Food & Drink | EARLY START

Okayu: The Japanese alternative to porridge

by Yukari Sakamoto

Special To The Japan Times

The thick rice porridge known as okayu has been eaten in Japan for around 1,000 years. However, the early versions were less watery — it wasn’t until the Edo Period (1603-1868) that the dish evolved into a semi-liquid dish. In the Kanto region it was traditionally eaten when someone was not feeling well; in Kansai it was typically eaten for breakfast.

Okayu is made by cooking rice with extra water or stock, and it’s eaten with a renge, a large ceramic spoon. It can be cooked with different ingredients or topped with condiments. Okayu can be soothing, nourishing — and it’s easy to digest, too. (Strict vegetarians need to be careful as most shops will use meat or seafood in the stock.)

The dish originated in China, so it is no surprise that Chinese restaurant Turandot Garyu-kyo, in Tokyo’s Akasaka district, takes okayu to a gourmet level. Star chef Yuji Wakiya starts off with a rich stock made from pork, chicken and Chinese Kinka ham. He sautes the rice before adding the stock — the resulting flavor is rich in umami but delicate. Turandot’s vegetable okayu is studded with sweet potatoes, carrots, asparagus and mushrooms.

Toppings, such as tarako (fermented cod roe), are made in house. Wakiya’s tarako uses Szechuan pepper, a bold change from the traditional style. Turandot rounds out its menu with dim sum options such as fried spring rolls and dumplings. The grand setting, chandelier and side garden, makes this a luxurious start to the day.

Kayu-san-chin is a popular spot with commuters passing through Shinjuku Station’s underground Keio Mall. The seating is set up for solo diners, service is very fast and tea is self-service. The stock is made with kombu seaweed, ginger, chicken and pork, and the okayu is thick. The menu changes each month, keeping customers returning regularly. On each counter are three condiments: black vinegar, chili oil and an okayu tare sauce made from oysters, skipjack tuna and kombu.

Near Kinshicho Station, on Tokyo’s east side, Cayu des Rois serves Hong Kong-style okayu, which is silky and creamy. The menu has 11 variations, including Popeye (with green spinach) and Beef (with simmered beef tendons). Though it was quiet on a recent morning, I imagine the restaurant is busy at lunch and in the evening when alcohol and side dishes are also served.

Okayu is comforting, easy to swallow and gentle on the stomach, making it a warming meal on cold mornings. And if you’re recovering from a late night out, it can be a healing cure.

Turandot Garyu-kyo Y’s Cross Road, 6-16-10 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-3568-7190; open weekdays 8 a.m.-10 p.m. (L.O.), weekends and hols. 9 a.m.-10 p.m.; www.wakiya.co.jp/restaurants/akasaka/index_en.html.
Kayu-san-chin: South Exit Underground mall 1, Keio Mall Area A, Nishi-Shinjuku 1, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 03-5339-1335; open weekdays for breakfast 7-9:45 a.m. (L.O.) and lunch 11 a.m.-10:20 p.m. (L.O.), weekends and hols. 11 a.m.-10:20 p.m. (L.O.); www.ghf.co.jp/kayu-santin.
Cayu des Rois: 4-17-17 Kamezawa, Sumida-ku; 03-3829-3406; open weekdays 8 a.m.-9:30 p.m. (L.O.), weekends and hols. 8 a.m.-8:30 p.m. (L.O.); www.cayudesrois.com