From the impressive number of stars garnered by restaurants in Tokyo to heads of state visiting the establishments of famed sushi masters, the high end of the Japanese culinary scene gets plenty of attention worldwide. But eating out in Japan doesn’t mean you have to break the bank all the time, and sticking to a budget doesn’t entail only going to fast-food restaurants. Enter B-kyu gurume (B-class gourmet cuisine) hearty, reasonably priced and down-to-earth dishes, often with strong regional associations.
Hearty, homey cuisine beloved by ordinary folk has been around for a long time of course, but the actual term B-kyu gurume was first coined in the mid-1980s. It’s important to note that although “gurume” is the Japanese version of “gourmet,” it doesn’t mean a person who enjoys food; it refers to a type of cuisine. The Japanese economy was booming and dining out at restaurants that used expensive ingredients and charged high prices was very much the “in” thing to do.
The trendy set considered spending less than ¥10,000 per person at a restaurant rather declasse. Some people rebelled against this though, arguing there was plenty of good food to be had that didn’t cost the earth.
But B-kyu gurume didn’t really take off until the 1990s, after the bubble economy burst and a mood of austerity swept away the party mood of the 1980s. Magazines and newspapers that had previously featured articles about expensive restaurants devoted their pages to mom-and-pop restaurants that served filling, homey food.
A dish that typified B-kyu gurume early on was motsunabe, a hotpot made with cow or pig offal, using leeks, garlic, chili peppers and other seasoning to offset the gaminess. A popular local dish in and around the cities of Fukuoka (especially in Hakata Ward) and Shimonoseki in southern Japan, it uses inexpensive ingredients cooked with care and served in hearty portions both defining features of B-kyu gurume. Before the early ’90s, motsunabe was virtually unknown outside of its local region, but in the post-bubble economy period several restaurants serving Hakata-style motsunabe popped up in Tokyo. It was quickly championed as a dish that defined the zeitgeist, and “motsunabe” was even selected as one of top three new and trendy words of 1992.
As the sluggish economy dragged on, the popularity of B-kyu gurume continued to grow. A popular TV show of the 1990s was Iron Chef, which was later featured on American television. The program featured chefs from top-end restaurants as contestants battling the Iron Chef regulars, often using expensive ingredients such as foie gras and caviar in abundance in an over-the-top arena labeled Kitchen Stadium. This was haute cuisine as fantasy; for most people, the days of enjoying lavish meals were long over. In the meantime, the rest of the TV schedule was filled with stories about no-frills mom and pop eateries that were beloved by local residents.
Certain types of food came to define B-kyu gurume. One was ramen, the hearty bowl of hot soup and noodles that has its roots in the noodle soups brought over by Chinese immigrants in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Up until the 1970s or so, ramen was known for being cheap and filling tasty, but not much more.
Ramen was usually classified into three types, depending on the type of sauce added to the soup: miso, soy sauce or salt the last meaning it had no sauce added, just seasoning. But in the ’80s and ’90s, the humble bowl of soup and noodles was given a whole new level of respect and attention. Regional variations in ramen became important, even worth traveling to the region in question to partake in the “real thing.” For instance tonkotsu ramen, which uses a thick, almost creamy broth made with pork bones (tonkotsu) and other ingredients, was virtually unknown outside of Fukuoka, Kumamoto and other cities on the southern island of Kyushu.
After being “discovered” by Tokyo-based food critics and others, it became wildly popular nationally. Comparing the merits of regional varieties such as miso ramen from Sapporo; milky white chicken soup ramen from Kyoto; hearty soy sauce-based ramen from Yokohama and more became important talking points for enthusiasts. “Gourmet” ramen continues to be very popular all over Japan, and is making inroads internationally, too.
In the late ’90s, the concept of B-kyu gurume got a new twist, inspired at least in part by the popularity of regional ramen, in the form of gotochi (local, or regional) B-kyu gurume using inexpensive local dishes to lure visitors.
One of the most notable examples of gotochi B-kyu gurume is Fujinomiya yakisoba, pan-fried noodles from Fujinomiya, a small city in Shizuoka Prefecture. Locals had been making a version of yakisoba (which is a variation of the lo mein brought in by Chinese immigrants) using thick, chewy steamed noodles, tenkasu (deep fried batter bits that are left after making tempura), topped with katsuobushi (bonito flakes) and dried mackerel or herring powder.
In the late 1990s, a group of local residents decided to try to use this yakisoba to attract visitors and boost the local economy. They gave it a proper name and promoted it heavily, with great success. Fujinomiya yakisoba won the top prize at the inaugural B-1 Grand Prix, a contest set up to help promote gotochi B-kyu gurume, and other regional towns scrambled to follow their example. Authenticity is just as important for advocates of gotochi B-kyu gurume dishes as it is for those involved in high-end traditional cuisine; the Fujinomiya Yakisoba Society lists 12 requirements for “real” Fujinomiya yakisoba, including the use of spring water from Mount Fuji.
In recent years, there’s been a small backlash against the concept of gotochi B-kyu gurume. The main objection by detractors is that contests such as the B-1 Grand Prix encouraged regional organizations to invent new dishes and label them as “local,” even though the original concept was to highlight and promote dishes that were already well established. The B-1 Grand Prix organization itself distances itself from the “B-kyu” aspect these days, saying they promote regional cuisine of any kind, and locals in some regions insist that their much beloved regional dishes are not “B-kyu.”
For visitors, though, the prevalence of gotochi B-kyu gurume is great news, since it makes it possible to sample regional specialities easily. Besides ramen, you may already know fare such as okonomiyaki (savory pancakes), takoyaki (octopus balls) and kushikatsu (grilled meat on skewers) from Osaka, a city known for its hearty, down to earth cuisine.
Regional varieties of yakisoba have grown in popularity in the post-Fujinomiya period, as have similar variations on the ever-popular curry with rice. Some local dishes only qualify as B-kyu inexpensive and abundant dishes in their regions because the ingredients don’t travel well, such as the raw shirasu (whitebait) from Enoshima in Kanagawa Prefecture and Awajishima in Hyogo Prefecture. Even something as mundane as a hamburger becomes special and affordable, too when it’s made with locally produced beef, such as that from Matsusaka, Mie Prefecture, famed for its eponymous wagyu beef.
Tokyo itself has its own gotochi B-kyu gurume fare such as monjayaki, a savory pancake that’s akin to okonomiyaki but looser and flatter, and Fukagawa meshi, freshwater clams and miso broth served over rice that’s been popular since Tokyo was called Edo. But it’s also a great place to sample B-kyu gurume from all regions, especially if you don’t have the time to travel.
The best places to find hearty, reasonably priced B-kyu gurume is in small izakaya (pubs) and restaurants, many of which are to be found down little alleyways that hide in the shadows of high rise buildings a world apart from the image of Tokyo as a cool, modern metropolis. The easiest way to find the best ones? Just look for the places with lines stretching outside.
These days, expensive restaurants are as popular as they were in the go-go ’80s, but B-kyu gurume is just as popular, too. While kaiseki (traditional multicourse meal) and other high-end cuisine represent the refined pinnacle of cooking in Japan, B-kyu gurume is a reflection of the soul of its people.
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