Food trends in Japan change at a rapid pace. Especially with the widespread use of social media, an unknown dessert or dish will suddenly become all the rage, especially among the younger generation. In what follows, we take a look at what has hit the culinary sweet spot in 2021.
Recent Trends in Japanese Food
In recent years, dishes and sweets originating from Korea and Taiwan have generated much interest, but this has not always been the case.
Looking back at food trends shows that the ebb and flow of popular foods and how they rise in popularity is diverse. A good starting point in an exploration of Japan's food evolution is from the end of World War II. In the early days, sweets with simple flavors and appearances such as fluffy sponge cake, fresh cream and chocolate were mainstream ingredients. However, as Japan entered a period of rapid economic growth, hitherto unknown sweets and foods from Europe entered Japan, generating considerable buzz. Many Italian and French restaurants began to open, and foods such as tiramisu, pizza and pasta boomed. Until then, Western food had been prepared and consumed with heavy Japanese accents, but the trend shifted to serving foods that were closer to what was eaten in Europe. The Japanese palate was fascinated by the rich tastes of European cuisine and inspired by its artistic appearance.
In the 1990s, after the period of high economic growth, there was an unprecedented dessert craze. Belgian waffles, panna cotta, macarons and other sweets were all the rage and could be found everywhere in Japan. A reason behind the boom in foreign sweets was the explosion in the number of overseas travelers, which surpassed 10 million in 1990 and reached 15 million five years later in 1995. At that time, the Japanese people had financial power, a result of the economic boom years, and were spending their surplus money all over the world. Japanese travelers who experienced first hand the delicacies of local foods on their overseas trips thought, "I want to eat creamy and sophisticated foods like what is served in Europe". At the same time, a large influx of culinary students chose to travel to countries like France and Italy to study gastronomy. This trend has continued since the 2000s, and many foreign dishes have now taken root in Japan.
Popular Foods in Japan before 2021
Fast forward to the modern era, the frontline of the new and exciting foods are Taiwanese style shaved ice desserts, tapioca drinks and elaborate pancake desserts are taking the spotlight.
Taiwanese Shaved Ice Dessert
As the name suggests, originating from Taiwan, this spin on the standard shaved ice dessert comes from the luscious fresh fruit toppings adorning large bowls of shaved ice. The toppings are not limited to fruits, but also include apricot bean curd, red bean paste, jelly, condensed milk, and many other delectable ingredients, depending on the shop. There is innovation in the ice itself too, which may be flavored with milk, strawberry, mango and other flavors. There is craft in how the ice is shaved too, with shavings that are light and fluffy in texture the most sought after. In other cases, the ice is shaved with a knife, producing a rougher texture of crushed ice. In some places, there is an unusual method for shaving known as seared shaved ice, which calls for fruit juice mousse to be poured over the shaved ice and then roasted over a burner. This is an evolution of shaved ice that combines warm mousse with the cold ice.
Tapioca, like Taiwanese shaved ice, is a sweet that originated in Taiwan. Tapioca is made from starch extracted from the root potato called cassava, producing a soft and elastic texture. However, tapioca is not very tasty when eaten alone, but by adding tapioca to a sweet drink such as milk tea or coffee with lots of sugar, the bouncy texture of the tapioca creates a fun drinking-eating experience. Incidentally, since the raw material of tapioca is sweet potato, it is very good for the stomach. A chain of stores from Taiwan, headed by Gong Cha, has recently opened in Japan. The response was overwhelming, with peak wait times exceeding three hours to get a cup of tapioca milk tea. One may argue that a disadvantage of tapioca is that it does not have much flavor, but there are tapioca stores that have made up for this characteristic by serving tapioca that has been mixed with brown sugar.
Pancakes are a food eaten all over the world as a snack or breakfast. In 2010, a popular Hawaiian pancake store, Egg's Things, opened in Harajuku, and soon became a heavily trending topic on social networking sites. Another shop, Sarabeth's, from New York, opened in Tokyo a little while later, prolonging the boom in pancakes. After this initial impact, all variety of pancake shops popped up around Harajuku and Omotesando, and all of them were packed to capacity. Any visit to one of these pancake shops would necessitate a waiting time of an hour or so before being seated.
The initial spark for food trends have often been ignited by overseas influences in recent years, much like Taiwanese shaved desserts, tapioca drinks and pancakes of pre-2021.
