You can learn a lot about Japanese culture from a sandwich. This sandwich. Look well. It’s a catalogue of Japanese culture–if you can decode it. No matter how unassuming an item appears, it always has something to say about the culture that produced it. This sandwich has a story. Let’s begin.
The Fried Chicken
The main seasoning of karaage, Japanese friend chicken, is soy sauce. It’s by far the most important sauce of Japan. For centuries it has been used as a universal flavorer, appearing in countless recipes as ingredients or condiments. Often both.
But did you know there are many types of soy sauce? Different regions produce different styles. Historically, the Kansai region’s soy sauce was preferred over the eastern Kanto’s style, and competition was intense. Kanto later won the soy sauce war, but the rivalry extended beyond condiments. Kanto and Kansai have markedly different cultures, and there is a pronounced language difference between the two areas. Kanto means “east of the barrier” and Kansai, “west of the barrier.” The distinction began after a military barrier was constructed in the 10th century separating the two zones, followed by two more several hundred years later. Traditionally, Kansai residents are thought of as more down-to-earth and mercantile, while Kanto’s are seen as more reserved and sophisticated.
In theory, Japan has been one country united under an emperor for hundreds of years, but in reality, loyalties laid with the region. Prior to shogun Oda Nobunaga bringing Japan under his iron rule–by iron, I mean with guns–it was divided into individual provinces with their own customs and traditions. Regional identity remains strong even today, with prefectures divided by food, customs–even language, like I said. Some dialects are even so strong they can’t be understood by the greater Japanese population. Despite popular belief, Japan is anything but homogeneous.
I already mentioned that soy sauce was and is Japan’s universal flavorer. Ever since its invention, Japanese have been comfortable with sauces having a wide range of uses. When Western food was first introduced in Japan, the Japanese mistook Worcestershire sauce for the Western equivalent of soy sauce and slathered it over everything.
Mayonnaise too, has been picked up as a kind of master sauce. Mayonnaise goes with almost anything in Japan. Chicken and mayonnaise. Okonomiyaki and mayonnaise. Broccoli and mayonnaise. Salmon and mayonnaise. The list goes on. Japanese mayonnaise though, granted, has a sharper taste than Western style. In my opinion that does make it a bit more versatile, but even so, many matches would be considered strange outside Japan.
The Shredded Cabbage
Cabbage is not native to Japan. While many now even call it “Japanese” or “nappa” cabbage, it only found its way into Japanese cuisine via Western settlements in Japan. Most of the first Westerners to live in Japan had already been living in China, and when they came they brought their Chinese servants with them. Those servants brought over Chinese cabbage. Later, Japan’s colonial expansion into Asia also played a hand. While fighting, Japanese soldiers found their rations locally, which often meant Chinese cabbage. In the Russo-Japanese war, it constituted the bulk of many soldiers’ rations. After the war ended, the returning soldiers helped spread its popularity, having already grown accustom to it. Nowadays, cabbage (both Chinese and Western) is a staple of Japanese cuisine. It’s usually served shredded, and in abundance. You’ll find it used in Tonkatsu as a side, usually accompanied by sauce or dressing.
The Mix Of Ingredients
Including broccoli and shredded cabbage into a sandwich isn’t a choice you’d see much outside Japan. The rather unique mix is part of a wider food trend. If you go to most any Japanese restaurant, you’ll see taste combinations that just wouldn’t agree with many non-Japanese sensibilities.
This facet of Japanese gastronomy is not fusion cuisine. It’s relic of 1951, when the Japanese education system began serving school lunches. The goal was to provide maximum nutrition at minimum cost–and harmony was thrown to the wind. By the 50’s, Western and Chinese food had already permeated the Japanese culinary scene, and was mixed with Japanese fare to provide a somewhat familiar meal that delivered the government-mandated amount of calories. This gave rise to meals like “spaghetti mixed with dried curry with a side of French salad.” And “whale meat and liver in tomato sauce, with cheese, tofu with peanut dressing, and karintou.”
Children of the 50’s grew up eating the multi-ethnic mixes, which had a large effect on the Japanese idea of what worked in cuisine. Many Japanese dishes are combinations that non-Japanese would find unappetizing, but it also results in menus that cross international boundaries. Many restaurants carry dishes familiar to non-Japanese–with or without a Japanese twist–that offer a taste of home to homesick expats, including this one.
From A Sandwich
You can learn a lot from a sandwich. There’s more, but this was as far as I was prepared to go with a ho-hum tasting sandwich. Still. Everything, everything you find in Japan can be used as a gateway into its culture. Stay tuned, because there’s more Japanese culture from everyday items to come.