5 Great “Western” (Yoshoku) Foods To Eat in Japan

5 Great “Western” (Yoshoku) Foods To Eat in Japan

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Picture: ささざわ / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Next time you go to Japan, make sure to enjoy these Western-style dishes delivered with a Japanese twist.

It’s happened to every American. You’re at a party or participating in a conversation online, and you make a comment about a local Chinese restaurant. Invariably, some know-it-all pseudo-intellectual feels compelled to pipe in with, “Well, you know that’s not REAL Chinese food. It’s all very Westernized. If you want REAL Chinese food, do like I did and go to this little place in this village in Hunan Province. It’ll change your life.” The point of such pontification is to brag about how worldly one is, and to implicitly criticize American for two centuries of culinary imperialism.

The fact is, every country adapts the food of other countries to suit its tastes and culinary culture. Over time, such adaptations become inseparable from the local cuisine itself. Take Japan, for example. The use of noodles in Japanese cuisine was not a Japanese invention, but a Chinese import dating back to the country’s Nara and Heian periods. One of Japan’s most popular modern desserts, Castella (カステラ), is from Portugal.

This adaptation of cuisine didn’t stop when the West came barging into Japan’s sovereign space in the 19th century. Instead, it gave birth to an explosion of yoshoku (洋食), or Western food. Many foods today considered yoshoku originated in Japan either in the Meiji era (1868-1912), when emulation of the West was at its peak, or in the aftermath of World War II. The definition of “yoshoku” varies from person to person, but a commonly accepted definition is any food from the Western world that pairs well with rice. (Frankly, I prefer my wife’s definition of “any food eaten with a fork”. Though, really, anything can be eaten with chopsticks if you’re persistent enough.) Yoshoku is so distinctly “Japanese” that, last year, chef Akiyama Takanori had the stones to open a bar specializing in yoshoku in New York City. (Yes, it’s still going strong, and yes, you should definitely go.)


Bar Moga, NYC, serves Japanese cocktails and Yokoshu comfort food from SakaMai chef, Takanori Akiyama. Although “moga” refers to the modern Japanese girl in the Taisho era, Bar Moga celebrates the gender-less spirit of the moga: a spirit of empowerment, accessibility, culture, and of cours

Yoshoku is typically served at what are called fami-resu (ファミレス), or “family restaurants” – establishments like Jonathan’s that mimic American-style diners, and offer yoshoku and washoku plates together on the menu. (To those who haven’t experienced one, sitting in a fami-resu is like being in New Jersey, with the benefit of not actually being in New Jersey.) You can also find smaller shops specializing in specific types of yoshoku mentioned below. Most yoshoku popular hits are also available in pre-packaged form from convenience stores and supermarkets for a quick lunch or dinner on the run.

It’s usually considered crass to enjoy your “own” cuisine when traveling abroad. But yoshoku is so distinctly Japanese that you can – and should – enjoy it while in Japan without any qualms. Below I highlight my personal favorite foods, and how they were customized to the Japanese palette.

No. 1: Doria

Curry Doria
Curry doria – i.e., two of the best things ever combined into one. (Picture: masa / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Let’s start with a favorite of mine that often gets overlooked in reports on yoshoku. Doria is a cheese and rice casserole made with a French bechamel sauce. Its introduction to Japan is attributed to the Swiss Chef Sally Weil who, while working at the Yokohama New Grand in 1930, was asked by a sick customer to make something “that will pass easily through my throat”. Weil combined shrimp cooked in cream sauce with a gratin sauce, put it over rice, and baked it in the oven with cheese until it developed a nice, golden-brown texture. Weil christened the dish “Doria” after 15th century military commander Andrea Doria. (The reasons for this appear lost to history.)

The result is an incredibly satisfying comfort food dish that, while resembling some sort of combination of French and Italian cuisine, is of Japanese origin through and through; “Doria-style dishes” in Italy and France typically include cucumber, tomato, and chicken, in contrast to the cheesy dish whipped up by Weil. It reminds me of the comfort foods my mom used to make when I was a kid, such as potatoes au gratin and mushroom beef casserole.


No. 2: Napolitan (ナポリタン), Or Really Any Japanese Take on Italian Food

The now-classic Napolitan, in all its food porn-y glory. (Picture: ゴスペル / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Doria isn’t the only dish the Yokohama New Grand introduced to Japan. A writer for Haremapo (who confesses “I could eat Napolitan for three days straight and not even notice”) tells the story that, during the Allied Occupation of Japan, Chef Weil’s hotel became a hot spot for members of General Headquarters (GHQ), the Allied military command. One day, General MacArthur, who had a suite at the hotel, was heard to say that he desperately wanted a hamburger. Unfortunately, none was available given the stringest conditions of post-war Japan.

Chef Irie Shigetada scrambled to find something that would be pleasant to the general. He had pasta on hand, and he had ketchup. In normal circumstances, that would’ve been fine, but Chef Irie thought merely adding ketchup to pasta to be too vulgar for a general. So, he whipped up a tomato sauce using fresh tomatoes, garlic, onion, mushrooms, and boneless ham. He christened the result “Napolitan”, after street vendor-style pasta typically made in Naples (“Napori” in Japanese) during the Middle Ages.

横浜発祥「ナポリタン」 現在に至るまでの歴史とは? – はまれぽ.com 神奈川県の地域情報サイト

ナポリタンには不思議な魔力があります。 一たび魔法にかけられると、もはやその事しか考えられなくなる「赤の呪縛」。 これにやられてしまうと大変です。自分でも気付かないうちに、三日連続で食べたりします。 そんな魅惑の「ナポリタン」ですが、実は横浜生まれってご存知でしたでしょうか? …

(JP) Link: What’s the History of Yokohama-Born Napolitan?

The dish migrated on when the Yokohama New Grand brought another hotel. It came to be made with ketchup (hey, the customer may always be right, but they’re not always MacArthur), and green pepper became a part of the vegetable mix.

While Napolitan is indeed the bomb (with or without ketchup), I never turn my nose up at going to an Italian restaurant in Japan and eating just about anything on the menu. Japan has mastered the art of preparing fresh seafood, and there’s something about the marriage of well prepared seafood and pasta that just does it for me.

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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