Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sushi for breakfast at Tokyo's Tsukiji Market


Saturday morning, we woke up in Tokyo with a hankering for sushi so off we went to the world-famous Tsukiji Market, just off Ginza, to have a sushi breakfast. If you think that's rather weird, to have sushi for breakfast, I can confirm that it's rather unusual indeed. Most locals would be horrified at the idea of sushi for breakfast, preferring something more mundane like croissant from the local bakery and yoghurt with fruit instead; and when I was living full-time in Tokyo myself, I never went to Tsukiji for breakfast sushi except when I had visitors from overseas or even Japanese friends visiting from out of town.

But nowadays, I count Manila more like home than Tokyo; so whenever I'm here, which is about every five weeks, I end up doing really touristy things like going to Tsukiji and having all kinds of Japanese food at every opportunity. I usually have sushi every other day when I'm here as I find that's the one Japanese food that's hard to get really good versions of overseas. The other food very difficult to find outside of Japan is a very good tonkatsu. I think it's because the pork is different and the bread crumbs used to coat the tonkatsu aren't fresh. The tonkatsu sauce also makes a world of difference. Respectable tonkatsu shops in Japan make their own sauce, while almost all restaurants serving tonkatsu abroad give you only the bottled kind from the supermarket. More on fantastic tonkatsu in a future blog entry.

The greatest fish market in the world

Anyway, back to my visit to Tsukiji Fish Market. I must admit that it's so much fun to do so. Tsukiji is the greatest fish market in the world, and it's a really interesting place to visit to taste all kinds of food and to see the most amazing variety of Japanese foodstuffs.

Well, this morning, it seems I wasn't the only person to think it a good idea to spend Saturday morning in Tsukiji. The place was teeming with people! So much so that it took quite a while to find a parking spot as all the usual places where taken.

By the time we'd parked the car and gotten to our sushi place in a back alley, it was already full. And the clock had just struck eleven, which usually is a very strange hour to have sushi. But when we entered, the lady who greeted us said, "I'm afraid the only seats we can give you are at the counter." This was perfect, though, as the counter is the most fun place to eat sushi at.

The most expensive meal in the world

Lots of people visiting Tokyo ask me to recommend a great sushi place. Friends who know their food always have the world-famous Sukiyabashi Jiro at the top of their shortlist, and this is largely considered the best sushi restaurant in the world. However, if you wake up one day with a hankering for sushi, this isn't the place to go as you'll never get a table at short notice. One month in advance, if not three to six, is more like it. It's a small and unassuming place, and pretty expensive as well.

The sushi is really good but I wouldn't call a meal here an enjoyable experience. You basically eat what you're told or given, and you're discouraged from personalizing your experience by asking for more soysauce or wasabi, as the people at Sukiyabashi Jiro have very definite ideas about what and how you should eat. You've got to be very brave to even suggest to the sushi master Jiro that his creations need more soy sauce.

More often than not, too, your meal will be over in 30 minutes as sushi is quick to prepare and quick to eat. Travelife contributing editor and perpetual Hungry Traveler Jerome Velasco, who spends a lot of time traveling the world eating in top restaurants, reckons this is the most expensive meal he's ever had when he calculates the price per minute. Scroll down to see my favorite sushi shop in Tokyo.

My favorite sushi shops

My personal favorite is Kyubei, which is not too far from Sukiyabashi Jiro, and easier to get a reservation for. At lunch, too, with the exception of the first seating at 1130 am, it's first-come, first-served, so you stand a chance of a seat if you're patient enough. It's not as famous as Sukiyabashi Jiro, but you'll not spend as much either.

Now when I just want to eat sushi without fuss, and also without spending too much, I go to the Tsukiji branches of Sushizanmai. It's very cheap by local sushi standards, but I've never been disappointed with a meal at any of their main Tsukiji stores (Sushizanmai has branches all over Tokyo) -- especially when I think of the price compared to other places.

So this morning, that's where I went, to one of the main branches of Sushizanmai, just a few blocks away from the market itself. Not all Sushizanmai shops are created equal, and some of them have a real run-of-the-mill atmosphere. But the branch I go to in a Tsukiji back alley has a real sushi shop atmosphere compared to a modern, fastfood atmosphere, and the fish is fresh. I always have the aburi toro -- which is basically tuna belly on rice torched and then sprinkled with salt -- which is probably my favorite sushi. Not all sushi restaurants offer this because you need a blow-torch to do this, but Sushizanmai does an excellent version.

I also love the nori soup here, which is truly unparalleled. Again, not too many sushi places offer nori soup; but when they do, I always order it. I've yet to have a nori soup as good as the version offered in a large lacquer bowl at Sushizanmai.

We left the shop really full and quite satisfied. When we exited, there was already a long line of customers in the hallway and a sign said people could expect to be seated in 30 minutes. Seeing this, I was certainly glad we'd gone ahead with our plan for breakfast!


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