Meals on Wheels

Oct 24, 2011 19:14 No Comments


Fukuoka’s Yatai

Fukuoka City can be proud of many things; spicy mentai-ko, those soaring Hawks, and without question the ubiquious yatai (mobile food stalls) that pop-up all over town as the sun sets. Fukuoka’s 200 licensed yatai by far out number those of any other city in Japan. On street corners, near riverbanks, and around parks, they are a prime attraction for tourists and locals alike. Most stalls in Tokyo or Osaka stick to a single dish, such as oden, ramen, or yakitori. The Fukuoka stalls, however, are noted for menus with a greater selection.

While they originated in the 18th century during the Edo period, today’s stalls were born in the black market after World War II, when repatriated Japanese colonists and war widows went into business to eke out a living. The stalls in Hakata’s Nagahama district in particular flourished as prototypical fast food outlets open round the clock for people working in the nearby fish market. These Hakata landmarks have been slowly disappearing year by year, however, after local police adopted a policy of limiting operation to a single generation of merchants. As the proprietors get older, about 10 or 20 stalls close for good every year. So, get it while you can–the cornucopia of choice they offer is a phenomenon limited to the present.

Most are rather small, measuring 3 by 2.5 meters. The cramped quarters force patrons to sit cheek to cheek with strangers just to down a drink-though some will enjoy that aspect. It’s commonplace for perfect strangers to hit it off on a Hakata stall bench. People let their hair down, and no one cares about titles or status. The grub and the grog aren’t so expensive, and customers are free to choose what they want. Patrons are very flexible in their approach to these sidewalk shops. They use them for meals, a quick snack and a beer on the way home after work, or to have one for the road after a drinking party. Operating hours are determined by the stall’s location, but generally they open around 7:00 p.m., when it starts getting dark, and shut down about 4:00 a.m. None open on rainy days. Don’t expect any toilet facilities, but most are located near a public restroom of some kind, so you won’t have far to trot.

Visiting in a small group is best, because most can hold no more than 12-15 people. Sliding doors are set up in winter to keep out the wind, but that doesn’t make them any warmer. Another feature of these eateries is that hygiene demands the food be heated on the spot and served. Therefore, don’t expect any sashimi or sushi, and if you see any, there are no quality guarantees. Sometimes, the menu and prices are not clearly defined, so make sure before ordering. If your Japanese is not up to snuff, best take along a fluent friend. Following are some sample menus, a glossary of useful terms, and a guide to help you find good yatai. Read on to enjoy street life the Fukuoka way!

An amazing array of dishes can be had at Fukuoka’s mobile diners. Here’s some local staples that can be enjoyed almost all yatai.

Variations on these dumplings are found worldwide, but this style originated in China. There is a flour-based shell with ground meat–usually pork–onions, and spices inside. Fukuoka gyoza are bite sized with a crispy skin for easy eating. They’re also seasoned with sauce and the local yuzugosho paste, which is either red or green. Don’t be heavy-handed–it’s spicy!

Folks in Fukuoka skewer chunks of pork and beef as well as chicken. The fatty butabara (pork) or sagari (beef) are juicy and perfect with your favorite tipple. They are served with shredded raw cabbage sprinkled freshly squeezed lemon juice. Other treats include teba (chicken wings), hatsu (chicken hearts), and gyutan (beef tongue). Supplies vary from day to day, so tell the proprietor what you like and be open to their recommendations.

Single dishes
Stalls serve fine food that can put fancy restaurants to shame–saut仔d vegetables, saut仔d liver and chives, egg dishes, and fried rice. Patrons can find meat or vegetables to suit their taste, and it’s another great way to nibble while you nip.

Ramen is the most popular food served at stalls. Down home in Fukuoka, ramen is cooked up tonkotsu style. Straight, thin noodles are slithered into the milky white pork broth. You can tell a Hakata stall specializing in ramen by its distinctive aroma. Condiments include red ginger, green onions, Chinese-style BBQ pork, and white sesame. For the natives, ramen is a snack food, and perfect after a night of drinking.

