Snapshots from Japan: Grilled Brains, Genitals, and Other Offal in Tokyo
What I especially like about Japanese restaurants (and what I believe to be a key to outstanding quality) is specialization. A great sushi bar serves only seafood. Even more specialized, an unagi restaurant sells only grilled eel, a tonkatsu restaurant only deep-fried breaded pork cutlets, and a gyutan restaurant only beef tongue.
When I’m in Japan, I take my quest for specialization one step further by finding food that is typically unavailable at home. As an offal lover, that always means a meal or two of horumonyaki. Like yakitori, which has come to be known as any skewered meat but is technically grilled chicken, horumonyaki falls under the umbrella of yakiniku, or grilled meat. (This is admittedly confusing, as the Japanese think of yakiniku as Korean-style barbecue.)
Horumon (or motsu, to make matters even more confusing) means “the parts thrown away” and refers to pork and beef offal, which is grilled over binchotan charcoal and flavored simply with a tare sauce (generally soy sauce, sake, mirin, and sugar) or just salt. As you may have guessed, horumon also refers to hormone, derived from the Greek word hormon, which means to set in motion. Indeed, many Japanese believe that eating horumonyaki makes one genki (full of stamina).
I tried two types of horumonyaki restaurants during my latest trip to Tokyo. Saiseisakaba is a stand-up horumonyaki restaurant that makes you feel like a part of the lively Shinjuku district. You can stand at a counter in the window or at a table outside the doors and become part of the diverse street scene. Or, as I like to do, you can claim a spot at the counter and catch all the action at the charcoal grill.
Here you order items—like spleen, various stomachs, and small or large intestines—a la carte, and the chef passes them to you as they finish cooking. They’re the perfect accompaniment to beer (my choice), shucho (a Japanese distilled beverage) or sake. The setting is casual and friendly, full of drinkers. Ask for an English menu, but note that not everything translates well, and that they’re sometimes out of some items (like the penis and “birth canal” that I tried to pair together).
In contrast to Saiseisakaba, Rukumatokyo is a more refined, sit-down place in the trendy Ebisu neighborhood. (There’s also a branch in nearby Shibuya.) You can sit at tables with grills and vents, but the counter again lets you in on more of the action. Rukumatokyo doesn’t have an English menu, but it’s unnecessary if you order omakase. The chef will ask if you have any dietary restrictions, so just say “nandemo tabemasu” (“I eat everything”) and leave it up to him, as he’ll serve up many fascinating small plates (like a spoonful of raw pork liver and natto, as well as two parts of a pig brain with balsamic sauce) before giving you a tic-tac-toe board of offal to grill. (You can do it, or he’ll lean over and grill everything to perfection for you.)
Read on for a look inside both restaurants, including all of the interesting and amazing dishes I ate.
Here is a view from the counter at the smoky interior of Saiseisakaba.
Saiseisakaba’s Motsuni is a miso-flavored stew of intestines and other pig parts, topped with negi (Japanese leek).
Here are skewers of pig diaphragm (quite fatty) and heart, served with karashi (spicy Japanese mustard).
These are skewers of pig trachea (crunchy, almost like biting pebbles) and spleen (soft, bloody, and minerally).
This pork liver popped with minerally flavor.
Sitting at the counter provides a view of the grilling activities.
These are skewers of the pig’s small intestines (crispy on the outside and really soft on the inside) and throat (much more chewy texture than flavor).
The pig’s large intestines, like the small ones, are crispy outside and melt-away soft inside, though slightly more chewy overall.
This is a sashimi plate of cow’s omasum, the third compartment of the stomach. Wonderfully chewy texture and flavored with marinated negi.
There’s actually an English menu at Saiseisakaba, though not everything is on it (or available).
You can stand and eat (and drink) inside or outside Saiseisakaba.
The street scene at Saiseisakaba (and the Shinjuku area in general) is fascinating.
In contrast to Saiseisakaba, Rukumatokyo is more refined. Here’s a look shortly after opening.
My meal at Rukumatokyo started with a small salad and consomme gel.
A quartet of tastes. Clockwise, starting with the spoon: raw pork liver sashimi with natto and koji (earthy and delicious), pork uterus with daikon, sesame seeds, and vinegar (great texture), pork liver sashimi (one of my favorite bites of the night), and pig stomach kombu jime (kelp-infused for extra umami).
This salad is topped with smoked pork liver. Really smoky and really captivating.
Rukumatokyo’s Motsuni, but made with katsuo (bonito fish) soup instead of the usual miso-flavored stew. It’s topped with miyoga and negi.
These creamy pig brains are coated with rice powder, cooked in butter, and served with balsamic sauce. The chef said the pig was alive that morning, so the brains could have been eaten raw as sashimi.
Nine pork parts, ready for the grill. Top row (left to right): diaphragm (very tender), liver in caul fat (one of my favorites on the tray), tongue. Middle row: throat (almost crunchy), house bacon, “pai” (mammary gland, chewy texture) with Japanese mustard spinach. Bottom row: spleen with tare (like liver, but chewier), miso-flavored intestines (very soft), offal sausage.
Here are the diaphragm and liver in caul fat just after they hit the grill.
You can grill on your own, but the chef will help you get things just right.
The cooked, smoky bacon, with delicious fat.
Here’s a look at the offal-filled sausage slices.
Lo and behold: a vegetable! Grilled asparagus, along with a dip made from soy milk, rice powder, and sake kasu (the lees left over from sake production).
The final course of the omakase meal at Rukumatokyo was a pork-less dessert: brownie-like chocolate cake, topped with purple potato mousse, cream, and sugar.
(Originally published here at Serious Eats on July 18, 2013.)