'Peculiar Nice Food'

Besides these occasional pieces, the magazine featured a monthly column on dining out titled ‘Guide to the Unusually Delicious’ (Myo na umai mono annai), or what the translator of the English table of contents rendered as ‘Peculiar Nice Food’ and alternatively, ‘Peculiar Dainties’. The column remained at a familiar spot near the end of each issue. Sei Kyuro debuted the column in the first issue and continued it for almost a year through March 1906. After a 2-month hiatus, Okamoto Rokusen took on the column and continued it to the termination of the publication. Very few of the articles in Culinary Magazine introduced the authors, so we do not know the backgrounds of Sei and Okamoto, who restricted their personal information to their dining preferences.[1] [2] [3]

Sei Kyuro introduced the rationale for the column in the debut issue in which he tried to explain the meaning of the phrase in the title ‘unusually delicious’.

It is my intention to introduce only the most unusually delicious eating-places. There are many things that can be called unusual. There is the unusual cuisine of Yaozen that makes one lick one’s lips, and everyone would say that was unusual. Then there are certainly the unusual things that cause us to raise our eyebrows saying ‘are you really going to eat that? That is unusual!’ But from such a standpoint, ultimately everything could be called unusual. So what type of unusual is the truly unusual? Since this question could devolve into a situation where the unusual becomes impossible to apprehend, exactly what is being called unusual will be announced right at the start [of each review]. The things that I intend to introduce are those that are not generally known to people; those that are unobserved; specialty products; those only available at one shop in Tokyo; products that might be similar but establishments where the techniques are different; places that are unorthodox and unusual... and so on. However, even if they are unusual, if the food tastes bad, I will not introduce it. I have no use at all for causing distress over rotten tofu.[4]

By introducing the unusual, Sei sought to broaden his readers’ knowledge about the types of prepared foods available, while bearing in mind the maxim that the unusual must also be delicious.

Over the course of the series, the two authors introduced a variety of eateries, from cheap beef on rice establishments that charged a few sen to places that specialized in loach soup, blowfish, seafood, chicken, grilled eel, fried tofu, soba, boiled tofu, sushi and cod. Tempura restaurants were the most frequently listed. The columnists also covered confectioners, spotlighting the shops selling the best or most unusual dumplings (dango), rice crackers, barnyard millet cakes, plum candy and rice cakes in sweet azuki syrup (shiruko). They mentioned the best places for vegetables pickled in sake lees (kasuzuke) and where to buy good amazake, the warm beverage made from rice, hot water, and koji mould. All of their reviews followed the same format of providing exact directions to the establishment, listing the prices, and frequently naming and quoting conversations with the chefs or owners. The fact that the writers interacted with the stores’ management begs the question of how they selected the businesses and whether or not they were compensated for doing so and by whom.

In December 1905, Sei Kyuro reviewed Mitsuboshi, the third branch of Otowa-tei, which opened in 1904, the restaurant named after the female protagonist from Murai Gensai’s novel, as noted earlier. Sei reported that Mitsuboshi’s customers could order Western-style dishes priced between 7 and 20 sen or simply have milk with bread. Beer and whiskey were also available. He noted that the price was inexpensive given the quality and taste of the food, but the portions were small. Mitsuboshi exceeded the quality of the original Otowa-tei, which Sei found disappointing even after making several visits to it.[5] In July 1905, Sei reviewed a Korean restaurant, which he declared ‘truly unusual’, using the column’s buzzwords. He described Korean food as a blend of four parts Western and six parts Chinese, but his report offered little more than the restaurant’s menu.[6]

Okamoto provided a more voyeuristic expedition in his penultimate column where he wrote up his visit to a ‘one sen meal shop’, the lowest category of eatery that usually featured recycled food such as the leftover rice from box lunch shops. ‘In a word, one sen meal shops are extremely bleak, but that does not mean that all of them serve particularly dreadful food.’ With that preamble, he described entering the door of an unnamed establishment in Udagawabashi in Shibuya, where he discovered, ‘a long narrow wooden table with seating places on either side. The kitchen was visible off to the side, and four or five older men and youths worked there’. Okamoto had a hard time following the rapid speech of the server, but he and his companion ordered tofu soup and a squid stew. Looking around at the other customers, Okamoto was relieved to see reputable people, men who appeared to be shop hands, someone who seemed like he was in the lumber trade and another who was probably a streetcar driver. A man in a uniform, either a train conductor or postman, lent an air of respectability to the place. When the steaming bowl of food arrived, Okamoto tried it with suspicion, but found it much better than he had feared. He declared the fare far better than the worst restaurant. Okamoto’s unnamed companion observed, ‘for breakfast one can finish off two bowls of soup, three bowls of rice, and some pickles. And that would be five or six sen. I don’t understand how people can tolerate reheated rice from a lodging house or rotten grains from a box lunch shop’.[7] Readers of Culinary Magazine paid double the amount of a six sen meal for the price of a single issue, and so were not the typical customers of such establishments. Okamoto’s report provided them with the vicarious pleasure of gazing at what the sturdy working class ate. He may have intended his review to grant some prestige to the lowest rank of eatery, but he succeeded in making a spectacle of the only dining experience that some could afford.

