Japan Eats

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.