Much maligned, by pretty much every country on Earth, British food has come a long way since the days of fish and chips, meat and potatoes and warm ale. Also gone is the aggressive and oppressive image of British chefs started by Gordon Ramsay and Marco Pierre White, a pair of British titans who headed the culinary revolution in Britain in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Twenty years ago, the reputation of British food in Japan was disastrous. A Japanese friend once described it as “prison food” after seeing a photo of the much-loved British fry up – a breakfast plate which usually includes baked beans, fried eggs, fried bread, black pudding and mushrooms. In all honesty he wasn’t too far from the truth. Growing up in Scotland in the ‘80s and ‘90s, food was an afterthought. Mince, packet curry, meat and potatoes with the occasional foray into “foreign” food such as Chinese and Indian takeouts, which probably didn’t resemble anything like authentic Chinese and Indian cuisine.
Fast forward to 2020 and the British culinary renaissance, in Tokyo, is in full swing with more and more British restaurants, pubs and online services being offered and even (dare I say it) being appreciated by the Japanese public and pining British residents. The glorious British pie, curry, piccalilli, jams and even the exotic Scottish haggis are being elevated to new heights by a bunch of establishments and entrepreneurs keen to dispel the notion that British food is stuck in the dark ages.
Swan & Lion is changing the perception of British food in Tokyo
One such service on offer in the Japanese capital is Swan & Lion run by Brit Ian Gibbins. The operation launched in 2013 at the Tamagawa Tomato Festival, then making appearances at Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi’s popular British Fair with its first takeout shop opening in 2015 in Kudaminami in Chiyoda-ku. With a focus on gourmet meat pies (but also offering various jarred accoutrements such as chutneys, piccalilli, marmalade, jam and seasonal products including hot cross buns, Christmas puddings and mince pies), Swan & Lion has been one of the leaders and champions of British food in Tokyo over the last decade.
“The image has changed hugely, for the better.”
In a recent online interview with TW, Gibbins says, “When I started, it was not uncommon to hear locals comment that British food is bad. But I rarely hear that now. The image has changed hugely, for the better. More and more Brits and Japanese fans of the UK are starting food ventures here, making good tasting and quality British food and this is helping to change the tired old perception of British food. There is further to go in this regard, but I am very optimistic that the image of British food will only become more positive.”
Thomas & Green founder is proud of Britain’s contemporary food culture
Fellow Brit Adrian Jones, owner of online British delicatessen Thomas & Green founded in 2020, is also one of the leaders of this gastronomic awakening. Shipping artisanal produce directly from the UK, Jones is keen to display the best that Britain has to offer.
Selling condiments, stuffing, dressing, curry, relishes and a host of other goodies (including gluten free and vegan options) Thomas & Green is a welcome breath of fresh air and gives locals and expats a spectrum of top-quality British produce to choose from.
“Most of the products we sell have never been available in Japan before.”
“Our focus is on the home cooking experience,” says Jones in an email interview with TW. “It’s great that you can go out and buy a decent pie or portion of fish and chips in Tokyo these days, but everyday cooking is just as important – increasingly so as people now are more wary of going out and more mindful about what they are eating. What we are trying to do is provide the opportunity for both expats and food-minded Japanese to expand their horizons a little. We encourage them to try something new and experience for themselves the best of contemporary British food culture. Most of the products we sell have never been available in Japan before, and include numerous award-winning offerings from all over the UK, from the Outer Hebrides to the tip of Cornwall. They say an Englishman’s home is his castle – I’d like to make everyone’s home their castle of comfort and I think the kitchen is a great place to start.”
Jones, much like Gibbins, is also optimistic about refreshening the image of British cuisine in Japan. He adds, “The food scene in the UK has undergone a total transformation since those bleak times and I think Britain today can be justly proud of its contemporary food culture. In particular, the growing legion of small producers bringing real passion and flair to the food production industry. Nevertheless, I do feel that perceptions of British food here have definitely lagged behind what’s been happening in the UK over the last few decades.”
Wyvern gastro pub in Yokohama is giving life to Scottish food
Poor wee Scotland is often relegated to the lowest of culinary leagues despite its wealth of natural resources such as an abundance of fresh fish and meat. However, alongside popular Jingumae-located Scottish food truck Deeney’s, Wyvern, a Scottish gastro pub located in Yokohama, offers a range of traditional Scottish food that won’t leave you reaching for a sick bag.
Its menu includes homemade haggis with mashed potatoes, lamb chops, smoked salmon fillets and the humble, yet oh so delicious, Scotch egg. Accompanying this veritable array of Scottish goodness is a healthy selection of Caledonian booze from leading Scottish breweries Brewdog and Black Isle and a fine selection of whisky. Wyvern has been spearheading, successfully, the much-needed change in the perceptions about Scotland and its culinary culture since its inception in 2015.
Swan & Lion, Thomas & Green and Wyvern are just a small selection of establishments attempting to advocate UK food in Japan. The next time you pass (or browse online) a British spot, give it a bash. It might just hit the spot and have you coming back again and again for the exceptional produce that the UK has to offer.
Swan & Lion
Where: 3-5-4 Kudanminami, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
When: Thu & Fri | 11:00–17:30
Thomas & Green
Wyvern Scottish Gastro Pub
Where: Kanagawa, Yokohama, Naka Ward, Fukutomicho, Nakadori-2-2 1F
When: 17:00–01:00 daily