Japan Eats

Japan Eats Podcast: Episode 2, “Big in Japan”

This week: the trends of 2010

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In this week’s Japan Eats Podcast, Garrett DeOrio, Marcus Lovitt, and Christopher Pellegrini discuss the top food and beverage trends of 2010.

Here are some links to the things we discussed this week:

Intro/outro: “Aguamala” by Carne Cruda

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2010: Year in Review

Marcus Lovitt looks at the culinary trends of 2010.

2010 was all about cheap eats. So called ‘B-class gourmet’ dishes became a fixture on Japanese TV screens, McDonalds Japan enjoyed record profits and shoppers bought their food in bulk from such places as Costco and Niku no Hanamasa. The reason? Japan’s ongoing economic woes. A torrent of bad news on the economic front (falling prices, massive government debt, a rapidly aging population) put The Fear into consumers. Put simply, nobody was willing to spend more than necessary eating out or at the supermarket.

Lawson's Premium Roll Cake

Lawson's Premium Roll Cake

Perhaps its to be expected that amidst all of this doom and gloom, the fantasy of eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant had enormous popular appeal. Japanese variety shows boasted that Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred, together with the most three-star-rated restaurants in the world. Needless to say, few of those watching at home could actually afford to patronize them, but their very existence was a point of pride.

What Japanese could afford were little luxuries such as Lawson’s Premium Roll Cake. Convenience store patisserie items were big news this year – the three big chains (Lawsons, FamilyMart and Seven Eleven) figuring that there was still money to be made in pre-packaged sweets.

Conversely, another bright spot for manufacturers were healthy and/or low-calorie products. This was particularly evident in the drinks market where products like black tea and non-alcoholic beer increased their share of the market.

Here’s our take on 2010, and our forecast for the coming year:

Momoya's 'edible raayu'

Momoya's 'edible raayu'

Our Top Japanese culinary trends for 2010

  • Raayu, that spicy red oil you drizzle over ramen and gyoza, hit the big time in 2010, but this time filled out with such ingredients as fried garlic, fried onion, and ground sesame seeds. First developed by Momoya, ‘edible raayu‘ was popularized by appearances on television as a way to flavor rice bowls. Like any true Japanese culinary trend, demand quickly outstripped supply and Momoya was temporarily forced to stop advertising. Other companies such as S&B Foods Inc. have since entered the market and are now making competing products.
  • B Class Gourmet: True, this one has been around a long time. However, the Fifth B-1 Grand Prix held in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture this year really captured the public’s imagination. What is B Class Gourmet? The name refers to tasty dishes which are also inexpensive, such as Miso katsu from Nagoya, Yokote yakisoba and Atsugi Shirokoro Horumon. There’s little doubt this trend will continue in 2011.
  • The rise and rise of all things organic. Supermarkets continue to devote more and more shelf space to organic produce – particularly products grown without pesticides, aren’t genetically modified and are wheat/gluten free. Meanwhile, in wine bars (themselves something of a trend this year) so-called organic wines began to appear on the menu.
  • Roll Cakes: The popularity of the convenience store patisserie section came as a surprise to many people. However even in bad economic times, people still want a taste of luxury, even if it is from the local combini.
  • Komeko (rice flour) has traditionally been used to prepare Japanese sweets. This year it began to be used to prepare western-style bread and cakes. It is hoped that Komeko might raise the degree of Japanese self-sufficiency; the government is now promoting the use of locally produced rice flour. Many companies (Seven Eleven, FamilyMart, Lawson, even Starbucks) have begun to sell komeko, marketing it as a healthy alternative to wheat flour.
  • White taiyaki: It seemed at one point this year a taiyaki shop was going to open at every train station in metropolitan Tokyo. What appears to have set off this real estate bubble was the popularity of ‘white’ taiyaki – fish shaped pastries filled with custard. The fad wasn’t to last, however, and by the end of 2010 many of these new taiyaki-ya had already closed their doors.

