Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Tama: A finessed fusion of Chinese and Okinawan cooking

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

From the street, Tama gives little away. The uncluttered, contemporary facade — floor-to-ceiling glass, plain gray concrete steps, just enough wood that it doesn’t feel too impersonal — suggests an uber-cool wine bar, or something a bit exclusive. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

For more than a decade, Tama has been the place to come for one of Tokyo’s more unusual menus, a unique and stylish hybrid that it calls Ryukyu-Chinese. It’s a blend of Okinawa specialties, such as ashitebichi (pig’s trotter) and chanpurū (stir-fried tofu, meat and vegetables), interspersed with Chinese classics like yodare-dori (“mouth-watering chicken”). There’s nowhere else like it in the city — and certainly no restaurant serving Okinawan food with such a sense of style and attention to quality.

Owner-chef Fumihiro Tamayose was born and raised on the remote Okinawan island of Kuroshima. But one of his grandmothers hailed from Shanghai, so he grew up eating a mix of the two cuisines. Those are the flavors and ingredients that underpin his cooking at Tama.

Curtain call: Owner chef Fumihiro Tamayose poses with his homemade chōzume Chinese sausages that hang at the front of Tama's open kitchen. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Curtain call: Owner chef Fumihiro Tamayose poses with his homemade chōzume Chinese sausages that hang at the front of Tama’s open kitchen. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Not that you’d guess from the understated interior. There are no dragons or lion-dogs, no red-and-gold hangings or calligraphy, no background music of either ethnicity — just the usual jazzy, late-night Tokyo soundtrack. But you may spot one giveaway clue: the strings of homemade Chinese sausages, known in Japanese as chōzume, that hang from the ceiling in front of Tamayose’s open kitchen like a plump, porky bead curtain.

Briefly warmed in the oven, each sausage is sliced and served with slivers of blanched white negi (Welsh onion) and a lightly piquant dip of Okinawan miso. The meat is light in flavor and texture, gently aromatic, and so appetizing that it’s the first thing you should order on arrival, along with your initial beer.

While you’re at it, you should also ask for a selection of Tamayose’s zensai starters. A typical serving might include slices of chāshū pork and strands of crunchy mimigā (vinegared pig ear), along with some chilled eggplant, a scoop of the house potato salad and a cluster of shima-rakkyō (Okinawan shallots).

The plate is a microcosm of the chef’s influences: two cuts of pork, one a Chinese staple, the other an Okinawan specialty; a healthy serving of vegetables; and an izakaya pub standard. All prepared with a finesse better associated with Japanese mainland cuisine than the average Okinawan diner.

After arriving in Tokyo, Tamayose worked at a traditional kaiseki (Japanese multicourse) restaurant. He also spent three years studying shōjin ryōri (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) at a temple in Kamakura. Now he devotes part of his menu to a section he calls “Tama’s vegetable cuisine,” including salads and warm dishes, alongside that perennial favorite, Okinawan umi-budō (sea grape) seaweed.

Later he became head chef at an izakaya, and that is the style of dining that he espouses at Tama, albeit a genteel, soft-spoken version of the genre. The dishes are intended for sharing, and it’s worth exploring the depths of Tamayose’s repertoire.

Among the standouts are his simmered wonton, delicate packages of minced pork topped with a rich savory soy-based sauce, and kiramangin, a stir-fried dish of thick noodles that’s a specialty of his home island. Also look out for specials such as tempura chiragā (pork face skin), another island delicacy.

This, of course, is food to be paired with liquid refreshment. Chinese liquors and traditional Okinawan awamori would be the obvious avenue. But the beverages of choice for most people here are sours, especially mixed with shīkuwāsā, the Okinawan lime, or wine. Tama has hundreds of bottles to choose from, arrayed on shelves along its walls.

Back when Tama opened in 2007, it became one of Tokyo’s hot places to hang out, especially among minor celebrities and the well-heeled late-night dining set. These days the glitterati have moved on, but the food remains as excellent as ever, and its tables are just as in demand. Long may it run.

There is also a branch of Tama in Marunouchi, close to Tokyo Station, that is open daily for lunch and dinner (Bio Wine & Food Tama, Brick Square B1F, Marunouchi 2-6-1, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo 100-0005)

Starters from ¥350, chanpurū from ¥850, chōzume sausage ¥600, kiramangin noodles ¥900; smoking allowed by open kitchen; Japanese menu; a little English spoken

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