Before I left for Fukuoka, I e-mailed my Japanese gourmet friend Abe san who lives in Tokyo
for some food and travel advice. He said just one thing to me ... "Nonna san, eat in a yatai!
It is so much fun!" Just what is a yatai? We Pinoys would be very familiar with it as we see
many of versions of it all over Metro Manila.
A yatai is an outdoor makeshift stall that sprouts up in busy streets at dusk and usually
remains open till way after midnight. While they have permanent locations, the stands are
very much temporary. Like Cinderella, they disappear at a certain hour and the area is left bare
and clean, as if the yatai was never there.
Fukuoka has over 140 yatai, the most of any city in Japan, no wonder they call it the iconic
Fukuoka dining experience.
There are yatai in several places around the city but I went to the ones clustered around
the Tenjin shopping district. This was just a convenient 20 minute walk from our hotel.
It was almost 7 p.m on a weekday evening but it was still light outside. With a seating capacity
of just 8 to 10 people, several yatai were already quite full, this early in the evening.
I crossed the street in search of my own happy hunting ground. Near the corner of
Showa-dori and Watanabe-dori, I found a yatai that seemed to have just opened for the
night. There were no other customers yet and Chef san seemed happy enough to see me ...
his buena mano for the evening.
Yatai have become so popular with tourists, that some stalls have english speakers manning
the counter and some have english menus.
But in this case, Chef san hardly spoke any English and I of course could only get by with my
limited Nihongo. But food is the universal language so we understood each other quite well.
I am not sure if this is the yatai's name but on the front of the menu it clearly states
Tenjin Yatai Shun.
While the menu was in Japanese, the photos clearly showed what was on offer.
Hakata style ramen, yakitori, karaage, stir fries -- these are the most common things on
offer at a yatai as I suppose they are popular and easy to cook.
Even if this is indeed a temporary and improvised "restaurant" care is given to ensure that
the food you eat is always in the best condition. There is a mini chiller where perishable
ingredients like the chicken for the yakitori, dumplings, fresh noodles etc are kept.
In Fukuoka, yatai do not serve anything raw so food quality and safety are never compromised.
Right beside the small chiller was a vat of oden. This is a traditional japanese dish with eggs, vegetables, tofu and fish cakes boiled and simmered in a clear dashi broth. It's usually a winter
food but because the ingredients are quite light -- slices of daikon, boiled eggs, konnyaku, chikuwa, etc., it works just as well during warmer seasons. And yes, it goes very well with alcohol!
Other diners had arrived who ordered yakitori and the chef set about cooking the
skewers over an open charcoal grill. It smelled delicious and for a moment, I was struck with
Nom nom nom! There were shy smiles all around but I guess we were too focused on our food
to engage in any light conversation.
Some yatai are mom-and-pop operations and some have two people working together.
Tenjin Yatai Shun had just this one multi-tasker who I presumed was the owner.
He took down orders, sliced and diced, grilled and sautéed, served everyone, washed the
dishes, wiped down the counter, received payments, made change... and mixed drinks too.
He did all this very cooly, he even had time for casual banter with all of us.
Such an amazing one man yatai show!
I ordered a bowl of Hakata tonkotsu ramen without expecting much because well --
this was a yatai so perhaps the ramen would just be so-so or as the Japanese like to say
"ma-ma". My bowl had all the ingredients -- the milky rich tonkotsu broth, thin slices of
chashu, scallions, lots of garlic, green onions and sesame seeds.
Well I was in for a pleasant surprise! The ramen was very good - the broth had that deep and complex flavour that you expect from of simmering pork bones for 12 hours. The noodles were springy. It was a bit skimpy on the chashu slices -- just two pieces but I only paid 600 yen for
the bowl so I had no right to complain.
I also ordered a dish of deep fried tofu which came with a generous topping of sliced fried
garlic, fresh ginger and lots of spring onions.
I can never resist konnyaku when it is on the table. I was already quite full but I saw it
simmering in the vat of oden. I enjoy the slightly gummy, slightly chewy texture of this
root vegetable. The Japanese say it is the perfect diet food -- zero calories and zero taste.
I disagree about the zero taste specially when it has been simmering in an umami-ful dashi
broth and served with a smudge of hot mustard on the side.
Yatai are essentially outdoor pubs so all sorts of drinks are available. Yatai Shun's bar was
actually a plastic bin by my feet, stocked high with bottles. There is oolong tea for
non-drinkers plus beer, sake, whisky, shochu for the imbibers. You can even order mixed
drink like shochu with orange juice or tea.
I wanted a regular bottle of beer but there were only large bottles on hand.
Mondai nai, Chef san ... daijobu desu. Kanpai!