It's happened to every American. You're at a party or participating in a conversation online, and you make a comment about a local Chinese restaurant. Invariably, some know-it-all pseudo-intellectual feels compelled to pipe in with, "Well, you know that's not REAL Chinese food. It's all very Westernized. If you want REAL Chinese food, do like I did and go to this little place in this village in Hunan Province. It'll change your life." The point of such pontification is to brag about how worldly one is, and to implicitly criticize American for two centuries of culinary imperialism.
The fact is, every country adapts the food of other countries to suit its tastes and culinary culture. Over time, such adaptations become inseparable from the local cuisine itself. Take Japan, for example. The use of noodles in Japanese cuisine was not a Japanese invention, but a Chinese import dating back to the country's Nara and Heian periods. One of Japan's most popular modern desserts, Castella (カステラ), is of Dutch origin.
This adaptation of cuisine didn't stop when the West came barging into Japan's sovereign space in the 19th century. Instead, it gave birth to an explosion of yoshoku (洋食), or Western food. Many foods today considered yoshoku originated in Japan either in the Meiji era (1868-1912), when emulation of the West was at its peak, or in the aftermath of World War II. The definition of "yoshoku" varies from person to person, but a commonly accepted definition is any food from the Western world that pairs well with rice. (Frankly, I prefer my wife's definition of "any food eaten with a fork". Though, really, anything can be eaten with chopsticks if you're persistent enough.) Yoshoku is so distinctly "Japanese" that, last year, chef Akiyama Takanori had the stones to open a bar specializing in yoshoku in New York City. (Yes, it's still going strong, and yes, you should definitely go.)
Yoshoku is typically served at what are called fami-resu (ファミレス), or "family restaurants" - establishments like Jonathan's that mimic American-style diners, and offer yoshoku and washoku plates together on the menu. (To those who haven't experienced one, sitting in a fami-resu is like being in New Jersey, with the benefit of not actually being in New Jersey.) You can also find smaller shops specializing in specific types of yoshoku mentioned below. Most yoshoku popular hits are also available in pre-packaged form from convenience stores and supermarkets for a quick lunch or dinner on the run.
It's usually considered crass to enjoy your "own" cuisine when traveling abroad. But yoshoku is so distinctly Japanese that you can - and should - enjoy it while in Japan without any qualms. Below I highlight my personal favorite foods, and how they were customized to the Japanese palette.
No. 1: Doria
Let's start with a favorite of mine that often gets overlooked in reports on yoshoku. Doria is a cheese and rice casserole made with a French beschamel sauce. Its introduction to Japan is attributed to the Swiss Chef Sally Weil who, while working at the Yokohama New Grand in 1930, was asked by a sick customer to make something "that will pass easily through my throat". Weil combined shrimp cooked in cream sauce with a gratin sauce, put it over rice, and baked it in the oven with cheese until it developed a nice, golden-brown texture. Weil christened the dish "Doria" after 15th century military commander Andrea Doria. (The reasons for this appear lost to history.)
The result is an incredibly satisfying comfort food dish that, while resembling some sort of combination of French and Italian cuisine, is of Japanese origin through and through; "Doria-style dishes" in Italy and France typically include cucumber, tomato, and chicken, in contrast to the cheesy dish whipped up by Weil. It reminds me of the comfort foods my mom used to make when I was a kid, such as potatoes au gratin and mushroom beef casserole.
No. 2: Napolitan (ナポリタン), Or Really Any Japanese Take on Italian Food
Doria isn't the only dish the Yokohama New Grand introduced to Japan. A writer for Haremapo (who confesses "I could eat Napolitan for three days straight and not even notice") tells the story that, during the Allied Occupation of Japan, Chef Weil's hotel became a hot spot for members of General Headquarters (GHQ), the Allied military command. One day, General MacArthur, who had a suite at the hotel, was heard to say that he desperately wanted a hamburger. Unfortunately, none was available given the stringest conditions of post-war Japan.
Chef Irie Shigetada scrambled to find something that would be pleasant to the general. He had pasta on hand, and he had ketchup. In normal circumstances, that would've been fine, but Chef Irie thought merely adding ketchup to pasta to be too vulgar for a general. So, he whipped up a tomato sauce using fresh tomatoes, garlic, onion, mushrooms, and boneless ham. He christened the result "Napolitan", after street vendor-style pasta typically made in Naples ("Napori" in Japanese) during the Middle Ages.
(JP) Link: What's the History of Yokohama-Born Napolitan?
横浜発祥「ナポリタン」 現在に至るまでの歴史とは？ - はまれぽ.com 神奈川県の地域情報サイト
The dish migrated on when the Yokohama New Grand brought another hotel. It came to be made with ketchup (hey, the customer may always be right, but they're not always MacArthur), and green pepper became a part of the vegetable mix.
