Japanese Takes on European Foods

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Photo by Hideya HAMANO

Recently, I had the good fortune to be invited out for dinner. My companion for the evening decided she wanted something a little different from the usual Japanese fare. Having spent a lot of time in Southern Spain holidaying in my youth, and knowing of my friend’s love of seafood, I thought Paella might be a good idea.

Luckily Osaka has no shortage of good Spanish restaurants and we were soon able to find a good place to eat. As we enjoyed our meal, and as is often the case with writers such as myself, a random thought struck me. European food in Japan is, in a number of ways, quite different from what we would expect to find back in Europe itself.

The differences are often subtle, sometimes a little more blatant. So, if someone is new to Japan, what are some of these distinct differences from conventional western cuisine that one can expect to find here?

Here are a few of the more common ones.

White Sangria

Now, I don’t know for sure if this is a purely Japanese thing, but having visited Spain dozens of times in my younger days I can honestly say I’ve never seen Sangria made from white wine in any place other than Japan. The taste is quite good though. As anyone who has ever tried a “Buck’s Fizz” (Champagne and Orange Juice) will tell you, white wine’s sweet flavour and lighter palette does lend itself well to being combined with citrus fruits in particular. That being said, it still doesn’t quite feel right.

For me, Sangria should only be made from red wine, otherwise it is a distinctly different drinking experience. Have any of you readers ever seen white sangria outside of Japan? I would be interested to hear if you have.

Chilled Red Wine

Ok, now as someone who occasionally enjoys a good red with dinner from time to time, I have to say this is something about European restaurants in Japan that I take issue with. Whilst, it is expected in Europe that white wine should be chilled in order to fully realize the flavour, the same cannot be said of red wine. Perhaps I’m being a bit snobbish, but growing up with 2 parents who worked in the hospitality industry, I’ve always been taught that red wine must always be served at room temperature.

I’m not going to lie, I really thought someone was winding me up the first time I ordered a glass of red wine in Tokyo, many years ago, only to find upon arrival my glass was chilled to the point of being ice cold, with two huge icy orbs plopped into the glass alongside the wine, seemingly adding insult to injury.

As that irritating foreign “talent” (and I use that term in its loosest possible sense) I see on Japanese TV from time to time, who’s name escapes me, is so fond of saying: “Why, Japanese people?!”
I love the food and the drink here in Japan, but seriously, please stop putting the red wine in the fridge!

Would you like some Pizza with your Mayonnaise?

I think any foreigner who lives in Japan does, from time to time, get a craving for a more familiar food, a taste of home as it were. For many of us, this comes in the form of a Pizza. Indeed to those of us who hail from the UK or the US, brands like Pizza Hut and Dominos have a very reassuring familiarity to them.

However, once you actually look at the menu, things get a bit weird to say the least. Unless you stay with the harmless old favourites like margherita or ham and pineapple, you’re in for something of a shock.
What often turns up on my plate seems less like a pizza and more like the bizarre bi-product of a drunken liaison between an okonomiyaki pancake and a garlic flatbread.

Strong in garlic, lots of sauce and almost always drenched in corn and mayonnaise. It’s a fairly delicious dish in its own right, but whatever it is, it sure isn’t what one would expect. To paraphrase the late, great Leonard Nimoy: “It’s pizza Jim, but not as we know it!”

Cider

I have to admit, upon arriving at one of my junior high schools to begin teaching English many years ago, I was shocked to find “cider” on sale at a vending machine outside the school gates. Back in Scotland not only is cider alcoholic, it is also perceived as a harder drink for those who find lager or ale a bit too pedestrian!

Of course I later realized that in Japan cider is actually a sugary, carbonated, mixed fruit flavour soft drink. In fact, truth be told, it’s not a million miles away both in taste and overall presentation from “Scotland’s other national drink”, the world famous Irn-Bru.

Food culture, be it of domestic or foreign origin is one of those little quirks that makes Japan such an interesting place to live. Every meal is an adventure, every taste is an experience. Long may it continue.

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.
  • Ariel Basnight says:

    I missed the American crappy Chinese food. My parents though I was crazy when I returned from a month in Japan just to ask for Chinese food.

