Saturday, 15 October 2016

Utsunomiya, Gyoza City

On my way to the cultural and historical city of Nikko, I passed through Utsunomiya, which appeared to be little more than a transport hub on the Japan Rail service and an industrial city. Nothing to see here, right? That was until I discovered Utsunomiya is famous throughout Japan as Gyoza City. Home to reportedly two hundred (yes, two HUNDRED) gyoza shops and restaurants, Utsunomiya is not just the capital of Tochigi Prefecture, but the Gyoza capital of the world!

Gyoza are originally from China, being similar to the Pot Sticker dumplings many of us in the UK enjoy when we go out for a Dim Sum fix. These Chinese “Jiaozi” dumplings were eaten by Japanese service personnel during World War Two, particularly those serving in Manchuria. Returning to Japan, people tried to make the little parcels of deliciousness they encountered on their travels when back home. Just like another WW2 import to Japan from China, Ramen, the dish has been tweaked a little after arriving on Japanese soil. Gyoza are smaller and have thinner pastry skin than Pot Stickers. 

Whilst it is renowned for Jazz and cocktails, Gyoza is the real claim to fame of Utsunomiya. You don’t believe me, do you? Well, what about the Venus Gyoza statue in the square outside the station? You can’t argue with a big stone gyoza, worthy of Botticelli himself!
Gyoza Venus

Gyoza is so important here that there is a “Good Gyoza Guide” and “Good Gyoza Map”! I’d tell you more about both of these, but they are written in Japanese, and my ability to read kanji and understand Japanese is severely underdeveloped. So I had to enlist a little bit of help. I was informed that the best two places to sample Utsunomiya Gyoza was the Famous Gyoza Min Min Restaurant and Gyoza Kan. Both were within stumbling distance of the main train station.

Gyoza Min Min

Utsunomiya Gyoza Min Min is an institution. Founded in 1958, their committed staff have provided beautiful gyoza to the people of Utsunomiya for decades, the business growing to 12 outlets in the city. 

Arriving at the Min Min Restaurant near the East exit of the main train station, we saw a hefty queue already in place. It was a sweltering hot day of 30 degrees C or so. Should we wait, or admit defeat? It was number one in the Good Gyoza Map, it was heartily recommended by both our landlady in Nikko and the Tourist Information Office. But how long would we be standing in the heat?

We decided to have faith, although 45 minutes of waiting on a hot and humid day wasn’t easy. The owners realise they are popular and have provided a gazebo and benches for customers at the final stage of the queueing process; very welcome in the conditions, I must say! When we were finally ushered in, we were relieved and more importantly, hungry.

The menu was brief. There is a rice vermicelli dish with pork saboro (lightly stewed minced pork) and vegetables available. But otherwise, there is gyoza. And only gyoza.

You can have your gyoza three ways here; steam-fried (the traditional way), boiled or deep fried. 
The boiled gyoza ordered by the people sitting next to me
You can have it alone or you can have a meal deal with rice and pickles. After that, the choice ends. There is only one filling available. Pork and vegetable. We ordered the traditional steam-fried gyoza at 230 Yen per portion with some Kirin beer. 

Sauces; chilli oil, soy and citrus
Our gyoza proved that food does not need to be fancy to be fantastic. These were superb! Thin, light pastry, with just the right ratio of filling to skin. You will see in the photo below that the browned tops of the gyoza are the surface which have been fried on a hot skillet, whilst the dumplings remained joined together. 

How the whole portion of gyoza are both steamed and fried whilst remaining connected, I don’t know. The contrast between the soft bottom and crispy-soft top fills me with delight. 

The pork and vegetable stuffing is well balanced, meaty, yielding and gorgeous. Queuing for restaurants is not normally my thing, but it was totally worth it!

Cute little gyoza keyrings and bag charms are on sale, in case you want to keep the dumpling love alive after your visit! 

Open 11am to 8pm. Take away and frozen gyoza to cook at home available too. If only I could have brought a couple of boxes home!

Gyoza Kan

Another recommended gyoza restaurant was Gyoza Kan, again well rated on the Good Gyoza guide and recommended by the city’s Tourist Information Office. Not to be outdone by Gyoza Min Min, Gyoza Kan have employed some razzle dazzle to entice punters to their dumpling deliciousness. Stone statues of Sumo wrestlers, terracotta warriors, Godzilla, Kannon (or Quan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy) stand guard outside....

They also have their own Gyoza statue, hewn from a hunk of rock. He’s a cute fella, isn’t he? 

You’ll find posters and signs with him all around town. And he’s emblazoned on the backs of the Gyoza Kan staff uniforms…

 …and pint glasses!

Office workers escaping the grind for a well earned lunch break

Gyoza Kan have a slightly different USP from Min Min. Whilst Min Min excel in just one type of dumpling excellently executed, Gyoza Kan have multiple fillings to their gyozas. Fourteen fillings, in total, to be exact! Pork, “stamina” kenta, perilla, cheese, shrimp, shark fin, small pork, garlic free, pork and vegetable, pork with Chinese leek, mushroom, spicy, garlic and finally, Maitake mushroom. 

You can eat your gyozas as they are or dipped in sauce, chilli oil, citrus, soy or a mix of soy and citrus, depending on your filling or your preference. 

I’m a sucker for prawn gyoza at home, so immediately opted for shrimp. Roughly chopped chunks of prawn filled my lightly browned steam-fried dumplings. Again, the skin to filling ratio carefully judged to avoid heaviness on one extreme and fragility at the other. 

The Maitake mushroom filling had a strong flavour more reminiscent of porcini than humble button mushrooms. They actually taste a little meaty, and go down a treat!

Pork and vegetable had to be ordered in order to compare with Min Min. The filling here was generous and full of piggy goodness, although the gyoza shell was not executed with the same level of skill. It is still a very pleasing, great quality gyoza that people in London would be crying out for. 

Garlic (and prawn) was Him Indoor’s choice as he loves all things garlicky. The garlic flavour and aroma is strong, but not overpowering. The hubby was rather disappointed that I enjoyed this gyoza filling as he didn’t really want to share them with me!

Like Min Min, Gyoza Kan have been successful enough to expand to a number of branches. Being pressed for time, we visited a branch close by the train station entrance, as it was a fair journey for us on our very last day in Japan to get to Narita Airport. But a wonderful final lunch!

I should mention that Masashi and Kirasse were also recommended to us as serving excellent gyoza. Had I the luxury of more time, we would have visited. Also, we didn’t have time to visit the castle here, which originally dates back from 1062, but has been substantially rebuilt in 2007. But when the best gyoza in the world are calling for you in the Gyoza capital of the world, what else can you do except for tuck in!

Snigdha and Him Indoors paid for their wonderful gyoza with crisp, clean Yen notes. This review represents Snigdha’s genuine opinions. Snigdha has not received any incentive for posting this review.

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