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Let’s Talk Food: Monjayaki in Tokyo – West Hawaii Today

We took several trains to get to the Tsukishima District in Tokyo to meet our friend Keiko to eat monjayaki, or Tokyo-style pancakes. Monjayaki means “grilled letters” because school children would come to the snack shop and practice writing letters in the gooey monjayaki sauce. This dish dates back to the Meiji era, at a snack shop called Dagashiya in Tsukishima.

It is similar to okonomiyaki, which originated in Hiroshima or the Kansai region, but uses different ingredients. Dashi, or flavored broth, is added so this dish is a little runnier than okonomiyaki.

In the 1850s when food was scarce, monjayaki was made by dissolving udon flour with soy sauce and syrup. Rice was scarce then and more people added flour into their diets. It also was a great way to use several ingredients to create a great one-dish snack and the children loved to make it.

Monjayaki may have started in Tsukishima, but the popularity spread throughout other parts of Japan and different prefectures often used their favorite ingredients to create their own version.

In Kagawa Prefecture, they are known for sanuki udon and make sanuki monjayaki.

In Saitama Prefecture, monjayaki is a children’s snack and was popular in the late 1980s. But today, it is rare to see shops that make it..

In Tochigi Prefecture, Ashikaga Monja is their version of monjayaki. Locals bake crepes thinly and use water and flour only. It is accompanied with shoyu and Worcestershire sauce.

Gunma Prefecture’s version is called Isesaki monjayaki and in the early times, there were many poor households so they combined shoyu, curry powder and strawberry syrup to make the monja sauce.

The tables all had a grill in the middle for cooking and my son Reid thought we had to cook it ourselves, which he did in December while working in Tokyo during the holidays, but the workers at the restaurant prepared everything for us. Starting with a bowl of chopped vegetables that are fried on the grill, then some dashi (a simple broth made by simmering dried kelp and bonito flakes in water), flour and sauce, giving it a more dough-like consistency.

Basic ingredients to make monjayaki include pork, scallops, squid, shrimp, eggs, clams, oysters, tuna, cheese, corn and cod roe. Vegetables such as cabbage and carrots are also added.

You may be wondering why you see chopped cabbage added to monjayaki and okonomiyaki, shredded and served with tonkatsu, and pickled and served as a side dish. Well, cabbage is an inexpensive and versatile vegetable and Japan is the world’s top cabbage producer and cabbage is one of the most popular vegetables purchased at the supermarkets, third only to daikon radish and onions.

Cabbage has substantial amounts of potassium, magnesium and calcium. It is also rich in vitamin C, dietary fiber and vitamin K. Some research suggests that cabbage’s health benefits also include supporting digestion and heart health.

Cruciferous vegetables like cabbage contain many different antioxidants that have been shown to reduce chronic inflammation. Sulforaphane, kaempferol and other antioxidants present in cabbage are likely to be responsible for their anti-inflammatory effect.

Another important health benefit is its gut-friendly insoluble fiber, a type of carbohydrate that can’t be broken down in the intestines. This helps keep the digestive system healthy by adding bulk to our stool and promote regular bowel movements.

When we think about the main carbohydrate in Japan, rice comes immediately to our minds. The Chinese introduced noodles to the Japanese and the Portuguese brought their bread and wheat in the 16th century which started the popularity of using flour as an ingredient.

Today, most of the flour in Japan, 50 percent in fact, comes from the United States, 31 percent from Canada, and 16 percent from Australia.

The reason is because there is not enough fertile land in Japan to grow wheat and over 70 percent is mountainous, which makes it difficult of grow any crops.

On a side note, rice is not an ingredient in monjayaki but Japan needs to import rice for their needs as the country cannot produce enough rice themselves. Rice is primarily brought in from the United States, Thailand, Taipei and Pakistan.

There was not a bad meal in Japan. Their foods are so tasty and not very filling. China has opened up their country to travel and there were so many Chinese everywhere we went in Tokyo.

It reminded me of our trip to Italy before the pandemic. The museums, Vatican and the Coliseum were just packed with Chinese tourists.

Email Audrey Wilson at audreywilson808@gmail.com.

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