I’ve noticed an increased interest by foreign bloggers and media regarding Japan’s (read: Tokyo, Kyoto) street food culture in the last month, and as I was at a large food fair in Kanazawa, I figured it was time to add my comments and photos to the table.
Street Food in the News
The first article I saw about this was J. Kenji Lopez-Alt’s piece “Snapshots from Japan: Street Fair Food in Kyoto” on Serious Eats (6 Feb. 2012). If you’re unfamiliar with festival fare, the slideshow is fairly comprehensive, though I’m confused as to why he doesn’t just use some of the proper terms for the foods– why not use okonomi sauce instead of “barbeque sauce” or baby castella (ベビーカステラ) instead of “egg cakes” or “Hong Kong cakes“? Also, the reason why the corn at food stands is awful is because it’s the cheapest available and they charge through the nose for it–500 yen for a grilled corn on the cob when you can get 3-5 cobs for that price in the summer (at least in Ishikawa).
While Lopez-Alt’s piece is, weird terminology aside, solid, Richard Johnson’s piece for The Guardian, “Fun dining at Japan’s street food stalls,” (24 Feb. 2012) is just sort of off. He begins paragraph 3 with this gem: “Street food has never flourished in Japan. The Japanese still see it as rude to eat on the go. But that’s starting to change,” then proceeds to discuss sushi, ramen, and yaki-imo, which are not exactly recent editions (read: last 10-20 years) to the Japanese palate, unless he means “recent” in terms of the Showa era (1926-1989) versus, say, the Jomon Period (13,000 – 300 BCE), nor are they street food in the sense of walking while eating.
First of all, we need to re-conceptualize “street food” for Japanese culture. It’s true that walking and eating is considered rude in Japan. I was always told that the reasoning was that you can’t appreciate the food if you are eating it on the run. However, I think it’s secretly because if you live out in the country, the chances of a hawk or some other large fishing bird swooping down and stealing your ice cream cone or onigiri is fairly high. Modern city crowds don’t really lend themselves to a quick bite on the run, either, and not all of historical or contemporary Japanese food, with the notable exceptions of onigiri and oyaki, was portable in the sense of eating and walking.
But that doesn’t mean Japanese people don’t eat on the go from stalls on the streets. The sushi and ramen stands Johnson visits are Japanese-style “street food”–walk “in,” sit down, eat, and go. Here in Kanazawa, we have a collection of vendors with permanent stalls in Omicho Market next to the fish sellers and vegetable stands: croquettes (クロケット), dango, yakitori, hot tea, taiyaki, ice cream. The market sometimes sells crab soup or yaki-imo, which customers stand around eating in the vicinity of the stall, and this is par for the course. Still, on any given day, there will be a school group in the market munching on a bag of Healthy Lab’s ”goldfish-yaki” (mini-taiyaki), kingyôyaki (金魚焼き), or on yakitori as they walk through the market. That said, I’ve been here long enough that an ice-cream cone is no longer automatically “to go” for me and with people staring at me anyway, I feel extra awkward eating and walking.
However, if you really want to experience street food, you must go to a festival. Summer festivals, as Cheruko wrote about in “Enjoying Festival Food (A Warning Against Drinking Beer Before Lunch),” are a prime time for experiencing the standard street fare; another good time is New Year’s at temples and shrines.
Street Food in Kanazawa
During the month of February in Kanazawa, there was a series of events called Foodpia (fûdopia, フードピア), one of which was Foodpia Land, a food fair held from 10-12 February in Kanazawa’s Central Park (中央公園). Admission was free, which was nice, as most of the other events require a reservation and were costlier to attend as many were course dinners with entertainment. There were other 100 booths serving cuisine from all over Japan and even some international dishes. Ishikawa was well represented, of course!
After getting led over to a yaki-imo stall by Doraemon for free soup and yaki-imo to go, a group of us entered the festival near the Atrio department store and ran straight into a roasted chestnut (kuri, 栗) stand. Some train stations, particularly Kyoto Station, and tourist sites across Japan sell these, and they’re always a treat when I can find them in Ishikawa.
While I was buying my (expensive at 500 yen/100 grams) chestnuts, my group had discovered a stall that sold fried manjû made with the Kaga yasai Gorojima kintoki, an heirloom Japanese sweet potato grown in Ishikawa.
The texture was amazing–crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, a poster child for Why Fried Foods are Dangerous.
I’m not a huge red-meat fan, but my husband went for the grilled pork coated in sauce…
…as well as his favorite kind of okonomiyaki: Hiroshima-style, a thin cabbage pancake on top of fried noodles (and one of the reasons I will be taking him southwest someday).
Meanwhile, the pescetarian got the seafood soup and scouted out a place for us to stand/sit and eat….
…while her fiancee and I picked up some oyaki–two with the nozawa pickled vegetables and one azuki beans…
…and stopped to be amazed and disturbed by the “Tornado Wieners.”
Seriously, look at this.
It would not be a proper Ishikawa festival without Nihonkai Club (日本海倶楽部) craft beer. The 奥能登の伝説 (Okunoto no Densetsu, The Legend of the Upper Noto) is my favorite of their products.
I do make exceptions for particularly good meat, and I love gyros, so I stopped and had a nice chat with the kebab/gyro-stand workers, who came up from Osaka.
I make my own pitas, hummus, baba ganoush, etc., these days, but I can’t roast lamb on a stick at home.
To accommodate for the crowds and for Japanese meals and manners, Central Park had picnic tables and chairs set up, though we stood in the snow and ate nearby.
We shared a banana caramel crepe from Sunny’s Crepes, my favorite crepe stand in Ishikawa.
I wish I could have documented more food, but this was only the stuff the four of us bought and we only covered half the festival site! My goal was to eat the most interesting things that I can’t normally find traveling or in the city, so I didn’t have any takoyaki or overpriced corn. As spring approaches, I’m very much looking forward to one of my favorite underrated street foods, hanami dango, at Kenrokuen!