We were on our way to get a sandwich from a sandwich shop.
Now, before you leap to any hasty conclusions, I should say that sandwich shops are fairly rare in Japan. Unless you head to the convenience store and pick up some dubious plastic-wrapped item, you are more likely to be heading to the noodle shop. Or the bento store. Rice. Noodles. Those are your carbs.
So heading to the sandwich shop could definitely be considered “doing something a bit different” for lunch.
I must confess that I wasn’t 100% into the idea, but the sandwich store had very positive reviews and my colleague seemed very keen as she navigated us there.
Then we crossed a street and she smelt the mabo dofu.
“OH MY GOD.”
Less than one minute walk from our destination, all thoughts of sandwich were obliterated by the scent of aromatic spices.
And less than one minute later we were seated at the dark wood counter in Tokyo Mabo Shokudo.
Mapo tofu (“mabo dofu” in Japanese) is a Chinese dish from the Sichuan province which features silken (soft) tofu with minced pork in spices – chilli (for mouth-burning) and Sichuan pepper (for mouth-numbing). It tends to be oily and smooth, tongue-tantalising let sliding down easily.
Sadly, I speak only from my experience of eating mabo dofu in Japan where no doubt it is adapted to local tastes, particularly a toning down of the spiciness. But when it is spicy enough, I find this dish alarmingly addictive.
We ordered the mabo dofu set (1000 yen) which includes the titular dish, unlimited rice, a small side of vegetables, and Chinese-style egg soup.
and my eyes were transfixed by the sizzling, aromatic mabo dofu before me.
I mixed it and began tucking in. We had ordered “karame” – the max level of spiciness. And they had gone to town with the Sichuan pepper. In fact, my mouth was so numb by the end of it that even just drinking water was an interesting experience.
My friend found the dish to be a little sour as a result of the Sichuan pepper overload but I enjoyed it even if it wasn’t as moreish as it could have been if the chilli/Sichuan pepper balance was right.
Whilst tucking into our dishes we couldn’t help but notice the other dishes on the menu.
There were only two other dishes on the menu. Tantanmen and tantanmen without soup.
I love tantanmen. It was fate!
So within a few days I was back with a bowl of shirunashi tantanmen (without soup) sitting in front of me, also at maximum spiciness.
Once again the Sichuan pepper flooded my mouth. I lapped it up. I picked at the chunks of peanuts and wolfed them down.
I dabbed my mouth and slurped, spattering the paper bib that they provide for all customers.
On finishing, I looked up I found the two chefs staring at me. I suppose there aren’t many solo foreigners slurping down maximum spicy noodles at their counter. Or maybe I just looked really, really happy. Which I was.
They smiled and me and I grinned back in satisfaction.
When I went to pay and leave, the lady asked me if I liked spicy food.
I loved it, I replied eagerly. But I also love the taste of peanuts.
Yet, after making this comment, I couldn’t help reflecting and then lamenting at how the peanut flavour was lost. Sichuan pepper overtook everything.
Tasty, yes. Borderline addictive even. But its a narrow path of flavour. I want a variety of paths to take me to the ultimate taste destination.
So I have a plan. I will be back next week. I will order the tantanmen with soup at NORMAL spice level. And I will report back soon on my gastronomic journey.
Tokyo Mabo Shokudo 4/5 – For fans of Sichuan pepper only!
When: Mon – Fri 11:30～15:30（L.O.15:00), Mon – Wed 18:00～22:30（L.O.22:00), Thurs – Fri 18:00～23:30 (L.O.23:00）
Where: 東京都港区赤坂2-15-10. Akasaka (nearest station Akasaka)