Photo: othree CC by SA 2.0 / ©

Rengatei: venerable Ginza eaterie is birthplace of 'yoshoku' classics like 'tonkatsu' and 'omuraisu'

By George Lloyd, grape Japan

Foodies often imagine that every country has its own distinctive eating habits. Ironically, the obsessive interest in national differences is one of the consequences of the globalization of the world’s cuisines. In fact, national cuisines are usually hybrids of native and imported ingredients, and always have been.

Foodies also tend to think that eating ‘exotic’ food is something new, but snobby diners have been deriding their native cuisine and championing foreign food for centuries.

Japanese food is a case in point. Go to Los Angeles or Berlin, and diners associate Japanese food with sushi, tempura, tofu and udon. They don’t want to hear that Japanese people are just as likely to tuck into a cheap and cheerful curry (originally from India), a plate of gyoza (originally from China) or a burger (from Germany via the United States).

Yoshoku (洋食) is a good example. Although the name means Western food, it’s a decidedly Japanese creation, and one with a long history. Yoshoku first became popular after the Meiji Revolution of 1868, when Japan was awash with all things western and urban sophisticates were desperate to sample the fruits of international trade, which had been banned for over 200 years.

One of the first restaurants in Japan to serve yoshoku was Rengatei 煉瓦亭 in Ginza, which was originally founded as a French restaurant in 1895. Rengatei claims to be the birthplace of two dishes that have come to be seen as quintessentially Japanese. The first is tonkatsu (豚カツ), and the second is omuraisu (オムライス).

Tonkatsu at Rengatei Photo: zezebono from Ginza, Tokyo, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Tonkatsu is a thick cut of pork served with Worcester sauce, rice and shredded cabbage. The first tonkatsu was served at Rengatei by Motojiro Kida, its second-generation proprietor, in 1899. He based his signature dish on the Italian cotoletta, which is a veal cutlet coated in breadcrumbs and deep fried in vegetable oil.

This was a brave move, for western food was not widely popular at the time. Prior to 1868, most Japanese had been vegetarians, for Buddhism prohibited meat eating and even after the ban on meat was lifted, many Japanese continued to avoid western dishes in the belief that it caused heartburn.

However, the Japanese took to meat-eating with aplomb after the Meiji Revolution, in the belief that it would make them bigger and stronger. The Meiji Emperor even lent his support to the new carnivorous diet, and when the country was swept up on a wave of patriotic fervor during the Sino-Japanese of 1894 and again in 1904, when the Russo-Japanese War broke out, meat eating practically became a duty.

An Italian would have expected his cutlet to be served with cooked vegetables, but Rengatei’s head chef didn’t have this luxury. Vegetables took time to prepare and there was a labour shortage in Tokyo at the time. So Motojiro Kida garnished his pork cutlets with finely shredded cabbage, which was easier to prepare.

In the early days, Kida served his tonkatsu with bread, as a French chef might. But his customers found it hard to cut up pieces of bread with a knife and fork, so he began serving them rice instead. Shredded cabbage and rice have been standard accompaniments for tonkatsu ever since (these days, diners also expect a bowl of miso soup when they order tonkatsu).

Omuraisu at Rengatei Photo: zezebono, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The other classic yoshoku dish first served at Rengatei is omuraisu, a portmanteau word that combines the English words omelet and rice. It is an egg omelette stuffed with fried rice and served with a healthy dollop of tomato ketchup.

Omuraisu quickly became a family favorite in Japanese homes, much loved by children, and was taken to Korea and Taiwan by Japanese colonialists in the first half of the 20th century, where it remains popular to this day.

Rengatei is still serving up delicious fusion food 125 years after it first opened and still serves delicious tonkatsu and omuraisu. They’re just two of the classic yoshoku dishes on the extensive menu and a visit is warmly recommended.

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© grape Japan

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Before I first visited Japan I'd never heard of yoshoku. Never had (or even heard of) tonaktsu, and that goes for omuraisu, and doria, and even korokke. Away from Japan, in Australia at least, Japanese food meant mainly sushi, tenpura, miso, tofu... even ramen wasn't as popular ten years ago as it is now. All very fine foods, but as I learned on that first trip and on subsequent trips, by no means all there is to Japanese cuisine.

So then going to Japan, and discovering all the delights of yoshoku, was a real treat. So if Rengatei is the place that was responsible for inventing and popularising this kind of fusion cooking, I'd like to say thank you very much, Rengatei. My taste buds and I salute you.

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Made tonkatsu last night, Milan style using parmesan cheese and herbs in the panko bread crumbs and shallowed fried instead of deep. Cook until the meat temperature reaches 75 deg C. I use a meat thermometer.

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Rengatei DID NOT invent these dishes. Both were introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century. They are found in the writings of the Kyoto samurai.

The Jesuit missionaries made their fried pork cutlets and since potatoes were scarce here at the time they used rice instead to make their tortilla. A dish made with potatoes and eggs.

The court in Kyoto was served these dishes and their cooks learned the Portuguese techniques to make them.

Rengatei was simply the first Meiji Era restaurant to SERVE the dishes.

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I don't think most Japanese consider tonkatsu to be typical youshoku you would get at a youshoku restaurant. I think it is much more integrated into washoku, like tempura, and must have deeper roots. The cabbage often served with it strikes me as completely random, so it's nice to hear a theory about it. Many Japanese people are strict about not leaving food on the plate, but it is not unusual for people to not finish their tonkatsu cabbage with no "what about the farmers?" type outrage you get when people leave rice uneaten.

If making an effort, I recommend people seek out proper omu-rice made using the method famously depicted in the ramen movie Tampopo. The "omelette" is actually just scrambled egg with a delicate skin around it produced by carefully rolling the beaten egg around a pan. After being placed on the mounded rice, the "omelette" is slit with a knife and flows over the rice. The restaurant that inspired the Tampopo scene is in Tokyo. I went there once in the 1990s.

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it is not unusual for people to not finish their tonkatsu cabbage with no "what about the farmers?" type outrage you get when people leave rice uneaten.

I like my tonkatsu cabbage, and I always finish it. Grated daikon too, which I also finish. What about the ground sesame seed and the tonkatsu sauce? I've had it where you mix the sauce in with the ground sesame and then drizzle the resulting paste on the cutlet (my preferred option), or alternatively grind the sesame, scatter the sesame across the cutlet and then put your tonkatsu sauce on top of that. How does Rengatei do it?

I recommend people seek out proper omu-rice made using the method famously depicted in the ramen movie Tampopo.

Er - mouth to mouth? Or am I thinking of the wrong part of the movie?

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I often have my lunch at Rengatei. I'm the brutish, worn-out gentleman sitting in the corner with the one-thousand-yard stare, scarred face and nervous tic. Please say hello.

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