The Eclectic Flavors of BallPark Food in Japan
- Updated: May 15, 2010
Take me out to the ballgame.
Take me out to the crowd.
Buy me some squid legs and takoyaki.
When we see the Carp, we’ll have okonomiyaki.
Squid legs? Tako what? What about peanuts and Cracker Jack? We’re talking baseball, but Japanese baseball, and the food at ballparks in Japan is a force to be reckoned with.
Dried squid legs, udon (thick noodles in broth), yakisoba (thin, grilled noodles), and steaming hot takoyaki (grilled octopus) may not sound like standard baseball fare, but if you walk into any Japanese ballpark, you’ll more than likely have a nosh on one of these dishes, or at least see them at every concession stand.
If you’re looking for hot dogs in Japan, you’ll certainly find them. However, Brad Poelman of Salt Lake City warns, “Japanese hot dogs tend to be small and thin with an unnaturally neon-pinkish hue. The taste is usually about as unnatural as the color. Think ‘plastic’ or ‘rubber.’” Eww. Let’s heed Brad’s warning and pretend hot dogs don’t exist at Japanese ballparks. Besides, why would you want a boring hot dog when there are so many more options?
The eclectic flavors of Japan are prevalent in its stadiums. Sure, you’ll find typical American snacks such as the aforementioned – and apparently inferior – hot dogs, hamburgers, and even pizza. But a tour through Japan’s stadiums is an education about Japanese cuisine. My favorites include curry rice (rice topped with a mild curry sauce with potatoes and carrots) at Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo and oden (a kind of stew containing daikon radish, boiled egg, and fish cakes) at the Kyocera Dome in Osaka. I’ll admit that I once bought food from a McDonald’s at the Nagoya Dome, but it was a fried ebi (shrimp) burger.
Other amazing choices include shumai (steamed dumplings), gyoza (fried dumplings), and the super-convenient bento box that is a meal unto itself. Imagine the healthy goodness of rice, fish, meat, and a few veggies combined in one box. Chicken dishes also abound, from yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers) to karaage (fried chicken “nuggets”). Daigo Fujiwara grew up in Japan, where he enjoyed miso katsu at the stadium in Nagoya. “A fried chicken on a stick coated in a sweet miso (soy bean paste). I still crave it sometimes,” says Fujiwara, who now lives outside Boston and roots for the Red Sox. They don’t serve miso katsu at Fenway Park, but I’m sure the hot dogs are larger and not neon pink.
Ballpark cuisine is also a good example of regional specialties. At Skymark Stadium in Kobe, you’ll find Kobe beef croquettes – when they’re not sold out. Takoyaki is in plentiful supply both outside and inside Koshien Stadium in Osaka, home of the Hanshin Tigers. Osaka is also the birthplace of okonomiyaki, a type of pancake filled with octopus, cabbage, and bacon and topped with katsuobushi (dried bonito fish flakes), but I’ll argue that the best version of okonomiyaki is found at Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium in Hiroshima. The Hiroshima-style pancake – or pizza, or savory crepe – adds yakisoba or udon in layers rather than one big mixture. Sold as a snack, it’s definitely filling enough for a meal.
Let’s face it: It’s uncomfortably hot in Japan during the summer months. You need something refreshing when the sun is unleashing its rays with ferocity and the humidity wraps its sticky arms around you like a blanket. Greg Thompson of Atlanta is happy that “on summer nights in Yokohama Stadium, they serve Mandarin oranges over shaved ice.”
“My favorite snack was probably the slushie things I got (at) the Mazda Stadium in Hiroshima,” says Florida native Mary Beth Clemons. “It was bubblegum flavored, priced well, and convenient to eat. It came in a clear bag where you just tear off the corner and use a straw with a little spoon on the end. Perfect for a hot afternoon of baseball.”
Another perfect thing at a Japanese baseball game is something cool to wash down all of that good food. Enter the beer girls! Each stadium has girls – okay, there are guys, too – who strap kegs of beer to their backs and roam the stands looking for thirsty patrons. With unprecedented customer service we don’t see often enough in the States, the beer girl will sprint up the stairs to your seat and pour a cup of beer with a smile on her face. If you want something a little stronger, don’t worry. There are plenty of vendors who will mix you a glass of chu-hi or a lemon sour. Not a fan of alcohol? Then drink down a tall glass of Calpis (The unfortunately named beverage is merely a soft drink that tastes like milky Sprite).
All this talk about the food at Japanese baseball parks is making me hungry. I can’t wait until September and my next tour of games there. Before that, I’ll be back here next month with another essay on Japanese baseball.