After my recent weekend holiday in Nagoya, I’ve come away convinced that there are just two things needed to enjoy the best of what this fine city has to offer: a little cash and an empty stomach.
Welcome to the wonderful world of Nagoya-meshi.
Of course, a three-day vacation’s worth of meals hardly suffices to embrace everything in the seemingly limitless array of dishes that Nagoya has either devised or refashioned to suit its own collective taste. But no matter: whatever remains untried at the end of each visit merely adds to the many reasons for yet another return to the largest city in Japan’s Chūbu region.
Now then, let’s have a look at the sampling of local delicacies that enlivened my all-too-short June 2016 stay in Nagoya – Diego’s 10th holiday in Japan overall but only 2nd in this particular city (though it’s fast becoming one of my favourite destinations in the country).
My flight arrived early in the morning on Day 1. Budget airline, meaning no frills, no fuss – and of course, no food. (Not for free, anyway.) After dropping my luggage off at the hotel, I set out to find a place nearby where I could fuel up as inexpensively as possible for a few hours’ worth of sightseeing, which brings us to…
After a quick stroll through the city’s main railway station, I chanced upon Trazione Nagoya, an Italian-themed restaurant that serves a range of pasta dishes but also whips up some reasonably priced breakfast sets in the morning. I settled on the 小倉トーストモーニング (Ogura tōsuto mōningu, 380 yen), a simple set meal that includes a thick slab of lightly toasted bread, a hard-boiled egg, a small piece of banana, and your choice of coffee or tea (served either hot or iced).
All well and good, you might say … but what’s this got to do with local Nagoyan cuisine? Nothing at all – until one takes a butter knife to that small oval dish on the lower left corner of the tray, lifts out a generous scoop of sweet, chunky ogura-an (a type of red bean paste), and spreads a thick layer of the same across a piece of bread liberally anointed beforehand with soft butter or margarine. In an instant, the otherwise unremarkable hunk of morning toast is transformed into OGURA TOAST (小倉トースト), a Nagoya breakfast classic that’s easily found amongst the morning menu offerings of cafés and restaurants across the city.
Right, that’s the first meal of the day all nicely sorted out. With loads of attractions in Nagoya and the surrounding region, a busy morning of sightseeing will soon whittle away whatever energy might have been wrung out of the morning meal, and our thoughts must soon turn inexorably towards…
I spent the morning of Day 1 in Inuyama, about half an hour by train north of Nagoya, and by the time I returned it was already well past noon. Exhausted and hungry, I decided to limit my search for midday rations to the railway station and eventually settled upon Yebisu Bar. Whilst (as the name suggests) this is a place perhaps best patronised for tipples, what drew me in wasn’t the selection of beer or liquor on offer but the extensive display of lunchtime food models in the window.
From the menu, I selected the みそとんオムライス (miso-ton omuraisu, 1280 yen).
The omurice part is easy enough to explain: fried rice wrapped in a thin omelette and set upon a generous ladling of demi-glace sauce. The deep-fried tonkatsu on top also needs no explaining, but what ties this meal specifically to Nagoya is the humble ribbon of sauce laid gently, almost parsimoniously (in view of its critical role) across the breaded surface of that juicy pork fillet.
On its own, that tonkatsu is just tonkatsu, which is as ubiquitous as Japanese dishes come … but with the rich, earthy, subtly sweet miso-based sauce on top, it rises above your typical fried meat nugget and becomes MISO-KATSU (味噌かつ). This dish is arguably one of the most Nagoyan of Nagoya-meshi – at least in repute if not in fact – and now ranks as one of my favourite dishes in the Japanese culinary repertoire.
The refined bar-room rendition of miso-katsu described above, whilst certainly delicious, is perhaps a little too far elevated from the more popular version that Nagoya is known for. Not to worry: I also managed to try a rougher, saucier, less genteel version on this trip (more than once in fact), and we’ll have more to say on this as we talk about…
As I was walking through the vast grounds of Nagoya’s ancient Atsuta-jingū shrine late on Day 1, I passed by the simple premises of Miya Kishimen, where I decided to try yet another of the city’s signature dishes. In its basic form, KISHIMEN (きしめん) is the local variant of udon – featuring wider and flatter noodles than those employed elsewhere – and this restaurant will dish you up a bowl of that for 600 yen.
I wanted to try something a little different, so I went for a piping-hot portion of とろろきしめん (tororo kishimen, 750 yen), where a generous dollop of sticky white tororo adds an interesting textural dimension to the standard bowl.
On Day 2, with the delicious memory of Day 1’s lunch still fresh in my mind, I mentioned to my sister – who had flown into Nagoya to join me that morning – that miso-katsu was a dish well worth trying. Having sold the idea with success, I tracked down a branch of the venerable Yabaton chain in the Nagoya Station area, where we enjoyed a hearty dinner at the end of a long day of sightseeing.
This group of restaurants specialises in miso-katsu, several varieties of which are available from the menu. I chose the ひれとんかつ (hire tonkatsu, 1296 yen plus an extra 270 yen for rice), which consisted of an exceptionally tender and flavoursome pork fillet bathed in miso-based sauce.
My sister went for a みそひれかつ丼定食 (miso hire-katsu donburi teishoku, 1404 yen), which paired a miso-katsu rice bowl together with side dishes for a complete set meal.
In both cases, the server placed each dish on the table sans sauce, then tipped a small ceramic vessel filled with the scrumptious, reddish-brown, miso-based condiment over the deep-fried pork fillet. Concerned that her rice might get too soaked, my sister motioned for the server to stop before the cup of sauce was emptied, but in my case I silently allowed him to keep pouring until it had run dry and every visible surface of the meat was robed in that rich, glistening coverlet of deliciousness.
As one might imagine, we found the miso sauce ferociously addictive, and our choice of a restaurant at the airport on Day 3 evening (just before our flight back home) ended up being yet another branch of the Yabaton chain. My sister stuck with the tried-and-true by ordering the same item off the menu, whilst my selection was a little different this time: ロースとんかつ定食 (rōsu tonkatsu teishoku, 1188 yen), featuring pork loin in Yabaton’s signature sauce served with rice and miso soup. The meat was of a less tender cut than the hire I tried previously – which explains the lower price despite this being a complete set meal with side dishes – though I couldn’t fault it in any other respect.
With the brief holiday over, let’s turn our thoughts to the…
THINGS I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO FOR NEXT TIME
With pasta being one of my all-time favourites, I was eager to try ANKAKE SPAGHETTI (あんかけスパゲティ) during this trip. Alas, due to various twists and turns, the Day 3 lunch that would have featured this spicy, sauce-rich Nagoyan take on Italian-style noodles ended up being a cop-out meal at McDonald’s instead. (Go figure.)
There are some local specialities that might never feature in my itineraries, especially anything with any sort of seafood (which I dislike quite intensely) as the main ingredient. This regrettably rules out the famous grilled eel delicacy known as HITSUMABUSHI (ひつまぶし), which probably rivals miso-katsu as the Nagoyan dish par excellence. On the other hand, meals that focus on meat, poultry, or vegetables, and with just token or derivative quantities of seafood (I’m fine with soups made from dashi, for example) are absolutely fair game.