There are many dishes that originated overseas, but have now established themselves as Japanese cuisine. How were these dishes introduced to Japan and how did they evolve into what they are today? The following is a must-read for anybody interested in understanding the evolution of foreign cuisine in Japan.
History of Ramen in Japan
Ramen is now recognized as a must try meal for any visitor as well as a heartwarming soul food for many Japanese. Although ramen has attained the same fame as sushi and tempura, the origins of ramen are from China. Historians largely agree that the birthplace of ramen was the northwestern part of China, a predominantly Muslim community. In Japan, there is a record of Mito Mitsukuni eating Chinese noodles in 1697. After that, Japan entered a system of national seclusion, so ramen did not take root in Japan for a long time until its reopening to the world.
The end of the national seclusion in 1859 ushered a new era for Japan. Foreign ideas, products and food culture spread. It was at this time that the ramen food culture from China finally began to take root in earnest. However, as ramen was introduced and began its evolution in Japan, important differences began to emerge between Japanese ramen and Chinese ramen. The major differences lie in the noodles and the soup. The noodles used in Japanese ramen contain "kansui," or brine. The use of kansui gives the noodles their firmness. Also, Japanese ramen soup contains a lot of broth. While some Chinese ramen noodles use beef soup stock, most Japanese ramen use soup stock from a variety of ingredients such as fish, meat, and mushrooms. In this way, Japanese and Chinese ramen are very similar and yet different. Even in China, Japanese-style ramen noodles are recognized as a Japanese variety of ramen.
A wide variety of Japanese ramen
The flavors of Japanese ramen include miso, tonkotsu, soy sauce, and salt flavored soups. However, there is an infinite variety of flavors that come from the subtle use and mixture of ingredients. The ramen chef's preferences vary greatly from restaurant to restaurant. A few standard toppings on ramen include a semi-hard boiled egg, nori (dried seaweed), menma (bamboo shoots), bean sprouts and chashu (pork). Recently, "Iyekei Ramen," a type of ramen that has an extremely rich soup and generous toppings has become popular. In addition, "Jiro-kei" ramen shops offer all the ingredients in a special size. There are also many other types of ramen, such as ramen with salt and yuzu, and ramen with seafood broth, which are both refreshing and popular among women.
Japanese Curry Rice
It is thought that curry originated in Bangladesh and a region spanning India, Nepal and Pakistan. With the growing ease of movement over large distances, the introduction of crops, goods, ideas and people around the world became more active. As a result, chili peppers and potatoes from South America were combined with pepper and other spices from India to create what we now call curry.
As maritime trade flourished, the food culture of curry spread throughout the world. Records show that curry came to Japan when the port of Yokohama opened in 1859, but it was British curry, not Indian that first made landfall in Japan. The recipe was characterized by the use of flour to thicken the curry and the use of less spices to give it a sweeter taste. Dr. Clark, who was appointed to the Sapporo Agricultural School, devised a recipe using carrots, potatoes, and onions, all of which were widely grown in Japan. Then, in 1908, the British style curry was adopted by the Navy, following the example of the Royal Navy. Today, "naval curry," which is a reproduction of the recipe from that time, is widely known and is a popular experience in Yokohama and Uraga.
Incidentally, British-style curry was introduced to the Japanese navy as a way to keep the crew healthy. The Japanese diet is centered on white rice. This was especially true in the navy, where crew were forced to eat only white rice without any side dishes. As a result, many soldiers suffered from disease due to lack of nutrition. In order to cope with this problem, British-style curry with plenty of vegetables and spices was adopted as military food. After the end of World War II, curry began to be served as a school lunch. This was possible because of the support of spices from India and the curry food industry in Japan. Curry became a popular menu item for children as it was worked into school lunches. At the same time, curry roux was introduced to simplify the cooking process for home preparation. Thanks to the introduction of boxed roux available at supermarkets, curry became popular at home as well, and it is no exaggeration to say that curry is now a national dish in Japan.
