The izakaya is hard to nail down: It’s friendlier than a French wine bar, has more food choices than a Spanish tapeo, and takes itself less seriously than a British gastro pub. But it makes the same point: drinking is primary; food is secondary; and if you’re doing it right, there will be hangovers.
The word izakaya is usually translated as tavern or pub. And while Izakaya food is salty and spicy, crunchy and savory, and designed to match perfectly with beer or wine, it’s far from typical bar food. An izakaya spread might include house-made tofu and pickles, grilled seafood, deep-fried bites like octopus balls and chicken wings, home-style meat stews, fried rice, noodle bowls and local seasonal.
As for drinks, the meal begins with a round of cold beer and hot edamame, before the arrival of bottles of sake, or of shochu, an increasingly popular distilled spirit made from rice, sweet potatoes, barley or sugar cane. Shochu cocktails called chu-hai are youth favorites at izakayas, sometimes infused with fresh litchi or yuzu, or in cheaper spots confected from neon-colored green apple or grape syrup — or even spiked with Calpico, the yogurt-flavored drink that is popular in Japan.
At upscale izakayas, many patrons drink honkaku shochu, which is single-distilled and retains some residual character and aroma of the original plant. On the rocks, straight shochu goes well with izakaya food, with the rasp of vodka but smoother and about half as intoxicating. Getting thoroughly drunk at izakayas is expected, and even encouraged—at least in Japan.
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