Even more Izakaya food

If you’re wondering about what snacks to serve with a martini, you will find endless inspiration in the world of Izakaya.


Izakaya can be roughly described as relaxed and usually low-cost Japanese gastro-pubs. I have written about them quite a bit before, mainly because of their warm atmosphere and inspiring array of tasty menu items that go very well with a martini.


Quite a lot of these dishes, such as this hot edamame with salt and soy sauce, were snapped in Yumi, Soho, one of a handful of Izakaya in London.


These olives and edamame I did at home though. They’re easy.


Here is some kimchi and cold broccoli with sesame sauce. Simple but effective. Also in Yumi.


Kimchi is a Korean dish consisting mostly of pickled cabbage with chillies.


Pungent and served cold, it can be an acquired taste to some in the West, but I love it. It has even been inscribed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which is reason enough to give it a try at least.


This is some homemade lightly pickled mackerel (shime saba) with tsukemono pickles, spring onions, sesame seeds, cooked beetroot, soy sauce, grated ginger and lemon slices.


I think the strong taste of shime-saba pairs well with a bold martini.


It goes very well with a fiery ginger martini.


Here is some Yumi chicken yakitori with raw egg dipping sauce. Absolutely amazing.


Yakitori skewers are a common feature in Izakaya menus.


They’re a delicious and fairly substantial snack.


Inspired by the Yumi selection I made some grilled courgette skewers at home. They were dead easy. 


Rolling cut some courgettes into bite-sized chunks, grill them with some oil and soy sauce for about 20-30 mins, let them cool then thread them onto some skewers.

I put 9 pieces on each and fed them to some willing members of my family.


This is a Thai snack skewer, made of dried and seasoned fish. It has a sweet/umami/spicy taste and a texture like beef jerky.


More pre-packaged and possibly unhealthy snack food, but still tasty. Japanese peanuts coated in a squid-flavoured crunchy coating. It went well with a martini.


Here are some mussels in a garlic-cream sauce with chunky hunks of bread.


They can be slightly difficult to eat with a martini in one hand. It might be easier if you thread the mussels onto skewers first but that’s a bit of a faff.


It’s probably best to have a martini, eat the mussels, then have another martini.


You can see the recipe for these chilled scallops with paprika, seaweed-butter and lime canapés here.


You can probably guess that I love oysters.


I usually like them served as simple as they come.


Their rich oceanic flavour reminds me of being on the beach in the Hebrides when I was little. 


Living in central London it has to be a very evocative flavour to transport me over 500 miles and three decades in just one mouthful…


Anyway, back to Izakaya, sushi is also often served at these establishments. Here are some rough-hewn sushi rolls I put together.


This is a rather large uramaki (inside-out sushi roll) and not exactly the neatest you ever saw…


Loosely based on a California roll recipe, mine contained crab sticks, cucumber, avocado and wasabi.


(These aren’t mine)


I also spread some of my seemingly ubiquitous seaweed butter on the nori instead of using the more conventional mayonnaise.


I also made some smaller cucumber maki, also with seaweed butter.

Cucumber maki have a simple taste and a satisfying texture combining crisp nori, soft rice and the crunch of fresh cucumber.


They also go well with Hendricks gin, which is flavoured with cucumber and rose.


If you make your own rolls the ingredient variations are endless so try some out for yourself. 

Homemade sashimi is fairly easy to assemble.


Buy top grade fresh fish, gently but thoroughly rinse it in cold water. Pat dry then place in the freezer for about 45 minutes then slice into bite-size pieces and serve immediately with soy sauce, wasabi and pickled ginger.


Homemade sashimi might not resemble the expertly sliced morsels you’ll find in a proper sushi restaurant.


However, if the fish is good quality  it should stil be very tasty.


I served some tuna sashimi on sushi rice with omelette and pickles. Simplicity is the key. 

One of the nice aspects of Japanese Izakaya is the more relaxed, informal nature of the service and food.


Home-made style cooking is very popular at Izakaya, putting the emphasis on cosy comfort, relaxation and intimate care.


It’s more like being in someone’s warm, welcoming house rather than an intense fine dining experience, making it a very comfortable environment for a martini.


So if you’re lucky enough to be in Japan or a city with Izakaya venues be sure to check them out.


Otherwise, if you’re having a martini at home and fancy trying some more unusual snacks and appetisers have a go at some of these.


