Chukagai Gate, the main gateway in to Yokohama’s Chinatown.
It’s always exciting when two different cuisines come together. We’ve seen this in our own country when Chinese and Filipino cuisine came together, resulting in food items like hopia, lumpia and pancit. But what about in other cultures? In Yokahama, which boasts of having Japan’s largest Chinatown, I wanted to see the interaction of Japanese and Chinese cultures. What would be their culinary offspring?
Even when it is rainy, Yokohama’s Chinatown glows with colorful lights.
An hour by rail from Tokyo, Yokohama’s Chinatown was founded just as Japan was emerging from 220 years of isolation policy. This port city was among the first in Japan to be opened to world trade. But as more Western traders came to Yokohama, so did the need for translators. The Chinese then found that they were suited for that job, as they communicated with the Japanese through writing. As more and more Chinese settled, this led to the establishment of a Chinatown in Yokohama in 1859.
The lavish interior of a Chinese bakery in Yokohama’s Chinatown.
Cooks and chefs were among the Chinese that came to Yokohama, and it was around this time that more and more Japanese people were able to taste Chinese dishes such as noodles, steamed buns and dim sum. Similar to the Binondo phenomenon, Japanese cooks and restaurant owners adapted the recipes to suit local tastes and cooking styles–leading to the creation of dishes such as ramen and yakisoba.
A branch of the Butaman no Edosei near one of Yokohama’s Chinatown temple.
Despite the presence of a ramen museum in Yokohama, I wanted to focus more on how Chinese cuisine is prepared in Yokohama’s Chinatown. Not that I wanted to compare them with our brand of Chinese food and see who does a better job. Neither was my intention to seek the best examples there were. My aim was to understand how Chinese food was adapted to Japanese taste, and what it says about Japanese preferences in food.
With this street arch you can definitely say that Yokohama’s Chinatown came straight out of a theme park.
It was late in the afternoon already when I arrived at Motomachi Station, the nearest subway station to Chinatown. Just across it is the main archway to Chinatown. Compared to Binondo, Yokohama’s Chinatown seems like it was designed by a manga artist. Even under a cloudy sky, it glows with colorful pagoda style roofs, red paper lanterns and bright signages in gold and red. But I also noticed the blending of Japanese influences, like the practice of having wax or plastic representation of their dishes on display to attract customers.
Butaman no Edosei, one of the oldest sellers of butaman or siopao in Yokohama since the 1890s.
The sales ladies manning the counter at Butaman no Edosei.
As the rain poured, I decided to keep warm by looking for food. On Chukagai-Odori, one of the area’s main roads, I spotted a dimsum shop with a tour group outside. Named Butaman no Edosei, the shop is famous for their butaman (or what we called siopao) since 1894, according to CNN Travellers’ website, The plastic models on the counter showed a variety of steamed buns with different fillings, including chili shrimp, and beef with a simmered egg. Expensive by Manila standards, as a bun costs Y500 or P250, I still tried a beef bun.
Taking a bite of the beef and simmered egg siopao.
At the small seating area where the shop was thoughtful enough to provide an urn that dispensed free tea for customers, I halved the large bun and felt its warmth envelop me. Taking a bite and another, I could taste the soft bun and the texture of the beef, but discerned its flavor was light to my Filipino palate. While the simmered egg was interesting, it didn’t add to the flavor of the siopao. Maybe I was missing out on some sort of condiment or sauce. But I was not given any when I was handed the steamed bun, neither were there any additional sauces available in the seating area.
This is what a box of Y 680 (P 340) siomai looks like. The ceramic container holds the soy sauce.
As I was munching on the siopao, I chatted with a couple from Taiwan, who brought out a paper wrapped box of six steamed siomai from a shop called Kiyoken. Instead of just dumping the siomai in a Styrofoam box, they understood that the Japanese place a premium on packaging, and I wasn’t surprised when I found it cost Y680 or P340. An 80-year-old institution, Kiyoken grew from selling siomai or shumai to become a catering empire that offers everything from bento lunches to hosting wedding events. They’ve become so huge that they even offer tours to their siomai factory. Their dumplings look like they’re from Masuki and Lingnam, but have the same firm-to-the-bite texture and mild sweet flavor. Kiyoken’s luxe dimsum packaging includes a small blue-and-white ceramic soy sauce bottle and a packet of mustard.
For my next stop, I scouted around for the best food deal, something l learned growing up in Chinatown. I switched on my thrifty food radar, and it led me to a small restaurant on Suzhou Alley called Kyakumando. What made it such a good find? There was a poster on the door advertising a meal set menu at Y 490 or around P 245. That already includes rice, soup, an extra side dish, pickles and dessert. Definitely a great deal!
Chili shrimp dinner at Kyakumando.
Choosing their chili shrimp, a Japanese adaptation of an iconic Sichuan dish first introduced in the 1950s, Kyakumando served each of the courses kaiseki style, on individual plates. From my experience dining in China and Hong Kong, plating for meals for solo diners tends to be simpler. Except when I order dimsum, different courses are usually served on the same plate such as the entrée and the rice. But the Japanese value plating and presentation more than we do. While the restaurant I chose was not high end, the food models displayed in the window of the more expensive restaurants does indicate plating in those places is indeed more refined and elegant.
While I liked the texture of the chili shrimp, which was firm to the bite, the sauce – which I expected to be spicy – was actually mild, perhaps to avoid overwhelming the briny flavor and sweetness of the shrimp. Had I wanted to tweak the flavor, there was an available condiment tray with chili oil and soy sauce. I was pretty full at the end of that meal–you would be too if you also had the egg corn soup, the slice of roast pork and the almond jelly that went with that set meal.
If I still had enough stomach space, I’d continue exploring the sweet shops selling panda-themed desserts, as well their mooncakes. But as I reflect on my Yokohama Chinatown trip, I gained an understanding about how a culture adapts or borrows the food culture of another country, and makes it their own. It’s not only in changing the taste of the dish and using local ingredients, but also understanding the eating habits of the locals and the manner by which the food is served.
Connecting with the Japanese as diners, Yokohama’s Chinatown still holds culinary adventures for Pinoys who think they’ve seen or tasted it all in Binondo.
Butaman no Edosei
192 Yamashita cho, Naka-ku, Yokohama
9am to 8pm (Mon to Fri) 9am to 9pm (Sat, Sun and holiday)
Kiyoken Chukagai Higamoshiten
147 Yamashita cho, Naka-ku, Yokohama (Across from Motomachi Station, next to the Chinatown Gate)
106-18, Yamashitacho, Naka-ku, Yokohama-shi, Kanagawa, 231-0023
11am to 11pm (Mon to Sun)