Culinary Magazines emphasis on restaurant reviews - and in particular the column Guide to the Unusually Delicious’ - captured readers’ attention judging from the letters included in the monthly’s ‘Readers’ Column’, which identified the letter writers only by pseudonyms. One reader complained when the magazine omitted the monthly column of restaurant reviews.[8] In the October 1906 issue, a low ranking sumo wrestler bragged about the amount of food he recently consumed at a restaurant and asked Okamoto Rokusen to take him along with him the next time he reviewed a restaurant. ‘Not only do I eat a lot, I know what tastes good and bad.’[9] A writer identified as ‘Foodie in Training’ (shoku shugyoka) asked the magazine to publish a portrait of Sei Kyuro. One wonders if that letter came from a restaurant owner who wanted to know what the reviewer looked like when, and if, he visited their establishment.[10] Readers frequently offered other suggestions for fine dining.[8] Two letters praised the eatery Mugitoro for its good food and inexpensive prices. The first letter, which appeared in the October 1906 issue, used the word unusual (myo) six times in a single sentence, adopting the catch phrase from Sei and Okamoto’s column to try to rank Mugitoro among the other establishments featured in their reviews. The second letter published 4 months later referenced the first letter and confirmed the restaurant’s quality and fair prices.[12] Other readers adopted the Reader’s Column as a forum for airing their complaints about restaurants. One revealed that the restaurant Iroha in Asakusa, which advertised game hunted by falcons, in fact sourced its meats by other means. A reader named ‘North-Country Born’ (Hokukokusei) boldly stated: ‘If one is asked about what tastes awful, there is nothing that tastes as bad as the dreadful food at the Hanagoya in Tokyo.’ Another lamented that the chicken restaurant Torimasu had fallen in quality and employed rude servers. Conversely, the best beef steak could be found at the restaurant London, but the writer who offered that opinion, and challenged others to go to the establishment to judge this for themselves, rated the rest of London’s fare to be of ordinary quality: other venues sold tastier stew and beef with cabbage dishes.[13] Readers of the column would learn to avoid the tempura restaurant Tendora in Ginza, which ‘is not only utterly disgusting and run down but also an establishment of bad taste’. Another writer claimed that the beef sold in a small establishment in Ueno was actually horsemeat.[14]

Whether they reflect the actual views of readers or those of the magazine’s staff, the contributions to the Readers’ Column most often addressed restaurants rather than home cooking. Only one reader wrote for recipes. A person identified as ‘Born as a Mountain Monkey in Gifu prefecture’ (Gifu-ken yamazaru umare) asked the magazine to publish more chicken recipes since beef was unavailable in his locale. The derogatory nickname may have been used to show humility, but it confirmed an association with that rural locale and backwardness.[15]

People from Hida, the mountainous northern part of Gifu, were often compared disparagingly with monkeys.[16] [17] The magazine’s staff and its erudite readers may have quietly chuckled at another letter from a reader from a rural area. In the October 1906 issue, someone who also identified himself as hailing from a remote mountain village, asked for

directions on how to hold a fork, use a knife and properly eat Western

44

meals.

  • [1] Rokusanjin, ‘Tokyo no ryori annai (1)’, 77-82.
  • [2] Mishima, ‘Kashi hyobanki’.
  • [3] Someone by the name of Sei Kyuro published theatre reviews in 1904 in the literary monthlyNew Currents (Shincho) and in 1908 in Letters Magazine (Tegami Zasshi), published by Yurakusha,the same company that printed Kuidoraku; Zasshi Kiji Sakuin Shusei Detabesu. Sei admits in onearticle that he hailed from Nagato, the northwest part of Yamaguchi prefecture. Sei, ‘Myo na umaimono annai (sono shi)’, 33.
  • [4] Sei, ‘Myo na umai mono annai’, 42.
  • [5] Sei, ‘Myo na umai mono annai (sono go)’, 47.
  • [6] Ibid., 51.
  • [7] Okamoto, ‘Myo na umai mono (sono niju san)’, 72-73.
  • [8] ‘Dokusha ran’, 2.13, 87.
  • [9] ‘Dokusha ran’, 2.11, 86-87.
  • [10] ‘Dokusha ran’, 2.3, 51.
  • [11] ‘Dokusha ran’, 2.13, 87.
  • [12] ‘Dokusha ran’, 2.11, 87. The second letter appears in ‘Dokusha ran’, 3.2, 89.
  • [13] ‘Dokusha ran’, 2.14, 94—96.
  • [14] ‘Dokusha ran’, 3.2, 89—91.
  • [15] ‘Dokusha ran’, 2.3, 50.
  • [16] Ema, Hida no onnatachi, 1.
  • [17] ‘Dokusha ran’, 2.11, 86.
 
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