Honorable mentions: The increasing popularity of tagines in Japanese homes, tomato vinegar, gourmet gelato, wine bars and cooking magazines aimed at men.

What we’d like to see in 2011

  • Vegetarian dishes: Being vegetarian in Japan (and  Tokyo in particular) is never easy. We want to see more vegan and vegetarian options on izakaya menus.
  • Cafes for breakfast: Most Japanese eat breakfast at home or skip it altogether. We’re hoping 2011 will be the year Japanese discover the independently run cafe. A decent cooked breakfast before 10 in the morning please!
  • Creative sushi: Tired of the same-old sushi at your local kaiten place? We’re hoping for more of the playful innovation that makes a visit to Nakameguro’s Koi-sushi such a lot of fun.
  • Middle Eastern food: If Japan can get over its fear of coriander, then surely chick peas and garlic shouldn’t present too much of a problem? Kebab stands notwithstanding, Japan is yet to truly embrace Middle Eastern cuisine. At the very least we want to see containers of hummus appear on supermarket shelves!

Our predictions for what will be big in 2011

  • Toronama donuts: Japan seems to have an affinity for donuts. For the first year or so of Krispy Kreme’s Japanese venture, customers braved long lines to buy a box to take home to their families. Neither baked nor fried, Toronama donuts are a combination of mousse and sponge which are served cold. The company responsible for this latest donut fad – Nagoya’s Love Sweets Antique – has now opened up shops across the country, and toronama donuts are set to take off nationwide.
  • Bread cookers, specifically machines designed to cook with Japanese rice flour (such as the Sanyo ‘Gopan’) are going to be big in 2011. ‘Go’ stands for gohan (cooked rice) and ‘pan’ for pan as in bread. Expect to see your favorite talento filling the airwaves with demonstrations of how to cook with these machines during the first half of 2011.
  • Pretzels: Anyone who has wandered past Ikebukuro station in recent weeks will have noticed the long lines outside Auntie Anne’s, the American pretzel retailer. Is this the start of something big? We think so.
  • Makgeolli, that milky looking Korean beverage, is becoming increasingly popular with young Japanese. While its unlikely to equal the recent highball craze, we think makgeolli‘s stock is rising.
  • Asian spicy nabe: Every year sees a different nabe (Japanese hotpot) craze. For the past year curry nabe and tomato nabe have led the field. We’re going to go out on a limb and predict south-east Asian flavors are going to be big in 2011.

What did you think were the biggest culinary trends of 2010? What will be big in 2011? And what would you like to see? Leave your comments below.

April ’10 Magazine Roundup

This month three of Japan’s top culinary magazines focus their attention on things Italian. Also, Dancyu tells aging ramen lovers it’s time to go back to basics and Otona no shumatsu presents yet another lengthy best-of list. Its all here in this month’s magazine roundup.

When Hollywood studios simultaneously release similar films (think Deep Impact vs Armageddon) its difficult not to suspect nervous producers spy on each other in search of original film ideas. Similarly, when three of the major Japanese food magazines decide to feature Italian cuisine on their April covers, one has to wonder if it’s more than a coincidence.

Dancyu April 2010

This month, Dancyu courts those in their 40s and 50s

This month’s Syokuraku (860 yen) features what the editors describe as “Italian food and restaurants from a man’s perspective”. They posit that Italian restaurants are not just places for dates and quiet conversation, but can be places for guys to get together and hang out. Our advice: ignore the cultural analysis and enjoy the food porn.

Ryori Tsushin (980 yen) also stretches the bounds of thematic credibility with an edition focusing on the role flour plays in Italian food. Put differently, the magazine’s editors want to discuss pasta and pizza, and to hell with that other stuff.

April’s Cuisine Kingdom (970 yen) is the last in our trio, the magazine exploring  “the Italian mode”. More cultural background than recipes, this issue covers luxury brands as well as restaurants. The editors also ask where Italian cuisine is headed.

