Gallery: Snapshots from Japan: Street Fair Food in Kyoto

  • Yakisoba


    Yakisoba is the Japanese version of Chinese fried noodles. Made with stretchy fresh wheat noodles (despite the fact that regular "soba" are typically made with buckwheat), the noodles are fried with a sweet, Worcestershire-based sauce and a variety of mix-ins ranging from cabbage and onions to pork and beni shoga (pickled ginger). It's one of the most common foods at Japanese festivals.

    Egg Cakes

    I grew up eating Hong Kong Cakes from the lady on Mosco Street, so these eggy, crisp-on-the-outside miniature wafflish cakes are a familiar flavor for me. Here, the cake-maker pours batter into the cast iron mold. After sealing it shut, he'll flip it over a few times over an open flame until the cakes are golden brown and crisp.


    My mom's favorite snack, takoyaki (literally grilled octopus) are made by sticking a chunk of cooked octopus into a hemi-spherical cast iron well, then topping it with an eggy batter. As the batter cooks, it gets carefully and skillfully flipped around until it is perfectly spherical and golden brown on the exterior. Mix-ins are common, with sweet corn, beni-shoga, and scallions being popular choices. Once finished, they get...

    Plated Up.

    ...doused in sweet barbecue sauce along with a squirt of Kewpie mayonnaise and a sprinkling of katsuobushi—shaved dried smoked bonito. Those in the know look for the bonito flakes to dance gently back and forth as the heat and moisture rises form the hot octopus balls. Crisp on the outside, chewy and almost gooey in the center, the takoyaki are magma-hot when they come off the griddle. Don't make the mistake of popping one in your mouth too quickly.


    Taiyaki are sweet cakes griddled into the shape of sea bream (weird, right?). Traditionally, the eggy crumpet-like cakes are filled with sweet red bean (adzuki) paste, though these days you'll find custard, chocolate, cream, or even savory variations, like...

    Bacon and Egg Taiyaki

    ...bacon and egg. This version has a strip of bacon, an egg that's cooked until just past runny, a handful of cabbage, and a squirt of Kewpie mayonnaise. It all comes together to taste remarkably like a cross between a McChicken and an Egg McMuffin, if you can understand that.


    There are entire restaurants devoted to yakitori—grilled chicken parts ordered by the piece on skewers, but at the fair, you'll find only the most popular menu items. Grilled breast or thigh meat served simply with salt or a dip into sweet soy and mirin-based tare, chicken skin folded around a skewer and grilled over coals until crisp, or perhaps tsukune, a chicken-based meatball.


    The Japanese are obsessed with sausages. Sausages and hamburg steak remain amongst the most popular menu items at any European-themed restaurant, and they're good at making them. These versions were similar to giant hot dogs, mildly seasoned, fried until crisp and snappy, and served with a brushing of tangy and sweet barbecue sauce.

    Bacon-wrapped Rice Balls

    Onigiri (or omusubi, depending on where you're from) are seasoned rice balls that are a ubiquitous snack all over Japan. Heck, even 7-11 has a case full of 'em. Yakionigiri is the same thing grilled with a brush of soy sauce. This variant is one I've never seen before, and honestly, I wasn't convinced that it works. Bacon wrapped around a ball of rice topped with a few different sauces (we went with the spicy mayonnaise) sounds great, but really it tasted mostly of greasy rice.


    Another newcomer, this guy is essentially a savory crepe wrapped around a set of chopsticks. A thin batter is poured over a hot cast-iron griddle then topped with beni-shoga, scallions, and sweet corn. After rolling, it gets topped with the requisite mayonnaise and barbecue sauce, along with a pinch of shredded seaweed. Strangely delicious and easy to eat.


    A close cousin to okonomiyaki (cabbage pancakes), monjayaki is made with a much looser batter. At sit-down monjayaki restaurants, you'll find a huge variety of toppings ranging from pork belly to kimchi, but here the pancakes get topped with shredded cabbage, corn, scallions, beni-shoga, and pork before being flipped and cooked down into a delicious mess dressed with—say it with me now—sweet barbecue sauce and Kewpie mayonnaise.

    Grilled Corn

    I was surprised by how not-great the corn in Japan is, given that it has hands down the best produce I've had anywhere in the world (it makes sense, considering a single melon can go for upwards of $175!). A little mealy and not quite as sweet as the best stuff, it's nonetheless tasty when dipped in soy-sauce and charred over hot coals. Tasty enough that I'd try the method at my next barbecue (using better corn, that is).


    My wife loves chicken in all its forms, and she was a big fan of kara-age as well (at least, I believe she was—the muffled sounds coming from her full mouth sounded like happy muffled sounds). It's made by brining chicken thighs in a seasoned mix of soy sauce flavored with ginger and sake before being dredged in corn starch and deep fried. Juicy and salty, it's near-perfect street food.

    Grilled Smelts

    This is one for Chichi: smelts, stuck on a skewer and grilled bones, guts, and all. For me, I can deal with whole fried small fish, but when they get this size (about 8-inches long) and are merely grilled, I find the bones unpalatable. People appreciate the crunchy texture of the spine. I appreciate when those people stay away from me.

    Grilled Pork Belly

    Another newcomer to the field, this pork belly is bound to get wrapped in a thin egg omelet before being sauced with—you guessed it—sweet barbecue sauce and Kewpie mayonnaise. If you're extra lucky, you might find a stand or two selling the same belly brushed alternated with scallion segments and brushed with a sweet soy-based glaze. Do not pass this up.

    Grilled Squid

    Perhaps the most difficult snack for foreigners, this is simply grilled squid (your choice of head or tentacles), brushed with a soy-based glaze. It's chewy and fishy, but some people love it.

    Japanese Sweet Potato

    My mother's other favorite snack, yaki-imo is Japanese sweet potato simply baked in a hardwood-burning oven. The potatoes are sweeter and drier than their Western counterparts and have a clean, fluffy texture. I particularly like the crunchy, smoky skin. Sweet potatoes are available in white and deep purple-flleshed varieties.