Foreign Foods in Japan – Chanpon (ちゃんぽん)

Students. Hungry and poor. The history of higher education is irrevocably intertwined with the history of starving students and the cooks who figure out innovative ways to feed them healthful, nutritious foods for very little money. Chanpon is one of those perfect student meals, and now, a great regional dish from Nagasaki, Japan that was originally created for Chinese students visiting Dejima Island in the area.

As with many beloved foreign foods in Japan, chanpon was developed during the Meiji Period (1868-1912). During this era, Japan had opened its borders to the world, sharing knowledge and information, along with culture and food. Students from China would visit Nagasaki, a port city, and head to a local Chinese restaurant called Shikairo. According to the restaurant, the dish was based on a Fujian specialty called tonniishiimen. Korean jjamppong is very similar!

Chanpon is made with pork meat, seafood pieces, and seasonal vegetables, served in a bone broth with noodles. The meat, seafood, and vegetables are sautéed in lard, and the soup base is made using pig bones and whole chickens. The meat, seafood, and vegetables are fried first, then the broth is added directly to the pot. Finally, the thick, chewy noodles are added to the broth mixture and everything is cooked together to seal in the flavor.

Chanpon has become such a popular dish in Japan that different regions have created their own versions. In Shimane and Hyogo Prefectures, a version called ankake chanpon is made using a thick soy sauce soup base while in Akita Prefecture, the soup base is made with miso broth.

Have you ever tried chanpon? Ready to cook packages are available in most Japanese grocery stores in the US, so we hope you decide to make it one day! Be sure to share your story with us in the comments below.

Foreign Foods in Japan – Supagetti Naporitan

Japanese people love good food. Traditional, seasonal, festive and of course, foreign foods!

One of the most universally loved foods is noodles, and in Japan, Italian spaghetti has been adapted to Japanese taste in a dish called Supagetti, or Spaghetti, Naporitan. Legend has it that the dish was invented in August of 1945, by Shigetada Irie, the head chef at the Hotel New Grand in Yokohama. On the 30th of that month, General Douglas MacArthur, leader of the Allied Forces during World War II, established his headquarters at the hotel, and in an effort to accommodate the new guests, Chef Irie developed a pasta dish inspired by the classical Italian pasta napolitana and the American spaghetti with ketchup that was served to military men.

Needless to say, the new dish was a hit, and has become a staple dish wherever yoshuku, or “Japanized Western food”, is served. Today Supagetti Naporitan is made with cooked durum wheat-based spaghetti, onions, bell peppers, sausage, ketchup, salt and grated parmesan cheese. The vegetables and sausage are stir-fried in oil, to which the spaghetti and ketchup are added, with all of the ingredients getting finished in a quick pan sauté. The dish is garnished with parsley and grated parmesan cheese and served hot.

The original recipe developed by Chef Irie, who was classically trained in French and Italian cuisines, used canned pureed tomatoes instead of ketchup, as well as garlic, mushrooms and bacon. Supagetti Naporitan is at heart an international dish. The pastas favored in the Naples region of Italy, where San Marzano tomatoes famous for their sweet acidity grow, is often considered the birthplace of simple spaghetti with tomato sauce and cheese. Popularized in the United States following multiple waves of Italian immigration which took place the 18th century, pasta napolitana became a staple in American households. World War II causes widespread scarcity, and instead of fresh, high-quality tomatoes, many families substituted ketchup for the more traditional tomato sauce. Add to this mix Japanese influences – sausages, pan-frying and vegetables – and you have a multi-cuisine but oh-so-comforting dish. Full of umami from the tomatoes and cheese, protein and vegetables, and chewy noodles familiar to the Japanese palette, this dish was destined to become a staple in Japanese cuisine, just like in Italian and American cuisines.

Today, Supagetti Naporitan is available in local mom-and-pop coffee shops throughout Japan, as well as at yoshoku restaurants and chain restaurants. Since it is such a simple dish, it is most often eaten for weekday lunch or dinner and can quickly be made at home.

Have you tried Supagetti Naporitan? Be sure to share your story with us in the comments below!

