Friday 8 February 2019

Yakiniku Grilled Meat - The Second Most Popular Washoku

When you mention Japan one of the first things most people think of is the food; indeed, washoku (Japanese food) is one of the top draws for the skyrocketing numbers of foreign tourists visiting Japan, something which was given a boost by its addition to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2013. The latest Michelin Guide sees Tokyo as the city with the most - 230 - Michelin-starred restaurants (Paris, in contrast has only 113). In a nod to its popularity, this blog has covered a broad range of Japanese foods, from expensive wagyu (Japanese beef) - by far the most popular post to date with over 3,500 hits - to the humble rice-ball (onigiri) which rather amazingly gets its first mention in this year's Michelin Guide! Other foods covered include sweet potatoes, instant noodles, donburi, takoyaki (octopus balls), seven-herb rice-porridge, oden, sashimi, curry rice, grilled eel, bentō lunchboxes, sushi (twice!), gyūdon beef bowls - and too many others to mention. I hadn't realised that food has come to be such a dominant feature of "everyday life in Japan"!

While sushi remains the most popular food for Japanese, non-Japanese might be surprised that the second most popular food for natives - at least according to one NHK poll - is yakiniku (焼肉) or grilled meat (see here for the top 50 in mouth-watering pictures!). Yakiniku restaurants typically have a grill built into the table and you order thinly-sliced bite-sized pieces of unmarinated raw meat and vegetables and then cook it yourself. Menus contain a huge variety of different cuts and kinds of meat, offal, and various different vegetables (such as onions, green peppers, pumpkin, and shiitake mushrooms) which you can order little by little as you cook and eat. Although it is a fun communal eating experience, it is interesting to note that despite the image of Japan as groupist, the yakiniku experience is a very individual personalised one where you can cook the meat as you like and then choose from various sauces (tare) and condiments.

Although the term yakiniku was initially used to describe Western style barbecue, since the Showa period it has been heavily associated with and inspired by Korean cuisine such as bulgogi and indeed many yakiniku restaurants in Japan are Korean run (for a post explaining the history of Japan's Korean community see here). Recently we headed to our local yakiniku restaurant - with the Korean name Kochikaru (pictured) - to celebrate a birthday. Being a Korean restaurant, we were also able to order delicious kimchi (spicy cabbage) as well as bibimba (a Korean rice dish).

Yakiniku can be eaten at home, but is more commonly eaten out (known as gaishoku=外食), perhaps because of the smell and mess. Yakiniku restaurants are on the casual end of the restaurant spectrum but, unless you go for one of the "all-you-can-eat" time-limited places, they are not cheap - hence yakinuku is often reserved for a special occasion or celebration. One of the interesting features about yakiniku is that despite the cost you cook it yourself! This is actually fairly common in Japan, particularly for sukiyaki and other hotpot (nabe) style dishes but also (sometimes) for okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes). Te-maki (hand-rolled) sushi is another do-it-yourself example of Japanese cuisine, though this is usually eaten at home especially on Girl's Day (March 3rd). There is even a cook-it-yourself ramen place in Osaka! For some Westerners, the cook it yourself set-up can seem a little odd: this was captured nicely in the film Lost in Translation when the two main characters visit this shabu-shabu restaurant and Bill Murray humourously asks Scarlett Johansson, "What kind of restaurant makes you cook your own food?"