From traditional pizza establishments to avant-garde Japanese Italian fusion restaurants, Japan has embraced Italian cuisine, and developed a love affair that has lasted for a century.
However, it may sound strange at first, Japanese and Italian cuisines have much more in common than just being popular culinary exports. Italian food is probably one of the most well-known, and well-loved cuisines worldwide, closely followed by Japanese whose trend lead popularity ranges from sushi, to tempura passing by succulent Kobe beef and the 2016 food trend: noodles.
The two cuisines share many common elements, notably, the emphasis on seasonality and simplicity, as well as some basic ingredients and cooking styles. In Japanese cuisine, many dishes are based on a combination of carbohydrates (rice or noodles) vegetables and protein (fish or meat – or tofu). Similar ratios are also the basis of Italian meals, with pasta, rice or bread, being complemented with protein and plenty of vegetables. Thanks to the wealth of fresh ingredients, many cooking styles like steaming or grilling are also common as well as less healthy yet delicious frying (both tempura and katsu, which is surprisingly similar to Milanese).
It is perhaps this similarity that has lead Italian cuisine to conquer Japanese pallets in the last century. Spaghetti has been on the menus in Japan since the 1920s, while tomato sauce was popularized first by Italian-American GIs during the occupation in the 1940s, and the first Italian restaurants were established by Italian ex-prisoners of war who chose to remain in Japan.
A wider acquaintance with Italian food came in the 1990s, when the collapse of Asian economies brought about the demise of haughty French establishments and turned French-trained Japanese chefs’ attention to the simplicity and quintessentially Mediterranean flavours of Italian food. Thus began the Japanese’s love affair with “Itameshi” (literally “Italian Food” in Japanese).
Italian food is both faithfully represented, and given Japanese accents, such as incorporates local ingredients like mentaiko, yuzu citrus, myoga native ginger, shiso leaf and sakura ebi, and it can be found far beyond major cities like Tokyo and Osaka, as well as everywhere from upscale restaurants, to casual bistros, Japanese izakaya, convenience stores and even cooked in homes.
But what Italian foods have become popular in Japan and how have they evolved to become a little more Japanese? Well, Pizza for example is found both traditional and with unique Asian interpretations including pickled mackerel or umami mayonnaise. Fish carpaccio has merged seamlessly with Japanese ingredients, becoming a staple in Italmeshi restaurants as has risotto. Broth, which bares much resemblance to the tasty dashi, the base for many Japanese noodle dishes has also become popular in Japan.
But perhaps more surprisingly there are two Italian staples that have been adopted by Japanese cuisine in a very special way. Wafu pasta, meaning Japanese-style pasta, takes the Japanese-Italian food fusion to heart. You will find Spaghetti Carbonara, with an unconventional touch of whitebait or unique a cold dish of Hiroshima oysters with lemon-accented capellini cooked in a sauce made from dashi and topped with a sprinkling of lemon juice. While local meats have been used to create typical Italian cold cuts, for example, Okinawan beef, pork and duck are cured into prosciutto, Honbu beef is turned into bresaola, as well as Okinawan pork made into roast ham.