"You should go to Tokyo! Everyone should go to Tokyo!” says Tim Anderson, 2011 MasterChef winner, owner of cult Japanese fusion restaurant Nanban in Brixton and enthusiastic cheerleader for Japan’s capital city.
His new cookbook, Tokyo Stories, is “a love letter” to the metropolis, packed with mouthwatering recipes, each accompanied by postcard-style snapshots of the city taken by photographer Nassima Rothacker. Each recipe features “where to find” instructions: a little note directing the reader to the precise nook or cranny in Tokyo where they can find the dish in question. “Most cookbooks, you just want people to enjoy the recipes,” says Anderson. “That’s true of this, but what I really want is for people to go.”
So, there are tempting instructions for Nair-style curry rice, named after the oldest Indian curry house in Japan, printed beside the peeping Senso-Ji temple rooftop; little choux creams shaped like the Studio Ghibli character Totoro served with Tokyo street graffiti depicting the cuddly wood spirit; and steamed crab and pork wontons plated up alongside a picture of a soaring neon-clad office block.
Now is a good time to book a flight. Tokyo is the host of next year’s Olympic Games and this year’s Rugby World Cup. Not to mention the fact that it’s the city with the highest number of restaurants per capita in the world.
“It’s almost impossible to be disappointed by it,” says Anderson. “Even an unremarkable ramen shop in Tokyo is better than most you’ll get here. I hear a lot of people saying that they never liked sushi until they went to Japan. The standard there is a cut above.”
Tokyo Stories breaks down the city by storey, from afternoon milk teas found in station subway kiosks at basement level, to pickled-plum martinis served from Tokyo roof gardens bars. “I wanted to get across that Tokyo is a really vertical city,” says Anderson, “along with the sense that you’re going to go up and down physically, but wherever you’ll go you’ll find something good to eat. It’s a rare city — Japan is like this generally — where the food is of a good standard almost no matter where you get it, whether you’re at a restaurant, depachika convenience store, food stand or vending machine.”
Chef Tim Anderson (Tim Anderson/Tokyo Stories)
Anderson’s fascination with Japanese food was sparked in his teens, watching Anthony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour and the Fuji Television show Iron Chef. “Iron Chef blew my mind. The cooking was just amazing. Each episode was on a different key ingredient — from mishima beef to matsuke mushrooms sold for up to ¥100,000 a kilo — so that was a crash course in the kind of obsessive culture they have for produce in Japan.”
He visited the country for the first time after college, and later taught English in Kyushu, where he met an Englishwoman, Laura, his future wife, on the last train home (they now have a 13-month-old daughter, Tig). At Laura’s urging he applied to take part in MasterChef and created a Japanese-y bento box as his audition piece. In part due to a souped-up ramen with porcini-infused pork broth and lobster gyoza with black truffle, he won the title in 2011. Anderson debunks the myth that the biggest barrier to Londoners trying Japanese home cooking is the scarcity of ingredients. “Look, you really can buy anything in this city,” he says. “Or you can order online. In my previous cookbooks, like Japaneasy, I’ve done the Ocado test with recipes. If you can’t order an ingredient on the internet, it doesn’t go in the book.”
Not that he’s wholly faithful to Japanese traditional cooking. “Japanese food is always changing, evolving and drawing on influences from other cultures and other places. You wouldn’t have tempura if it wasn’t for the Portuguese visiting. You wouldn’t have Japanese curry without the British. I want people to know is Japanese food is diverse.”
His restaurant Nanban has been open for four years now, offering a cultural composite of dishes such as kumamoto ramen, with its burnt garlic and tea-pickled egg, and more jaunty inventions like carbonara made with cod’s roe sauce and onsen egg, and a sasebo burger with gochujang sauce and tea egg mayo served with crinkle fries. Creative, sure. But it’s Tokyo that fires his imagination.
You can buy Tokyo Stories by Tim Anderson here
Japanese restaurants to try now
By Phoebe Luckhurst
A hybrid of Japanese and Cornish cuisine (ish), Dinings SW3 has a superlative sushi menu that changes with the seasonal fare available from fishing boats off the Cornwall coast.
Lennox Gardens Mews, SW3, dinings.co.uk
Engawa, which is in the oasis of the Ham Yard development on the fringes of frenzied Piccadilly, specialises in Kobe beef done every which succulent way.
2 Ham Yard, W1, engawa.uk
Go for the ichigo negroni — gin, plum sake, strawberry and Campari — and stay for the delicacies cooked over the traditional robata grill.
55 Broadwick Street, W1, inkonitorestaurant.com
Jidori does a mixture of small plates and yakitori skewers. It does a vegan à la carte menu but the hero dish is undeniably its katsu curry scotch egg.
89 Kingsland High Street, E8, jidori.co.uk
Jugemu is tiny, keeps unpredictable opening hours, and has barely any internet footprint — in other words, it has the makings of a status restaurant. Expect sushi, seaweed and sashimi.
3 Winnett Street, W1