It should not come as a surprise that the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has considerably impacted upon what people around the world have been eating.

In a survey conducted by Macromill on behalf of the Asahi Shimbun (April 4), people were asked if they had stockpiled food and household goods ahead of the self-isolation advisory. Only 12 percent of the 1,784 respondents admitted to upping purchases in reaction to anticipated shortages. The first food item they named was instant noodles, which exceeded purchases of rice, food in retort pouches (such as curry sauce) and bottled water.

Needless to say, noodle producers enjoyed an extremely healthy business quarter. According to the Nihon Keizai Shimbun (May 11), Nissin Shokuhin Holdings, a top producer of instant noodles, reported a 51 percent rise in operating profit over the previous fiscal period, with sales and after-tax profit for the year both projected to increase year on year by 4 percent.

Sadly, some of those emergency stocks of noodles people snatched off the shelves back in March remain mostly unconsumed. The general rule of thumb for their shelf life seems to be nine months, i.e., three months beyond the six-month recommended consume-by date indicated on the container.

Weekly Playboy (Aug. 31) decided to help its readers clean out their pantries, publishing an article titled “Before reaching the ‘consume by’ date, here are some summer arrangement techniques for the noodles you hoarded.” Two food savants were enlisted to propose some original suggestions — and they really outdid themselves, coming up with a dozen items.

Combine Nissin’s seafood cup noodles with chilled quartered tomato wedges, for instance, and you’ve got a satisfying and healthy dish. Or, after briefly boiling udon noodles, rinse them and place them on a zaru (bamboo draining basket) and eat them by dipping into a broth made from the accompanying powdered soup stock to which boiled water is added.

Another out-of-this-world kitchen experiment is to take Nissin’s UFO-brand yakisoba (fried noodles) and pour on a heady topping of fermented foods such as kimchi, yogurt, nattō and a pinch of grated garlic.

Since the pandemic has effectively made overseas vacations impossible, the article suggested taking a virtual trip to Singapore, by pouring shrimp, peanuts and sweet chili sauce over Nissin’s UFO yakisoba. The more adventurous can accompany instant udon with a fondue-style dip prepared by mixing mozzarella cheese shavings (the kind used as pizza topping) with a tablespoon of white wine and melting it in an aluminum foil cup.

Since we’re certainly not having a typical summer, Weekly Playboy concedes, we might just as well indulge in atypical cuisine.

Not all recent changes in the diet can be attributed to the current pandemic. The weekly in-depth business report in Shukan Jitsuwa (Aug. 20-27) looked at how fried chicken has been flying high since last year, when total demand for eat-in and takeout of chicken products reached ¥85.3 billion, a rise of 40 percent over 2018.

“The main factor in growth of the market is improvement in flavor as a result of increased competition,” a food industry analyst tells the magazine. “Because the consumption tax stayed fixed at 8 percent, the takeout chains also have a

2 percent price advantage over eat-in establishments.”

Projections suggest the fried chicken market will grow by an additional 23.1 percent in 2020, to realize as much as ¥105 billion.

“The market still has room for growth,” the analyst says. “People are still staying home due to the coronavirus pandemic, and homemakers in particular appreciate a break from the kitchen, so tasty takeout chicken dishes are being reconsidered. Along with its affordability, takeout can be purchased and carried home while keeping with recommendations to avoid the risky ‘three Cs’ (confined spaces, crowded spaces, close contact).”

Fried chicken, or tori kara-age in Japanese, is written using the same character as the Tang in China’s Tang Dynasty (618-907), which is when the technique is supposed to have originated.

“The kara-age cooking style entered Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1868),” says the aforementioned analyst. “At that time, the main ingredient was not chicken, but tofu.”

Fried chicken is believed to have first appeared in Japan around 1932, when the Mikasa Kaikan restaurant in Ginza (founded in 1925) and its branches added it to their menus.

After the stock market collapse in 2008, chicken once again became popularized as a thrifty source of protein. An outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2010 further alienated consumers from beef and pork, and the Great East Japan Earthquake the following year saw a further rise in demand for fried chicken.

“There’s been a rush of new takeout specialty shops being opened by individuals,” the aforementioned food analyst says. “It doesn’t require a lot of culinary training and the start-up cost is only around one-fifth that of opening a restaurant. If a glut of businesses develops, some shops will flourish and others will fail, with flavor the determining factor.”

Meanwhile, Aera (Aug. 10-17) reports that some food trucks in the capital have begun following their teleworking clients back home, leaving the vacated business districts for greener pastures in residential neighborhoods.

After his restaurant sales declined due to the April lockdown, pizza chef Yutaka Hazama, 35, took to the streets in his mobile kitchen, making the rounds of customers residing in high-rise apartment complexes situated in areas along Tokyo Bay, including Harumi and Ariake.

Shusaku Toyama, the 33-year-old proprietor of Saikyoya, had previously worked as a chef in high-class restaurants that had included politicians and business executives as clients.

Toyama, who accepts pre-orders by smartphone, caters to customers in different parts of Tokyo on different days. On Mondays, he’s at Gotenyama Trust City in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward. His Saikyo-yaki box lunches, featuring a filet of grilled cod and chicken thigh, sell for ¥800.

“I wanted to use my skills in kaiseki ryōri (traditional multicourse haute cuisine) and make dishes available to a wider range of people,” he tells Aera.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

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