Itadakimasu!

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Chilled scallop canapés with smoked paprika, seaweed-butter and lime

These sound fancy but they were quite easy to put together and can be made in advance, so they’re easy to serve if you’re having a party.


Get about one scallop per guest (or two if you want to make it a more substantial dish than just a canapé).


I love scallops. My dad was a scallop diver so they’ve never been far away from my consciousness.


Shell and lightly clean them.

Separate the coral. You can cook them at the same time as the white flesh and eat them when you like but don’t include them in the canapé itself.

Put the white flesh into the freezer for about 40 minutes. This will allow it to firm up.


Remove then slice horizontally, so that each scallop produces two or more thin discs of tender flesh.

Dry each piece with a paper towel.


Season both sides with a little salt and some paprika (smoked paprika if you can get it).

Heat some olive oil in a pan on relatively high heat.

Add the scallops and coral (in batches if you have a large amount).


Cook for about 40-50 seconds on one side (or at least until that side starts to brown – as in the above image) then turn over. Cook for about 30-40 seconds on the other side, or again until it starts to brown.

Remove the scallops from the pan and allow to cool to room temperature. Put them in the fridge.


Add a dash of soy sauce, a dash of mirin and half a teaspoon of honey to the pan. Stir and bring to the boil, then take off the heat and pour the sauce into a small dipping bowl.


When the time comes spread some seaweed butter onto a ritz cracker, or better still some miniature blini. Top with a slice of scallop and if you’re serving immediately pour a little of the dipping sauce over the scallop and garnish with a tiny sliver of lime peel. TINY. 


If you’re not serving the canapés immediately save the dipping sauce until right before you serve, cover the canapés and keep them in the fridge.

You can just eat the cooked coral on its own (I did; and I felt no guilt) or you can serve them separately with toothpicks and the dipping sauce.

The fresher the scallops, the better.


And naturally this goes very well with a martini. It’s an exquisite snack for even the most esteemed of guests.

More martini snacks and canapes

I’m just going to leave this here…

  

What could be easier than olives and cheese-stuffed peppers that you picked up at the shops on the way home? I particularly like the colour contrast of these two. Oh and the taste.

You can’t go wrong with the lemony-buttery taste of Nocellara olive flesh, while the soft creamy cheese paired very indulgently with the sweet piccante crunch of the pepper.

  
This one was also a little bit last minute. I threw together some Bombay mix, prosciutto and olives when a friend popped round unexpectedly. The Bombay mix didn’t really go with the other two, but it’s definitely very nice on its own.

  

Here are some nuts, arranged mindlessly while I stared into space sipping my first drink of the night. Salted pistachio nuts are my favourite, although some nice big fat macadamia nuts would go well with a martini too.

  
Simple, easy, light, savoury, Twiglets are an underrated canapé snack. They are the flavour and texture opposite of the martini. Where a martini is cold, smooth, heady, citrusy and ever so slightly sweet, these are light, crunchy, salty and savoury. They don’t look particularly elegant but the flavour contrast really works. They’re a guaranteed winner for marmite fans.

  
This one is a bit more fancy. Asparagus skewers, blini with taramasalata, maki rolls, sigeumchi-namul, crisps, a martini and candles…

  
A simple but slightly more edgy snack, here are some wasabi peas with a simple classic.

  
Extremely simple, but very tasty, here is some lightly pickled baby beetroot. I’m sure we could create some kind of pink-coloured beetroot Gibson Martini, perhaps similar to the Beet Up Vesper Martini at the Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town bar in central London. 


Sea Aster is a seasonal coastal plant that flowers in the summer but is edible in the spring. Wash and eat raw or lightly boil for a minute or two. I got mine at a fish monger’s in Borough Market.


Mum bought these langoustines from Tobermory Main Street while I picked up the samphire on Oban pier on a trip back from London.


There’s a whole world of tapas-style ingredients and food types you could use. Above you can see chorizo, cold roast pork slices, feta cheese, olives, bread, houmous, oil  and duqqah.


You can turn the nibbles into your whole meal and really take your time with the martini. Above you can see crab open sandwiches, nuts, wood ear mushrooms, Korean-style spinach, roasted vegetables, seaweed, manchego cheese, Bombay mix, olives, bread, oil and houmous all to be slowly munched while you sip your cold gin.


