What is Yoshoku? What is the history behind this Western-influenced Japanese cuisine? Let us discover the world of this East meets West cuisine today and make some of the delicious recipes at home.
Ever wonder why French, Italian, and other Western dishes such as curry and deep fried foods are now an integral part of Japanese cuisine? Then we need to dive into the story of Yoshoku (洋食) – a Japanese adaptation of Western cuisine that traces its history to the late 19th century, and continues to evolve to this day, beloved by Japanese, both old and young alike.
A little digging into Japanese history will show how Yoshoku is distinctly Japanese, and not simply a fusion of French or Italian cuisine. It is heavily influenced by the wave of events and powers that shaped the country to what it is today.
History of Yoshoku
Meiji Era 明治時代 (1868-1912)
To begin talking about the origins of Yoshoku, let’s go back to the Meiji era.
The arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry at Kurihama in 1853 triggered the rapid modernization of Japan from an isolated feudal society. As portrayed in the historical fiction movie The Last Samurai, this era marked a dramatic turning point in Japanese history where, to avoid the fate of many colonized Asian countries by western powers, Japan opened its borders and aggressively integrated Western elements. This change not only affected its sociopolitical structure, economy, military, and foreign relations, but also its food culture and customs, namely the practice of eating four-legged animals.
Prohibition of Meat Consumption
You may have noticed that the traditional Japanese diet is mostly fish and seafood based. This is because the “open” consumption of meat is relatively new.
Several factors, such as the introduction of Buddhism from China, the rise of Shintoism and its teachings on the impurity of slaughtering, and Emperor Tenmu’s decree of banning the killing and eating of meat during certain times of the year (675 AD) created an ambiguous and undefined social taboo against the practice. However, the consumption of wild game remained prevalent throughout the centuries, as an open secret for those seeking for its nutritional and caloric benefits but not spoken of.
This taboo was lifted with the announcement of the Meiji emperor incorporating beef and mutton into his daily diet in 1872, encouraging its people to do the same. Beef and pork quickly popularized, and various food establishments flourished across the country, devising creative and delicious ways to fulfill the hungry customers’ indulgence.
5 Popular Yoshoku Dishes and Background
Now that you’ve gotten a brief history of the Meiji era and the history behind Yoshoku, let’s look into the iconic yoshoku dishes that are still popular today!
Curry was first brought to Japan by officers of the British Royal Navy at the end of the 19th century. The dish caught the eye of the Imperial Japanese Navy, which was facing a massive beriberi epidemic among its soldiers, due to a severe vitamin B deficiency. Incorporating wheat, a vitamin B food product in the form of mixing wheat into curry resulted in the eradication of the disease in the Japanese navy within a few years. Not only did this new curry fulfilled a nutritional need, its popularity spread beyond the navy.
Since then, it has become a tradition at the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force to serve Japanese curry every Friday, and each JMSDF ship having its own secretly guarded recipe.
Adding potatoes, carrots, and onions in Japanese curry came later, introduced by the American professor William Clark of the Sapporo Agricultural College (now the University of Hokkaido) in 1876. Not only were root vegetables grown in abundance on campus grounds, it was also a trick to bulk up the dish for the hungry college students during a rice shortage.
2. Doria ドリア
Doria is a baked casserole, featuring rice topped with white sauce, cheese, and various ingredients.
This dish was invented in the 1930’s by Saly Weil, the first head chef at the Hotel New Grand in Yokohama. The story goes that a Swiss banker staying at the hotel got sick and requested something easy to digest. The chef combined pilaf (rice cooked in broth and vegetables) and shrimp cooked in cream sauce, then baked in the oven until golden brown.
A uniquely Japanese dish, there’s nothing Neopolitan or Italian about this ketchup seasoned udon-soft spaghetti stir-fried with vegetables and meat.
Napolitan was born during the postwar era at the New Grand Hotel in Yokohama, where the U.S. military under Douglas MacArthur set up base. With extremely limited produce to work with, Shigetada Irie, the head chef of the New Grand Hotel drew inspiration of the American military personnel eating spaghetti and ketchup (ingredients no doubt chosen for its easy cooking, shipping, and storage). To serve the dish at the hotel, Irie swapped the ketchup for tomato puree (a difficult ingredient to procure during the postwar period) and added sautéed onions, ham and mushrooms. As the dish became known outside of the hotel and caught the eyes of the Japanese, tomato puree was replaced with a more common ingredient, ketchup.
You’ll notice (to any Italian nonna’s horror), that the spaghetti are boiled way past al dente, to udon consistency. This is a key characteristic of Napolitan; the noodles are boiled tender the same way as Japanese noodles for that soft texture. The noodles are then stir-fried, emulating stir fried Yaki Udon 焼うどん. Thus, despite featuring ingredients foreign to the traditional Japanese diet, the dish was oddly familiar and appealing.
Tonkatsu is composed of “Ton” = pork and “Katsu” = cotelette (the French word for a thinly cut slice of veal, pork, or mutton that’s breaded and deep fried). The iconic dish goes all the way back to 1899, at Rengatei 煉瓦亭 in Ginza who served customers “Pork Cutlet” (豚肉のカツレツ), which was pork slices sautéed in butter, then baked in the oven. The dish was always accompanied with a side of steamed vegetables.
The technique of deep frying came later, when a severe labor shortage during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) resulted in the Rengatei head chef coating the meat in a batter similar to tempura, then deep frying. The steamed vegetables were later replaced with shredded cabbage, which was favored for its quick preparation and availability year round.
The term Omurice is a fusion of “omelette” and “rice” and its origins murky and contested. There are two leading theories that it either came from Rengatei 煉瓦亭 in Ginza or from Hokkyokusei 北極星 in Osaka, both famous Yoshoku restaurants that still exist today.
The Rengatei version was beaten eggs with rice and ground meat cooked in an omelette shape. It was a quick meal for Rengatei employees who could scarf it down with a spoon, but curious customers began ordering it as well, and so the dish was put on the menu on 1901 as “Rice Omelette” (ライスオムレツ). The accompaniment of ketchup was a later addition, as the condiment became popularized around 1908.
Hokkyokusei’s version was ketchup flavored rice with mushrooms and minced onions which was wrapped in a thin egg crepe, resembling the Omurice we know today. It is said that the dish was created around 1925 by a request from a loyal customer for something easily digestible.
Both casual and upscale, Yoshoku was à la mode compared to the rice and fish based Washoku meal during the postwar period.
Yoshoku can still be found today, served at Famiresu ファミレス (casual diner chains), cafes カフェ, Kissaten 喫茶店 (old school Japanese coffee houses), hotel restaurants, and even at convenience stores. Many restaurant establishments still proudly serve their signature dishes that have been loved by artists, celebrities, and politicians for decades, such as Rengatei and Hokkyokusei.
It is also home food, where mothers may opt for Yoshoku dishes such as omurice or curry, a less labor-intensive one plate meal compared to the typical Washoku spread. For the children, deep fried foods such as tonkatsu and korokke are a rare treat to be indulged upon. And for grown adults, it is reminiscent of these childhood memories of weekend meals at home, like the characters on TV (Netflix) drama Midnight Diner ordering Ham Katsu or White Stew.
Neither completely European or Washoku, the Japanese adaptation of Western food from the late 1800s is an integral part of Japanese cuisine. While the definition is broad, it has firm roots in Western cuisine but clearly has been modified to suit the Japanese palate.
Hope this article helped answer your questions regarding Yoshoku and its place in modern Japanese history and cuisine!