If you really want to get to the heart of Tokyo‘s culinary scene, you’ll need to go beyond the city’s bustling restaurants and best-loved drinking dens. Rebecca Hallett booked onto one of the city’s cooking classes and learnt about more than just the food.
I’m about to eat fresh wasabi. I hate wasabi, but have been assured that it tastes different when grated directly from the root. I’m not sure I’m convinced.
Still, I take the spoon, pick up the tiniest amount and raise it unwillingly to my lips. And…
“See, I told you it tastes different! It’s much more fresh and mellow like this. Most of the green paste you see in cheap sushi-ya is made of horseradish and green food colouring, with just a little wasabi added. It makes it harsh and chemical-tasting, too overpowering.”
This is about the fiftieth nugget of foodie information chef and Tokyo Cooking Studio-founder Yukari Matsushita has served up – and we’re still only making the salad. It’s fair to say that I’m learning a lot at Yukari’s cookery class.
And not everything I’m learning is about Japanese food, either. Yukari is Japanese, but she studied French cuisine and worked in a San Francisco restaurant before marrying a Taiwanese man.
Eventually, she opened the Tokyo Cooking Studio (near Shimokitazawa) in which we’re now making our scallop, avocado and wasabi salad.
Their motto is “think globally, act locally” and that comes through in the class; between the five of us we speak at least four languages and our conversations run the gamut from British cuisine’s unfair reputation to why French-Japanese fusion baking is so delicious. (It’s because “the cuisines rely on different flavour profiles but similar techniques, so they’re very complementary,” in case you were wondering).
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The class started with a visit to a local market, where Yukari talked us through weird and wonderful ingredients and told us of her preference for local produce.
“Imported uni (sea urchins) contain lots of preservatives, so can have a chemical smell and taste. But these ones from Aomori or Hokkaidō are really fresh, like they’ve just been cracked out of the shells,” Yukari explains as she selects some Japanese and some Russian uni.
Now, in her cooking studio, Yukari presents us with a couple of (delicious) shop-bought miso varieties and one she made herself, so we can decide which to use for our soup. Salty, slightly sweet, umami-rich – it’s no contest. We vote unanimously for homemade.
We spend a couple of hours preparing ingredients and cooking before sitting down to eat.
The final menu – Yukari easily adapted it to fit dietary restrictions – consists of the salad, fresh chirashi zushi with sweet, salty tamagoyaki, and rich, creamy miso soup with clams.
We follow this up with satisfyingly chewy strawberry daifuku and plenty of bright, tangy yuzu sake.
I leave not only full of food (seriously, do not snack before you go) and slightly tipsy, but full of knowledge and eager to try these simple dishes back at home.
The best food experiences aren’t just about eating something tasty, but about seeing truly local spots, trying new things and connecting with people – so don’t limit your foodie explorations in Tokyo to restaurants and cafés. Instead, try one of these interactive ways to learn about Tokyo’s food culture and discover a different side of the city.
1. Try an Airbnb Experience
Yukari’s cooking class is only one of Airbnb’s growing number of Experiences in Tokyo. You can find out where your favourite ingredients come from – visiting a wasabi farm, learning to make miso – and how to create traditional dishes – a science-focused sushi masterclass, or vegan shōjin ryōri course.
2. Link up with locals through Nagomi Visit
If you’re after that elusive feeling of “authenticity”, try Nagomi Visit. It links up visitors with Japanese hosts – individuals, couples or families – who welcome you into their homes and cook for you; it’s a great way to learn about each other’s cultures, and even make new friends.
There’s a set fee of ￥3500, which covers ingredients and running costs. But Nagomi Visit is a non-profit organization and the people you meet are volunteers – they really do just want to share their experiences, and learn from yours.
3. Eat your way around depachika
In Japan, there’s a popular way to try dozens of different dishes on even the tiniest budget: department store food halls. These depachika are cavernous spaces filled with every Japanese meal, snack and treat you can imagine – and they’re famously generous with samples.
Mitsukoshi, Tobu, Takashimaya, Isetan and Daimaru are some of the big names to look out for; you can even get a tour of the Nihombashi branch of Takashimaya, so you don’t miss any of the best samples.
4. Book onto a food tour
With Tokyo’s crowded culinary scene it can be really useful to have a local on hand, but just as the number of restaurants is overwhelming, so is the number of guides. Food Tours Tokyo is a good option, with private tours covering everything from a sake brewery visit to dinner at a halal restaurant.
The Tokyo Handsome Boys – in their own words, “not handsome on the outside, just on the inside” – are also worth checking out. Their Nakano food tour is a high-energy exploration of their favourite neighbourhood spots, and they also plan custom days out for small groups.
Explore more of Japan with The Rough Guide to Japan, and Tokyo with The Rough Guide to Tokyo. Compare flights, find tours, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go. Rebecca’s Tokyo cooking class experience was provided by Airbnb.