First, belly up to the bar and order a beer! Street stalls have simple refrigerators, so there’s always a cold one available in a bottle, and some even have beer on tap. And don’t forget that Kyushu is the home of shochu, which is madly popular throughout Japan now. It’s distilled from grains, so it’s very healthy–builds you up and tears you down at the same time! If you’re in a shochu mood, be sure to try one of the aromatic brands made from yams. Other folks prefer the shochu made from barley or rice, and if you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across a stall stocking the kind made from brown sugar or buckwheat. Try it on the rocks or mixed with either hot or cold water. In the winter, a serving of hot sake will warm you in more ways than one. If alcohol isn’t your thing, the stalls have oolong tea or something else to wet your whistle.

Yapping at the Yatai!

Aitemasuka? ミ May we enter? / Any seats open?
Sore wa nan desuka? ミ Whatユs that?
Osusume wa? ミ Whatユs recommended?
Oishii ミ Delicious
Ikura desuka? ミ How much?
Oaiso ミ Check please
O-tearai wa? – Where’s the toilet?

Alternative Yatai
OK, OK! No more noodles you say. No problem. In fact there’s an increasing number of yatai that don’t even serve Japanese food! For a more eceltic experience try these.

Okinawan native owned and operated friendly yatai with a killer location at Nishi-dori and Kokutai-doro. Full range of Okinawan dishes like goyachanpuru (600 yen), rafute (550 yen), Okinawan noodles (700 yen), and of course awamori (firewater!) 400 yen. Good size portions too!

Ofu Shokudo Kikuya
Just another other yatai from the outside, but inside a former hotel chef busily prepares tasty French and Italian dishes such as Foie Gras Sautee (1,000 yen), Rattuie Pasta (800 yen), Beef Stew in red wine sauce and pizzas too. Red and white wine by glass (300 yen) or bottle. Bon apetit!

Don! (Watanabedori)
Former English-speaking international cruise ship chef offers Western favorites such as omelets, pizza, and dry curry.

Ebi-chan (Reisen-koen)
Fancy a dry martini, fresh-fruit cocktail or salty dog? Ebi-chan’s owner and assistant dressed in white shirts and bow ties add a touch of class to street-side dining.


Yatai Hot Spots
Yatai can be found all over town, but here are a few areas to get you started.

Nagahama (15 stalls)
Fukuoka’s premier street stall district. The stalls, shoehorned next to each other along the street, are a striking sight. Stalls took over this part of town due to its close proximity to the fish market. Merchants came to offer a quick meal of ramen to the market workers. To get there, just tell the cab driver to take you the Nagahama “yatai-dori”.

Showa-dori and Nishi-dori (8 stalls)
Strategically located between the fashionable Nishi-dori (Daimyo) and the bar and club center, Oyafuko-dori, this intersection hosts a string of popular yatai. Perfect for a bite before or after partying.

Bank of Japan (8 stalls)
This location is near the Tenjin Post Office bus stop, also used by long-distance buses. Only in Fukuoka can you have a quick one while waiting for the bus! Just be sure not to miss yours if you have one too many!

Kego Park (10 stalls)
There’s a lane full of stalls next to Kego Park, just outside the Nishitetsu Railway Station exit. You might find yourself next to a squad of salarymen on the way home from work. Convenient for a bowl of ramen before the last train pulls out.

Reisen Park (7 stalls)
This is a surprisingly quiet location between Nakasu and Hakata. Many of these stalls there are quite distinctive. The patrons include local people and tourists, a lot of whom are regulars. Recommended as an escape from the bustle of Nakasu.

Nakasu River (13 stalls)
For scenery it’s hard to beat this riverbank with colorful neon signs as a backdrop. The scene featuring stall lanterns stretched out along the side of the Naka River is a frequent destination of tour guides. The Canal City complex of shops, hotels, restaurants and entertainment facilities is also nearby.

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