Ramen nerds rejoice! Dancyu (850 yen) has you in its sights. The April edition of the magazine is a veritable cornucopia of ramen, specifically aimed at self-appointed ramen experts in their 40s and 50s. April’s issue features 14 ramen shops – 12 in Tokyo, 1 in Osaka and 1 in Kobe. Urging readers to go back to basics, the magazine also discusses Tokyo’s trademark soy-sauce ramen and recommends 10 restaurants in which to sample the dish.

And where would we be without another best-of list? Otona no shumatsu (580 yen) lists the magazine’s “best 102 restaurants in the past 5 years”. The editors claim to have visited some 18, 000 restaurants in the past 5 years, and to have introduced 3600 in the magazine. Of these, they write, 350 were rated highly . After what must have been much soul-searching at the Kodansha offices, they finally whittled this list down to a (curiously unrounded) 102. All were tested in secret and come recommended for taste, price and great service. They are in Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya.

And also…

Nakameguro is Tokyo’s version of Little Italy? So say our friends at Shokuraku. They map 25 Italian restaurants within walking distance of Nakameguro Station. Worryingly, this figure includes the local Saizeriya. What do you think? Is Nakameguro Tokyo’s answer to Mulberry Street? Leave your thoughts below in the comments.

March ‘10 Magazine Roundup

Sake, seafood and… sumo? It’s time once again to take a look at the month’s food and drink magazines.

Another month, another ambitious ‘best of list’. This time it’s Syokuraku (860 yen) with their “42 best restaurants in Tokyo”.  Dividing restaurants into 7 categories (yakitori, Japanese cuisine, tempura, shabushabu, rice bowls, tonkatsu and okonomiyaki) the magazine’s editors award marks for “the quality of food, cost performance and service”.

The March issue of Ryori Tsushin

Syokuraku takes a more radical approach toward ranking sake, doing so by comparing various types of rice wine to sumo rikishi (come on… what could be more obvious!) It’s east versus west, with the sake divided into yokozuna, ozeki, sekiwake, komusubi, maegashira and jyuyo. The magazine also features 10 Tokyo restaurants which make creative use of nihonshu.

This month’s dancyu (860 yen) continues the sake theme. The magazine introduces upcoming sake breweries in places such as Akita, Tochigi, Hiroshima and Saga. And for those who love seafood but also think cooking fish is difficult, dancyu offers a selection of quick and easy seafood recipes. Dishes include Japanese, Western and Chinese otsumami.

Coffee is flavour of the month in Cafe-Sweets (1300 yen), the editors noting that the cafe scene in Japan is rapidly becoming more sophisticated. In particular, they note that coffee schools are growing in popularity – students can take classes for beginners through to advanced. The March issue features a number of coffee schools, from industry giants Starbucks and Tully’s through to small privately-owned cafes such as Tokumitsu Coffee in Hokkaido and the mail order coffee beans shop Unir in Kyoto.

Ryori Tsushin (980 yen) meanwhile dedicates its March edition to what they are calling “The age of Women”. The editors introduce women who are active participants in the Japanese culinary scene. The magazine features restaurants where all meals and service are provided by women, those restaurants which are owned by women as well as female innovators in areas traditionally dominated by men – sausage and ham artisans, coffee roasters and pizza chefs.

The Wine Kingdom (1500 yen) offers a list of “The best 30 winter reds from Italy”. There’s also a special feature on Sauvigon Blanc and a pull-out section of the magazine introducing 50 brands of wines from Washington. The booklet has information about each winery, their products and personalities.

And also…

The March issue of dancyu sees the announcement of a sake tasting event to celebrate the magazine’s anniversary. 74 different sake breweries will present their wares at the Grand Prince Hotel, Shintakanawa on March 27th from 13:00 to 15:30. Tickets are 5000 yen per person. See the dancyu’s March issue for further details.

