International Food Fails of Japan

How can they get it so wrong?

In a country where only 24% of the population even have a passport (compared to 45% of Americans and 78% of Brits), the closest most Japanese have ever been to “foreign” food is the restaurant down the block. Not surprisingly, this black hole of experience plays out in some very amusing, sometimes surprisingly tasty, but always-entertaining ways. Here are some of my favorite (and not-so-favorite) foreign food fails of Japan:

Looks foreign, without any of those pesky “foreign” flavors

Photo of spaghetti with uni sea urchin sauce
This pasta is a straight-up head-fake. If you think that “red sauce” is tomato, think again. This restaurant special is made from sea urchin eggs; usually, red sauce means cod roe
Photo of ad for gobo and kombu pizza
Hold the pepperoni: this one is topped with oh-so-traditional sauteed burdock root and seaweed
Photo of ad for okonomiyaki pizza
And here’s a classic “we wanted to say we went out for foreign food, but were actually craving a nice plate of okonomiyaki”—pizza topped with cabbage, ginger egg and shaved, smoked fish flakes
Photo of package of mentaiko and mayo Japanese potato chips
Lest you think the cultural switcharoo exists only to appease those poor souls who were outvoted and forced to eat at a “foreign” restaurant against their will:every convenience store sells cod roe + mayo flavored “pizza potato” chips, with seaweed on top

Flavors that are never eaten together anywhere else in the world

Photo of Krispy Kreme Japan tomato-filled donut
The tomato donut. Yes, it was a regular Krispy Kreme donut on the outside, and no, the filling was more like marinara sauce than anything you’d ever crave inside a guilty pleasure
Photo of ad for Mister Donut savory filled donuts
But that pales in comparison to…the MEAT DONUT. Fillings include Chicken Curry, Roasted Onion and Spicy Kim Chee
Photo of package of cheese-curry Japanese potato chips
Or how about this throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks snack flavor combo? Cheese + curry “pizza potato” chips, offending cheese and curry lovers from all corners of the globe. Extra points for an illustration that confuses me about what to expect EVEN MORE
Photo of packages of pickle-flavored Pringles
Pickles + potato chips = why not? They’re both snacks, aren’t they?
Photo of spinach flavored pancake mix
Then there’s this, well, I don’t think “abomination” is too strong a word. Well done, mom who wants kids to hate pancakes forever

There are only two kinds of food in the world: Japanese and not-Japanese

Photo of Mos Burger indo-taco
So it’s perfectly okay to combine tacos and curry, right?
Photo of restaurant menu offering strange Japanese versions of tacos and pizza
Or tacos and pizza! On the theory that you can call anything in a folded tortilla a “taco” and anything on a crust a “pizza,” the offerings at this restaurant include the “Taco Dog,” “Mayo Corned Beef Tacos,” the ever mysterious “Egg Feeling Tacos,” and “Tomato Salad Pizza.”

And then there’s this cheap lunch item that’s a giveaway for which “foreign” tastes are beloved in Japan, and which are not:

Photo of 7-11 "burrito made with Italian sauce and cheese
This “Hot & Delicious Burrito” is filled with cheese and “bolognese” flavored meat sauce, a combination guaranteed to horrify lovers of Italian and Mexican food alike

(My one caveat when urging visitors to try one of Japan’s “foreign” restaurants if they want a truly “Japanese” experience is to try anything but “Mexican.” There’s some spice—cumin is my guess—that Japanese diners really don’t like, so every Mexican restaurant in Tokyo eventually substitutes Italian herbs if they want to stay in business. This makes for a distinctly YIKES of an experience if you were hoping for genuine south-of-the-border goodness.)

Unclear on the concept

Photo of bakery muffis with whole oreos in them
“Cookies & Cream” muffins at a Tokyo coffee shop: A for effort, F for execution
Photo of packaged corn-mayo sandwich
The corn and mayo sandwich: for all your nutrient-free calorie needs
Photo of yakisoba-stuffed sandwich
The fried noodle sandwich: eek, it’s like some poor, hungry, college student admitted to heaping their leftover fried noodles onto a bun the next morning when the cupboard was bare, and it was misinterpreted as a “foreign delicacy” that ought to be sold in every convenience store in the land
Photo of ad for fried chicken burger with spaghetti on top
As opposed to this spaghetti-on-top-of-fried-chicken combo, which is more of a “why choose between your favorite foreign foods, when you can have both?”
Photo of ad for four cheese pizza with maple syrup
Or this misinterpretation of some returned tourist’s culinary memories: a pizza topped with gouda, camembert, mozzarella and blue cheese, served with a side of maple syrup

And finally, foreign food as a blank canvas

Photo of ad for shrimp burger with pink bun for cherry blossom season
How do you make foreign food into a cherry blossom special? Make it from pink shrimp and put it on a pink bun
Photo of Japanese Burger King Koroburger with black bun
If you’re craving something black for lunch: THIS. A burger with squid ink sauce, black cheese and a bun with charcoal flour mixed in. I actually ordered one of these limited edition specials at a Tokyo Burger King and cannot tell a lie—it’s wasn’t just an enormous success because it was Insta-weird, it was actually delish.

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Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

2 thoughts on “International Food Fails of Japan

  1. This is a nostalgic tour bringing back my three years in Japan in the late ‘80s. Although I confess I actually like some of this creative culinary interpretation, like curry donuts, I found that Mexican food was the most consistent fail. My favorite was Japan’s first Mexican fast food chain. I rushed to try out the first restaurant when it opened in Shibuya…and never went back. The nachos sealed it for me. They weren’t topped with salsa but with Thousand Island dressing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ahahahaha, that’s a fabulous substitution I haven’t had the (extremely dubious) pleasure of encountering! Thank you for sharing that darkly amusing badness. I somehow missed that one, even though I’m a sucker for every “no, really, this is AUTHENTIC” Mexican restaurant/burrito joint that opens in Tokyo. Good to see that there are no exceptions to the rule, even for steamrolling international chains!


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