Chiori Yamamoto: Japanese Soul Food

, 2011/01/28

Gatemo Tabum is the neighborhood joint we all wish we lived a short walk away from. On a recent blustery winter morning, I took my visiting friend from Boston to have lunch there, snuggled in a cozy spot along an outdoor shopping arcade in Yoyogi-Uehara. It was a bit of a challenge to describe what we were going to have, whereas most Japanese people would immediately have an instinctive understanding of what to expect from the term teishoku. Literally, teishoku means “fixed meal”, although it isn’t clear what the fixed parameters are. Is it the format – typically rice, soup, pickles, a main dish and a couple of sides? Or one of the roster of home-style Japanese dishes that it includes?

“I rarely eat out, especially at lunch, because you seldom get anything really satisfying. Either you pay an embarrassingly high price for a lavish meal, or a pittance for something made with no care. There’s no middle ground.” He seemed fairly excited to find such a carefully prepared meal for around ten dollars, at a casual neighborhood place where everything happens in a tiny kitchen with just two burners.

The secret to the impression of copiousness that a teishoku gives, of course, lies in how it breaks a meal down into several smaller components, many of which can be prepared in advance. Although our two mains were substantial in and of themselves – braised chicken in a syrupy, slightly caramelized black vinegar sauce with vegetables and a soft-cooked egg, and deep-fried yellowtail in a dashi broth with grated radish, also accompanied by a small heap of pan-roasted vegetables – lunch was nicely rounded off (or bulked up, depending on how you see it) by two other smaller side dishes.

Served together on the tray was a small cube of cold tofu topped with a lightly pickled mixture of whitebait, okra and chopped enoki mushrooms, spiked with a few sansho peppercorns. There was also a little saucer of bite-sized nibbles that included a thick slice of sweet omelet, a juicy piece of freeze-dried koya beancurd that had been thoroughly braised in thickened dashi stock, a chewy-crunchy morsel of mugwort konnyaku (devil’s root jelly), a slightly larger gnocchi-like sweet potato dumpling, and a single slice of tangy red radish dressed with rice wine lees.

Gatemo Tabum is a mostly one-woman operation helmed by the affable Chiori Yamamoto, a veteran chef who previously cooked for 12 years at a similar, casual restaurant in Sapporo called Haruya. Solitary diners dropping in for a warm, nourishing teishoku at midday or after work, groups of friends chatting over small tapas-like portions and glasses of wine or sake…the equivalent, I suppose, would be a sort of British gastropub.



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Chiori Yamamoto
Gatemo Tabum
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