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Sometimes it feels like Japan’s food trends turn on a dime.

For several years, bubble tea chains reigned supreme, with lines stretching around the block, until they were already passe. Korean-style cheese dogs had their moment. Earlier this year, it seemed that pulled pork would finally get its due. The pandemic, of course, threw all predictions into chaos, leading to a surge in takeout options, even from some of the capital’s most exclusive restaurants. In many kitchens, rice cookers and bread makers were harnessed to push the bounds of home cooking.

Even as we think back on 2020, eyes (and stomachs) are already turning toward what culinary delights 2021 might have to offer. Five of The Japan Times’ food-minded critics share the dining trends they’d like to see the country embrace (spoiler alert: seating en plein air is a must).

Sustainable mindset: If you pickle extra produce in red wine, vinegar and mustard seed, it will keep for up to three months in the fridge. | CHIARA TERZUOLO
Sustainable mindset: If you pickle extra produce in red wine, vinegar and mustard seed, it will keep for up to three months in the fridge. | CHIARA TERZUOLO

Hyperlocal focus

Crusty sourdough loaves. Carefully monitored cheese curds. Pickled and preserved produce harvested from spontaneous urban microgardens. 2020 has prompted a pivot to the comfort that can be found in culinary DIY that warms my heart, even if it did lead to a run on flour and other baking necessities.

Of course, there’s a far more practical undercurrent to the influx of made-it-myself food. From milk and crops going to waste without restaurants, bars and even schools able to purchase stock, to Japan’s record-low food self-sufficiency rate, COVID-19 has revealed just how unstable our food infrastructure is, and why it’s often crucial to buy close to home or make previously purchased goods, like bread or condiments, yourself when they can’t be found on the store shelf.

My hope for 2021 is that both households and commercial restaurants actively center Japan’s wealth of regional produce in meals. Whether that’s consciously buying from the vending machines of the urban farms tucked in every neighborhood; having restaurant menus promote the exact provenance of dish ingredients; making your own miso or potato salad; or big-box supermarkets moving away from the strictly enforced homogeneity of what’s available in their produce sections, there’s a lot that can be done to make the country’s food landscape something sustainable, satisfying and worthy of your next big kitchen experiment. — Claire Williamson

 

Towards a plastic-free 2021: COVID-19 has prompted a resurgence in single-use packaging, but Japan should promote reusable containers and ditch plastic utensils instead. | GETTY IMAGES
Towards a plastic-free 2021: COVID-19 has prompted a resurgence in single-use packaging, but Japan should promote reusable containers and ditch plastic utensils instead. | GETTY IMAGES

 

Ditch single-use plastic

2020 was the year single-use plastic made a tremendous resurgence. As indoor dining rates plummeted in early spring, many restaurants began offering takeout options in a bid to keep their businesses alive — fantastic news for those of us who have long hoped for takeaway culture to find a real foothold in Japan, but at great cost to the environment, generating vast volumes of plastic containers and cutlery.

When it comes to eating out, I’d love to see more integration of zero-waste ideas and practices at the individual and business level. For example, coffee shops could actively encourage people to bring their own tumblers or travel mugs, perhaps offering a small discount as further incentive. Even asking whether they’d like a mug instead of a plastic cup would make such a difference.

Cafes and restaurants relying on single-use plastic for in-store dining could also pivot to encouraging people to use “real” cutlery. When packaging leftovers or takeout meals, it would be easy for restaurant staff to check in with customers on whether they’ll actually need the plastic utensils. Even better, I’d love for 2021 to be the year it becomes widely acceptable for consumers to take extra food home in their own reusable containers — to say nothing of how more places could stand to take more stringent approaches to reducing food waste and making the most of their ingredients.

Most of all, I would love for supermarkets to stop smothering their fruits and vegetables in plastic. — Florentyna Leow

 

Outdoor eats: Diners crowd around Telas&Mico, a yatai (street stall) in Fukuoka. | OSCAR BOYD
Outdoor eats: Diners crowd around Telas&Mico, a yatai (street stall) in Fukuoka. | OSCAR BOYD

 

Expand outdoor dining

Japan’s climate isn’t predisposed to outdoor dining: It has a cold winter, a rainy season and a summer so humid food can go moldy before it’s even plated. But if there’s two things that the pandemic has taught us, it’s that not only do we need more outdoor dining for health reasons, but people are willing to go through just about anything for a good meal.

