Tsukishima, Tokyo: Experience Authentic Local Culture on Monja Street
Monjayaki, commonly shortened to monja, is a pan-fried batter dish. Although visually unappealing, monja is an example of a Japanese-style comfort dish found, almost exclusively, in the “Shitamachi” or working-class neighborhoods of Tokyo where it originated.
Monja was originally a snack for kids. Eaten with soy sauce or honey, it was sold in old-fashioned penny candy shops (“Dagashiya” in Japanese). The children’s treat has evolved into what we know today as a Tokyo soul food. The semi-liquid monja is a distant cousin of the better-known okonomiyaki, a Japanese-style pancake dish popularized in Osaka and Hiroshima. Nishinaka Dori Shopping Street in Tsukishima, a district in Chuo-ward, is filled with monja restaurants. Commonly referred to as “Monja Street,” many of the restaurants serve okonomiyaki and various side dishes as well.
Monja is prepared by dissolving flour in water, seasoning with sauce, and mixing with multiple toppings. When cooking on a teppan (iron griddle), you first spread the ingredients into a donut shape and pour the batter in the center. Wait patiently until the batter starts to boil before mixing in the other ingredients. Lastly, spread the liquid thinly across the entire teppan. Once cooked, guests eat directly and communally from the teppan using small spatulas. Communal sharing allows you to try a variety of different dishes at one sitting. Typically, guests prefer to cook the dishes themselves, but don’t hesitate to ask a waiter for assistance. A waiter will gladly show you how a dish is prepared or, if you wish, cook it for you at your table. Watching the dish take form and communally sharing the finished products over your favorite beverages and friendly banter are part and parcel of this wonderful dining experience.
Because of the diversity of potential ingredients, monja dishes vary both within and between restaurants. There is variety, too, in the atmosphere of the competing establishments. Take a stroll down Monja Street before settling on a restaurant. Although you are in a historically blue-collar district, don’t be surprised if you observe a Japanese TV talent, famous sports personality, or movie star sitting at a booth near you. Monja brings people of all ages and social classes together to enjoy the friendly atmosphere and the creative nature of the dining experience. Go with a date, with your family, or with a group of friends. Be artistic and adventuresome! Be confident that you can create something that suits your taste.