

B-1 Grand Prix pulls a crowd (2006)

B-kyū gurume’s rise from local fad to national obsession got a boost in 2006, when the B-1 Grand Prix debuted in Hachinohe, Aomori Prefecture. The annual celebration of regional cooking — from Hokkaido fried noodles to Okayama tripe udon — now draws 500,000 hungry revelers to such out-of-the-way locales as Himeji in Hyogo Prefecture and Atsugi in Kanagawa Prefecture.

Ishi-chan makes it B-I-G (2007)

Every populist movement needs a mascot, and B-kyū gurume found its own in plus-size comedian Hidehiko Ishizuka. Clad in bovine-print overalls and armed with a bulletproof gullet, the portly “gourmet reporter” has made a career of touring down-home restaurants on such shows as TV Tokyo’s “Ganso! Debuya” (“Original! Big Eaters”). His euphoric cry of pleasure — “Maiu!” — has become a national catchphrase.

Ippudo takes Manhattan (2008)

B-kyū gurume’s international appeal was confirmed in spring 2008, when the Ippudo ramen chain opened a branch in New York’s trendy East Village. After a reviewer from The New York Times gushed that the tonkotsu pork broth was “an umami bomb in a bowl,” Manhattanites were soon lining up for the privilege of paying 13 bucks for a serving of noodles.

Noodles get co-opted (2010)

It was probably just a matter of time before B-kyū gurume caught the attention of the elites. Udon restaurant Mendokoro Nakajima, which opened in 2010 in the Hotel New Otani Tokyo, offers simple noodle dinner sets — starting at a whopping ¥4,900. That’s small beer, though, compared with Fujimaki Gekijo in Nakameguro, where a bowl of Emperor Ramen will set you back a cool ¥10,000 (and must be reserved three days in advance).

B-kyū gurume goes mobile (2012)

Bookstore shelves are groaning under the weight of guides to B-kyū gurume, but the movement has recently begun to migrate online. Soba Michi Navi is a GPS-enabled mobile app that features a database of more than 1,600 noodle shops, and the Gotochi B-kyū Gurume Kentei app allows Android users to test their knowledge of their favorite cuisine.

Steve Trautlein is a freelance journalist eating his way through Japan.


Defining B-kyū gurume

The “B” in B-kyū means “second-rate” — think B-movie or B-side. According to the online Daijirin dictionary, this distinguishes it from A-kyū, “which refers to cuisine using expensive ingredients and first-class service.” Translation: B-kyū gurume (gourmet) serves an age of diminished expectations — the right food for the wrong generation.

Not so fast, say the cast members of “Hikomaru no B-kyū Gurume Tengoku” (“Hikomaru’s B-Grade Gourmet Heaven”), a biweekly show on the Foodies TV cable channel. ” ‘B’ stands for the ‘Best’ gourmet, local food … that people want to eat over and over again.” The Japanese-language Wikipedia page for B-kyū gurume concurs: “(It’s) cheap, delicious local food and drinks for ordinary folks.”