By Mari Nameshida / Special to The Japan NewsAn izakaya is a Japanese tavern — a place where you can drink and eat various small plates like in a Spanish tapas bar.
But there’s not quite any precisely accurate word for izakaya in English. They offer sushi or ramen, but not perfect examples of those dishes. The place is mainly for drinks, but is not as serious as an English pub. Most of their food is salty and spicy, and engineered to go especially well with beer or wine. An izakaya can be a very big restaurant or tiny cozy place like home. At a tiny place, people often come to enjoy talking to the owner-chef, as well as for the drinks and food.
Growing up in Japan, I never thought of izakaya as anything special. I thought they just threw together random menu items from sashimi salad to deep-fried food or desserts along with various kinds of drinks. So I sometimes preferred to go to specialized restaurants to eat sushi or noodles.
However, after I moved to the United States, I realized how special izakaya are, and how much I miss them. Are there any other places like izakaya in the world, where we can eat pickles, yakitori grilled chicken, pasta, fried potatoes and chocolate cake with beer at the same place?
In New York City, following the sushi and ramen booms, izakaya have been growing more popular for the past five years or so. Their menus have a Japanese spirit but use international ingredients, so the dishes are quite peculiar, such as kimchi cream udon, oxtail oden hot pot, lobster with miso butter, fried rice with duck confit, and, of course, California roll, just to name a few. The atmosphere of such places is usually modern and casual, but you can find authentic ones as well.
The menus vary depending on the restaurant, but if you go to an izakaya, you should know to order something pickled, something raw, and something simmered or deep-fried, thus achieving a variety similar to that of a bento boxed meal. Most traditional izakaya menu items are similar to home cooking, so I want to share two menu items that are easy to make at home today.
For the cucumber tataki salad, you should smash — which is what tataki means — the cucumber so the dressing can penetrate into each piece well. It’s so simple yet delicious! The tebasaki chicken dish, very famous in Nagoya, has a crisp outside with a sweet flavor and a savory glaze. This goes well with beer, but children love it too. Both dishes take less than 10 minutes to make. Enjoy your drinks with these dishes at home.
Mari’s recipes for izakaya menu items
Tebasaki chicken wings
Ingredients (serves 4):
12 chicken wings, about 600 grams
2½ tbsp soy sauce, 2½ tbsp mirin, 2½ tbsp sake, 2 tbsp sugar, sesame seeds (roasted)
1. Thinly coat the chicken wings with potato starch. Heat vegetable oil in a frying pan over medium heat and sear both sides until golden brown.
2. Combine all seasonings for the sauce in a pan and put it over medium heat. When the sugar dissolves, add the chicken wings and simmer to thicken the sauce. Turn the wings over to coat them with it.
3. Turn off the heat, sprinkle sesame seeds and toss to distribute evenly.
Cucumber tataki salad
Ingredients (serves 4):
3 Japanese cucumbers
1 tbsp rice vinegar, 1 tbsp sesame oil, ⅔ tbsp soy sauce, 1 tsp sugar, 10 grams ginger (cut into very thin strips), a pinch of salt
1. Cut off both ends of the cucumbers. Smash the vegetables with a rolling pin, then use a knife to cut them into bite-sized pieces.
2. Mix all the seasonings and cucumbers in a bowl and adjust to taste with salt. Keep well chilled in the refrigerator.
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