Monday, November 11, 2013

Once a Thing of the West, These Dishes Are Now As Japanese As Sushi

Mmm: Matcha Marble Castella Cake (plus recipe)! Via.

Few bite into a Taco Bell burrito under the impression they are enjoying an authentic Mexican dish. McDonald’s fries do little to suggest French cuisine. And that California Roll next to the seaweed salad? Need anyone say it: not Japanese.

The U.S. has elevated the Americanization of foreign food to almost an art, with grocery aisles and fast food chains its most enthusiastic exhibitors. Yet many might be surprise that an equally thorough appropriation of Western food has been taking place half a world away.

Japanese versions of Western dishes have been around for over a century, making up a cuisine known as yōshoku, or “Western food.” Arguably the most famous of these adaptations is Japanese curry. This week at Japan Society, culinary writer Harris Salat and Chef Tadashi Ono delve into the history and varieties of the dish with examples from their book, Japanese Soul Cooking.

In addition to curry, yōshoku covers a variety of foods, with everything from Portuguese cakes to Italian pasta. Below we take a look at three standouts from this branch of Japanese cuisine.


Purportedly introduced to Japan by Portuguese traders in the 16th century, castella has become a staple of both dessert and omiyage, or gift-giving, culture. One can see why: not overly sweet, unlike many Western confections; packed in a rectangular box, allowing for small bites. The Japanese have even added their own touch to the dessert, which originally called for only a simple mixture of flour, sugar, and eggs. Castella fans can now enjoy varieties in chocolate, cheese, and matcha (green tea), among other ingredients. Especially popular is the castella of Nagasaki, where the Portuguese would have conducted the bulk of their trade several centuries ago.

Oddly enough, “there is no actual cake called castella in Portugal,” writes the Japan Times. In an article on the dessert, they discuss how Paulo Duarte, a Portuguese native who studied how to make castella in Nagasaki, and his wife Tomoko, a Japanese expert on traditional sweets, took it upon themselves to introduce castella into Lisbon. The wheel of history turns once more.


Sometimes a dish is so changed from the original as to appear heretical. Many Italians would surely think so upon hearing that Naporitan, a Japanese take on Italian pasta, uses ketchup as a sauce. As if this weren’t insult enough, the pasta is allowed to sit after cooking and then reheated. In the dichotomy of mortal and venial culinary sins, ketchup and reheated pasta surely fall into the former category.

Believed to have been invented in the postwar era at Yokohama’s Hotel New Grand, Naporitan reflects little of the place from which it takes its name; the pasta is soft and includes no seafood. That being said, the dish has become a staple of Japanese bento boxes and restaurants. As with castella, it took a group of non-natives to introduce the phenomenon to its purported country of origin. In 2012, the Nippon Naporitan Gakkai, or Japan Naporitan academic society, held a tasting in Naples. In a display of either true appreciation or a diplomatic touch, Mayor Luigi de Magistris graced the dish with a simple, “Good.”


In another ironic historical twist, Japanese curry owes more to a British take on the dish than to the original Indian staple. After a British company called C&B began manufacturing the Indian import garam masala, someone had the idea to combine it with Western roux. The result, a thicker curry than that of India, caught on quickly almost 200 years later in Meiji Japan. It even boasts its own political incident, the curry powder scandal of 1931, during which dealers were discovered to be selling low-grade domestic curry at prices comparable to that of the far finer C&B brand. The dish also became a favorite of the armed forces due to its being both nutritious and easy to prepare.

You can find curry rice and its variations at almost any casual dining establishment in Japan, and, increasingly, here in New York, with Curry House CoCo Ichibanya being one of the more famous places to focus on the dish. Customers have complete control over their choice of sides, portion size, and spiciness. With spiciness ranging from 0 to 10, those unable to handle even the slightest hint of heat should stick to amaguchi, something like sweet-mouth, while those with a death wish can try their taste buds at the highest level.

--Andres Oliver

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