Yoshoku: A Japanese Take on Western Flavor

When you picture Japanese food, what usually comes to mind? Most people (in America, anyway) would say something to the effect of miso soup, sushi, and sashimi. Some may go so far as to mention ramen, udon or curry-rice. Things like Salisbury steaks in a savory brown sauce, cream stew, a cheese, rice and seafood casserole, and Napolitan pasta aren’t likely to be mentioned, and yet, each of these dishes is representative of an entire branch of Japanese cuisine. Welcome to the world of yoshoku.

Yoshoku (洋食) translates to “western food” and, while that name hardly seems like it would point to anything remotely Japanese, refers to a style of cooking influenced by, but now completely distinct from, western food. Many yoshoku dishes include ingredients that are non-native, such as curry powder, cheese, meat, or heavy cream, but have been reconfigured to suit Japanese tastes. The difference between “western food” and yoshoku is so pronounced in modern-day Japan that entirely different restaurants are dedicated to each. In this way, yoshoku can be thought of as naturalized Japanese cuisine.

Yoshoku has its origins in the beginning of the Meiji Restoration, when Japan ended its isolationist foreign policy, and opened its borders to outside influence for the first time in over 200 years. Japanese society, in an effort to resist colonization and gain legitimacy on the world stage began to aggressively integrate western elements into their culture. Meat consumption became commonplace, and ingredients like wheat flour, bread and breadcrumbs were gradually incorporated into a variety of foods. At first, only high ranking members of Japanese society were privy to eating western-inspired foods– the emperor, the wealthy, and those in the employment of the hospitality industry in service of receiving western guests. However, as western influence permeated Japan, so did the cooking methods and ingredients of western food, and by the beginning of the 20th century, yoshoku had taken a firm hold in Japanese palates.

Today, yoshoku has a deep appeal in Japan as a favorite type of food among children, and as comfort food among adults. Famiresu, or family restaurants somewhat modeled after diners, often focus on yoshoku in order to cater to this appeal. In a typical yoshoku restaurant, you’re likely to encounter some of the following dishes on the menu:

Curry Rice

Look familiar? Japanese curry is actually adapted from British curry, not Indian curry, and as such has a thick, gravy-like texture and a mild or sweet taste over a spicy one. Japanese curry is usually made with diced tomato, onions, carrots, and meat and is served with rice and daikon radish pickles.

Pasta Napolitan

Invented in post-WWII Japan, this pasta dish features extra thick, udon-soft spaghetti noodles (boiled far past al-dente) stir-fried with onions, ham, mushrooms and… ketchup? Yep, that’s right, ketchup. Ketchup was easily obtainable during the years of the American occupation, and made its way into this pasta dish initially as a substitute for tomato sauce. The result is a sweet and savory pasta that is surprisingly good.