While Sushi remains a number one favorite Japanese food, and deservedly so, it has become so well-known around the world that you hardly need to visit Japan to try it. How would you like to try a Japanese cultural food that is both popular in Japan yet localized and rare? You really need to have the fun of trying Monjayaki!
As monjayaki has become more popular, you can perhaps find it in various places around Japan that also serve the more famously-known okonomiyaki. But if you really want to enjoy it in its original old-time atmosphere, you should come to my neighboring island in Tokyo Bay, Tsukishima (Moon Island).
Tukishima is a man-made island within walking distance of Ginza. It was completed in 1892. One great thing about Tsukishima is that it is very close to St. Luke’s hospital, and as a result survived unscathed from bombing during WWII, keeping many pre-war buildings intact. Walking around the island, go to the blocks behind the large newer buildings and you can still see neighborhoods where you could shake hands from the window with your neighbor across the “street.”
You can get to Tsukishima on the Yurakucho subway line. Exiting the subway, go behind the large business road and you will find a more narrow street with old buildings called Monja Dori. This is the home of monjayaki and there are many small restaurants there to try it.
Monjayaki is made from a fine batter that will look familiar to anyone who has tried okonomiyaki. If you haven’t, then think of a very runny pancake batter and you’ll be close. However, like okonomiyaki, you add ingredients that you’ve never put in your pancakes. Forget the chocolate chips and blueberries. In these dishes you add chopped up cabbage, octopus, bacon, and a seemingly endless variety of other ingredients that you order a la carte.
The thing that makes monja different from okonomiyaki is that the batter is more watery due to a broth base called dashi, a soup base usually made from fish and the base of most miso soup you’ve had. This soupy batter is actually also the base of the fun of eating monjayaki.
The restaurants in Tsukishima are very small. Usually only 2 to 4 groups can fit in. You and your friends (monjayaki simply has to be eaten with friends), sit around a table that is mostly made up of a hot griddle. I enjoy it most in the winter, but you can enjoy it in the heat of August, with lots of sweating and laughter, as long as there is also lots of your favorite beverage! Somehow, the main point is the talking and laughter anyway!
When the batter and ingredients are delivered to you, pour it onto the griddle. It spreads all over the place and you add your ingredients. Everyone at the table gets a small spatula. You cook it all together, each one mixing it as they choose.
Oh, why did I say this was intellectual as well as fun? One restaurant owner shared the oral tradition to my group that students often came to eat and practice kanji, drawing the characters in the cooking batter and seeing who could make the best ones. So the name comes from the Japanese word for “character,” “mon.” You really need to try that method for improving your Japanese!
As it cooks, it takes on the consistency of cooked melted cheese. Most people agree that the crispy parts are the best. Each of you decide what you want to eat and when, because you use your own small spatula to serve yourself. It really tastes great, and somehow, the old street, the old buildings and the history combine with the fun you’re having with friends to all become part of the taste!
I give Monja, ⭐⭐⭐ ⭐⭐ ( 5 stars)! I’d say that if you are in Tokyo and have the chance, this is an absolutely must try. If you want to show off your kanji (or even your hiragana is okay!), have fun with friends and try a great food, come to Tsukishima’s Monja Dori and try Monjayaki. Oh, and you can invite me too!
Images provided by Donald Love.
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Has more than 10 years of experience in Japan!