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Between Nouvelle Chinois and Machichūka

The neighborhood Chinese restaurant, the so-called machichūka, is the kind of place where anyone can enter without a second thought about formality or price, sit down at the counter, alone or with a companion, and order a set meal with rice or a plate of noodles.  Most of the dishes are stir-fried or deep-fried in a lot of oil, and are on the heavy side, suitably accompanied by a copious bowl of white rice, a cold beer, and maybe some gyoza or ramen on the side.  That’s the way most people in Tokyo imagine the machichūka. On the pedestrian street north of Nishi-Ogikubo Station, there is a small neighborhood Chinese restaurant, Chinese Food, and Liquor Matsumoto, but with a rather different self-image. Since the Michelin Guide started a Chinese section three years ago, it has been awarded a Bib Gourmand every year. Even though Bib Gourmand is meant as a designation for inexpensive eateries, it still implies a high level of fastidiousness about some things. Michelin or machichūka? There is a big gap between the images invoked by these two terms.


Matsumoto Kenji opened this restaurant in Nishiogi with his wife twelve years ago. “After I graduated from high school, my first job was at a Chinese restaurant. That was in Tokyo. That’s right. I’ve been in Tokyo thirty-one years now.” Matsumoto has the straight-talking demeanor of an artisan, clearly more of a cook than a front-house man.


As with many others, Nishiogi was a bit of a second choice, partly because the busier nearby neighborhoods of Kichijoji and Ogikubo were too expensive.“I just happened to have rented an apartment in Nishiogi," he said. "And so I thought I would open a place nearby. I really didn’t think much about it. Kichijoji is expensive, right!? But, so is Ogikubo! I don’t like traveling far, and Nishiogi is cheaper. And there were actually quite a few restaurants here, which is a good thing.”


We asked him about his relationship with Chinese cuisine. “The roots of Japanese cuisine are mostly Chinese,” he explained. “So, it is easy for Japanese people to understand. The types of flavorings they use, like soy sauce and miso, are also common here. Fermented foods traveled from China to Japan. So, it is quite easy to adapt to them.”


Matsumoto clearly feels that the complexity of Chinese cuisine is underappreciated in Japan. When asked what is difficult, he replied, “Everything! There are many flavors that depend on just the right timing. With other types of cuisine, you can slowly adjust the flavor while cooking, but with Chinese cuisine, there are many things that you have to decide on the spot!”


Matsumoto learned everything he knows about Chinese cuisine on the job. “I watched the veterans cook and learned from them. And then there is the “staff meal” (makanai) system that I think still exists today. The young staff will cook a meal for the veterans. That way you learn how to toss the food in the wok, operate various types of kitchen equipment and use all the ingredients. That’s the most important step…. At first, I started just with cutting. Then I prepared the staff meal. Soon I was cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”


“I always worked with Japanese people. There were just six years when I worked with a chef from Hong Kong. I have been to China, but I haven’t worked there…. What was memorable?... Well, when I went to the place my former boss worked in Taiwan, I saw some new things. Taiwanese food is mostly all home cooking. But when you go to a restaurant to get some really high-class food, it is usually made by some chefs they have hired from Hong Kong. Usually, some Cantonese elements can be found in the dishes. And some of those who went to Canton and came back are the pioneers in Taiwan of the “nouvelle Chinois” [Chinese cuisine influenced by French ingredients, techniques, and service styles]. One of the restaurants, Fu Yuan, is where my former boss worked. He became friendly with the female boss of the restaurant, Ms. Yang, and learned many things from her. Nouvelle Chinois is not like the traditional Chinese meal, where, ‘bam!’ a big dish appears on the table. Rather foods are served individually to customers on their own plates. Everyone drinks wine. That was in Taiwan.”


So, this nouvelle Chinois, a term that seems to come from Hong Kong and Taiwan, not France, is a new type of Chinese food, with French and Japanese influences, served in a style typical of fine dining in the West. Matsumoto learned all this from his seniors and then decided to open his own shop in Nishiogi.