The way curry is prepared and eaten in Japan is constantly evolving, from soup curry and keema curry to dry curry and curry bread. Recently, curry restaurants run by chefs trained in India and Sri Lanka, as well as Bangladeshi and Nepalese people, are everywhere in the city, approaching in number to Japanese restaurants. We see how the British-style curry that was imported to Japan has evolved steadily into the thriving dish that it is today.
Tonkatsu is one of the most popular Japanese dishes, yet its origins are non-Japanese. In fact, the word "tonkatsu" comes from France, a corruption of the French word "cotelette", which means a dish made with veal or lamb. In Japan, it refers to pork covered with breadcrumbs or flour, dipped in egg and deep fried. When eaten, it is served with Worcestershire sauce or hot pepper.
When Japan opened its ports to the world in 1859, they tried to imitate this French dish with beef and pork. This is how the cutlet was introduced to Japan. At Japanese Western-style restaurants, the cutlet was usually served with shredded cabbage. The reason why cabbage was served was because it was easy to procure and easy to cook. Tonkatsu, as we know it today, was born shortly thereafter. Tonkatsu is made with pork, which was a cheaper substitute for beef, and the meat was cut into pieces before serving on the plate. There is also chicken-katsu, which uses chicken instead of pork. It is thought that the reason why the meat was cut in advance was because Japanese people could not use knives and forks well.
There are also many different arrangements of tonkatsu. Typical examples are "Katsu-sando" (pork cutlet sandwich on bread), "Katsu-curry", and "Katsu-don". Katsu sandwiches are made by sandwiching pork cutlet and cabbage between two pieces of bread and seasoning them with mustard or sauce. Katsu sandwiches are served in Western-style restaurants and are also available in supermarkets as a quick and portable meal. In some areas where pig production is active, tonkatsu sandwiches made with brand-name pork have become a local specialty. Another beloved dish, katsu-curry is a dish of curry topped with pork cutlet. The spicy flavor of the curry and the juiciness of the pork cutlet make it a perfect dish. Katsu-don is a dish of tonkatsu cooked with onions and an egg with soup stock. It is a dish commonly found at teishoku restaurants and soba noodle shops. It is a flavorful dish with a sweet taste that comes from the soup stock.
Tonkatsu is a versatile dish, with a recipe that fits whatever mood you happen to be in. Recently, there are some health-conscious people who cook tonkatsu by grilling instead of frying, and there is also a movement to eat tonkatsu in a healthier way by using rice oil.
Among the foreign-origin foods loved by the Japanese is pasta. In addition to the Western-style carbonara and peperoncino, there are also new flavored pastas that have developed in Japan. Pastas that originated in Japan include neapolitan, mentaiko (cod roe) pasta, and natto pasta.
Neapolitan is a uniquely Japanese flavored pasta. It is pasta seasoned with ketchup, onions, green peppers, and bacon. This dish was often served at school lunches and coffee shops in the past, and many Japanese people find it nostalgic. Mentaiko pasta is a dish made with cod roe. The cod roe is colored and pickled with chili peppers and salt, imparting a spicy flavor. This highly flavored spicy cod roe is a favorite ingredient in mentaiko pasta. Natto pasta is a Japanese dish of natto (fermented soybeans) covered with pasta. For Japanese people, the idea of using pasta instead of rice is a natural evolution of thought. Pasta, seasoned with chopped seaweed and a shoyu-based sauce, is a perfect example of a Japanese style pasta dish.
Ever-evolving Japanese Cuisine
In this article, we have looked at how dishes of foreign origin developed in Japan. Curry and ramen are two of the most popular Japanese dishes that are now available at restaurants outside of Japan. Ramen, in particular, has established itself as a unique cuisine even in China, the birthplace of ramen, and is gaining popularity. As for curry, it is also exported to many countries in the form of instant curry. There are many other Japanese dishes of foreign origin that are not introduced in this article, leaving it up to you, the reader, to continue the exploration of how foreign foods have evolved and adapted in Japan.