Popular Foods of Japan in 2021
What are the foods that are popular or will be popular in 2021? With the recent Hanryu (Korean Wave) boom, food originating from Korea has a high probability of being spotlighted. An example of this is in 2020, when tapioca, the popularity of which was on the wane, experienced a resurgence. Another is dargona coffee, again spreading from Korea to Japan. Tapiocas' staying power is showing, with many cafes and restaurants showcasing tapioca drinks as a staple menu item, and is likely to be available after the popularity spike.
Dargona coffee is a drink made by whipping equal parts instant coffee, sugar and hot water, and then layering it on top of warm milk. The characteristic whip of dargona coffee is difficult to reproduce with coffee ground from common beans, so instant coffee is the preferred ingredient.
Tung Karon and Taiwanese fried chicken
We can expect food trends in the current decade to continue to be heavily influenced by Korea and Taiwan. An example is Tung Karon, which literally means "fat macaron" in Korean. As the name suggests, various ingredients are placed on top of the macaron dough and piled up so high that they look like they are about to topple over. It is a sweet treat that is both photogenic and satisfying. In Taiwan, fried chicken is a staple in night markets. It is a large fried chicken that is larger than the palm of a hand, and is popular for its visual impact and mouth-watering taste. The crispy skin of Taiwanese fried chicken comes from the use of cassava flour, which incidentally is also used in tapioca. Wu Shan Feng is also used to season the fried chicken, a Chinese spice that contains pepper, cloves, cinnamon, fennel and other spices familiar to Chinese cooks. The spiced meat and the crispy batter are a perfect match.
Maritozzo is a sweet treat made of brioche pastry with fresh cream in between. It is a specialty of Rome, Italy and is a perfect breakfast or snack. It has a great visual impact and has rapidly gained in popularity in Japan because of its ubiquitousness on social media. It has become so popular that there are now stores specializing in maritozzo, and convenience stores and supermarkets have developed their own products. It is said that one of the charms of marittuzzos is that there are many kinds of creams to sandwich inside them, such as pistachio, tiramisu, lemon and orange.
Basque cheesecake is a rich cheese flavored cheesecake with a charred outer layer of batter. The Basque in the name is in reference to the Basque region on the border of France. Basque cheesecake has been on sale in Japan since 2016, and still in 2020, some stores sold out within minutes of store openings. The surface of Basque cheese is covered with caramel. By charring the caramel, the flavor spreads throughout the cake. It is a type of cheesecake with low acidity, and is said to have a taste somewhere between baked and rare cheesecake. In 2019, Lawson started selling Basque cheesecake under the name, Baschee. Sales have exploded, selling about one million in the first three days of release. It is obvious that the most popular foods in 2021 are from Korea, Taiwan, and Europe, and foods from East Asian countries in particular are expected to continue to make waves in Japan.
Is it possible to predict what may cause the next stir in Japan's trending food culture scene? In Japan, camping has seen a jump in interest due to popularization by anime and manga. Even at supermarkets camping goods and foods are on display with robust sales. If this is any indication, offers that are campsite friendly may be the next big thing. Examples of products that can be prepared easily outdoors include "beer can chicken" and various smoked foods. Already, we see an acceleration in the evolution of camping gear, and the time may come when campers will be able to prepare snacks usually reserved for home kitchens at the campsite. The value of camping lies in the fact that foods can be experienced in the great outdoors. Even if the food is ordinary, the experience of eating in nature adds an element of joy and gratitude.
There is also a drink that originated in Taiwan called "white kikurage juice. This juice contains kikurage, wolfberries, jujube, and ice sugar. It is a healthy treat that may become a craze among young women. Other superfoods and organic ingredients are also likely to continue to be popular. The reason for their popularity seems to be the influence of foreign celebrities on social media. Perhaps healthier food will become more popular in the future.
Food Trends Driven by Millennials
Fueled by social media, domestically and overseas, changes in food trends are accelerating in Japan. A product that has been photographed by a Korean idol or a foreign celebrity can quickly become the talk of the town and lead to the next big food trend. At the same time, traditional Japanese foods are also influenced by how they are enjoyed abroad. These trending topics are quickly picked up by Japanese media outlets, including TV shows and online media, generating further buzz. Do you have a little known recipe that could be the next big thing in Japan? You just may be on to something!