If you were visiting Tokyo, what would you eat?
Although Tokyo has many popular traditional cuisines like Edomae-sushi and Fukagawa-meshi, the “Monjayaki” is also a beloved Tokyo food that cannot be looked over. Monjayaki is associated with the common people’s culture of the “shitamachi” (literally, low-town) areas of Tokyo, and has undergone many transformations since its birth in the Edo period. As a shitamachi staple, it continues to be loved by adults and children alike.
This time, we travelled to Chuo-ku to visit the holy land of monjayaki, “Tsukishima”, in order to learn the food’s roots, and tips on the best way to make it. In addition, we have also chosen three select stores out of the sixty in business on “Tsukishima Monja Street” in order for you to get the best taste of this Downtown Tokyo gourmet food!
What is “Monjayaki”, the famous dish of “Low-town” Tokyo?
“Monjayaki”, The Beloved Tokyo Shitamachi Food
”Monjayaki” is famous as an unpretentious, common people’s comfort food of Tokyo.
However, it is not very well known outside of Tokyo, and it is hard to find any stores specializing in monjayaki outside of the city. It is often compared to other flour-based dishes like takoyaki and okonomiyaki but unlike these, monjayaki tracks its roots back to the commoner’s culture of the Tokyo area. The idea of “konamon (flour foods)” often correlates with Osaka, but even there, there are not many stores specializing in monjayaki. Usually, shops specializing in okonomiyaki will also just happen to have monjayaki on their menu. So, how exactly did monjayaki originate in Tokyo, and plant its roots in the people’s hearts?
To discover this foods’ origin, we of course went to the main monjayaki hotspot in the city, Tsukishima. “Tsukishima Monja Street”, which can be found a few minutes walk away from Tsukishima station, is known as the holy land of monja yaki, with over 60 stores lining this street.
”Tsukishima Monja Street” hosts a cluster of monjayaki restaurants.
This whole area is covered with the fragrant smell of monjayaki sauce - just walking around here will make you feel hungry. At both day and night, this area is full of people from within and outside of Tokyo, all searching for exquisite monjayaki.
Tsukishima Monja Street Map
We visited the “Tsukishima Monja Association” to find out more about the development of monjayaki in Tsukishima.
What Are The Roots of Tsukishima Monja?
The “Tsukushima Monja Association” along Tsukishima Monja Street’s Ichibangai arcade
There are other areas in Tokyo, aside from Tsukishima, with monjayaki shops lining the streets. One of these places, is “Asakusa”.Although the origins of monjayaki have been theorized, its history is foggy. After all, it is a food historically loved as a common people’s snack. It is largely undocumented, and passed down through generations from person to person.
Monjayaki is seen as being eaten in Asakusa since the Edo Period - but what about Tsukishima?
Image of Monjayaki
Kataoka-san, the director of the monja association, spoke about monjayaki’s roots in Tsukishima:
“It seems that in the Showa Period,monjayaki was popular among children as a snack in between meals.”
At that time, children living together in a neighborhood would gather at a residence with a large dirt floor (traditional Japanese homes had a space with exposed plaster, dirt, or concrete floors), where an iron plate would be set up. The children would cook monjayaki in a form similar to how it is made today, and then eat it as a snack. In the same way they would buy candy from the candy store after school, the children would cook monjayaki by pouring flour mixed in water onto the iron plate.
It is often said that the origin of monjayaki was a snack sold in neighbourhood sweets shops, but as far as Kataoka-san knows, no one was eating monjayaki from candy stores in Tsukishima. Regardless, it is certain that monjayaki was beloved by children as a snack, and was already widely known and loved by children in the Showa period.
Monjayaki was beloved as a snack by children in Tsukishima
From the Showa Period onwards, Monjayaki quickly became a customary part of the lives of people in Tsukishima. As time passed, the food evolved with new toppings to cater to the taste buds of adults, giving form to the specialized monjayaki restaurants that exist today. Monjayaki began to become famous as a representative food of Tsukishima.
What is The Best Way to Make Monjayaki?
Most of the sightseers and travelers visiting from outside of Tokyo would not say that they have made the dish themselves. Although many people can imagine the process in their head -- pouring the batter over a pan, making a solid ridge, and filling its inside with the soup -- beginners would surely appreciate some pointers.
When asking Kataoka-san the best way to make monjayaki, his reply was quite unexpected: “Anything is fine! (laughs) In the old days, the edge of the iron plates did not curve up, so if you did not make a little bank with the ingredients, the soup will spill out onto the floor. Most shops now use iron plates with edges on the end to keep the soup from spilling out, so making that bank with the ingredients is not so important anymore, and it’s fine if some soup escapes from the bank”.
Pouring soup into the monjayaki
Kataoka-san noted that the roots of monjayaki lie in being a fun food for children to eat in groups.“I hope for people to appreciate the time and process of making monjayaki as a group, as a sort of fun activity in itself.”
