Eat. Drink. Karaoke

Words: Natalie Lee-Joe   Illustration by Michael Keith Chapman

Eat. Drink. Karaoke

You can learn to love karaoke


Karaoke is the entertainment equivalent of marmite. You only ever get extreme reactions to the suggestion of karaoke — absolute horror and furrowed brows, or, looks of glee and dreamy eyes as the mind escapes to “their” song. My heels were firmly dug deep in the former camp for years. I endured many teeth-clenched, arms-crossed, hiding-in-the-dark-corner evenings, watching my friends get stuck in while I counted the hours down. So many memories of getting exasperated when the time was up, only for some hero to have ducked out to top up the timer and extend it by another hour or two. Argh.

I hated it — I hated the sound of my voice, I hated the showmanship, I hated that all the microphone hogs had choreographed performances. And I hated how time just seemed to tick down so slowly when in there. But, as much as I never thought I’d be a convert, I have learnt you CAN learn to love karaoke.
What triggered this big change of heart for me was not some great tune, but actually the food that goes with karaoke — in Japan and Korea that is. It was a revelation I was never expecting. I’d only ever done karaoke in Sydney and London before, where food and karaoke certainly don’t go hand in hand — it’s usually just a soggy, over-cheesed pizza with no purpose other than to prevent you from having to interrupt your singing to fill your stomach. But in Asia it’s not just about the singing — copious amounts of food (and obviously drink) are involved. You graze on both whilst busting out all your guilty pleasures: not only does it give your mouth something to do when you don’t have the microphone, but it gives you the sustenance to do marathon sessions and not feel too hungover the next day. It totally explains how we managed to clock up six hour sessions on back-to-back nights in Seoul.
Trolleys of booze and food are brought in; our host had done all the ordering and boy was it a feast! Of little relevance was the fact that we’d only just chowed down on yakiniku a couple of hours before. In came plates of dried cuttlefish, spicy noodles, yakitori, steaming bowls of tofu hot pots, all while the cheesy karaoke videos were on the screen. Whilst everyone else was plowing through the song selection, I became completely immersed in the food on the big table in the middle of the room, managing to forget how much I was meant to hate karaoke. Picking through all these hot plates and bowls of food — trying the steaming bowl of tofu, loving the spiciness in the ramen — I was in culinary heaven. It doesn’t end with just one trolley of food either; like the booze, food kept coming in waves throughout the evening. We kept grazing. We kept drinking. We kept singing.

With my belly completely satisfied, I was so relaxed and happy that the next time the microphone was shoved in my face, it was like an outer body experience — I was actually singing into the microphone, not holding it down low and paying lip service to having a turn, but genuinely singing with everything I had. I was actually enjoying karaoke: it was like a huge weight lifted off my shoulders — I wouldn’t have to endure these evenings out anymore.
Of course, it wasn’t just my stomach allowing me to sing — the drinks situation in Japan and Korea also ups the ante. Shots of soju sunk into ice cold glasses of beer in Korea, high ball of every description in Japan: they’re so easy to drink, enjoyable and thirst quenching that you reach a heady equilibrium of light-headedness from drunkenness, but with enough food in your belly to keep going. It wasn’t masses of tequila shots to force the enjoyment of the karaoke, but as a whole, the evening was exactly that: whole.
Karaoke in Japan is not just singing, it’s food, it’s drink and it’s socialising. It IS the night, not just a way to finish a drinking session at the pub. Of course, it wasn’t the best ramen (they even had a nod to the awful mozzarella sticks that pop up here too) but the choice — the equality between karaoke, food and drink — was what I loved. It wrapped up all the best elements of a night out with friends into one dark room.

This is exactly what I wanted to bring to London, and what we’ve tried to achieve in Jidori Covent Garden. We have a private dining room-cum-karaoke room-cum-event space in the basement. It’s totally private and sound proof so people can go crazy in there. It’s a dark room with a bespoke John Booth-designed table for feasting, Lucky Voice powered karaoke system, Bose speakers, a big TV and streamers adorning the walls. It’s chintzy but fun.
We serve platters of house-made pickles and mizuna salads, koji fried chicken, pork tonkatsu, vegetable tempura and loads of yakitori for sustenance, whilst starting everyone with a Jidori pickleback for a touch of Dutch courage. It’s food that can be picked at throughout the evening and easy to share. The same food we sell in the restaurant, it’s all carefully sourced ingredients like corn-fed free range chicken and homemade pickles. A mouthful of yakitori can be chowed down during the guitar solo or intro of your guilty pleasure. If you hate karaoke, I urge you to give it another go. It doesn’t have to be the night you think it is — be led by your belly and see where it takes you.