As diners bite into the culinary creations at Miyake restaurant in Portland, Maine, they might catch chef-owner Masa Miyake watching them from the open kitchen, gauging their reaction. Always looking to both educate and learn from his customers, Miyake says, “People often come through the door looking for California rolls and miso soup. I respect that, but in Japan we have so many different foods.” He wants to expose diners to the variety of Japanese cuisine, but he also wants to be sure people enjoy it—hence the open kitchen that allows him to observe what works and what doesn’t. “If they don’t like it, I try again.”
For a native-born Japanese chef like Miyake, the natural impulse is to want people to understand that Japanese cuisine is so much more than the average American thinks it is. In this country, the food of Japan has been reduced to sushi, tempura, teriyaki and miso soup—plus an ever-growing list of maki-inspired creations, such as the Americanized cream cheese-laden Philadelphia roll.
But diners are waking up to a broader variety of Japanese cuisine. The combination of interest in healthful eating plus a growing global awareness has propelled a surge of newer forms of Japanese cuisine showing up on menus. “Because Japanese cuisine remains popular with consumers, operators are experimenting with more modern takes on traditional Japanese dishes,” says Laura McGuire of Technomic.
What’s “new” in Japanese cuisine is actually what’s newly introduced to America, but is as old as the hills in Japan. Bob Okura, The Cheesecake Factory’s vice president of culinary development and corporate executive chef, travels to Japan each year, tasting his way around. “During my travels, I’ve found that the cornerstones of their culinary culture remain relatively unchanged and deeply rooted in tradition,” says Okura, who was born in the United States but is of Japanese descent. “Modern Japanese cuisine is more appropriately used to describe how traditional Japanese dishes are prepared in other countries outside of Japan.”
Modern Japanese cuisine, then, includes everything from the tapas-like izakaya dishes, which are entrenched in Japanese tradition, to newer mash-ups with other cultures. From okonomiyaki to tuna tacos, Modern Japanese is on the rise.
Simple and Subtle
The defining trait of Japanese cuisine is its emphasis on fresh ingredients prepared simply, so that the subtlety of the food itself shines through.
“The culinary culture of Japan has always allowed the natural qualities of food to speak for themselves by using the freshest local ingredients in season and then applying the most appropriate cooking techniques,” says Okura. This explains why today’s health-conscious diners are drawn to the fresh, light, nutrition-packed foods of Japan.
Miyake describes the philosophy of Japanese cooking as minimalist: “With Buffalo wings, for example, you add and add and add—there’s sauce, then dip—the flavors are so strong, you can’t taste anything else after you eat them.” With Japanese food, he says, the idea is for each dish to taste like its ingredients, with a balance and progression from one dish to the next, slowly building up the different kinds of umami that the diner should experience.
For that matter, the Western definition of umami doesn’t quite capture its role in Japanese cuisine. Beyond being the fifth taste—often labeled as “earthy” or “savory”—umami is an end goal, as Okura explains it: “When the natural flavors of food are enjoyed even more when combined than when eaten alone, there will be moments when something tastes so good—even better than you think it should. This is what umami is all about, and this is what the best modern Japanese dishes have in common.”
Good Things in Small Packages
If there is one category of Japanese cuisine that is taking off in this country, it’s izakaya. The term izakaya refers to a Japanese pub-type setting where small plates are meant to accompany drinks. The types of foods range from bar snacks like pickled vegetables to more hearty fare, like kara-age (fried chicken) or a bowl of noodles. It’s comfort food, it’s bar bites, it’s tapas—and it is poised to succeed on American menus.
Small plates, after all, are a smart way to go. “We continue to test the water with any type of small plates, not just Japanese,” says Okura. “The cost is low, it’s very quick. We thought having plates at $4 to $6 would hurt us, but it actually helped, because people would order a few plates instead of just one at $9.”
Grilled skewers are the most-likely-to-please izakaya dish. Kushiyaki is the broad term used to describe these skewers that hold just a couple pieces of grilled items, from scallions or mushrooms to beef tongue or pork belly. Within the umbrella of kushiyaki is yakitori: grilled poultry parts, from marinated chicken thigh meat to skin, gizzard or heart.
“Kushiyaki stands a good chance on American menus,” says Okura. “They can be priced right, and they’re fun.”
