Is anyone feeling hungry?
If you’ve got a rumbling tummy, and a long time to go until your lunch break, you may want to close this page and come back later. Regular readers will know I am an avid foodie and lover of all things Japanese cuisine, well almost all things anyway.
For those of us looking to move beyond the standard stock choices like sushi, sashimi and yakitori there are a number of lesser known delights to be found in Japan’s myriad selection of restaurants, bars and cafes. What is often astounding though, is just how many Japanese people themselves have no idea that what they are eating is, in fact, Japanese food.
Photo: Gary J. Wood on FlickrAs Japan continues to expand as an internationally minded nation, it’s only natural that the people will also seek out new, more international, experiences. As a result, pseudo-foreign cuisine is a booming industry. However, the fact still remains that the majority of Japanese citizens seldom, if indeed ever, venture outside of Japan. Hence, it is often the case that they are unaware of the distinctly Japanese origins of their “foreign food”.
Photo: The Naan Dog on FlickrThis is certainly no bad thing though. Amongst the plethora of faux-foreign dishes on offer in Japan, there are some real gems, as delicious as they are diverse.
So today, come with me as we sample the top 5 dishes you didn’t know were Japanese.
#5 Japanese Curry
The idea that curry originated in India is one of life’s most common misconceptions. The western notion of curry as we know it, actually originated in the UK, as a means of preserving meats that were being exported and imported from India and other far flung parts of the former British Empire. Curry has been in Japan for quite some time now. However, the Japanese idea of a curry is neither Indian, nor British, but something different entirely.
Photo: Julia Frost on FlickrYour first taste of a Japanese curry immediately informs you that you’re in for something completely different. The sweet, tangy taste, coupled with the thick almost gelatin consistency of the sauce is quite unlike the Chicken Tikka Masala I used to enjoy in my local Indian takeaway back in Scotland. In catering to the local palette, Japanese curry also makes far better use of the local ingredients. The likes of potatoes, carrots and pickled ginger aren’t things you’re likely to see in a conventional British curry. Nevertheless, they bring a distinct taste, texture and smell to Japanese Curry that is truly unique and delicious.
#4 Japanese Pizza
Pizza is another area where Japanese consumers can sometimes be forgiven from confusing domestic recipes with foreign fare. Of course it is the Italians who rightly lay claim to the conventional pizzas like margarita, marinara and so on. But what about Teriyaki Chicken, Tuna Mayonnaise or Sweet Bean Pizza? Again these are uniquely Japanese concepts.
Photo: japan_style on FlickrIf you look at the typical menu for Pizza Hut or another such restaurant in Japan, you’ll see a few of the usual suspects: cheese and tomato, meat feast, Hawaiian, etc. You will also find though, that a number of the pizzas there are unlike anything you would find in Europe or the US.
Japanese pizzas have some common characteristics that distinguish them from their Italian progenitors.
Like Japanese Curry, Japanese Pizza often tastes much sweeter than its foreign counterpart, and the ingredients are quite wildly different from what you would expect.
Photo: cotton00 on FlickrThe pizza will often be drenched in sweetcorn and mayonnaise, often taking on an appearance more akin to an okonomiyaki than a conventional pizza. Ingredients like pickled vegetables, the aforementioned teriyaki chicken and various others also set these pizzas aside from their contemporaries. In all honesty, Japanese pizza is very much hit and miss. Generally speaking, you either love it or you hate it. I personally love it.
#3 Rice Omelets
Again, whilst omelets find their origins in French cuisine, it is the Japanese who pioneered the idea of putting flavoured rice inside. An “omuraisu” to give it its abbreviated Japanese title is a staple of many breakfast tables all across Japan. Yet it is a common misconception amongst Japanese that this dish is not indigenous by nature.
Photo: Alpha on FlickrI must admit, I love a good rice omelet in the morning. I’m particularly fond of the popular tomato flavoured rice and sweetcorn filling, topped off with a little dash of tomato ketchup for added sweet fruitiness.
#2 Roll cake
Photo: photoantenna on FlickrAn especially popular dessert for special occasions, upon glancing this rotund cake with a hollow centre for the first time, one could be forgiven for thinking that Hansel and Gretel’s car had lost a wheel. Looking something like the spare tyre of a toy car, this round, sweet sponge cake draws inspiration from similar German treats, but is undeniably Japanese in nature. If you’re lucky enough to find one around Christmas time, I especially recommend the roll cake with white frosting and chocolate. Not only is it so delicious, but it is often so elegantly presented, one can almost feel guilty at the prospect of eating it.
As far as Japanese pseudo-foreign foods go, doria is the jewel of the crown. Imagine if someone made a lasagne, but instead of layers of pasta amidst the béchamel sauce, minced beef and herbs, you instead found a bed of rice.
Sitting almost halfway between a lasagne and a risotto, doria is Japanese fusion cooking at its best. It takes the base elements of two of Italian cuisine’s most popular dishes and blends them seamlessly with a touch a Japanese culinary ingenuity to create a highly delicious and satisfying dinner.
Photo: t-mizo on FlickrDoria comes in many flavours and varities. In addition to the more popular Bolognese or lasagne type, one can also find cream sauce, seafood and even curry varieties.
So popular is doria in its own right, that it even has its own sub-genre of restaurant. No department store or shopping mall food court in Japan is complete without at least one doria restaurant.
As with almost any food related topic I discuss here, I am barely scratching the surface of what Japan has to offer. Japanese cuisine is as fascinating and diverse as the people and history of this great nation. Whatever you decide to eat when you come here, you’re in for a treat.