F1 foodie: Tsunoda details his favourite Japanese cuisine

TOKYO -- The plan seemed simple at first: Ask the Formula One grid's best-known foodie, Yuki Tsunoda, for a restaurant recommendation in Tokyo, visit the establishment on the way to this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix, order a dish that is unique to Japan, take photos, eat, and then report about the experience to you, the reader. As is so often the case with plans of good intention, though, it didn't quite work out.

When Tsunoda was told ESPN's budget for the dinner, his face dropped. Since becoming an F1 driver in 2021 for Red Bull's junior team (now under the name of RB), the Japanese driver has, understandably, developed expensive tastes when pursuing his favourite hobby of dining out.

Tastes too expensive, it turns out, to classify as a justifiable cost for an individual business meal under ESPN's travel and expense policy.

"When I left Japan at 18, it was before I was really interested in food," Tsunoda explains in semi-apologetic tones. "So the places I go to now are places I went after I started in Formula One and it's the kind of place I go when I want to have a special feeling -- so the price range is slightly higher."

Another problem with asking Tsunoda for a specific recommendation in Tokyo is that he didn't grow up in Japan's capital but instead in Sagamihara City on the western edge of the sprawling metropolis. He now lives in Faenza, near RB's Italian base, so opportunities for him to sample food in Tokyo have not been as regular as one might think. As a result, his knowledge of restaurants in the capital is somewhat limited to a list of very exclusive and expensive spots -- many of which have monthslong waiting lists if you're not a star F1 driver.

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High-end gastronomy is in plentiful supply in Tokyo, with 200 restaurants from an estimated 137,000 throughout the city boasting one Michelin star or more, but that doesn't mean there aren't tens of thousands of hidden gems among the remaining 136,800 -- the vast majority of which offer fresh, high-quality food.

"Tokyo is massive, especially for food choices, and I would say every price range has an option that is really, really good," Tsunoda adds. "I prefer, first of all, ramen or sushi. Sushi, especially where you have a chef cooking in front of you, is very expensive, but normal casual sushi restaurants, where there is a conveyor belt going around the restaurant, is still good and is in the price range that you can eat.

"That type of casual restaurant is already a lot better than other countries' sushi restaurants."

Conveyor belt restaurants might be looked down on by sushi connoisseurs, but the fish is always freshly prepared and the conveyor belt comes with the added bonus of seeing exactly what you are going to eat before you grab it and dig in. They also come with the benefit of a simple payment system whereby your bill is calculated by the quantity of empty plates you have stacked up next to you at the end of the meal.

"With ramen, I cannot recommend a specific restaurant name because I don't have the experience in Tokyo, but when you search for ramen restaurants, you can see the ones that are close to each other and normally it's good -- it means there is lots of competition for many years," Tsunoda continues. "With ramen, there is lots of types. There is soy sauce taste or fish-based soup, which is a fishy taste and for me my favourite. Also, with soy sauce, there are multiple types, pork based, chicken based and fishy, which is like multiple types of fish combined to make a soup."

So is it always ramen and sushi restaurants that Tsunoda finds himself heading for when he returns to Japan?

"To be honest, every year it changes what I want to have, but my favourite food is called motsunabe," he says. "This is really typical from Japan, a type of soup, like a hotpot, that has lots of vegetables, but it doesn't smell of anything. It tastes like beef fat, but with vegetables and beef fat. Trust me, if you eat motsunabe, it will be good.

"For motsunabe, there are multiple motsunabe restaurants in the Roppongi area of Tokyo and most of them are good. In the restaurant's name, if there is the name 'Hakata' then normally it's good. One-hundred percent, this is my favourite food in Japan."

Unlike ramen and sushi, motsunabe has not become popular outside Japan. That might be because its main ingredient is offal -- usually beef intestine or pork stomach -- which helps give it its distinct flavour.

The style of cooking originates from Fukuoka in the west of the country, specifically the city's central ward, Hakata. In the 1990s, motsunabe became popular outside Fukuoka, especially in Tokyo, although concerns about the spread of BSE (commonly referred to "mad cow disease" in the U.S.) among Japanese cattle stock around the same time curbed its widespread appeal in other areas of the country.

Exactly which animal gave up its guts to flavour ESPN's motsunabe in Tokyo last week was not entirely clear. The menu at the restaurant, which was located in Shinjuku rather than Roppongi but had "Hakata" in its name, was written entirely in Japanese with no English translation. Attempts to add additional ingredients resulted in two large cubes of tofu unexpectedly turning up on a separate plate and additional tripe arriving once the main course was already consumed.

The core ingredients in motsunabe, aside from a healthy helping of offal, are cabbage, garlic, chives, chili and optional noodles. All of them are placed in a large pot full of the odourless soy sauce-flavoured soup, which is then placed on a gas burner in the middle of the table to bring it all to a boil.

It's the customer's responsibility to mix the ingredients together and judge when to turn down the gas and bring the soup off the boil; according to a helpful local sat on the same long table, this is when the edges of the tripe start to turn translucent. Then there's nothing to it but to spoon out the soup along with all the other various ingredients into a smaller bowl and eat.

The offal's gelatinous and chewy texture might not be to all tastes, but the slightly sweet yet salty soup is moreish. Its flavour only improves as the quantity of the ingredients boil down in the pot, with the contents of a standard order enough to feed two people. It's a must try for Tsunoda fans visiting Japan.

Tsunoda's restaurant plan

Tsunoda's love of food has led him to sample some of the finest cuisine from all the countries F1 visits around the world. In doing so, he has started to hatch a plan to set up his own restaurant in which he hopes to employ top chefs to cook up his ultimate menu.

It's a plan he has occasionally hinted at in the past, and one that he stresses is secondary to his career as a racing driver, but something he is clearly passionate about and keen make happen when the time is right.

"I can reveal a little bit about that, but I can't say the full details because it's confidential," he says. "The restaurant would be Japanese based, and because in the F1 environment I travel to a lot of countries, I can use that experience of each country's food and the good points from each country's cuisine that I want to combine with Japanese food.

"Always Japanese food would be the base and I will put a menu for each course and the goodness of each cuisine would combine with each other in a fusion style. That would be my kind of restaurant in the future."

Living near Faenza, Tsunoda has developed a taste for Italian food and sees potential for fusion with Japanese cuisine.

"I like how they are passionate about food in Italy," he adds. "I like their starters, and obviously pasta and pizza with something on it.

"But I would say Italian and Japanese are pretty close to each other, and there are a lot of Italian restaurants in Japan that combine Italian and Japanese cuisine -- multiple Michelin-star restaurants. I want to introduce starters and also desserts; those two would be my main target that I will inspire from them."

All we ask, Yuki, is that we can be added to the waiting list when the restaurant opens. Hopefully we can make the budget stretch to a full meal.