In the United States, a nation absolutely brimming with different ethnic cuisines, Japanese food nears the top of the list when it comes to Americans’ preferences in dining out. Sushi has become a common date night food, ramen keeps college students fed when purse strings are tight, and almost every household can tell you what tempura and miso soup tastes like.
But for how long have we had such a close relationship with Japanese food? When and where did it all start? And how have the iconic chefs in the US adapted Japanese cuisine to American palates?
The Beginnings of Japanese Food in America
Though Japanese food was imported into the US with the influx of Japanese immigrants in the late 19th century, it remained confined to Japanese-American communities, mostly in Hawaii and California. After the introduction of Mikado operas and other aspects of Japanese culture to the USA’s urban elite, all things Japanese became chic and trendy, and a select few Japanese restaurants opened in New York, San Francisco, and LA. However, sushi was still considered too exotic for Americans, so restaurants kept mostly to tempura and teriyaki dishes.
During WWII, terrible US-Japanese relations led to the closing of many such restaurants and protests against Japanese cultural influence in the US. This kept Japanese cuisine away from US diners for a couple of decades, until tensions were forgotten and Japanese food started to sneak back into restaurants and dinner tables.
Moto Saito opened the first sushi bar in New York in 1957, and had to teach his inexperienced customers how to properly eat the fish! Around the start of the 1970s, the popularity of Japanese restaurants in the US exploded. After achieving popularity in the Little Tokyo area of LA, sushi and sashimi stores popped up all over major cities. Japanese immigrant Rocky Aioki, who opened a single Japanese steakhouse in 1964, found himself running the tremendously popular nationwide chain of Benihana restaurants 15 years later.
Japanese… California Rolls?
Of course, many Japanese dishes have been radically changed for American palates. For example, the ever-popular California Roll is a purely American invention. It does not exist in Japan, nor do the more indulgent flavors of rolls which utilize ingredients such as avocado and cream cheese.
Japanese sushi focuses more on serving the freshest fish and seafood with few other ingredients to overwhelm the fish’s taste. In addition, US sushi usually has rice on the outside of the nori roll, because Americans were not used to the texture and sight of seaweed wrapping the roll, as it does in Japan.
Other Japanese creations, such as the soy paste natto, remain sight unseen in US food culture because they do not appeal to American tastes.
Most Popular Japanese Dishes in the USA
Sushi, sashimi, and teriyaki remain the most popular Japanese dishes among Americans today. In 2015, there were 4,200 sushi restaurants alone across the US. Sushi and sashimi are comprised of raw fish and rice, while teriyaki is a process of grilling beef, chicken, or fish in a mixed soy sauce.
Ramen, long considered a staple food for the broke non-chefs among us, is now experiencing a surge in popularity in gourmet ramen noodle restaurants.
Lastly, Japanese tempura dishes, which involve seafood and vegetables dipped into flour batter and deep fried, have also proven extremely popular in the US. Tempura is often part of bento boxes (pictured below), boxes divided into sections that include a full meal with rice, sushi, tempura, salad, and sometimes dumplings.
Traditional Japanese udon and soba noodle soups are appearing more frequently throughout the US as well, though they are still less popular than the other parts of Japanese cuisine.