Japan as a whole is one of the biggest food capitals in the world not just because of the washoku (Japanese food) but for the caliber of restaurants there are in all types of cuisines and all budgets. When visiting Japan you can expect to find exquisite washoku (Japanese food), which includes things like sushi, and udon noodles as well as fantastic non-Japanese food from French to Kenyan to Korean. But there’s a whole other genre of food that is gaining attention globally: yoshoku.
The word ‘Yoshoku’ comes from ‘Seiyo-shoku’ which means western food, however, over time the Japanese have arranged and recreated western food into something that better suits the Japanese palette and Japanese produces.
‘Seiyo-shoku’ came to Japan right around the Meiji-era (late 1800s to early 1900s), when Japan was opening itself up to foreign countries and culture through trade and exchange as its feudal society faded away.
Prior to this, the Japanese mainly ate a diet of vegetables and grains, and the more well-off people also ate fish however meat was not a part of their diet save for those who hunted. As more and more Europeans came to visit Japan and a demand for European food increased, the many Japanese chefs took point to learn to cook French and other western foods. At this point, the western food you would be served at these ‘seiyo-shoku’ restaurants would be exactly how you would have it in the country of origin.
In the beginning, the Japanese were uncertain about the idea of eating meat – some even believed in rumours that suggested those who ate beef turned into cows – but as time passed by, more people were open to it and interested in foreign food. It soon became apart of the high-society lifestyle; ‘seiyo-shoku’ became the food of the rich, being served in premium hotels and high-class restaurants.
With the popularity of ‘seiyo-shoku’ rising, Japanese cooks and homemakers began arranging and recreating ‘seiyo-shoku’ into something that best suited the Japanese palette and the supplies available in Japan: this is the beginning of ‘Yoshoku’: a genre of western style Japanese food.
One of the oldest forms of ‘yoshoku’ is the French ‘gratin’. Gratin is actually a culinary technique where breadcrumbs and that top baked food is browned and crispy, so it applies to many types of food. But in Japan, gratin is a type of baked creamy macaroni casserole. They are often made with creamy white sauce and seafood combined with macaroni noodles, topped with breadcrumbs and shredded cheese that’s crispy and brown.
There were cookbooks published and those recipes were taught at lady’s college, which prompted many newly married women to opt to cooking ‘yoshoku’ for their new husbands – and of course, gratin became a regular on the menu.
However, after the Second World War, Japan experienced a shortage in food, which meant that there was very little capability to make ‘seiyo-shoku’. The supplies that were provided by the U.S. and the lifestyle changes that were influenced by them made ‘yoshoku’ into a more mainstream, commonly consumed type of food and this is still true in modern days.
In the mid-1950s, the U.S funded a campaign to include flour-based products/food in each meal of the day. This campaign prompted a tour of the ‘kitchen cars’ (vans equipped with a kitchen). The tour dates of when the cars will be where was posted on the daily papers and housewives would go to them to learn recipes and techniques when the ‘kitchen car’ was in town. At this time ‘yoshoku’ was said to be the most nutritiously well-rounded cuisine and revolutionized the eating habits of most people.
With the strong influence of the U.S. ketchup also became a part of the Japanese pantry, foods like Omrice (omlette and tomato ketchup flavoured rice) and Napolitan became popular. The Napolitan is a Japanese invented type of spaghetti dish with meat and vegetables sautéed in ketchup is put together with pasta. During the post-war period where meat was scarce, cheaper and easier to cook processed meats like ham and sausages were used to create the Napolitan, which made it easy to be integrated into the eating habits of a common Japanese household.
Stews were another thing that became popular in Japan. In the western world, a stew is just a thicker type of soup/casserole combination that is enjoyed with bread. Over in Japan however, there are two types of stews; beef and cream. Beef stew is made with stewed vegetables, beef and demi-glace sauce and cream stew is made vegetables, meat with cream and milk. Most Japanese eat their stew with rice, which resonates with what one food culture researcher of that time, Tetsu Okada said about yoshoku; ‘Seiyo-shoku goes with bread, yoshoku goes with rice’.s
Even though ‘yoshoku’ is not originally Japanese food and is basically European food, rice still persisted as a very important part of Japanese food culture. Take the most commonly known and popular kind of ‘yoshoku’; the curry rice. Curry is a soupy stew from India that is made with a lot of spices, condiments and vegetables. But the British brought over their own version of curry, which had very little spices and vegetables, but mainly with meat.
The Japanese took this British-Indian dish and further arranged it to suit the Japanese palatte with a more creamier, thicker taste – a little like the beef stew – and they put it with rice. Thus, the birth of the ‘curry rice’.
In recent years, curry rice and many other Japanese ‘yoshoku’ dishes have made its way back into the western world as apart of Japanese cuisine. Many Japanese restaurants offer ‘yoshoku’ as a part of their menu so it is becoming easier and easier to have access to every aspect of Japanese food culture. ‘Yoshoku’ is as much a part of Japanese food culture as washoku (Japanese food) is and perhaps, it’s just another way that Japan proves how much they understand and love food.