Various fried foods at a supermarket
Fried food is everywhere in Japan. It permeates the culture and is seen as an easy way to serve vegetables and meats. Summer and autumn festivals like Tanabata (七夕,tanabata) mean a time of fireworks and bite size snacks such as fried chicken or tempura shrimp. Christmas in Japan is celebrated by eating Kentucky Fried Chicken; reservations are a must! In a country that does not rely on ovens, breading and deep-frying has always been a way to create hot and delicious finger-foods. Japan’s fried food history is a great way to reflect on how outside influences have shaped the food of Japan. So grab your antacids, we are going to embark on a heart-burning trip through the history of Japan’s popular fried foods.
The earliest known form of frying in Japan is tempura (天ぷら, tempura). It is believed that during the 16th century, the Portuguese brought the oil frying technique to Japan. During the Lenten season, abstaining from meat, the Portuguese missionaries and seamen would eat their original tempura meal. While the exact meal has not stood the test of time the frying technique still remains. Tempura is commonly associated with shrimp, but the style is also used to fry vegetables and other types of foods. Tempura’s style is unique in that the batter is light and crispy and only takes a couple of minutes to fry. This technique leaves the food airy and crisp. Tempura fried food can be found in many Japanese restaurants, prepared as a set meal; possibly a bowl of rice topped with tempura shrimp.
Next up in the fried timeline is the croquette, which was introduced to Japan in the 1880s by French embassies. When the French came they brought with them the cream croquette but unfortunately, due to lack of dairy processing machines, the Japanese could not reproduce the French croquette. To continue making croquettes in Japan recipe was modified by using potatoes as a substitute for the rue that made the French croquette stick together. Nowadays Japanese style croquettes, or korokke (コロッケ,korokke) can be found anywhere that sells fried food, from supermarkets, to food trucks, to the convenience store in the middle of nowhere. Korokke is a Japanese comfort food that can be enjoyed alone or eaten with thinly sliced cabbage. Another variation of the Japanese croquette is the “menchi” (メンチ, menchi, after the English “minced”), which contains various ground meats, is also popular in Japan. If you are visiting the famous Kaminarimon (雷門, kaminarimon) in Asakusa (浅草, Asakusa) be sure to swing by the Asakusa Menchi food stand and try their pork mince croquette!
Minced meat in Japanese curry
During the later end of the 1800s, around the 1890s, the French also introduced Japan to cutlets or, as the Japanese call them, “katsu” (カツ, katsu). While it was introduced around the 1890s it was not until the fried slices of pork and chicken were served on top of rice as “dons” (丼, don) that they became popular. Currently cutlets are served in a variety of ways accompanied by rice, cabbage, and miso soup, or served on top of curry. What is particularly special about the cutlet culture in Japan is that, compared to other fried foods, cutlets are topped with a variety of sauces. Cutlet sauces like Worcester sauce and “katsu sauce” (カツソース, katsusōsu) are used to add extra flavor. “Katsu-dons” (カツ丼, katsudon) are quick grab-and-go meals and can always be spotted when walking into a convenience store.
Last but not least on this fried featurette is the most universal of comfort foods: fried chicken. The Japanese heavy battered frying technique used for fried chicken, “karaage” (唐揚げ, karāge), has only been in Japan since the 1920s. It was originally introduced by the Chinese as a way of frying tofu for vegetarian meals and is unique as it uses soy sauce and rice wine in the cooking process. Nowadays, when someone says “karaage” they don’t mean the style but are usually referring to Japanese fried chicken. “Karaage” uses the red meat that comes from the legs of the chicken instead of the breast; this leaves it moist and tender compared to its Western breast meat counterpart. Karaage is usually eaten alone or with rice and shredded cabbage. Karaage stands and restaurants can be found in almost every city, my personal favorite is a small stand in Akihabara (秋葉原, Akihabara); I am not going to give away the name because it is never too crowded. But as tall buildings surround it and can be easily spotted!
A busy karaage stand at night
Tempura, croquette, katsu, and kaarage are only a small sample of the fried food list; I could fill a book if I continued listing all the different fried foods. As a foodie you could spend your entire vacation eating fried food in the various cities around Japan. What is fascinating is that each style of frying came from a different country during a different time period, and from these the Japanese created their own unique flavors and meals centered around each style. So the next time you are in Japan looking for some comfort food, look no further than fried food. But if you are going to indulge in all of them, it might be wise to carry some antacids.
Software Engineer and Blogger at TalentHub
Usually coding, writing, or exploring Japan.
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