Why the most interesting food you’ll eat in Japan might be…spaghetti

Japanese cod roe spaghetti mentaiko

I know. Nobody goes to Japan to eat spaghetti. It’s sushi that’s supposed to deliver the big revelations, right? The exotic fish. The squicky I-dare-you innards. The arcane serving rituals at a restaurant with no menu.

But it’s eating spaghetti in Japan that will really make you think. Because although every “Italian” restaurant in Tokyo offers pasta pomodoro and pizza margherita that’s replicated to painfully perfect standards of authenticity, they also serve spaghetti with a very different kind of “red sauce”…

Japanese cod roe spaghetti mentaiko

That’s right. The red stuff is fish eggs. Mentaiko spaghetti is a childhood favorite as beloved in Japan as spaghetti and meatballs is where I grew up, but the Japanese comfort food is noodles with cod roe sauce, garnished with seaweed (and sometimes little fishies, the kind that still have eyes.)

Okay, that’s uh, different, but what makes it so interesting?

It’s this: Unlike countries that try to preserve their culture by keeping out foreign influences, Japan welcomes exotic foreign stuff…then turns it Japanese.

And it’s not just pasta. Other beloved “foreign” foods take strange Japanese twists as well. Like this pizza, topped with cabbage, ginger pickles, bean sprouts, mayonnaise and dried fish shavings.

Japanese pizza with okonomiyaki toppings

Sure, Domino’s Japan could deliver you a pepperoni. But if you’re really craving the Osaka savory pancake known as okonomiyaki, but nobody has started a delivery service for stuff that’s cooked on a hot plate in the middle of your table, why not slap it on a crust and call it pizza?

Or how about this one, that marries two favorite “American” tastes into…the Burger Pizza.

Japanese pizza with hamburger toppings

Yeah, I laughed too. Because everybody knows that pizza and burgers don’t mix. Unless, of course, you have no cultural attachment to how something “ought” to taste. And then pretty much anything goes.

Japanese pizza with demiglace, beef stew and broccoli toppings

Like this “French” pizza, featuring beef stew, demiglace, vegetables and (inexplicably) cream cheese?

And this hybrid, where a quarter of the pizza is covered with…Korean BBQ?

Japanese pizza with Korean BBQ toppings

By now you’re probably noticed that there are two categories of everything in Japan: “foreign” or “Japanese.” And even though “foreign” things can be as different as burgers and Korean BBQ, they can be combined with abandon because they’re both “foreign.” Which brings us to a corollary: 

Even though something foreign has become so Japanese that everyone outside of Japan thinks of it as Japanese, it’ll always be “foreign” in Japan.

For example…ikura.

Ikura salmon roe sushi

Wait, what? Salmon roe sushi is about as Japanese as you can get!

But guess what? In Japanese, ikura is spelled イクラ, using the phonetic alphabet reserved for foreign loan words. It turns out, ikura is how the Japanese pronounce ikra, the Russian word for fish eggs. You can bet those long-ago Russian fishermen who crossed paths with their Japanese counterparts didn’t eat their caviar on a bed of vinegared rice and wrapped in toasted seaweed, but Japanese still consider ikura a “Russian” delicacy.

Which brings us to a truth that’s sometimes hard to stomach, the longer a foreigner lives in Japan and the more they invest in making a life here for themselves:

Anything foreign that comes to Japan will be changed until it fits in, but it will never be considered truly Japanese.

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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

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