Japan has one of the great food cultures of the world with a celebrated cuisine that is both delicious and healthy. Being an island nation, Japan has had the unique opportunity to develop its food in ways without much influence from the outside. Its heavy reliance on fish led to the development of sushi while the abundance of seaweed resulted in products like nori, or dried seaweed.
However, Japan does not exist in a vacuum. Despite being an island country separated from mainland Asia by wide seas as well as centuries of being closed off to the outside world, offshore ingredients did indeed enter the country. In fact, many of Japan’s most famous dishes are actually foreign in origin.
Here are five seemingly traditional Japanese dishes that actually arrived from overseas.
1. Salmon Sushi
Salmon is one of the most common varieties of sushi now so it seems strange to think that at one point it was only eaten cooked. We can thank Norway for introducing Japan—and thus the world—to salmon, one of the most delicious sushi toppings.
In the 1980s, Norway had a glut of salmon. They approached Japanese fish buyers with the idea that they could use it as sushi but Japan balked. Salmon was always cooked, never eaten raw. The issue, it seemed, was parasites common in local salmon. Rather than give up, Norway pitched it to Nishi Rei, a large frozen foods company, who took a gamble and bought the Norwegian salmon to sell in grocery stores as sushi-grade meat. It was a hit, first with supermarket shoppers and then in conveyer-belt sushi chains. Salmon sushi was born.
The next time you bite into a buttery slice of raw salmon, give thanks to the Norwegian fishing industry and a Japanese frozen foods company that took a chance on it.
When you think of the most famous Japanese dishes, tempura is certainly one of them. And yet the concept of battering and frying various ingredients didn’t exist in Japan before the arrival of a group of world-exploring foreigners, the Portuguese.
In 1543, three Portuguese sailors arrived in Japan and started a trading relationship that would last for centuries. Along with guns and religion, Portuguese traders and Jesuit missionaries also brought food. The Portuguese liked to batter and fry things. One of their dishes, peixinhos da horta (or “little fish of the garden”), was fried beans and vegetables popular during Lent when people gave up meat. While it’s unknown how the name tempura came to be, many think it’s related to the Latin word tempora, which comes from quatuor tempora, a period of fasting.
Nowadays, Japanese chefs can turn pretty much anything into tempura, from seafood to shiso leaves, but it all started with beans and veggies and Portuguese traders.
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