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New book satisfies late-night cravings with comforting Japanese fare

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Fans of the Netflix series “Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories” may want to check out the new cookbook by Brendan Liew.

“Tokyo Up Late” (Smith Street Books, $35) is Liew’s love letter to many great dishes found in late-night bars and diners in one of the world’s largest cities, with a population of about 39 million.

Though the book is unrelated to the Netflix show, fans of the show will understand the appeal of Liew’s topic.

These late-night spots somewhat bridge the gap between restaurants and street stands, offering comforting, nourishing simple and delicious fare to workers, partiers and others after a long day. In Tokyo, even a visit to a convenience store, Liew says, “means stepping into a world of gourmet delights.”

Many are quick, some are healthy, some are carb loaders. But all are satisfying to the nth degree.

Late-night diners in Tokyo, Liew wrote, “crave something fast and tasty, but healthy enough not to regret the next day — like a warming ochazuke (tea-based soup) of juicy salmon or cleansing sea bream, a quick bowl of natto (fermented soybeans) with handfuls of vegetables to cleanse away the excesses, or the late-night classic — instant noodles, dressed up, made nice but still ready in under 10 minutes.”

Liew is an Australian chef who has spent time at Tokyo’s Nihonryori Ryugin, which has three Michelin stars and has been rated one of the 50 best restaurants in the world. He also has run a pop-up Japanese café, Chotto, in Melbourne.

The book — subtitled “Iconic Recipes From the City That Never Sleeps” — is divided into five main parts: Izakaya, Makanai, Fast Food, Konbini and Back Home. Those are supplemented by a glossary, listing common pantry items and a handful of basic recipes.

Izakaya refers to a type of bar that serves snacks or small plates. Liew says that these particular places are “unbound by tradition,” so here you may well see non-Japanese fare. The main criteria for a menu item is whether it goes well with beer or cocktails. As a result, Liew says, “strong, salty flavors dominate.” But izakaya also are places for high-quality sashimi and crisp salads.

Recipes in the Izakaya section include tuna tataki, octopus carpaccio, tamago (Japanese omelet), tsukune (grilled chicken meatballs) and miso-braised mackerel. Liew also includes such drinks as lemon sour and ume ginger (made with pickled plum liqueur).

Makanai refers to staff meals at Japanese restaurants, usually served twice a day, before and after dinner service. Most restaurants take staff meals seriously, Liew said, and tend to focus on traditional Japanese cuisine. These meals may not use the restaurants’ most expensive ingredients, but they may well be just as good as anything the customers eat.

Liew’s Makanai chapter includes dashi-braised eggplant and shiitake, fish karaage (marinated and fried fish), stewed beef over rice and miso soup.

The Fast Food chapter covers the noodle and other food stalls found in train stations and other places that are small and fast — often run by one person, the owner — where someone can grab a meal on the run. Of course, the Japanese fast food that Liew is talking about is nothing like American fast food.

Recipes in this section includes tonkotsu ramen, gyoza, tempura udon and chicken curry.

Konbini refers to a convenience store. But again, a Japanese convenience store is not quite like what we have in the United States — though there is very good food (particularly fried chicken) to be found in both.

Recipes in the konbini chapter include onigiri (nori-wrapped rice packets), pork buns, fried chicken and egg sando (Japan’s take on egg-salad sandwiches). This chapter also features pastries found in konbini, including melon bread (a sweet roll that contains no melon), Mont Blanc (a chestnut dessert adopted from the French), and Japanese strawberry shortcake (layered spongcake with whipped cream and fruit).

Liew’s final chapter offers a peek at what the Japanese might cook at home after a late night. Here, he said, cooks often invoke the golden rule of Japanese cooking, mottanai, which means “don’t waste anything.”

So, as in homes around the world, late-night snacks at home in Tokyo may well consist of odds and ends of whatever leftovers lurk in the fridge.

Here, Liew offers some general ideas for flavorful ways to doctor leftover rice or noodles. Here are recipes for natto (fermented soy beans) several ways, including with kimchi fried rice. Other recipes include sake-steamed sea bream and salmon chazuke (rice in a tea-based soup).

Cooks using this book will need to stock their kitchens with such ingredients as ponzu, mirin udon, dashi, bonito flakes and other Japanese ingredients. Some are more common than others in the United States. Many of the recipes’ ingredients can be found these days in U.S. supermarkets. Others are available in specialty shops in our area.

In the end, “Tokyo Up Late” is an homage to the unfancy but essential and delicious places where Japanese go to satisify their late-night cravings.

“This book celebrates food from the places that welcome Tokyo’s citizens who work and party late into the night,” Liew said. “These are dishes that work at any time, not just after bedtime. And just as they bring joy and comfort to millions of Tokyo-ites every night, I hope they bring joy and comfort to you, too.”

336-727-7394

@mhastingswsj

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