Gained in Translation: From Foreign Fare to Japanese Staple Dish
Cuisine doesn’t evolve in a vacuum, and any good chef will go beyond their own traditions and national borders to look for new flavors, methods, and combinations. Given the inventive Japanese spirit of adaptation and improvement, this truism can be seen quite clearly in some of the nation’s favorite dishes in the modern era. Though Japan spent almost 250 years sealed off from the rest of the world under the Shogunate policy of sakoku (chained country), after the opening of national ports in the mid-1800s and the incredible economic boom following the Second World War, the Japanese diet grew steadily more cosmopolitan and now incorporates a great number of dishes whose origins, both geographically and gastronomically, are far from the shores of this island country.
Changes to the Japanese diet weren’t simply owing to the new ingredients and cuisines introduced after the Edo era, however. For much of their history, everyday Japanese were forbidden the eating of niku, a word commonly translated as “meat” but which connotes specifically the meat of land animals. It wasn’t until the Meiji Reformation that the diet of the commoners was fully “liberated,” opening them to all the possibilities present in foreign food. Even then, many of these dishes wouldn’t see their peaks of popularity until the second half of the 20th century, when Japan developed at lightning speed and emerged as an economic superpower.
Alongside sushi and ramen, tempura is probably one of Japan’s most well-known foods. However, the dish seems to have its origins with the Portuguese who came to Japan in the 1500s to spread Catholicism. In fact, two proposed etymologies for the word tie to the Catholic religion: either “templo” (Spanish for “temple”) or “tempora,” referring to Lenten periods where Catholics would avoid red meat and substitute with deed-fried fish dishes and the like. A third explanation simply states it comes from the Portuguese word for seasoning, “tempero,” and indeed the Nagasaki tempura from that time was a powerfully-flavorful one, deep-fried in lard with a batter that used alcohol, salt, and pepper.
After the Portuguese missionaries were expelled, the fires of the Warring States period quenched, and the doors to the nation barred and locked (saved for the port at Dejima), tempura remained and in the 1700s spread to the populace as a street-stall food in the capital, Edo (now Tokyo.) From this tradition comes the tempura now enjoyed the world over, a dish lightly battered and deep-fried whose ingredients can include whole shrimp, mushrooms, thin half-moons of Japanese pumpkin, halved or quartered eggplant, and even sweetly tangy shiso (perilla) leaves.
The idea of filling a starchy wrapping with a meaty ingredient has been with humanity for eons, but records for the first truly gyoza-like dish in Japan date to the beginning of the Tokukawa regime, when Mitsukuni Tokugawa, grandson of Ieyasu and second daimyo of the Mito Domain, is said to have gotten a recipe from a sage named Zhu Zhiyu, a Chinese refugee and Confucius sage whom Mitsukuni invited to his court. However, it wouldn’t be until the post-WW II period of prosperity that everyday people came in contact with it as a regular dish.
More than any of the other foods introduced in this article, gyoza has morphed from its origin Chinese dish of jiaozi, though both are written using the same ideograms. Jiaozi is often eaten a dim sum dish (known also in the West as yum cha), but gyoza are made as a main accompaniment to the ubiquitous white rice of the Japanese diet. In gyoza, you will most often find regular cabbage mixed in with the meat, but jiaozi is filled with Chinese (or Nappa) cabbage and Chinese chives. Gyoza also include a fair dose garlic (to help against the smell of meat, which Japanese diners weren’t quite used to yet) and has a thinner wrapper.
Of course, the biggest difference is in the cooking: the image most associated with “jiaozi” is a kind of steamed dumpling, but when you say “gyoza” to a Japanese person, they’ll imagine potstickers that have been grilled on one side, heated through with steam, and most typically served with a dipping sauce of soy sauce and rice vinegar, chili oil on the side.
