In Food + Drink

A Definitive Guide To Australia’s Best Japanese-Inspired Bar Snacks

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If you wander the backstreets of Tokyo, you’ll encounter a universe of culinary diversity— from shoebox-sized sushi shops turning out flawless sashimi to pared-back restaurants serving exquisite kaiseki, the local answer to haute cuisine. But although Japan has become synonymous with destination dining, it’s easy to overlook the ways in which izakayas and simple bar snacks shape the country’s food culture.

Sure, these laid-back bars — beloved by groups of office workers and solo salarymen — are known for pouring whiskey highballs and icy glasses of beer. They’re also famous for exemplary drinking food. Plates of crisped-to-perfection chicken karaage, pork belly glazed in miso and cooked over coals yakitori-style and grilled-eel skewers create a convivial, inviting atmosphere. And their flavours are inspiring a new wave of Australian eateries intent on coupling home-grown ingredients with Japanese traditions. Here’s your guide to the best Japanese-inspired bar snacks in Australia, whether your palette leans towards salty, smoky, savoury — or something in between.

Kangaroo tataki at Mimasu

bar snacks japanese izakaya

Kangaroo tataki Photo: Mimasu

Few appetisers sum up Japan’s attention to detail and respect for the integrity of ingredients quite like tataki — slivers of meat and seafood flash-cooked so the edges are seared and the interior stays rare. At the moody Adelaide eatery Mimasu, chef Aleks Tasik substitutes Kobe beef or white tuna for crescent-thin slices of kangaroo, served up alongside black garlic mayo and saltbush, the native plant that’s enjoying a long-overdue renaissance. Mimasu’s take on Japanese-Australian fusion isn’t limited to tataki. Try the soft-shell crab tempura with hibiscus, the pan-seared barramundi with shimeji mushrooms or pork and kimchi gyoza crowned with ginger-soy caramel sauce. Just make sure you wash down with a glass of the restaurant’s signature rice lager for maximum impact.

411 King William St, Adelaide

Torikawa at Bird’s Nest Yakitori

bar snacks japanese izakaya

Skewers at Birds Nest Yakitori Photo: David Kelly

It’s safe to say that chicken skin might not be the strongest contender when it comes to the most appetising bar snack in the world. But in Japan, where offal has played a starring role in diets since the 17th century, torikawa, seasoned chicken skin grilled until golden-brown, is regular fixture at yakitori bars and izakayas. It’s also one of the highlights at Brisbane’s Bird’s Nest Yakitori, where a grill that incorporates Binchotan charcoal — a type of pure charcoal that’s been used by Japanese chefs since the Edo Period for its ability to absorb impurities — amps up the snack’s crispy, fatty texture. The salt quotient also pairs perfectly with a bottle of something crisp.

If that isn’t enough to convince you, the buta bara, a type of grilled-pork skewer that channels unsmoked bacon or shitake mushroom skewers brushed with ponzu, a tart, citrus-based marinade that strikes the perfect balance between savoury and zesty, are worthwhile alternatives. The shiritama (quail egg with salt) is a must-try if you’re feeling more adventurous.

5/220 Melbourne St, South Brisbane 

Kaki katsu at Zensaki

bar snacks japanese izakaya

Ebi tempura from Zensaki Photo: Facebook

Who can resist chicken katsu, the much-loved Japanese staple that’s the perfect blend of comfort and crunch? Zensaki, an izakaya-inspired diner in the Perth’s CBD applies the deep-friend magic of katsu to oysters and adds a serve of tartare sauce. The result? The kind of crowd-pleasing bar snack that recalls a dream dish at your favourite childhood fish n’ chip shop.

Of course, the most addictive kinds of bar food are fuss-free and unpretentious, designed to be grazed on slowly or eaten with your hands. Enter Burdock Chips, a vegan-friendly treat made from the root of the burdock plant, a mainstay of Japanese seasonal cooking or Yasai Kakiage, thick-cut vegetable chips fried tempura-style. Or order a bowl of salted edamame. The simplest things in life are sometimes the best and bar snacks are no exception.

77 St Georges Terrace, Perth

Tonkotsu ramen at Shujinko

Inside Shujinko Photo: Facebook

It’s hard to pick a late-night ritual that evokes Tokyo as much as hunkering down over a steaming bowl of ramen at the end of the night. This defining experience inspired Kevin Pak, the owner of Shujinko, a Melbourne ramen shop that faithfully recreates the nocturnal energy of those hole-in-the-wall Japanese establishments, right down to the wood-panelled interiors, dim pendant lamps and bottles of sake arranged in rows above the counter.

But although Shujinko gets full marks for ambience, no visit here is complete without sampling a bowl of tonkotsu ramen — a specialty, originating in Kyushu, that sees pork bones simmered for hours until they dissolve into a thick, unctuous broth. Head to Shujinko, order the tonkotsu ramen and ask for a highball of Suntory whiskey to recreate the essence of Japanese drinking culture. And although the tonkotsu here is a standout, the black ramen — a dark, fragrant broth that owes its shade to shellfish powder — delivers that elusive hit of umami, every time. We’ll raise our glasses to that.

225 Russell St, Melbourne

Published 05 February, 2018