Not long ago most Americans considered Japanese cuisine (“washoku”) to be “health food” and would have turned up their nose at the thought of eating raw fish and seaweed. When I lived in New York as a child, my lunchbox often contained “onigiri” rice balls wrapped in seaweed. I remember my classmates used to look at my lunch and exclaim, “Can you really eat that black stuff?” But times have changed. Onigiri is now one of the most popular items on the menu at Asian cafes in town. In fact, the United States is currently in the midst of a major Japanese food boom.
Japanese cuisine first started to appear on the American food scene in the 1960s in New York City, which has been the starting point of numerous food trends in the U.S. Benihana, which made an appearance in the Golden Globe Award-winning movie “The Wolf of Wall Street,” was one of the first popular Japanese restaurant chains in the U.S. The restaurant is apparently based on the concept of serving delicious “teppanyaki” that’s a pleasure not only to eat but also to watch. As a Japanese, however, it was really bizarre for me to see the steam rising from a tall stack of sliced onions and chefs tapping their cooking utensils on the grill as if they were playing percussion.
Nowadays you’re just as likely to find sushi at the supermarket as Chinese food and Vietnamese food. In addition to the “kappamaki” (cucumber rolls) that are common in Japan, you can buy California rolls and even caterpillar rolls (filled will grilled eel and cucumber and topped with avocado) and spider rolls (filled with fried soft-shell crab and lettuce). These are all popular items that have become part of the “American Sushi” genre.
In recent years, top American chefs have collaborated with Japanese chefs to produce “shojin-ryori” (Buddhist vegetarian food) and “kaiseki” (traditional multi-course cuisine) restaurants that have impressed New York’s Japanese-food lovers and restaurant critics alike. Such restaurants are popular among well-heeled New Yorkers because they focus on bringing out the true flavors of the ingredients and their offerings are considered “edible art” that are a pleasure to look at as well as to eat.
In addition to these upscale eateries, there are also plenty of authentic, casual Japanese restaurants in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood. Among the most popular eateries are “izakaya” pubs for grabbing a few drinks after work and Kansai-style “okonimyaki” (savory pancake) places, but of course ramen is what people are really excited about these days. In addition to noodles with light salt-based soups and rich tonkotsu (pork bone broth), the latest craze in New York is the “ramen burger.” Japan’s Kitakata City in Fukushima Prefecture has already created and obtained a registered trademark for a ramen burger containing pork and fish cake that’s just like ramen in the shape of a burger, but a second generation Japanese named Keizo Shimamoto has also come up with a New York-style ramen burger. The American version is made with fried noodles formed into a bun and contains a beef patty, shoyu-based sauce, green onion, and arugula. It’s the ultimate hybrid between an American hamburger and Japanese ramen, reflecting the true diversity of American culture.
Japanese cuisine is bound to continue its evolution in the U.S. for years to come. Next time you visit the United States, why not try some American-style Japanese food for yourself!