Curry Rice (Kare Raisu)
In a peculiar boomerang move that goes from Bengal regions to the ports of old Britain back across the globe, curry as it is most often eaten in Japan is adapted from an Anglification of the southern Indian dish. Though the Japanese imported curry powder from England at first, it wasn’t too long until they began making their own. In the latter years of the 19th century, the Japanese navy underwent reformations to model itself on the British one, and curry became a part of the navy menu. In Hokkaido, it was part of the mess for students undergoing army cadet training and soon spread across the nation to become a staple of school lunches in the 20th century.
Curry rice might owe quite a lot of its popularity to being an easy and delicious way to prepare the potatoes, onions, and Western carrots that until then had not been part of the Japanese agricultural landscape. Often made at home using cubes of solidified instant roux (or simply poured from a retort pouch as a quick dinner), curry rice can also be ordered at specialty restaurants nationwide with your choice of topping. Even some of the European-style lodgings from the Meiji era still serve their own, high-class “hotel” curry, a relic from the day when all Western food was considered haute cuisine.
Related: CoCo-Ichibanya, for curry lovers
Introduced as part of the great wave of Western recipes that flooded Japan during the heady period of modernization in the late 1800s, the Japanese croquette first arrived as a French-style cream croquette, though it wasn’t long before potato croquettes, perhaps from Dutch influences, came to be the standard for this dish. A ditty from 1917 called “Korokke no Uta” (The Croquette Song) helped cement its popularity among common folk with lines like, “Croquettes today, croquettes tomorrow: all throughout the year, croquettes.”
Regularly sold at butcher shops, who had ready access to lard for deep-frying, even now the best Japanese croquettes are often to be found at the neighborhood butcher’s, though they are also Japan’s most popular frozen entrée, as well. Covered in a very light and fluffy grated breadcrumb called panko, the basic korokke is made with potatoes and eaten by itself, together with rice, or between bread as a sandwich, though mincemeat, crab cream, and curry-flavored ones are also quite common.
On a modern cultural trivia note, Internet users often half-joke that korokke are the official food to stock up on before a typhoon comes. This most likely has its origin in a 2chan thread that’s almost 15 years old, where a user told the community that “there’s a typhoon coming, so I’ve bought 16 korokke, just in case”; proof that even an off-hand comment can gain a peculiar sort of culinary longevity, online.
Hamburger Steak (Hamgbagu)
Another dish that’s come from East to West then back East again, according to the Japanese Hamburger Association “hamburg” finds its furthest origins with the Mongols, who prepared difficult-to-chew horse meat by mincing it fine and flavoring it. The origin of the word itself is probably similar to the American “hamburger,” with ties to the city in Germany and the German immigrants who purportedly ate it. Found under names like “German steak” and “mince ball” in Japan’s Meiji-era Western menus, it didn’t find a place with the popular palate until the 1960s, when it grew into a way to enjoy cheaper ground meats.
Hamburg is best compared to the American Salisbury steak, as it is almost always found as a grilled patty containing onions, eggs, and breadcrumbs that has been grilled and covered in a gravy-like sauce. It is a necessary dish for any family restaurant and will often come to the table still sizzling on a hot iron plate with a side of vegetables. The two most common sauces that top hamburger steaks are demi-glace, which is rich and dark brown, and Japanese-style (wa-fu), which is made with rice wine, soy sauce, sugar, and starch.
The dining table shows us a fluid footprint of a culture, and the Japanese one, both in the home and at the restaurant, demonstrate the incredible changes that have swept the culture in the past 50 (and 150) years. Yet, these changes have not taken away from a unique national sense of flavor and taste: few dishes have made it from the port to the kitchen without significant augmentation, and some are hardly recognizable in their current forms. They have been integrated into their new environment, to the point that three of the dishes above (croquettes, hamburger steak, and curry rice) have all been in the top 10 favorite dishes for children since the 60s.
If you find yourself walking the streets of a Japanese city with a rumbling stomach, consider dispensing with your plans for the putatively authentic and track down a well-lit plastic booth to enjoy the true edge of modern Japanese cuisine.