One of the most characteristic dishes of the capital of Japan: a bit of history, how to eat, where you can find it.
Defining what exactly Monjayaki (もんじゃ焼き) is, using gastronomic terms that refer to western culture, it’s a real challenge. Although it has a batter base, to which is added an almost infinite variety of ingredients, this dish is neither a crepe nor a pancake.
Particularly loved by the inhabitants of Tokyo, it is a very close relative of the most famous okonomiyaki (お好み焼き, a robust salty pancake typical of the Kansai region).
Born as a snack for children in the 19th century (the batter was sometimes also mixed with honey and was prepared in sweets shops), it turned into a sort of “poor man’s food” in the first post-war era.
During this hard period the poorest families used soft wheat flour, elongated with water or dashi (in japanese 出汁 or だし, the fish broth, btw nowadays the worchester sauce is more popular), to create a melted batter which then became the characteristic base of this recipe.
This soggy substratum was often strenghten with the addition of various ingredients: mainly vegetables and, if necessary, yakisoba (焼きそば, grilled buckwheat noodles), cheese, mentaiko (明太子, spicy pollock roe), cuttlefish, minced pork, shrimp and others depending on the availability.
Unlike the okonomiyaki, the monjayaki is prepared differently. The additional ingredients are in fact all unevenly distributed, and combined with the semi-liquid compound. In the okonomiyaki, instead, all the ingredients are first of all mixed and then cooked on the grillplate.
The more liquid consistency of the monjayaki base means that the final product is less showy than the okonomiyaki. It looks like a sort of flattened pizza with mixed ingredients. Despite the appearence, the taste of this dish can be truly exceptional. There are a vast choice of combinations that are on offer at restaurants specialized in “monja” (as Japanese people call this dish in their everyday language), allowing endless variations on the theme.
In Tokyo, the highest concentration of monjayaki restaurants is in Tsukishima. In this island-district, created in 1892 from the accumulation of the excaved earth derived from the construction of a navigable canal in the bay, there is a road known as monja street (in Japanese monjayaki no machi, Tōkyō, Chuo City, Tsukishima 1-9).
Here, a string of venues serve with some significant variations, the same specialty. At lunchtime becomes very crowded: many Edokkos (people of Tokyo) come at this happy oasis surrounded by skyscrapers, to enjoy a bit of tranquility and one of symbol of their culinary tradition.
Usually the monjayaki is prepared by the diners themself, to whom the restaurants provide spatulas (indispensable for the correct preparation of the dish), the teppan (grillplate at the center of the tables) and the moji-bera (もじベラ).
This characteristic “cutlery” or mini spatula, is used to eat the monja (using chopsticks is not really practical), have an interesting history. The term moji-bera derives from the union of the terms moji (character) and bera (spatula). The etymological origin of the term dates back to the post-war period. At that time the students who did not have enaugh money to buy paper and pens, practiced writing by placing on the hot grillplate a mixture of water and flour which formed the various kanji learnt in school. Hence the term for these graceful spatulas.
Returning to the monjayaki, in its preparation “kit” there is also usually a shredded nori (to add further flavor) and a plate for the okoge (おこげ, the toasted remains of the monja) are “recycled” as a tasty appetizer for beer and sake.
The monjayaki has its own rituals. After choosing the combination of ingredients, the waiter brings the diners a bowl where two layers are displayed: above the solid “elements” and under the elongated batter. The “hard” ingredients are then separated from the batter and placed on the plate while with the spatulas are finely chopped and arranged in a circle, leaving a sort of crater in the center.
When the ingredients begin to take on an amber color and the vegetables begin to wither, the batter is poured into the middle. Once the liquid mixture begins to coagulate, everything is stirred again, chopped and spread with the spatulas to form a sort of fine multi-flavor pizza. When lifting with the spatula, you can check that the lower part of the compound has reached the right burnishing, it is time to pass to the moji-bera. By pressing these small spatulas on the edges of the monja, part of it will adhere on the surface of moji-bera. Rotate the cultlery, detach a piece and just put that succulent morsel in your mouth.
To those wishing to add a new culinary trophy to their belts, we certainly suggest a stop in Tsukishima, which is a must not only to taste the Monja, but also to visit this characteristic area, a sort of town apart in the city with an incredible relaxed and peaceful atmosphere. This area is easily accessible by urban transport, in fact the Tsukushima station is on the island, served by the Toei Oedo Line and the Yuurakuchoo line. All the monjaya in the area offer menus that vary from 9 to 16 dollars for lunch and 16 to 26 dollars for dinner, this is the minimum amount that you are going to have to pay, more or less, to say you have eaten like a real Edokko.
Kondō (近どう 本店, 3 Chome-12-10 Tsukishima, Chuo City, Tokyo 104-0052, Japan) is the oldest monjaya of Tsukishima. Opened in 1950, it offers perhaps the largest combination of monja ingredients from all over Japan. As in almost all the places that serve this dish, the foreigners or gaijin are instructed in their first approach with the Monja by the kind waiters who will be happy to show you the technique to enable you to cook the dish properly. Each table is furnished with the typical teppayaki and a meal that includes a rich Monja bowl accompanied by a beer, will set you back between 1000 and 2000 yen for lunch and 2000/3000 yen for dinner.
Also Iroha, better known as Iroha Nishinaka (もんじゃいろは 西仲店 3 Chome-8-8-10 Tsukishima, Chuo City, Tokyo 104-0052, Japan), is an institution for the monja and it has also set up a chain of monjaya. The “mother house” is obviously located in Tsukishima and was opened in 1955. There is not too much to say about this place and the genuineness of this restaurant is demonstrated by the line of gourmet-clients who punctually run long lines at lunch and dinner time, to find a table and enjoy a monja like the way it should be. Here too, the prices are between 1000 and 2000 yen for lunch and 2000/3000 yen for dinner (all the restaurants in the area have more or less the same prices as long as you don’t start tapering off). An experience strong advisable, considering that you’ll have the opportunity to say that you have eaten in one of the most characteristic inn in Tokyo.
This dish is also very popular in the region of Saitama, in the eastern part of Gunma territory and in the southern part of the Tochigi prefecture. In Tokyo, in addition to Tsukishima, several restaurants specializing in monja are located in the area of Asakusa.
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One of the most characteristic dishes of the capital of Japan: a bit of history, how to eat, where you can find it. Defining what exactly Monjayaki (もんじゃ焼き) is, using gastronomic terms that refer to western culture, it’s a real challenge. Although it has a batter base, to which is added an almost infinite variety of ingredients, this dish is neither a crepe nor a pancake.