A taste of the Edo-period past, and a new encounter

There’s a whole neighborhood of restaurants in the Asakusa area of Tokyo that specialize in loach cuisine. What is a loach? If you’ve been playing the new Animal Crossing game, or have ever played any Animal Crossing game ever, then you’ve probably caught a loach or two, and know that it’s a type of fish (who looks at you with reproach).

Actually, loach, or “dojou” in Japanese, is a delicacy whose popularity dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868), so it’s no surprise that it would be a popular food in Asakusa, which is a mecca for traditional Japanese food. Our Japanese-language reporter Seiji Nakazawa has always told himself that he should try it at least once. He’s never done it because, well, their menus tend to be a little on the expensive side, but heck, you only live once.

The particular restaurant that Seiji chose is called Hirai and is near Honjo-Azumabashi Station, which is on the Toei Asakusa subway line. The exterior of the place looks classy, like an expensive Japanese restaurant that serves multiple courses. Seiji was actually a bit nervous to go inside, but the interior is totally different. With just the owner and two waitresses working, it feels like a restaurant for the common people.

The menu has items like “dojou nabe” (loach hotpot, 2,240 yen [US$20]) and “yanagawa-nabe,” loach stewed in soy sauce with eggs and burdock root (2,350 yen). As expected, it was a little pricey, but Seiji was here for the experience, not a cheap meal. If he wanted a cheap meal he’d just go to Burger King.

After some deliberation, Seiji ordered the Edo classic, dojou nabe, which comes in a shallow single-serving pot.

The pot was filled with about 20 little fish, but to Seiji, they looked more like little eels. “Are these really fish?” he thought, peering at them closely.

And that’s when Seiji realized he had never actually seen loach before.

It was kind of a shock. Seiji had assumed that he had encountered loach in some capacity in all of his 37 years on this earth, but in fact, he had not. The little stewed fish that sat in front of him were his first encounter.

This led Seiji to reflect back on his life to find the real reason why he had never seen a loach before. He wasn’t a city kid; he grew up the countryside. When he was a child, he could bike to the mountains in ten minutes, and on his way to school he would pass rice fields and cow sheds, so he’d spent his formative years exploring the wilds of his hometown.

So how, in the twenty-something years he had lived there, had he never seen loach in the rice paddies or little rivers? It was immensely shocking to realize that his first meeting with a loach was in a hot pot.

Well, anyway, he was here for lunch, so he dug right in. His first impression of the loach: its bones are really substantial. In fact it felt as if the fish was primarily made of bone, with a little bit of soft meat around it that reminded him of anago eel meat.

Luckily, the restaurant also serves “nuki nabe” (2,350 yen), which contains loach without the bones and innards. In this stew, the meat of the fish is flayed and looks far more substantial than the fish whole. After giving this new hotpot a taste, Seiji got a much better feel for the flavor of loach.

The meat is fluffy and soft, but not as oily as eel meat. It feels like a cross between white fish and anago eel, and has a slightly bitter flavor. When combined with a sweet and spicy sauce or flavoring, loach is most definitely a mature flavor. Was this the taste of Edo cuisine? He thought perhaps, yes. The harmony of the bitterness reminded him of sushi served with wasabi, another Edo delicacy.

Though it was Seiji’s first time ever seeing a loach, he couldn’t say it was a bad encounter. The flavor reminded him of the country roads of his home town, and gave him a sense of traveling back in time to the Edo period. He learned much from his first meeting with loaches. They provided a flavor that tied the past to the present, a symbol of culture in and of itself.

Restaurant Information
Dojou Hirai / どぜう ひら井
Tokyo-to Sumida-ku Azumabashi 1-7-8
Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m.
Closed: Sundays

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