Houmous is a relaxed martini accompaniment to have at home with informal company over a drink.


Here it is served with sliced pitta bread and a variety of mostly Mediterranean snacks.


My kind neighbour made me some lovely Middle Eastern sweets which I included in the meal.

The Arabic element of the food was especially good at soaking up some of the alcohol!


Dim sum was a surprisingly good – if slightly unconventional accompaniment.


Oysters are my favourite.


I also love creamy manchego cheese.


Finally though, the most classical martini snack will always remain the pitted green olive. If it’s all you have, you’ll be fine. And you won’t spoil your appetite for dinner.

More Izakaya dishes


As I’ve previously mentioned, I love Izakaya culture.

  
So here are some more izakaya-inspired dishes to accompany a martini.

  
This is very simple: grill sweet potato in oil with a sprinkling of salt until ready. I was drinking a martini when I made this so I can’t remember how long it was in the oven for. 20 minutes? Who knows. There’s a reason I blog about martinis and not food recipes. 

  

Salmon ceviche is Izakaya-esque and goes very well with a martini. Prepared in advance and it’s very easy to assemble during drink o’clock.

 

Comparable to ceviche is the Japanese dish shime saba (lightly pickled mackerel) here served with some very rustic but tasty ritz crackers and guacamole (I mashed an avocado with coriander/cilantro, salt, pepper, tomato purée, garlic and a squeeze of lemon juice). All of the above went very well with the martini. 
 
 Skewers are easy. Chop the ingredients (tofu and spring onions above), thread onto wooden skewers, brush with oil and maybe some salt, pepper or a sauce/glaze of your choice. Chuck them in the oven for a few minutes while you pour the martinis then whip them out when they’re ready.

  
As well as potentially making unusual garnishes, the hot skewers contrast nicely with an ice cold martini.

  

The tofu skewers involved a little extra batter to get them nice and crunchy on the outside, and goey on the middle – instructions here.

  
Thin spinach omelette (tamago), folded then sliced.


Grilled shiitake mushrooms make a nice umami nibble.


This is a whole meal. Salmon onigiri, grilled squash noodles, nori, sigeumchi-namul, salad, miso and err… Twiglets.


When I grilled the salmon to put in the onigiri, I grilled the skin separately with a light sprinkling of salt, cut it into squares and served it as a martini nibble as you see here.


Here is some shime saba (pickled mackerel) nigiri served in Yo!Sushi (a British-born Japanese conveyor belt sushi restaurant). If only they served martinis as well! Oh wait, I’m glad they don’t. I would never leave.


Here is some tuna chirashi-zushi I made at home with tamago, cucumber and pickles.


Flash fried scallops, then chilled in a garlic and ginger marinade, served with boiled and salted samphire. These went well with the martini. 


Tuna maki and crab futomaki rolls. Probably better to be eaten after a martini as an actual meal but they were an okay accompaniment nonetheless. I need to work on my makisu rolling skills…


And finally, the traditional izakaya dish, the croquette potato – korokke. Hot, crunchy and savoury, they go very well in an izakaya meal and with a martini.

The Foxlow in Balham 4/5

  

My friend invited me out to lunch at the Foxlow Restaurant just around the corner from Balham tube station in south London.
 

The decor has a 1970s Scandinavian feel to it, with lots of wood and chunky fixtures that say practicality as well as style. The staff were also helpful, friendly and knowledgable. 

  

The food menu is unpretentious comfort food – but of very high quality. The chicken sandwich was generous, tasty, comforting and a real treat of contrasting textures. All the meat and fish is carefully chosen from high value and sustainable sources by the way.

  

I don’t normally drink martinis at lunch but when I saw the unusual option at the top of their cocktail menu I had to try it. I was told it involved a honey and Manzanilla olive brine mixture instead of vermouth. If in doubt, I almost always prefer a traditional classic but this sounded like a very individual, striking yet simple variation that I had never seen before so it would have been rude not to order one.

  
I was not disappointed. The oily circle of honey oozed playfully around the surface of the drink until the end while the sweet and briny flavours swirled pleasingly over the stoicism of the dry gin.

If I could recommend any changes I would suggest, as I often do, keeping the gin and glasses in the freezer so that the drink was even colder. I also prefer to drink martinis from a V-shaped martini glass rather than a coupe glass, but these are minor points.

