To know Japan, its people and its story, know its grub

by Kaori Shoji

Contributing Writer

The farther west you travel from Tokyo, the sweeter and blander everything tastes.

The verdict on this phenomenon is centuries old, as the Japanese agree on this fact: 関東は辛口 関西は薄口 (Kantō wa karakuchi, Kansai wa usukuchi). One theory behind this is that the 公家 (kuge, aristocracy) in Kyoto traditionally abhorred foods with strong flavors, while the rough 武家 (buke, warrior class) in the northeast had a more robust and insensitive palate. My relatives in the Kansai area say that the food in Kanto is unbearable, especially udon noodles that are inevitably steeped in Tokyo-style 真っ黒なつゆ(makkurona tsuyu, pitch black soup).

West of Nagoya (which is miso-and-sugar territory and a whole other food culture), most everything depends on the quality of the 白だし (shiro dashi, white stock) that offsets the beauty of broiled 根菜 (konsai, root vegetables), which are said to be the soul of 和食 (washoku, Japanese food). True, Tokyo- or Kanto-style dishes are less pleasing to the eye, and tend to be different shades of 醤油 (shōyu, soy sauce) brown. Older generations of Tokyoites are said to douse everything in shōyu, and will even pour it over the classic 卵焼き (tamagoyaki, Japanese omelet), which was certainly true of my grandfather. According to a 昔の言い伝え (mukashi no ii-tsutae, old wives’ tale), the 京女 (Kyō-onna, women of Kyoto), with their delicate taste buds and usukuchi cooking techniques, make the best wives for 東男 (Azuma-otoko, men of the East) — reliable husbands whose big appetites fuel 14-hour workdays.

Food is an ever-fascinating topic in Japan and a great ice-breaker in any social situation. Get two strangers from the opposite sides of the archipelago on a park bench and before they give their names, they’ll probably start talking about their 地元メシ (jimoto meshi, local vittles) and how 美味しい (oishii, delicious) it is. Get a group of women in a room and within seconds they’ll each start talking about their favorite restaurant lunches. When it comes to food, most Japanese turn into homegrown versions of Marcel Proust waxing nostalgic about his madeleine cakes. Food in Japan is hard-wired to emotion, personal identity and memory in a way that can surprise some Westerners.

Speaking of the West, one of the first English words to permeate the Japanese consciousness after World War II was メニュー (menyū, menu). Makeshift 食堂 (shokudō, diners) that went up in the 闇市 (yami’ichi, black market) in Ueno’s アメ 横 (Ameyoko) are said to have been the first to post hand-written “menus” onto their walls.

In some ways, the contents of those black-market meals hasn’t changed all that much in the past 73 years. もつ焼き(motsuyaki, grilled innards), もつ煮込み (motsunikomi, broiled innards) and ホルモン (horumon, “hormones”) are just as popular today as they were back then. Horumon aren’t really hormones (though eating this stuff may have some effect on your glands) — it’s believed to have its origins in the phrase 放るもん (hōrumon, throwaway stuff), meaning animal intestines and other innards that were usually trashed. After WWII, the Japanese couldn’t afford to trash any source of protein, and offal was the quick and cheap alternative to conventional meat cuts, though diners didn’t always know what part of the animal they were consuming.

Today, horumon fans are a lot more informed about what they’re putting in their mouths, whether it’s ガツ (gatsu, stomach), ハツ (hatsu, heart), シロ (shiro, lower intestines) or フワ (fuwa, lung). Some horumon enthusiasts had a penchant for eating these things raw, but after an incident in 2011, when five people died from eating ユッケ (yukke, Korean-style raw beef) at a 焼肉 (yakiniku, Korean barbecue) establishment, grilled or broiled is the way to go.

Trending at the moment is トルコライス (Toruko raisu), whose straightforward translation would be “Turkey rice,” but this has little or nothing to do with either bird or nation. Originally from Nagasaki, there are various theories about where the dish got that particular name. One says that a restaurant owner who was doing business near a トルコ風呂 (Toruko buro, Turkish bath or soapland — in this case the latter) wanted his male customers to fuel up on calories before hitting the sex shop, so he came up with the idea of cramming a lot of carbs onto one plate. Another says that originally, the Nagasaki Toruko raisu had a curry pilaf (representing India) on one side of the dish and spaghetti Napolitan (representing Italy) on the other. Since Turkey lies between the two countries, Toruko raisu seemed an apt way to name the dish without favoring one country over the other.

Toruko raisu is composed of three or more of the following: エビフライ (ebi furai, deep-fried prawns), トンカツ (tonkatsu, deep-fried breaded pork cutlet), ハンバーグ (hanbāgu, Hamburg steak), ライス (raisu), スパゲッティナポリタン (supagetti Naporitan, spaghetti Napolitan), 目玉焼き (medamayaki, fried egg) and greens.

Take it from one who knows, this dish will stop you thinking about food for at least 36 hours. It’s the adult version of the ever popular お子様ランチ (o-ko-sama ranchi, kid’s lunch), which was all the rage back in the 1960s and ’70s, when the Tokyo Olympics and Osaka Expo boosted national morale and the Japanese hauled themselves out of the swamp of defeat in WWII. O-ko-sama ranchi is a mini-Toruko raisu but has the distinction of having a tiny flag stuck in its mound of rice. The flag was usually American or British, and a symbol of youthful longing for 豊かさ (yutakasa, prosperity) and 自由 (jiyū, freedom).

Now, foods from the era have made a dramatic comeback — most notably the spaghetti Napolitan, which again has no relation to Naples. Interestingly, the late filmmaker Juzo Itami, famed for being a food connoisseur, having penned several books on the subject, condemned it as an insult to Italian cuisine.

He didn’t know what he was missing. The updated version of this wondrous dish involves sauteed onions, garlic, bacon slices and green pepper, all coming together with pasta and ketchup and nestling atop a golden omelette on a cast-iron skillet. You haven’t really lived until you’ve downed one of these piping hot, preferably with an アイス コーヒー(aisu kōhii, iced coffee) in a retro 20th-century restaurant.