February ‘10 Magazine Roundup

This month it’s all about winter warmers – ramen, cream stews, okonomiyaki and winter seafood dishes. Here’s our roundup of Japan’s food magazines for February 2010.

Christel Takigawa trades the newsroom for the tatami room in this month's Otona no OFF.

Christel Takigawa trades the newsroom for the tatami room in this month's Otona no OFF.

This month’s Cuisine Kingdom (970 yen) focuses on seasonal seafood dishes. Japanese as well as international chefs explain how best to cook winter seafood using their own recipes. The magazine also interviews several Kyoto-based chefs and asks what inspires them.

Dancyu (860 yen) asks ‘where in Tokyo does one go to get the best beef or cream stew?’ The magazine’s February edition also looks at that perennial Japanese favorite, okonomiyaki. They introduce seven well-regarded okonomiyaki restaurants as well as recipes for their most popular dishes.

This month’s Syokuraku (860 yen) focuses on ramen. They nominate the ‘ten best ramen restaurants in metropolitan Tokyo’ and then the ‘top ten restaurants for various types of ramen’ (tsukemen, thick soup, etc.). There’s also a ‘top ten ramen restaurants which serve great side dishes’ and (clearly concerned they had left someone out) a ‘top ten ramen restaurants serving great drinks’.

The magazine also devotes space to the humble nabe, and suggests where Tokyoites can sample regional versions of this seasonal dish.

Tokyo Calendar (680 yen) dusts off the crystal ball to predict the year’s dining trends in the Japanese capital. The magazine nominates bistros where one dining alone can eat at a counter, Nouvelle Chinois cuisine and Shitamachi restaurants as three major trends of 2010.

Finally, dessert arrives courtesy of Ryori Tsushin (980 yen), which dedicates its February issue to sweets. Using patisserie Aigre Douce (Mejiro) as an example, the magazine’s authors make the case for sweets to be made from only the finest ingredients. The magazine also looks at traditional German sweets, noting that German confections are growing in popularity.

And also…

Nikkei’s Otona no Off (680 yen) examines the basics of Japanese etiquette. Just how does one behave when eating kaiseki? What are the rules at a tea ceremony? There are even tips on how one opens fusuma (traditional sliding doors).

January ’10 Magazine Roundup

Sushi, tapas and chocolate cake. It’s all here in our monthly roundup of Japanese food magazines.

The Jan 2010 issue of Dancyu

Tsukiji Market, anyone?

The January 2010 issue of ELLE à table (720 yen) runs with the theme “Let’s Party” and asks two caterers to produce a menu for 4 people that comes in under 5000 yen (p. 40).  Dancyu (850 yen), meanwhile, dedicates much of it’s 210 pages to sushi and sashimi. Dancyu columnist Kundo Koyama also contributes an essay on “The five best dishes of 2009″.

Syokuraku (860 yen) follows the sushi theme, looking at which wines best match Japan’s favourite finger food. Cuisine Kingdom (980 yen) leads with a ‘special feature’ entitled “Bar, Bistro, Trattoria – the secret of their popularity”. This basically turns out to be an excuse to present some exquisite food porn from the likes of Barcelona and Paris, of which we wholly approve.

It seems there’s nothing Japanese gourmands enjoy more than the whiff of French sophistication. The cover of Ku:nel’s January issue (780 yen) entices Francophile readers with an offer of a map to “the pleasant face of Paris”. Ryori tsushin (980 yen), meanwhile, introduces several new French restaurants in Japan and offers readers a onetime deal on a “special course and glass of wine”.

In addition to their “French chocolat patisserie collection”,  Cafe Sweets (1300 yen) begins 2010 with a whole lotta chocolate love. The magazine presents a number of chocolate cake recipes for readers to try.

And also…

January’s ELLE à table is the winner of Japan Eats’ coveted Bad English award, for their headline “I am big fun of Cheese”.