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A year of pancakes, donuts, flying fish

by Steve Trautlein

Japan has reached peak donut.

In a year of otherwise promising trends in the B-kyū gourmet (B-grade cuisine) scene, Japanese diners saved their heartiest appetite for Western-style breakfast.

The onslaught of U.S. franchises specializing in pancakes, French toast and eggs Benedict continued apace, with Slappy Cakes from Portland, Clinton Street Baking Co. from New York and Hawaii’s Café Kaila all debuting with predictable menus, long lines and scintillating reviews on the Tabelog dining website.

Yet there are indications that the breakfast boom has nowhere to go but down. Witness the latest promotion from the popular Mister Donut chain, which features donuts flavored with traditional tastes from Japan’s west (adzuki-bean toast, okonomiyaki savory pancakes) and east (Hokkaido buttered potatoes, monja-yaki grilled batter).

Or check out the unfortunately named Eggcellent restaurant in Tokyo’s swank Roppongi Hills complex. Opened last month by a telegenic young woman whose travels around the world led her to “realize the importance of breakfast,” the eatery serves up ersatz diner food in frou-frou surroundings that only an OL (office lady) could love. And judging from a recent visit, OLs do love it.

The rapidly vanishing Japanese taboo against eating while walking meant another successful year for food franchises specializing in takeout. Joining the craze for to-go pizza, gelato and karaage chicken nuggets, high-end U.S. popcorn purveyors KuKuRuZa and Garrett both set up shop in the fashionable Omotesando district of Tokyo — and were promptly mobbed. In Yokohama’s Chinatown — an area that for more than half a century has rewarded ambulatory foodies with all manner of steamed buns — a type of griddled jiaozi dumpling with a crusty bottom and a dangerously juicy filling can now be bought on most street corners.

Meanwhile, fans of regional Japanese cuisine had a year to remember, with major food festivals enjoying strong attendance and clever tie-ups bringing authentic local cooking to the masses.

The B-1 Grand Prix — Japan’s leading celebration of down-home culinary specialties — drew more than half a million revelers in November to the city of Toyokawa, just outside Nagoya. Top honors in the competition portion of the event, as determined by participants and a panel of experts, went to Namie yakisoba, a fried-noodle dish from Fukushima Prefecture. Runners-up included a pork-egg rice bowl from Ehime Prefecture and Aomori bara-yaki (leeks and meat cooked with soy sauce on a teppan grill).

Even Japanese baseball players got into the B-kyū swing. A late-September food festival hosted by the Yokohama DeNa BayStars featured dozens of stalls inside and outside the stadium, serving regional dishes from Kanagawa and beyond. A nice touch: the athletes themselves chose the food, which meant, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the selections were heavy on the protein and carbs: Sasebo hamburgers from Nagasaki, tebasaki chicken wings from Nagoya and Sendai beef tongue, among dozens of others.

Similar gems were unearthed by Japanese convenience-store operators, who are making it their mission to promote the pleasures of regional cuisine via partnerships with local communities.

The Lawson chain brought to our attention a little-known specialty from the northeast corner of Shikoku: the sanuki croquette, featuring a coating of crunchy rice around a filling of local Kagawa pork. A specialty of regional chain 568 (Coroya), the croquette debuted just after Golden Week and sold for only ¥150.

And in a year when UNESCO dominated headlines — both Mount Fuji and Japanese cuisine were added to the U.N. body’s cultural heritage list — a new promotion from Family Mart seems only fitting. It has been 20 years since Yakushima Island in Japan’s far south was granted World Heritage status, and the konbini chain is marking the occasion with a bentō lunch box featuring a burger made from the area’s famed tobiuo flying fish.

But my favorite offer of the year came straight out of the land of imagination. In a springtime tie-up with the popular cartoon series “Crayon Shin-chan,” Circle K Sunkus offered a series of goods under the heading B-kyū Survival Fair. Among the food inspired by the show’s titular scamp were plate of yakisoba decorated with okonomiyaki and takoyaki (octopus dumplings) to resemble his face, and a snack bag of fried squid.

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


Kicking in the new year

Lounging around the house with nothing to do except eating and watching ekiden road races on TV — goodness, how we love New Year’s in Japan. And, thanks to the Furusato Matsuri Tokyo, there’s no reason to stop the good times when the calendar ticks over to mid-January. Taking place at the vast Tokyo Dome over the course of 10 days, the event highlights the food and festivals of communities throughout Japan (furusato means “hometown”).

If you’ve ever wanted to try steamed Hokkaido scallops or Shimane clam soup, or see costumed dancers re-create the atmosphere of local celebrations, now’s your chance. Even the cash-strapped among us can enjoy themselves: An entire section of the grounds is devoted to ¥500 rice bowls with regional ingredients. Jan. 10-19; visit www.tokyo-dome.co.jp/furusato for more info.