Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.
Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.
Food journalist, essayist, and food culture researcher Chieko Mukasa was born in Tokyo. She is a leading authority on authentic Japanese tastes and traditional methods of cooking. Mukasa explores the food scene all across Japan, with a particular focus on ingredients, chefs, and producers. She’s featured on TV, as well as in newspapers and magazines.
February 5, 2019
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Deep-fried food—also known as agemono—might not be as photogenic as some other types of Japanese cuisine, but it has captured the hearts of food lovers everywhere nonetheless. As we learn on this edition of Japanology Plus, a whopping 70% of Japanese people eat some version at least once a week. The sheer variety of offerings to choose from is certainly impressive—tempura, tonkatsu, croquettes, karaage, jumbo fried shrimp, and much, much more.
Food journalist Chieko Mukasa introduces host Peter Barakan to some of Osaka’s best deep-fried traditions, including an unexpected dessert.
Besides its delicious diversity, what else makes deep-fried food so popular in Japan? First of all, it’s easy to get ahold of and inexpensive. It also pairs well with countless other Japanese dishes. Additionally, as expert guest Chieko Mukasa informs us, deep-fried food keeps well without being refrigerated. That quality makes it especially popular for inclusion in bento, as well as in picnic-style lunches during school sporting events or seasonal activities such as hanami.
The same cooking technique can be used to prepare an amazing range of foods.
This mother frequently cooks tempura for dinner to get her picky kids to eat vegetables.
These types of fried foods generally fall under the umbrella of “B-kyu gurume,” or “B-grade gourmet.” Calling something “B-grade” would usually indicate a product of inferior quality, but that is not the case at all for B-kyu cuisine. These dishes are loved because they’re delicious, cheap, and simple. Perpetual crowd favorites include ramen, yakisoba, and okonomiyaki. There’s even a yearly contest dedicated to finding Japan’s most delicious B-kyu food. Over the course of two days, vendors vie for the chance to bring culinary glory (and tourism appeal) to their hometowns. The event is a great opportunity to get a taste of local favorites from around the country.
It should be noted, however, that some tempura is far from B-kyu status. While there are tempura fast food joints, there are also many upscale specialty restaurants, such as the one host Peter Barakan visits on the program. In fact, Japan’s beloved tempura sits at the top the deep-fried food hierarchy, and it has some surprising beginnings.
Tempura might be the most famous of Japan’s deep-fried foods.
It’s also a great way to repurpose leftovers at home.
Although now regarded as a national cuisine, tempura is not originally Japanese. Back in 1543, some Portuguese sailors accidentally landed on Tanegashima, an island south of Kyushu, due to bad weather. They were the first Europeans to enter Japan, and their arrival signaled the start of some big changes. They brought with them guns, soap, tobacco, and…the recipe for peixinhos da horta, a battered and fried green bean dish. While their religious beliefs weren’t embraced (the Portuguese were forced to leave in 1639 due to the perception that Christianity was a threat to Japanese society), their cooking technique was welcomed with open arms. This particular cultural exchange eventually led to the creation of the tempura that we all know and love today.
Croquettes, transliterated as korokke in Japanese, are another foreign food that has been adopted and changed over the years. Invented in France, they were first introduced to Japan in 1887. That version used a béchamel sauce, but because cooking with dairy wasn’t common at the time, the Japanese made them with mashed potatoes instead. Korokke eventually joined tonkatsu as one of the most popular Western-style foods of the Taisho era.
Giant korokke for sale on a shopping street.
Tonkatsu teishoku, a meal set featuring pork cutlet, rice, shredded cabbage, and miso soup.
Portugal and France aren’t the only countries Japan has taken deep-fried inspiration from. The United States is the birthplace of a much-loved fried chicken brand that has taken on a life of its own in Japan. Americans might be taken aback, but thanks to a smart domestic marketing campaign back in 1974, eating fried chicken on Christmas has become a modern Japanese tradition. The campaign was so successful that nowadays about 3.6 million families eat this particular chain’s fried chicken dinner as a Christmas treat. Holiday sales actually make up about one-third of the company’s yearly profits in Japan. Demand is so high that orders must be placed several weeks (if not months) in advance to ensure getting enough fried chicken for the festivities. Those who forget to order in advance are stuck waiting in line for hours—not the ideal way to spend Christmas Day!
Karaage, one popular type of Japanese-style fried chicken.
Incorporating cooking techniques from various cultures has led to some of today’s most loved Japanese dishes.
Deep-fried food is popular the world over, and in Japan it is a particularly tasty example of what can happen when foods and cooking techniques from other cultures are embraced. Despite where some dishes may have originated, they’ve found a niche in Japan and been given a unique twist. From Hokkaido all the way to Okinawa, the love of deep-fried food runs deep.
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