Green Dumplings at Gyoza Heaven
Utsunomiya City, 100 km north of Tokyo, has long been known as the home of Japanese gyoza. Restaurants, yattai stalls, and izakaya specializing in gyoza permeate the city. There’s even a large, family friendly, ‘gyoza park’ just outside the East entrance to Utsunomiya station housing several large, brightly lit beer halls. Be warned however, that gyoza are so popular as a lunch time option that getting a seat at any of the most popular gyoza spots may require a wait of up to 30 or 40 minutes.
Gyoza, for those who haven't had the pleasure of trying them, are a kind of dumpling usually filled with pork, vegetables, and garlic. Lots and lots of garlic. The filling is stuffed inside rice pastry wrappings and then fried or boiled. Usually served five or six to an order, diners often mix soy sauce, vinegar, and spices together to make a dipping sauce suited to their individual taste. Gyoza by themselves, or accompanied by fried rice or ramen and washed down with a cold beer, are popular (and served) all year round.
Standard gyoza come in fried and boiled varieties. However, with the market being so crowded, many gyoza shops go to some lengths to make their products unique. These variations often come in the forms of deep fried or steamed gyoza. Less common, but still far from unusual, are shops that change the filling of their gyoza to vegetarian or seafood options.
Although the origins of the dish are distinctly Chinese, just how the dumplings ended up in Japan, and in Utsunomiya in particular, is a subject of some debate. Several stories tie gyoza to returning soldiers, but there are as many origin stories as their are cooks, especially when having a unique story often translates directly to sales.
With such a wealth of great gyoza shops, it can be a challenge to find one that stands out from the crowd. One such gyoza shop is Gyotendo (literally Gyoza Heaven). Easily identified by it’s large, weathered sign reading Mochi to Gyoza, Gyotendo has taken two extra steps in the creation of their dumplings in a delicious effort to make their offerings unique: spinach and extra rice flour.
Starting with the latter, the gyoza at Gyotendo are wrapped in a thicker than usual sheet of rice pastry. The extra rice flour gives the gyoza a mocha (pounded rice cake) like quality. In turn, this wrapping keeps more of the juices in and makes for a chewier mouthful. Whereas many gyoza are able to be eaten in a single bite, the thicker nature of these gyoza requires two, possibly even three bites. Also, because they are thicker their shape differs enough from standard gyoza that while they are fried on only one side (like most gyoza) they do not hold a heavy build-up of cooking oil on their sides. This leads to a lighter, less greasy flavor, but also leads to a much less crisp mouth feel than one might otherwise expect from a fried dish.
The same thick wrapper is applied to the "sui-gyoza" or, water or boiled gyoza. Served in a small bowl of hot water, intended to be made into a soup by the addition of soy, vinegar, and chili sauces, the most arresting change from the standard gyoza template is their color: they're green. The cooks at Gyotendo long ago hit on the idea of adding just a little spinach to their rice pastry dough, resulting in both a change of color and the addition of a subtle flavor to their gyoza. These gyoza pair nicely with a glass of cold green tea, served to every customer whether they order boiled gyoza, fried gyoza, or both.
One other factor contributes to Gyotendo’s place among the best gyoza shops Utsunomiya City has to offer: the price. The Gyotendo Set, for example, is a scant ¥691 and comes with 5 fried and 3 boiled gyoza.
Utsunomiya City is a fairly large hub city about 100km North of Tokyo. The Shonan-Shinjuku line and Tohoku Shinkansen lines all make regular stops there several times a day. It is an easy stop on the way to popular day-trip spots Nikko and Mashiko.
Gyotendo is located right next to the station (and, it should be mentioned, both next door to, and underneath competing gyoza shops!) Take the southwest exit out of the station, next to the koban (police box) and look for a small shop on the corner of an alley and the bus circle. That's it!
栃木県 宇都宮市 駅前通り 3-3-2
3 Chome-3-2 Ekimae Dōri
Utsunomiya-shi, Tochigi-ken 321-0964