Japan has one of the great food cultures of the world with a celebrated cuisine that is both delicious and healthy. Being an island nation, Japan has had the unique opportunity to develop its food in ways without much influence from the outside. Its heavy reliance on fish led to the development of sushi while the abundance of seaweed resulted in products like nori, or dried seaweed.
However, Japan does not exist in a vacuum. Despite being an island country separated from mainland Asia by wide seas as well as centuries of being closed off to the outside world, offshore ingredients did indeed enter the country. In fact, many of Japan’s most famous dishes are actually foreign in origin.
Here are five seemingly traditional Japanese dishes that actually arrived from overseas.
1. Salmon Sushi
Salmon is one of the most common varieties of sushi now so it seems strange to think that at one point it was only eaten cooked. We can thank Norway for introducing Japan—and thus the world—to salmon, one of the most delicious sushi toppings.
In the 1980s, Norway had a glut of salmon. They approached Japanese fish buyers with the idea that they could use it as sushi but Japan balked. Salmon was always cooked, never eaten raw. The issue, it seemed, was parasites common in local salmon. Rather than give up, Norway pitched it to Nishi Rei, a large frozen foods company, who took a gamble and bought the Norwegian salmon to sell in grocery stores as sushi-grade meat. It was a hit, first with supermarket shoppers and then in conveyer-belt sushi chains. Salmon sushi was born.
The next time you bite into a buttery slice of raw salmon, give thanks to the Norwegian fishing industry and a Japanese frozen foods company that took a chance on it.
When you think of the most famous Japanese dishes, tempura is certainly one of them. And yet the concept of battering and frying various ingredients didn’t exist in Japan before the arrival of a group of world-exploring foreigners, the Portuguese.
In 1543, three Portuguese sailors arrived in Japan and started a trading relationship that would last for centuries. Along with guns and religion, Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries also brought food. The Portuguese liked to batter and fry things. One of their dishes, peixinhos da horta (or “little fish of the garden”), was fried beans and vegetables popular during Lent when people gave up meat. While it’s unknown how the name tempura came to be, many think it’s related to the Latin word tempora, which comes from quatuor tempora, a period of fasting.
Nowadays, Japanese chefs can turn pretty much anything into tempura, from seafood to shiso leaves, but it all started with beans and veggies and Portuguese traders.
Although tempura arrived from the West it isn’t classified as yoshoku, or Western food. Yoshoku refers to dishes that evolved during the Meiji era (1868-1912) like tonkatsu, everybody’s favorite breaded and friend pork cutlet is in fact, French.
Tonkatsu began at Rengatei, a yoshoku restaurant in Ginza that opened in 1895 (and is still going strong). French cuisine was becoming popular in Japan at the time. One dish, côtelette de veau, was a veal cutlet covered in bread crumbs and fried in butter. Rengatei took this and ran with it, borrowing the idea of tempura but using panko (bread crumbs) instead of batter, changing veal to a cheaper cut of pork, and frying it in oil. A staple Japanese food was born.
Another popular yoshoku dish is omraisu (Japanese omelette rice). While it may seem very Japanese —egg and rice are both staples in the country after all—it is in fact another variation on a foreign food. And, like tonkatsu (above), it is also French in origin.
Made with fried rice covered with a thin layer of scrambled eggs and yopped with ketchup, omraisu in actually Japan’s take on the French omelette. Rather than filling the egg with cheese and vegetables, locals used friend rice instead. As for who came up with it first, both Rengatei—yes, the same restaurant that invented tonkatsu—and Hokkyokusei in Osaka lay claim to the title of inventor.
So far, we have yet to talk about Chinese-influenced Japanese cooking. The list of foods inspired by China is long and includes ramen, tenshinhan (crab omelette over rice) and karaage (fried chicken).
While karaage these days usually means fried chicken, in fact, the term refers to a method of marinating and deep frying various ingredients covered in starch. This cooking technique started in Tang-era China where it was used to fry tofu. After making its way to Japan, the Japanese used it to fry vegetables and fish and—starting in the 20th century—chicken. As with omraisu, two different Chinese restaurants claim to be the originator: Mikasa Kaikan in Ginza and Rairaiken in Usa City in Oita. No matter who made it first though, it soon spread from Chinese restaurant to Chinese restaurant, eventually making the jump to the izakaya (Japanese pub) and obento (Japanese packed lunch) staple that it is now.
What’s your favorite Japanese food? Let us know in the comments.