Before we go any further, a foodie PSA: Monjayaki is not for everyone. Especially if you're the type who insists on dishes that taste AND look good. Now that we've gotten that disclaimer out of the way, here's a brief and most likely inaccurate history lesson: the beginnings of Monjayaki, the often forgotten cousin of the better known Okonomiyaki are as mysterious as its contents. Some say its origins can be traced to WWII when rice and other staples were in short supply which forced hungry Tokyoites to basically dump everything they had on a grill and somehow figure out how to make it taste okay. Others claim that bored and hungry schoolchildren came up with the modern Monja by cobbling together various snacks and leftovers together into an anything-goes free-for-all. Whatever its history, everyone can agree on this one fact: it tastes so much better than it looks.
Although various Okonomiyaki restaurants around Tokyo serve Monjayaki, the best destination to get the real deal is Monja Street in Tsukishima (and really one of the only reasons to visit Tsukishima except for this place *link to Kanemasu*). Here one finds an entire street dedicated to this wholly unglamourous snack that is unique to Tokyo. Stop by any of the small mom and pop Monja stands and restaurants and sit yourself down in front of a grill.
A Monjayaki tutorial:
Step 1: Server brings out a bowl overflowing with what looks like delicious ingredients. You think to yourself, "that looks tasty". Server dumps out dry ingredients into a pile on the grill and it looks totally normal. You're not scared.
Step 2: The waiter creates a hole in the center (the old volcano trick) and then pours a gooey, runny mix of mystery batter into the middle. Doesn't look that appetizing but you're sure it'll look better once cooked (hint: it won't)
Step 3: Now this is where things get messy: take the 2 big spatulas and mash everything together turning the entire pile of random ingredients into a totally unappetizing mess – it's everything you dreamed about when told as a child not to play with your food.
Step 4: You look at the pile of what most people think looks like puke and think, "there's no way I can eat that". Then you take your adorable mini spatula (you'll want to steal one to take home but refrain – these are humble mom and pop restaurants) and take a tiny bit and put into your mouth and think to yourself it's not so bad. Then you take another slightly larger bit and get a totally different taste and that isn't as bad as it looks as well. Before you know it, you've carved off an entire corner of the putrid looking blob. The best part is toward the end when the runny mixture has caramelized and reduced to a more chewy and flavorful version of itself.
Now that you're a pro, go forth and Monja – just not when you're hungover. We've warned you.