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Why not just add a dollop of mayonnaise?

by Makiko Itoh

Newcomers to Japan are often a little taken aback by the many decidedly non-Japanese condiments, such as ketchup and Worcestershire sauce, that are used in everyday cooking. And in particular mayonnaise: Usually reserved for sandwiches, salad dressing and dipping sauces for chilled seafood in the West, is used with abandon in Japan. The popular recipe site Cookpad lists more than 134,000 recipes containing mayonnaise, including hot dishes and desserts. There are even recipes for cakes containing mayonnaise in the batter or the icing.

Originating in Spain and France in the 18th century, mayonnaise was introduced to Japan in 1925 by Toichiro Nakashima, who had first encountered it as a young student in the United States. Six years after opening his own food production company in 1919, he used another American icon — a baby doll with googly eyes invented by Rose O’Neill — as the trademark for his new bottled sauce; and so Kewpie Mayonnaise was born.

According to the official history of the Kewpie Corporation, Nakahata wanted to introduce this rich sauce to his homeland to encourage young people to take in more nourishment, so that they could grow as strong and tall as their Western counterparts. To this end he formulated his mayonnaise using only fat-rich egg yolks rather than the whole egg, and doubled their amount. He also sweetened the sauce a little using apple vinegar, and later on a little monosodium glutamate (MSG) was also added to the formula, making it a distinctly Japanese-tasting concoction.

Some visitors to Japan become so fond of Japanese-style mayonnaise that they smuggle out bottles in their luggage, and it’s one of the foods most missed by Japanese expatriates overseas (along with tsukemono pickles and really good rice).

Mayonnaise was moderately popular until the outbreak of World War II, when production ceased due to the scarcity of the ingredients. Production restarted in 1948, however, and now the iconic teardrop-shaped squeezy bottle (first introduced in the 1970s) is seen in almost every household refrigerator in Japan. Other manufacturers also make mayonnaise, but the baby-doll brand still dominates the market.

The eggy sauce did run into some problems initially, however. At the time it was introduced, the Japanese people were not at all accustomed to eating raw vegetables; they were eaten cooked, dried or preserved in some way, and not dipped into mayo. So Kewpie instead encouraged its use as a sauce for crab, shrimp and other foods that were part of the traditional Japanese diet. This may explain why to this day there isn’t a hard and fast connection between mayonnaise and salads in Japan, and why it can show up as a pizza topping as well as a sauce for okonomiyaki, the savory cabbage-stuffed pancake that is rapidly gaining popularity worldwide.

Mayonnaise is basically a rich emulsification of egg and oil with vinegar, so it can be used to thicken sauces, to add richness and a little tang to various dishes, and more. And it goes very well with more traditional Japanese flavors such as rice and miso soup. For example, mayonnaise-rich Japanese-style potato salad is often served at breakfast, but it’s also a standard item at izakaya taverns since it works so well as tsumami — an appetizer to accompany sake, if not a stick of celery.

Makiko Itoh is the author of “The Just Bento Cookbook” (Kodansha USA). She writes about bentō lunches at www.justbento.com and about Japanese cooking and more at www.justhungry.com.

  • Veronica Oakes

    I started making bentos when we moved her to Okinawa. I have stayed away from packing anything with mayonnaise in it. Is it okay to leave the Kewpie mayonnaise out for almost 5 hours? Won’t it turn or spoil?