The drink was good value for money for London and I particularly salute the creativity of someone who can take a tried and tested classic, innovate it with a subtle but unique alteration and create something new and pleasing, yet also reassuringly rooted in the classic martini recipe  style.

  
The drink was not served with nibbles (perhaps it could be served with complimentary Manzanilla olives for martini greatness) but the nibbles on offer in the food menu were creative and highly tasty.

We ordered the anchovy, onion and goats cheese served on rounds of crisp bread. They were absolutely delicious, with strong salty and umami punch, finished off with the pungency of the onion.
  
They were a fantastic accompaniment to the martini, although given their strong flavour I would recommend only eating them with someone you are comfortable enough to share anchovy-onion breath with afterwards. If you’re on a date you’d better buy two plates to share – your breaths will hopefully cancel one another’s out if you end  up kissing later – and if you have one or two martinis let’s be honest, there will probably be a fairly good chance of it.

The Skylon Bar, London 4.5/5

If you’re in London, treat yourself. It’s not that expensive and you’re guaranteed a good quality cocktail in an excellent setting. 

 

This is a lovely bar in a wonderful, all-welcoming part of London. The brutalist Southbank Centre with its grand but minimalist polished concrete slabs enjoys a wonderfully soft form of acoustics. The diverse array of visitors range from pondering thespians to the philosophical homeless, their intriguing conversations all muffled into soporific unintelligible whispering by the imposing edifice of the building itself. It’s an ocean of calm just a few steps from the virulent masses thronging the banks of the River Thames. Wander around the building and you might stumble across a cultural performance by Zulu warriors or perhaps a fierce debate on the topic of lesbian poetry from the 1980s. Whatever you find, you will likely leave feeling a strange, deep connection with your fellow humans.

Anyway, one of the things situated in this strange, post-war monument to what communist Britain might have aspired to be, is a peculiarly yet perfectly juxtaposed bar and restaurant, very firmly on the free-market capitalist side of the fence.

  
The Skylon itself, after which this bar/restaurant was named, was a stylised metal structure erected during the Festival of Britain, a nationwide event held in 1951 commemorating science, art and architecture in an attempt to lift the national mood in the gloomy post-war years. With a very unstable economy, the loss of vast swathes of the British Empire and extensive, enduring human and infrastructural damage suffered during the war times were still very tough in the country.

  
As illustrated in John Ritchie Addison’s photograph above, the Skylon piece cut quite a striking image over the southern banks of the Thames. It was one of many features of art and design erected for the festival but its image remains one of the most enduring.

Nonetheless, it was seen as too costly for the government to bear. The re-elected prime minister Winston Churchill, who knew a thing or two about martinis, also reportedly hated it as a socialist symbol erected by the Labour government which had defeated him in the post-war election.

So naturally he had it torn down and sold for scrap.

  

Oh Winston.

However, while he may have hated the Skylon sculpture, I hope he would approve of the martini served in the nearby restaurant which has taken its name.

Apart from sometimes getting busy (for evident reasons) the only other downside of the bar was the fact that their diverse and highly creative cocktail menu didn’t actually have a classic martini option on it. I would recommend they include one in future as the one they actually served me was almost perfect.

 
I apologised for asking the waitress for an item not on the menu but she asked her manageress and returned to ask whether I would prefer mine made with gin or vodka, and if I would prefer it classical or dirty.

Excellent, I though, and ordered a classic martini (with gin, obviously).

It arrived in a small, but perfectly formed and indeed very elegant martini glass. Lemon peel had been squeezed into the glass and the lemon garnish was artistically cut and fastened onto the rim. I don’t think either the glass or the gin had been kept in the freezer but effort had clearly been put in to chilling both before serving.

  
I also took a moment to admire my friend’s choice of cocktail – the Jamaican Fury. Beautiful and creative, the smoke swirling in the bottle smelt simply of cigarettes, but when decanted into a glass it added a rich, savoury aroma to the otherwise sweet and powerful cocktail.

  
Moments later we were served a bowl of Japanese rice snacks for free. This may sound very simple, possibly even gimmicky, but it’s a vanishingly rare phenomenon in British drinking establishments and adds so much to the martini drinking experience.

Skylon gets 4.5 out of 5 for its martini. It was cold, lemony, in a martini glass, served with nibbles, with an additional selection of good food available on the menu, while the service was friendly and attentive and the setting was relaxed, ambient and stylish (and in one of my favourite buildings in London). For £12.50 I also thought the drink was very good value for money, certainly by London standards and in such a central, prominent venue. I would recommend booking in advance though as it will get crowded.

