Having lived in Japan for many years, I was able to experience a large variety of the dishes available in the land of the rising sun. At first, I was very adventurous and wanted to eat the dishes most different to my own culture’s familiar tastes. After some years living abroad though, I started to feel like many of my expatriate friends and craved the tastes of home in my own house. With comfort food, one can often relax and create a little atmosphere of Western comfort, even while living in a tiny Japanese apartment.
Here are a couple of Japanese dishes which are easy to stomach for the foreigner who has been in Japan too long, or for the uninitiated who wants to sample Japanese food without diving straight into sushi:
I first had katsu curry while on student exchange in the Saitama region, close to Tokyo. As a 15 year old active boy, I required a lot of calories to make it through the day. The school cafeteria served up katsu curry as an option everyday and it soon became my favorite Japanese comfort food.
The meat of the dish is tonkatsu (the ton means pork, katsu is the style of batter), which is thin to medium thickness pork fillets, breaded and deep fried. There are a range of dishes made with tonkatsu, and even a tonkatsu sauce, which is not used in katsu curry, but is often found on tonkatsu along with shredded cabbage as a garnish.
The aforementioned fried pork is laid upon a bed of rice and then covered in a mild Japanese curry (more closely related in flavor to an English beef stew then any Western concept of curry). The typical garnish is a bright red pickled ginger, julienned. This may be placed on the curry when served or offered as a condiment at your table.
For those trying to avoid too much cholesterol in their diets, be warned, these recipes may not suit you. Again, as a 15 year old boy and even now, I still think karaage is one of the easiest Japanese foods to eat as a Westerner.
One could easily assume karaage is just fried chicken, as done in many other countries. While similar, there are some subtle differences. One point to note is that while karaage is most often made with Chicken, it is not always the case. You may be served gobo karaage which is the same batter, but used to fry burdock root. A difference from common fried chicken you may find in the United States of America, is that the meat is first marinated in sauces such as soy combined with garlic or ginger. After marinating either for an hour or overnight, the main ingredient is then lightly covered in a flour or starch and fried in oil. Many cooks will double or triple-fry the karaage, with a resting period of 15 minutes between fries.
The resulting food is always delicious and while Japanese enjoy covering karaage in mayonnaise before eating, to me, that feels wrong, so plain karaage or with a little Frank’s Hot Sauce is the perfect pseudo-Western food to be found all over Japan.