When people think of Japanese food, most think of sushi, sashimi or even some of the more popular Japanese comfort foods like okonomiyaki or udon noodles. If you’re a tourist, however, you’ve likely never experienced one of Tokyo’s most popular dishes: monjayaki. But don’t feel bad; even some Japanese people who don’t live in the Tokyo metropolitan area (75 percent of the population) have never tasted it. This is one reason why Tsukishima Monjadori, a street with over 100 monjayaki restaurants, ranks in the top five sight-seeing spots in the capital for Japanese tourists (FYI, the other four are Harajuku, Tokyo Disneyland, Odaiba and Tusukiji Fish Market).
Monjayaki is simple but complicated: it has just a few easy ingredients and can be made in under three minutes yet it requires instructions to make, and even eat, properly. It helps to know, for example, that monja is not usually eaten with chopsticks, and that there’s a good reason why.
Read on to learn more about this unexpectedly delicious fare: watch a how-to video showing you how to make it, check out photos that show you how to eat it, and get tips from a master monjayaki chef.
I first met monjayaki chef Yasutami Ōhashi (who goes by “Tommy”) when I came to Japan in 1994. At that time he was running a restaurant in Okayama City called “Hibachi,” where he served a varied menu of Japanese izakaya favorites such as braised fish, gyoza, and edamame, accompanied by lots of draft beer. Tommy cooked in the middle of the restaurant, surrounded by a counter which could seat up to 20 customers. Whenever you went into Hibachi, he’d immediately introduce you to the person sitting next to you giving both parties just enough information about each other to pique a conversation. Tommy knew that getting people to talk to each other was central to creating a friendly atmosphere where people would want to come back not just for the great food, but also to socialize.
▼Master chef Tommy Ōhashi is going to teach us how to make monjayaki.
In November of 1999, Tommy became the first person to introduce monjayaki to Okayama through his restaurant called Taiyo no Jidai (太陽の時代). It was so successful, he now has four restaurants, (two in Okayama City, one in Kurashiki, and one in Takamatsu) all specializing in monjayaki.
Taiyo no jidai means “sunny era” and refers to the new century we were about to enter when he started his endeavor. “People were trepidatious about the new century,” said Tommy. “They were worried about Y2K and some thought the world was going to end! I wanted people to be happy and optimistic about the future so I called my restaurant Taiyo no Jidai so people would have something bright to look forward to in the new year and the 21st century.”
Although the ingredients for monjayaki vary, Tommy treated me to three different dishes he makes at Taiyo no Jidai: 1. mentaiko (cod roe) & mochi 2. seafood & green onions 3. eggplant & cheese. These each arrived in separate metal bowls.
Underneath the main ingredients in the bowl were shredded cabbage and a liquid made by combining wheat flour (komugiko) and fish broth (dashi). “Monjayaki first became popular after WWII, ” Tommy explains, “because during the war when food was scarce, the easy mixture of flour and dashi was a cheap way for families to eat.” He then gave me his first tip to making tasty monja.
Tip #1: To make the best monjayaki, use the highest quality flour.
▼Tommy uses the same flour used to make cakes.
Next, he gave me a plate and one special utensil: a tiny spatula.
▼Plate and small spatula, called a moji-bera which means “word spatula.”
▼The teppan grill, the same as is used for okonomiyaki, is embedded in the middle of the restaurant table.
“Pencils and paper were also hard to come by during the war so children used the grill like a chalkboard to practice writing their letters in the flour and water mixture” Tommy said while pouring the mentaiko and mochi mixture onto the heated plate. “They’d draw letters with the small spatula. This is why the spatula is called moji-bera, or ‘word spatula.'”
With the monja on the grill, it is now time to use two bigger spatulas to beat it up! With a spatula in each fist, you cut up the ingredients rapid-fire by pounding the spatulas onto the grill thereby cutting up the ingredients (see video for action shot).
And Rocketeers, you can rejoice because this is one time when it’s okay to play with your food–in fact, it’s encouraged! Monja is surely the only Japanese food that allows you to get rid of stress, practice your drumming, and hone your culinary skills all while at the dinner table!
▼Go ahead, get your stress out, practice your drum roll!
When the ingredients are chopped small enough to make the monja a runny liquidy paste, let it rest to cook on the grill. After several more minutes, it’ll still be gooey but this time it’ll be ready to eat.
▼Monja on the grill, finished cooking and ready to eat!
You’ve probably noticed that monja is not very aesthetically pleasing: it would not win a culinary beauty contest. You could even say it looks kind of, well, sick. If you’ve ever gotten drunk on shots of tequila, you know what I mean. This unappealing visual was a big barrier for me the first time I ate monja. So I tried eating it with my eyes closed, which helped. But I eventually overcame the association with drunken tequila nights by thinking of dogs. Yes, dogs. When dogs throw up, they eat their vomit. Some people say this is instinct, but I don’t think so. I think dogs eat their vomit because…it’s delicious!
Monjayaki tastes best when it is piping hot, so eat it straight off the teppan plate with the moji-bera. There is a special technique, which brings us to Tommy’s second tip.
Tip No. 2: The proper way to eat monja is to pull off a portion with the moji-bera and press down on it to get the piece to stick to your spatula…
Then turn over the spatula and put it straight in your mouth.
The plate is there only if you need it, such as when the monja has been sitting too long on the grill and is burning and you want to get it off the grill quickly. Speaking of burning, Tommy has another tip for us now.
Tip No. 3: Don’t waste the okuge! It tastes good with beer.
▼Okuge is the burnt stuff on the hot plate, located around the perimeter of the liquid.
The fun in monjayaki is definitely in the creation of it on the grill and sharing the food among friends and family.
Here is a video of the entire process, which even shows you when and how to add the flour and dashi liquid:
Now you know how to make the perfect monjayaki. But Tommy has another tip for us!
Tip No. 4: You can make dessert monja!
This is a specialty of Taiyo no Jidai restaurant, and isn’t available anywhere else that I know of, but Tommy shows us that the same technique can be used to make a delicious strawberry dessert.
▼Strawberries and cream is just one of the dessert monja served at Taiyo no Jidai.
▼Yep, you’re gonna throw that beautiful concoction straight onto the grill!
▼And mix it and beat it up just like regular monja.
All that’s left to do is eat it with the moji-bera. The warm dessert melts in your mouth and tastes just like it has been baked in the oven–amazing!
There you have it, straight from the master chef who brought monjayaki to Okayama and started us all off with a sunny monjayaki 21st century. So Rocketeers, get to work making your own monja and be sure to let us know if you come up with something original and amazing that we just have to try!
Taiyo no Jidai has four restaurant locations in Western Japan:
3-13-56 Omote-Cho, Okayama City 700-0822
1-17-2 Aoe Kita-ku, Okayama City 700-0941
619-2 Shimosho, Kurashiki City, 701-0112
Two Feet Bldg,
2F, Takamatsu 760-0028
Feature image courtesy of Taiyo no Jidai. All other images © Amy Chavez/RocketNews24