Foreign Foods in Japan – Hayashi Raisu (or Rice)

We love Japanese food. All kinds. Traditional home cooking. Haute cuisine. Festival food. Seasonal comfort food. Regional specialties. Sweet. Savory. Spicy. But even we can’t get over craving yoshoku food.

Yoshoku is one of the two main categories of Japanese cuisine – yoshoku and washoku – and refers to foreign foods that have been adapted to Japanese tastes, using ingredients typically found in Japanese cooking. Simply put, yoshoku food means “Western food” whereas washoku food means “Japanese food”.

Yoshoku food is so prevalent in Japan that many cooks believe it is now Japanese. But its origins are much more recent than traditional Japanese food culture. Yoshoku-style cooking became prevalent in Japan during the Meiji Period (1868-1912), and continued on through the post-World War II years. During the Meiji Period, emissaries from many nations, including China, England and France, visited Japan, bringing resources and sharing knowledge. Also, during that time, Japanese delegations traveled the world, learning about the cultures and habits of much of the West. This vibrant time resulted in an exchange of foods and this year, we’re going to delve into the deliciousness of popular yoshoku dishes.

Hayashi raisu

Hayashi Raisu (or Rice) is one of the easiest and most familiar yoshoku dishes. It can be ordered at yoshoku-ya, restaurants that specialize in adapting Western dishes, and is often made at home for a savory, comforting meal. Hayashi Raisu loosely translates into “beef stew over steamed white rice” and is heavily influenced by the French demi-glace. The stew part of the dish is made from beef broth, a browned flour and butter roux, and a port wine-Worstershire sauce-tomato paste-ketchup-soy sauce demi-glace. Added to this amazingly aromatic sauce is thinly sliced bite-sized beef, mushrooms and onions, garnished with boiled green peas. Hayashi Raisu is so common that the Hayashi Raisu sauce mix are even found in konbini, or Japanese convenience stores. And the dish comes together very quickly when you use these sauce mixes.

No packaged sauce mix used here!

The blend of foreign ingredients such as ketchup, butter, wheat flour and Worstershire sauce, along with cooking methods such as a roux based gravy, were new to Japan. Many chefs encouraged the use of these foreign ingredients to supplement what was available to the Japanese people, but in the case of Hayashi Raisu, no one knows who that chef might have been! Legend has it that an unknown chef, whose last name was the commonly used Hayashi, made the dish for the employees at this restaurant. Legend also states that the name for this dish came from the mispronunciation of “hashed beef”. Regardless of how the dish came about, we modern eaters are indebted to the yoshoku chefs of the Meiji Period!

We’d love to hear about your favorite yoshoku dishes. Be sure to share in the comments below!

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Unagipai!

UNAGI. PIE. Sounds like eel pie, doesn’t it? Maybe even like the eel pie and mash found in London shops. But nope. Because unagi pie is an awesome Japanese sweet treat!

What is unagipai? It’s a sweet butter cookie made with dried, powdered eel as one of the ingredients. This treat is a popular omiyage, or Japanese souvenir, and has a well-documented history.

Unagipai is a special pastry originating in Shizuoka Prefecture, near Lake Hamana. Lake Hamana is a freshwater lake renowned for its eel, which is found in a variety of local cuisine. A resident of the area, and a president of a pastry and wagashi shop called Shunkado, Mr. Koichi Yamazaki realized that all over Japan, the eel from Lake Hamana was famous. He was inspired to make a special treat in his shop, and package it so that it could be a unique souvenir that travelers to Shizuoka Prefecture could give to loved ones. So, in 1961, unagipai was born.

Photo by jetalone

Unagipai is a delicately crispy, oblong-shaped butter and sugar cookie inspired by palmier, a type of French pastry. The classic cookie is made using eel powder for a subtle yet complex taste, along with a bit of garlic powder, to counterbalance any fishy smell from the eel powder. Other flavors include unagipai with nuts and unagipai V.S.O.P, which contains brandy and macadamia nuts.

