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Izakaya: Beyond the Red Lantern

October 27, 2016

An unfamiliar izakaya may be daunting to enter, and this is almost as true for Japanese customers as for visitors. The action is often hidden behind frosted glass and a noren shop curtain. Step inside, however, and you will find these quintessentially Japanese establishments aim only to make you feel at home.

The first thing many people do on being seated at the izakaya's cozy counter, or cramped table, is order a beer. Food and drink are treated equally here. A staff member will likely bring you a moist hand towel to help you refresh, as well as a small appetizer, for which there will be a modest charge.

The menu will be hung on the walls or handed to you on a piece of paper. You order whatever you feel like throughout the evening. Many people begin with sashimi. If you're drinking you may move from beer onto sake or shochu, the vodka-like spirit.

The beauty of the izakaya is that you don't need to decide all at once what to order. Unlike the British gastro pub, for example, where portions tend to be filling, the izakaya serves small dishes, which you eat with your companions. So you can keep on ordering and sharing, with no need to look enviously at what the person beside you is enjoying.

There is always an emphasis on seasonal dishes; anglerfish hotpots in winter, for example, or vegetables such as eggplant and tomatoes in summer.

Izakaya range from rough-and-ready, blue-collar drinking holes serving grilled tidbits, to high-end establishments with sophisticated cooking. Some say the establishment evolved from the liquor store. In the late Edo period (1603-1868), proprietors would refill earthenware flasks for customers, who began staying back to drink and chat. The shopkeepers began selling snacks, which grew more elaborate. The three Chinese characters that form the word izakaya literally mean “remain”, “liquor”, and “shop”.

Izakaya have changed since the mid-20th century, with the advent of chain restaurants run on an impersonal, fast-food model, many out-sourcing their food from distant kitchens. In contrast, the old-style izakaya is a neighborhood hub. It performs a social role as a gathering place for locals. Many izakaya operate out of the home of the master or woman proprietor, who may live upstairs or behind the restaurant. The ingredients are likely to come from a nearby market as well. There is a sense of community - closeness to the food producers, to the seasons, to the open kitchen, and to your fellow diners at the counter - that gives the izakaya a special, here-and-now charm.

Izakaya Menu

There is something for everyone at the izakaya - from raw or fermented seafood to fried potatoes. Drinks such as shochu distilled from barley or sweet potatoes will be served on the rocks or with a mixer in a cocktail called a “sour”. Many izakaya pride themselves on their range of regional sake - the fermented rice beverage that's often called wine but is brewed like beer - with a typical alcohol content of around 15 percent. There will always be tea and soft drinks.

In addition to the regular menu, every izakaya will offer a blackboard of dishes that changes according to the seasons, and what's fresh on the day. You can probably make a meal out of this list alone.

The menu may be divided between seafood - raw sashimi, or grilled or simmered fish; deep-fried things; vinegared things; meat - perhaps broiled on skewers or slow-cooked such as pork belly; salads; and rice things including pickles and miso soup.

Many diners start with sashimi because the delicate flavors can be better appreciated before heavier seasonings cloud the palate.

As the evening progresses, previously unnoticed dishes are sure to catch your eye. At the finish, a Japanese meal traditionally wraps up with something starchy. You may consider zosui - a sort of porridge of eggs and rice in dashi stock - or perhaps a refreshing serve of chilled noodles. But there are no rules as to what you should order or when.

Izakaya Etiquette

Your personal izakaya experience starts as soon as you duck your head into the restaurant through the noren curtain, to be greeted by the master or hall staff. There is no tipping culture in Japan, so if people treat you warmly, it is likely they genuinely want to please you. If you get on very well you might offer to buy the master a beer toward the end of the evening, but this is never expected.

If you're not confident about your language, you can still find a way to make yourself understood. Most izakaya are casual enough that you can always point at what others are having and indicate you'd like the same. You can also leave the selection to the house. Just say, "O-makase de o-negai-shimasu" (meaning "Please serve me whatever you recommend") and work out a price. Start with a handful of items to get yourself going, and then order again - and again, if you like - throughout the evening.

Most traditional izakaya have an open kitchen behind a counter, which is the best place to sit if you're in a small group of two or three. It gives you a ringside view of the action. But wherever you sit you will be close to the food preparation area and be able to call out orders after attracting attention of the master or staff. Just say, "Sumimasen", which means "excuse me".

Izakaya dining is free-style, though there are a few rules. For example, every meal starts with some kind of toast, a clinking of glasses as you say kanpai, meaning “cheers”. When eating, it's generally frowned upon to pick through a shared dish with your personal chopsticks, though you'll sometimes see groups of friends doing this. When drinking, it's polite to hold your glass for a fellow diner to fill it - rather than pour it yourself - and then to return the favor. When the bill comes it may be no more than a number on a slip of paper.

Izakaya are the best places to get an overview of Japanese home-style cooking. You can sample dishes endlessly. The cuisine is broad and, in some ways, complex. When UNESCO in 2014 listed Japanese food as an Intangible Cultural Heritage asset, it was not only acknowledging its beautiful presentation, health benefits, freshness and technique. What the recognition also hinted at is that Japanese cuisine's uniqueness is a difficult thing to grasp. It is not like French, Thai, or Chinese. Japanese food doesn't offer the pyrotechnic blasts of flavor of those cuisines. What is special about it is how it gently connects with the seasons and the environment; how, through the essence of a seaweed broth, fresh fish or wild mushrooms, you are eating the sea, or the forests. In a world of increasing standardization and mass production, the regional and seasonal aspects of izakaya food and drink are ever more precious.

Text: Mark Robinson

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