Summer evenings are here, and so are the slow hours spent cooling off with a cold beer and crisp fried vegetables at a kushiage restaurant.
Kushiage, also known as kushikatsu, is a cuisine comprising skewers of vegetables (all right, and meat too) that are breaded and deep-fried, and served with a thin dip based on Worcestershire sauce. The establishments that serve it tend to be charmingly rustic and boisterous places, and I’m no stranger to them, especially in the summer months.
Just east of Tokyo in Funabashi is Kushikatsu Dengana (4-43-20 Honcho, Funabashi-shi, Chiba-ken; 050-5872-3658). This place is lively, but also roomy and comfortable compared with many of Tokyo’s hole-in-the-wall kushiage joints. Dengana also has an unusually long list of vegetarian items — I counted at least 16 options — including one that’s a bit of a rare find: tōmorokoshi, or deep-fried corn. That’s one more way to eat corn I wouldn’t have imagined before coming to Japan.
A few staple items not to be missed are mochi (glutinous rice cake), cheese and even the combo mochi-cheese, all of which are satisfyingly soft and filling. But I recommend starting with beni-shōga, or red pickled ginger. This delicacy has looks to boot, with its neon red hue, and is great for waking up the taste buds before delving into the meal.
Ikebukuro, my old stomping ground, gets two of my heartfelt recommendations. One is a chain restaurant originating in Osaka, home of kushikatsu, called Kushiman (3-13-7 Minami-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; 03-6907-4250). The food here is always good, quick and fresh, and the bread-crumb coating is especially light and tasty. There are plenty of vegetarian options here, too. A noteworthy item is the giant fried asparagus, almost a meal by itself.
The other is a neat little spot called Ippachi, tucked unassumingly behind a blue curtain at the end of Romance Street (1-38-1 Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; 03-5954-5580). While it’s technically a yakitori place, I’m including Ippachi because for a vegetarian, yakitori and kushiage often have similar options, though the former focuses more on plain-grilled items and the latter is all about deep-frying. Ippachi has deep-fried options too, including Camembert fry (melty triangles of cheese) and renkon fry (lotus root), which is cut into rather thick slabs and is exceptionally juicy.
The roasted ginnan (gingko nuts) is a great starter here while you look over the menu, which is available in English. Ippachi is a haven from the bustling streets of Ikebukuro, and I am always surprised there isn’t a line out the door, because it really is that good.
Even the stickiest summer days can be tempered at any of these or other kushiage places — which are likely where I’ll be spending a good portion of my evenings for the next three months.
Ananda Jacobs is a composer, recording artist and actress in Tokyo, and has been ovo-lacto vegetarian for over 20 years. She is currently producing music for her band Jacobs. www.facebook.com/anandajacobs.