Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Yatai: the street food of Fukuoka

If I were to list my favorite things, street food and ramen would come pretty high on the list, even ahead of this recent season of Mad Men. So it was to my great delight that I found out that Fukuoka--a city with few charms save its culinary ones--is the epicenter of the Japanese street food scene.

Once dusk begins to descend on the streets of Fukuoka small stalls spring up along pedestrian walkways, replete with seating, sake and the occasional heater. Most specialize in one or two things, tonkotsu ramen is a standby, as is yakitori and other grilled meats on sticks and seafood. There's even a yatai  in Fukuoka serves French food.

Despite a typhoon strong enough to get my ferry to Korea cancelled and grounding me in Fukuoka, the yatai  were alive and kicking, although the customers were few and far between on such a rainy night. This meant my presence, which is usually confusing to the smaller restaurateurs in Japan, was actually appreciated for once.

The fellow above tried to communicate with me by speaking Japanese very slowly. This didn't help. Even when he tried raising the volume, I was still unable to understand him and we had to talk via my usual combination of thumbs ups, OK symbols and ecstatic ramen appreciation.

When he saw that I was about to take a picture of my ramen, he shook his head. I put down my camera, terrified that I had just committed yet another Japanese faux pas that I was unaware of (for example, did you know that it's rude/gross to put on chapstick in public?!). It turned out that like a teenage girl primping for the camera, he just wanted to add more garnishes to the ramen before it was immortalized on my blog. Although not the most gourmet bowl of ramen I'd had in Japan, I'm sure it would be if it were 2am and I was stumbling home from some derelict karaoke joint with my colleagues. It was delicious, anyway.

The storm was so bad that the yatai sprung a leak, and was dripping rain water into the ramen stock. The guys working nearly had an aneurysm trying to simultaneously patch the hole and prevent me from seeing the ramen being polluted. Luckily these sort of things don't bother me and I ordered a bowl anyway, much to the relief of the proprietor and his cronies.

Sort sort of bacon ham wrapped around okra and grilled, with a large side of mayo.

Note the large collection of items wrapped in bacon: tomatoes, enoki mushrooms, okra, quail eggs

In Japan, people have a hard time believing I actually want pictures of my food and wouldn't prefer a picture of myself with said food. They aren't wrong, actually. This is mentaiko, or pollack roe doused in hot pepper. They also serve this on spaghetti.

The next night, already an old hand at the yatai game, I went on to a more adventurous part of town. Here the yatai were crammed with boozy businessmen, chain-smoking and chugging soju. After ten minutes of people speaking Japanese to me unsuccessfully, and no less than three separate people complimenting my chopsticks skills, a man in the Japanese military finally copped to knowing English and filled me in on what everyone had been saying about me. Apparently it wasn't all chopsticks kudos. He also let me know what I had been eating, which I had identified as "fish"  but which he informed me was a giant grilled sardine, roe still intact.

I can't pretend that Fukuoka has anything going for it in the looks department, but with so many pregnant fish around I'm not complaining.


  1. Thanks so much for all your hard work as an experiencer! It saves us cheapskates the time and trouble of undergoing this ourselves. Being a minority is sounding like a lark.
    Tell us your take on why the food of the UK and Ireland is so vastly different from this one. The similarity to me is high salt and fish, but that's the only one I note.

  2. I'd rather have rain water in my soup than tap water.

  3. that guy pimping his dish for the camera... classic!

  4. I have to agree with most of what you are saying, but not the comments, about Fukuoka not having much other than culinary delights. Fukuoka is always in the top three cities in Asia to live and near the top twenty in the world. There many great little restaurants, as mentioned, stand-up bars, and great walking streets, that have great character and feel. It is also one of the cleanest places I have even been, and not a garbage can or ashtray in sight. I'm sorry that you didn't find it's charm. If not for a beautiful daughter back home, (Canada), I would love to stay!

  5. Michael--top places to live and to visit are very different! When you compare the tourist attractions to other cities in Japan, it doesn't match up. The food is the best in Japan, but there isn't a lot to do there other than eat and shop. And there aren't garbage cans anywhere in Japan! Anyway, I liked Fukuoka, despite the 37 bed bug bites I got there.