Tonight's dinner was another attempt at earning my Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations merit badge - ENTER THE DOJO!
Since you're probably wondering, "dojo" is a slimy eel-like river fish. The fish's name translates to "loach" in English, not that that helps one prepare a mental image. In Japanese, the name is pronounced "dojo", but is often confusingly written in the old Edo-style "doh-zay-ooh" (どぜう).
Though I've cumulatively lived in Asakusa for close to half a year now, tonight was the first time I sampled the local specialty. There are several restaurants that serve the fish around Asakusa, the most famous being "Komagata Dozeu" (right before Sensoji Temple on Edo Street). The Japanese tour buses stop here en masse due to restaurant's long history and appropriately stylistic jet-black Edo-Era building.
Actually, the better place to dine is the smaller, less-frequented "Dozeu Iidaya" near the Kappa Bashi kitchen street. The workers are warm, the atmosphere is traditional, and the fish are...well...grotesque.
I doubt they get many jolly white people queuing up to eat slimy river fish at Iidaya. This explained the servers' overjoyed faces and eagerness to talk to me about all things dojo. The fish have apparently been a Tokyo taste treat for hundreds of years. Families originally began eating the bottom feeders because they could be easily caught in the rice patties.
I sat next to a Japanese couple. The lady, like me, was also eating dojo for the first time. The guy, who obviously had various bottles of alcohol in his tummy, offered me the reminder of his half eaten tuna sashimi appetizer. The fish was marinated in some type of stinky fermented thing or another. I didn't know what to do but smile and eat it.
This produced applause.
According to him, dojo is a real love it or hate it type of dish - some people swear by it, others can't stand it. The fish is generally prepared in one of three ways:
Tempura - fried slimy river fish
Donburi - slimy river fish over white rice
Nabe - bubbling stew of slimy river fish
Since I wanted to most closely simulate the experience of eating slimy river fish straight from the dirty river, I chose the third option. This is coincidentally the most traditional way to eat dojo.
You can choose to have the fish with or without bones. At the recommendation of the server, I chose "with bones". I would recommend this variety, since the bones are of course completely edible. Without bones, the fish wouldn't have much resistance while chewing, making the dish a bit one-note texturally.
Culinary experiences like Dojo are steadily disappearing in modern-day Japan. There are now only a handful of specialty restaurants (mostly in Asakusa) that continue to serve these traditional Tokyo foods of yesteryear. Do yourself a favor and visit!
In the meantime, I'm camping outside my local McD's with a petition. The goal? To combine tradition and modernity in an affordable dish that kids these days can wrap their heads around.
I'm lovin' it!