Tastes From Distant Shores Part 1:

Foreign Influences on Japanese Food

One might argue that all Japanese cuisine is pretty much ‘fusion cuisine’. Almost everything was brought to Japan at one time from neighbors China or Korea, or from South-East Asia, India, Europe or the USA. The Middle Kingdom provided rice, soy, wheat, noodles, kelp, carp, sushi (probably), chicken, bamboo shoots and chopsticks, to name but a few. There have been countless foreign influences on Japanese food over the years.

Yet so many imported dishes and ingredients have changed so profoundly that they barely resemble the originals. Names have been ‘Japanized’, uses changed, and often ingredients added to create a significantly Japanese version of the original.

Udon wheat noodles are a good example from the many. Wheat was brought to Japan from China via Korea around 239 AD, as was the art of noodle making, but the Chinese don’t eat udon except as a Japanese import, and the Korean version, ‘udong’, tastes noticeably different to its Japanese relative.

Ramen yellow wheat noodles came originally from China, but have been so thoroughly adopted into the Japanese culinary culture that the word ramen is as often written らーめんin the hiragana script, used for native Japanese words, as it is in katakana ラーメン, the script reserved for words of overseas origin.

Katsudon deep-fried pork or chicken cutlets served on a bowl of plain white rice is arguably Japan’s most common daily ‘fusion’ dish, along with ‘curry rice’. The katsu part, the cutlet, was likely introduced from Europe in the 16th century, but it really became popular during the Meiji era when Japan reopened to the west. Po-ku katsuretsu was invented in 1899 at the Tokyo eatery Rengatei, as part of the yoshoku (Western-style food) boom that was sweeping the nation. It was served, as today, atop a dish of boiled rice, accompanied with sliced spring welsh onion, a well-beaten egg and dashi stock. The term tonkatsuton is ‘pork’, katsu is for ‘cutlets’ - is a coinage from the 1930s.

Pan bread is a borrowing from the Portuguese, and Japanese bakeries can be both delight and horror house for the inbound foodie. Most starch-seeking foreigners enjoy the occasional sandwich as an alternative to noodles and rice, and it must be admitted that many of the French and German-style bakeries dotting the nation are superb.

However, on discovering an old school mom and pop bakery, the joy may be short-lived as the unsuspecting visitors bite into an-pan bread stuffed with sweet red azuki beans, kare-pan bread containing curry, and the infamous ichigo sando a sandwich of strawberries and cream. Don’t even go near natto sandwiches unless you are feeling really brave.

In any modern Japnese city, town or even village today, there is a bewildering choice of cuisines that originated overseas, and have now been adapted to Japanese tastes. French and Italian lead in the popularity stakes, with Chinese cuisine, Korean and patisseries the next most popular by numbers.

Hamburger shops, fast food joints (yup, the Golden Arches and friends are everywhere, as is Starbucks), Indian and Thai are commonplace, the list goes on. One old favorite of mine was a Russian dive in Tokyo run by a beautiful old White Russian woman who claimed to have been the mistress of a prominent Japanese politician. Another is a shop near my house specializing in lamb and coriander gyoza, run by an old couple from Manchuria who speak not a word of Japanese or English. The customers don't care. For real Foodies of course this variety is the spice of culinary life. Let's just enjoy it.

John F. Ashburne

John F. Ashburne

Editor-in-Chief Foodies Go Local