What comes to mind when you hear someone mention Japanese cuisine? Chances are sushi, sashimi, tempura, sukiyaki, ramen and tofu are at the top of most people’s list. And while those dishes are certainly very Japanese, that’s not all we eat. Much of contemporary Japanese cuisine takes cues from countries as near as China and as far-flung as the US. Japanese-style Chinese food is one popular hybrid, but we have also yoshoku: Japanese-style Western food. Yoshoku borrows freely from French, Italian, American, German and other Western cuisines: think of it as pan-Western cooking. Just like the average dish in a “pan-Asian” restaurant in the west is totally unrecognizable to an Asian person, most of what you’ll find sold as yoshoku in Japan is likely to strike a Westerner as weird.
Yoshoku dates back to the food served for Westerners, especially the British, who came to Japan at the end of 19th century. A few currently popular Japanese-style Western dishes include Hamburg steak, croquette, spaghetti with meat sauce, macaroni gratin, curry and rice, and beef stew.
In the beginning, it was difficult to get the ingredients for Western food in Japan, but it became easier over time and, gradually, people started to cook Western food at home, too. At the same time, people modified and improved the recipes to make them more suited to Japanese palates. Little by little, yoshoku grew into its own cooking style, Japanese in style and flavor, Western in name only.
Over time, yoshoku cooks started introducing new Western-inspired dishes that don’t actually exist in the west: things like potate-korokke (which originated from the French croquette, made with minced meat and potato), omurice (flavored rice wrapped with an omelet), hayashi rice (hashed beef with rice), wafu-pasta (Italian spaghetti with soy-based sauces, often topped with seaweed). Deep-fried oysters and fried prawns are also very popular and they are often served with tartar sauce. There’s a neat symmetry here with things like California rolls and chop suey—dishes sold to Westerners in “pan-Asian” restaurants that, of course, were invented in the West.
As Japanese anthropologist Naomichi Ishige said, “Yoshoku doesn’t spring out of any specific model in Western culture. It comes more from the images of Westerners that Japanese people have vaguely acquired. You can think of it as a foreign style culinary system which is reconstructed in Japan.”
Japanese people living or traveling outside Japan can be in for quite a shock when they discover the vast difference between what they thought Western food was supposed to be like and when they taste the real thing. The authentic Western dishes are simply far different from the Japanese interpretation.
Here’s an example. You can’t find Japanese curry rice at an Indian restaurant. A friend of mine, who works at Japanese restaurant in Montreal, told me once that sushi and the other Japanese traditional dishes at her restaurant were OK but the curry rice was very bad: it was too salty and spicy, not at all like the mild Japanese curry she was used to.
Something similar happens with sauces. Many people want to know what the difference is between the soy sauce in Japan and other countries. To tell the truth, if you buy Kikkoman brand soy sauce, there’s no real difference. But most Japanese people will agree that there’s a big problem with the mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce you get outside Japan. The “real” kind isn’t nearly as good as the yoshoku versions!
In Japan, mayonnaise means Kewpie-brand mayonnaise. Even home cooks who make mayonnaise at home try to copy the taste of Kewpie, which is tangier and richer than the Western brands of mayonnaise. When I was in Europe, I used to add vinegar to try to “fix” the French-style mayonnaise found in stores. Ask any Japanese person abroad and they’ll tell you: the best mayonnaise is still Japanese Kewpie mayonnaise, whatever these French upstarts might say.
The other problem is Worcestershire sauce (in Japan it’s called “Worcester” sauce). To Japanese people, Worcester sauce is nothing like the typical Lee & Perrins brand Worcestershire sauce. Lee & Perrins is based on anchovies and tamarind sauce, while Japanese Worcester sauce is based on vegetables, fruits and various spices. Unsurprisingly, the taste is quite different. And in Japan, Worcester sauce is used more frequently at the table, as a condiment, than as an ingredient while cooking. Yoshoku leans heavily on a whole family of thickened Worcester sauces, like the one for tonkatsu pork cutlet, the sauce for okonomiyaki, or simply thick Worcester sauce for the table.
Sauces are one of the topics about Japanese cuisine that can even surprise Japanese people, especially when they hail from different regions. Unlike soy sauce, for example, the taste and ways of using Worcester sauce are quite localized in Japan. The other day, I was very surprised when my friend told me that people from Eastern Japan put soy sauce on tempura. Where I grew up in Western Japan, we use Worcester sauce for tempura—which my friend was equally shocked to learn.
Japanese cooking is deep. The richness of Japanese cooking is much more than something just healthy, artistic or beautiful. Even with fast foods, Japanese people put their hearts into it, study enthusiastically and don’t compromise. The pursuit of a delicacy never ends: that’s the real reason why Japanese cooking is truly interesting, enjoyable and delicious. I hope that not only a few gourmets but also more and more gourmands in the world explore the world of Japanese cooking and discover new flavor and a way of life.
Editor’s Note: Have you tried yoshoku? What hybrid cuisines do you love best?
Kanako Noda started helping her mom make dinner in Shiga, Japan, at the age of four. An artist based in Montréal by day, she evangelizes on the Japanese way of eating by night. "There's a fantastic, dazzling variety of Japanese dishes that Americans keep missing," she says, "because they can't see past the thick undergrowth of sushi bars everywhere." Kanako believes in real food made by real people using real ingredients, and is allergic to food gimmicks, straight-from-the-lab ingredients and diet fads of all kinds. Most of all, she's into introducing Westerners to Japanese common sense on what you should eat, when, how much, how and with whom. Her Japanese home cooking recipe blog is at KanakosKitchen.com.