A curious marriage of East and West

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 10:46pm


If you've ever had a deep-fried pork cutlet in a Japanese restaurant, or a mild curry that looks more like a stew, you would have had yoshoku, a style of Japanese cuisine that takes its inspiration from the West.

Although yoshoku means 'Western food' in Japanese, it won't look like anything you've had in the West. This style of cuisine came into being when Japan opened up to the outside world in the mid-1800s and traders, explorers and scholars brought foreign ingredients such as ketchup, spaghetti, bread and British curry powder. With these, Japanese chefs made dishes such as Spaghetti Naporitan, with a name that comes from Napoli, the Italian name for Naples, although it might also come from 'Neapolitan', the Italian-inspired plain tomato sauce popular in the US.

To the Japanese, who don't distinguish between the sounds of L and R, spelling the name of the dish with either letter is equally correct.

The concoction of ketchup, onions, peppers and either ham, wiener sausages or bacon, served with Tabasco, might make Neapolitans cringe. For the Japanese though, it was until recently one of the few pasta dishes they cooked.

The spaghetti is cooked, rinsed, left to cool and then stir-fried with the other ingredients. The pasta becomes extremely soft and almost spongy. It is said to be close to the texture of udon and therefore preferred by the Japanese over the al dente bite loved by Italians.

The dish was most probably invented in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo, at the Hotel New Grand. The hotel was taken over by the US military after the second world war, and two ingredients that the troops had a regular supply of were spaghetti and ketchup. The hotel stills serves its version of the dish (above) in its cafe.

There are a few theories as to how the dish evolved. One has it that the head chef at the hotel, Shigetada Irie, saw the troops mixing ketchup into their spaghetti. He thought it tasted bland and decided to build on that basic combination to create something more exciting.

There is even a group called Nippon Naporitan Gakkai (Japan Naporitan Academic Society) that promotes the well-loved dish worldwide, and even took it to Naples earlier this year. The mayor of Naples reportedly was diplomatic enough to call the dish 'good'.