Throughout the pandemic, only at the very height of the stay-at-home request did popular restaurants truly empty. Even as cases tick upward, restaurants that check all the sanmitsu (“Three Cs”) precautions are packed with people.

Outdoor dining is what Japan needs, and what I’d love to see it embrace in 2021. Not only do open-fronted restaurants, bars and cafes provide more pandemic-friendly arenas for eating, but the humdrum of people trickling out of a restaurant into the streets, the clatter of cutlery and crockery that accompanies regular service, and maybe even a note of music or two, all help give places a sense of life and community. Imagine returning to a world, blood vessels filled with Pfizer-induced antibodies, where happy diners can pack open-air restaurants, guilt-free.

There were some signs of hope earlier this year when the Tokyo Metropolitan Government allowed restaurants more freedom to seat people on sidewalks. This is to be absolutely encouraged. And it’s not like outdoor dining has no precedent in Japan. Think of the yatai of Fukuoka, which operate year-round in all but the worst typhoon conditions. Outdoor dining can be done, and if it’s done well, it’ll make for an even more vibrant food scene in this most foody of nations. — Oscar Boyd

Stay home, stay well fed: An example of Los Tacos Azules’ take-out “survival taco kit,” available for purchase online. | COURTESY OF LOS TACOS AZULES
Stay home, stay well fed: An example of Los Tacos Azules’ take-out “survival taco kit,” available for purchase online. | COURTESY OF LOS TACOS AZULES

 

Takeout taking off

It’s been a bleak year for the restaurant industry on every level. Owners, chefs, food producers and suppliers have all felt the pinch, and too many have been squeezed out of business altogether. To survive, they’ve been forced to retool and rethink their business models, often adding takeout and food delivery to their arsenal for the first time.

And therein lies the silver lining, at least for the customers. From highest-end Michelin-quality dining — thank you Restaurant Narisawa et al — all the way down to the proliferation of curry or mābōdōfu styles available via Uber Eats, we’ve been able to eat better than ever before without leaving the comfort and safety of our own kitchen.

Can noodles ever be as good when prepared at home? If you’re ordering one of the creative, limited-edition iterations of ramen from chef Naohito Kuroki they won’t be far off. Who would ever want to return to the one-hour wait outside his shop, Motenashi Kuroki?

Another positive: small independent companies expanding into niche areas of food production. A great example is the excellent Punk Doily, a specialist bakery offering quality Antipodean-style pies, both savory and sweet, as well as cakes and cookies. The weekend-only shop is hidden away in residential Setagaya Ward, but its website reaches all of Greater Tokyo.

Does the continuing pandemic spell the end of fine-dining restaurants and ramen queues? Will we be stuck only ordering online? Hopefully not, but if it means we can support our favorite restaurants and still stay safe, there will be few complaints if it’s more of the same next year. — Robbie Swinnerton

Open for business: A gently lit lantern greets visitors at the entrance to one of Toranomon Yokocho’s alleyways. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Open for business: A gently lit lantern greets visitors at the entrance to one of Toranomon Yokocho’s alleyways. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Street food hubs

In London, I once popped out for a quick burger from a food truck and made direct eye contact with the queen. Her car was slowly turning around the corner where I stood, gawping, ketchup smeared under my fingernails.

Royal encounters aside, there is something about eating street food that feels more exhilarating and brings a sense of democratization to dining. This is where Tokyo lets us down: The city sorely lacks street food and places to consume it.

Yet, this year has — ironically — brought an exciting shake-up to the dining scene. Taking post-war alleyways as inspiration, neo-yokochō have sprung up in swanky new developments — Toranomon Yokocho in Toranomon Hills and Shibuya-Yokocho in Miyashita Park are but two examples. These “dining alleyways” are designed to encourage people to nibble and graze, hopping between narrow restaurants. Though sporting a casual vibe, they are not always cheap and require a dining group to commit to one cuisine at a time.

But what if Tokyo was home to semi-covered food halls where people could grab whatever they fancied and sit where they liked? Or street food markets featuring different trucks each week? These would foster new culinary discoveries, alongside a spontaneous social encounter or two. Popular stalls might even evolve into permanent restaurants. This dining diversity would serve to enrich Tokyo’s foodscape, and if I ever bump into the emperor, I will be sure to let him know. — Phoebe Amoroso

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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