B-grade cuisine: Japan's bizarre foodie fad
“B-grade food” -- try saying it a couple of times; it’s just plain weird, implying something less than great. Yet, it’s so accepted in Japan as a desirable class of food, you don't even have to make an effort to find examples.
Stroll into any bookstore and you’ll spot dozens of magazines and books emblazoned with the characters “B級グルメ” -- “B-kyu gurume” -- but what’s so hot about second-rate dining? Surely it’s just a nonsense?
While it may sound crazy to English speakers, the nuance -- indeed, the whole point -- of B-grade cuisine is that it’s not the mainstream "quality" stuff that's simpered over on countless TV shows or put forward as an emblem of the "unique" Japanese food culture.
Instead, it's food with its own identity, usually a regional one, but sometimes just something thrown together simply because it tastes good. It’s being different that matters here.
What's it all about?
Think of how as a college kid you maybe enjoyed your own home-cooked beans folded into instant mashed potatoes and eaten hot from the pan -- or ice cream piled onto your favorite donuts -- and you’ll get the idea. Cheap, tasty and satisfying as all get-out, but most definitely not about to find itself on any Michelin list.
The result of this pragmatic approach is pretty easy to predict -- creativity, a willingness to use what’s to hand and a stubborn “that’s the way I like it” mindset that have led to some pretty bizarre concoctions making the grade.
Best of all, there are dozens of restaurants right here in Tokyo where you can sample the best of B-grade from all across Japan. Here’s our pick of seven of the best.
Turkish rice, Nagasaki, ¥1,350
Neapolitan spaghetti, pilaf and Hamburg steak. None of these stands out as unusual on your average Western-style menu in Japan. However, piling them all onto the same plate at the same time just might qualify as weird.
While the appearance is not at all dissimilar to that of a child's happy meal, what exactly is it about this mishmash of kiddy favorites that makes it "Turkish?"
Neapolitan is from Italy -- so, that's Europe. Curry-flavored pilaf (or dry curry depending on the store) is from India, which is in Asia. With us so far? Keep up.
The notion goes that "bridging" these two continents with a main dish, such as Hamburg steak, a pork cutlet, or fried shrimp, is what led to the dish being called "Turkish," because Turkey spans Asia and Europe. See?
If you feel like trying a B-grade classic, the Turkish rice at 66 Dining Roppongi 6-chome Shokudo(yes, that's the full name) is highly customizable, allowing a choice of items like Hamburg steak or rice croquette as the bridge dish.
Flavored with ketchup rather than tomato sauce, Turkish rice is the perfect dish for those times when you're looking as much for nostalgia as for volume.
Metro Hat/Hollywood Plaza B2/F, 6-4-1 Roppongi, Minato-ku, +81 (0)3 5775 4625, 11 a.m.-11p.m.
Shrimp and rice, Okayama, ¥880
Shrimp and rice is known as an Okayama specialty, but the current claim is that it originated at a curry shop in Shibuya.
Long ago, a chef working at that shop sought permission to take the dish with him when setting out to start a branch of his own back home in Okayama. The variation he came up became popular in his hands and was in time adopted as a B-grade Okayama specialty simply because of his origins ... or so the story goes.
While the shrimp and rice combination resembles a black pilaf, it is not takikomi gohan (rice boiled with meat and vegetables).
Rather, ingredients like onions and shrimp are stir-fried with rice and seasoned with a spicy sauce that appears to be a blend of demi-glace, ketchup and caramel.
Generally, kinshi tamago (golden threads of egg) are sprinkled over the black rice, which is then garnished with peas, mashed kidney beans and other toppings. The original dish is said to have called for a garnish of salad, such as coleslaw.
Indeira, the original shop --with room to fit no more than ten people --is in the basement of the Shibuya Dogenzaka Building. The shrimp and rice I received immediately after ordering was indeed black and, while neither the smell nor taste of curry is particularly obvious, the dish is certainly spicy.
The tender shrimp provide a slightly sweet, slightly salty accent. It's not hard to understand why one would want to garnish it with a sour salad. The dish’s many loyal fans are a testament to its outstandingly unique taste.
1-3-6 Chidori, Ota-ku, +81 (0) 3 6410 3656, 10 a.m.-10 a.m.
Bokakke omelet soba, Hyogo, ¥680
Kansai, in west Japan, is home to both a konamon (flour-based foods) culture and an amazing range of sauce-centric dishes as well. One could well call the staples that combine the two -- okonomiyaki, takoyaki and yakisoba -- the soul foods of Kansai.
On top of that, there are plenty of original B-grade dishes derived from the old standards to be found at "floury" restaurants sprinkled throughout Osaka and Kobe.
Kobe boasts a dish called bokkake soba, which uses a sauce that originated in the Nagata Ward of Kobe, It comprises beef tendon and konnyaku seasoned and stewed to a salty-sweetness.
Lovingly used on everything from soba to ramen to curry, Japanese soba topped with it is called bokkake soba, while yakisoba mixed with it is called bokkake yakisoba. Makes sense in a way.
In Tokyo, you can enjoy bokakke omelet soba at Nagata-honjoken in Tachikawa Station on the Chuo Line. In one corner of the open kitchen, there's a huge stockpot that one could barely fit an arm around, and the massive amount of bokkake boiling inside looks delicious.
On an iron plate, thick, homemade noodles and cabbage are skillfully stir-fried in bokkake and wrapped in egg.