While Napolitan is indeed the bomb (with or without ketchup), I never turn my nose up at going to an Italian restaurant in Japan and eating just about anything on the menu. Japan has mastered the art of preparing fresh seafood, and there's something about the marriage of well prepared seafood and pasta that just does it for me.
No. 3: Omelet Rice (オムライス)
Unlike our previous two entries, no one can definitively lay claim to the creation of omuraisu, a deceptively delicious combination of an omelet cradling a warm mound of rice, with ketchup and/or mayonnaise drizzled on as a topping. Most people pin its origins to the store Renga-tei (煉瓦亭) in Tokyo's Ginza district all the way back to 1900. The original version just cradled an omelet over plain rice. However, the Osaka shop Hokkyokusei (北極星) introduced the more common modern variant, in which ketchup (and sometimes other seasonings) are mixed into the rice before it's shaped and covered in egg.
While you can get omuraisu at family restaurants, I'd recommend a shop that specializes in it. My favorite is Meguro's Mitsuboshi Shokudo (三ツ星食堂), hidden behind some buildings a short walk from Meguro Station. Order their Japanese curry and omuraisu combo - it's to die for.
No. 4: Hamburger (ハンバーグ)
My kids look at the Japanese definition of "hamburger" and wonder where the bun went. But for those of a certain age, and/or who grew up on Hungry Man frozen dinners, a hambaagu looks for all the world like a salisbury steak.This Japanese dish is originally based on the German concept of Tartar steak. German immigrants imported it into America as "hamburg steak", where it morphed into the artery-stopping monstrosity we know it as today. In Japan, by contrast, it became known as "German steak" during the Meiji era. It didn't become popular, however, until the economic boom of the 1960s, where it was eaten as a luxury food.
I don't recall ever eating a "burger" in Japan. (I will confess, however, to ordering Domino's one night during a fit of homesickness.) But I'll eat ハンバーグ at the drop of a hat. Served bun-less on a sizzling hot plate, and smothered in a delicious vegetable sauce with a little shaved daikon root (大根おろし) on the top or the side, it's a tasty way to pack in some delicious, high-fat protein without adding the usual empty calories of the American-style burger.
No. 5: Croquettes (コロッケ)
For a society that generally keeps itself healthy, Japan has some wonderfully indulgent, un-healthy menu options. The country's adeptness at fried food in particular should appeal to the greasy, barely beating heart of any red-blooded American. And the croquette, a potato patty covered in breading and cooked in oil, leads the pack in the category "Japanese Foods That Will Be The Death of You".
The origins of the Japanese croquette are shrouded in mystery. In France, the dish is typically served in a white cream sauce, and, instead of being fried, is baked in an oven without oil. Our good friends at Renga-tei in Ginza - the aforementioned partial progenitors of omelet rice - sported a "cream croquette" back in 1905, and claimed it was the first time ever offered on a menu in Japan. As late as 1917, the croquette was still an expensive meal when compared to the pork cutlet and other delicacies. The dish achieved popularity as a cheap food item after the Kantou Earthquake of 1927, when a certain restaurant decided to cover potatoes and nearly expired scraps of meat in breading and throw them into oil as a cheap foodstuff. The idea took off from there, and is now available today in countless variations.
I am such a fan of croquette that I will order one with a meal even when it doesn't make sense. Some variation is always available at a Japanese izakaya, and can often be ordered as a side item in a large number of restaurants. You can also pick 'em up at your local 7-11. (Well, "local" assumes you're in Japan, natch.)
Bonus: The Rise of Spanish Tapas in Japan
There are other foods I could have highlighted in this article. For example, I didn't even touch on the subject of Japanese curry, about which I could probably spill 2,000 words all on its own. But I've saved my last entry not for a specific food, but for a genre.
Spanish and Portuguese tapas restaurants are starting to dot the Tokyo landscape, and I couldn't be happier with this culinary marriage. The Spanish "small plates" tradition pairs very well with the Japanese tradition of the izakaya (居酒屋), a "tavern" type setting where you can drink, smoke, and nibble on small plates of food usually costing between 200 to 700 yen a pop.
The tapas joints I've been to in Tokyo usually do a mix of Spanish/Portuguese cuisine with Japanese favorites. The better ones will have an extensive alcohol or sake menu that can be paired with your meal. To date, the best experience I've had is a little place in Mita (Meguro) called Kiraz, which pairs an extensive sake menu with an ever-changing rotation of food written on chalkboards on the wall. It's one of my favorite "West meets East" culinary concepts ever.
Hopefully, this article has convinced you that "Western food" in Japan is anything but - and that you should feel no shame in partaking the next time you're in the country.
I'm the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.