  • Barnaby Jones says:

    The worst offender though: Cheese.

    Go away, Japanese cheese!

  • Barnaby Jones says:

    I did have white sangria outside Japan, I wouldn’t say it’s something you find only in Japan.

    Chilled red wine with ice cubes ?!!…. that’s just insulting. No way around it.

    Unless you find a real good restaurant you’ll find that the appearance of eating foreign is far more important than actually eating foreign (who would want that?).

    That being said, mcDonalds does taste pretty similar…

  • Eija Niskanen says:

    Japanese “pasta” restaurants should change their name to Spagetti Restaurant, because that is the only pasta they serve. They serve the same damn spaghetti with meat sauce, salmon sauce and 6 other sauces. But no penne, no tagliatelle, no farfalle…

  • Eija Niskanen says:

    Ice coffee in the winter. I cannot understand.

  • nelkins says:

    The Japanese learned about curry from the British (Navy), and actually improved on it. Not better than Indian or Thai curry but Japanese curry is better than most forms of curry worldwide, particularly USA (and I’m American).

  • I’m as much of a fan of wafuu pasta as I am of most other pastas. (save for Filipino pasta. Keep the turbinado far away from my plate.)

  • The Invisible Girl says:

    White sangria is very comon in Portugal 🙂

  • maulinator says:

    White sangria is a comon drink, Rachel Ray (a foodie talent from the US) even has recipes on her website. IT is usally made wich peaches srtawberries and mangoes. While eeveryone equates sangra with red, it is fairly common to have white sangrias all over the world.
    The red wine issue is much more egregious. One does not pupt ice cubes in the wine, unless of course the diner wants it. Once the diner orders with wine he or she can do whatever she wants with it. I wince at the idea, and servers might have a problem, but I have sen a lot of Chinese people request it. Most places in Tokyo don’t serve red wine chilled. HOWEVER, red wine being served at room temperature is a myth. It should be served at cellar temperature which is usually going to be in the 50’s farenheit. So the wine will feel cold to the diner at first. The wine will gradually warm up and the bouquet will open up as time goes on. Room temperature now is around 65-72 degrees F, so if the wine is stared at this temperature it will not last as long. Most cellars are cooled. The best way to serve red I have found is to open it up once it is ordered but let it sit until in the decanter (for younger wines) or leave the wine out the cellar for a bit so it can warm up a tad, but not up to room temperature and serve with the red wine course of dinner. Let the diners enjoy the champagne and whites first while the red warms or decants. But the red wine should feel cool still upon first taste.
    I am a NYer so anything that so not a cheese or pepperoni pizza is weird. Ham and pineapple is messed up and not a real pizza. Corn and mayo is just as weird. Or tuna, or squid ink. Having said that, gourmet pizzas do exist, such as where Wolfgang Puck does a roasted duck and blue cheese pizza- which is not pizza, but still good. And there is the $1,000 pizza in the City, where foie gras, raw lobster and caviar is used. Once again- not pizza but still acceptable if pricey.
    Cider in the US is just no-pasteurized apple juice, or raw apple juice. It is typically brownish and opaque. It is both sweet and slightly tangy. I like it very pcuh but i have never seen it in Japan. It is usually only available at fresh farms in the US. So it is a treat to have! Cider in Japan is basically Sprite- hence Mitsuya cider et al. In the US what the autheor is referring to does exist, as it does exist in Japan as well, both are known as hard cider. Essentially alcoholic apple or pear soda. The poire variety usually from the Burgundy region is about 8% alcohol from what I recall (don’t remember exactly) and the hard cicerss like Strongbow are usually like 6% (once again I do not recall correctly).
    Whart I find different is that paella in Japan tends to be made with Japanese rice, which makes the consistency of the dish different from what you get in Spain. MOst paellas are butcherd in Japan.
    Also one cannot find goose on the menu anywhere!!!!!! Wild rice in Japan just does not exist. What they call wild rice in Japan is just brown rice. No one knows how to make a good moussaka or even knows what galactaburiko or avgolemono are (i know these are greek, but kinda close?) Also a lot of places out weird things in their lasagnas. like mushrooms or eggplant or vegetables. Very few places have excellent lasagna.

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