Considering how Chinese cuisine has 36 (known) dumpling variations, Japanese cuisine may seem uncreative: The sole dumpling representative of the land (if “dumpling” is defined as a dough encasing some kind of filling) is gyoza. But the world of gyoza encompasses a tangle of history, legacy, traditions, and choices.
There are several gyoza variations, as regional as American barbecue: wrappers could have identical thickness to the familiar potsticker or be thin and crispy as a spring roll skin; ingredients in the filling as different as ramen toppings are to pho garnishes. Gyoza is such an important part of Japanese culture, there’s even an amusement park built as an ode.
Unlike jiaozi, the Chinese dumpling, classic gyoza are smaller in size with thinner skin. No one can say for certain when gyoza arrived to Japan, but it’s rumored Zhu Zhiyu, a Chinese scholar in ancient Japan, introduced jiaozi to the shogun Tokugawa Mitsukuni during the Edo period (in the late 1600s). Gyoza was called jiaozi until the Meiji era (1868 to 1912). Only the wealthy ate them, as fillings required ingredients inaccessible to many: Japan was a poor nation for centuries and the cuisine reflected the economy, centered around grains and root vegetables. Meats were too rare and expensive for ordinary citizens to consume until the American occupation after WWII. As more ingredients became normalized, gyoza was introduced to the masses.
Today, gyoza filling is generally ground pork laced with nira — a Japanese chive that nips the nose without overpowering the senses — garlic, ginger, and cabbage. They are commonly pan fried to create a tender bite and a crunchy bottom, but depending on the region, gyoza could be steamed, deep fried, cooked in a cast-iron pan to a crust-like finish, or boiled and eaten with an ever-so-light consommé. Dipping sauces often have soy sauce-to-vinegar ratios that differ depending on region of origin.
Traditionally served at noodle shops as a complement to ramen, it’s hard to trace when, how, or why gyoza became a standalone dish. Nowadays a mind-numbing number of gyoza specialty restaurants are sprinkled throughout Tokyo and all over the country. While some diners to stick with the customary hole-in-the-wall style gyoza spots, younger generations can enjoy gyoza in trendy bars, with non-traditional fillings and sauces, paired with Champagne, European wines, and fancy Japanese sakes. There are now even invitation-only gyoza speakeasies popular with celebrities and professional athletes.
With gyoza, the thickness of the skin, the garlicky potency of the filling, the varying dipping sauces, and the preparations are dependent on the chef; “favorite” gyoza joints are as unique as your favorite Olympic sport and individual as a favorite Olympic athlete. Of the 10,000 plus spots one can get gyoza in Tokyo, these are a few representatives of regional, traditional, and the new.
Traditional / Regional Gyoza
Kameido Gyoza Honten
For 61 years, Kameido Gyoza has served one thing and one thing only: pan-fried gyoza. The shop is now run by the founder’s son, Ishii Sho, and the second-generation chef-owner is doing his father proud, as there are now several outposts in Japan. The original location is still the best — there, the younger Sho still works the kitchen.
As soon as you slide open the door, you’re greeted with three big iron pans sizzling with Kameido’s signature dumplings. Two rows of seats fill the tight space and even though Sho renovated the spot seven years ago, the interior still looks as though it hasn’t changed since opening in the late ’50s. Kameido is known for a slightly sweeter, gentle garlicky gyoza that complements its house rayu (chili sesame oil). Lines can get long but the turnaround time is quick, so don’t be discouraged if you see a lot of people wrapped around the street.
Gyoza no Yasubei
Website (Japanese only)
A quick 15-minute walk from Ebisu station takes you to a narrow alleyway with a row of new and shiny restaurants mixed with run-down spots. At the end of the alley, a huge red paper lantern hangs over Gyoza no Yasubei: Usually, there’s a long line of people around the building, extending down into the alley. They’re all waiting — sometimes for hours, from the time doors open at 5:30 p.m. until the very last order at 1:30 a.m. — to get eat the famous gyoza with wrapper so thin the skin practically shatters in your mouth, a result of the shop’s novel flash-frying technique. There is no other gyoza like this in Tokyo and there shouldn’t be, for Yasubei hails from Kochi, deep in South Japan.