Just watching the speedy cooking is fun it itself. The dish's uniquely dense flavor is a touch sweeter than the popular, and more common, sauce yakisoba and features the richness of beef tendon in place of spices.
Inside the East Exit of JR Tachikawa Station, +81 (0) 42 526 2432, 7 a.m.-10 p.m. (9 p.m. on Sundays and holidays).
Tsuke-neapolitan, Shizuoka, ¥960
While it seems that tsukemen (ramen noodles with dipping broth) is all the rage with ramen enthusiasts these days, word has it that there is a local specialty known as tsuke-napo on the rise in Fuji City in Shizuoka Prefecture.
The name of the novel B-grade dish, created in Fuji City's Yoshiwara-shotengai, is short for "tsuke-neapolitan."
By itself, "Neapolitan" could be considered a strange dish from an Italian perspective, but what exactly is the deal with making it into a tsukemen oddity?
I took a trip to Shibuya to find out. A piping hot plate of noodles and bowlful of sauce are brought out at Raion no iru Saakasu, a stylish, hideaway-style café and bar in an unmarked apartment block.
To the side of the noodles is a lemon. I'm told to "squeeze the lemon over the noodles and start eating before they get cold."
First, I try the sauce by itself. It is exactly like a tomato-base beef stew, rich with the aroma of herbs. Delicious. Elsewhere, there's tender beef, soft-boiled egg, asparagus and melted shredded cheese.
If pushed, I'd have to say the noodles are similar to thick ramen noodles -- they're a blend of three varieties of wheat flour, including durum semolina flour, finished in brine just like ramen.
This combination of thick noodles and gentle beef and tomato stew could delight anyone and I enjoyed slurping it up like I would a ramen. A rice set is also available.
2-3-1-301, Ebisu Minami, Shibuya-ku, +81 (0) 3 6452 3657, 11:30 a.m.-midnight (3 a.m. on Satudays and Sundays).
Shiro-noir, Aichi, ¥590
The Nagoya coffeehouse chain Komeda Coffee Shop has, little by little, increased its numbers across Japan to the point where it can now be seen in the suburbs of Kanto. Conceptually opposite to Starbucks, these shops are more like the traditional Japanese coffeehouses of old. Which is where B-grade comes in.
Nagoya's coffeehouse culture is unique and Komeda is the place to go if you want to experience it firsthand. Although the shop features a treasure trove of bizarre gourmet dishes, when the smoke clears, shiro-noir is the dish Komeda Coffee Shop fans back as the one "they can't live without."
A dish that is thought to have been coined from the words "shiro" and "noir" ("white" and "black" in Japanese and French, respectively), shiro-noir is basically a warm Danish pastry topped with a generous serving of whipped ice cream and covered in maple syrup.
Shiro-noir is at its best the moment the ice cream soaks into the crispness of the warm Danish. It's not unusual for regular customers to ask for a topping of ogura (anko bean jam) as well. A mini version -- 10 centimeters, rather than the usual 17 -- is available for customers with smaller appetites.
1-24-1 Nishi Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, +81 (0) 3 6915 2897, 7 a.m.-11 p.m.
Coffee zenzai, Kyoto, ¥262
You might think the combination of coffee and anko bean paste a bit beyond the pale, but adventurous Kyotoites reckons coffee zenzai is no stranger than eating manju (azuki pastry) with a cup of black joe in hand.
Well-established confectionery shop Tenpyoan in Tokyo brings that same spirit to the capital. Served in small, plastic containers, the simple sweets combine zenzai (azuki bean soup) and coffee jelly in one awesome B-grade hit.
As one would expect from a swish shop like Tenpyoan, it's all done with elegance and precision. The hint of brandy lingering in the coffee jelly is just one of the features that contributes to the high-class feel of these sweets.
Typically, with coffee zenzai, piping hot coffee is poured onto vanilla ice cream and tsubuan (chunky azuki bean paste). Though Tenpyoan's offering breaks with convention, it doesn't suffer. There's space enough to eat while enjoying another coffee or roasted green tea on the house, so what's to lose?
Inside the South Court of JR Tokyo Station, +81 (0) 3 3287 2525, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.
Coffee ramen, Tokyo, ¥700
Of everything I tried for this article, the most appropriately bizarre B-grade food had to be Aroma's coffee ramen. While the idea of combining things that normally don't go together is common to all seven selections, this one really stood out.
I ordered the shop's specialty -- ice cream coffee noodles. What arrived -- aside from the smell--appeared to be a dense soy sauce and dashi ramen. Or at least it would have looked that way if it hadn't come with banana slices (topped with salami!), kiwi and ice cream.
I started with a mouthful of soup. The light, plain American coffee was flavored with the slightest hint of soy sauce. The noodles certainly carried a faint coffee aroma as well.
As the ice cream melted, the soup mellowed and began to look more like café au lait than ramen. The sweetness of the bananas and kiwis and the saltiness of the soup, salami and thinly sliced ham were a strange contrast, while the grated cheese was my condiment of choice.
Will you be able to clean your plate when faced with food like this? That likely depends on how much you dig the whole B-grade concept and the quest for bizarre eats. Long may it continue.
2-19-16 Takara-machi, Katsushika-ku, +81 (0) 3 3694 9156, 11 a.m.-9 p.m., closed on Tuesdays and Sundays.