Talking and Eating in an Izakaya


Certain words should never be translated. “Tofu” is one classic example. In older English-language books on Asian cuisine, you will often see this economical, healthy, filling, versatile, wonderful food described as “bean curd.”

Ick. Who wants to eat “bean curd” ? No one that I know. Beans are unexciting to begin with, and “curd” makes it sound like something went wrong with them. Can the West really be blamed for taking so long to catch on to tofu?

Now, at long last, tofu is widely appreciated and is easily available in Western grocery stores. Also, “tofu” itself is an accepted English word. The linguistic change was necessary for the culinary change to take place. People generally don?t want to eat things that can’t be described nicely.

“Daikon” is a word that has begun moving into English in the same way. The standard “Japanese radish” translation just doesn’t do it justice. Western radishes are tiny, spicy, red balls, while a daikon is a pale, mild vegetable that is about the same size and shape as a child’s leg. “Daikon” is not yet part of most English-speakers? everyday vocabulary, but it is making more frequent appearances in English dictionaries and cookbooks.

However, at least “bean curd” and “Japanese radish” give the listener a rough idea of what the speaker is talking about. I’ve heard utterly baffling translations of some other words that should never be translated at all. The most common of these is “gobo.” Gobo is a long, brown, woody root vegetable with a crunchy texture and a zingy flavor. It is usually cut into matchstick pieces and marinated or saut仔d. Most Japanese people who want to tell a foreigner about gobo do not describe it in this manner. (And I can hardly blame them.) Instead, they whip out their dictionaries, look up “gobo,” smile, and say:
Huh? I’ll admit that burdock is an English word, but I have yet to meet a single native speaker who really knows what it is. If I were walking through the woods and saw a burdock plant, I’d probably pass it by obliviously. By contrast, if someone handed me a dish of gobo and a glass of beer, I’d know EXACTLY what to do next.

Burdock is just not a familiar concept in the West. So, if you want to discuss the Japanese uses of this plant, it is probably best to use the Japanese word. Even if you are speaking English.


The best place to go for a dish of gobo and a glass of beer is an izakaya. This is fitting, because “izakaya” is another word that can’t be translated. People sometimes call it a “bar” or a “pub” but these words don’t do it justice. It’s true that izakayas serve alcohol, usually in a wide array of drinks. However, that’s not the best reason to go to one. The real appeal of an izakaya is the food.

Izakayas generally have an extensive menu. At Nanda-Kanda, a mom and pop izakaya near my apartment, the name and price of each item is written by hand on a strip of paper, and these strips of paper cover every inch of available wall space. At Jinpachi, the chain-store izakaya I frequent, there is a lavishly illustrated menu many pages long — and lots of strips of paper on the wall to boot.

People usually visit izakayas in groups. Izakaya servings are usually very small. That way, everyone can nibble a dozen different items while drinking their beer. Dishes range from simple French fries to elaborate assortments of sashimi.

One of the most popular categories of izakaya food is yakitori. Strictly speaking, this is grilled chicken on a stick, but it can be made with chicken and vegetables or even pork or beef. One form of yakitori popular among foreigners is tsukune, which is chicken meatballs. The pork and beef used in yakitori is usually organ meat, which some Westerners find to be a turn-off. The timid might want to work their way up to that by trying kashira, which is facial muscles. It’s muscle tissue like “standard” meat, but it’s very tender and might help one to gradually widen one’s horizons.

My own particular favorite kind of yakitori is nankotsu, which is chicken cartilage. It can be skewered and grilled by itself, or skewered together with chicken meat. Nankotsu can also be chopped up and batter-fried. Murasaki, another big izakaya chain, is offering fried nankotsu with a sweet mustard dipping sauce as one of its summer specials. Either way it’s crunchy and delicious, high in calcium and — unless fried — low in fat. But for some reason, my “good tasting and good for you” sales pitch has won few converts among my fellow Westerners. Don’t ask me why.

Luckily, the endless variety of a typical izakaya menu means that not everyone has to like everything. There are usually plenty of items that most visitors will enjoy, such as salads, buttered potatoes, spinach with bacon, and mini-pizzas. Gyoza and yakisoba are also crowd-pleasers. Gyoza are little dumplings filled with minced pork. Yakisoba is grilled noodles with cabbage and a little meat.

Japanese fried chicken is always a hit. It’s juicy and boneless with a thin, crisp crust and it is served with a lemon wedge. If you prefer, you can have squid legs cooked the same way.

Japanese food is highly seasonal, and the izakaya menus reflect that. While gyoza and potatoes are available year-round, other dishes come and go. Last winter an izakaya called Big had a “Nabe Matsuri” or Stew Festival. For a very cheap price, they would actually cook a pot of stew on a portable burner on your table. All sorts of stews were available — beef, seafood, kimchi, you name it. But now, in the heat of the summer, there is no stew on Big’s menu. Good thing, too.

One popular summer special is cucumbers. These are very cheap, very plain, very light, and just perfect for summer. The two most popular cucumber dishes are ume-kyu and moro-kyu. Both are elaborately sliced cucumbers that may be dipped in a paste made of plums (in the case of ume-kyu) or barley (in the case of moro-kyu). Chilled noodle dishes are also big in summer, as is anything featuring tororo, a viscous, somewhat foamy taro paste. This is sometimes eaten in combination with tuna sashimi.

No “bar” or “pub” that I’ve eve seen has a menu even remotely like this. “Izakaya” is a category by itself.


When you eat at an izakaya, there’s one more untranslatable word you should keep in mind. Otsumami. This is a little hors d’oeuvre that will be served with your first round of drinks. It will be in a dish that could fit in the palm of your hand, and the dish will most likely be filled with some kind of specialty salad that is not on the menu. It could be chopped lotus root in moist black hijiki seaweed. It could be minced chicken with peas. It could be a mayonnaise-based pasta salad. If you’re lucky, it might even be that long-awaited dish of sauted gobo with sesame seeds.

Only one thing is sure. You won’t have asked for it, and you will be billed for it. Luckily for you, it will taste very good and it will turn out to be just the thing to accompany your first drink while you wait for all the delicious food that you did order.

So, when in an izakaya, do as the Japanese do. Eat it. And like it!


Copyright @ Tom Baker. All rights reserved.

Tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.