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Wild Italian Man Wants To Eat Monja Too

monjayaki

Why would a wild Italian man want to eat Monja? Why is he wild? What’s Monja?

Those were some of the questions my good friend T and I had as we walked along Nishinaka Dori Street one humid evening. It had been one of those sticky hot summers Tokyo is known for. One that most people, Japanese or not, despise – the type that my napturally curly hair loves so much.

We were out of ideas as to how to spend the last lazy days of the Obon holidays. This is the occasion when many Japanese spend family time paying respect to their ancestors at grave sites around the country. Others go abroad to completely refresh and relax.

Since we had already gone to Malaysia and Singapore twice that year, we decided to stick around and explore our adopted city. As seasoned travel buddies we knew exactly how to signal trouble and make quick exits with our own arsenal of facial ticks and blinks. We also knew when to just jump in and make the most of it.

Earlier that day, I woke up to T’s phone call. Still drowsy from a night of clubbing, I answered.

“Where to today?”, she asked.

“I don’t know, T.”

She decided our fate on her Tokyo Metro map with a drop of her finger on a tiny square-shaped island in the Sumida Gawa River. Kachidoki.

So, we hopped on the Denentoshi Line (Hanzomon Line) and transferred at Kiyosumi Shirakawa station to the Oedo Line. Walked up the myriad steps and got out at a quaint little urban village.

Maybe it was the Obon exodus or perhaps it was almost dinner time, but the narrow, neat alleys and streets were practically empty. We walked down one of them and all around us were older machiya (townhouses) with smells of miso soup and fried goodies floating out of their windows. Hunger pangs hit us hard.

Stomach growling, T pointed to a small intersection ahead of us. We walked toward it and rubbed our eyes. A t-shirt souvenir shop/dry cleaner’s? With vintage PONY game machines outside? T-shirts with colourful aliens? T-shirts with rabbits making something? T-shirts about a wild Italian man liking something called monja?

Irrashai imase!”, welcomed the shop clerk.

“A beautiful girls. Speak Japanese?”, he uttered in broken English.

We smiled.

He proudly held up one of the many colourful t-shirts with that cryptic phrase and read it to us.

“Wild Italian man wants to eat monja too!!”

(In its original Japanese it’s いたりややじんももんじややりたい)

T and I side-eyed each other. With food on our minds and no time to practice English with the ojisan, we were about to head out and follow the delicious smells that caught our noses.

Reading us immediately, ojisan shop clerk asked,

“Do you monja?”

“Do we what?”

In basic Japanese we explained that we were starving. A huge smile appeared on the ojisan‘s round face and once again he pointed to the t-shirt. He explained that the Japanese phrase was a palindrome that had to do with eating monja and rabbits. Err, not eating them together. The rabbits were taken from a fable about them making mochi on the moon. He changed the story to rabbits making monja. Clever. Still confused we patiently waited for him to explain what monja was.

All he told us was that Nishinaka Dori is the home of monjayaki and that the best restaurants were all around us. Joy! He pointed at Tsukushiya and we quickly bowed and thanked him.

Tsukushiya is a small, traditional eatery with the zen-like bamboo interior you’d expect in any self-respecting Japanese dive. Tsukushiya serves only monjayaki (grilled monja). You order a variety of veggies that are served in a ceramic bowl. The waitress brings the batter and makes a show out of pouring mystery gooey stuff on your table. What??

Monjayaki as it turns out is a pancake-like meal made with a lightly seasoned drippy batter and vegetables. It’s grilled on both sides till brown over a large flat heating plate on your table RIGHT in front of you. It looks nasty while it’s cooking but smells damn amazing and tastes even better.

T and I quickly realized that any man (or woman) – wild or not – would love monja too.

Have you had any strange tales of searching for meals?

 

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