When one thinks of Japanese food, the first associations that come to mind likely involve glistening sushi, steaming bowls of ramen and sake. But pasta?
In Japan, pasta shows up in the most unexpected places: from izakaya pubs, to the menus of French and Spanish restaurants, even on top of the country’s famously eccentric pizzas. While visitors expect soba and udon shops, the variety of localized pasta dishes may come as a bit of a surprise. A truly international dish, local renditions of pasta are found all across the world; the ability to use the noodles as a blank slate upon which to paint local flavors has made this stereotypically Italian dish a global favorite, a claim bolstered by a 2011 Oxfam survey.
Pasta was first introduced to Japan in the Meiji era, under the name of yo-somen (Western somen noodles) but was quite a rarity, as it could only be found in the southern port city of Nagasaki thanks to an enterprising French priest called Marc Mari du Rotz. It wasn't until the mid 1950s, when a Japanese food company started producing "macaroni" that it really took off as a household staple, this sudden demand originating with the American post-WW2 occupation of Japan.
During the early postwar era, the first contact most people had with pasta was with the napolitan, a still-popular dish of spaghetti flavored with a ketchup based-sauce laced with ham, green pepper and onions, all ingredients readily available from military stocks. The napolitan is a decidedly American-influenced noodle dish, said to have originated in the kitchens of the Hotel New Grand in immediate postwar Yokohama. The inventor of the dish, Shigetada Irie, did not in fact use ketchup, but a complex tomato paste-based sauce, which proved too difficult for less elite restaurants to copy, resulting in the Heinz condiment taking center stage.
Still widely available at yoshoku (Western-style eateries) and kissaten (coffee shops) around the country, the noodle dish is often served with a side of rice and a bowl of miso soup, functioning more as a main dish than as a primo piatto in the Italian style. Following the same logic, within the orderly bento boxes that are a lunchtime staple, it is always a pleasant surprise to find a little coil of red napolitan as a side dish to a bun-less hamburger. Since it is a noodle dish, it is not uncommon (outside of Italian restaurants) to see people using chopsticks instead of a fork too. Japan also has a bit of a love affair with double carb whammies, as evidenced by convenience store shelves stocked with potato salad, yakisoba and yes, napolitan sandwiches.
I find this all quite fascinating, as in Italy the rules about pasta are quite strict, and some of Japan's favorite combinations (cream and seafood? Blasphemy!) would make my grandmother faint from shock (wait, is that seaweed?!). But the genius of pasta is that it is endlessly adaptable. Just like the marinara sauce of the U.S. (only ever found on pizza in Italy), tarako (cod roe)/seaweed/ume (preserved plums)/natto (fermented soybeans) on very much not al dente pasta is a favorite local comfort food (and a guilty pleasure for certain food writers who shall remain nameless).
The transformation process can be quite extreme, and the city that has perhaps taken it the farthest is the industrial powerhouse of Nagoya. Even within Japan, it is infamous for its ankakespa spaghetti, where the noodles are covered with a thick, Chinese-style sauce flavored with soy sauce. Invented in the early 1960s, it is a play on the local ankake udon. Although generally considered truly weird by people outside of Nagoya, there is enough of a fan base for a few anspa spots beyond the dish’s native prefecture.
To further strengthen its monopoly of the eccentric spaghetti field, Nagoya also boasts a kissaten called Mountain, where they offer heaping plates of matcha-sauced noodles topped with a squirt of whipped cream and red bean paste. Customers wait in line for hours to try the odd dishes, although one can't imagine that repeat visits are common. If green tea is not your thing, you can opt for strawberry, melon pan (a sweet bread), banana or curry.
While understanding of more authentic Italian food has blossomed since the boom in the 1980s, al dente pasta served alongside a glass of wine is still considered somewhat elegant, an ideal meal for a second date or a special lunch. But when it comes down to it, if you have had a bad day and are looking for carbohydrate solace, it is a cheerful plate of napolitan that will see you right.© Japan Today