If you have a fetish for anything Japanese and enjoy unwinding with a drink after work – areas in Bangkok like Asoke, Silom and Phrom Phong (also known as ‘Little Japan’), have what you’re looking for. The Japanese call it ‘Izakaya’.
What is an Izakaya?
An Izakaya might be easiest described as a Japanese pub and restaurant. Notice how ‘pub’ precedes the restaurant as one of the finer points of a traditional Izakaya is that the drinking is mandatory while the food that accompanies it plays second fiddle.
Izakaya is derived from Japanese words ‘I’ meaning stay, and ‘sakaya’ meaning sake, a Japanese alcohol made from rice. So, literally, Izakaya is a place to stay and drink. Hence, its popularity with workers who like to relax after work with their colleagues.
What’s to drink?
Sake. You might liken sake to wine in that, sake can be appraised for being rich or light, fruity and spicy, and served either hot or cold. At the end of the day, full-bodied sake is generally served warmer and the more common light sake is served cold.
The alcohol content in sake is usually between 12-16% served in small tea cups. But don’t pour your own. It’s considered bad form in Japanese custom as friends pour cups for friend’s never leaving them dry.
Before the formalities though, according to standard convention in Japan, beer, ‘biiru’ is drinked first as a warming up period while deciding what kind of sake will shift happy hour into high gear.
And while Izakaya’s were traditionally geared towards Japanese’s gentlemen, modern day has it that wine, whiskeys and cocktails are included on the menu to appeal to a greater cosmopolitan crowd.
Tip: ‘Nihonshu’ is a more specific term for sake made from fermented rice.
What’s to eat?
Something salty. That’s the recommended flavor to go along with your sake. Dishes are small and bite sized like tapas. But don’t mix them up, in an Izakaya. The Japanese food serves to accompany the drinks, and not the other way around.
Customary foods to Izakaya’s are skewers of grilled meat. Chicken skewers called ‘Yakitori’ are popular with sake. The word ‘Kushiyaki’ covers the rest of the meat groups like beef, and anything else that can find their way on a stick.
Other standard Izakaya fares are foods boiled in broth like vegetables, potatoes, eggs and seafood called ‘Oden’, that usually cap the night off.
And what’s saltier than fish? ‘Sashimi’ is the Japanese term for slices of raw fish on their own, while the term ‘Sushi’ is slices of raw fish wrapped on rice.
As with appealing to a greater audiences, it’s not surprising to find full set meals called ‘Teishoku’ on the menu. Something else that is catching attention is that Izayaka’s are becoming hotbeds to sample new culinary Japanese delights.
How about ambience?
Japanese value their privacy greatly. If the closed doors and blackened out windows of an Izakaya establishment doesn’t tell you this, you’re missing the signs.
Inside is just as low key as out. Lighting is subdued and wooden tables and chairs will find their way closer to the ground. Whether that’s creating mood or even romantic, there’s no denying its casual and laid-back tone.
Depending on the modernity of the Izakaya, you might find yourself pulling up a stool by the bartender lit up by a glowing wall of liquor. But in a traditional Izakaya, you’d be sitting on mats with low-hovering tables, one of the many reasons why we’re so charmed with Japanese culture to begin with.
However, there are other ways to determine if that shady looking establishment is a more traditional Izakaya.
In Japan, Izakaya is also referred to as ‘akachōchin’ or ‘red lantern’ because of all the red lanterns that decorate the premise. And if you have a greater eye for detail, look for the Japanese word Izakaya 居酒屋. But don’t make a mistake, Japanese is read from top to bottom, right to left.
Have you ever been to an Izakaya in Bangkok? What do you think about them?