The cookie is famously considered a nighttime snack, and in Japan, that means something really fun! Mr. Yamazaki wanted to market unagipai as a “nighttime snack” because he thought people would enjoy them in the evening with their family when they got back from their travels. But there’s a double meaning! Back in the 60’s, the Hamamatsu area was known as a party area, with lots of nightlife. Combine that with the idea that unagi, or eel, enhances male prowess, many buyers assumed that unagipai was to be eaten at night as an aphrodisiac!

A Shunkado truck advertising unagipai (photo by Toru Miwa)

At Shunkado, unagipai is made in a factory by Unagipai Artisans. It can take up to ten years to be recognized as an Unagipai Artisan, and as part of their training, these chefs learn how to make the cookies while taking into account the quality of the ingredients, the outside temperature and humidity, and even how much pressure to place on the rolling pins to roll out the cookies for optimal crispiness. Artisans prepare the dough and then the cookies are baked in industrial-sized ovens. Packaging is automated, although workers are involved to ensure quality control. Visitors to the Shunkado shop can get a guided tour of the factory and of course, sample the goodies!

Unagipai is so beloved that it’s used as part of other desserts, sometimes filled with cream and fruit, and other times dipped in warm, melted chocolate.

No matter what, if you’re in Japan, definitely check out this unique food!

Main photo by 健ちゃん

An Acquired Taste of Japan – Monjayaki!

Cold weather. Short days. The perfect time for delicious warm foods and drinks, especially when they include monjayaki, our Acquired Taste selection for November.

Monjayaki, or monja for short, is a regional dish, primarily found in Tokyo. At its heart, monjayaki is a slightly ugly pancake made with a few simple ingredients. But when it comes to good food, it really hits the spot, especially when you eat it with an ice-cold beer!

Monjayaki has a long history in Japan. It is thought to have originated in the area now known as Tokyo during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) as a snack called mojiyaki. Mojiyaki, made with a simple water and flour batter, was sold at snack shops called dagashiya, which specialized in candy and snacks for children. When children would come to buy their treat, they would practice their letters in the gooey mojiyaki batter that was cooked on a griddle in front of the shop, leading to the name mojiyaki which means “grilled letters”. Around the time of World War II, the dish evolved into its modern form, monjayaki, which is similar to okonomiyaki in many ways. The base batter for monjayaki is made with dashi and wheat flour, to which is added any combination of cabbage, meat, seafood, cheese, mochi and green onions. But the way monjayaki is prepared and eaten is unique and wonderful, all on its own!

The flour and dashi are combined into a smooth, liquidy batter, and served in a large bowl. Drier toppings are layered into the bowl, starting with shredded green cabbage. Various ingredients are then added on top of the cabbage, depending on the diner’s preference. Mochimentai, a combination of mochi and spicy cod roe, is popular, as are combinations of curry powder and cheese, seafood and green onions and fatty pork and kimchi. All of the layers from the cabbage up are cooked first, usually on an oiled pan, and when eaten at a monjayaki restaurant, at a tableside teppan grill. The dry ingredients are chopped and sautéed, chopped and sautéed, chopped and sautéed, using large, sharp-edged metal spatulas, until they are cut up into very fine pieces. The cooked dry ingredients are then formed into a large donut shape on the grill, with the cooked ingredients forming a “wall” for the goodness to come. The flour and dashi batter is then poured into the empty center and allowed to boil and thicken. Once the bubbling starts, all of the ingredients are mixed together on the grill and cooked until the bottom of the monja starts to brown.

Turn down the heat, and the monja is ready to eat! RIGHT. OFF. THE. GRILL. While it’s hot and delicious. Monjayaki is eaten with tiny spatulas called hagashi, which are used to scoop up bites right off the griddle. As the monja is being eaten, the bottom level crisps up while the top remains so gooey it melts in your mouth. The okoge, or the crisped-up bottom part, is even great to crunch on while drinking beer.

So beloved is monjayaki that there is an entire street in Tokyo dedicated to monjayaki restaurants! Tsukishima Monjadori is packed with monjayaki specialty restaurants, and each restaurant carries unique menus and different variations of monjayaki so you can discover your favorite.

Have you tried it? Is it one of your favorite winter dishes? Let us know what you think in the comments below!