Originally started as a food stall in 1970, people traveled from all over to try the gyoza stall with no name, known as “Yatai (food stall) Gyoza.” Yasubei soon built a proper shop, turned into a chain, and in 2010, opened a satellite in Tokyo. Its gyoza filling is pretty standard: ground pork, nira, cabbage, ginger, and garlic is optional; but what makes its gyoza stand out is the specially made wrappers. Combined with their cooking method — wrapping every dumpling upon order, blanching them in a cast-iron pan with a bit of secret dashi broth, and finishing by flash frying with oil — gyoza here have an unmatched explosion of sensations, textures, and flavors with every bite.
Pro tip: Seven dumplings come in one order but they are so light, even a small child can easily polish two orders.
Hakata Tetsunabe Gyoza Nakayoshi
Hakata, another region in Southern Japan, is birthplace of the world-famous Ippudo Ramen and tonkotsu, the rich, thick, pork ramen broth. Aside from ramen, Hakata is also known for its cast-iron gyoza, which tends to be plumper and meatier than the gyoza in other parts of Japan. Hakata Tetsunabe Gyoza Nakayoshi is one of the most popular spots in Tokyo serving Hakata-style gyoza. Located about 20 minutes west of Shinjuku, it has a large cult following and is rumored to serve around 2,000 gyoza a day.
Struck by the taste of the original shop in Hakata, owner Yoshio Nakashima received permission to run his own branch, and the recipes are exactly the same; since 1988, Nakashima has carried forth the tradition in Tokyo. Following the classic Hakata style, the gyoza are cooked and served in a cast-iron pan, finished in a custom oil which makes the gyoza seem almost deep fried. The texture is crunchy and the juicy ground pork, nira, cabbage, grated, and diced garlic filling blend beautifully together. Normally gyoza is eaten with a dipping sauce of soy sauce, vinegar, and rayu, but Nakayoshi’s gyoza are meant to be eaten with yuzu kosho, a fiery citrus pepper paste.
Reservations are recommended * no English
The Sangenjaya neighborhood is slightly reminiscent of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, filled with trendy tea bars, coffee shops, and small hipster spots (minus the man buns). Here, Gyoza Shack is taking locals by storm. In 2015, a popular yakitori owner opened his second joint in the neighborhood; but instead of chicken on sticks, he served non-traditional gyoza filled with combinations like lamb meat with cumin, gorgonzola and ground chicken, and a vegetarian option chock full of cilantro. The gyoza are paired with Chilean wines and curated sake — which probably explains the younger clientele and hip crowds that make this spot date-night acceptable.
Stand Cham Shoku Tokyo, Champagne and Gyoza Bar
Every weeknight from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., Stand Cham Shoku offers a Champagne happy hour highlighting several bottles, served by the glass. The extensive drink menu is Champagne-centric, providing the ‘Cham’ namesake. The gyoza here is made specifically to pair with Champagne, but the star is inarguably the kitchen’s dipping sauces. With every order of gyoza arrives a quartet of flavors: classic soy sauce and vinegar, a touch-spicy sesame miso, dashi ponzu, and green pepper in a fond de veau. On the counter sit specialty rock salt and truffle oil to be topped onto un-sauced gyoza.
With only six pieces to an order, it may seem overwhelming to decide what the best condiment pairing is, but eaten alongside Champagne, it’s a process of discovery.
Gyoza Bar Comme a Paris
Shinichi Sato, chef of Paris’s two-Michelin-starred Passage 53, extended past his fine-dining expertise to open Gyoza Bar in the 2nd arrondissement, and not surprisingly, it’s popular with both locals and tourists. Lucky for Japan, a gyoza bar inspired by (but otherwise unaffiliated with) Sato’s Gyoza Bar opened in the trendy Minami Aoyama neighborhood of Tokyo. The menu at Gyoza Bar Comme a Paris is jam-packed with original creations like onion soup gratin gyoza (the dumplings are served with a cup of soup for dipping), mochi rice gyoza, vegetarian gyoza, and gyoza with unconventional aromatics like cilantro and parsley. The original gyoza with standard ground meat has no garlic and is served with three dipping sauces. Every menu item is flavored to pair well with wine and Champagne.
Pro tip: As soon as its doors open at 5 p.m., seats fill up quickly, so get there a little before open or before the last order at 1 a.m.