To my dismay, I have not been able to return to Japan, making it almost three whole years since I last set foot on the Land of the Rising Sun. To make up for this, I have been experiencing Japan vicariously through — what else — the TV, even going so far as to overcome my distaste for Ansel Elgort’s face to watch the entire first season of “Tokyo Vice” (which is very good).
But my favorite of the “vicariously living in Tokyo” programs are, of course, the food ones. There is “Midnight Diner”, where each episode features a dish that becomes the theme that day; unfortunately, it’s marred by the fact that the customers are forced to order the same thing every time they pull up to the bar, a sort of culinary “Groundhog Day”. There’s “Gourmet Samurai”, where the protagonist overcomes dining-related embarrassments (the horror!) by conjuring up a more handsome, younger alter-ego who is so macho that he is willing to try new ingredients in his oden! There is also the Road to Red Restaurants List, where a salaryman avoids hanging out with his family on the weekends in order to ferret out restaurants serving “endangered” (read: unusual) foods, and “The Way of the Hot and Spicy”, where another salaryman gets hazed by his coworkers into eating progressively spicier dishes as the series goes on. There’s even “Curry Songs”, which is not really about curry, and made me cry. I have been watching a lot of television.
But none is as dear to my heart as “Izakaya Bottakuri”, where a pair of sisters take over their deceased parents’ restaurant. You not only learn a lot about how the dishes are made, but also about what drinks pair best with them. Through this show, I have learned that carrot tops can be stir-fried and seasoned with sesame oil and seeds; that the broth from stewing chicken wings can be made into a jelly and served as a drinking snack; that tororo (mountain yam) can be grated and cooked on top of a hot plate as a “steak”, topped with dancing bonito flakes. But the most eye-opening dish for me, personally, was the “spaghetti naporitan” (S1, E8), a Japanese-Western fusion (yoshoku) featuring pasta, hot dogs, bell peppers, and a sauce made primarily of ketchup.
Now, I am no newbie to ketchup pasta. Indeed, for years, Bangkok restaurants served only that kind of pasta, at places with “Western” food choices like 13 Coins. I remember my 13-year-old self turning her nose up at these dishes, forcing family members to eat my own “more authentic” spaghetti sauces made from tomato paste and canned tomatoes. Little did I realize then that I was passing on an interesting sliver of food history. I would not remake that mistake.
“Spaghetti naporitan” (spelled that way because it’s the usual way to spell it, not because I’m making fun of Japanese people) is, of course, derived from the southern Italian dish spaghetti alla Napoletana, which is basically pasta al pomodoro. It’s not that way in Japan, though. Said to have been created by a chef at the New Grand Hotel in Yokohama and inspired by the food served to American soldiers, this dish uses ingredients common to Japan at the time to create something Western — a real example of culinary ingenuity, like kai kata. The sauce is a melange of ketchup, milk and Worcestershire sauce; the proper “hot dogs” used are smoked Vienna sausages; the pasta is supposed to be overcooked and soggy. Best of all, it’s served on an iron hot plate, over a bed of beaten egg that can be wrapped around the pasta like a blanket as you eat. Seriously, what’s not to like?
Because I live in a city where the Japanese food is almost as good as in Japan (except for the sushi, which still suffers from the rice), I sought to seek out all of the spaghetti naporitans I could find in an effort to find the closest version to the one at “Izakaya Bottakuri.” My quest started at My Porch , which by night is a karaoke bar but by day is a hotbed of lunch activity for Japanese housewives. I thought of this restaurant first because I used to go often, when I was going through an uni pasta phase (sadly, definitively ended after trying Zac Posen’s uni pasta recipe during lockdown).
As you can see, it’s a fancy plate of pasta, as full of good taste as the other offerings on the menu at this super-classy joint. The pasta is al dente, the protein is bacon instead of hot dogs, and the sauce is made from tomatoes. In other words, not really naporitan. But tasty!
On a rare night out drinking with my sister and her friends, I suggested Kelly’s Another as a post-bar possibility after we discovered that the Teppen on Sukhumvit 61 (sadly, still the only good one) was fully booked. An offshoot of the hugely popular Teriyaki Bar Kelly’s , Kelly’s Another (I can’t with the sequence of words in both names) has a more salaryman-in-Shinjuku vibe (as opposed to the idealized 50s vibe at the teriyaki bar) and a more subdued crowd. Here, I got a tiny plate of naporitan (the servings are small here) that, to me, tasted the most like the one that the customers at Izakaya Bottakuri would have had.
But there were other places ostensibly serving naporitan to try. My friend Andrew agreed to go with me to Kitchen Niigata, an old-fashioned style “diner” that would not have been out of place in the alleyway in Asakusa. The old-fashioned style extends to the table dividers, which I promptly stubbed my toe on. As we took our seats (right as it was opening at 11:30), the room was already filling up. Andrew got what you’re expected to get, the Hamburgu steak teishoku. I of course got the naporitan.
I have to say, it was pretty close. There were hot dogs in there, and the pasta was definitely overcooked. I did taste the ketchup in the sauce. But points docked for no “shakey shakey” (the grated processed Parmesan cheese) or even Tabasco, which seems to be an obligatory addition to every naporitan served in Bangkok.
I did not draft Andrew for my next naporitan at nearby Tonsei , a grubbier version of Kitchen Niigata. As I entered, there was only one other customer there, an older Japanese man reading. Out of all of the places I’d been to, this was the only one where the television was playing NHK. The decor was very much past its prime. This felt like a truly legit place.
I guess this version, of all the ones I’d tried, felt like the most in keeping with the spirit of naporitan (ie. a cheap mishmash of leftover odds and ends). The protein was leftover seafood sausage normally used for the soup noodles. The pasta was overcooked. The sauce was definitely ketchup-y. The cook (Thai) came out to get a look at the person who had ordered naporitan instead of a teishoku. Still no shakey shakey.
So when Andrew and I went to Samurai Diner and they helpfully set down not only the Tabasco but the shakey shakey, I of course went to town when my naporitan arrived.
Alas, it was my least favorite version by far. While the noodles were indeed soggy and the sauce indeed ketchup-based, the sausage (and/or bacon used) emitted an unpleasant smell that no amount of nostalgia could power through. I eyed Andrew’s hamburger steak with envy. Lesson learned: some things are not surefire hits, even when slathered in ketchup.