One of the things we love about Japanese food is that it celebrates specialists. A good sushi chef makes only sushi, and only after years of study to learn the art of making the perfect rice. Likewise, only a master of the dynamics of hot oil can craft perfect tempura.
So it’s no surprise that at Japanese chicken restaurants one can find a true dedication to specific methods of preparing fowl.
We make it a point to stop in frequently for lunch at Roppongi’s Torisho Takehashi restaurant to enjoy their meibutsu (specialty dish) of oyakudon, also known as oyaku donburi. Oyaku is a typical Japanese play on words, meaning both “parent” and “child.” In the case of oyakudon it is a salty/sweet, savory scented combination of chicken and egg invented by a Tokyo restaurant over 120 years ago.
At Takehashi the chicken is sourced from Hakata on the southern island of Kyushu (famous for Hakata pork ramen) and carefully simmered in a combination of dashi broth, mirin, a pinch of sugar and soy sauce. Beaten eggs, plus most likely some secret ingredient, are gently introduced onto the cooked chicken and the dish is left to poach.
Ultimately everything is slipped over rice. A Japanese meal usually includes a bowl of rice to be eaten separately – putting food on top would sully the rice, masking its flavor. That is, unless the dish is a donburi, or rice bowl. Donburi can refer to any large ceramic bowl or it can mean cooked fish, meat, vegetables or other ingredients simmered and served over rice served in large ceramic bowl called… a donburi. The sauce on the simmered stew can vary according to the region of Japan and the season.
An extra raw egg yolk gives the oyaku donburi at Takehashi a kick of umami, and the dish is ultimately garnished with Japanese greens. The ratio of chicken, egg and rice is sheer perfection. The lunchtime teishoku set comes with a small piece of tofu, pickles and miso soup at around 900 yen for the full meal.
The ratio of chicken, egg and rice is sheer perfection.
Takehashi serves three other chicken dishes at lunchtime. There is nanban gozen, a dish of chicken that has been marinated in a sweet/sour/salty sauce (“nanban” meaning a barbarian dish from outside of Japan), then deep fried and covered with tartar sauce; chicken liver and red pepper donburi; and a Korean style miso harami gozen grilled chicken, all served as set lunches. In the evening there is an expanded chicken menu, and sake and beer are served all day.
Kaithong Tokyo, located in the Shibuya section of the city just a short walk from Hachiko Square, is another restaurant that only does chicken and does it perfectly. They turn out a superb Thai take on Hainese Chicken Rice, one of the most famous staples of Singapore’s hawker food culture. In China’s southern Hainan Provence a similar chicken dish is called Wenchong Chicken. The dish is wildly popular in Indonesia and Thailand, where it is called khao man gai. All three names are used in Japan, depending on who is cooking it – at Kaithong Tokyo you know the dish is being cooked the Thai way because it’s called khao man gai.
The tiny storefront of a restaurant is the Japanese outpost of the Bangkok institution with the same name. Like the original, the Tokyo iteration is a pink paradise with waitstaff clad in pink, pink menus and pink signage. Kaithong also does a green chicken curry, but most people queue on an endless line waiting their turn for the khao man gai chicken and rice.
We always try to arrive early at meal times to secure a spot at one of the aluminum tables surrounded by small red plastic stools. Lucky guests are escorted from the front, past a chef carving chickens behind glass, and rewarded with a seat in the back. Customers are immediately issued a steel cup of water and given a laminated menu, which seems almost unnecessary since most people already know what they are ordering. The only thing to decide is the extras – soup and extra pakchi Thai coriander. There are soft drinks available for 200 yen and beer on offer for 600 yen.
Our order arrives swiftly: a plate of sliced slow-poached chicken lounging over aromatic rice that has been made using the broth from the chicken, accompanied by a chile dipping sauce made from yellow Thai miso, vinegar, Asian black vinegar, a dark thick soy sauce, ginger, garlic and an abundance of hot chiles. The waitress slides a bowl of Thai coriander next to the dipping sauce, telling us not to hesitate to ask for more of the fragrant green.
Like everyone else lost in the reverie of the tender chicken, we have ordered a large bowl of soup containing chicken bones as a side dish (at an additional 50 yen), knowing it is the highlight of the meal. Since the chicken is served without bones, they are put to use in the service of a chicken soup to accompany the dish. Sucking the meat and gristle from the bones is integral part of the experience and not to be missed.