Fancy a hambagu? How about a nice Naporitan spaghetti? Or a bowl of kare rice?
No, those aren’t typos. They’re among the most popular dishes of a cuisine called yoshoku. Originally developed in mid-1800s Japan, it consists of hybrid specialities inspired by commonplace Western dishes and adapted to suit local palates.
A prime example is the hambagu, a variation on the hamburger that is made with beef and pork mince, panko breadcrumbs and chopped onions, smothered with a demi-glace of soy sauce, tonkatsu sauce and ketchup – because nothing is more Western than ketchup.
Served without a bun, it’s actually more similar to a thick Salisbury steak than a hamburger. And like other popular yoshoku items such as katsu (a sliced cutlet fried in bread crumbs) and kare raisu (curry rice), the hambagu has become a staple of everyday Japanese diets.
But could these dishes join sushi, teppanyaki and yakitori as yet another Japanese culinary export?
5 yoshoku favourites
Omurice – A lot of yoshoku involves taking a Western recipe and adding rice and sauce. This is no exception. In what sounds like the result of a confused game of Chinese whispers, an omelette is stuffed with fried rice (and often chicken, but it’s easily customised) and squirted with tomato sauce or demi-glace.
Naporitan – Spaghetti in the Neapolitan style, via Yokohama. The pasta is cooked until it’s very soft, then jazzed up with green peppers, Asian-style sausage, mushrooms and (once again) ketchup.
Korokke – Croquettes by another name, these fried mouthfuls are filled with potato that has been mashed with onions and carrot. Traditionally made with a panko breadcrumb coating, the contents vary from street-food stall to street-food stall, but common variations involve curry sauce, meat or pumpkin.
Hayashi rice – Another dish playing with Asia’s favourite grain, this one takes beef stew as its cue, from the onion to the mushrooms – plus more demi-glace, this one made from beef broth and ketchup.
Doria – Said to have been conceived in France, doria has since fallen out of favour in Paris but lives on in Tokyo. This gratin-inspired dish is created from fried rice that’s mixed with chicken, prawns, assorted veg, or whatever one fancies, then topped with cheese and béchamel sauce and baked.
There and back again
In the UK, yoshoku is still fairly new ground, but in North America, where there are larger numbers of Japanese immigrants, its presence is growing – and not just in the big foodie cities. In the States, Fort St. George in Seattle serves up traditional yoshoku and was named one of the best Japanese restaurants in American in 2016, while Canada has several small joints serving up the stuff in Vancouver – remnants of its once thriving Japantown.
Just last year a place called Dosanko opened up offering ‘elevated’ versions of yoshoku, including koji-cured ham, alongside the more classic hambagu and omurice.
That’s not to say Britain is without yoshoku advocates. London’s Shackfuyu, from the minds behind ramen chain Bone Daddies, started as a pop-up offering ‘Japanised’ versions of Western food, but proved “so popular we made it permanent,” as its website boasts. Since 2015, a permanent spot has served up house signatures like kinako French toast and the long-winded ‘prawn toast masquerading as okonomiyaki’ (a savoury pancake thought to have originated from Western crepes).
In these recipes, the appeal to British palates is clearer – while we may not appreciate an omelette stuffed with rice and doused with ketchup, fusing Japanese flavours with European or American dishes to create something familiar yet original has more potential. Another business that’s recently been thinking along these lines is Norigami, which is pioneering the sushi sandwich and has ambitions for retail.
Over in Asia, signs of yoshoku are popping up in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. One of the most popular crossovers in the region is so-called Hokkaido milk bread, a sweet version of the traditional loaf that comes out incredibly fluffy and is made (unsurprisingly) with milk – both fresh and evaporated. The key to getting the distinctive chewy but soft texture, however, is in the creation of a pudding-like roux that is added to the bread mix.
Taking Western food that’s been transformed in Japan and then bringing it back to the West? It may sound a bit bonkers, but what does Sparkie think about the back-and-forth business?
Yoshoku fits exactly with trends for authentic traditional food. Although it is described as Western-style food, it includes dishes that have been authentically Japanese since the 1800s. The Western influence should give it a friendlier appearance to those who are neophobic around meals.
I believe this is what Waitrose and some others were thinking of at the start of the year when discussing the probable expansion of Japanese foods beyond sushi. Typically, if a retailer announces that something will be a trend, it means they are thinking about doing it themselves and are looking for feedback, so I would fully expect at least Waitrose to be lining up some products within this category of expanded Japanese cuisine. The others will follow if it proves popular.