Food-craze fever

Tokyo loves a culinary fad, and right now it just can't get enough of hotcakes. But why, asks James Hadfield

Food-craze fever

Last weekend, I did something I swore I’d never do: I queued for over an hour just for a plate of pancakes. Only a day after Tokyo had experienced its heaviest snowfall in decades, the prospect of a little winter chill wasn’t enough to deter customers from Eggs ’n Things in Harajuku, where a line stretched along the side of the restaurant and across the pavement.

It’s been four years since this Tokyo incarnation of the popular Hawaiian breakfast spot first opened, fuelling a pancake boom that’s since swept the capital in a tide of batter and maple syrup. And it isn’t just pancakes. To walk the avenue between Harajuku and Omotesando stations is to run a gauntlet of queues of drooling shoppers, eager to get a taste of the latest culinary fad. If hotcakes aren’t your thing, you could always join the long lines outside gourmet popcorn shops Garrett and KuKuRuZa, or wait patiently for a chance to sample the chocolate fondue at Max Brenner.

Yet it’s the pancakes that confuse me the most. How did Tokyo manage to become so besotted with a food that’s so, well, unremarkable? The signature dish at Eggs ’n Things, a platter of five small rounds of batter suffocating under a zaftig mound of whipped cream strewn with strawberries and chopped nuts, is notable mostly for its excess. Eating the whole thing by yourself would be practically obscene. How could a dish like this inspire people to queue for hours outside on a chilly Sunday afternoon – let alone ignite a citywide boom in one of the world’s least sensational breakfast foods?

The signature dish at Eggs ’n Things

When I put the question to Tomomi Nakagawa, a writer with a background in food and drink PR, she reminds me that pancakes were hardly the first edible import to drive Harajuku’s fashionable shoppers wild. Back in the ’80s, it was all about crêpes – specifically the cloying, cream-clogged creations churned out by local shop Marion Crêpes. Sure, she says, the people waiting outside Eggs ’n Things might be there to satisfy a genuine pancake craving or perhaps just their curiosity, but the ritual also ‘makes them feel that they’re up to date with the latest trend’.

There’s more to it than that, though. When it first opened, Eggs ’n Things had the good fortune to coincide with a wider boom in morning activities, known in Japanese as asakatsu. As Tokyoites warmed to the idea of squeezing in a yoga session or language class before heading to work, the media focus also fell on viable breakfast spots. And, well, there weren’t that many to choose from. ‘It was never in our culture to go out for breakfast,’ says Tomomi. ‘Even the bakeries open after 10am – unlike the ones in France, which start from 6am.’ By offering breakfast-appropriate fare at breakfast-appropriate times, Eggs ’n Things and its legion of fellow pancake purveyors were onto something good.

But what about the gourmet popcorn, the chocolate fondues, the fancy burgers, the artisanal coffee, the authentically Neapolitan pizzas, or any of the other food crazes that have swept through Tokyo in the past few years? Tomomi warns against trying to draw too many general conclusions from my plate of pancakes, but she insists that the overall trend is a positive one. ‘What I can say in general is that the bar is definitely getting raised,’ she says. ‘On top of pancakes, popcorn and gourmet burgers, we’ve also had booms for drip coffee at convenience stores and craft beer. Consumers are becoming food critics, and everything has to be better quality than before.’ Oh, and if you’re wondering what the next trend is going to be, Tomomi has two words for you: French toast. Bring on the bacon.

If all that pancake talk has given you the craving, here's our roundup of Tokyo's best pancakes

This article appears in issue 2 of Time Out Tokyo magazine, out now.

Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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