Stumbling upon a haggis toastie store in the middle of Tokyo sounds like a half-remembered dream where nothing quite makes sense.
It was the minimalist black store front with white type that had initially drawn us to it. It looked like a store straight out of London, and certainly not like a café that one would expect to find next to Japan’s Olympic stadium.
Its menu dripped with promise: toasties (toasted sandwiches) stuffed with glorious cheese. And real bread, granary bread, something we’d never spied before in Japan. Loaves of it were stacked in rows above the counter, and a griddle sat to one side, where butter-slathered slices, jammed packed with fillings, were being flattened into crispy parcels.
We quickly became regular visitors. We munched our way through the signature Macbeth, filled with haggis – the savory Scottish pudding traditionally made of sheep’s offal – lightly spiced and surprisingly mild, entombed in cheese and enhanced with caramelized onions. We flirted with Robert the Bruce, stuffed with chicken, mozzarella, and tomato chutney, flecked with rocket greens and whisky-mustard mayonnaise. When he was usurped by Casanova, we rendezvoused with this new fiery lover, relishing the chicken and ‘nduja spicy sausage, accompanied by cheddar cheese, red onion and garlic aioli. Yes, we added a fried egg for fun. It was all guilty pleasure fare, but each bite was peppered with comfort and nostalgia.
Deeney’s Tokyo is not a mirage in a toastie-scarce Tokyo dessert. It’s very real, and yes, it’s straight out of the UK, the only overseas franchise of what began as a small haggis toastie truck, providing lunch to hungry East Londoners in Broadway Market.
This evening, we’re sitting at the counter decked out in beautiful and striking flowers from local florist LiL, a “nomadic” flower shop. Deeney’s Tokyo owners Yoko and Kitz are a flurry of activity, prepping toasties and side dishes and pouring drinks. They’re hosting a special pop-up event to showcase fermentation in Japanese cuisine and, judging by the drinks on offer, to also have a good time.
We know their origin story well by now, but tonight is an especially good time to chat about it. A friend who had been traveling with the couple during their fateful trip to London’s Broadway Market was in attendance, and soon they were reminiscing about their adventures. On that visit, Yoko and Kitz had shared the MacBeth toastie at Deeney’s despite having never heard of haggis before; they both hated onions, but what was this sweetness and deliciousness of caramelized onions? Everything was surprising and exciting.
The taste and experience would stay with Yoko and Kitz, who were also drawn to the immediacy of producing food for people in the market, toasting of the bread on a griddle in front of their eyes.
“I really thought street food culture in Europe was amazing, and I realized that many new delicious foods are developing in the UK,” says Yoko. “I also liked the idea of eating something warm in the street. Toasted sandwiches are still rare in Japan.”
While toasties might be common in London, haggis certainly isn’t, and that’s precisely why Deeney’s was founded in the first place. Carol Dwyer (née Deeney) grew up in a Scottish café and bemoaned the lack of Scottish fare in the city. Wanting to bring it to a wider audience, she quit her day job and launched a food stall in the summer of 2012 with her now-husband, Paddy. Their “Macbeth” haggis toastie was a hit, generating lunchtime lines, and the couple were able to set up a permanent home for Deeney’s in October 2015.
They weren’t prepared for international interest in their fledging business. Yet, less than a year-and-a-half later, they received a surprising Facebook message from Tokyo, inquiring about a Japan-based franchise.
“Carol wanted to know more about what we planned to do,” Yoko says. “So I drew her a diagram to explain, as I thought it would be easier to understand.”
After then, everything happened fast; the two couples hit it off, and – united by a vision of Scottish toasties – the wheels were set in motion to launch the business in Japan.
Yoko and Kitz jetted off to the UK, spending a week training at Deeney’s in London and a week traveling Scotland, sampling various kinds of haggis. By late 2017, they were operating a food truck at various locations across Tokyo, and by mid-2020, they had launched a permanent store, a stone’s throw from the Olympic stadium.
