Dean Owen

5 years ago · 2 min. reading time · visibility ~100 ·

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The Homogenization of Western Food Culture in Japan

Those of you familiar with Japanese cuisine will no doubt know that many popular dishes had their roots in traditional Western cuisine. A trip to a ski resort, or any shokudo (dining hall) and you are guaranteed to find deep fried pork cutlets, croquettes, beef stews and hamburgers.

The history of Western food in Japan dates back to the 16th Century when trading routes through ports like Nagasaki were opened up to the Portuguese and Dutch. One dish you might be forgiven for thinking is Japanese is Tempura. In fact the concept of batter and deep frying was introduced by Catholic missionaries. The word “tempura” is thought to have derived from the Portuguese word tempero which means to season. There is a second theory that “Tempura” derived from a Latin phrase ad tempora cuaresme or possibly an early Portuguese word têmporas, which indicates abstinence from meat during Lent.

Early forms of Tempura would utilize readily available produce such as fish, eel and squid and this new cuisine became a favourite of the first Shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, Tokugawa Iyeyasu.

Also popular in Japan is a traditional Japanese sponge cake called Castella (Kasutera), a must try for anyone visiting Japan. Once again this is an adaptation of the Portuguese Pão de Lo, a simple cake made from eggs, butter, sugar and flour. Over the Centuries, the Japanese perfected the recipe and it is a far cry from traditional Western sponge cakes, being extremely light and moist, whilst honey gives it a natural sweetness.

As you may know, the Tokugawa shogunate basically shut down all trade with the West and it was only after and American expedition led by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry that diplomatic relations were officially established in 1854. This so called “gunboat diplomacy” ultimately ended the 264 year Tokugawa Shogunate in 1876 and heralded the start of the Meiji Restoration.

The new Emperor Meiji had succumbed to the thinking that Western ideas were of vital importance for the modernization Japan. He promptly began to promote Western philosophy and encouraged his people to embrace Western culture. This included Western food, which he considered played a major part in the size and strength of the “Gaikokujin” (foreign people). 

Japanese food can be catagorised into three main groups, Kaiseki, Washoku, and Youshoku.

Kaiseki is the formal meal beautifully presented in numerous dishes of very small portions. This is perhaps not too dissimilar to haute cuisine but is not very popular amongst Westerners as Kaiseki often includes numerous cold dishes like eel and tiny fish. 

Washoku (literally Japanese food) refers to homogenous food recipes (Sashimi, Oden, Chanko Nabe, Soba/Udon, Ochazuke etc).

And finally Youshoku (literally Western food) refers to Japanese food that originated in the West. As an example, the extremely popular Tonkatsu derives its name from the word for pork, and the English word cutlets (pronounced katsuretsu). Whilst you can find exceptional restaurants representing every country imaginable all over Japan where the food is as authentic (and often better) than the real thing, separate to this you can also find Washoku restaurants serving uniquely Japanese style Western food.

Next time you check in to a Japanese hotel, make sure you know the difference between a Hambagu and a Hambaaga when you order room service. The former is succulent hamburger served on a plate with no bun, some boiled vegetables and exquisite demi-glace sauce (with plate of rice on the side). The latter, well it is a beef patty in a bun with pickles, relish, slice of tomato etc, and French fries!

Dean Owen is Co-Founder of Quimojo, a revolutionary new concept in Global Campus Recruitment.

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Dean Owen

5 years ago #8

It's nice to see the Catalinas back after possibly a short holiday?

don kerr

5 years ago #7

Great photos @Dean Owen and a piece that brought back wonderful memories. In 1998. I was lucky to travel to Nagano for the Olympic Games. A spectacular trip highlighted by the food and admittedly eating some stuff of mysterious origin. Had a wonderful Kaiseki experience in the mountains that forms a cornerstone of my fond recollections. Thanks for sharing your story.

Ken Boddie

5 years ago #6

I have just finished dinner, Dean, but nevertheless, reading your buzz leaves me licking my lips 😋. Also, your photographs are enticing. I am passing a copy of your post to my wife, as she has a better appreciation than I do of Japanese cuisine. We have a good arrangement, as she loves to cook and I love to eat. 👫

Pascal Derrien

5 years ago #5

I have not been in Japan but this tip is bookmarked now :-)

Dean Owen

5 years ago #4

I have a particular weakness for Hamo (pike eel) and Shiso (Perilla leaves)!

Javier 🐝 CR

5 years ago #3

thanks a lot Dean Owen !!!! Hopefully I will !!!!!

Dean Owen

5 years ago #2

Thanks Javier C\u00e1mara Rica, Mostly correct, but I sometimes wish wikipedia had a strict system of fact checking. Satsuma Age is not tempura. Small point, but wrong nevertheless. If you are ever in Tokyo you must try Hayashi, a small tempura bar in Nihonbashi, best in Japan. Let me know beforehand as you can't just call and reserve, they only accept referrals!

Javier 🐝 CR

5 years ago #1

Nice info Dean Owen ! I found this from wikipedia The word "tempura", or the technique of dipping fish and vegetables into a batter and frying them, comes from the word "tempora", a Latin word meaning "times", "time period" used by both Spanish and Portuguese missionaries to refer to the Lenten period or Ember Days (ad tempora quadragesimae), Fridays, and other Christian holy days. Ember Days or quattuor tempora refer to holy days when Catholics avoid red meat and instead eat fish or vegetables.[8] The idea that the word "tempura" may have been derived from the Portuguese noun tempero, meaning a condiment or seasoning of any kind, or from the verb temperar, meaning "to season" has not been substantiated.[7] However, the Japanese language could easily have assumed the word "tempero" as is, without changing any vowels as the Portuguese pronunciation in this case is similar to the Japanese.[9] There is still today a dish in Portugal very similar to tempura called peixinhos da horta, "garden fishies.", which consists in green beans dipped in a batter and fried. The end result is usually chewier than tempura. It is also possible that the Portuguese picked the technique up from Goa which was their colony in India and this could very well be a variation of the pakora. The term "tempura" is thought to have gained popularity in southern Japan; it became widely used to refer to any sort of food prepared using hot oil, including some already existing Japanese foods. Today, the word "tempura" is also commonly used to refer to satsuma age, a fried fish cake which is made without batter.

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