5 Uniquely Japanese Takes in Non-Japanese Foods
Is pizza Japanese? What about curry? When people think of Japan, they often imagine the cornerstones of how Japanese culture has been presented to the West: samurai of the past, the neon lit metropolises of the present, and everything from sushi to anime in-between. However, Japan also houses a fascinating (and delicious!) blend of imports from overseas that are also integral to the landscape of contemporary Japanese culture. In this article, I introduce five foods which demonstrate the hybrid side of Japan's culinary landscape and provide brief descriptions and histories of each.
Pizza in Japan is mostly a postwar fascination. Although the first pizza was said to have been served in an Italian restaurant in Kobe in 1944, it wasn’t until the 1960s that it began to become popular as "The West’s Okonomiyaki". With family restaurants, like Royal Host, pioneering cheap and tasty pizza in the 1970s and the first home delivery pizza service starting up in 1985, pizza is now well-established as a common food in Japan’s metropolises. With the Margarita, Quattro Formaggio (always served with honey), Bismark, and Marinara as the most oft-represented types–although regional variations abound as in Mentaiko pizza and grilled Kyushu chicken pizza here in Fukuoka–it is rare to see a restaurant floor in a department store or upscale shopping plaza without a pizzeria! While in Japan, be sure to sample the crispy and airy crusts and flavor–packed toppings that characterize this modern classic.
Although pasta first arrived in Japan during the Meiji era in the form of macaroni soup, it took longer to be appropriated into the mainstream Japanese diet since it is not easy to adapt into a side dish to rice. While the origins of spaghetti "napolitan" are debated, the dominant story is that it emerged from the Hotel New Grand in Yokohama in 1927 with no relationship to Napoli at all! With its distinctive sweet tomato sauce, flavored by ketchup, and its star ingredients of ham, green peppers, and onions, it spread across restaurants and coffee houses in the postwar period to become a ubiquitous feature on cafe menus all over Japan, from elegant kissaten [coffee houses] to chain cafes. Now a nostalgia food of the postwar period and standard for home cooks, spaghetti napolitan is a delicious example of a cross-cultural melange that is now taken as altogether Japanese.
Curry may not have its origins in Japan, but it is enormously popular and its flavors are unique compared to curries consumed elsewhere. One difference between Japanese curry and Indian or southeast Asian curries is the texture of the curry–the addition of wheat flour in Japanese curries which happened early in its history in Yokohama–makes for a more viscous texture. Also, it almost goes without saying that Japanese curry is served almost exclusively over Japonica rice, and for the most part, has a sweeter rather than spicier flavor. Curry came to Japan during the early Meiji era via the British navy who in turn had discovered it in India, then a British colony. When the Japanese military was testing meals for its sailors in the 1870s, they created the combo of "curry rice" mixing the English curry with Japanese white rice, which is still enjoyed all over Japan today.
Although the Japanese word for parfait comes from French, the Japanese dessert has more in common with the American version, similar to an ice cream sundae. While the French dessert involves freezing sugar syrup, cream, and egg, the American parfait, served in a tall or short glass, is a layered dessert with a base of ice cream and cream topped with fruit. Japanese parfaits–which first appeared in the Meiji era in the French original form–now invariably consists of a tall glass filled with ice cream, cream, something crunchy or crumbly (like cookies, puffed rice, or cereals), fruit, and drizzled with a sweet sauce. Many stores also combine traditional Japanese desserts, wagashi [和菓子] with parfaits to great acclaim. Matcha parfaits, for instance, containing azuki beans, warabi mochi, dango, and chestnuts in syrup, as well as cream, ice cream, and fruit are always popular (and delicious), especially in the springtime.
In Japan, strawberry shortcake is the quintessential birthday and Christmas cake, perhaps even the most easily recognizable cake in the country. Made of a moist yet airy and not-too-sweet sponge cake which sandwiches layers of whipped cream and cut strawberries, Japanese strawberry shortcake differs noticeably from its French and American counterparts. In France, it also refers to a sponge cake with strawberries usually flavored with almond extract and paste and filled with custard. America’s strawberry shortcake also includes strawberries and cream, but rather than cake, the base is sugared biscuits or scones. Although the origins of Japan’s version are debated, it began its meteoric rise in the Taisho era, in the 1920s, and really took off after 1955 when refrigeration became accessible to the everyday family. Now a feature in almost every coffee house and pastry shop across the country, it is hard to find a recent hybrid food more present in contemporary Japanese life than the Strawberry Shortcake.