Regardless of the store you visit, whether you can or cannot make the bank correctly, burn your food slightly, or forget to cut up your cabbage, the most important thing is to enjoy the experience of monjayaki.
When enjoying this beloved unpretentious “low-town” food, whether you are a beginner or a big monjayaki fan, the most important thing may be to experience the food in your own free way.
“Tsukishima Monja” souvenirs are sold inside the Tsukishima Monja Association
Enjoy Monja on Tsukishima Monja Street!
After studying monjayaki’s roots and best ways to enjoy the dish, it's time to go visit some monjayaki stores on Tsukishima Monja Street. As of November 2019, there are 54 stores on the street that are part of the Tsukishima Monja Association. These stores accept “meal tickets” issued by the association that allow customers to enjoy monjayaki at a lower price.
Meal Ticket” Used At Association Stores. You can purchase 1,100 JPY Tickets For 1,000 JPY
Among these stores, we have chosen three popular shops that are open for both dinner and lunch. Make sure to check these out while searching for your favorite shop!
Monja Taro’s storefront is characterized by a red curtain
”Monja Taro” opened its doors in November 1992. The store was originally located in Monja Street’s Nibangai (second street), but has been operating a temporary space at the entrance of Ichibangai since November 2019 in accordance with the redevelopment of the area.
A popular Japanese chess manga, “Sangatsu no Lion (English: March Comes in Like a Lion)” featured a monjayaki restaurant based on this store, and it has become a popular destination for fans of the manga and anime. The interior walls are decorated with posters of the manga and signed papers by the anime’s voice actors, making it a fun space for fans.
Posters and signed papers from “March Comes in Like a Lion” line the interior of the shop
There are over 30 types of monjayaki available here. In addition to “moto su-monja” (A soup made of flour, worcester sauce, and water, using cabbage, fried eggs, sakura shrimp and squid), the basic monjayaki of Tsukishima, monja with fish, lighter taste, and meat are also in the menu.
The flagship monja is “Taro monja” (1340 JPY), which takes the name of the shop. This hearty original monjayaki is made using braised pork. The braised pork is made using ingredients provided by a popular ham store that Taro has had connections with since its own opening. This store has made this braised pork for over 20 years, and the taste has not changed one bit. The pork’s robust flavoring, as well as its firm, but not too soft texture has made it a popular item.
Other popular items are the menu are the fish based “Jiro Monja (1340 JPY)”, the vegetable and seafood filled “Hanako Monja” (1340 JPY). Because monja’s batter is made by a mixture of its ingredients, its flavor can change dramatically just by switching its main ingredient.
We would also like to recommend “Salmon Mayonnaise Monja”, which uses salmon, mayonnaise and butter in the monja base. This menu item is quite popular with all ages, children and adults.
Monja Taro’s recommended monja “Salmon Mayonnaise Monja” (1300 JPY)
At Monja Taro, you can either make your monjayaki by yourself, or ask a staff member to assist you. If you’re not used to making monja, feel free to watch the staff quickly make your monjayaki, and challenge yourself the next time you go out for monja.
First,the salmon is grilled
After melting butter on the iron plate, place your salmon on top of the plate to grill it. After splitting it into fine pieces, add in the squid, sakura shrimp, then throw in the cabbage, fried egg, and let them cook as you mix them together.
Once the cabbage is cooked, you can start mixing the rest of the ingredients
One of the characteristics of this shop is the rough cut of the cabbage. Most shops cut their cabbage finely, but this store cuts it to large pieces to preserve the texture of the cabbage.
Pouring the soup into the ridge
After your cabbage has begun to curl on the heat, make a circle, and pour the soup into the middle. For those preparing the meal themselves who do not want the soup to spill out, we recommend pouring a little bit of the soup at a time. Start by making a small circular ridge with the batter, and then pour half of the soup inside. Once that has begun to cook, it is time to expand the circle and pour the rest of it. This way, you can make a nicely shaped monja with no spills!
Mix the monja and you’re done!
Once the soup is simmering, mix in the surrounding ingredients with a spatula. Finally, once the ingredients have coalesced, spread the monjayaki on the iron plate to complete the meal.
The fragrances of the butter and sauce mix perfectly
The fragrance of the butter mixing with the combination of salmon and mayonnaise is sure to excite your senses. The strong worcester sauce and smell of the butter also match perfectly in the mouth. These varied tastes go great with some alcohol. For those who like heavy tastes, try mixing in cheese or adding some on top. You can also improve the texture by adding some dry cup noodles on top.
Try varying the flavor with a touch of shichimi seasoning or seaweed
If you eat slowly, some of the batter will eventually burn slightly on the iron plate. This is another fun part of monjayaki. Nakamura-san, the staff member who cooked for us on this day, mentions:
“The sauce gets slightly burnt which makes for a great smell. Make sure to scrape the burnt batter with your spatula, and enjoy the monjayaki to its fullest.”
