‘Yoshoku’ may not be a well-known term in the West, but the concept is definitely a familiar one.
Whenever a foreign cuisine is first accepted into the Western palate, it tends to receive the same treatment: some vibrant new dishes burst onto the scene, before invariably getting bent, twisted and somewhere down the line, turned into a flavour of crisps.
From sit-down soba to supermarket sushi, Japanese food has undoubtedly received the same treatment.
However, you’d be mistaken if you thought this culinary exchange only went in one direction - and as the old saying goes ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’...
This back-and-forth actually started in the 16th Century, when Portuguese merchants began trading with the island nation, bringing a wave of food to Japanese shores.
From fried goods like Tempura, to sweet cakes like Castella, Portuguese ingredients and methods left an indelible mark on the cuisine of Japan. One particularly notable example of this being that the Japanese word for bread, ‘Pan’, comes from the Portuguese word ‘Pão’.
However, this first taste of foreign food would not last long.
Around 50 years later, trade with the West was made illegal and many of the Europeans were driven off the island, beginning Japan’s long period of isolation.
Traditional food known as ‘Washoku’ became dominant, and the meat-free diet of rice, miso soup, seasonal fish and vegetables regained its place on the Japanese dinner table.
This period of pescetarianism lasted for over 200 years, until the era known as the Meiji Restoration began in the mid 19th century, opening the f(l)oodgates from the West.
Under the new Emperor, global trade was encouraged and with it came a second wave of Western influence. Clothing, culture and cuisine all welcomed the change and this is when ‘Yoshoku’ really began to take off.
Japanese chefs could look abroad for inspiration but pick and choose which aspects they liked and what they could change. Also, now that the taboo of meat eating had been relaxed – no one had a bone to pick with the carnivores!
As a result, dishes from all over the world were adapted for the Japanese palate and some new hybrids were born.
French croquettes became ‘Korokke’, Italian pasta became ‘Spaghetti Naporitan’ and Anglo-Indian Curry became ‘Kareraisu’.
This take on an Anglicized curry, first shared with Japanese sailors aboard a British navy ship, has undoubtedly become the most widely eaten of all Yoshoku meals in Japan.
On average, Kareraisu is eaten more than once a week by Japanese citizens, and has become such a staple amongst the Japanese navy that each ship has its own closely guarded secret recipe!
Depending on how you look at it, ‘Yoshoku’ can be viewed as an example of barefaced cultural appropriation, or simply a natural part of the ebb and flow of culinary fusion.
Whatever side you take, this culinary phenomenon is undoubtedly a pillar of Japanese cuisine. So much so, ‘Yoshoku’ is now exported around the world, and sold as something as quintessentially Japanese as Sushi or Ramen.
Dishes like Katsu curry, Wagyu Sando and Omurice have exploded in popularity in recent years, and more and more westerners are seeking out restaurants that serve a version of “their” food back to them (just with a few more stamps on the passport).
At the end of the day, ‘Yoshoku’ stands as a reminder of the long and winding path that much of our food has taken to reach us. It’s simply in our nature to look at our neighbours plate and want to try a bite.
As much as we need to guard against the diluting of different heritage cuisines, we would also miss out on so much amazing food if the boundaries between culinary cultures didn’t get a little blurred from time to time…