Our 2012 Feature introduces Japanese cuisine from the viewpoint of wayo setchu, the fusion of Japanese and Western cuisines. In this third installment, we follow the evolution of certain Western-style dishes that pair well with rice, a special genre of Japanese cuisine generally known as yoshoku.
by Yo Maenobo
Japan’s Popular Fries
The practice of eating beef in Japan started around 1872. During the years 1904-1905 the country was at war with Russia, and a large number of Japan’s cattle were used to produce canned beef to feed troops serving at the front. Overall supply was reduced by this high demand; the number of cattle slaughtered in Tokyo dropped to 21,996 in 1907, some 6,000 fewer than the figure five years earlier. As Japan’s overall beef supply became depleted, the price of beef skyrocketed—and consumer demand shifted to pork.
Pork thus became the meat of choice for the breaded, deep-fried dishes referred to as “fries” by the Japanese. Fries, made with either meat or fish, were considered standards of yoshoku, a unique fare defined as Western dishes made with a Japanese twist. Western-style restaurants in Japan first featured popular fish-filet fries, drawing from the tradition of tempura, and veal followed, soon to be replaced by pork. Animal fat was originally used to deep fry the veal cutlets and wiener schnitzel introduced from English and European cuisines, but as the recipes were reinterpreted for Japanese menus, cooking methods came to include sesame oil. Coating fish or meat with bread crumbs made with grated bread introduced a unique crispy texture that was new to the Japanese palate.
Eventually, as these dishes became more generally accepted, the Japanese term “pork fry” morphed into tonkatsu: ton refers to pork and katsu is a shortened version of katsuretsu, or cutlet. Croquettes were called korokke from the start, and those made with shrimp were referred to as “Furansu korokke” (“French croquettes”). A song titled Korokke no Uta (“Croquette song”) was all the rage around 1920—a clear sign of how popular this food was, and how fashionable the concept of yoshoku dining had become during the Taisho period (1912-26).*
When Western cuisine was first adopted in Japan, all such dishes were referred to as yoshoku. “Yo” comes from “seiyo,” meaning “the West”; “shoku” means “food.” The term yoshoku follows a linguistic pattern used to define other aspects of culture introduced from the West; for example, yofuku (clothing) and yokan (buildings). Yoshoku went on, moreover, to acquire the specific meaning of Western dishes that go well with rice. Restaurants serving such yoshoku were identified as yoshoku-ya, which were differentiated as a separate specialty among restaurants that specialized in Western cuisine.
In 1967, in the midst of Japan’s rapid economic growth, a leading Japanese publisher marketed a book titled Tokyo Ii Mise Umai Mise (“Good and tasty restaurants in Tokyo”) as Japan’s answer to the Michelin Guide of Paris and the Good Food Guide of London. This Tokyo food guide made a point of featuring Western cuisine, including five yoshoku restaurants that were introduced even before its listing of famous kaiseki (Japanese cuisine) restaurants. Restaurant menus excerpted in the guide highlighted tonkatsu, hire-katsu (pork filet cutlets), korokke, beef stew, curry, hamburger steak and a yoshoku bento (packed lunch box). This particular yoshoku bento was the ultimate answer to the whims of Japanese diners who craved variety, yet preferred to eat with chopsticks. The stylish multi-tiered square container held tidy arrangements of rice, accompanied by small barrel-shaped korokke, fried prawns, potato salad, tamago-yaki rolled egg, and more. Wayo setchu fusion attained its highest level of refinement in this particular yoshoku bento. At the opposite extreme, one might encounter the more down-to-earth “cutlet curry”: a pork cutlet on rice, doused with curry.
Condiments and Accompaniments
Yoshoku-style dishes are often served with o-shinko pickles or other condiments: curry and rice, for example, are invariably accompanied by rakkyo pickles and fukujin-zuke, pickles made of seven types of vegetables, while beni shoga, red pickled ginger, is often eaten with hayashi raisu, hashed beef with rice. Other indispensable accompaniments to yoshoku dishes are demi-glace sauce and Worcester sauce. The head chef of the hotel Okura, who sought to set the standards of Western cuisine in Japan, often lamented the fact that these sauces were so popular, Japanese poured them liberally over any Western dish.
The first Japanese sauce manufacturing companies were established around 1890, and the Meidi-ya food company began to import the Lea & Perrins brand from England. In Things Japanese (1890), B. H. Chamberlain, a nineteenth-century observer of Japanese culture, decried the “Japano-European cuisine” consisting of “slabs of tough beefsteak anointed with mustard and spurious Worcestershire sauce.” While they may share the same name, however, the sauce Chamberlain was familiar with is completely different from Japan’s modern Worcester sauce.
The original Worcester sauce of Worcestershire was made with spices, vinegar and anchovies, but today’s sauces produced in Japan range from Worcester and semi-thick varieties to thicker tonkatsu sauces. These are all mild-flavored, made of vegetables, tomatoes, apples and other fruit—and do not include anchovies.
- *Korokke no Uta lyrics excerpt: “Today’s supper was korokke, tomorrow’s supper will be korokke. At this rate I’ll be eating korokke all year long. Isn’t this funny?”
Other articles in this series
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The Japanese Table presents a variety of themes regarding traditional Japanese food culture. In each volume, a specific topic such as history, customs and food groups, is explored from several different angles.
Close-up Japan zooms in on current trends in food culture and popular food topics in Japan.
Japanese Style provides a brief introduction of Japanese food customs, etiquette and culinary techniques.
Tasty Travel takes you on delectable journeys. Each issue focuses on a specific regional dish.
Each volume introduces a total of eight attractive fusion-style and traditional recipes.
Special Report takes a look at people who are introducing Japanese cuisine around the world.