Matsumoto serves lunch and dinner. If you search for the restaurant online, you will find that the most popular dish is a tantanmen, a spicy Chinese noodle soup in which his special ingredient is walnut paste. “This was decided by the customers,” he said of his reputation for tantanmen. “It didn’t come from me. It’s famous only because the customers have decided this for themselves…. It’s not something I invented. There are plenty of places that serve tantanmen. But I have my own recipe. The paste for the soup is 40 percent walnut paste. There are no artificial additives. If customers say something, though, the spiciness can be adjusted.”


Matsumoto’s walnut-based tantanmen and his spicy mapo tofu are the signature dishes at lunch, but for dinner he has a different menu. The main item is fish. Customers can choose fish by type and size, as well as the way it is cooked. “For example, if two people come in, or if four people come in, there is a question of size. Fish come in different sizes, and people can choose. If they want to steam it, then they should go with blacktip grouper (akahata), or definitely some type of grouper (hata). Grouper is typically steamed in Hong Kong. So, we are perfectly orthodox with this.”


Shanghai-style fish, the chef explained are freshwater fish with a muddy taste, which is why they are usually fried, often deep fried, and served with sweet and vinegary sauce. Hong Kong uses sea fish with a lighter taste that are often steamed and served with a salt or oyster-sauce base flavoring.


“So, my recommendation is the steamed fish, a whole steamed fish like in Hong Kong, flavored with a bit of oil. This is the Cantonese or Hong Kong style, a whole fish steamed. It’s popular now, but I’ve been doing it for a while. We get high-quality fish from the Goto Islands. For a year now, I’ve started using only fish from a designated spot, this one, which is off of Nagasaki. It’s a white fish, and many types are really suitable for Chinese food. It’s a kind of branding.”


There are steamed, sashimi, and fried methods for preparing the fish, and the customers can choose one or even combine them on the same fish (for example, half the fish as sashimi and the other half steamed). People in Japan don’t think of Chinese food as having sashimi, but it does exist, Matsumoto claimed, especially in places like Shanghai. “You can find it in Shanghai cuisine,” he said. When we looked doubtful, he added, “But still many people will claim it is rare.”


There are other popular dishes, partly because of his media exposure. “Many are popular because they have been introduced on television several times, things like fried rice, twice-cooked pork, chili shrimp. People see these on television and it leaves an impression. The image of the restaurant is connected to these meat dishes. So, when many people actually come here, they will order this.”


In a small kitchen, however, there are limits in terms of what they can do, so there are no dim sum or other snacks.


Although strongly influenced by Cantonese cuisine, Matsumoto does not try to exclusively follow any regional Chinese style. “There is no place in Japan that is doing a one hundred percent pure Cantonese style,” he said. “Even in China, you won’t find it. But customers will always ask me, ‘What kind of cuisine is this?’ I always reply, ‘It’s the type of cuisine you see here!’ [laughing]. Isn’t it enough to say that it is the Matsumoto style?”


Matsumoto is generally dismissive of questions of culinary authenticity. “For example, if you go to the homeland in China, and you go to one hundred restaurants, there will be one hundred flavors that are different. So, I don’t know how anyone can decide by what standard anything is an authentic flavor of China. And I don’t think there is any need to know. The one thing that is sure is that I try to reduce the amount of oil I use in the food. And I feel it myself in my stomach. Oil really sticks in our stomachs. That’s the truth. Even with regard to flavor. You can only put up with one or two oily dishes in a meal. It’s a lot easier to eat lighter foods. With stir-fried foods, nearly every chef fries them in oil, and then adds the flavors straight into that mix, but I always clean the wok and then do the flavoring. That way there is nearly no excess oil.”


Matsumoto offers a variety of alcoholic drinks. “It depends on the people really. Some people do drink Shaoxing Wine (aged rice wine). But there are many who have never even tried it, and for them, we have an abundant selection of beer and wine. Right now, my wife is working hard on getting her sommelier certificate. As for me, I think I know a bit about it as well.’