  
Otherwise, a victorious crowd pleaser. Well done Skylon, long may you reign over the banks of the Thames – but please put the classic martini back on your menu for good.

Shime Saba (pickled mackerel sushi)

I love mackerel.  

You’ve got to eat it fresh, it looks beautiful, it tastes really strong and it reminds me of fun times trying to catch them in the summer from a very young age.

   
I also love sashimi, or meat and seafood that is lightly cured, smoked or marinaded rather than cooked outright.

So here is a simple recipe for preparing mackerel to eat, without the use of a cooker.

  
You will need:

  • 2 mackerel fillets
  • 4tbsps salt and an extra pinch or so
  • 240ml clear vinegar (preferably rice vinegar)
  • 20ml vermouth (optional)
  • 1tbsp mirin

  

  • Put the mackerel fillets in a container and cover them with the 4tbsp salt, making sure that no parts are left uncovered on either side.

  

  • Transfer the fillets to a sieve and place it over some sort of container to catch any of the liquid that the salt will draw out.
  • If you’re left with any salt in the container sprinkle it over the top of the fillets.
  • Leave the fillets on the sieve for an hour then carefully take each one and rinse it under a cold water tap.
  • Make sure the tap is not set on high pressure or you could damage the fillet.
  • Carefully dry off the fillets with kitchen towel.
  • Find a sealable container. It should be able to hold the two fillets and when filled with the liquid mixture you are about to make it should cover both the fillets.
  • Mix together the vinegar, mirin, optional vermouth and extra pinch or two of salt.
  • Stir so that the salt dissolves.
  • Pour a little of the mixture into the sealable container.
  • Lay the fillets in the container flat, side by side then pour over the rest of the vinegar mixture.
  • Seal the container and put it in the fridge for 3 hours.

  

  • Take the fillets out of the container and carefully dry them with kitchen towel once again.
  • You will notice that the flesh has become more firm, almost as if the fish has been cooked.
  • It feels like a drier version of ceviche.
  • The next step can be quite satisfying once you get over the fiddly bit at the beginning.

  

  • Start at the top end of the fish and find yourself a bit of the skin to hold on to. It’s sort of like trying to peel back a new piece of sellotape.
  • Once you’ve peeled back a bit, gently pull the skin off all the way along the fillet.
  • Some of the iridescence will inevitably come off but don’t worry. This is normal.

  

  • Next, turn the fillets flesh-side up.
  • Look carefully and feel along the middle groove of the fillet for any bones.
  • Gently but firmly use a pair of tweezers to pull the buggers out.
  • This task is less satisfying than peeling off the skin but it’s worth it, if you want to avoid having to give (or receive!) the Heimlich manoeuvre later on.
  • The fillet is now ready for the final serving stage.
  • There are several options here. It could be served as a simple sashimi piece, it could be pressed onto sushi rice to make battera or sliced into sticks and made into maki rolls.
  • For this post I opted for a low-carb option and served it as a simple sashimi.

  

  • I sliced the fillet into 4-5mm pieces, with a thin groove cut deep into the middle of each one.
  • This groove allows the fish to soak up a little more sauce when you dip it.

  

  • You can serve it like so with chopsticks and some dipping sauce.
  • Soy sauce on its own is fine but for Shime Saba’s strong, oily taste I like to mix half soy sauce with half fresh lemon juice.
  • I also served the mackerel here with cucumber tsukemono, grated fresh ginger (to help cut through the oily fish) and some simple shredded spring onion, with a dab of wasabi.
  • Note that this is a very nutritious dish. It’s a much better drinks accompaniment than crisps or peanuts!

 

  •  You can also serve it as a lunch or other meal.
  • It keeps for at least a day in a sealed refrigerated container.
  • I love how the blue skin colour contrasts with the salad.

  

  • You can also serve the shime saba with small slices of lemon between each piece.
  • Not only do the colours contrast nicely but again, the sharp citrusy lemon cuts against the oily fish. And what else goes well with lemon and seafood?
  • Obviously a martini. I would recommend a classic martini with lemon peel, not olives.
  • Alternatively you could try my nice winter warmer the Japanese Pickled Ginger martini.