While in Japan, you will surely see gyoza (餃子) available almost everywhere, be it served piping hot at a ramen restaurant, in frozen form at supermarkets or in ready-to-eat bento boxes at convenience stores. Depending on which part of Japan you visit, the type of gyoza you taste will vary in terms of cooking methods and ingredients, so there is an amazing variety available to satisfy your palette.
Typically, gyoza is thought of as an affordable dish which can be obtained easily but did you know that there is a place in Tokyo which sells premium gyoza that you won’t be able to get in even if you had all the money in the world? Join me in finding out the secret behind this elusive restaurant named Mamgyoen (蔓餃苑) and what makes it so sought-after by gyoza lovers!
Before we find out more about Mamgyoen, let’s meet the brains behind this premium gyoza restaurant, Paradise Yamamoto who is the owner and head chef of the restaurant. Yamamoto is a multi-talented man as a bonsai (盆栽) expert, railway fanatic, expert in earning air miles, sommelier of bathing agents, published writer of various genres, band musician and music composer.
However, Paradise Yamamoto is most well-known for being the first Asian, and the only Japanese since 1998, to be recognised as an officially certified Santa Claus. This is not an easy feat to accomplish considering that there are a number of prerequisites to be fulfilled even before submitting the application. These include being married, having children, having experience playing Santa Claus at events, as well as having the right figure and weight (must weigh more than 120kg while wearing the necessary costume and accessories). Once a candidate passes the first round of selections, he will then be required to wear the full Santa Claus costume from his house all the way to the exam venue in Copenhagen, Denmark where the annual World Santa Claus Congress takes place in the sweltering July heat.
In Yamamoto’s case, he was slightly underweight when he took the exam and went to the extreme of drinking three litres of water in order to meet the weight requirement. The arduous challenge begins when candidates are put through a grueling physical fitness test before the top two are interviewed by the Santa Claus elder in English. Dressed up in self-made costumes containing key cultural elements from their country the Santa Claus wannabees must then carefully read and recite a pledge in front of the certified Santa Clauses. Only the candidate receiving an unanimous vote from all the certified Santa Clauses will win the honour of his certificate.
Now that you can appreciate what Yamamoto went through to achieve his status as Japan’s first Santa Claus, now onto his most recent conquest: his gyoza business. Yamamoto calls himself the King of Gyoza and once said to TV host Tamori (タモリ) that he believes himself to be among the top two most knowledgeable gyoza-lovers in the Japanese entertainment industry. As such, you probably won’t be surprised to know that he has published a number of books about gyoza and the recipes that he has created, such as Yomu Gyoza (読む餃子 – Reading Gyoza), Gyoza no Ousama Saikyou Recipe (餃子の王様 最強レシピ – The King of Gyoza and the Strongest Recipes), Gyoza no Tsukurikata (餃子の創り方 – How to Make Gyoza).
Yamamoto revealed in an interview that he started making gyoza when he came to Tokyo from his hometown in Hokkaido (北海道) to take the entrance exams for Tokyo University of the Arts (東京藝術大学). At that time, he was a repeat student and staying at Shiina-machi (椎名町) in Toshima Ward (豊島区) which was a somewhat rural area. He used to go to the grocery store frequently to buy vegetables but he had very little money to spare.
Aware of his situation, the shop owners used to tell him to come by again in the evening when they would give him a box-worth of leftover vegetables. The gifted vegetables used to fill up his shared fridge quickly so, in order to make space in the fridge, he started making gyoza with the vegetables. He would do this nearly every day and hand them out to his friends and neighbours. From then on, he started experimenting with different variations of gyoza. His sometimes unconventional flavors weren’t up everyone’s street but he kept on with his unique style.
On graduating from university, Yamamoto worked as a car designer for Subaru (スバル) but gradually grew tired of the job. He then turned his sights to his music career. Although he had been performing for fun for a long time, he wanted to take it a step further so he sought advice from Southern All Stars’ (サザンオールスターズ) vocalist Kuwata Keisuke (桑田佳祐).
