If I ate “fish and chips” every time a non-British person said those words to me when discussing British food, my arteries would be clogged and my heart would have given out long ago. Alternately, if I got one British pound every time someone gave me a scornful look on learning I am a food writer and British, I would be very rich.
While British cuisine is notorious for being dreadful — a reputation that is not entirely undeserved — critics have missed, or chosen to stubbornly ignore, the culture’s glorious culinary renaissance. Over the past couple of decades, the country has spawned countless celebrity chefs; “The Great British Bake Off” is now in its 11th season; and farmers and street food markets have boomed (pre-pandemic at least).
Trend-conscious Tokyo has finally caught scent of this delicious food culture.
“(Customer perceptions) have definitely changed,” says Ian Gibbins, owner of British food shop Swan & Lion, which he first launched at farmers markets in 2013 and now operates from a brick-and-mortar store in Kudanminami. “At first, I had to bite my tongue as people would come by and say, ‘British food? Oh, it tastes bad!’ but I never hear that anymore.”
According to Gibbins, the annual Mitsukoshi British Fair, where he exhibits pies, chutneys and cakes, is now the department store’s most popular themed event. Department stores in Osaka and Nagoya have also launched similar events, and international supermarket Seijo Ishii began stocking crumpets from September 2019, sparking online guides in Japanese on how to eat them most deliciously.
More broadly, British food businesses are on the rise in Tokyo. Below are some of the latest openings to give you a taste of good ol’ British grub.
Enchanted by London’s burgeoning street food culture, Yoko and Kitz Hasegawa tried a haggis toastie at Broadway Market that was so delicious, they absolutely had to bring it to Japan.
The couple reached out to Deeney’s Scottish founder, Carol Deeney, on Facebook to ask her permission to launch a franchise in Tokyo. Initially, she was flummoxed as to how her fledgling business, with its mission to spread haggis appreciation in London, could have won her international fans. But conversations continued, and Yoko and Kitz zoomed back to London to spend a month training to perfect their toastie technique
Beginning in 2017, the two ran a Deeney’s food truck, eventually opening a permanent storefront in Jingumae to coincide with the start of the (subsequently postponed) Olympics.
Their toasties are made with buttery bread, pushed down with cast irons on the griddle to crispy perfection. The classic Macbeth (¥1,080), stuffed with haggis they make themselves due to import restrictions, oozes with cheese; there are even vegetarian and vegan versions. But it’s the Robert the Bruce (¥930) — a chicken toastie stuffed with mozzarella, tomato chutney, rocket greens and whisky-mustard mayonnaise — that reigns supreme.
Open from 9 a.m., Deeney’s also offers a breakfast menu until 11 a.m. that includes porridge (naturally) and a punchy flat white made with Allpress beans for that perfect morning kick.
Thomas & Green
“When we came to Japan in 2008, we brought British food culture with us. Food has become an important part of our weekly family ritual,” says founder Adrian Jones.
Over the years, he and his family craved home comforts, particularly quality and artisanal produce unavailable in Tokyo, giving birth to the idea for an online store. After much product research, and a quest to find a team of specialist buyers, the next issue was logistics.
“If you’ve ever sent anything from the U.K., you’ll know that for anything over 2 kilograms, the price goes up logarithmically,” Jones says. To avoid this, he managed to establish a system in which the customs paperwork is incorporated directly into the order, ultimately reducing the shipping costs and expediting the delivery.
The store stocks all kinds of goods, ranging from spicy mango chutney and horseradish sauce to oat biscuits, raspberry and gin cake, and more. While high-quality goods from small, artisanal producers are the focus, Jones has added an Essentials section where you can also get Kallo stock pots and that ever-divisive spread, Marmite.
The Hole in the Wall
From the classic store sign and hanging flower baskets outside, to the chalkboards of daily specials, The Hole in the Wall could almost be mistaken for a real English pub (the air conditioning is always a giveaway).
It was launched in Nishiogikubo by Irish/English-Japanese couple David and Maki Carmichael in April 2019. “We were looking for a suitable location for about two years, so I had time to think about recipes,” says Maki, who does the incredible variety of cooking single-handedly. “And David is a very good taster for me. But he left England 30 years ago, so his tastes are quite traditional.”
The shortcrust pies have an impressive range of fillings, from beef and Guinness to pork and apricot, and come served with a variety of side salads at lunch; the cinnamon-spiked beetroot is so good, it almost steals the show. The sausage roll, too, rivals some of the finest-quality versions found in the U.K. The menu also includes classics such as bangers and mash and cottage pie, and one particularly good special is a rich and creamy broccoli, cauliflower and potato soup with optional blue cheese, plus a side of Irish soda bread.
A newer arrival to Tokyo’s British food scene, Mash Bros opened in Okubo in March 2020 as the brainchild of Saad Dossary, a half-Saudi, half-British, self-confessed otaku from Nottingham, and his childhood friend, who goes by Medo Matsuura.
The menu consists mainly of flaky puff-pastry square pies stuffed with luscious amounts of filling. There are classics such as chicken and mushroom, beef or a vegetarian ratatouille option. Thanks to a suggestion by Dossary’s friend, there is even a chilli con carne pie. Dossary — who has worked as a chef in Hokkaido and in a Middle Eastern restaurant — rose to the challenge, loading it with an abundance of jalapeno slices for extra kick.
The mash is beautifully smooth — the garlic butter topping is essential, along with the thick homemade parsley sauce. The sausage roll, topped with sesame and enhanced with a touch of fennel, is excellent (“I know how to make it how I like it,” Dossary says). The day I stopped by, he had even found himself with a spare hour to casually whip up a genre-defining Victoria sponge.
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