When we tried it out, we found the flavor of the monja had coalesced into the crispy texture of the burnt batter, almost as if it had become a senbei rice cracker.
Monja Mugi Main Branch
Temporary storefront of Monja Mugi’s main branch. Right beside of it is its Nishinaka branch
Next, let us introduce “Monja Mugi”, which is also operating in a temporary location due to the redevelopment of the street. This popular store operates a main branch, as well as “Nishinakaten” and “Seichodori” stores in the Tsukishima area for a total of three shops.
Tatami seats and tables are available
The main branch was built in 1983. It is a long-standing business that has accompanied Tsukishima’s monjayaki culture for 36 years. You can see the popularity of the store by the celebrities’ signatures adorning the walls and doors of the shop. The “Natsuki Mari Special” is a unique monja among most menus. This shop is frequently visited by actress Mari Natsuki, and this monja contains the toppings always ordered by her. Of course, she also officially approves of this menu choice.
Papers signed by celebrities decorate the walls and doors
We ordered the “Mugi Special”, a voluminous monjayaki containing over 10 kinds of toppings. This monja is 1.5 times the size of a normal monja, and contains cabbage, fried egg, squid, mushroom, shrimp, corn, green onion, pork, tuna, fish cake, sakura shrimp. Fish, pork and mushrooms that go well with monja are used in this dish. Each time you take a bite of it, different ingredients can be tasted, allowing for many different flavors in one monja. This shop ensures the highest freshness of their ingredients and even goes directly to Tsukiji Market to purchase their fish.
The large “Mugi Special” with over 10 ingredients (1450 JPY)
Here, you can cook the monja yourself or ask a staff member to cook it for you. Instructions for beginners are written on the walls - make sure to try them out with your friends and family.
Instructions are written on the wall
This store prides itself on not cutting its cabbage. This cabbage, making up the base of the ingredients, is cut into large pieces and cooked only lightly on the iron plate. The sweetness of the cabbage spreads in the mouth,giving the monja a mellow and mild taste.
Enjoy the texture of the large-cut cabbage
The varied ingredients give a different taste with each bite.
The “Mugi Yaki” is an original, long beloved dish that can only be had at Monja Mugi. Cheese, mushrooms, onions, weiner sausage, and green pepper are rolled up into a crepe form and dipped in lemon soy sauce. It is recommended to finish your monjayaki experience with this dish. The lemon soy sauce will help clean your palate after eating the thick, saucy monjayaki.
If you enjoy the “Mugi Main Branch”, make sure to also visit the “Nishinaka” and “Seichodori” branches as well. Each shop has its own original menu which will allow you to experience different tastes from the main store.
The last store we will introduce is “Monja Kotobukiya” found between Nibangai and Sanbangai on Monja Street. This shop is special among the others in the area, in that it was built with two floors. It has been present on Tsukishima Monja street for twenty years. This shop used to only have one floor, but moved to its currently two floor space during the redevelopment of the street 10 years ago. The first floor has table seats, while the second floor has tatami rooms, making it easy to bring children with you.
Salted Shrimp Avocado Monja (1300 JPY)
We ordered the “Salted Shrimp Avocado Monja”, which is loved by women. This item comes with a salted broth, tender shrimp and avocado, paired with sliced onions to create a mild, easy to eat dish.
The smell of the shrimp cooking is great
The staff at this shop will cook the monja for you. A peculiarity of this shop is that they cut the cabbage last. After the fillings have been mixed and combined with the soup, the cabbage is cut up and added in with a spatula. The slightly cooked cabbage adds some sweetness and dashi flavor into the soup, creating a dish that better preserves the flavor of the vegetables.
Cabbage is cut at the end
Glossy, sparkling monja
Upon first taste, you notice that it’s a different taste from other monja - much more refined in nature.
One reason for this is that Kotobukiya does not use worcester sauce for its soup seasoning, but uses bonito stock instead.
Tender shrimp, salt broth, and dashi make a perfect combination
The taste and texture of the tender shrimp covered in salt sauce explode in the mouth - such a nice taste seems like a mismatch for a food whose history lies in children’s snacks and commoner culture. All of the monja on the menu is made to match this dashi (bonito soup stock) broth - I can see why this store is so popular with women. The fragrance of the dashi also extends to the burnt batter that is left over - you’ll never get tired of this perfect monjayaki!。
Even the burnt batter retains the broth’s fragrance
Find Your Favorite Tsukishima Monja!
Tsukishima Street is the holy land of monjayaki in Japan. Tsukishima’s monjayaki which derives from its own unique roots and evolutions, bases its flavor on the old-time children’s favorite to create a fun comfort dish now loved by many office workers. Take your friends, loved ones and family with you to Tsukishima Monja Street to experience making and tasting monjayaki!