Let’s start with a groundbreaking moment back in 1872, when Emperor Meiji of Japan did something no other ruler of that country had done for a thousand years, namely, bite into a juicy hunk of meat in public. That simple act stunned his subjects—and forever changed the course of Japanese culture. It gave birth to a new kind of cooking in Japan, a new kind of hearty, rib-sticking comfort food cooking that’s beloved there to this day. It’s a world apart from traditional Japanese standards like miso soup, grilled fish, and pickled vegetables, and it’s the amazing—and surprising—cooking that we celebrate in this book.
But how could a singular chomp shake up an entire country?
Nineteen years earlier, in 1853, American warships had suddenly appeared in the Japanese port of Yokohama. Until then, the country’s leaders had sealed off Japan from the rest of the world for more than two hundred years, during which time Japanese couldn’t leave on pain of death. But while Japan faced inward those two centuries, America and European nations exploded into the most powerful economic and military powers on earth. So when Yankee warships showed up, and then demanded Japan open their doors to trade—or else—the Japanese had little choice but to accept.
Soon more Westerners planted themselves in Japan. Their arrival triggered a profound upheaval in the country that led to the formation of a modern state under the emperor, who was determined to launch an industrial revolution and build a modern military just like in the West.
Foreigners arriving in Japan brought with them strange and new ingredients, dishes, and eating habits—many of these centered on consuming meat. Up to then, meat eating in Japan was taboo, actually banned by Buddhist edict for a millennium. During their period of isolation, Japanese relied primarily on fish, vegetables, tofu, and traditional seasonings like dashi, miso, and soy sauce. But the emperor and his minions credited meat and dairy eating for the strapping physiques of the Westerners, who towered over Japanese at the time. So they urged Japanese to consume meat and other Western foods. The emperor’s very public meat encounter followed, and soon after that, in 1873, an official banquet was thrown in Japan for a visiting Italian royal, where, for the first time, this formal meal was prepared entirely of French cuisine.
These seminal events got the Western cuisine ball rolling, and before long, eating Western-style cuisine became a powerful symbol of modernity in Japan.
In the late nineteenth century, Western-style restaurants began to appear in Japan, like Seiyo-ken (“Western House”), which opened its doors in Tokyo in 1872. At the same time, the Japanese military began adopting Western-style foods. From these beginnings, ordinary Japanese began to learn of this new style of eating. Chefs, food companies, and cooks began to adapt these dishes to Japanese tastes, mixing and matching both Western and local ingredients, such as butter and soy sauce. Within a few decades, the mass media, especially women’s magazines and radio shows, began featuring this cooking. What started as restaurant fare, like tonkatsu, or military chow, like curry, began to filter into homes across Japan. By the first half of the twentieth century, Chinese and Korean dishes like ebi chili, bulgogi, and chahan, also adapted to Japanese tastes, joined Western cooking in this culinary march. And in the years after World War II, Americans occupying Japan added their own unique food influences, including Japanese-style (wafu) pasta.
The embrace of foreign food evolved in Japan into a parallel cuisine, comfort food cooking that became as beloved as traditional Japanese fare. This modern style of eating picked up steam as Japan became increasingly urbanized, and we consider even stalwart dishes like soba, udon, and tempura to be a part of it.
What fascinates us, as you’ll read in the pages that follow, are how so many of the dishes we describe began life as restaurant cooking, but then were quickly embraced by home cooks. And even today, these dishes are enjoyed both at neighborhood eateries and at the dining table. And that’s key. Because, as you’ll see in the pages that follow, these dishes are as delicious and amazing as they are simple and easy to whip up.
We organize our book by greatest hits, so soon you’ll be swooning over ramen, gyoza, curry, tonkatsu, furai, okonomiyaki, wafu pasta, and all the other dishes we introduce here, just like Japanese everywhere. Packed with flavor, easy to cook, and totally irresistible, these recipes will have you at the first bite. Enjoy!
Ramen Soup and Chashu
A round of applause goes to Tadashi for creating a home cook’s version of ramen soup from scratch. As we mentioned earlier, this recipe is Tadashi’s adaptation of Tokyo’s prototypical clean, fragrant ramen soup. Note that we cook the pork shoulder for chashu along with the stock ingredients. Chashu is slow-braised meat that’s simmered until tender. It’s then sliced and laid on top of ramen noodles. The way we cook it, in the soup, is the way real ramen joints do—a one-two punch that adds richness and flavor to both the soup and the tender pork. You can prepare a batch of ramen soup ahead of time, and keep it in the freezer for up to one month. For the chashu, fresh pork belly or pork loin also works great.
Makes 2 quarts
2 pounds chicken bones (bones and carcass)
1⁄2 ounce ginger, skin left on
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1 pound boneless pork shoulder (one piece, ask your butcher to tie it, if needed)
3 quarts water
1⁄2 small carrot (about 2 ounces)
Rinse the chicken bones well under cold running water. Crush the ginger by placing a kitchen knife over the ginger, and press down on the knife with your palm. Repeat for the garlic. Add all the ingredients to a large stockpot, and place on a burner over high heat. When the liquid boils, reduce the heat and simmer uncovered. Skim off any scum that accumulates on the surface and discard. Simmer for about 2 hours, until the soup reduces to 2 quarts. Remove the pork shoulder and set aside for chashu. (If you’re not using it right away, store it in the refrigerator.) Strain the soup through a cheesecloth-lined colander or fine-mesh sieve, discarding the remaining ingredients.
All-Chicken Variation Substitute 1 pound of boneless chicken for the pork shoulder (we prefer dark meat, but white meat is fine, too). Use this chicken for chashu in the recipes that follow.
Revue de presse
—Andy Ricker, chef-owner of Pok Pok
“Sushi? Bah! Japanese food is so much more than raw fish, and this book is a joyful (and useful!) exploration of the earthy, fatty, meaty, rib-sticking, lip-smacking fare—the noodles and curries and deep-fried delights—that millions of Japanese depend on every day. I get hungry just thinking about it.”
—Matt Gross, editor, BonAppetit.com
“Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat bring to mouthwatering life a fascinating story: how Western influences opened up a nation’s taste buds and created a new Japanese cuisine of modern comfort food classics. Anyone obsessed with a steaming bowl of ramen, light-as-air tempura, or the perfect gyoza will find that there’s all that—and more—right here, just waiting to be cooked and devoured."
—Joe Yonan, author of Eat Your Vegetables and food and travel editor of the Washington Post