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Tabe-Aruki: Savoring Street Food in Japan

Photography By : Giovanni Tiné

Under the cold, bluish gray spring sky, I remember being pulled by my grandma’s warm big hands as a child, walking through a park lined with food vendors’ stalls. My grandparents grew their own vegetables, made soba noodles from scratch and lived sustainably, tending to their bonsai trees all while never wasting a thing. On occasions when all the grandchildren visited, we embarked on outings to get ready-made street food, where steam and smoke swirled through a bustle of noise and hungry people. It always felt like an adventure.

Kamaboko (fishcake) skewers.

Perhaps what is most fascinating about the Land of the Rising Sun is the juxtaposition of extreme tradition and innovation. The traditional washoku, defined as seasonal and sustainable Japanese food, is a registered UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. While the traditional form of Japanese cuisine can be the most exquisite form of artistry that requires time and attention to perfect the most minute detail, street food is fast and bold. Its position in Japanese food culture is just as important as the traditional, providing comfort, casualness and an occasion for socializing.

Girls in kimonos with choco-bananas.

The origin of current street foods can be traced to the Edo era (circa 1715) when food vendors either carried portable booths or set up pop-ups around town to cook fresh food on the spot to feed workers. Sitting down for a bite is one way to enjoy it, but tabe-aruki (literally, eating while walking) is also a favored pastime, trying different bites while strolling along areas that offer a variety of foods.

 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, entering Japan continues to be highly restrictive, but here are some classic and trending street food options to look forward to when you can visit the streets of Tokyo. Some of these items are easily available in the U.S. at Japanese supermarkets, food courts and Japanese cultural festivals, so I highly recommend giving them a bite.

Karaage, fried chicken thigh.

Karaage
Japanese fried chicken, this is a classic national favorite for all ages. It’s usually made with pieces of chicken thigh marinated in ginger, garlic, soy sauce, sake and a pinch of sugar, coated with flour and/or potato starch. The crispy outer coating and the tender juiciness of the chicken and the burst of umami are a simple perfection that never goes out of fashion.

 

Takoyaki
Literally “grilled octopus,” takoyaki originated in Osaka in west Japan. Takoyaki is made with flour batter that is poured into a half-sphere mold along with cabbage, octopus, red pickled ginger and scallions and twisted around to form a ball. Watching the grilling process while the batch is rapidly flipped and twisted to create the round shape is pure entertainment. Takoyaki are then drizzled with a sweet and savory Worcestershire-like sauce with a generous amount of katsuobushi (bonito flakes) and mayonnaise. The end result is a piping-hot crunchy ball with a creamy inner texture. Takoyaki boasts a harmony of seafood flavors, rich texture and pickled ginger that tickles the palate.

Yakitori, grilled chicken skewers (liver, hearts, thighs, scallions, and gizzards)
Vendors replenish platters all day long

Yakitori
Grilled chicken on skewers, yakitori is the king of street foods. Whether it’s from a brick-and-mortar establishment or a pop-up cart, yakitori is a casual delight to enjoy with sake or an ice-cold beer after a long day of work. Most parts of the chicken are available to eat, from chicken thighs and breasts, to hearts, livers and gizzards. There are places that serve lesser-known parts such as the pope’s nose, duodenum, stomach lining and ovaries but it also can come down to what the chef wants to share. Meats are typically seasoned with salt or tare (a soy sauce-based sauce containing sugar and other flavorings of choice). Shichimi Tōgarashi (seven spices) is usually on the table to sprinkle on top, to brighten up the richness of the fat and proteins. In short, yakitori is a fast food that’s also a great source of protein and good times.

Melonpan with whipped cream.

Melonpan with Whipped Cream
A sweet Japanese bread that was created in the 1930s, melonpan is said to have been either modeled after the Mexican concha bread that came to Japan via America, or a combination of a French galette and a traditional Russian bread. Either way, this classic has re-emerged in the spotlight, dressed up with whipped cream, wonderfully sweet and light as ever.

Former fish market central shopping area, Tsukiji, Tokyo
Grilled octopus tentacles skewer.
Onigiri, Japanese rice balls.

Onigiri
If a pizza is up to one’s own imagination, so is the onigiri. This simple seaweed-wrapped rice ball, with a chosen ingredient in the center, is the staple of Japan. What’s inside the ball is usually written on the package of the premade kind, but it’s also easy to handmake many of them, in which case it’s fun to guess what’s inside.

Motsuni don, a hearty rice bowl with miso-stewed innards.

Motsuni Don
A rice bowl with miso-stewed innards of cows, pigs and chickens with scallions. It’s a hearty, deeply flavorful and filling meal that’s perfect for an energy boost.

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