Despite the speed, it was a tough process to get everything off the ground. The couple was determined to replicate everything faithfully and there was much to learn. Sourcing ingredients like bread and cheese at an affordable price point presented a challenge. Making their own haggis was probably one of the easiest parts of the process: offal is widely eaten in Japan and, lamb, although not common, is a fixture on menus on the northern island of Hokkaido.
Five years in, Yoko and Kitz’s Deeney’s Tokyo truck is now a mainstay of a weekend farmers market in central Tokyo and their store has built a loyal customer base.
They’re liaising closely with Carol and Paddy on ways to develop the concept. Tonight’s pop-up menu features their latest venture called Deeney’s Hakko, with a bold mission statement: “Based on the Japanese food culture of “HAKKO,” [fermentation] this is Deeney’s take on a fermentation project influenced by Tokyo and transmitted to the world.”
The star toastie is the “Squash Spice” featuring generous amounts of thick-cut kabocha squash with kimchi and cheese, soy sauce honey and sriracha mayonnaise. It’s a lush flavor journey through notes of sweetness, spiciness and umami. We embrace its gooeyness with glee.
The powerful flavor combination was dreamt up in Deeney’s in London, and then Deeney’s Tokyo developed the recipe for the homemade kimchi. Collaboration underlies the entire business.
“If we just do something here in Tokyo, it’ll just be a Japanese sandwich and that’s boring,” Yoko says. “It’s far more interesting for us to develop a recipe together.”
For this one-off event, there are other special collaborations on the menu. There’s a white miso Kyoto-style ozoni (mochi soup) by Seico, owner of LiL, who provided the flowers. There are lemon sours from Open Book, a popular bar in Shinjuku’s Golden Gai drinking district. And – to our delight – there’s a “Miso snack,” greens flavored with miso from Soybean Farm, a miso speciality store we stop by on our Culinary Backstreets Tokyo tour; we had recommended it to Yoko and Kitz, and they had acquired some for the night.
This pop-up, they tell us, is just the beginning; they’ve a bold vision for the future of Deeney’s as a global franchise.
“Carol’s mission was to take haggis to the world when she started Deeney’s; it’s a very clear mission and it can be done in many countries,” Yoko says. “It might take more than ten years, but I think we can really do something interesting. This is how much I love Deeney’s.”
The next time we see Yoko and Kitz, a lot has changed, but their mission remains stronger than ever.
The building that housed the Deeney’s Tokyo main store was scheduled to be torn down, forcing them to find a new home. Yet their search wasn’t for long; they found themselves invited to join B-Flat COMMUNE, a new, experimental initiative that is set to run for the next three years. Located in the central Omotesando neighborhood, it occupies a vacant car park with food trucks, small independent stores, and pop-up stalls. The idea is to facilitate collaboration and communication between producers, and ferment new ideas along the way.
“It’s a place where many craftspeople and creators can come together, and within that, we’re representing the food sector,” says Kitz. “We want to do something together with stores that are really trying hard at something and that we know serve delicious products.”
Deeney’s Tokyo are doing more than serving up their sandwiches as usual. They have set up WAY, a shared food truck where different food producers can sell products together, offering experimental or limited time menu items. The duo plan to take it to Yoko’s hometown of Iwaki in Fukushima. They hope different vendors from the region can utilize the concept and also come to Tokyo to sell their wares, allowing WAY to operate as a kind of antenna store with the aim of revitalizing the local area.
For now, they’re selling their toastie line-up alongside ice-cream from Kumamoto-based Blanco and cookies and cakes by Sheep, which grew out of a coffee stand in Tokyo. They’re also continuing Deeney’s Hakko, currently offering hiyajiru, a chilled miso soup thickened with fish ground into a paste. Longer term, there are plans in the works to run a fermentation workshop in London, with an eye to rolling the concept out globally. “I want to make hakko a word that is understood around the world,” Yoko says with conviction.
We would happily follow Deeney’s around the world, one haggis toastie at a time. We will duly begin with a pilgrimage to London, where we hope to meet an enterprising couple called Carol and Paddy, and, of course, greet a very moreish Macbeth. More characters are sure to follow.
Published on September 13, 2023