Another izakaya favorite is okonomiyaki—the savory Japanese pancake whose hard-to-say name means “as you like it.” This is true Japanese comfort food, since the fried or grilled pancake is a home cook’s vehicle for leftovers or seasonal ingredients. Usually made with a flour-egg batter, common ingredients include scallion, seafood, vegetables and pork belly. Toppings can range from a sweet-salty sauce to dried seaweed flakes to a fried egg.
Miyake takes advantage of being in Maine, incorporating local ingredients in all of his dishes, including okonomiyaki. “Why not use lobster? We have it right here.”
At “Modern American Asian” restaurant TanakaSan in Seattle, okonomiyaki contains cabbage, scallion, bonito, bacon, mayonnaise and shrimp, and is called “Osaka Pancake” to make it easier to order.
Also an easy sell to American palates: tonkatsu. The breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet (or the similar chicken katsu) is often served as katsudon: crunchy pork strips combined with egg and onion atop a bowl of rice. Fruity-tangy katsu sauce usually tops tonkatsu. Popular in Japan, a grab-and-go tonkatsu sandwich (katsu sando) fits right in with the American convenience culture.
Speaking of convenience, we are all too familiar with instant ramen in this country: a couple minutes in boiling water and you have a meal. But when this Japanese mainstay is made right—with perfectly balanced broth and perfectly textured noodles—it is the ultimate combination of high-end execution and homey comfort food.
“Ramen will make the most forward movement,” says Okura. “Everyone knows soup and noodles.” But he cautions that it will still take time for diners to embrace true Japanese-style ramen, which varies by region (as pasta does in Italy) and can have specialized toppings, from fermented bamboo shoots to braised pork shoulder—like at Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York.
Okura says that when he tried to introduce ramen to The Cheesecake Factory’s menu, it didn’t catch on with diners. “I think people thought, ‘This is just soup.’” Rather than trying to create authentic Japanese ramen, he suggests operators start with something more accessible: “maybe ramen topped with soy-ginger chicken or lemongrass chicken.”
Ramen is prevalent in urban areas, but has yet to become accessible on mainstream menus—but the potential is great for this comforting crowd-pleaser.
Best of Both Worlds
Another slice of modern Japanese cuisine are the newly invented creations that meld cultures together. “Japanese flavors and ingredients complement a wide range of proteins, vegetables and starches, which opens the door for new fusion-inspired dishes that pair Japanese with other global cuisines,” says Technomic’s McGuire. “Look for Japanese shiso, soy, ginger, miso, yuzu and ponzu to appear on more menus over the coming months. Other Japanese ingredients to watch include wasabi, shoyu and shishito.”
Chef Travis Nobu Kamiyama of Royal Caribbean’s Izumi describes modern Japanese cuisine as the “delicate taste and seasonings of Japan in a clean presentation.” He incorporates the flavors of citrus, sweet, spicy and dashi in dishes like his seared Kobe beef shrimp tempura roll with yuzu kosho chimichurri and ponzu sauce.
At the newly opened Kuro restaurant in the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, Fla., chef Alex Becker—whose background includes nearly a decade with the famed Nobu—is introducing “new-style Japanese” cuisine to diners. Kuro defines this cuisine as “the use of classic Japanese techniques to craft contemporary, artisanal creations with locally sourced produce together with Japanese-imported products.” Menu examples include: Hokkaido Scallops with yuzu pudding, yuzu kosho oil, micro chives, radish and yuzu; and Wagyu Tacos with spicy cilantro, soy shallots, Japanese wagyu beef, crispy wonton shells and daikon carrot slaw.
A similar fusion spirit shows up on the menu at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, where the new late-night happy-hour menu features Savory Ahi Tuna Tacos: mini white-corn tortillas with ahi poke, Japanese wakame radish-jicama slaw and soy-lime aïoli. On McCormick & Schmick’s seasonal fall menu, Japanese-influenced dishes include Ginger-Pear Glazed Salmon and Miso-Seared Scallops.
Bob Okura says signs point to a newly enthusiastic embrace of Japanese cuisine. “Over the years, people have slowly learned more about the basics of Japanese cuisine. I do believe the time is right for modern Japanese cuisine.”