We asked what wines he would pair with his food, and he rejoined by questioning our question. “If someone asks what kinds of wine go with our dishes, I think that is really an odd question,” he replied in his typically blunt fashion. “With French service, one dish comes out at a time, and you can pair a wine with each one. So, in a French restaurant with a course menu, you can say that you want to pair wine with each dish, but here, to be honest, the only thing that would go with the whole meal would probably be a sparkling wine. So now we don’t do any pairing. That’s the way it is.”


So, the restaurant does not do any pairing for each dish, but of course, there are some recommended wines for the cuisine. For example, with the steamed fish, he recommends a sauvignon blanc, a chardonnay, gewürztraminer, or a Japanese Koshu wine. For the more cost-conscious, he recommends a house pinot gris.


Recently, Matsumoto has been working in the front of the house taking care of customers, while another cook works in the kitchen. “We have a small child now, so my wife only works at lunchtime. In the evening, I am in the front, and there is a chef in the kitchen.”

This chef is a trusted older colleague from his days of apprenticeship in other restaurants. “We ate out of the same pot for ten years,” Matsumoto said.


A chef by training and temperament, Matsumoto really didn’t intend to work in the front of the house, and clearly has not entirely taken to this role. We asked why he hasn’t found some help. “This is really a question of the social climate, this generation; it is really tough to find people,” he said. “In the old days, you just put out an ad, and someone would come, a ‘freeter,’ or a student who wanted part-time work. Now students aren’t interested. Especially Chinese cuisine doesn’t seem cool. Maybe a Western restaurant, or a popular Japanese restaurant, or some joint selling spaghetti, they would be more interested in that. When you think of the image, that’s the pattern. Now, among Japanese [Chinese cuisine] has taken on a cheap image.”


In a hospitality sector facing a labor shortage, Matsumoto’s problems are compounded by the image of Chinese restaurants as cheap, requiring hard work, and lacking class. This clearly irritates him. “Actually,” he said, “Chinese food is really the most expensive of cuisines, it costs more than French cuisine. Just look at the ingredients: bear paw, swallow’s nest, abalone, things like that. If you look at it that way, Chinese cuisine is the most expensive of all!”


Now he is working every morning from 10:30 am to 11:30 pm or midnight. He doesn’t have an apprentice. “I don’t have anyone like that now. I don’t want one. Maybe wearing a pair of denim jeans working in a Western restaurant with a sommelier license might have some appeal. But there are not many people who want to work in a Chinese restaurant. Probably more people aim for hotels.” There are also not many people studying the Chinese kitchen in culinary schools.


Perhaps, we suggested, the problem for Matsumoto is drawing a line between his restaurant – with a Bib Gourmand distinction – and the ordinary neighborhood Chinese (machichūka). “Well,” Matsumoto said, “a neighborhood Chinese restaurant? I suppose that’s what we are. We are certainly a small restaurant selling Chinese food.”


At the same, this is indeed a restaurant with a Michelin Bib Gourmand. It is a distinction they received ever since the Chinese division in the guide was developed. We asked what kind of influence it has had.  “At first I did not really advertise this award very much. But because there are areas where the customers were not picking up on what we were doing, I decided to promote this award a bit more this year. I want to develop the restaurant, to develop it together with the customers. I think customers also want to see restaurants develop.”

We asked him how he imagined this development. “Well for one, in terms of business, but also in terms of cuisine. For example, we will do more seasonal recommended dishes. And then we want to do more creative foods, some things that will challenge us.”


Listening to his plans, it seems Matsumoto is trying also to be more of a Michelin-style fine dining restaurant in the evening, while not losing the neighborhood Chinese feeling at lunchtime. Even as a local Chinese restaurant, he has always had a strict attitude towards his own offerings. Now he is trying to level up to match the Michelin accolades. At the same time, he wants to remain a place where local Nishiogi customers can casually enter. Nouvelle Chinois or machichūka? It’s a difficult balance. (James Farrer Oct. 5, 2018)

(text and interview by James Farrer; Japanese transcription and editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation by James Farrer;; copyright James Farrer 2018, all rights reserved)

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