Japanese Soul Food in London

Two weeks from today, my cookbook, Nanban: Japanese Soul Food will be released. Needless to say, I am exceptionally excited. The book looks beautiful thanks to the photography by Paul Winch-Furness and the design by Charlotte Heal, not to mention the careful attention of my editors at Square Peg.

Nanban, of course, is the name of my intermittent and itinerant pop-up, and it means ‘southern barbarian,’ an epithet used by the Japanese for Europeans when they first arrived in the 16th century. Why ‘southern’? Because they had arrived in the south of Japan, at the island of Kyushu, having travelled via the South China Seas, so the Japanese simply assumed that’s where they were from. Nobody uses this term to describe people anymore (that would be rude), but it is used to describe certain dishes with their origins in European cookery, like chicken nanban and nanban-zuke. And why ‘barbarian’? Because the Europeans were barbaric, of course.

I chose the word nanban because I wanted to focus on the world of Japanese dishes that have their origins in non-Japanese cultures, and because I wanted to mainly feature food from the south of Japan, specifically Kyushu and Okinawa. I chose the tagline ‘Japanese soul food’ for a similar reason, referencing the soul food of the American south. I use it to describe a sort of hearty, flavorful, rough-around-the-edges, and casual Japanese cookery that I fell in love with when I studied Japanese cuisine as a young man.

To get an idea of what sort of food I’m talking about, pop into any of the restaurants below. They’re all different (one of the main points I hope my book makes is how diverse Japanese food is), but they all have a similar cheap-and-cheerful, elbows-on-the-table vibe.

This long-running residency at Pacific Social Club specialises in Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, which is essentially a mad jumble of cabbage and noodles with a customisable selection of ingredients, fried on a teppan, and topped with a thin pancake, tangy sauce, and Kewpee mayo. It’s a meal in itself, but if you go, don’t miss the delicious smaller plates as well. The spicy tuna tartare and rthe pork belly with spring onion are a couple of my favourites.

Asakusa is a proper izakaya, a place to stay and drink (and eat). The menu is long, though I’ve never had a dud dish there. The sushi is excellent and affordable, as is the fried chicken, steak, and dengaku aubergine. But the real special stuff is on the specials board; look there for things like monkfish liver with ponzu and squid tentacle karaage. They also have a very good value sake and shochu menu.

Tonkotsu East
I get asked which London ramen shop is my favorite a lot, and my answer is always the same: it doesn’t matter which my favorite is. You have to find the one that you like best – that’s what ramen’s all about. And I love too many to recommend just one, anyway. Having said that, my favorite single bowl in London is the tsukemen (dipping ramen) at the Haggerston branch of Tonkotsu. The broth has an incredibly deep and meaty flavor, almost like grilled onions and fatty beef. And it’s a great space, too. The massive noodle machine at the back is particularly impressive.

Sushi Waka
Sushi Waka has a menu like that at Asakusa: a little of this, a little of that, with a few unexpected oddities if you read the menu carefully. They are the only restaurant in London that I know of serving chicken nanban and shiokara – fermented squid guts. If you go, ask for a table in the upstairs tatami room for a very Japanese experience.

You’d probably never find Toconoco if you weren’t looking for it, so go look for it. Tucked away in a canalside residential area in Haggerston, they specialise in teishoku (set lunches) that include rice, miso soup, a little salad or dish of pickles, and a hearty main could be a bowl of udon, a plate of curry, or a dish of meaty potato croquettes, depending on when you go. It’s a pleasant, quiet spot for lunch, and they do a nice matcha latte, as well.


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