After being told that he wasn’t suited for the music industry, it was then that Yamamoto decided to start up Mamgyoen, with the aim to spread positive energy through the means of delicious food. However, he didn’t like the idea of restaurants being judged by food review sites or gourmet guides, especially when some shops become so popular that it’s hard for customers to go without queueing or reserving well in advance.
Cue the birth of Yamamoto’s members-only concept. Mamgyoen became a fastidious establishment exclusively for true gyoza lovers who come to savour the chef’s creations. Even today, in spite of the restaurant’s good reputation for its top-notch gyoza, it is still not listed on Japanese Gourmet or restaurant information guide GNavi.
At Mamgyoen, the gyoza is the star so don’t expect to find rice or soup on the menu. Everything from the appetisers all the way to the desserts perfects your full gyoza feast. The restaurant is made up of just one table which is decorated with various Santa Claus-related items. On a typical day, there are as many as 10 types of gyoza served up. Prices are quoted in the form of the restaurant’s currency manbo (マンボ) and the rates between manbo and Japanese yen can fluctuate at times. However, it is usually one manbo = one yen. To get a feel for the prices, a dish of 24 standard grilled gyoza costs 2,000 manbo while a premium item like the 12-piece steamed seafood gyoza costs 3,400 manbo.
According to various online reviews, previous exciting gyoza varieties have included Paradise Family’s vegetable gyoza, steamed seafood gyoza, standing prawn gyoza, Keema curry gyoza, red bean gyoza, salsola komarovii gyoza, quarter pounder gyoza, cheese quarter pounder gyoza, sticky gyoza, squid ink gyoza, Italiano gyoza, avocado prawn gyoza and pork ribs with leek gyoza! How’s that for variety?
Now, you may wonder, how can I become a member of Mamgyoen and try out this one-of-a-kind eating experience? As mentioned above, this is a members-only restaurant so there are two ways: Firstly, become a member yourself; or get invited along by somebody that is a member. At present, it is said that Mamgyoen has almost 1,000 members and is not accepting any new member applications. If you’re interested in becoming a member, follow Yamamoto’s Facebook or Twitter pages and look out for announcements for new applicants. Membership fees are reportedly JPY 15,000 per person.
The restaurant’s opening days and hours are not made known in advance. The standard procedure is that Mamgyoen’s members will be informed an hour before it is due to open that day and the first to make the reservation successfully can then bring their friends and family members along. We would love to give you the location of the restaurant but it is kept hush-hush! However, online reviews suggest it is situated somewhere in Ogikubo (荻窪) in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward (杉並区).
For those who have not yet had the luck to visit Mamgyoen, not all hope is lost as there are other ways to check out the restaurant’s creations. During the Japanese New Year in January 2017, Mamgyoen collaborated with Ito Yokado to hold a lucky draw where you could win a Mamgyoen premium 100,000 yen gyoza lucky bag which contained 10 different types of gyoza. Those who entered the lucky draw by taking a picture of the designated URL at Ito Yokado stores would be eligible for the lucky draw which selected three winners to buy one of the three gyoza sets up for grabs. Each set was meant to serve just two people so the winner would have the option of “upsizing” the lucky bag by paying an extra 50,000 yen for each person (maximum up to two additional portions). So, keep a lookout for this promotion towards the end of 2017! Alternatively, you can choose to buy one of the gyoza recipe books from Yamamoto and have a go at replicating his creations at home.
Now that you’ve read about the premium gyoza from the legendary Mamgyoen, has your impression of the humble gyoza changed? Although you may not be able to get into Mamgyoen anytime soon, unless you have some great connections, there are still no lack of restaurants providing delicious renditions of this dish so be sure not to miss them while in Japan!
Mamgyoen Official Facebook Page *Japanese only