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The Japanese Table

The Way of Wafu

by Takashi Morieda

Just as a choice of coffee or tea is offered following most meals, Japan’s Western-style restaurants ask diners to choose bread or rice—that’s raisu, served on a plate, not to be confused with traditional Japanese gohan, rice served in a bowl.

Japan’s restaurants serve every foreign cuisine imaginable, but this dish called raisu rarely appears on those menus. Only in yoshokuya are patrons asked to select bread or rice to accompany their meals: these restaurants may literally translate as Western-food restaurants, but what they really offer is Western food served in Japanese style.

Entrees such as beef or tongue stew at yoshokuya appear indistinguishable from their European counterparts, but there are also dishes that have obviously been adapted to the tastes and preferences of Japanese. Some of these include deep-fried breaded oysters or shrimp, served on a pile of finely shredded fresh cabbage, doused with Worcestershire sauce; menchi-katsu (deep-fried minced meat cutlet); and shoga-yaki (pork fried with soy sauce and ginger). These are classic examples of that variety of dishes defined as wafu, or Japanese-style Western food.

These popular entrees are not strictly considered “Japanese cuisine” by the Japanese; yet when we think of ordinary, Japanese-style foods, somehow these disparate dishes—enjoyed both at home and in restaurants—come most readily to mind.

Japanese-Style Food

To better understand wafu, it is helpful to define Japanese cuisine. Our classic cuisine comprises the standard fare served at a Japanese restaurant (Nihon ryoriya), following conventions that became established during the Meiji era (1867-1911). Before the Meiji Restoration, each part of the country had its own cuisine: there was the Edo-style cooking of Tokyo and the cuisine of the old capital of Kyoto, but there was nothing known as “Japanese cuisine” per se.

After the Meiji Restoration, however, foods from abroad were introduced to Japan, and the concept of “Japanese cuisine” emerged in juxtaposition to, for example, Chinese or French cuisines. The culinary culture established prior to that time came to be described as “Japanese cuisine.”

The definition of “Japanese cooking,” a concern not so much of households as of restaurants, was formed as chefs and restaurant owners grouped the dishes that had been developed up to Meiji times into one category. They thus defined their distinctive cuisine, carefully rejecting ingredients and dishes newly introduced from overseas.

Yet, assuming that “Japanese cooking” is what Japanese eat every day, and because fusion dishes such as Japanese curry and ramen (as described in previous articles in this series) have overtaken so-called classic Japanese cuisine in the popular diet, the question arises: Is there any real difference between wafu and “Japanese” food?

Perhaps that difference is not so great, considering the influences of fusion cuisine, a movement that has broadened both the ethnic and the imaginative boundaries of the world’s menus. Yet one element continues to define “Japanese style”: rice.

The Nuances of Wafu

It should be pointed out that rice has not been a dependable staple in the Japanese diet since ancient times. It was not always possible to produce enough rice, so many people lived on a diet based on barley and other mixed grains such as buckwheat. Statistics show that Japanese in general have only been able to consume rice on a daily basis since the end of World War II. A meal based around rice is what one might call the ideal concept of eating, as far as Japanese are concerned. Rice, then, has become the “last bastion” of classic, pre-Meiji Restoration Japanese-style eating.

According to the tenets established for Japanese cuisine, Western dishes flavored with Japanese seasonings like soy sauce and miso, are considered wafu: take, for example, miso ramen in Hokkaido, potato chips flavored with soy sauce or pizza topped with seaweed. This wafu image is enhanced further when Western foods are prepared with traditional herbs and spices, such as wasabi and sansho.

In the yoshokuya serving Western-style foods, it can be difficult to find anything truly Japanese other than raisu, although some establishments offer side dishes of Japanese pickles or miso soup to accompany the deep-fried foods and shredded cabbage. Wafu, one might say, comes in various nuances, depending upon individual taste and tolerance.

The same tendency to recreate a Japanese-specific “frame of reference” around a non-Japanese dish can be seen in home cooking as well. Even if the table is laden with Western-style foods such as meat cutlets and croquettes, or Chinese-style dishes such as chili shrimp or mabodofu (tofu in spicy meat sauce), accompanying these will invariably be a bowl of rice, miso soup and a small dish of something seasoned with soy sauce.

Borderless Fusion Cuisine

The Japanese enjoy foods that go well with rice, and adjust those foods, no matter how “foreign,” in order to accommodate a “Japanese state of taste.” When faced with these ever-shifting juxtapositions of food and flavors, attempting to define wafu seems nearly impossible. Certainly any Western food that can be enjoyed with rice—or raisu—could be redefined as wafu, which places wafu in the same category as classic Japanese cuisine. This suggests that wafu is a state of innovation and change, rather than a strict category of clearly circumscribed foods.

This kind of innovation is mirrored in the overseas sushi boom. From this side of the ocean, I am amazed at the curious varieties of sushi found in the West, and wonder if avocado sushi or foie gras sushi can (or should?) really be called sushi.

Then I realize that this Japanese food has been adopted—and adapted to Western palates—in exactly the same manner that we Japanese have transformed foods like pizza and pasta. For us, it seems, wafu has simply served as the forerunner to our own particular fusion cuisine, now an integral part of the daily Japanese diet.

Author’s Profile

Born in Minamata, Kumamoto Prefecture in 1955, Takashi Morieda holds a degree in cultural anthropology from Tokyo’s International Christian University. He is a well-known photographer and specialist in food culture, as well as a pioneer in research of curries and Southeast Asian cuisine. Morieda is also the author of some 20 food-related books, and a volume of his photographs spanning a 20-year period has recently been published .