The typical Japanese home kitchen has an array of condiments that reflect a wide variety of influences.

There are soy sauce and miso of course, as well as the ever-popular ketchup and mayonnaise, and bottles of a dark, brown condiment that are collectively just called sōsu

These are the Japanese versions of the classic English condiment Worcestershire sauce.

Sōsu is so popular in Japan that there are multiple variations. Not only is it used in Western-influenced dishes such as deep-fried pork cutlets (tonkatsu) and deep-fried shrimp (ebifurai), but it’s also used on things like okonomiyaki and takoyaki, both savory snacks from Osaka that typify affordable Japanese cuisine.

It’s even preferred above soy sauce for making yakisoba, the Japanese version of lo mein.

It’s not clear when Worcestershire sauce first entered Japan. The Japan Sauce Manufacturers’ Association states that it entered the country in the early Meiji Era (1868-1912), although some think it might have been earlier, during the Edo Period (1603-1868) via the port of Nagasaki.

It is certain, however, that the first attempt at a commercial version was made by the Yamasa company in 1886, when it introduced its “New Flavor Soy Sauce,” which failed miserably and was scrapped within a year.

Several other attempts were made to introduce this richly flavored sauce from the West by several manufacturers over the years.

The development and acceptance of sōsu went hand in hand with the increasing acceptance of Western-style foods such as korokke (croquettes) and hanbāgu (hamburger steaks) — as one gained popularly, the other naturally came along for the ride.

Japanese sōsu, meanwhile, is milder, fruitier and sweeter than the original Worcestershire sauce, which is made from slowly decomposing vegetables, anchovies and other ingredients that are fermented for a period of three to four months.

Japanese sōsu is usually made from vegetable and fruit extracts. For this reason it tastes closer to typical sweet-salty Japanese sauces and broths such as mirin (a rice wine for cooking) or sugar. (The original Worcestershire sauce from England was also available as early as 1900, when the then-head of the fancy food emporium Meiji-ya imported several cartons of Lea & Perrins bottles after a trip to its homeland. The product is still available today for those who want something a little stronger.)

Nowadays there are many different sōsu variations to choose from, depending on the intended use. The standards are chunō “medium-thick” sauce, tonkatsu sauce and usutā sauce — the latter word being the Japanese pronunciation of “Worcestershire” — and although they don’t taste all that different, they do vary considerably in viscosity and consistency.

Then there are the versions made especially to compliment okonomiyaki and yakisoba, with a slew of regional variations for good measure.

The city of Kobe boasts several different local types of sōsu, probably due to the outside influences to which it has been exposed over the years as a major port.

This month’s recipe is for a furai — a deep-fried dish that uses bread crumbs rather than a tempura batter or other coating — which is a perfect match for sōsu.

This version is made using aji, (Japanese horse mackerel), which is just now in the last few weeks of its peak season.

It’s best to choose small fish, which are easier to prepare — or have a fishmonger do it for you, and ask for sebiraki, which means sliced along the back of the fish.

Recipe: Fried Japanese horse mackerel

Serves 4

  • 4 small, fresh Japanese horse mackerel (aji), each weighing about 100g
  • salt
  • 100 ml water
  • 1 small egg, beaten
  • 5 tablespoons cake flour (hakurikiko)
  • 2-3 cups dried bread crumbs (panko)
  • black pepper
  • vegetable oil for cooking
  • salad vegetables of your choice

Slice away the thin, spiny section on the sides near the tail. Run the knife against the grain of the scales to remove them. Rinse under running water, removing any remaining scales by hand.

Insert the knife under the side fin, cutting around the head to remove it. Remove the guts and quickly rinse.

Cut along the top or “back” of the fish along the backbone until you can open it like a book.

Cut along the other side of the backbone and remove it. Rinse the fish again to remove any blood and scales, and pat dry. Salt both sides and refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour. Pat dry and sprinkle with black pepper.

Heat the cooking oil to 170-180 C, then combine the egg, water and flour to make batter. (A few drops of batter dropped in should sink in the oil, then rise to the top within a few seconds.)

Coat the fish in batter, then in the bread crumbs. Fry until golden brown, and drain on a rack or paper towels.

Serve with shredded cabbage or fresh salad vegetables of your choice, plus Worcestershire-style sauce, with tartar sauce being another option.

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